Harvest of Empire–The Untold Story of Latinos in America

This is a post on the documentary Harvest of Empire: the Untold Story of Latinos in America, that was presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Park Forest, Illinois on Saturday, October 26th.

The movie was based on the book of the same name written by Juan Gonzalez, the co-host with Amy Goodman of the Democracy Now program.    The documentary showed  7 separate stories of migration of Latinos from the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America to the United States.     The first four stories listed deal with the consequences of the United States’ covert actions to install dictatorships in formerly democratic countries.    The last three deal with the territorial expansion of the United States into territory formerly held originally by Spain, but then by the republics which rebelled against Spain like the United States rebelled against Britain.

1.   Dominican Republic

Rafael Trujillo was the dictator of the Dominican Republic who ruled with an iron fist from 1927-1961.   When he was assassinated in May 1961, there was a period of instability which lasted for four years.    When Juan Bosch won the elections were held in December 1962, his leftist policies led to a right-wing military coup led by Colonel Elias Wessin.   The rebellion against the coup ushered in a period of U.S. military intervention from 1965-66.    True democracy was not restored until 1998.

2.  Guatemala

After World War II, Guatemala had free, democratic elections, but in 1951, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman adopted a major land reform policy, which led to a military coup in 1954 orchestrated by the CIA.   A bloody civil war ensued for the next few decades which only ended in 1996.

3.  Nicaragua

Nicaragua suffered for 43 years under the hereditary dictatorship of the Somoza family.   This ended in July 1979, when the Sandinistas took power and then won in general elections in 1984 which were accepted by the Carter administration, which tried to work with the new government.    However, the following Reagan administration, after first floating the idea of military intervention which garnered widespread opposition in the United States, decided that “two wrongs make a right” in the infamous Iran-Contra scandal, where he negotiated with the Iranian government to supply them with weapons to fight against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in return for the funding of a paramilitary group called the Contras whose mission was to overthrow the Sandinistas.

Only recent years have brought some measure of economic growth and political stability.

4.  El Salvador

In 1979, a coup d’etat brought Napoleon Duarte out of exile, and this started a period of brutal oppression through so-called “death squads” or paramilitary groups that were designed to spread any leftist insurrection.    When Archbishop Oscar Romero started criticizing the policies of the government, he was assassinated.    The conflict in El Salvador spilled over into neighboring Honduras, threatening to engulf the entire region into the conflict.   Only the economic reforms of 1990s have brought some measure of stability to the country.

In the above four countries, political turmoil aided and abetted by the United States led to the overthrow of democratic governments.   These were replaced by authoritarian regimes that created such a nightmare of brutality that many people ended up not immigrating to the United States as a matter of seeking a better economic opportunity, but rather fleeing for their very lives.

And yet the number of applications for immigration that were accepted on the basis of “political asylum” were abysmally low, usually less than 5%.    The immigration of these groups were birthed from an atmosphere of national trauma, in the middle of which those who made it to the United States now confronted a country that was indifferent to their plight.

In the case of the following three countries, the expansion of the United States into territory that was originally claimed by Spain and later by the Latin American Republicans which they gave birth to, meant that as opposed to other immigrant groups which came to the United States, these groups had the borders of the United States and its empire come to them.

The irony is that, at times of a labor shortage such as during World War II in the other states, the immigrant populations created a safety valve which helped stabilize the economy in the United States during times of expansion.    However, during times of economic reversal, like the one we are experiencing now, there is great political pressure to put up barriers to legal immigration, pressure which is encouraged by a “divide and conquer” strategy of having the economically disadvantaged fight against either other rather than cooperating with each other to change the economic equation more in their favor.

5.  Puerto Rico

Being an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico has enjoyed a “grey” status of neither state, nor separate country, but somewhere in between.    You can technically speak only of “migration” of Puerto Ricans to the United States, since they are already citizens.

6.  Cuba

Alone of all the other political upheavals in the Caribbean, this was a leftist revolution which was NOT able to reversed.   This time the immigration came from relatively well-to-do Cubans who were fleeing the communist regime.    They set up in Miami, Florida, and a once sensecent city has turned into one of the most vibrant Latino towns in the United States.

7.  Mexico

Mexico has the most ambiguous status, since many of those who were of Mexican heritage were here BEFORE the settlers came in from the East.    So the phrase that many nativists use,  “go back where you came from”, has a uniquely ironic ring for many Mexicans.    They are the largest immigrant group of all of those that come from Latin America.

Taken together, these groups and others from Latin America form the fastest-growing minority, and the present-day status of LA, where whites are the minority, is what will happen in the future in the U.S.  by the year 2050.    For someone like me, who believes in the strength that of this multi-cultural, multi-ethnic to assimilate new gropus, this is not a negative future to be feared but an opportunity to be welcomed.    We in this country have so many connections through immigration with so many countries in the world, that we have a unique window into the culture of the world that should be celebrated.

However, the demographic trend towards a larger Latino population in the United States has caused a lot of resistance in the Republican party, which currently is on the record of opposing immigration reform.    It is a measure of the rightward shift in this country that the accommodation of Latinos in Texas was something that was supported by George Bush, but was treated as anathema by Republican candidates for the Presidency in 2012.

The solutions to this potential inter-ethnic conflict in the United States between the growing minority of Latinos and the rest of the country are “radical,” according to the capsule summary by Kenneth Maxwell of Foreign Affairs referenced below


These include three positive measures

  • complete labor mobility between the United States and Mexico to end the “predatory” market in cheap Mexican labor;
  • recognition of minority language rights;
  • investment in U.S. cities and public schools;

and three measures to put an end to

  • U.S. militarism,
  • Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and
  • the blockade of Cuba.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership now being discussed in secret between Washington and other trade partners is like “NAFTA on steroids” and goes in the complete other direction of complete capital mobility.     Juan Gonzalez makes the point that it is not only in the interest of Latinos to have these policies mentioned above implemented, but also in the interest of the Anglos as well.

I agree, and my own family history having connections with Honduras (my uncle lived there for many years in the 1960s) I find that this story of Latinos is also, indirectly, my story as well, and one which needs to be told to EVERYBODY.   I intend to get Juan Gonzalez’ book and study this in more detail.   I’m glad the church put on this film to tell the story to a sympathetic audience.    But it takes more than empathy, which is based on a commonality of feeling; it also takes a definite thinking component of understanding to realize what the immigrants from Latin America have gone through, so that we can see them as neighbors who have much to teach us, and as allies in our struggle for a better economic future for all Americans, no matter what country they have come from.


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