WASHINGTON-While few Americans know who he was or how he’s connected to the debate raging over President Donald Trump’s border wall, the first time I heard the name Jacobo Arbenz was the fall of 1953, when I was a young American building a mining business in Mexico.
A mutual friend had introduced me to a young journalist named Flora Lewis and her husband, Sydney Gruson, who was the New York Times’ correspondent in Mexico. Since the newspaper had a rule then that married couples couldn’t both work there – which “she understood, but didn’t like,” – she became a freelance writer.
She crossed the border into Guatemala for a story on Arbenz, the country’s democratically-elected president. A reformer and admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, Arbenz was a democratic-socialist elected on a platform of agrarian land reform. With the US-Soviet Cold War heating up and America fearful of a Russian beachhead in Central America, Flora Lewis was dispatched to determine whether Guatemala, as she wrote, was “the one place in the Americas where devoted, angry-tongued Communists have deeply entrenched themselves,” including in the presidency itself.
Three months later, she filed a story arguing that while Arbenz was a “brooding, humorless man” … “he is no communist,” but instead, one who believed that the communists were “his only dependable ally.” Flora Lewis would go on to become one of the best-known diplomatic correspondents of the 20th Century. Arbenz, meanwhile, would be overthrown by his own army eight months later – a victory, as it was proclaimed in the United States, for proud patriots in Guatemala fighting for democracy over communism.
But it was a lie. In 1997, we learned the truth: declassified documents proved that the military coup was planned, funded, and led by the CIA. The CIA even created a “murder manual,” excerpted above, to aid in the coup.
You can draw a direct line from the Arbenz coup last century to the migrant caravan last fall, two bookends that embody America’s recent history in Central America. Writing a new chapter won’t require a wall, but something much more hopeful, if Donald Trump has the courage to do something truly great.
America’s role in Central America since 1954 lends little to be proud of. The coup also set a pattern of US-supported violence across Central America, helping to create what’s been called the “rampant and bloody gang violence, dire poverty, displacement, and migration” that we see today.
Nor can anyone forget the corrosive role that America’s war on drugs has played across the region the past 40 years. To pick one recent example, when a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected president of Honduras in 2009, unleashing a wave of violence that resulted in hundreds of deaths, the junta had an odd ally: the administration of Barack Obama, which actually increased aid to the Honduran military and police as part of the “drug war” while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.
This history is one that Donald Trump knows little about – nor, based on his rhetoric, would seem to care about. It didn’t stop him last fall from exaggerating the threat from the migrant caravan – about 7,000 Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans – that made its way through Mexico to the US before the mid-term elections. While Trump insisted that the caravan’s ranks included many terrorists, a friend jokes that it must have included magicians instead, since all mention of the caravan vanished completely the day after the election.
With America now in the midst of its longest government shutdown in history, President Trump has trapped himself between his rabid supporters – who think he’ll win and come out of the shutdown with funding for a border wall – and Democrats who won’t agree to a deal that funds the wall. As public support for both the shutdown and the wall continue to dwindle, the President is looking weaker and weaker. He needs a way out – but also a way to claim victory.
That might seem like an impossible task. But there is a way to move past the shutdown that might work for both sides – while actually addressing the root causes of the migration crisis.
How? By working with Mexico – specifically, with new Mexican President Andres Manual Lopes Obrador, known as AMLO – to make Central America a place its citizens don’t want to leave.
Shortly after taking office in December, AMLO signed an agreement with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras on a long-term plan to promote development, reduce corruption, fortify the rule of law, and improve quality of life in the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries.
Borrowing the approach pioneered by the US when it helped rebuild Europe after World War II, the plan is being called “A Marshall Plan for Central America.” Here’s where America comes in: Trump could take the $5.7 billion he wants for the border wall, use it instead for economic and social redevelopment in all three countries, and invite Mexico (and Canada, too, for that matter) to match it. Unlike the border wall, this really is something that Democrats would support- and Mexico would help pay for.
Of course, there needs to be something in it for Trump. AMLO is a shrewd politician – he would undoubtedly let Trump put his name on the plan and take credit it for it if it helps ensure that Trumps fully embraces it. Let’s call it the Trump Plan.
With the long-term Trump Plan in place, President Trump could then reach out to Democrats with short-term steps to improve US-Mexico cooperation to fight security challenges at the border, like drug trafficking and gang violence; to jointly train police and security forces, investing in technology and sharing intelligence; and to develop opportunities in Mexico for migrants headed to the US border.
It’s not far-fetched: The Ministry of Labor in Mexico is already connecting migrants with employers as well as hundreds of open jobs in southern Mexico, while increasing the number of humanitarian visas issued to let them stay. Trump can take credit for that, too.
It would be a fitting end to a chapter of American history that started with a murder manual: to use our resources and expertise to help Central Americans help themselves breathe new life into the land they love.
And for America’s Builder-in-Chief, it would burnish his self-image as a master deal-maker, give him bragging rights with his base, and allow him to build something for millions of people more stable and lasting than a wall: a future.