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Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada

Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada

by Maria Cristina Garcia

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The political upheaval in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala had a devastating human toll at the end of the twentieth century. A quarter of a million people died during the period 1974-1996. Many of those who survived the wars chose temporary refuge in neighboring countries such as Honduras and Costa Rica. Others traveled far north, to Mexico, the United States,


The political upheaval in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala had a devastating human toll at the end of the twentieth century. A quarter of a million people died during the period 1974-1996. Many of those who survived the wars chose temporary refuge in neighboring countries such as Honduras and Costa Rica. Others traveled far north, to Mexico, the United States, and Canada in search of safety. Over two million of those who fled Central America during this period settled in these three countries.

In this incisive book, María Cristina García tells the story of that migration and how domestic and foreign policy interests shaped the asylum policies of Mexico, the United States, and Canada. She describes the experiences of the individuals and non-governmental organizations—primarily church groups and human rights organizations—that responded to the refugee crisis, and worked within and across borders to shape refugee policy. These transnational advocacy networks collected testimonies, documented the abuses of states, re-framed national debates about immigration, pressed for changes in policy, and ultimately provided a voice for the displaced.

García concludes by addressing the legacies of the Central American refugee crisis, especially recent attempts to coordinate a regional response to the unique problems presented by immigrants and refugees—and the challenges of coordinating such a regional response in the post-9/11 era.

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Seeking Refuge

Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada

By María Cristina García


Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93943-1



[Central America is the] most dramatic and divisive foreign policy issue since the Vietnam war. It has dominated the front pages of newspapers for many months; co-opted almost all of the prime moments of national television news; fueled acrimonious exchanges in Congress; and ignited a national protest movement, centered in the universities and the churches but reaching into unions, professional associations, and the cultural community. MARK FALCOFF, Commentary

The revolutions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala were each the product of decades of struggles over land, resources, and power. However, what began as localized conflicts became international crises that affected dozens of nations, including neighboring Costa Rica, Honduras, and Mexico; hemispheric allies such as the United States and Canada; and even Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the European Community. Thousands of Central Americans died, and millions were uprooted as a consequence of the domestic and foreign policy decisions of these various actors. But just as local political conflicts became internationalized, so, too, did their eventual resolution. The negotiated peace settlements and the reintegration of the displaced involved some of these very same actors, who through diplomacy, investment, and aid tried to establish peace, social and political stability, and economic opportunity in the region.


In 1979, the Sandinista rebels overthrew the US-supported government of Anastacio Somoza Debayle. The Somoza family—Anastacio Sr. and his sons, Luis and Anastacio (Tachito)—had controlled Nicaraguan politics since 1934, thanks in some part to the United States, which helped them to consolidate their political control. From the Truman to the Ford administrations, the Somozas were regarded by the United States government as reliable allies in the Cold War and were rewarded with millions of dollars in economic and military aid, much of which found its way to private coffers. US support also guaranteed the Somoza dictatorship millions of dollars in loans from the international banking community, as well as substantial investments in the nation's industries. US corporations, in particular, benefited from their government's relationship with the dictatorship. Not only did Nicaragua get most of its imports from the United States, but US corporations also controlled thousands of acres of Nicaragua's most fertile land and owned or managed the leading mines, the railroads, and the lumber and banking industries.

The extensive US presence in Nicaragua's national life never guaranteed the people peace or socioeconomic mobility. The majority of the three million Nicaraguans lived in extreme poverty, and high infant mortality, illiteracy, and unemployment were common features of day-to-day life.2 Two percent of the farms controlled nearly half of the tillable land, and over two hundred thousand peasants were landless. In turn, the Somoza family's wealth was estimated at more than a billion dollars. The Somoza family was said to control one-third of the country's acreage; the nation's construction, meatpacking, and fishing industries; the national airline and major television station; and banks, radio stations, and various other businesses. American investors made handsome profits from their ventures in Nicaragua: US investments yielded hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly income that was exported back to the United States.

The extreme disparities in wealth and the corruption in the highest echelons of the government raised the consciousness of the citizenry, especially labor organizers, university students, journalists, and public intellectuals. Prior to 1972, the US-trained Nicaragua National Guard helped to keep the opposition weak and disorganized by assassinating over thirty thousand of the dictator's opponents and driving thousands more into exile. (A former US Speaker of the House once called the Guard "murderers, marauders, and rapists.") However, after an earthquake devastated the capital city of Managua in December 1972, the forces of opposition expanded. Strikes and demonstrations increased in the months after the earthquake as Nicaraguans protested the blatant theft of international aid and the shameless corruption of government officials who financially profited from the devastation. Inspiring the protests was the politically moderate editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, who used his small opposition newspaper, La Prensa, to meticulously document the corruption and abuse of authority.

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) increased its support base at this time. Founded in Havana in 1961, the FSLN favored a revolutionary political and socioeconomic agenda. Over the next eight years, the Sandinistas, as members the FSLN were popularly called, waged war against the dictatorship, kidnapping and ransoming prominent political officials and business leaders and attacking military garrisons, government offices, and other symbols of Somoza's authority. Determined to eliminate the FSLN, the Nicaragua National Guard increased its surveillance of the population as well as its campaign of imprisonment, torture, and assassination. The Guard especially targeted the northern provinces, where the Sandinistas were believed to have their greatest support. Even the political moderates came under attack: Chamorro was jailed and finally assassinated in 1978. This action, more than any other, turned the political tide. A two-week general strike calling for Somoza's unconditional resignation evolved into a full-scale, nationwide insurrection. By May 1979 the Sandinistas controlled the nation's major towns and cities, including parts of Managua.

On July 17, 1979, Somoza fled to Miami with some of the senior commanders of the National Guard. Rank-and-file members of the Guard were left to protect what remained of the government, but without leadership the Guard easily crumbled. Many of the soldiers fled to neighboring countries, especially Honduras, to avoid the retribution that would inevitably follow. On July 19, a coalition of moderates and leftists took control of Nicaragua's government. Calling itself the Government of National Reconstruction, the coalition debated ways to rebuild the war-torn country, provide desperately needed social services, and encourage the consumer and investor confidence needed for economic growth.

The ideological cleavages among the coalition members proved difficult to overcome. While all were committed to agrarian reform and basic social welfare programs such as universal health care, literacy, and free public education, they disagreed on the roles that the private sector and the multiparty political system would play in the new Nicaragua—if any. The more radical members of the FSLN saw no role for such institutions in their socialist state. As this segment assumed control of the national directorate and the armed forces, moderates in the coalition, such as Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (the widow of the slain newspaper editor) and Alfonso Robelo (the founder of the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement), felt increasingly silenced and shut out of the decision making. Particularly disturbing to the moderates was a series of measures taken to consolidate the government's authority and protect against counterrevolution: the suspension of elections for six years; restrictions on the press, free speech, free association, and other civil liberties; the strengthening of the internal security apparatus; increased defense spending; the arrival of Cuban and East European advisers and Soviet arms shipments; and the export of arms to Salvadoran rebels. By 1982 several moderates had resigned from the coalition or gone into exile, including former Sandinista Edén Pastora Gomez, the famed "Comandante Zero" who had led a spectacular and much publicized attack on the National Palace. Many middle- and upper-class Nicaraguans also chose to exile themselves to the United States, Costa Rica, and other countries during this transitional period rather than live in what they perceived as an evolving communist state.

Most nations in the hemisphere, with the notable exception of Central American neighbors Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, cautiously welcomed the change in Nicaragua's government. Despite its thirty-plus years of assistance to the Somoza government, in the final year of the revolution Mexico offered the Sandinistas tactical support and then recognized the new government almost immediately. In the 1980s, Mexico became one of Nicaragua's principal trade partners, providing Nicaragua with most of its oil even though that strained Mexican relations with the United States and potentially sabotaged Mexico's own economic relationship with its northern neighbor. With a long history of challenging the United States and supporting leftist movements in Latin America, Mexico became the region's most vocal critic of US policy in Nicaragua, but it also viewed itself as a "middle power" that could negotiate an easing of tensions in the region.

Since the 1960s, Mexico's evolving status as a major oil producer had increased its diplomatic clout, and the Central American crisis provided an opportunity for asserting a new status in the hemisphere. As early as 1981, José López Portillo (president, 1976–1982) tried to arrange talks between the Sandinistas and the Reagan administration to discuss a non-aggression pact but failed to convince Washington. López Portillo's successor, Miguel de la Madrid (president, 1982–1988), later launched the regional peace initiative known as Contadora. Mexico's philosophical position was best summarized by de la Madrid: "Every country in the continent must do its utmost to restore peace and avoid war by respecting and upholding the sovereign right of its people to decide their own destiny and by rejecting interventionist solutions of any kind."

Canada's response, on the other hand, was substantively different. Ottawa officially welcomed the end of the Somoza era and even prohibited Somoza's entry into the country when he asked to relocate there, but postponed recognition of the Sandinista government. Throughout the 1980s Canadian policymakers opposed US policy in Nicaragua and criticized the militarization of the region, but avoided any official condemnation of the United States that might strain US-Canadian relations, especially in trade and commerce. Instead, they tried to use their diplomatic influence behind closed doors, with limited success.

As the most powerful nation in the hemisphere, the United States shaped the tone and content of the political debate over Nicaragua throughout the next decade. With billions of dollars in regional investments and a moral commitment to the expansion of democratic institutions, the United States had a geopolitical interest in containing revolution in the Americas. However, US policy shifted dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Immediately following his inauguration in January 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared US aid to individual Latin American countries contingent upon their human rights policies, and thus withdrew economic and military aid from the Somoza dictatorship. Although his administration would have preferred—and tried to negotiate—a more centrist government in Nicaragua, Carter officially recognized the Sandinista government and hoped that it would offer its country peace, security, and basic civil liberties. The United States granted Nicaragua close to a hundred million dollars in emergency aid during 1979–1980; helped to restructure Nicaragua's massive international debt (estimated at 582 million dollars); and facilitated over two hundred million dollars in new loans and grants, all with the goal of maintaining positive relations and avoiding the mistakes the United States had made with Cuba twenty years earlier.

The symbolic significance of such actions was considerable given the role the United States had played in supporting the Somozas and their National Guard during the previous forty-five years. However, in light of this history, the Sandinistas were understandably suspicious of any US involvement—a suspicion that was not completely unwarranted. Key figures in the Carter administration, among them National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, were equally suspicious of the Sandinistas and the role Nicaragua might play in exporting revolution in Central America. They worked to steer US policy away from this more accommodationist position, and it was this philosophical perspective that ultimately dominated in the Carter administration. By the end of 1980, the administration had been forced to shift its attention to the Middle East and the hostage crisis in Iran, but the CIA worked behind the scenes in Nicaragua, funding a variety of anti-Sandinista organizations with the goal of eroding the Sandinistas' popular support. Shortly before leaving office, Carter canceled the remaining aid promised the Sandinistas in protest over the shipment of arms to Salvadoran rebels.

US-Nicaraguan relations collapsed after Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981. The Reagan administration, particularly hard-liners such as Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William Casey, acknowledged that the Sandinista revolution and the conflicts in Central America began as nationalist struggles for socioeconomic and political justice. However, the Cold War framed the gathering of intelligence, the interpretation of the data, and ultimately the policymaking in this administration.They were determined not to let post-Vietnam guilt interfere with the containment of what they saw as a growing Cuban–Soviet–East European presence in the region. Congress accepted the administration's evidence that Nicaragua had become a base for exporting communism in the region and appropriated the funds that the administration needed to carry out its policy of containment. They supported the economic embargo on Nicaragua and redirected aid to the "Contras": contra-revolucionarios on the Honduras-Nicaragua border, whom the Reagan administration directed to stop the flow of arms from the Sandinista government to the leftist guerrillas of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation) in El Salvador.

By the end of Reagan's first term it was clear that the administration was interested in more than just containing the flow of arms in Central America: it was using the Contras to destabilize—and overthrow—the Nicaraguan government. Honduras and Costa Rica were critical to this campaign, and by the mid-1980s the United States had directed millions of dollars to both these countries for the establishment of camps and safe houses from which the Contra operatives could conduct their operations. As in the CIA-sponsored raids in Cuba in the 1960s, the Contras' military maneuvers were designed to force the Sandinistas to commit the Nicaraguan armed forces to domestic defense and to create a climate of political instability that would erode popular support and encourage revolt. The Contras were instructed to bomb industrial and other economic targets, but excerpts of a CIA training manual later published in the press revealed that they were also trained in kidnapping and murder. By 1983, the CIA itself was directly engaged in sabotage—bombing Nicaraguan oil reserves and mining harbors, for example—in clear violation of international law and the United States' own Boland Amendment, which prohibited assisting or using the Contras to overthrow the Nicaraguan government or to provoke conflict between Nicaragua and Honduras. Congress responded with the second Boland Amendment in 1984, which severed lethal aid to the Contras once and for all. Nicaragua filed a complaint against the United States in the World Court for the mining of its harbors, and two years later the court officially condemned the United States. However, neither domestic pressure nor international sanction deterred the Reagan administration from its foreign policy objectives: the administration turned to the illegal sale of arms to Iran in order to redirect the profits to its Contra protégés.


Excerpted from Seeking Refuge by María Cristina García. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

María Cristina García is Associate Professor of History at Cornell University and the author of Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994 (California, 1996).

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