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Migrant Caravan: Does the Mainstream Media Think We Can’t Handle the Truth?

U.S.'s role in Central America's refugee crisis is barely mentioned in mainstream reporting.

Ronald Reagan holding a T-shirt "Stop Communism in Central America", with Nancy Reagan, March 7, 1986 (Photo: Levan Ramishvili/flickr).

The 'migrant caravan' dominated headlines in the weeks leading up to the midterms. Now that they're over, coverage is more sparse, but maybe that's a good thing. Looking back we find that the mainstream media had an alarming case of amnesia. Why are Central Americans fleeing their home countries? American foreign policy. Why do the media not just say that? It's complicated...

You’ve probably heard “migrant caravan” and “Honduras” in the news a lot lately, perhaps too much. Well, maybe not so much after the midterms, but the point is that you know that something is going on involving thousands of Central Americans approaching, or arriving now at the U.S. – Mexico border. Perhaps you know that most people in the caravan are still hundreds of miles away. You might even know a little about where they are coming from and why.

Many of us know that they’re fleeing violence in their home countries, or that many of them are seeking better economic opportunities (the American Dream!) in the U.S. You definitely know that Donald Trump’s been spouting about it lately, likely in his routinely racist and nefarious fashion, and that he ordered a $200 million deployment of 5,200 troops to “protect our border.” The paper of record most certainly makes that clear, though they may not employ the “R” word as swiftly as I do.

But I would bet that most Americans don’t know this.

Less than a decade ago, a constitutional crisis struck Honduras. On June 28, 2009, in the Central American nation hugged between El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, a military coup ousted the democratically-elected Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, head of the Honduran military, led the coup and usurped Zelaya with the interim government of President Roberto Micheletti. It’s worth mentioning that Velásquez is a graduate of the infamous School of Americas, a.k.a “School of Assassins,” a U.S. Department of Defense institute credited with training military personnel who committed countless human rights violations during Central America’s civil wars of the 1970s and 80s.

Public unrest in Honduras the day after the military coup, June 29, 2009 (Photo: Yamil Gonzalez/Wikimedia Commons).

The new de facto president immediately suspended freedom of the press and assembly and engaged in a lethal crackdown on non-violent protests across the nation. Thousands of journalists, environmentalists, opposition political candidates, indigenous activists, peasant leaders, judges, human rights activists, and others have been murdered in the chaotic years following the coup. As Belén Fernández wrote for Al-Jazeera, “The aftermath of the coup fostered a general climate of impunity, enabling a surge in homicides and other violence and earning the country the dubious distinction of ‘murder capital of the world.’” You may have heard that title before.

At the time of the coup, the international community condemned the military and the interim government’s crimes. Bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, the Rio Group, and the Organization of American States joined the fold. There was, however, one very noticeable exception: The United States.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton evaded questions about the U.S.’s position on the events in Honduras, effectively exempting the United States from the international community’s commitment to diplomatically reinstate Zelaya as president. President Obama didn’t weigh in much either. Despite the aid America provides Honduras through the Foreign Assistance Act and Millennium Challenge Corporation being “conditioned on the integrity of the democratic system,” in Clinton’s own words, the United States would continue to assist the Honduran government.

But when we say “aid,” what do we really mean? We mean millions of dollars in economic and security (military and police) aid, as well as arms sales. In other words, as Laura Weiss for Jacobin puts it, America provides “the political mechanisms behind the dangerous human rights abuses that have led to the caravans we see today;” the fundamental resources that prop up the fascist right-wing government that has produced unlivable conditions for its own people.

There are many moving pieces worth noting in this history, and what’s clear is that America had economic and political interests in sanctioning a right-wing coup in Honduras. But for news consumers this context should be puzzling. It’s not quite what we’ve been hearing about aid in Central America recently. Something else comes to mind: Trump, naturally.

A couple of weeks ago news outlets quickly jumped on our white nationalist president’s threats to cut foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for “not [doing] the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the U.S.” What they did not jump on, however, is that for years activists have been pressuring the U.S. to cut aid to the Honduran government for the devastating effects I’ve mentioned above. Curious, isn’t it, how Trump can come to a progressive conclusion through such politically inflammatory and repulsively xenophobic logic?

Many journalists have pointed out that the media’s incessant coverage of the President’s comments on the caravan and the caravan itself is doing the dirty work for him. Trump produces the spark of hysteria and as Todd Gitlin for Common Dreams points out, “the media happily spoons it out.” In a similar vein, John Holland of The Nation cleverly notes, “Trump floods the zone with bullshit, [the media] dutifully convey it, and we end up swimming in it.” But why did mainstream outlets play into Trump’s political game so willfully? The New York Times explained its continuous stream of caravan coverage on its bulletin board:

Our stories on the latest migrant caravan are part of that continued coverage, and they will almost certainly not be the last. The journey north is so treacherous that migrants have increasingly decided to travel in large groups for safety, marking a potential shift in traditional migration patterns.

But now that the caravan coverage has reduced significantly after the midterms, defensive claims like these from corporate outlets read a tad dishonest. Was the coverage really about the caravan, or was it about something –or someone– else?

Other media critics pointed out that news outlets have failed to adequately call Trump’s claims about the caravan what they really are, lies intent on firing up fear and racism before the midterm elections. Instead, journalists have followed the lead of The New York TimesFact Checks of the Day, feebly reporting that Republicans and Trump’s proclamations, like “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” with the caravan, “[lack] evidence,” or are “inaccurate, misleading or incomplete.” The point about Trump’s political motives is present in a lot of mainstream reporting, but much like the “R” word, the “L” word surfaces less than it probably should.

Screenshot of NYT Fact Check of the Day, Oct. 22, 2018 (VNY).

Both of these criticisms should be considered moving forward, but perhaps the most significant media failure we are witnessing is the rampant erasure of context. Specifically, that the latest migrant caravan, distinct for its organization and the unprecedented number of people making the courageous journey northward, is just one manifestation of the larger American policy-spawned refugee crisis in Central America. In other words, America is largely responsible for this crisis, but if you only read corporate news, you wouldn’t know that. And the arming of a fascist government in Honduras since 2009 is just one drop in the bucket of the imperial context many mainstream media outlets are missing.

Let’s look at some examples in The New York Times.

Miriam Jordan bylined a report headlined “This Isn’t the First Migrant Caravan to Approach the U.S. What Happened to the Last One?” From the start, Jordan unveils some important context. The migrant caravan dominating the headlines of late October is just one of many over the past decade. She goes on to briefly explain the fate of one of the two major caravans of Central Americans seeking asylum in Mexico and the U.S. last year. As a good reporter should, Jordan touches on why there are so many asylum seekers in the first place:

Eric Fish, who represented several migrants in their criminal prosecutions in federal court, said that they were typically mothers, children and young men who had fled violence in their home countries at the hands of gangs or intimate partners.

But the context pretty much stops here. The curious reader justifiably might ask, why then is there so much violence? Maybe the Times’ opinion page, arguably one of the most influential opinion forums in the English language, has something more to offer us. Contributing Times opinion writer Ioan Grillo tells us:

There are three distinct phenomena forcing people to move. The first is criminal violence, with murder rates at catastrophic levels, and gangs committing extortion and kidnapping. The second is a return to authoritarianism, accompanied by the use of deadly violence by security forces against those protesting autocratic rulers. The third is economic failure that has pushed people into extreme poverty. Some countries are facing all three of these at the same time.

Grillo is not wrong. However, we run into the same dilemma. There is no attempt to explain why exactly murder rates are at catastrophic levels, why gangs are free to terrorize citizens, or why Central America suffers from crippling economies. Near the end of Grillo’s piece, he argues, “Governments of the region should be meeting to discuss the refugee crisis – with, or without, the United States.” Perhaps Grillo is right to an extent, but there’s a greater issue here. Putting all the pressure on Central Americans to handle their own problems because America just isn’t up to the task right now, and failing to mention the long history of U.S. policies that fueled the crises in the region today, amounts to an exculpation of America’s laundry list of crimes.

No mention of the 2009 coup in Honduras. No mention of the U.S.’s thousands of deportations of incarcerated Salvadoran MS-13 and Barrio 18 members between 1996 and 2002 that directly correspond to the El Salvador’s skyrocketing murder rate. No mention of the millions of deportations overseen by President Obama, the “deporter-in-chief,” that exacerbated the crisis. No mention of the U.S. under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan arming and training genocidal death squads and repressive governments in the civil wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Nor are there interviews with voices like Jason Cone, the executive director of Doctors Without Borders, who are willing to say, “All regional actors have a role to play in the current humanitarian crisis in Central America, but the United States bears particular responsibility…U.S. policy decisions have sown the seeds of this crisis.” A crisis that scholar and Democracy Now! co-host Juan González accurately describes as “the harvest of empire,” America’s empire.

U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, provide basic weapons training to members of the Honduran army, Aug. 25, 2010 (Photo: U.S. Army).

Maybe there should be some kind of U.S. policy checklist for journalists covering the caravan to make sure that readers truly know what we’re dealing with. Because if we fail to provide such context to the American public, then we are submitting to a narrative that treats Central America’s crises as givens. We are failing to accurately describe a refugee crisis that spans much farther than a caravan of people, hundreds of miles away, many of whom may not even make it to our border.

The curious reader who is aware of this past and present history, who understands that United States bears some responsibility, might read the countless reports across our media landscape that have failed Americans and have failed Central Americans by omitting our government’s faults and ask again, why? Why do we blind ourselves to such history? Even the very vocabulary with which we describe Central American refugees exposes our peculiar blindness.

Kelli Korducki of BRIT + CO argues that the phrase “migrant caravan” itself is problematic and limiting. Acknowledging that the term “migrant” generally implies economic motivation and that many Central Americans are in fact fleeing debilitated economies, Korducki still asserts that they “are asylum seekers, not ‘migrants.’ The difference is meaningful, and there are grave human rights implications in the repeated misuse of language to describe their predicament.” Korducki is really arguing that a refugee’s economic motivation doesn’t make them any less of an asylum seeker than those escaping violent death. I agree.

The thing is, economic rights are not considered human rights in capitalist societies. Political and civil liberties, yes, but the right to housing and an adequate standard of living, no. Thus, according to the United States, Central Americans fleeing violence and government repression are asylum seekers, but those in pursuit of economic opportunity are migrants and will not be granted asylum; even though both circumstances stem in part from the same destructive American policies and both engender human suffering.

Our use of the label “migrant” obscures the reality and complexity of asylum seekers’ plight. Ideologically, it assumes a general benignity and personal responsibility to poverty, as opposed to the particularly unacceptable adversity of violence. Yet the two are profoundly intertwined; they both have emerged from American intervention. But understanding that would mean questioning our nation’s entire ideological framework of human rights and perhaps even our concept of citizenship; a concept already being reconsidered as Trump formulates an unconstitutional attack on birthright.

Maybe this is why we find so little context in the news. Making the consequences of our crimes in Central America a mainstream topic in our national dialogue about immigration would mean debating this asylum seeker/migrant distinction. And that would mean dissecting the linkages between capitalist ideology and the perpetual human suffering in Central America and around the world. But it seems like we’re not quite ready to do that. After all, James Bennett, the editor of the Times’ editorial page, admitted in a closed-door meeting with his staffers in 2017,

I think we are pro-capitalism. The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.

Underlining the role America plays in the turmoil of Central America exposes the hypocrisies of the U.S.’s proclaimed values, the sanctity of which must be protected at all costs by hiding the truth, consciously, or unconsciously. It’s easy to point at something that looks awful, but taking responsibility for it involves a radical reimagining of the solutions necessary to fix it.

One good starting point is what the NYT’s editorial board suggests: “The country needs to streamline the asylum system and establish generous quotas of immigrants and refugees from around the world.” But we need more than that. We need a different sort of foreign policy that genuinely learns from our past mistakes. We need different kinds of thinkers in our conversations. But it all begins with contextualizing caravans with American complicity in a military coup in Honduras.

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