The 2012 film “Harvest of Empire,” based on the book of the same title by journalist Juan González of Democracy Now, demonstrates how U.S. policy toward Latin America has created political, social, and economic instability in the region. Directed by Peter Getzels and Eduardo López, it discusses the cases of Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. It also addresses the United States’ role in the military and corporate interventions that have triggered mass migration to the United States. Five years later, particularly given President Trump’s recent backing of the RAISE Act, the central theme of the documentary is relevant: anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States reflect a woeful ignorance of the structural forces that have caused millions in Latin America to flee their homes.
Employing interviews and first-hand accounts with Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú, ACLU director Anthony Romero, and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diáz, among others, the film begins with a discussion of US imperialism in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have a long history of serving the United States, particularly when it comes to military enlistment.
For instance, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted for WWI at a time when they couldn’t elect their own governor and the official language of courts and schools was English. Schools punished students for speaking Spanish, creating an environment that both encouraged assimilation and denied citizens true membership.
Indeed, the sentiment of not quite belonging, often called “ni de aquí ni de allá,” (“not from here nor there”), is ever-present for migrants, who find themselves in an identity limbo during the difficult process of assimilation. Often, instability in their home countries gave them no choice but to seek safer homes with more opportunities, as has been the case in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
The 1954 CIA-backed overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala spurred greater instability and the escalation of violence during a civil war that would last some two decades and spur migration to the United States.
In El Salvador, the U.S. government-supported School of the Americas trained military members who targeted social leaders and members of the religious community. Mass numbers of persecuted Salvadorans fled northward. Today, the Salvadoran population is positioned to become the third largest of all Latino populations in the US.
Nicaraguan history is similarly marked by U.S. influence. The United States supported brutal leader Anastacio Somoza in Nicaragua, who in turn backed U.S. interests that neatly aligned with its ideology. When the left-wing, socialist Sandinistas forcibly took power in 1979, ending 46 years of dictatorship by the Somoza family, the Contras, a right-wing militant group, opposed them. Beginning in 1982, U.S.-sponsored attacks executed by the Contras prompted the declaration of a state of emergency in the nation and the subsequent mass evacuation of individuals affected by the extreme violence.
“I’m here because the United States decided to invade my country…” Junot Díaz explains in “Harvest of Empire.” The U.S. has occupied the author’s country of origin, the Dominican Republic, two times: once in 1916, when it handpicked the leader of the national guard, Rafael Trujillo, to head the country’s government; and once in 1963 after the election of Juan Bosch led to a military coup, a popular insurrection, and the ultimate U.S. invasion of the D.R. Trujillo met death after enjoying impunity for his approximate 30 years of brutal leadership – he was eventually assassinated in a CIA-backed operation, according to Díaz.
Perhaps one of the most compelling sections of the film, however, is the discussion of Mexico and Mexicans, the largest Latino population in the United States. More than 33 million individuals from Mexico or of Mexican descent live in U.S., according to the Census Bureau. Founder of immigration advocacy nonprofit Border Angels Enrique Morones discusses this in the film. Alluding to the fact that the West and Southwest belonged to Mexico prior to its loss of the Mexican-American war, Morones states, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” Since Mexico ceded this territory to the United States, it has had a fraught relationship with the imperial power. For instance, a great number of Mexican-Americans have served in the U.S. military, and 350,000 fought in World War II, only to return to the United States’s segregated schools and substandard treatment by normative society. Furthermore, the trend of Mexicans serving as a labor force in good economic times and expendable labor force in bad times can be seen throughout recent history. The Bracero program, a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States that allowed men from Mexico to labor in the United States for wages that many U.S. nationals would have rejected, was implemented by executive order with the aim of addressing labor shortages, particularly in the agriculture sector. These workers lacked full rights. Today, in a recapitulation of the Bracero program, immigrants are economically incentivized to cross the border and then forcibly detained and removed from the country.
Migrants have contributed in an integral way to the formation of the United States as we know it today and continue to seek better lives for themselves and their families. While it provides only a brief historical exploration of how U.S. policy in a handful of Latin American nations intersects with the mass movement of people and anti-immigration sentiments, “Harvest of Empire” provides the viewer with a vital understanding of this history. I wholeheartedly recommend seeing it in order to more completely understand the roots of U.S. imperialism in Latin America and the way in which this has informed migration trends. Unfortunately, with the presence of anti-immigrant groups, xenophobic sentiments, expansion of border security, and plans to cut even legal migration to the U.S., it appears that it will remain relevant in years to come.