A different kind of war in America’s ‘backyard’

The US may not be supporting death squads in Latin America anymore, but it is still waging a bloody trade war.

Farmers hold corn cobs while protesting against Monsanto Co during an event commemorating National Corn Day in downtown Mexico City
NAFTA flooded the Mexican market with subsidised agricultural products from the US - in blatant violation of the very principle of 'free trade', writes Fernandez [Henry Romero/Reuters]

Back in 1954, the United States orchestrated a coup d’etat against Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, whose transgressions had included a less than totally obsequious approach to the American banana company United Fruit, predecessor of Chiquita Brands International.

As usual, the US knew what was best for the nations located in its self-proclaimed “backyard”.

Civil war descended on Guatemala six years after the coup, and ensuing decades played host to acts of genocide (pdf) committed by US-backed forces, with more than 200,000 people ultimately killed or disappeared.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the US nobly pursued its mission to make the world safe for capitalism by extending support to right-wing death squads and dictators.

Nowadays, of course, the communist bogeyman can no longer be hyped as an existential hemispheric threat, and friendly Latin American regimes have ceased dropping suspected leftists from aircraft.

Nevertheless, the US has continued to preside over punitive manoeuvres – some subtler than others – to ensure that it remains in business in the “backyard”.

These range from endorsing right-wing coups to funding murderous police forces and other security outfits to agitating on behalf of US agribusiness agendas – thereby obliterating any notion of a separation of corporation and state.

Have we really come that far since 1954?

The free trade arsenal

In terms of recent economic conquest, free trade agreements -namely the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) – have proven to be formidable components of the US arsenal.

NAFTA, for example, flooded the Mexican market with subsidised agricultural products from the US – in blatant violation, incidentally, of the very principle of “free trade” and in reaffirmation of America’s golden double standard.

To be sure, there’s nothing like having one’s subsidised corn and eating it too.

The upshot in this case was that several million Mexican farmers saw their livelihoods destroyed, with the resulting mass displacement of human beings arguably constituting a form of violence in itself.

In a recent email to me, Dr Adrienne Pine – an anthropologist at American University in Washington DC – outlined some of the other perks of NAFTA and CAFTA-DR.

READ MORE: Mexicans left behind by NAFTA see opportunity in Trump

“[They] have been disastrous for citizens of all the countries involved (including the United States), yet hugely beneficial for corporations … They have destroyed crop diversity and the viability of small businesses, laid waste to hard-won labour and environmental protections, prevented access to life-saving pharmaceutical treatments for all but the very wealthy, and dramatically increased the wealth gap.” 

One might reasonably assume that such an arrangement would be music to the ears of Trump & Co, who are not generally known for their concern for the plight of the average mortal.

Trump, however, has ordered a revamping of NAFTA – the implication being that the accord as it currently stands is in fact somehow a devious Mexican plot designed to bring the US to its knees.

The proliferation of American pseudo-food and other manifestations of corporate avarice is not a phenomenon confined to the immediate vicinity of the US, as globalisation has rendered neoliberal plunder all the easier.


But whatever NAFTA tweaks are ultimately imposed in Trump’s alternate universe, it’s safe to assume that “disaster” will still be the name of the game, and that “free trade” will be no freer than it ever was.

Toxic environment

In a 2003 report for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy that remains ever relevant to today’s landscape, Laura Carlsen highlights some additional reasons – as articulated by Mexican farmers and others – to oppose the agricultural model championed by the US.

Beyond the fact that the US system is environmentally destructive on account of the “large amount of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers applied and the monocropping techniques”, there are also issues of food sovereignty, in that free trade “encourages dependency on transnational seed and chemical conglomerates”.

Given that the fundamental aim of forcible dependency is not local wellbeing but rather corporate profit, the resulting environment is toxic in more ways than one.

As if this weren’t enough, Carlsen notes that the US model “erodes food quality to the consumer by encouraging junk-food imports … [while] inhibit[ing] culinary diversity and ethnic-based food traditions that have high cultural and health value”.

Indeed, here in Mexico these days, one might be forgiven for mistaking Coca-Cola for a bona fide food group. Mexicans consume more soda per capita than anyone on the planet – with predictably pernicious health effects.

READ MORE: Taxing soda, saving lives

Meanwhile, from Mexico to Honduras to Panama and other “backyard” territories, sectors of certain cities have come to rival US shopping malls in terms of saturation with American fast food chains.

So much for indigenous culinary tradition. Mercifully, Taco Bell has at least been thwarted in two separate attempts to install itself in Mexico – although installation was highly successful in both Honduras and Panama.

To be sure, the proliferation of American pseudo-food and other manifestations of corporate avarice is not a phenomenon confined to the immediate vicinity of the US, as globalisation has rendered neoliberal plunder all the easier.

But Mexico and Central America have the misfortune to be physically situated on the front lines of what often amounts to a war on agriculture and nutrition – not to mention the literal war on drugs and other excuses for rampant US regional militarisation.

If only US foreign policy could be put on a diet.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.