Dictatorship and Beyond: Rebellion and Refugees in Central America

Written by Jack Bennett.

With the rise of neoliberal globalisation from the 1970s, national boundaries are purportedly more fluid to allow for the greater movement of people and commodities. For economic and political refugees from Central America, however, these national borders have not been nearly as fluid. Growing inequalities in connectivity created uneven mobility of labour and capital. Against the backdrop of the Cold War in Latin America, continuous waves of refugees fleeing first the political violence of the counter-insurgency terror and then economic and social violence of neoliberal insecurity and the drug trade can be traced. By focusing on the El Salvador and Guatemala Civil Wars of the 1980s as definitive flashpoints for the Latin American Cold War, the scale of refugee crises mushroomed. Following the end of the Cold War and the ensuing Peace Processes in the wake of civil war, migration and asylum continued to remain a major issue throughout the Americas. 

Importantly, Latin America was a transformative ‘hot’ region in the global Cold War. Nevertheless, the roots of these ideological-military conflicts can be traced back to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. A conflict which raised fundamental questions regarding land ownership, political liberty and divisions of labour; through internal ideological struggle over home to overcome deep socio-economic inequalities and forge more inclusive nations. This marked the beginning of a century shaped by conflicts to forge more modern nations, and how to engender both national and international equality. Latin America critically became the ‘backyard’ of the United States in the broader, global conflict with the USSR. 

It was here in Latin America where the failure in electoral and democratic approach to produce this modernisation of sovereignty which prompted the eruption of armed conflict. This highlights the local dynamics in global contexts. For instance, Guatemala in 1954 saw a CIA-supported military coup overturn the previous decade of democratic reform in order to prevent the encroachment of communism. Contrastingly, in Cuba in 1959 the 26th July Movement overthrew the populist dictatorship, declaring a socialist revolution, pursuing the development of a more inclusive nation. Emerging from these conflicts was a paradigmatic change in the movement of people throughout the Americas as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In 1967, the U.S. signed the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was rebuffed in 1980, just as the Cold War was beginning to heat up in the region, through the Refugee Act. The status of ‘refugee’ was influenced by national security anxieties, public perceptions in the United States as well as gender. 

The Guatemalan Revolution took place in 1954, and as previously mentioned, eroded the previous decades democratic developments. During this period, in a nation of 12 million people, experienced significant agrarian reform, despite being heavily reliant on the cash crop trade of bananas, coerced, indentured labour of indigenous groups was abolished. Then the coup took place, ending this democratic road to modernisation. In the aftermath, elite Guatemalans supported the United States and the little resistance experienced to external imposition of political order was swiftly suppressed. In response, the people of Guatemala were faced with the reality that bringing reformers to political power was fundamentally unworkable given the global geo-political climate. Young people capitalised upon this and took up arms, developing strategic military operations in rural areas in resistance. What emerged was the protracted and bloody Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), a conflict which can be divided into two discrete phases. Firstly between 1960 and 1972 in the eastern regions of the country, which is dominated by non-indigenous Ladino populations who rebelled, but ultimately failed despite large-scale funding from the U.S. Secondly in the western region from 1972 to 1996, the predominantly Maya indigenous ethnicity took up the cause of resistance to authoritarian military dictatorship. It was during this second phase, in 1980, when guerrilla fighters united under the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). The Guatemalan military launched a brutal, scorched-earth and genocidal counter-insurgency campaign from 1981 to 1982, characterising all indigenous populations as threatening subversives. Initially, the Guatemalan military received economic and military support from the U.S., however, with increasing domestic American opposition to the conflict, Israel was used as an intermediary of such support. Interestingly, Clinton later apologises for the actions of the US in Guatemala. The conflict once again transformed from 1985 with the transition towards democracy to its conclusion in 1996 through the signing of the Peace Accords. The war had taken the lives of 200,000 Guatemalans, while leaving a further 1 million as displaced refugees; the majority of which sought safety in the United States as ‘political refugees.’ 

During the 1970s El Salvador experienced a similar quashing of democratic movements through military intervention. Journeying back to 1932, the Peasant Uprising led by Farabundo Marti was ruthlessly suppressed by the state, preventing the emergence of a mass revolution, while also crippling any potential labour unionisation or activism as Marti became a martyr figure in its aftermath. By 1972, El Salvador was a country with a population of 7 million people with dense population clusters and extreme socio-economic divergence. The poorest members of society owned just 2% of all land, with the most productive regions held by the wealthiest so-called ‘Fourteen Families,’ and were heavily dependent on volatile cash crop economic foundations. With inflation at 60% and unemployment at 30%, a coalition of opposition parties under the Union of National Opposition (UNO) led by Jose Napoleon Duarte emerged to oppose the national oligarchic candidate. Significantly, Duarte won the 1972 election by 72,000 votes, however, the electoral commission overturned the results, despite a complete lack of evidence, declared the conservative candidate Colonel Arturo Armando Molina the victor by 100,000 votes. While Duarte was arrested, tortured and exiled to Venezuela where he remained until his return to El Salvador in the late 1970s. 

In the wake of this electoral fraud, violence and decapitation of the people’s democratic initiative, peasants and urban workers, with the support of the Catholic Church, began during the mid-1970s to become more politically organised. Protests were held in the search of democratic political alternatives. In direct retaliation to these political impulses, a series of high-profile assassinations were conducted by the El Salvador army, including Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24th 1980, while in the same year four U.S. religious aid workers were raped and murdered by the military. Then, in 1981, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was founded, uniting opposition into a popular front with a broad set of political principles. However, by the mid-1980s, in order to prevent the infiltration of communism in Latin America, the U.S. government provided approximately $200 million in military support to the El Salvadoran military dictatorship. Crucially, this culminated in a twelve-month blood bath from 1980-1, in which military ‘death squads’ murdered an estimated 30,000 civilians. 

This period of military violence, hunger and political repression catalysed the refugee and migrant crisis which engulfed El Salvador. Most migrants entered the US illegally; primarily settling in Los Angeles. For example, by the mid-1980s, an estimated 500,000 El Salvadorans had migrated to the United States. Furthermore, in 1984 the Department of Health reported that disease rates amongst these migrant communities was extremely high; along with mental health problems related to violent displacement from home territories. The crisis in El Salvador elicited a domestic American response, namely protests towards support for Latin American violent military dictatorships. 

Peace was brought to Guatemala in 1996 and El Salvador in 1992. In the former, the URNG was disarmed and the state was declared responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations, with only 1% of the over 200,000 deaths attributed to guerrilla actions. Likewise, in the latter, the FMLN was disarmed, the United States provided $4 billion in aid to support El Salvadoran recovery, who were equally criticised globally for their complicit involvement in the facilitation of such brutal military dictatorships. 

In post-Peace Central and Latin America, governments have pursued the promotion of free-trade economic zones, where transnational corporations can invest in order to instigate greater socio-economic development. However, there has been a heavy emphasis on textile production, with criticism levelled at these states for the emergence of exploitative conditions, along with the high mobility of capital, as well as rising levels of poverty, crime and corruption – not to mention the invigorated international drug trade and emergence of Narco-states such as Colombia and Mexico, dominated by cartels. These various factors have produced new waves of migration both to North America as well as globally in the decades since peace. 


Carothers, Thomas. In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years. University of California Press, 1993. 

Long, Tom. Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence. Cambridge University Press, 2015).

McClintock, Michael. The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala. Zed Books, 1985. 

McClintock, Michael. Instruments of statecraft: U.S. guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency, and counter-terrorism, 1940–1990. Pantheon Books, 1992. 

Menjivar, Cecilia, and Nestor Rodriguez, eds. When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror. University of Texas Press, 2005.Palmer, David Scott. U.S. Relations with Latin America during the Clinton Years: Opportunities Lost or Opportunities Squandered?, 2006.

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