Project Costa Rica: Costa Rica's Journey to a Peaceful Society

Central Americans remember United States' abuses

by April Stanley

The United States has had a serious impact on Central America with regard to military intervention, political interference and economic domination. Modestly said, the United States has often not been a friend to Central America. Although the United States has offered its southern neighbors much positive assistance-economic aid, Peace Corps missions, and disaster relief, the negative policies of the United States have left some scars on the region.

Consider these examples. Guatemalans lived under the thumb of the American-owned United Fruit Company for decades. The company owned 40 percent of the fertile land, a portion of railroads and port facilities, maintained a monopoly on electricity production and had a powerful influence on political matters.

The U.S. government instructed troops of several countries in counter-insurgency tactics, which included the use of napalm and death squads. The death toll in Guatemala alone reached nearly 30,000, mostly civilians.

In Nicaragua, the United States prolonged the civil war by funding guerrilla rebel attacks against the communist government.

This manipulative intervention did not only occur in Central American countries. The U.S. School of the Americas trained thousands of soldiers from 22 Latin American countries who were later found responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the region. The controversial school allegedly advocated tactics such as torture, false imprisonment and execution.

Consider one example which is reflective of many U.S. policies toward Latin America. In 1865, American William Walker and his filibusteros attempted to take over the region. Filibusteros are soldiers of fortune who attempt to enrich themselves by conducting unauthorized warfare against countries that are at peace with the United States. Convinced of his superiority by Anglo-Saxon ancestry, Walker felt justified in exterminating cultures and enslaving people for the economic gain of the United States.

Walker was determined to annex the region to the United States. First, he and his filibusteros sailed to Nicaragua, and he later declared himself commander-in-chief and legalized slavery. Shortly after, Walker and his 250 men entered Costa Rica in an attempt to seize the land. Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora gathered nearly 9,000 men from around the country to come to Costa Rica's defense. During a battle at Santa Rosa Ranch, Walker was forced to retreat to Nicaragua and partake in another bloody battle in the town on Rivas, which resulted in the death of about 1,000 Costa Rican defenders.

During the last battle, a peasant boy named Juan Santamaría courageously attempted to set fire to Walker's fortress. Immediately after torching the stronghold, Santamaría collapsed and died, being attacked by gunfire from Walker's men. Walker and his filibusteros took shelter and fled during the night. Faced with militant opposition in Central America, Walker returned to the United States in 1857.

Shortly after, he returned to Nicaragua and was captured by the British, who also had interest in Central America. William Walker was turned in to Honduran authorities and quickly executed.

Prior to this incident, Costa Ricans had not established a strong national identity, probably because they never before had to defend their land. The actions of this brave young farmer had united and brought pride to the Costa Rican people. His life and courage are honored every April 11 during Juan Santamaría Day. Although the young boy did not kill any of Walker's filibusteros, he is remembered as a national hero and credited with saving Costa Rica from a future of domination by a despot.

This story exemplifies the arrogance and manipulation the United States has often acted with when dealing with this region. The United States has not hesitated to use military intervention and economic strangulation in the name of its own benefit.

The past actions of the U.S. government have had a lasting impact on Latin America. The people of the United States must not be careless and forget about our history with this region.