Hidden History: The Systematic US Oppression and Exploitation of Latin America and Latin Americans

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Harvest of Empire: The History of Latinos in America

By Juan Gonzalez

Viking Penguin (2000)

Book Review

Although over 20 years old, this book remains extremely relevant in the face of the continuing immigrant crisis at the Mexican border.

Gonzalez begins by describing the pre-European population of the Americas, which according to most scholars was 60 – 110 million:[1]

  • 25 -40 million in modern day Mexico
  • 6 – 11 million in the central Andes
  • 25 – 40 million North of the Rio Grand

Most historical and archeological evidence reveals the slave-based states of the Aztecs (Mexico), Mayas (Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala) and Incas (Peruvian highland) were politically and culturally sophisticated as Europe. The population of the Incan city Tenochititlan was 200,000 – 400,000, in contrast to the 50,00 in London and the 40,000 in Seville.

The Mayans, who had the only written language, also had advanced knowledge of math and astronomy.

In North America, only the the Pueblo civilization [2] approached the sophistication of the South and Meso American civilizations. However the Iroquois Confederacy, which stretched from Lake Superior to Virginia, had the most advanced form of government in North America [3]

After a detailed exposition of successive waves of colonists arriving in the Americas over the next four hundred years, Gonzales describes the forcible annexation by the US government of Florida (1802), Texas, California and the Southwest US (1855) and Central America and the Caribbean Basin during the second half of the 19th century. Along with annexation came the inconvenience of several million Mexicans, Cuban, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans living in these territories.

A good number were exterminated; others subdued by systematic terrorism. In the Rio Grande valley, for example, landowning Mexicans were beaten up, lynched and swindled until the 10% Anglo population controlled nearly all the land.

The other really interesting part of the book linking 20th century immigration patterns from various Meso-American and Caribbean Basin countries to growing exploitation and oppression of Central America, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico by Wall Street and the US government.[4]

The book also details the systematic use of Mexican immigrants (by corporations and the government) to suppress American wages. The US government first began recruiting cheap Mexican laborers between 1880 and 1930 to work on railroads and in the fields between. They forcibly deported 1 million of them when unemployment rose  during the Great Depression, even though many were US citizens.

When American men were fighting overseas in 1942, the US started the Bracero Program to recruit new Mexican workers, recruiting as many as 450,000 by 1950. This was followed by Operation Wetback during the 1954 recession, in which they kidnapped and illegally deported 1-2 million Mexicans.

Resurrected when the recession lifted, Bracero ended in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson replaced it with the H-2 Guest Worker Program.

In 1966, US corporations begin moving operations to northern Mexico instead of recruiting Mexican immigrants to cross the border. This trend escalated with the passage by the Clinton administration’s adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The latter has resulted in enormous profits for Wall Street, suppression of wages and job growth on both sides of the border, along with (ironically) a massive increase in the flood of immigrants across the Mexican border.[5]

[1] Following the arrival of European settlers approximately 1 million indigenous Americans died annually (from disease and massacres) for most of the 16th century. The Spanish killed more than the Anglos because the advanced societies of South and Meso-America put up greater resistance.

[2] The Anasazis, from whom the Pueblos were descended, were even more “advanced” when they mysteriously disappeared some time in the 13th century.

[3] The European framers of the US Constitution modeled much of it on the Iroquois Confederacy. However they left out the bit about women controlling the land and choosing new tribal leaders.

[4] Prior to World War II, Central America and Caribbean Basin were de facto colonies of Wall Street corporations, who exploited cheap labor and lax regulation in pursuit of hundreds of millions in profits from sugar, coffee and banana plantations. Strikes and uprisings by local peasants to improve their brutal working conditions resulted in repeated US military invasions and occupations.

[5] Gonzalez blames the shutting down of many Mexican farms owing to their inability to compete with cheap US farm surpluses.

2 thoughts on “Hidden History: The Systematic US Oppression and Exploitation of Latin America and Latin Americans

  1. Interesting synopsis. It corroborates and fleshes out what I’ve read about how the European descdndents and US government have done in the New World. One of my favorites was “Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano. “Harvest of Empire” apparently gives more recent history.


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