DALLAS, Texas — Recently, in Texas, a potential bill was brought up which would remove requirements for history in the state-wide curricula like Native American history and suffrage. Other bills recently appeared to create “patriotic education” through a committee and not talk about the deeper history of racism in the country. While the motives vary, one of the reasons is America’s relation to its own history. Many have difficulty discussing and acknowledging its entire history with all its missteps. Some would rather push it to the side.
These problems with education create historical knowledge issues. In 2010, a study found that historical knowledge in K-12 students was at low levels, with 17% of eighth-graders and 12% of high schoolers performing well enough to pass a US history test. In 2019, a survey with 41,000 adults that covered questions related to US history found that only 40% passed with a score of 60% or higher. There is a dangerous correlation between a lack of proper historical education and many people’s resulting knowledge. With this said, this also connects to understanding the current state of global poverty. Certain conditions in foreign countries are the result of actions committed by countries like America in the past. If people are properly educated on history, they will better understand the current state and actions. Then, people can understand how a country can work to improve relations for the future.
Case Study: Guatemala
During the Cold War, America focused its efforts on ensuring that the spread of democracy remained intact globally. When looking into American actions, some moments present a clouded picture of what the country did. In particular, America often intervened for its own benefit. This ended up negatively impacting foreign countries and creating repercussions afterward.
One example occurred in the country of Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA believed the Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz, was a communist threat due to his agrarian reforms and supposed communist relations. In particular, he clashed with the US-based United Fruit Company, the largest landowner in the country, due to increased taxes and limitations. Even if the supposed communist relations came from unsubstantiated sources, the CIA worked with exiles to successfully overthrow Arbenz. His replacement, Castillo Armas, reversed reforms while giving concessions to foreign investors like the United States.
The fact that the CIA supported this overthrow places a lot of concessions towards how the country portrayed itself during the Cold War. Especially with how the political and social climate of the country spiraled out as a result of the interference. If anything, the anti-communist fears were only a part of the motivation. Concerns over economic losses due to the agrarian reforms are also notable towards why America acted. In this way, not only did America assist in overthrowing the leader of a nation due to political tensions, but there were also economic incentives to do so as well.
Aftermath and Affect on Poverty
Following the coup, the country of Guatemala faced many issues. Political tensions rose immensely and resulted in chaos. Armas rolled back the prior agrarian reforms before his assassination. This also led to guerrilla resistance to prop up over the next decade or so. In 1966, American advisors helped plan guerilla bombing programs. The government also employed death squads and surveillance, and intellectuals disappeared to protect the regime. A civilian government briefly took over in the 80s, but another coup displaced it by the end of the decade. By the 90s, international pressure led to negotiations and a focus on human rights. In short, between 1960 and 1996, 200,000 either died or disappeared, and over one million were displaced. The prior overthrow partially sparked this conflict and led to a chain reaction that caused all this chaos.
Economically, the nation saw 90% living below the poverty line by the end of the conflict. Even over time, the nation continues to see problems resulting from decades of conflicts and only having a few decades without a contentious environment. The murder rate as of October 2021 is 27.26 out of every 100,000 citizens. While crime rates have consistently declined, they are still around 20 to 25% in the 2010s. They peaked at around 45% in 2009. Distribution of wealth is an issue, with 20% of the population consuming around 51% of the total income. 23% live in extreme poverty.
There is also the consistency of gang violence and narcoleptics. All of these issues have perpetuated migration which has occurred since the Civil War. American intervention was partially responsible. Many are unaware due to lacking the opportunity to have historical knowledge.
Why This Matters
One of the reasons for obtaining a well-rounded global perspective is the full historical knowledge of what happened in Guatemala and other countries. The Borgen Project spoke with Dr. Carey Latimore, a history professor at Trinity University and former department chair, about the subject. He said that Americans need to put themselves in others’ shoes when viewing history. Many view it from isolated bubbles. So, when viewing places like Guatemala, Americans would view it mostly from the local perception and not all the finer details. In his eyes, Latimore sees history as teaching the past and preparing for the future since trends tend to repeat. He states that it helps understand all aspects of society and ensures that past mistakes aren’t repeated.
Latimore believes if America wants to improve its foreign relations with certain nations affected by their actions, a dual perspective of apologizing and obtaining historical knowledge of why another country is in the state they are in is needed. In his eyes, many oppose the discussion of history because history for many in America is in an isolated bubble that focuses on a singular perspective. This leads to conflict and friction rather than compromise on areas people view differently.
In the case of Guatemala, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what America did so that the public can at least understand what happened. Knowing that one action caused a spiral to poverty can prevent others from repeating it through the knowledge of that action. There is the concern of new tensions, but allowing for discussion does create a clearer picture. Poverty comes from certain actions, and understanding them will allow people to avoid them in the future.
Acknowledge All of History
At the end of the day, history is just a natural element of a country, and none are perfect. Blocking it out will only cause issues down the line. In the case of America, more work needs to happen, given the prevalent narratives and the alarming lack of historical knowledge. The United States impacts many places around the world somehow, so holding a specific narrative creates issues. If we don’t ask difficult questions, changes are unlikely to occur. History is an important element in understanding why poverty occurs and knowing how to mitigate it.
– John Dunkerley