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What We’re Reading: May 15, 2018

Thoughts on Central America and the second U.S. civil war

What We're Reading

|May 15, 2018

Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.

American War
By Omar El Akkad

It’s 2074, and the United States is on the brink of the Second American Civil War.

Four Southern states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina – have rejected the Sustainable Future Act that prohibits the use of fossil fuels in the U.S. after decades of disastrous climate change effects. Florida and several other regions along the U.S. coast are completely underwater. Tensions between the Blue (the Northern states) and the Red (the Southern states) are rising, sparking protests, violence and calls for secession. In 2073, President Daniel Ki, who backed the fossil fuel ban, was assassinated in Mississippi by a suicide bomber from the Red. A year later, dozens of Southern protesters in South Carolina are killed by federal troops, and anger toward the Northern government, now headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, to escape the rapidly eroding coastline, reaches a boiling point. Just months after the mass shooting, three of the Southern states declare independence, calling themselves the Free Southern State, while a quarantine wall is built around South Carolina, where the rebellion first erupted, to contain a plague that was released by the federal government to quell the unrest. By late 2074, the United States is at war.

In St. James, Louisiana, Benjamin Chestnut is considering moving his family to the North. Louisiana is one of five federal-aligned Southern states still in limbo, not having declared independence but sympathetic to the Southern cause. His wife, Martina, is hesitant, knowing that suicide bombers often target government offices where Southerners can apply for visas for the North, but knows that the war is edging closer to their small town. Louisiana may not be safe for their twin six-year-old daughters, Sarat and Dana, and son, Simon, for much longer. On occasion, they can even hear gunfire in the distance and the Birds (armed drones) flying overhead. Martina’s fears are confirmed when a federal officer gives her the news that her husband was killed by a bomb planted by an insurrectionist in the Federal Services Building in Baton Rouge.

Seen as traitors by some of their fellow Southerners for trying to flee north but not quite Northerners because they live in the South, the family has no recourse after Benjamin’s death. They decide to move to a refugee camp in Mississippi. It’s at this camp that the three siblings grow into and out of their adolescence. Sarat, the courageous, hard-headed, rebellious one of the three, and the focus of the story, is befriended by an older man named Gaines, who uses her to funnel money to rebels at the camp. Through his stories of countless injustices imposed on the South by the North (some true, some exaggerated), he grooms her to become a proud but bitter rebel seeking revenge at all costs. And soon she finds her own, very real and very personal reasons to despise the North.

“American War,” written in 2017 by Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar el Akkad, illustrates how a divided United States can turn into a United States at war. The country it describes reminds one of the modern Middle East, with its squalid refugee camps, militias, hyperfactionalized marital and political groupings, drones targeting rebel leaders, detention centers and torture. It’s both a cautionary tale (one that may have been more believable if it hadn’t been set in the current century) and a heart-felt story about a family that, by the end of the book, is utterly devastated by war. It’s grim, but good science fiction doesn’t have to be shiny to entertain us, nor does it have to be altogether believable for it to raise questions about our own human experiences.

Valentina Jovanovski, editor


History of Mexico’s International Relations 1821-2010: Central America (volume 2)
By Manuel Angel Castillo, Monica Toussaint and Mario Vazquez Olivera

Mexico is one of the few countries in the world that must sincerely care about the fate of Central America. The second volume of “The History of Mexico’s International Relations 1821-2010: Central America” helps to explain why. It begins by describing the threat Central America posed to the territorial integrity of Chiapas state.

This volume opens with an explanation for why Central America initially posed a threat to Mexico, specifically its southern territorial integrity with Chiapas. The ability to bridge the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean – or at least conduct business on both coasts – gives a country a geopolitical edge. In its early days of independence, Mexico believed the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is due west of Chiapas, could give it this very edge. Securing and expanding its southern border beyond the isthmus became vitally important. But it also brought it directly into conflict with Central America.

Throughout the 19th century, Mexico managed its relationship with Central America by walking a fine line between dividing Central American countries and uniting them. Its relationship with Guatemala was antagonistic, rooted in territorial competition and border disputes. A Central America that is united – as it was for a few years – and led by Guatemala is a huge threat to Mexico. During this time, Mexico supported opposition figures in places like Nicaragua and Costa Rica to help break regional unity. But a Central America that was too weak was also problematic for Mexico, which would be threatened by the U.S. and European intervention such weakness would invite. So at times, Mexico worked to support stability and strengthen the region to avoid a more powerful country controlling the area to its immediate south.

The book explains that the Mexican Revolution marked the moment where Mexico began to lose its influence in Central America. War-torn and internally divided, Mexico could not counter the U.S. While the Great Depression and World War II opened some opportunities to increase commercial ties, they were never enough to empower Central America to break free from Mexico or to overcome U.S. influence in the region. Mexico was further sidelined in the 1970s and 1980s, when its economic crisis forced the government to align with the U.S. It came at a time when the U.S. was also intervening militarily in Central America.

Mexico knew it could not replace the U.S. in Central America and so abandoned the idea of political leadership in the region. But it knew it could capitalize on anti-American sentiment in the region to establish itself as a good neighbor and stronger advocate for stability and development – a strategy that makes up for what Mexico lacks in hard power.

On the whole, this book nails the 19th century narrative – a dynamic story of power competition among Mexico, Guatemala/Central America and the United States. But it lacked the same depth when telling the story of the 20th century. Its biggest fault is failing to explain that Mexico’s behavior is formed by its inability to project power. The focus remained on the internal conflicts within Central American countries and stayed at the basic level of discussion regarding U.S. intervention and Mexico assuming more of a brotherly role in the region. I would like to see an updated edition of this volume 10-20 years from now, given Mexico’s growing role in helping assume some responsibility from the U.S. to deal with security, migration and economic development in Central America.

Allison Fedirka, analyst


Reading List