Institutional Repression


Photo from the Department of Homeland Security

By Duncan Riley


Yesterday, January 3rd, the much-anticipated 116th congress, product of the “blue wave” took office. It began this first day by passing measures to end the government shutdown, and initiating rule changes to facilitate a future austerity program. While Democrats retook the house by promising a more humane immigration policy, one of their first actions was to pass a spending bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security.[1] The Border Patrol, ICE, and the detention facilities in whose custody two Guatemalan children died in December all fall within said department. Amidst the broader crisis of liberal institutionalism constituted by the shutdown, the Democratic Party proves itself once again to be a force of reaction. While much has been made of the emergence of a “progressive” wing in the party, it has clearly not prevented the party from championing repressive institutions and economic policies that will harm the working classes.

Indeed, all that has occurred since the Trump Administration achieved office has demonstrated clearly the bankruptcy of the present order. While many commentators have turned to decrying ignorant populism as the source of the present crisis, the problem lies far deeper, within the nature of the state itself. Ignorance and racism among the population is undeniably a significant problem which contributes to injustice in society. Yet, said ignorance and racism are most dangerous now as they are weaponized by the state. Repressive state institutions, from ICE and the Border Patrol down to local police, have enthusiastically enforced the Trump Administration’s various oppressive measures towards immigrants. These developments are by no means novel, but rather rely on the deportation apparatus the Obama Administration constructed.[2]

The same trend is found in foreign policy. In 2017, after a disputed election widely condemned as fraudulent, Juan Orlando Hernández of the conservative national party was reelected in Honduras. Government forces repressed protesters, killing over 30 people. Despite this, the Trump Administration recognized the new government as legitimate. This built on the Obama Administration’s efforts to legitimize the conservative governments brought to power by the 2009 military coup. As part of its efforts to stabilize the succeeding conservative governments, the Obama administration sent millions of dollars of military aid to the Honduran military and police, even as they were implicated in human rights abuses and the murder of activists like Berta Cáceres. The violence this has spawned has contributed significantly to the present migration northwards, which the current congress continues to respond to with military measures.

US policy in regards to Honduras, and Central America generally, is based around “Plan Colombia,” a program initiated in the late 1990s and early 2000s to strengthen the Colombian state and military apparatus. By strengthening the Colombian state, successive US administrations hoped to combat cartels and cocaine production as part of the War on Drugs. For the same reason, a similar plan was applied to Mexico with the Mérida Initiative in 2008. After a migrant caravan of unaccompanied minors caused a major stir in US politics in 2014, the Obama Administration championed a new “Plan for Central America.” Outlining the policy in a 2015 editorial, Vice President Joe Biden connected the new plan to Plan Colombia, which he had championed during his time in the Senate.[3] Seldom, if ever, referenced in these schemes to expand Plan Colombia, have been its human costs. While the Colombian state and military were certainly strengthened, there were also wide reports of human rights abuses. In 2008, the “falsos positivos,” scandal broke, revealing that the Colombian army had lured civilians to remote locations with promises of work, then executed them and claimed they were guerrillas. These executions were driven by the policies of the Álvaro Uribe government, and the need to show progress in the war to justify continued US military aid. A recent study shows that possibly as many as 10,000 people were killed as “falsos positivos.”[4]

It has thus repeatedly been demonstrated that the very institutions that supposedly exist to protect our freedom and to promote justice are in reality pernicious to these aims. The unending slew of injustices committed by successive administrations in Washington is itself related to the fundamental corruption of bourgeois democracy. As Álvaro Garcia Linera argues, in modern democracy “the exercise of public rights is simply a ceremony of relinquishing political will, the will to govern, in order to deposit it in the hands of a new cast of private owners of politics…”[5]  Modern democracy thus rejects the right of the working class, of the poor, to seize the reigns of government themselves, and determine their own destiny. In the absence of true popular democracy, oligarchy reigns over the levers of power, using them to defend its narrow interests, at the expense of the rights of the oppressed masses. Within this context, the exploitation and tyrannical impositions that immigrants and other social groups face become a normalized function of state institutions and makes repression or the threat of repression a daily experience. Faced with this situation, to reform the state or to populate it with “progressives”, will not bring justice, as was shown by the actions of congress yesterday. State repression must rather be swept away through social revolution, and in its place must be constructed popular democracy, on the basis of equality and liberty for all.


[1] The New York Times. “New Congress Live Updates: The 116th House Votes on New Speaker.” The New York Times. January 03, 2019. Accessed January 03, 2019.

[2] Franco, Marisa, and Carlos Garcia. “The Deportation Machine Obama Built for President Trump.” The Nation. June 28, 2016. Accessed January 04, 2019.

[3] Biden, Joseph R. “A Plan for Central America.” The New York Times. January 29, 2015. Accessed January 04, 2019.

[4] Daniels, Joe Parkin. “Colombian Army Killed Thousands More Civilians than Reported, Study Claims.” The Guardian. May 08, 2018. Accessed January 04, 2019.

[5] Linera, Álvaro García. Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, 101.  Leiden: Brill, 2014.

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