I first met Beto O’Rourke in October 2011 when we were both panelists at a conference at the University of Texas at El Paso. He was an El Paso city councilman with a lot of buzz around him (the next year, he would unseat his district’s sitting congressman and head to Washington). I was in the same job I’m in now. As he does now, Councilman Beto gave an impassioned appeal at the conference for reforming drug laws that hit poor and minority communities the hardest.
When he came to Washington in early 2013, his staff were instantly helpful to us on issues of human rights and foreign assistance in Latin America, seeking ideas for legislation and helping with requests for information.
Then, in July 2014, at the height of the crisis triggered by the first wave of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America, Beto called a few WOLA colleagues and me in for a meeting to brainstorm a response. The freshman congressman wanted to know why so many people were fleeing Central America. He wanted to know what was causing the exodus, whether past U.S. policies had played a role, and what we could to to address these “root causes” now.
Then he asked something I’ll always remember: “I don’t know enough about Central America. Could you recommend a few books I could read about U.S. policy toward Central America?”
Let me be clear: this never happens. A precious handful of members of Congress have become committed and energetic advocates of human rights in the Americas. But none ever even pretended to have the time to accept reading assignments from us.
Shocked, I couldn’t even come up with anything on the spot. As soon as I was back in the office, I dashed off the email whose text is copy-and-pasted below.
Not only did Congressman O’Rourke look at these recommendations: I know he invited at least one of the authors in for a couple of conversations.
Keep that in mind when you’re considering whom to vote for (if you’re in Texas), whom to volunteer for, and whom to donate money to in this crucially important election cycle. Beto is the real deal, it’s great to see his campaign has momentum, and I hope to call him “Senator O’Rourke” come January.
(Yes, I’m electioneering on this site. This site is unconnected to WOLA, my non-profit employer. I pay for it out of my own pocket, and I’m writing this in my free time, on a Saturday night. I’ll say “support Beto” as much as I want in this space.)
Here, if you’re interested, are the recommendations I sent over in 2014, pasted from my e-mail to his staff. Bonus: the Amazon links still work—
It’s so rare to hear a member of Congress actually ask for book suggestions, I had to follow up. Here are some of my favorites about Central America.
* Bill LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 http://amzn.to/1o9Fsxc
(Bonus: Bill LeoGrande is here in town at American University and is a smart and terrific guy. He worked in the 80s on the staff of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Central America.)
* Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America – http://amzn.to/1AvxGrx
* Lars Schoultz, Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America – http://amzn.to/UJ0E64
* Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala – http://amzn.to/1uEwxxq
* John A. Booth, Christine J. Wade, Thomas Walker, Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change – http://amzn.to/1pCqPnE
* (Not about US policy but a great read about Guatemala) Francisco Goldman, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? – https://amzn.to/2MTJZIl
Unfortunately we’re still waiting for a compelling book about the gang phenomenon in Central America and the link to US policy. The latest edition of “Understanding Central America” goes into it a bit. Thanks to you and Mr. O’Rourke for your energy and interest.