Last week Josh Marshall offered the thought-provoking suggestion that a better way to think about the U.S. murder rate (5 per 100,000 according to World Bank data) is to situate our country within the rest of the nations of the Americas, rather than comparing it to Europe's lower rate which is closer to 1. He goes on to finger the Americas' "original sin": the coerced labor and slavery systems that colonizing Europeans imposed to extract quick fortunes.
As Marshall says, all of this is a thought experiment carried on at an extremely general level, not a proof. His suggestion is intuitively plausible, although I think also of the force and violence which drove dispossessed poor people in the United Kingdom to labor in 19th century mines and mills. Also interestingly, the murder rate in long-colonized and exploited Ireland is no higher than that in the rest of Europe.
The northern Caribbean "murder zone" does stand out. Honduras (92),Guatemala (35), Jamaica (39), Puerto Rico (26), Mexico (22) ...
I responded to reading Marshall by wondering about that other semi-Caribbean country: Nicaragua. It's murder rate is 11, twice that of the U.S., but less than half of many of its neighbors. And this is despite being the poorest country on the South American mainland. Why is Nicaragua different?
People in the United States who have any awareness of Nicaragua at all (and are not themselves Central American immigrants) probably think of it as that place which suffered a bloody civil war during the Reagan administration. From 1979 through 1990, U.S.-backed proxy forces fought the Sandinistas, a popular nationalist government with socialist aspirations. Before 1979, the country was ruled by a kleptocratic dictator who treated rural people as disposable labor on his private preserve, a regime very much in Marshall's category of "forced labor and violence". Nicaraguans rose up, threw the guy out, and, despite the war, have lived under elected governments of varying honesty and political cast ever since.
Apparently today Nicaragua is one of the more peaceful nations in the region. Different sources suggest different reasons for the country's current relative good peacefulness.
A Hemisphere Focus paper from the Center for International and Strategic Studies emphasizes that Nicaragua is neither a source or a consumer of the region's valuable and vicious drug trade.
In the Christian Science Monitor, Hannah Stone focuses on Nicaragua's good fortune in having a different migration history in the 80s than its neighbors. Since the U.S. treated Nicaragua as an enemy state, the northern colossus was not where people fleeing violence sought refuge.
Many observers express concern that drug dealing might yet infect this Central American oasis.
The Economist offers the most radical explanation for Nicaragua's low murder rate. This organ of free market orthodoxy credits Nicaragua's popular revolution for implanting a viable system of law and some justice.
Maybe the experience of struggling for liberation -- for autonomy and justice -- implants a positive corrective within societies born in violence, even if the forces of popular liberation encounter setbacks. That seems worth musing on even within our own American nation.
In looking up murder rates, I also noticed that Cuba, another Caribbean former slave state, has a rate of 5 per 100,000, the same as that of the United States.