Why Honduran migrants are fleeing their country
Most of this post is an edited version of yesterday’s interview by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and Juan González with Professor Dana Frank, who’s just published a book calledThe Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. But before I get to the interview, I want to give you a few facts about Honduras from Wikipedia: “Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate and high levels of sexual violence…
In the late 19th century, it granted land and substantial exemptions to several U.S.-based fruit companies, which built an enclave economy in northern Honduras, controlling infrastructure and creating self-sufficient, tax-exempt sectors that contributed relatively little to economic growth. American troops landed in Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925. [Repression in aid of corporate interests?] In 1904, the writer O. Henry coined the term ‘banana republic’ to describe Honduras. According to a literary analyst writing for The Economist, ‘his phrase refers to the fruit companies from the United States that came to exert extraordinary influence over the politics of Honduras and its neighbors.’
During the early 1980s, the United States established a continuing military presence in Honduras to support the Contra guerrillas fighting the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua [can’t let any government devoted to meeting the needs of the people survive in “our” backyard]. Though spared the bloody civil wars wracking its neighbors, the Honduran army quietly waged campaigns against Marxist–Leninist militias such as the Cinchoneros Popular Liberation Movement, and against many non-militants as well. The operation included a CIA-backed campaign of extrajudicial killings by government-backed units [“death squads”].
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch destroyed 70% of the country’s crops and 70–80% of the transportation infrastructure, including nearly all bridges and secondary roads. Across Honduras 33,000 houses were destroyed, and an additional 50,000 damaged. Some 5,000 people killed, and 12,000 more injured. Total losses were estimated at $3 billion.
In 2007, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and George W. Bush began talks on U.S. assistance to Honduras to tackle the latter’s growing drug cartels, using U.S. Special Forces. This marked the beginning of a new foothold for the U.S. military’s continued presence in Central America.
In 2008, Honduras suffered severe floods, which damaged or destroyed around half of the roads.
In 2009, a constitutional crisis resulted when the head of the Honduran Congress took power from Zelaya, the democratically elected president. The Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Honduras because it didn’t feel its government was legitimate, but the U.S. supported the coup, condemned as such by countries around the world and the United Nations.
The U.S. maintains a small military presence at one Honduran base. The two countries conduct [rather unsuccessful] counter-narcotics and other exercises.
The United States is Honduras’ chief trading partner, with coffee and bananas as the main imports.
The nation’s per capita income sits at around $600, making it one of the lowest in the Americas. In 2010, 50% of the population were living below the poverty line, and this had increased to 66% by 2016. Estimates put unemployment at about 27.9%, which is more than 1.2 million Hondurans. Following the 2009 coup, trends of decreasing poverty and extreme poverty were reversed. The nation saw a poverty increase of 13.2% and an extreme poverty increase of 26.3% in just 3 years. Unemployment also increased dramatically. Levels of income inequality in Honduras are higher than in any other Latin American country. Unlike other Latin American countries, inequality steadily increased in Honduras between 1991 and 2005. Poverty is concentrated in southern, eastern, and western regions where rural and indigenous peoples live.
Sexual violence against women has caused many to migrate to the U.S. Femicide is widespread in Honduras. In 2014, 40% of unaccompanied refugee minors were female. Gangs are largely responsible for sexual violence against women as they often use sexual violence. Between 2005 and 2013 according to the UN Special Repporteur on Violence Against Women, violent deaths increased 263.4%. Impunity for sexual violence and femicide crimes was 95% in 2014. Additionally, many girls are forced into human trafficking and prostitution.
Official statistics from the Honduran Observatory on National Violence show that Honduras’ homicide rate was 60 per 100,000 in 2015, with the majority of homicide cases unprosecuted. Highway assaults and carjackings at roadblocks or checkpoints set up by criminals with police uniforms and equipment [police moonlighting?] occur frequently. Although reports of kidnappings of foreigners are not common, families of kidnapping victims often pay ransoms without reporting the crime to police out of fear of retribution, so kidnapping figures may be underreported.”
Dana Frank on how a U.S.-backed Coup in Honduras fueled the migrant crisis, Democracy Now!, 11-29-18
AMY GOODMAN: As the United States continues to face criticism for tear-gassing asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border, we look at the crisis in Honduras and why so many Hondurans are fleeing their homeland. Honduras has become one of the most violent countries in the world because of its devastating drug war and a political crisis that stems in part from a U.S.-backed coup in 2009. We speak with Dana Frank, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book is The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could talk about the night of terror that’s descended on Honduras, especially following the 2009 coup against President Zelaya?
DANA FRANK: When you read the interviews or the mainstream news reports about why the migrants in the caravan are fleeing, they say they’re “fleeing gangs and violence and poverty.” True, but what’s missing from that narrative is where the gangs, violence, and poverty come from. It’s not a natural disaster, but the result of the deliberate policies of the governments that came to power in the aftermath of the coup, most recently the illegal government of Juan Orlando Hernández.
The violence and the gang terror come from the almost complete destruction of the rule of law. The coup, itself a criminal act, opened the door for every kind of conceivable criminal activity. Gangs and drug trafficking proliferated, infiltrating throughout the police and military. The government itself is implicated in the gangs and that people are fleeing. So it’s not just random violence – it’s a U.S.-backed regime that’s in cahoots with it. A lot of people are fleeing gangs because their small businesses are being destroyed by gang taxes. And the police cooperate with the gangs in extracting these taxes.
The second factor here is poverty, because people are very much fleeing poverty, but their poverty again is the direct result of post-coup policies. First of all, the state itself has been destroyed by the neoliberal policies of multilateral development banks like the International Monetary Fund. State services have also been destroyed because the elites that run the government are robbing it blind. For example, the president and his party stole as many as $90 million from the health service in 2013 to pay for their campaigns, and now the national health service doesn’t function. The sectors of the economy that are supposed to be the growth sectors are also destroying livelihoods. For example, palm oil production is being imposed at the point of a gun, with campesinos trying to defend other forms of agriculture being killed. Extractive mining projects and hydroelectric dams are forcing indigenous peoples off their land, and that’s why Berta Cáceres, the environmental activist leader, was killed in 2016. Tourism is forcing the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people off their land at the point of a gun. The only other functional sectors are agriculture and the maquiladora sector, which is apparel and electronics factories for the export market. And those are very, very destructive of people’s bodies under really repressive working conditions. So, when we hear about economic development in Honduras, it’s actually accelerating this destruction, along with the gang activity that’s destroying small businesses.
Those who are trying to have an alternative economic future for Honduras through Libre, the opposition party, through social movements at the base, are the people getting tear-gassed just like at the U.S. border. These are the people that are getting assassinated. The journalists that report on this alternative vision and the people who would like some kind of democratic alternative are being repressed.
JG: I wanted to ask you about the repression in the countryside, because I thought that was some of the most graphic material that you have in your book about the escalation of the repression in 2011 after Manuel Zelaya came back as a result of a brokered agreement. In places like the Aguán Valley, the campesinos were subjected to mass repression.
DF: Some of that is because the campesinos, who had these collectives that had been in place for a long time and were being forced off their land, started re-occupying land that they’d been forced off of by neoliberal policies pushed by members of the elite, especially Miguel Facussé and his Dinant corporation. They were killed off one by one, two by two, in what we could call a slow-moving massacre. As many as 150 campesinoshave been assassinated in the Aguán Valley since 2010.
AG: I want to go back to 2009 when there was a coup in Honduras and the democratically elected leader, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, spoke on Democracy Now! about what happened to him.
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] They attacked my house at 5:30 in the morning. A group of at least 200 to 250 armed soldiers with hoods and bulletproof vests and rifles aimed their guns at me, fired shots, used machine guns, kicked down the doors. And just as I was, in pajamas, they put me on a plane and flew me to Costa Rica. This all happened in less than 45 minutes.
AG: That was Manuel Zelaya. Democracy Now! followed him back to Honduras after the brokered agreement – we flew on the plane with him from Nicaragua to Honduras. But then a new regime was put in place, the coup regime of Porfirio Lobo, whose son has now been sentenced to well over 20 years in prison for drug trafficking. Juan, when you interviewed Hillary Clinton when she was running for president, you asked her about her support, U.S. support for the coup when she was Secretary of State. Dana, can you talk about the extent of this support and why you see it linked to what we’re seeing with the migrants today? As you say, these are refugees from U.S. policy.
DF: Well, we don’t have a smoking gun that shows the U.S. backed the coup from before it happened, but all of the evidence is very clear that it wanted the coup to stabilize after it took place, that it recognized the bogus election of November 2009 that brought Porfirio Lobo to power, and that it’s continued to recognize the leaders of the ongoing coup regime, especially Juan Orlando Hernández, even though he has probably stole an election in 2013. He also ran for president last year in violation of the Honduran constitution, which bans reelection, and stole it from the united opposition which very clearly won. So it’s not just a question of the U.S. supporting the 2009 coup itself. It could have recognized Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife, when she won the election in 2013. It could have protested when Juan Orlando Hernández overthrew the Supreme Court in 2012 when he was president of Congress. It could have protested when he ran for reelection. And of course, it could have called for a new election last winter, or recognized the real winner. The U.S. has given this post-coup regime green light after green light after green light. It’s an ongoing policy.
AG: Now we have a situation where thousands of Hondurans are fleeing to the U.S. border. Your response to the tear-gassing of the migrants? And also Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, not the government of Peña Nieto but the government of AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, saying that they’ll allow the migrants to wait on Mexican soil, but that in return, the U.S. government should pay at least $20 billion for Marshall Plan-style programming to develop the economies of Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
DF: Obviously the use of the tear gas fired into a foreign country against people exercising their legal rights is terrifying, as is the presence of the U.S. military at the border in violation of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. This militarized response to the refugees is morally disturbing, to say the least. Since 2014, the U.S.-funded and trained Honduran military has also actively stopped people from leaving their country. And the same tear gas, which is often manufactured in the United States, has been used against peaceful protesters and bystanders in Honduras for years. It was used last week against protests on the anniversary of the stolen election.
As far as the $20 billion Marshall Plan goes, people might remember that after the so-called crisis on unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. in 2014, the Obama administration’s response was something called the Biden Plan, promoted by Vice President Joe Biden, that wanted to give $1 billion to the governments of the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in order to stop migration and address root causes. And if you look at that, $750 million of which was eventually funded by Congress, it’s pouring precisely into the same security forces and sectors of the economy that are causing the very repression, the very destruction of the economy that people are fleeing.
Of course we’re all watching to see what López Obrador is going to do in Mexico, and of course the Honduran economy needs to be rebuilt, but not according to a model run by the current U.S. government and the repressive regime of Juan Orlando Hernández and the Honduran elites. That’s what’s so terrifying here – pouring money into the same model, when you’re just handing money over to the elites to steal and use it to terrorize their people over and over again at higher and higher levels. [That’s what it’s all about: elite control, preferably white and male, everywhere.]
JG: Dana, one of the most interesting parts of your book is your portrayal of the enormous and widespread popular movement that developed after the coup against Zelaya. You say that back in the 1980s, Honduras was a relatively quiet place, while El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala were all embroiled in major civil conflicts – uprisings and government repression. But I remember being in Honduras in 1990, and it was then a terrorized state – there were military all over the place – but there wasn’t the kind of popular movement that somehow developed after the coup against Zelaya. Could you talk about that?
DF: There was an active left in Honduras in the ’80’s, but on a much smaller scale than in the other countries, and tremendously repressed by some of the figures that are popping up again since the coup. The Honduran resistance was and still is a tremendously beautiful thing that was a great surprise, though in retrospect, you could see the social movements that were building at the grassroots in the women’s movement, the campesino movement, the indigenous movement, the Afro-Indigenous movement, and human rights defenders.
When the coup happened, people poured into the streets and formed this tremendous coalition called the National Front of Popular Resistance, known as the Frente or the Resistencia, which was an amazing coalition, not just of the folks I just named but of the labor movement, the LGBT movement, and people committed to the constitutional rule of law. It wasn’t about so-called Zelaya supporters as it was often framed, but people who were committed to a positive transformation of Honduras. That resistance was a beautiful thing, and in the first chapter of my book, I wanted the reader to feel the joy of it — the terror and the joy, the creativity, the music, the humor, the bravery, the graffiti, and the way it changed Honduran culture and made people proud of their resistance and helped them discover ties across different social movements in a massive coalition of the kind that we fantasize about in the United States today. Unfortunately, that resistance has been repressed over and over again, and a lot of its key figures are now in exile. People have been killed, and journalists that covered it have been killed or are in exile. It’s been terrifying to watch that repression, but Hondurans have it in their hearts that they know what they can do and they can feel a beautiful sense of solidarity.