Following a close call off the coast of Central America in 1502, Christopher Columbus is reported to have exclaimed: “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras”—“Thank god we’ve gotten out of these depths.” The name Honduras, then, was perhaps inauspicious from the get-go. Now, more than half a millennium after the legendary Italian’s nautical escapades, Honduras’ entrance into full-blown bloodbath mode—characterized by massive homicide rates and ruthless state repression—means that many Hondurans are fleeing the terrifying “depths” for the United States. But the U.S., a faithful heir of the Columbian tradition of decimating overseas populations, happens to be responsible for helping to sink Honduras to such great lows in the first place.
The abusive relationship between the United States and Honduras was solidified in the 1980s, when the Central American nation was endearingly designated the “U.S.S. Honduras” on account of its role as a base for U.S.-backed Contra mercenaries attacking neighboring Nicaragua—a campaign that Noam Chomsky has referred to as “a large-scale terrorist war against Nicaragua, combined with economic warfare that was even more lethal.” Some 50,000 Nicaraguans perished.
The aim of the Contra war was, of course, to punish the Sandinistas for daring to suggest that life without U.S.-directed capitalism might be possible, especially in the United States’ self-declared backyard—and to serve as a warning to other countries not to stray from the path of righteousness. In 1986, Ronald Reagan broadcast his hallucination that Nicaragua—a mere “two hours’ flying time from our own borders”—had become a campsite for “Soviets, East Germans, Bulgarians, North Koreans, Cubans and terrorists from the P.L.O. and the Red Brigades,” while also enjoying the affections of Muammar Qaddafi and the Ayatollah Khomeini.
In contrast to Nicaragua, Honduras was a model territory. As Stephen Kinzer noted in the New York Times in 1988: “Behind the guise of formal democracy [in Honduras], military leaders make all important decisions, and they respond to direction from the United States Embassy [in Tegucigalpa]…one of the largest State Department outposts in the world…American diplomats exercise more control over domestic politics in Honduras than in any other country in the hemisphere.”
Inevitably, some Hondurans still got out of line, but they were handled by Battalion 316, the “CIA-trained military unit that terrorized Honduras for much of the 1980s”—as the Baltimore Sun recalls. Battalion 316 was responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of hundreds of people suspected of undesirable political orientation.
With the end of the Cold War, the U.S.S. Honduras got a bit of downtime, though the country remained a key outpost in the now-reigning global superpower’s international military network, playing host to U.S. personnel and armaments. The Stars and Stripes magazine boasts that Joint Task Force-Bravo, stationed at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, has since its establishment in 1983 remained the “face of America’s military presence in Central America.” Other contemporary North American presences in Honduras have included a flourishing sweatshop industry, an appropriate symbol of post-Cold War neoliberal conquest—not to mention the smorgasbord of gringo businesses and investors fully committed to exploiting hydro-electric dams, mining, palm oil, and other opportunities in everyone’s favorite banana republic.
Enter Manuel Zelaya, who assumed the presidency of Honduras in 2006 and proceeded to steer the Honduran ship a hair to the left, both raising the minimum wage for urban and rural areas and engaging in other behavior seen as heretical by the Honduran ruling class—like pursuing agrarian reform on behalf of peasant farmers, or, for example, actually bothering to ask impoverished communities how they felt about being forced to live smack in the middle of toxic corporate mining operations.
When Zelaya then chose to engage in friendly diplomatic relations with regional villains like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, it became all the more clear to the U.S. that the lessons of the Cold War had not been adequately learned by their client nations, and obviously Democracy Itself was again at stake. The red menace had to be nipped in the bud—and so, in the wee hours of the morning of June 28, 2009, Zelaya was democratically kidnapped from his bedroom by members of the Honduran military and carted off to Costa Rica in his pajamas, never to be restored to his elected post.
The official alibi of the golpistas (coupmongers) was that Zelaya had violated Honduras’ sacred constitutional article limiting presidents to a single term. This claim is a bit convoluted: Zelaya was already ineligible to run for a second term, and what he had actually proposed was a non-binding public opinion survey on the subject of whether or not to include an extra item on the 2009 ballot which would ask voters if they wanted to convene a constituent assembly in the future to rework the constitution. (The Honduran constitution dates from the era of—you guessed it—the U.S.S. Honduras.) As the golpistas and their American buddies spun it, this public opinion survey was concrete proof that Zelaya was scheming to install himself as dictator for life and subvert the very foundations of civilization. Funnily enough, the constitutional article in question has since been done away with—not by Zelaya, of course, but by the current ultra-rightist Honduran dictator Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), whose party took power after the 2009 coup.
The U.S. implicitly supported the 2009 regime change, but found it awkward to admit as much in public. Following some initial imperial slip-ups—like when Barack Obama actually called it a “coup”—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided that it was simply impossible to determine what mysterious event had just transpired in Honduras. If it had been a “military coup,” then the United States would have been required [under Section 508 of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act] to cut off aid to the new, corporate-friendly regime of Zelaya’s “interim” replacement Roberto Micheletti. (Micheletti was later hailed by the Honduran National Industrial Association as the “first national hero of the twenty-first century”—lest anyone persist in thinking that the evil Zelaya had been heroic to, you know, raise workers’ wages.) Meanwhile, Clinton’s old law school pal Lanny Davis was hired by the Latin American Business Council of Honduras to lobby in Washington on behalf of the coup-that-wasn’t, which hardly required much arm-twisting given the abundance of U.S. business interests in the region.
U.S. dithering over what to call the strange happenings in Honduras gave the coup regime time to consolidate its hold, with Clinton herself scurrying around “strategiz[ing] on a plan to restore order in [the country] and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.” This, at least, is how she put it in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, before the passage was mysteriously disappeared (like any number of Honduran dissidents) from the book’s paperback version.
Soon enough, the Honduran people were given the opportunity to “choose their own future”—never mind that the president they had already chosen had been spontaneously deposed and whisked out of the country. Elections that were by definition not free, fair, or legitimate—staged as they were amid a militarized crackdown by an illegal coup regime—produced the right-wing presidency of Porfirio Lobo, whose government wasted little time in adopting the slogan “Honduras Is Open for Business.” Socialist Armageddon had been averted.
As so often happens, repressive state security forces proved necessary to ensure that Armageddon remained at bay. American University professor and Honduras expert Dr. Adrienne Pine has argued that, just as the U.S.-trained Battalion 316 had previously “laid the groundwork for the implementation of U.S.-led neoliberal economic policies, of which the Honduran military itself was a primary beneficiary,” the postcoup neoliberal free-for-all has been facilitated by death squads within the Honduran military and police. In the surge of forced disappearances, torture, and assassinations, pretty much anyone opposed to the economic plunder of the country or with vaguely positive ideas about human rights and justice has been fair game. This has included not only members of the anti-coup resistance, but also lawyers, environmental defenders, teachers, campesinos, journalists, LGBTQ activists, and so on.
I myself spent four months in Honduras after the coup and was able to witness some of the more mundane forms of state brutality. In Tegucigalpa, daily anti-coup marches that were almost aggravatingly peaceful were regularly met with tear gas, water cannons loaded with a delightful pepper spray mixture, and more hands-on forms of physical deterrence involving “wooden batons, metal tubes, and chains to beat protestors,” as Human Rights Watch put it. In October 2009, I attended the burial of union leader Jairo Sánchez, shot in the face by police.
Although human lives are cheap, business is not, as the Honduran elite made very clear by losing their shit when a Popeye’s branch was briefly set on fire during the protests. The minimal cosmetic damage sustained by this piece of private property—certainly one of the great architectural highlights of the Tegucigalpa skyline, along with other homages to toxic imperial diets—was definitive proof of the violent orientation of the anti-coup crowd, who had no doubt been egged on in their destructive plots by Chávez, Castro, and Satan himself. When in November 2009 I landed a rare interview with Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the Honduran general who had spearheaded the coup, he complained that there was entirely “too much liberty” in Honduras, which had enabled coup opponents to run around “doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” like “insulting people” and “dirtying walls” with graffiti. The Honduran army, on the other hand, was composed of “very democratic soldiers” who were “not people who want to hurt anybody.” (Vásquez himself is an alumnus of the U.S.-run School of the Americas, longtime educational hub for Latin American dictators and death squad leaders.)
In a January 2012 New York Times op-ed titled “In Honduras, a Mess Made in the U.S.,” University of California scholar Dana Frank observed that, despite reports that more than 300 people had thus far been murdered since the coup by Honduras’ ostensible forces of law and order, the U.S. had still “maintained and in some areas increased military and police financing for Honduras [while] enlarging its military bases there.” Although this rapid militarization was allegedly intended to ensure stability and security, Honduras soon, coincidentally, entrenched itself as the murder capital of the world.
Now, as we mark the 10th anniversary of the coup against Zelaya, Honduras’ highly cherubic security forces continue to operate with near-total impunity and the loyal backing of the U.S. Two days after the 2017 elections that produced JOH’s (Juan Orlando Hernández’s) second presidential term, the U.S. State Department “certified,” according to a New York Times report, “that Honduras was meeting human rights conditions, strengthening transparency and cracking down on corruption”—a requirement for the release of yet more American aid. Never mind the transparently farcical nature of said elections or the state’s homicidal response to those contesting the results, as evidenced by headlines like: “Families fear no justice for victims as 31 die in Honduras post-election violence: US silent on alleged military police responsibility for deaths despite $114m aid to security forces, amid claims of ‘vote fraud’ by President Juan Orlando Hernández.”
In a recent email to me, Dana Frank provided a nutshell explanation of the United States’ insistence on legitimizing an “illegally imposed dictatorship” in Honduras:
Escalating repression of the opposition by Honduran security forces serves, in part, to silence those who challenge the U.S. military presence in Honduras and the region, who challenge illegal mining and dam projects that serve transnational corporate interests, who defend labor rights, and who seek to build a future in which Honduras is sovereign and independent of U.S. domination.
In 2017, Honduras was declared the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activism by the NGO Global Witness, which emphasized: “Nowhere are you more likely to be killed for standing up to companies that grab land and trash the environment than in Honduras.” Among the most high-profile assassinations was that of environmentalist and indigenous rights campaigner Berta Cáceres in 2016. According to a former Honduran soldier interviewed by the Guardian, Cáceres’s name had appeared on a military hit-list given to U.S.-trained Honduran special forces units.
And while the U.S. likes to justify its gobs of aid to Honduras by promoting the small nation as an invaluable ally in the ever-noble and effective war on drugs, this logic quickly self-combusts. The recent list of Hondurans busted by the U.S. for drug trafficking includes both current president JOH’s brother and former president Porfirio Lobo’s son, and JOH himself has been the subject of a DEA investigation. The U.S. itself has never been too interested in stemming the flow of drugs; as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz remarks in her memoir Blood on the Border, the top Honduran drug lord in the Contra era, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, ran an airline company that was so frequently utilized by the CIA it became known as the “CIA airline.” The postcoup drug war alibi was also not enormously helped by a 2011 Wikileaks cable revealing U.S. knowledge of hardcore narco-trafficking activity on plantations belonging to (now deceased) Honduran biofuels magnate Miguel Facussé, then the country’s largest landowner. His war on peasant farmers who sought to reclaim their stolen lands was funded by—what else?—U.S. aid. The ousted president Zelaya had promised these farmers and others assistance in recuperating their land rights, which was surely totally unrelated to Facussé’s relentless PR work in support of the coup.
Now, you might be thinking: Sure, the Honduran ruling class may be a nasty lot—and the United States may be perennially up to no good in Latin America—but are these really Honduras’ biggest problems? Why not talk about Honduras’ legendarily brutal gang violence, its epidemic of violence against women, and all the other factors contributing to its sky-high murder rates? But it’s impossible to understand these other violent phenomena without placing them in the context of the decades of economic plunder, of the exploitation and manipulation of the Honduran people by military and economic elites in Honduras and the United States. Neoliberal policies are predicated on the obliteration of interhuman bonds, support networks, and dignity in general—the calculated sacrifice of the wellbeing of the masses in favor of the prosperity of a tyrannical few. When the state declares war on its public, phenomena like gangs are bound to arise—and, in turn, give the state even broader license for violence. In her assessment of Honduras in 2002, UN Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir documented the frequent extrajudicial executions of children by Honduran security forces: “Every child with a tattoo and street child is stigmatized as a criminal who is creating an unfriendly climate for investment and tourism in the country.”
As for the escalating femicide rate in the postcoup epoch, every individual aspect of violence against women obviously can’t be blamed on the state—but the pervasive impunity for such crimes certainly can. An April 2019 essay by Sonia Nazario titled “Someone Is Always Trying to Kill You” cites a study from the previous year indicating that, in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, “more than 96 percent of women’s murders go unpunished.” Meanwhile, officials working for the very agency tasked with investigating women’s deaths have been implicated in female murders. Nazario traces the culture of machismo “back to colonial times”—hi, Columbus!—and notes some past and present U.S. contributions to the lethal milieu: “Thanks to the contra war, when the United States secretly funded right-wing militia groups in Central America, there are an estimated 1.8 million guns in Honduras.” To be sure, being simultaneously female and a human rights and environmental activist—like Cáceres, for example—is a particularly deadly business in Honduras. Luckily for the powers that be, Hondurans are often so busy trying to keep themselves alive that they don’t have the time or energy to expend challenging the system.
It’s no wonder, then, that, as Honduras descends ever deeper into violence and economic despair, a whole lot of people have been attempting to extricate themselves from the brutality. Hence the U.S.-bound migrant caravans, the first of which departed from San Pedro Sula in 2018. Since the logic of empire criminalizes human movement in some directions but not others, the U.S. border has played host to new forms of brutality, resulting in headlines such as: “Split from his family at border, Honduran asylum seeker hangs himself in Texas jail.” Despite their pitiless reception by the U.S., things back home are sufficiently dire that approximately a whole 1 percent of the population of Honduras is expected to migrate in 2019.
As a gringa, I’ve been able to come and go from Honduras as I please without having to contend with border walls or sadistic immigration and law enforcement officials—clearly an obscene privilege. Over the course of my time in the country following the coup, I did get to experience a couple of minor personal security situations, usually when I encountered persons wishing to relieve me of my valuables in exchange for not killing me. During one episode in Tegucigalpa, the most prized possession I could muster was a battered blue alarm clock that I used for jogging purposes, which was kindly handed back to me. Another time, my would-be assailant concluded that, in lieu of subsidizing his aguardiente habit with all the money I had sworn I would extract via a nonexistent ATM card, I could simply adopt his small child. Fortunately, this stipulation, too, was ultimately rescinded.
A somewhat more disconcerting encounter took place in the northern Honduran coastal city of Trujillo, when I awoke from tequila-fueled slumber one night to find that a man had materialized in my room and was contemplating the machete-type instrument on the table, which I had been using to slice avocados. I produced some demonic screams and fled into the hallway in my underwear. He dived back out the window. The event did not even register on the scale of Scary Things That Happen in Honduras—like, say, women being skinned alive—yet it still kept me from sleeping for a decade or so.
Trujillo, incidentally, is where Columbus touched down in 1502, although it bears plenty of more recent imperial footprints. A 2018 post at CentralAmerica.com by a Canadian part-time resident of the town mentions that “there’s also a small airstrip for charters [sic] flights, built by Oliver North during the Contra War,” and that Dole fruit trucks are “the main cause of all the potholes” in this section of the “the original ‘Banana Republic.’” Enthusing about investment opportunities, gated communities, and other attractions for North Americans with freedom of hemispheric movement, the Canadian attributes much of Trujillo’s progress to entrepreneur Randy Jorgensen, the force behind a cruise ship port and similar indicators of “growth.”
This is the same Jorgensen who, the Toronto Star reminds us, has long been known as “Canada’s porn king,” and is accused along with other foreigners of illegally amassing land belonging to Honduras’ indigenous Garifuna community. Jorgensen’s own exploits were presumably facilitated by his friendship with the brother of Porfirio Lobo, the illegitimate postcoup president who conveniently reversed Zelaya’s land reform projects.
Trujillo was also proposed as a launchpad for the charter city scheme, brainchild of U.S. economist Paul Romer, who decided some years ago that it would be cool to set up a bunch of privatized city-states governed by investors and not beholden to domestic laws. After all, who said colonialism was outdated? The Honduran constitution, only sacred when Zelaya tried to touch it, was thus altered to allow for the creation of special development zones (ZEDEs, in the Spanish acronym). The prospect of free-market tyranny triggered a near-orgasm in the Wall Street Journal’s resident right-wing sociopath Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who found charter cities to be a most logical next step for the “little country that stood up to the world to defend its democracy” by overthrowing its elected president in an illegal coup.
American anthropologist Beth Geglia, who researches the ZEDEs, told me that, when the current version of the ZEDE law was passed in 2013, the resulting Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices was “at its inception… dominated by U.S. citizens, many of whom had played important roles in the execution of Ronald Reagan’s counter-insurgency policies in Central America in the 1980s.” While no ZEDE has as of yet been born, “plans move forward behind closed doors,” and, Geglia says, could portend “large-scale land grabbing or speculation-fueled land conflicts.”
Now, as we observe the 10th anniversary of the coup, Honduras is once again rocked by protests against JOH—and specifically what is seen as his attempt to privatize the Honduran health and education sectors in accordance with the U.S.-backed prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund. Once again, Honduran military and police have used lethal force against protestors. Once again, the U.S. is entirely complicit.
At the same time, Honduras’ service as a pillar of the regional neoliberal order seems to have been somewhat lost on the imperial captain himself: Donald Trump has emitted much noise about cutting off humanitarian aid to this and other “Mexican countries” for their perceived laziness in halting northward migration. But when Trump’s opponents cry out that Honduras needs more security aid, they fail to realize—or simply don’t care, or worse—that pouring more money into the coffers of Honduras’ state security apparatus will only exacerbate the political and economic crisis Hondurans are fleeing in the first place. And these days, even “humanitarian” aid can be military aid in disguise: As Dana Frank emphasized to me, U.S. donations to the Honduran police and military are often “embedded in what look like ‘benevolent’ projects, such as anti-gang projects,” that nonetheless “continue to fund murderous behavior by the agents of the state.”
So, despite Trump’s sensational huffing and puffing over Honduras’ alleged migration-related transgressions, the arrangement of imperial servitude continues full steam ahead. With the U.S.S. Honduras in business as ever—and the U.S. still making a killing off of Honduran misery—it remains to be seen if a Columbus-like exclamation of relief will ever be forthcoming, or if Honduras is simply in too deep.
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