Our new issue is out now. Print subscriptions are $10 off if you follow this link.

The Honduran Nightmare

Among the migrants amassed at the southern border are thousands of victims of the 2009 Honduran coup — a coup legitimized and shored up by the United States.

People hold Honduran flags at the border fence during a rally with members of a caravan of Central American asylum seekers and supporters on April 29, 2018 in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico. David McNew / Getty

Nearly ten years after a military coup d’état ousted a democratically elected Honduran president, thousands of Honduran families gather at the US-Mexico border. They will likely mark that somber anniversary a few months from now in the improvised shelters and tent cities where they currently wait to present their asylum claims to US immigration authorities.

In her new book, The Long Honduran Night, UCSC Professor Emerita Dana Frank describes the crisis that has gripped the Central American nation in the wake of the 2009 coup, and offers a fierce indictment of US policy in Honduras. The timely publication brings much-needed political context to a US audience, an antidote to the vacuous partisan posturing that dominates the current media discourse. (For Spanish speakers, I highly recommend the new volume on Honduras from CLACSO.)

The book follows the US role in sustaining the post-coup regime and the struggles of the grassroots Honduran resistance, centering Frank’s own story of engagement and militancy. Rejecting the authoritative, formal tone of academic literature, her narrative takes us back and forth from humid Honduran union halls and tense highway blockades to DC hotel rooms and the halls of Congress. What emerges is an account of the personal relationships and convictions that fuel movements, punctuated by glimpses into the machinations of US imperial power in Central America.

The Coup

Honduras, the original “banana republic,” has been economically dependent upon and politically subordinate to the United States since the dawn of the twentieth century. In addition to providing the US a steady supply of primary materials and low-wage labor, the country has functioned for decades as a giant US military base, serving as the staging ground for the 1954 US-backed coup in Guatemala and the Contra War against Sandinista Nicaragua throughout the 1980s.

Despite suffering from the same widespread poverty and oligarchic rule that characterized the rest of the region, Honduras’s anticommunist welfare state and modest mid-century agrarian reform helped stave off the insurrections that wracked neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua — a lesson that contemporary elites refused to learn.

Certainly, Honduras was no paradise before the coup. A two-party system guaranteed that power remained in the hands of landed elites, who viewed the state as a source of personal enrichment and, increasingly, a vehicle for transnational capital. The US-backed neoliberal offensive launched in the 1990s escalated in the 2000s, and, coupled with repressive anti-gang policing, set the stage for the militarized libertarian free-for-all of the post-coup regime.

At the same time, vibrant social movements organized to resist these policies, creating the infrastructure that would form the backbone of the post-coup resistance. These movements would be supported by new transnational solidarity networks that, in turn, relied on the wisdom and groundwork of the Central American Solidarity Movement of the 1980s.

As new governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil were moving to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, elected in 2006 on the mainstream Liberal Party ticket, began moving left as well. Despite emerging from the traditional political elite, Zelaya took increasingly independent, progressive decisions. He brought Honduras into the Petrocaribe and ALBA regional trade agreements, began negotiating the restoration of land rights to rural communities, and called for a constitutional convention, shifting the country away from the US sphere of influence and towards more structural, redistributive reforms.

Local elites balked. After whipping up a media frenzy falsely accusing Zelaya of seeking to overturn the Honduran constitution’s prohibition on re-election, the Supreme Court and Congress moved swiftly to endorse his illegal ouster. At dawn on June 28th, 2009, the military surrounded Zelaya’s home and, with the president still in his pajamas, flew him at gunpoint to Costa Rica.

“Honduras was a first domino which the United States pushed over to counteract the new governments in Latin America,” writes Frank. “Zelaya was the weakest of the new center-left and left leaders; he lacked an independent party and a popular base.” Soon, parliamentary and judicial coups would become a mainstay of the right-wing counter-offensive in the region. At the time, however, it seemed that Honduras had been thrust back into the 1980s.

Reason suggests that the US military signed off on the action, if indeed it did not participate in its planning. The plane that flew Zelaya out of the country stopped to refuel at a joint US-Honduran military base, and four of the six top generals who oversaw the Zelaya’s ouster were trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. But while, as Frank admits, no “smoking gun” exists to implicate the United States in a pre-coup conspiracy, the Obama administration’s subsequent effort to legitimize and sustain the post-coup regime was public enough.

The United States was among the few nations to endorse the November 2009 sham elections that brought Porfirio Lobo, of the conservative National Party, to power. Following the democratic charade, the Obama administration used its influence in international financial institutions to ensure that the flow of loans was restored to Honduras. Frank quotes then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admonishing the Latin American nations opposed to the re-admission of Honduras to the Organization of American States (OAS): “We share the condemnation of the coup that occurred, but we think it is time to move forward and ensure that disruptions of democracy do not and cannot happen in the future.”

But of course, the illegal ouster of Honduras’ sitting elected president was not perpetrated for the sole sake of US geopolitical interests. As Frank puts it, the coup and the repression that sustained the subsequent illegitimate regime

was about taking over the Honduran state in order to implement an economic agenda in service to the Honduran oligarchy and to transnational corporations. Their economic project was designed to suck money out of those very same teachers, factory and plantation workers, and land rights defenders that were pouring into the streets, and to direct those funds into the pocket of elites.

Once power was firmly back in the hands of the ruling class, the regime set about advancing liberalizing, extractivist reforms to discipline labor and auction off remaining public goods and natural resources to the highest bidder. These projects included the looting of teachers’ pension funds, violent peasant land evictions, and the infamous Charter Cities project, pioneered by US economist and recent Nobel Prize–winner Paul Romer. The initiative pioneers privatized cities and liberated territory for capital. Frank calls the project “neoliberals’ wildest fantasy come down to earth.” “In the Honduran context,” she notes, “it flowed out of a long history of economic enclaves controlled by transnational corporations,” from United Fruit and Standard Fruit to maquiladora export processing zones. In 2010, the government eagerly announced that “Honduras is open for business.”

Resistance

In the coup’s immediate aftermath, mass protests forged unprecedented coalitions among labor, feminist, LGBTQ, indigenous, student, and afro-Honduran organizations. Frank is keen to dispel the common media portrayal of the Honduran resistance as “Zelaya supporters.” Rather, Honduran social movements mobilized with unprecedented militancy to counter the militarized usurpation of their hard-fought lands, services, and institutions. They were met with brutal repression.

Honduras’s Lower Aguán Valley emerged as a site of militant struggle and carnage. The appropriation of peasant land for African palm plantations in the 1990s provoked devastating results for the rural economies and ecologies. When the coup hit, thousands of peasants were in the process of securing titles to the land their communities occupied, as existing legislation provided. The new regime cut off dialogue and launched a campaign of evictions.

In response to campesino occupations and highway blockades, oligarchic landowners like Miguel Facusé, the Dinant Corporation’s African palm baron, “hunted campesinos like animals up and down the roads, rivers, and pathways of the valley.” It is worth mentioning, as Frank does, that Dinant’s Miguel Facussé has long been known by the US embassy to be implicated in cocaine trafficking:

Precisely as US funding for the Honduran military and police escalated under the pretext of fighting the drug war, then, US-supported troops were conducting joint operations with the security guards of someone the United Sates knew was a drug trafficker, in order to violently repress a campesino movement on behalf of his illegal claims to vast swaths of the Aguán Valley.

This, I believe, is what Dawn Paley means by “drug war capitalism.”

Frank writes that from January 2010 and November 2011, “at least sixty-one campesino activists, their family members, and their allies were killed, one by one, two by two, in a slow-moving massacre that turned the beautiful rolling farmlands of the Lower Aguán Valley into a twisted plantation of terror and death.” By 2017, the toll had topped 150.

Frank also recounts the deep roots of Honduran teachers’ labor militancy, which placed them on the frontlines of the counter-coup protests. They marched and frequently struck to demand the restoration of their pensions and back pay. In 2011, they launched massive strikes against a law enacted to privatize public schools. Police repression left several dead, including fifty-nine-year-old teacher Ilse Ivana Velásquez Rodríguez.

These social movements rapidly converged into the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), which comprised a broad ideological spectrum, from radical grassroots social movements to professional guilds and middle-class, Liberal Party loyalists. Their actions were supported by prominent independent human rights and press organizations.

The FNRP’s urban mass protest tactic sought to “disrupt business as usual, thwarting the normalization of the post-coup regime and challenging its ability to rule, while conveying concrete demands.” These demands included upholding the call for a constitutional convention that cost Zelaya his presidency, with the goal of fundamentally remaking the state in the service of the dispossessed majority.

Like their comrades in the countryside, they were met with lethal violence. Frank highlights cases like that of Isis Obed, killed by snipers as protesters rallied at the airport for Zelaya’s failed return attempt on September 21, 2009, or Irma Villanueva, abducted from a protest and gang raped by police first in August 2009, then again in February 2010. The October 22, 2011 police executions of twenty-two-year old Alejandro Rafael Vargas, son of the dean of the National Autonomous University, and his friend Carlos David Pineda Rodríguez, caused a national scandal, only to be followed by the December 7 assassination of Alfredo Landaverde, an outspoken police commissioner denouncing police ties to organized crime. LGBTQ and resistance activist and journalist Erick Martínez was murdered in May 2012. The litany goes on, and on, and on.

Empire

Even as the body count piled up, US military and police aid to Honduras in the form of cash, arms, and training actually increased following the coup. Frank reports that from 2010–12, the United States increased military and police aid to Honduras by nearly 50 percent, and raised funding under the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) by 33 percent, plus an additional $45 million for expanding the jointly operated Soto Cano Air Force Base and establishing three additional US bases.

Honduras’s homicide rate soon approached the highest in the world, but the Obama administration obstinately defended the regime. The United States

sought to adeptly reframe the police corruption scandal, the murder rate statistics, and alarm over human rights abuses by US-funded security forces, all within the rubric of the drug war: police killings were subsumed under a generic ‘security crisis,’ and the ‘security crisis’ was in turn the result of drug trafficking. Therefore, the United States needed to continue, even increase, security assistance to Honduras, rather than suspend it.

It’s a familiar refrain. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration argued that without sustained US support to the anticommunist Central American dictatorships methodically massacring their own people, the human rights situation would only worsen. Today, the war on drugs has replaced the war on communists, but the displacement, exploitation, and repression continues apace.

The US media had largely ignored the crisis in Honduras, quick to parrot the State Department’s reassurances that democracy — or at least stability — had been restored. Nevertheless, following a series of high-profile police assassinations, as well as the horrific February 14, 2012 prison fire in which 359 incarcerated people were incinerated as a result of police negligence and malice, voices of prominent Honduran leaders calling for an end to US security aid began to penetrate the US Congress, channeled by a growing grassroots solidarity community.

Frank recounts the formalization of the Honduras Solidarity Network, comprised of longtime grassroots solidarity groups, faith and human rights advocacy organizations, and individual activists. With the goal of severing US support for the Honduran regime, they dedicated themselves to a familiar set of tactics forged in the 1980s: congressional campaigns, media outreach, action alerts, speaking tours, human rights accompaniment, and delegations to Honduras. “A hive of invisible labor made possible every statement, every letter to the secretary of state, every human rights condition placed on aid,” she writes.

Initially confining herself to op-eds, articles, and interviews, Frank soon finds herself in Washington, DC. Some of her finest writing and most piercing critique comes in her revealing account of the bizarre beltway culture that mystifies and perpetuates US empire.

Frank describes her descent into the legislative labyrinth, with its highly specialized jargon and ritualized codes of conduct: “I was taught not to speak of ‘power’ but instead of the ‘ability to get things done.’” She recalls her disgust as she and her colleagues are forced to display feudal subservience to elected representatives, “as if they were gods come down to earth, in so doing perpetuating a culture of hierarchy and deference that should have no place in a democratic society.”

She is disturbed to learn that “much of the foreign policy of the United States Congress is developed by twenty-six-year olds who, however well-trained or well-meaning, is each responsible for US relations with the entire world,” or that some of the aides are actually State Department employees, “fellows” provided to key offices in a flagrant violation of the separation of powers. “I could feel the cold currents of money flowing all round me,” she writes, while observing the corrupting creep of proximity to power: “I bowed and scraped before the senators and members just like everyone else; I name-dropped, eavesdropped, calculated, connived. [. . .] I loved the battle a little too much.”

Frustrated, Frank discovers that the concrete policy impact of hard-fought congressional letters and declarations are difficult to track. Even when these efforts finally achieved modest human rights conditions on US security aid in 2012, funding surged in from other sources: “For every dollar held up by Congress […] perhaps five other dollars flowed in from international financial institutions controlled by the Obama administration” such as the Inter-American Development Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

It wasn’t until the March 2, 2016 assassination of indigenous Lenca activist and resistance leader Berta Cáceres that the tide appeared to turn. But even as the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act gained force, the legislation was stalled by centrist Democrats and NGOs who toed the State Department line and used progressive platitudes to undermine the grassroots solidarity movement’s radical objectives.

When scandals threatened to overwhelm the regime, the Honduran government hastily erected the OAS-backed Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), a relatively toothless national body that sought to displace social movement demands for an independent UN commission like that in nearby Guatemala.

The United States, for its part, resorted to selective extraditions of Honduran elites in an effort to keep up appearances and ensure compliance: in 2015, former president Lobo’s son was convicted on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to twenty-six years in US prison, and two members of the oligarchic Rosenthal family were imprisoned for money laundering. Frank writes: “With these and other extraditions, the United States addressed its discipline problem in part by outsourcing the Honduran criminal justice system.”

The recent arrest of the current Honduran president’s brother on drug trafficking and weapons charges in Miami suggests that the strategy is also favored by the Trump administration. Indeed, with former head of US Southern Command John Kelly as Homeland Security Secretary, and later, Chief of Staff, the Trump Administration has ensured continuity with previous US policy towards Honduras, just as Obama did before him. Frank’s book limits itself to contemporary events, but there is a clean, unbroken line that links bipartisan US action in Central America, from the invasion of Nicaragua in 1912 to the present.

Dictatorship

As US-based solidarity activists continued to fight the US imperial machine and its banal facade in Washington, the post-coup regime in Honduras deteriorated into outright dictatorship.

Porfirio Lobo set the stage by militarizing public security. “Slowly, surely, deliberately, and lethally, the space closed in around each of the social movements and their allies.” Reports of death squads operating out of newly formed, US-trained special forces soon surfaced. In December 2012, the Honduran Congress, presided over by the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), illegally deposed four out of five of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber magistrates and replaced them with loyal servants of the regime.

Ahead of the 2013 presidential elections, the FNRP, with former president Zelaya at its helm, spawned the LIBRE political party. The move, controversial with the FNRP’s radical grassroots base, ultimately weakened the militant social movement resistance, subsuming it into a broader and more diluted “opposition.”

But LIBRE, “the first large, independent party of the center-left in all of Honduran history,” showed political promise. Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, ran as the LIBRE candidate against JOH, and consistently polled ahead. “For decades, the oligarchs who ran the Liberal and the National Parties had traded power back and forth in back-room deals. […] They were deeply threatened by LIBRE and responded viciously.” At least nine LIBRE candidates and activists were murdered in the run-up to the vote. International elections observers were threatened and harassed.

The election itself was plagued with irregularities, and JOH was declared the dubious victor. The State Department, of course, hailed the process as transparent and peaceful. JOH’s government set about further dismantling Honduran social institutions and protections.

Privatizations left thousands of public workers unemployed, and spending on social services was gutted. Climate change and disinvestment ravaged rural economies, already weakened by decades of free trade policies, and produced a dangerous nationwide shortage of beans, a staple of the Mesoamerican diet. Out-migration reached historic highs.

In 2014, the so-called Central American child migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border, initially deployed in the press to fan the flames of nativism, soon prompted a discussion of the roots of the violence and poverty that caused unaccompanied minors and entire families — the majority of them Honduran — to seek asylum in the United States.

Most of the media coverage, however, was sensationalist and dehumanizing, devoid of political context. Many stories positively profiled Honduran security forces, as “US Embassy officials actively reached out to offer reporters inside access to guides, tours, and Honduran officials, to try and control the narrative.” Frank points out that neither the right-wing nor the liberal version acknowledged the United States’ responsibility in generating the economic, political, and social conditions for mass migration by destroying Honduran lives and livelihoods.

Like that of the Trump administration to today’s humanitarian crisis at the border, the Obama policy response was highly militarized. Championed by Joe Biden and General John Kelly, the plan was consolidated into the Plan Colombia–inspired “Alliance for Prosperity.” Like Plan Colombia, the project was couched in the language of development, but it promised to entrench the violent neoliberal model in the region through liberalization, mega-projects, and militarized border controls.

Frank notes how the White House’s language, together with that of mainstream media, “implied a giant flood was spilling over the lower part of the country, drowning it in dangerous brown children.” The United States diverted security aid to Mexico into the militarization of the country’s southern border with Guatemala, forcing migrants from well-worn corridors to make what was already a perilous journey more deadly. Honduran forces began intercepting migrants seeking to flee their own country. Indeed, the decision of Central Americans to travel together in large groups or caravans is a direct result of these reckless decisions.

In Honduras, the JOH regime began using new anti-terrorism legislation against journalists, and granted immunity to security forces who used their weapons while on duty. Harassment of international human rights defenders increased. In April 2015, the Supreme Court bypassed all mandated procedure and overturned the Constitution’s ban on re-election — the very act that Honduran elites had accused Zelaya of plotting to justify the 2009 coup — clearing the path for JOH’s power grab.

In November 2017, JOH would again face off against Xiomara Castro, this time running with Salvador Nasralla of the Anti-Corruption Party. On election night, as the Nasralla-Castro ticket pulled ahead to a solid five-point lead, the authorities abruptly shut down the vote count. Days later, when the process was finally resumed, JOH was declared the winner by fifty thousand votes. The brazen theft of the election prompted massive protests, and even the OAS called for new elections. The Trump State Department congratulated JOH on his triumph.

Darkness

Honduras, Frank contends, is far from a failed state: “The Honduran state worked great for those who controlled it — for the landowners and the drug traffickers and oligarchs and transnational corporations and US-funded and trained military, and the corrupt public officials who served them.” Surely, Marx would agree.

The Honduran case affirms what David Harvey has insisted with his notion of “accumulation by dispossession,” which is that primitive accumulation is not confined to capitalism’s prehistory, but is indeed at the heart of the neoliberal model. Since the military coup d’état in 2009, the Honduran ruling class has conspired with United States and corporate allies to pursue unfettered accumulation at any cost. The fruits of their project are abundant, from the campesino corpses in the Aguán Valley to the families gassed at the Tijuana border wall.

Frank’s book reveals the limits and challenges to engaging with US policy on its own terms. Nonetheless, the stakes are too high to abandon any front of the struggle. In her accounts of the marches and meetings that drive the Honduran resistance, Frank celebrates “the joys of daily life, especially lives spent in struggle against injustice, inequality, and imperialism.” Today, Hondurans may be living their darkest hour. As internationalists, it is our duty, but also our joy, to support their fight for justice, dignity, and self-determination.