It’s rare for Honduras to make headlines during a US national election. But after Honduran human rights activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home in the early hours of March 3, observers raised the connection between her assassination and Hillary Clinton’s support for the 2009 coup that unseated President Manuel Zelaya and unleashed a wave of violence against activists in the country. To many, Cáceres’s death was emblematic of everything wrong with Clintonite foreign policy: a toxic confluence of investor and commercial interests with an uncomfortably high tolerance for shady regime change.
But Clinton’s position on Honduras is more remarkable for how little it deviates from the United States’s previous history in the country. The relationship has long been defined by American support of ruthless, antidemocratic domestic elites in the service of transnational commercial interests and continued US domination in the region.
Now, with Donald Trump set to enter the White House, the situation looks even worse. To discuss the current moment in Honduras in the context of of its long history under the United States’s thumb, Jacobin spoke with Dana Frank, a historian at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert on the country.
Can you give an overview of the historic relationship between the United States and Honduras?
Throughout its modern history Honduras has always been what scholars have called a “captive nation.” It’s been one of the United States’s most locked-down allies, particularly in Central America.
The country has a long history of US domination, with Honduran domestic elites consistently working with transnational corporations like United Fruit Company and US imperial strategies to dominate the country. In 1954, the CIA used Honduras as a base to overthrow the democratically elected socialist government of Guatemala. Honduras was famously used in the 1980s as the base for the invasion and war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua — the country was known as the USS Honduras at the time.
It has never had a moment in the twentieth century when it was independent of US domination.
What happened with the 2009 coup d’etat? What role did the United States play in Manuel Zelaya’s removal?
For decades Honduras has been dominated by two elite parties, both of them right-wing and controlled by the oligarchic families that run the Honduran economy in collaboration with the US government and transnational corporations. President Manuel Zelaya came from one of those parties, the Liberal Party. He was elected in 2006, and gradually started moving somewhat leftward in alignment with the rise of democratically elected left and center-left governments all over South and Central America.
He was no leftist, but he did stop elite privatizations and power grabs, and he did double the minimum wage. He alienated his fellow elites so much that they turned on him in 2009, using a ballot measure as their pretext.
In Honduras, the president has a right to put a survey on the ballot. Zelaya put a question on the ballot for June 28, 2009, asking whether Hondurans wanted to elect delegates to a constitutional convention that would take place well in the future, in 2010 or 2011. The elites seized on that poll question and claimed that Zelaya was using it to try and change the constitution so that he could get a second term. We have zero evidence that Zelaya was trying to do so.
In collaboration with the military, the Supreme Court, and the majority of Congress, the elites deposed Zelaya. On the morning of the survey vote, the military put him on a plane to Costa Rica in his pajamas and sent him out of the country. That ushered in the reign of terror that has torn through Honduras ever since.
During that first twenty-four hours, President Obama and then secretary of state Hillary Clinton acknowledged that it was an unconstitutional coup, and Obama even said something to the effect of, we thought the dark ages of Latin American coups were over. But very quickly the United States pivoted to supporting the post-coup dictator, Roberto Micheletti, who immediately unleashed tremendous repression against the opposition. Obama and Clinton would never condemn Micheletti.
Then the United States moved negotiations between Micheletti and Zelaya over a possible resolution of the coup out of the Organization of American States (OAS) and into Costa Rica, because almost all OAS member countries had denounced the coup and refused to recognize the post-coup government. So the United States moved negotiations onto territory it could control and eventually legitimated the completely bogus, fraudulent November 2009 election, which was boycotted by all international observers, including the Carter Center, the OAS, the European Union, and the United Nations, except the US Republican Party.
US law says that if there is a coup with substantial military involvement, then the United States has to immediately cut all aid to that country — all of the aid. And clearly this was a military coup: the military put President Zelaya on a plane and took him out of the country.
Clinton and Obama kept saying, “Well, it’s a coup, but it’s not a military coup.” Therefore, they argued, the United States didn’t have to cut the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, particularly aid to the Honduran police and military.
Since the coup, how have human rights and environmental rights defenders in Honduras fared?
First, I think people need to know that Honduran people rose up immediately — on the day of the coup — uniting a huge range of social movements in Honduras. It was a coalition of trade unionists, feminists, campesinos, Afro-indigenous and indigenous activists, and the LGBT movement, along with a broad swath of middle-class people committed to the rule of law.
This uprising was a movimiento amplio, or broad movement, that came together in the National Front of Popular Resistance, and produced huge street demonstrations, large blockades, and all kinds of protests, in an enormous resistance that was brutally repressed by the post-coup regime.
The coup, itself an illegal and criminal act, opened the door for spectacular corruption. It’s not like things were squeaky clean in Honduras before, but the post-coup government legitimated, permitted, and encouraged criminal behavior from the top to the bottom. The Supreme Court is corrupted. The Congress was largely corrupted by supporting the criminal act of the coup, which, in turn, permitted a free-for-all of robbing the government blind in its aftermath. The coup opened the door for the vast expansion of gangs, drug trafficking, and criminal behavior, with almost complete impunity for criminal acts of any sort.
The current president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, has a spectacular record himself of overthrowing the rule of law. He was the head of a key committee in Congress that supported the coup. When he was president of Congress in December 2012, he led what was known as the technical coup, which threw out four members of the Supreme Court at three in the morning and named new ones the next day, completely illegally.
Hondurans now clearly call Hernández a dictator, and this is very important when we place him in the context of the long arc of US policy in Latin America. He controls the police, the military, the attorney general, Congress, and the Supreme Court. So he has all the branches of power locked down.
Readers may have heard about the scandal that broke in the spring of 2015 when it was documented that Hernández and his party had stolen as much as $90 million from the national health service and diverted that money into his and his party’s 2013 election campaigns. Literally thousands of people have died because of the health service’s bankruptcy.
Even he admits that the stolen money went into his campaign, and he’s still in power despite massive street protests last year calling for his resignation. So this man has a long, vast criminal history.
What exactly are American dollars funding in Honduras? What sort of strategic role does Honduras play for the United States?
The United States has continued to recognize and legitimate the terrifically repressive post-coup government that has stolen millions of dollars from the health service and that supports a police force and a military that kill people with impunity. It supports a president that has built his power around overtly violating the Honduran constitution, not just the 2009 coup and the 2012 “technical coup,” but more recently by assigning the military to increasingly take over domestic policing in violation of the constitution, and now by running for reelection, although the constitution explicitly forbids it.
The United States has continued to celebrate Hernández, just as it celebrated his predecessor Porfirio Lobo. Most dramatically, in the spring and summer of 2014, when around seventy thousand undocumented minors arrived at the US border, the Obama administration used that as a pretext to celebrate Hernández and the Honduran government even more. It used the supposed immigration “crisis” to propose dramatically increased US funding for the Honduran government as a way of stopping immigration and rebuilding the Honduran economy, so immigrants wouldn’t need to flee.
Vice President Biden, Obama’s lead on Latin America at the time, in January 2015 asked Congress for a billion dollars in the name of addressing immigration from Central America. Congress eventually appropriated $750 million for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in 2016 under a new program called the Alliance for Prosperity.
What’s driving US policy in Honduras at a deeper level? First of all — and I want to underscore this — this is the same pattern we’ve seen throughout the twentieth century of the United States “dancing with dictators” and shoring up dictatorial regimes that will be more or less loyal to it for geopolitical reasons. These regimes allow a US military presence and repress social movements, journalists, the opposition, and anyone critical of the government, the elites, and their economic agenda; they will suppress all popular democracy to create a free space for transnational corporations to exploit both the environment and labor on a grand scale. That’s what’s driving US policy, that larger goal.
Why Honduras in particular? As I said at the beginning, Honduras for a century has been a strategically important place for the United States. The Air Force base at Soto Cano is one of the few places where the United States can land its larger planes. The United States is also trying to lock down its power in Central America — it doesn’t have any other rock-solid allies in the region. It has been pushing back again against the wave of left and center-left governments in South and Central America for the past eight years or so, and Honduras was the first domino to fall.
Most recently, the United States is waving a revived Cold War flag — arguing that it has to lock down its power in Honduras in order to keep Russia and China out. Again we’re hearing a classic rhetoric in which the United States says it should dominate a country merely so that some other country doesn’t come along and dominate it instead. But the Honduran social movements would be the first to say that the US should get out and let them fight their own battles.
How will the aid package and the new coalition between Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to combat gangs affect US-Honduras relations?
Part of the problem is that we don’t have transparency about who’s actually receiving that money. There is very little accountability to either Congress or to the American people on where the $750 million is flowing. So I can’t even tell you where most of it is going. It’s not even clear how much of that money is even flowing at all, because of congressional challenges.
You asked about the tri-national, anti-gang force that has been recently publicized in Central America. I would not take that project very seriously at all in terms of what the Honduran government is actually doing to fight gangs, except I’d say that it shows that the Hernández regime is militarizing its approach to criminal justice even more.
What should be addressed are jobs and the rule of law. Instead we have transnational militarization funded by the United States to address problems that are being created, in part, by the very militarization of policing that US money props up.
The real issue in Honduras is that there aren’t jobs, there isn’t the rule of law, and there’s near-complete impunity. But with “new anti-gang task forces,” the Honduran and US governments both get publicity for fighting violence — while both fund its creation.
This past summer the New York Times gave an enormous amount of free publicity to a US-funded “gang prevention program” in Honduras, in order to push back against congressional calls to suspend US funding for the Honduran police. It turns out, though, that US-funded Honduran police involved in the Times‘s celebrated program had themselves committed extrajudicial killings less than a year before. And this is their model project?
If we look at the economic development side of that $750 million allocated for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, we don’t have transparency. We don’t know where it goes; we don’t know whether it’s effective; we don’t know how it’s interlocked with the larger, dangerous situation with the US-funded and trained police and military, let alone the Honduran elites who are pulling the strings and robbing the country all day, every day.
But Congress has been pushing back harder and harder every year. It placed human rights conditions on half of the money allocated for the central government of Honduras in 2016. The State Department has to certify that Honduras has made progress on many fronts, including prosecutions of corrupt officials and police and military who have killed people, respect for indigenous land rights, and protection of journalists, human rights defenders, and the opposition.
Some of those conditions are terrific. Senator Patrick Leahy, in particular, deserves recognition — he heroically led the successful fight to get those conditions into the act.
Given how terrible the situation remains in Honduras, we had hoped that the State Department would not certify that the conditions had been met. But on September 30, the State Department informed Congress that yes, they had been met.
Like clockwork, two weeks later, a hideous wave of repression erupted in Honduras.
A prominent campesino leader and another campesino activist were assassinated, and then the son of another prominent campesino leader was killed. The government unleashed tear gas and water cannons on a peaceful demonstration — including children and the elderly — by the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), in front of the presidential palace.
The United States had sent the Honduran government a signal, a green light; you can do anything you want, and we’re still going to give you the money.
Honduras has been rocked by a number of political assassinations recently, most notably Berta Cáceres. Since her death, other COPINH members have been killed or received death threats; José Ángel Flores, the president of the United Campesino Movement of Aguán (MUCA), and campesino leader Silmer Dionisio George were murdered in October. What are activists demanding from the United States in the wake of these human rights abuses?
Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader and environmental activist from COPINH, and one of the most world-famous activists in Honduras, was assassinated on March 2. A military officer and two retired members of the military, among others, have been accused of her murder, illustrating the role of the Honduran military in killing human rights defenders, in this and other cases.
Her murder was a clear message from the Honduran right that they will kill anybody now, no matter how internationally renowned.
Cáceres’s brutal assassination shows how dangerous the situation is for every single Honduran activist or person in the opposition. Hundreds of lawyers, journalists, campesino activists, and other people have been assassinated since the coup, with impunity. Her case is only the most famous.
We need to recognize and honor the tremendous opposition movements of many kinds that still survive in Honduras, the array of groups that built the post-coup resistance. More recently, new movements led by middle-class Hondurans have demanded the president’s resignation because of his corruption.
A broad alliance of Honduran human-rights defenders and social movements supports the suspension of US police and military aid, which is our most basic demand in the United States. Don’t fund the people who are killing us, threatening us, and ripping us from the lands we rightfully own and work, they argue.
The demand to suspend security aid has coalesced around a bill introduced by Representative Hank Johnson in June 2016, calling for the suspension of all police and military aid to Honduras. That bill, in turn, is the product of enormous grassroots pressure on Congress — the same pressure that made Congress put the human rights conditions on the 2016 aid. There are now forty-six co-sponsors of the Hank Johnson bill, and the number is still growing.
How will a Donald Trump presidency change US-Honduras relations? Aside from his plans to deport nearly three million immigrants, he has rarely discussed Latin America and has in fact indicated an interest in pulling back from American engagements around the world.
Of course we don’t really know as of this moment. There are no indications that Trump is going to care about human rights. The early signals are that the people who he is proposing and considering for his administration are truly dangerous, terrifying figures.
My best guess is that the United States is going to come down really hard trying to stop immigration from Central America. Remember that the single biggest group of people coming without papers into the United States are not from Mexico. Central America and Honduras are at the top of that list.
Hondurans understand how dangerous Trump is on the immigration front. I think he will deport people back to Honduras to die, which is already happening under Obama. We’re going to see a lot of people dead.
I think Trump is going to support President Hernández. Trump’s going to want that combination of military power and a place firms can go to destroy the environment and hyper-exploit workers in factories. That’s exactly what Trump — an exploitative corporate businessman, with a factory in Honduras himself — is going to want to support.
I also think that under Trump we’re not going to have even the kind of minimal pressure that the State Department has exercised on Hernández to at least be not quite such a monster. There is a certain degree of leverage right now in the State Department to try and control its monster and have him not be out of control. I don’t see a Trump department of state caring about any of that, which means, I think, that thousands of people are going to die, and they’re already dying.
This isn’t just about Honduras. Honduras is emblematic of larger US policy in Latin America; it’s emblematic of the United States overthrowing democratically elected governments worldwide and, in this case, helping support one. It’s emblematic of all the work the State Department has been doing in the last two or three years to push out or destabilize democratically elected governments in South and Central America. It’s part of a long arc of imperial history.
People may think, well, why does Honduras matter? It matters because it is the worst and the most emblematic current example of the United States dancing with dictators in Latin America. But it also matters because a beautiful and powerful solidarity movement in the United States has made this policy visible, forcing the US Congress to act, and helping the media report the corruption and repression that US policy supports.
What’s something tangible that Americans can do to impact our government’s relationship with Honduras and Central America?
There are some very clear things that people can ask Congress to do. An obvious useful beginning is to pressure representatives and senators to both immediately suspend police and military aid to Honduras and revoke the 2016 funding certification.
In general, we have to pay attention more broadly to foreign policy in Latin America. In the State Department, Latin American policy is treated like a minor backwater — part of a long, racist history in which Latin American sovereign peoples are seen as children that the United States should manage, part of a long history of US financial, political, and military domination of Latin America.
It’s also important to keep US policy in Honduras visible at the grassroots level so people can track where our tax dollars are going and how Honduras policy ties into immigration, into racism against people of Latin American descent, and into domestic racism more broadly, on many fronts. The militarized police repression of African Americans in the United States, for example, is in many ways identical to the militarized police repression of the opposition in Honduras. To give another example, many of the same individuals who have managed the US war in Afghanistan now manage US intervention in Honduras, while military equipment left over from Afghanistan is sent for free to police departments in US cities.
The atrocity of US policy in Honduras — the United States’s chilling support for the vicious post-coup regime, which generates immigration that the United States then sends still more military support to try and stop — is symbolic of larger dynamics of US foreign and domestic politics.