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Selling Honduras Off to the Highest Bidder

Repression and Backroom Deals in Honduras

by TANYA KERSSEN

Tear gas and rubber bullets were flying last Friday in the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Nearly two years after the overthrow of the country’s democratically elected president, the new regime was knocking elbows with diplomats and billionaires at a widely publicized business convention unironically called (with no Spanish translation) “Honduras is Open for Business.” What Hondurans saw was their country being sold to the highest bidder.

This is nothing new, perhaps, in a “banana republic” long controlled by U.S. interests. Already by 1917 a few foreign companies, led by United Fruit (now Chiquita) owned a million acres of the best Honduran farmland. After 1954, the U.S. heavily built up the Honduran army?military aid exchanged for access to raw materials?ultimately leading to a military coup in 1963. By this time, the U.S. controlled 95 percent of all foreign investments, including infrastructure, key exports and the two largest banks. A boom in commercial agriculture, especially in cattle and cotton, led to waves of peasant expropriation from their lands.

With the lowest per capita income in Central America, but with a strong military, Honduras in the 80s was viewed as a “U.S. surrogate” in the region, providing a base for counter-insurgency operations. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) signed in 2005 further cemented U.S. economic influence.

But when president Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup in June 2009, with strong support from large landowners and business elites, something changed in Honduras. A national resistance movement emerged, embodied in the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular, uniting virtually every sector of Honduran society, from teachers and students to peasants, workers, indigenous peoples, faith-based organizations and LGBT groups. The scale of the repression, little-publicized in the U.S., has also been intense, with regime leader Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa unleashing violence on unarmed pro-democracy protestors.

The U.S. is further strengthening the repressive Honduran military with $1.75 million in Drug War funds, and bankrolling “trade, investment and competitiveness” activities through USAID, including last week’s business conference. A May 3 press release by the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa reads:

“U.S. officials including Under Secretary of Commerce Francisco J. Sanchez, who leads U.S. international trade policy, and Ambassador Hugo Llorens are visiting San Pedro Sula to support the Honduras is Open for Business conference May 4-6? The U.S. welcomes this opportunity to deepen trade relations with Honduras, and to show American companies how investing in Honduras benefits both countries. 

Approximately 70 per cent of new foreign direct investment in Honduras already comes from the United States. Business relationships, both established and new, will have the opportunity to flourish under CAFTA-DR, which over the past five years has increased trade flows between the U.S. and Honduras. The U.S. is pleased to continue working with President Lobo and his economic team, who are making consistent efforts to ensure Honduras’ continued economic recovery.

The Lobos Sosa regime is desperate for this kind of recognition, and scrambling to keep the lid on its misdeeds by ransacking community radio stations, and threatening and killing journalists. Attacks against women, gays and lesbians, indigenous people and Afro-Hondurans have increased. Artistic and cultural expressions are viewed as a subversive threat by a regime with almost no popular legitimacy. A peaceful, open-air concert by the band Caf? Guancasco was repressed in September 2010, tear-gassing the crowd, beating the musicians and destroying $30,000 in rented gear. March was a particularly brutal month for the pro-democracy movement. Government efforts to privatize health care and public education were met with nation-wide protests.

The Honduran daily Tiempo reports that, after Day Two of “Honduras is Open for Business,” $250 million in investments has been committed in the energy, tourism, agribusiness and infrastructure sectors. Foreign Relations Sub-Secretary Alden Rivera told Tiempo that another 4.5 billion would be rolling in over the next three years. The new investment strategy includes pursuing the expansion of agrofuels production, at the expense of peasant food production, and the production of genetically modified seeds, stating: “Honduras is the only Central American country that has the legal bases for the production of GMOs. Considering this potential, the project proposes the production of certified seeds for local production of GMOs for export.”

In the Aguan Valley, some of the richest land in the country is controlled by three powerful men, who are using the land to produce palm oil for export. Weeks before it was overthrown, the Zelaya government had agreed to grant land titles to peasants in the region. In November 2010, the military occupied the Aguan Valley’s National Land Reform Institute, the government ministry charged with distributing land, for two months. During this period, the private security guards of Miguel Facuss?, the richest man in Honduras, ambushed and killed five peasant farmers working land they had held for more than 10 years. Fourteen peasant murders have been linked to the palm oil magnate with no criminal investigation.

In response to government attempts to justify the repression through accusations of terrorist organizing in Aguan, Honduran representative of V?a Campesina Rafael Alegr?a stated:

“For a year now they’ve been claiming there is an organized guerrilla cell in Aguan, even trying to blame some of us peasant leaders, but days later they recanted the allegations. In Aguan, there is an organized peasant movement that fights every day to defend the land. But Mr. Lobo is mistaken: those who have the weapons are the police, the military and the security guards of large landowners? The state bought this land for purposes of agrarian reform so it belongs to the peasants.”

Aguan Valley farmer Miguel R?mirez?who survived a gunshot to the face with a high-caliber machinegun?speaks out: “We have to move this country forward through Resistance. It’s our only hope. Thankfully, the country has now woken up.” The U.S. has recognized the Lobo regime as legitimate despite mounting State repression and a broad-based and growing pro-democracy movement. Now more than ever, as the country nears the two-year anniversary of the June 28 coup, Hondurans need international solidarity.

Tanya Kerssen can be reached at tkerssen@foodfirst.org  Spread the word, and urge your congressperson to sign the Congressional Letter, by the May 25 deadline, publicly denouncing human rights’ abuses in Honduras.