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2013: A Good Year for Mining Companies (and Human Rights Abuses) in Honduras

Looting Honduras

by NICK ALEXANDROV

This year promises to be a good one for mining companies in Honduras, if everything goes according to plan.  A new mining bill up for approval in the coming months would allow as many as 40 companies—4 or 5 were in the country last year—to begin operations.  The increased business could triple the sector’s profits, and would successfully erase from the books a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, which found the country’s 1998 mining law unconstitutional.  The earlier law, decreed in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, permitted open-pit mining, and was a gift to extractive industry.  It went unchallenged until “an extreme leftist group…poisoned the national dialogue,” Ambassador Charles Ford fumed on September 29, 2006, using their “vitriolic anti-mining rhetoric” in an attempt “to conquer and decapitate mining in Honduras,” actions that could only “worsen an already shaky investment climate.”

Ford’s rant is available via WikiLeaks, thanks in part to the efforts of Julian Assange, that “high-tech terrorist” (Joe Biden) who should be “hunted down” (Sarah Palin)—much like the Occupy Wall Street activists, considered “terrorists” by the FBI since their protests began in September 2011.  Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily belong in the same category, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ed Husain explained last summer, writing that the Syrian opposition—Washington’s ally—“needs al-Qaeda” to boost morale, and to deliver the “deadly results” required to topple Assad.  These examples reveal much about what liberal intellectual Joseph Lelyveld, writing in the New York Review of Books, called one of Obama’s “big foreign policy achievements”: “compressing his predecessor’s expansive, grandiose-sounding ‘Global War on Terror’ into a narrowly-focused, unremitting campaign against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network.”  Lelyveld’s observation conforms to reality about as much as, say, Sarah Palin’s analysis of foreign affairs, but his baseless assertion had little effect on his status as a prominent commentator—a revealing indication of what it takes to qualify for “serious intellectual” status in the U.S.

Returning to Honduras, we can note that Ambassador Ford’s diatribe was directed at attorney Clarissa Vega and her clients.  In March 2006, two months after President Manuel Zelaya was inaugurated, Vega brought the case against the 1998 mining law to the Supreme Court on behalf of a number of environmental groups; the Court decided in her favor that autumn, ruling unconstitutional the “tax breaks for mining companies” and eliminating “the forced expropriation of lands for mining use,” Carolina Rivera reported at Latinamerica Press.  Additional victories followed: in May 2009, Jennifer Moore explained at CIP Americas, a new mining bill—which would have further increased taxes, banned open-pit mining, “and required prior community approval before mining concessions could be granted”—was drafted.  Congress planned to debate it starting in mid-August 2009.  But then Zelaya was overthrown on June 28, and the plan was shelved.

The fact that Zelaya’s ouster was a coup seemed beyond debate, though readers of the U.S. press were encouraged to think otherwise.  Writing in the Washington Post a couple of days after it happened, for example, Mary Beth Sheridan explained that Obama thought Zelaya’s removal illegal, while Hillary Clinton believed it was too early to decide whether or not the event was really a coup.  A few days later, Marc Lacey wrote in the New York Times that “American officials are…studying whether Mr. Zelaya’s ouster fits the legal definition of a coup,” noting in a separate article that the Honduran military did not think it met the necessary criteria.  Never mentioned in these stories was the fact that, when Sheridan, Lacey and other journalists participated in a conference call with two senior State Department officials on the day of the overthrow, the first official stated unambiguously, “I would certainly characterize a situation where a president is forcibly detained by the armed forces and expelled from a country an attempt at a coup.  We…still see [Zelaya] as the constitutional president of Honduras.  So it was an attempt at a coup.”

Reporters knew where State Department officials stood on the coup question, in other words, but chose not to make this information public.  This example of press subservience to power is reminiscent of countless others, though the period leading up to the 1954 Guatemalan coup provides an especially revealing illustration.  Nick Cullather, staff historian at the CIA from 1992-1993, published Secret History, his account of the Guatemalan coup, in 1999.  In it, he explains how the Árbenz government’s purchase of Czech weapons “revealed the limits of the Communist Bloc’s willingness to aid an ally in the Western hemisphere.  The Czechs would provide arms, but on a cash and carry basis.”  But the transaction “handed [Washington] a propaganda bonanza,” and the State Department claimed “that the shipment revealed Guatemala’s complicity in a Soviet plan for Communist conquest in the Americas.”  “The press…responded on cue,” Cullather shows, with the Washington Post determining the threat of Communist imperialism to be “no longer academic,” and the New York Times claiming Communist weapons would soon travel along “secret jungle paths,” spreading like a plague across the Americas.  In the 21st-century version, the Times hoped the democratically-elected Zelaya’s forced removal from power would leave him with “a greater respect for democracy,” and an aversion for the Chavista virus infecting the continent.

The former president’s feelings on democracy ultimately proved irrelevant, as Washington backed the illegitimate election bringing Porfirio Lobo Sosa to power, which “neither the OAS nor the European Union would observe,” and which demonstrated “that the Obama administration had as weak a commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law as the preceding U.S. presidency,” Julia Buxton explained in Latin American Perspectives.  In the ensuing years, Honduras has remained a country where private companies are nurtured, while poor farmers, members of the LGBTTI community, journalists, and human rights lawyers are murdered with impunity.  And the coming year seems auspicious not only for mining companies, but also for femicide, as crime statistics indicate that the number of women murdered in 2012 was 30% higher than the same figure for 2011.  This figure seems unlikely to fall, given the prevailing impunity—the real virus infecting the country, carefully cultivated by U.S. and Honduran elites and the powerful interests they serve.

 Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com