Since the coup, Honduras has become one of the most dangerous places in the world.
— Amy Goodman
Since a June 2009 coup in Honduras, violence beneficial to rightist power brokers and international corporations — violence directed against activists for the poor and indigenous — has skyrocketed. News of this rarely reaches mainstream America. The real story is that the US government, as in the past, talks pretty but is an accessory in Honduras’ descent into murder.
On March 3rd, Berta Caceres, 44, co-founder of COPINH, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize was assassinated by killers who broke into her home in La Esperanza (in English, Hope) at 1AM. Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican environmental activist who witnessed the murder and was himself shot twice, has been refused permission to return to Mexico and is hiding out in the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa. The financial officer of COPINH has been interrogated four times at length by police; she told Amy Goodman it’s an effort to suggest the murder was due to internal COPINH politics. Another COPINH activist, Nelson García, was killed last week. Police say Garcia’s killing was an “isolated” act. “Hundreds of activists have been killed. It’s just a nightmare in Honduras,” says Greg Grandin, a history professor at New York University, referring to the period since the 2009 coup. (See Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! for the full story.)
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was President Obama’s secretary of state at the time of the 2009 coup. At dawn on June 28th, a military unit invaded the home of duly elected President Manuel Zelaya, a timber baron, woke him from his bed at gunpoint and flew him to Costa Rica. Ms Clinton and President Obama expressed obligatory regret over the coup, then did absolutely nothing to turn it around. Rumors spread of secret US involvement on a direct or indirect basis. After a brief hiatus, military aid was reinstated in full to the Honduran military. Secretary Clinton publicly called for nations around the world to support the government installed by the coup and pushed preparations for new elections. Ms. Clinton is very skilled at working this kind of political knife-in-the-kidney operation with a bright PR smile, all the time counting on the American people to have little interest in the comings and goings of a place like Honduras. Unlike the SNAFU in Benghazi, her Republican enemies have no interest in criticizing her for running cover for a coup that removed a left-leaning president in Honduras.
Zelaya is from a family in the timber industry. In 2013, his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, ran for president but lost to Juan Orlando Hernández, whose family is into coffee, TV and hotels. Hernandez was described by liberal politician Rafael Pineda Ponce as a cipote malcriado or spoiled kid. Zelaya is now a deputy representing Honduras in the Central American Parliament. One of the telling ironies of this saga is that one of the much-touted reasons President Zelaya was ousted was that he was plotting to change the constitution to allow himself to run for a second term. The Honduran Supreme Court recently eliminated that single term rule, which will allow Hernandez to run for successive terms, beginning in the election next year. Zelaya repeatedly denied a second term was his goal in wanting to change the constitution; he said he wanted to improve the plight of the Honduran poor.
As the United States chooses a new president, consider a little conceptual exercise. Imagine a US special ops unit controlled by angry free-market Republicans jacking up President Obama one morning and flying him quickly from the south lawn to a secret location in Texas, telling the nation and the world in a carefully prepared announcement that, because Mr. Obama was so controversial, for the sake of good order, a unified military institution was convinced the duly-elected president had to be removed and new elections would be set up. Also imagine the extended “mopping up” operation that would follow — ie, an extended dirty war — since liberals and progressives would not stop advocating what they had been pressing, and working with, the ousted president to accomplish.
In the mind of very successful North Americans like Hillary Clinton, the lives of poor people struggling for dignity mean nothing beyond their rhetorical value; the comfort of moneyed interests and good elite-driven order is what counts. Like Donald Trump, she has said she’s not a politician. But what she did after the Honduran coup was a classic case of politicking by an artist in the accommodation with power. It’s clear she’s embarrassed by what she did or didn’t do; it has been pointed out that a reference in her memoir Hard Choices to a conversation with Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa was edited out in the paperback. Here’s part of what was cut: “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” To make a kidnapped president “moot” seems a soft version of “disappearing” the man.
It’s a case of her censoring the record, for sure. Still, the problem is, as we used to say in the reporter business, nothing is covered in the mainstream until it becomes a “pissing contest” among political elites. The only people in America sympathetic to the many murdered Honduran activists are on the marginalized left. Which means no pissing contest, and the story gets lost in the media obsession with scandal and personality.
Berta Caceras’ crime was clear: She was a dedicated and effective voice for the poor vis-à-vis industrial interests like mining and the building of the Agua Zarca Dam along the Gualcarque River, an area that is sacred to the native Lenca people. In 2014, Caceres spoke about US meddling and Secretary Clinton’s double-talk about new elections following the coup:
“The return of the president, Mel Zelaya, became a secondary issue. There were going to be elections in Honduras,” she said. “And the international community — officials, the government, the grand majority — accepted this, even though we warned this was going to be very dangerous and that it would permit a barbarity, not only in Honduras but in the rest of the continent. And we’ve been witnesses to this.”
I’ve harbored a soft spot for Honduras ever since I was deported from there in 1984. I was part of a five-man team of US unionists (I was along as a photographer/reporter) there to talk with union leaders about murders and disappearances under the military government of the time. Honduras was then known sarcastically as “Aircraft Carrier Honduras” and effectively under the rule of US Proconsul John Negroponte, officially known as the US ambassador to Honduras. This was during Ronald Reagan’s Contra War against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua next door. That war was being run by Negroponte from Honduras. Our little band of gringo unionists rocked the boat by speaking in public in Tegucigalpa against the Contra War and US intervention in Honduras. I tried to return to Honduras, but my name was on a list, and a rather nasty police official told me either get on the plane waiting for me on the tarmac — or I was going to jail.
Honduras means depth in English. My Spanish-English dictionary gives the following phrase as an example: meterse en honduras — to go beyond one’s depth. In some cases, honduras is translated more specifically as ravine or gulch. The name may be attributable to some Spanish conquistador with a bad first impression. For much of its history Honduras has vied with Haiti as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Being so poor means you are a resource-rich plaything of the rich and powerful. (See my TCBH story from May 20, 2010, “Honduras: Bad Faith Down in The Gulch.”)
Following the coup, the United States tricked up the nation with a network of US bases, some large, some small, all focused on interdicting shipments in the Drug War. At least that’s the public line. Since the failed War On Drugs has linked with the permanent War On Terror, the result is a runaway militarist train that even concerned North Americans are powerless to curb. Though they struggle hard, poor Hondurans don’t fare any better. The really committed ones are targets.
President Obama, his shortcoming in Honduras aside, should be honored for opening relations with Cuba. He’s traveling to Cuba next week, followed by a visit to Argentina, where he has said he plans to declassify US military and police records relating to US involvement in the nefarious “dirty war” of the 1970s and 80s. That’s the period when Henry Kissinger was famous for saying that “the arc of history” did not pass through South America; so whatever happened there didn’t matter. In 1976, when the military government was cracking down violently on the left, he was recorded telling Argentina Foreign Minister Cesar Augusto Giuzzetti, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”
A famous book called Civilization and Barbarism written in 1868 by an Argentine military man named D.F. Sarmiento focuses on a cruel tyrant of the time, Facundo Quiroga. The two abstract nouns of the title characterize a long struggle in Latin American history, leading up to today. Too often, US leaders have felt compelled to cozy up to the barbarians. As FDR famously said about Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, “He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”
The President should be pressured to do what he says and to release all the dirty details of US complicity in the Argentine dirty war. Corpses of the many leftists “disappeared” were slit open to counter buoyancy and shoved out of airplanes over the sea. Declassifying dirty war secrets is a good instinct and should not stop with Argentina. The facts concerning Honduras reveal a contemporary public policy atrocity that the US has had an unfortunate hand in. Information is like sunlight. The low-level killers and thugs who do the dirty work down in the depths below the elite level of plausible deniability cannot thrive in sunlight.
Donald Trump has it wrong: What will “make America great again” is to create our own truth commission here in Exceptional America. With the right policies, there is so much we could do here in America and in places like Honduras.
Nothing can be done until the truth is out on the table. COPINH and other political groups in Honduras are fighting for an official commission to investigate all the killings. Following the Caceres murder and before the Garcia murder, sixty-two US congress members sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew calling for a review of U.S. security aid to Honduras and an investigation into the killing of Caceres. They wrote: “We are profoundly saddened and angered by the brutal assassination of Berta Cáceres and appalled by our government’s continuous assistance to Honduran security forces, so widely documented to be corrupt and dangerous.”
Next, there needs to be a consensus (the 62 US congress members is a good place to start) that opposes the forces of violence unleashed by the 2009 coup — even if they’re free-market capitalists. This is certainly hard for many American leaders to do, given how entrenched the arrogant Kissinger view of the region is among moneyed elites and the dirty US alliances that an honest truth commission would reveal. President Zelaya was keen on lifting the poor in Honduras; over time, the goal was to encourage small businesses leading to more disposable income to buy products and, in the end, an improved local economy. It’s not rocket science: It boils down to the subtitle of E.F. Schumacher’s famous book back in the 1970s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.
Cuba has long been a controversial issue. After Obama’s visit, with two Cuban-Americans running for president, we should expect it to rise to the level of a pissing contest in the election. But what about poor Honduras?
It would be great to see presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (or a serious reporter) raise the matter of the oppressive post-coup violence in Honduras to pissing-contest level in debates with Ms. Clinton. Ask her why she didn’t join the Latin American countries that demanded the return of Zelaya to his duly-elected presidential post. Why did she, instead, pressure those Latin American nations to drop that demand and support a new junta-run election? What exactly was wrong with the election that made Manuel Zelaya president of Honduras? Who was she e-mailing about the coup? Somebody needs to put Ms. Clinton on the hot seat over Honduras.