Honduras: the Failings of Neoliberalism

Robando is Spanish for stealing. “Juan Robando” is the not-at-all-affectionate moniker given to the President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH). January 27th marks the end of the first year of his presidency. His theft of the elections of November 2013 ensured the continuance of Honduras’ neoliberal trajectory. A trajectory previously boosted by the Agricultural Modernization Law of 1992. This law jettisoned any agrarian reforms attempted beforehand. Neoliberalism took a further leap in 2009. That’s when the ruling elite instigated the coup d’état which ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Thirteen oligarchic families led the coup with the assistance of the US State Department, at the time headed by Hilary Clinton. The Honduran Military kidnapped Zelaya using the private plane of Miguel Facussé Barjum, President of the Dinant Corporation and the richest man in Honduras. They refueled at the US’s Palmerola Military Base before whisking the deposed President to Panama.

Even though Zelaya’s administration ratified and supported CAFTA-DR in 2006 (“free” trade agreements being the neo-liberals’ favorite bludgeoning tool for maintaining the wealth of the ruling elite) he was seen as an impediment to the neoliberal agenda. This was due in part to his making several pragmatic economic decisions. For example, he raised the minimum wage and entered into agreements with peasant farmers to help them obtain land titles (which enraged Facussé). Mostly, though, it was because he was friendly to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and worked for Honduras’ entry into ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America).

The sham election of 2013 was simply an extension of the coup. Overwhelming evidence showed that JOH and his National Party (NP) stole the elections. His party engaged in various means of vote tampering, outright threats, and murders of opposition candidates and supporters. Nevertheless, his presidency was legitimized.

JOH’s campaign promised a “mano duro,” or iron fist approach, to ending the crime that ranks Honduras as the murder capital of the world. His plan to put Military Police (MP) on every street corner across the country has thus far been implemented in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula and incrementally elsewhere. But, homicides continue unabated along with the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. Despite JOH’s and the US State Dept.’s attempts to fudge the numbers, the World Health Organization reports that homicides have increased in the past year to 103.9/100,000 people. In addition, the MP have been involved in numerous cases of intimidation, brutality, kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder.

Regardless, JOH continues his crusade to amend the Constitution so that it institutionalizes the Military Police as a security force bound by his dictates. This has been met with opposition in Congress and thus far has failed to receive the necessary votes. Even the easily bribed diputados (members of Congress) of the Liberal Party must have had flashbacks to the days when too much power given to the Military resulted in dictators ordering death squads and the disappearances of those who opposed the government. Of course, both of those occur today, but under the guise of it being street gangs or narco-traffickers and thus justifying a need for giving the Military Police more power and increased aid from the US. The NP is now proposing a secret ballot so it can manipulate the outcome of a congressional vote.

JOH has further promised greater collaboration with the US military in ending the narcotrafficking that has spread to every department in the country. A number of narco rings have seen their leaders arrested and extradited to the US, some purported to have contributed to JOH and other National Party candidates in the election. Nevertheless, others have expanded their markets once JOH and the US DEA have removed their competition. The lack of transparency in the extradition process underscores the ties between organized crime and the government. Indeed, The National Congress moved to have new extradition legislation voted on in a secret committee session that excluded opposition parties from taking part in the strategizing of the new law.

Since the beginning of his presidency there has been increasing talk of amending the constitution so that JOH can be reelected. This was the very issue that the coup instigators used to justify their kidnapping of Zelaya, accusing him of conspiring to install himself as “President for life.” The difference being that JOH wants his NP controlled Congress to amend the Constitution without public input. Zelaya wanted a National Referendum so that the voice of the people could be heard on this and other constitutional matters. It is actually unconstitutional for the Congress to even discuss a change to the reelection law. The JOH controlled judiciary branch is maneuvering to get that changed. Advisors inside JOH’s administration are saying that reelection of the President is already a done deal. Justice in Honduras is not blind since it is able to look the other way when palms are being greased.

The Honduran justice system is maintained with funding from USAID as an inefficient, opaque, and dysfunctional system to protect the ruling elite from being prosecuted. It is also kept as is to criminalize those who seek justice such as the peasant farmers who struggle for legal access to land. 4000 campesinos have judicial proceedings against them, an increase of almost 1000 just in 2014. They must sign in at a courthouse every 15 days or risk arrest and this could go on indefinitely. Judges at the municipal level and in the Supreme Court, as well as Public Defenders and Prosecutors in the Public Ministry are at the service of the ruling elite either through influence peddling or threats made against their lives. Miguel Facussé Barjum has succeeded in using the justice system to his own benefit, both in his literally getting away with murder and in his swindles of national and international banks as well as other corporations.

Facussé has avoided prosecution for the numerous assassinations against environmentalists and campesino human rights advocates that he has ordered stemming as far back as the 1980s when he helped finance the death squads responsible for the disappearances of students and human rights activists. These political hits continued into this decade with the murder of Antonio Trejo the lawyer for the MARCA campesino movement who was assassinated in November of 2012. Trejo succeeded in challenging land grabs by Facussé and others. After Trejo’s murder, Facussé used his influence peddling to get a judgment in favor of the campesinos overturned in the Supreme Court.

Facussé and Dinant, in collaboration with the Honduran military, have carried out a campaign of criminalization of campesinos who have succeeded in challenging the legal ownership of land. Dinant has hired Tricuro, a neoliberal Washington, D.C. public relations firm. Tricuro makes its money cleaning up the reputations of corporate and government human rights violators and environmental polluters. Its propaganda in regards to Dinant states,

“At no point in our history have we engaged in forced evictions of farmers from our land. The removal of trespassers has always been undertaken exclusively by Government security forces, acting within the law and under direct instruction from the Honduran courts, whose rulings are based on evidence that proves beyond doubt that Dinant are (sic) the rightful owners of the lands in question.”

Tricuro’s assertion that the Honduran courts base their rulings on evidence is farcical. The UN, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and many national and international human rights organizations have reported that it operates on influence peddling, threats of death, and impunity for those such as Facussé and the other ruling elite.

It is true, currently, that Dinant doesn’t directly evict peasant farmers from disputed land. In the past they contracted Orion Security to do this, and in turn they committed numerous murders on and off Dinant property. They grew increasingly out of control aligning themselves with criminal infiltrators of the campesino movements and turned on each other resulting in 17 deaths of guards and numerous disappearances. This in contrast to the 150 plus campesinos murdered. It got to the point were the guard’s paramilitary actions and Dinant’s unwillingness to rein them in began to hurt the corporation’s international reputation and investments. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank, well aware of Facussé and Dinant’s criminal behavior in the past, withheld the remaining half of a $30 million loan. They only did this after national and international human rights organizations made it uncomfortable for business to continue as usual. The IFC’s ombudsman did an internal audit of the loan and “discovered” that Dinant was not living up to The World Bank’s human rights compliances.

The IFC is currently assessing the situation, visiting the Aguán and working out negotiations with campesino groups organized under the Agrarian Platform. They are doing so with the assistance of a Washington, D.C. based mediator. Under the spotlight of international scrutiny, Dinant has removed firearms from immediate use by its guards (but giving Honduran military the discretion to rearm them). Interestingly, the number of murders has sharply declined once the paramilitary Orion Security was disarmed. There are still murders of campesinos within the movement, some caused by criminal infiltrators financed by the military, but with $15 million and untold millions more in international investment hanging in the balance, Facussé ordered the killing suspended until the IFC renders a decision in whether to restore the loan or not.

Now, Dinant exclusively uses the Honduran Military, the Military Police and National Police as its defacto private security (although, it has been witnessed that Orion guards are often mixed in with military and police during evictions). By Dinant’s own admission, it has built barracks on its plantations for soldiers. The security forces are allowed to harvest African Palm fruit on its plantations and sell it as payment for its services. Often the Honduran government doesn’t pay its low ranking soldiers for three to four months on end and then they receive less than $200/month in salary. Also, Facussé has personally paid for hotel accommodations for military officers at hotels in Tocoa for extended periods of time. He has been witnessed walking up to the reception desk, asking how much is owed, and throwing down a wad of cash.

Colonel Jovel Martinez, the current commander of Operation Xatruch, told one community, La Panama, which is essentially surrounded by Dinant’s Paso Aguán plantation, that he would kill on sight anyone who trespassed on Dinant property and that it didn’t matter if they were children. He said this in front of the community with numerous children present. He also told the community while a Dinant representative was present that he could have them all relocated to the Moskitia so that Dinant could take their land. This being said shortly after soldiers held rifles to the heads of community leaders. This was also stated in light of the exhumation of two bodies of campesinos from clandestine graves in the Paso Aguán plantation. It is suspected that other bodies of disappeared campesinos are still buried there. It is this type of terror and intimidation that Facussé has instigated and financed in the Aguán.

In a further attempt to spin responsibility for the conflict away from its client, Tricuro states, “Externally funded armed groups, with no interest in farming, are using the conflicts in Honduras for wider political ends by encouraging the illegal seizure of private lands.” Of course it doesn’t reveal that these “armed groups” are actually being funded by Facussé through Col. German Alfaro, a graduate of the US’s School of the Americas (SOA), and one time chief of Xatruch III. These two have paid infiltrators in various campesino movements creating internal conflict within the movements. These infiltrators have even included individuals at leadership positions within the movement. Alfaro has on several occasions intervened when transit police had arrested them. In one instance, several men driving in a Dinant vehicle were stopped at a police traffic checkpoint near the town of Rigores. The transit police arrested them because they had a cache of military grade rifles. Alfaro showed up at the Tocoa police station, ordered them to be released, and gave them back the high caliber arms.

Further, Alfaro, while he was commander of Xatruch, appeared on local TV broadcasts in Tocoa on at least a weekly basis speaking incessantly about “terrorists and leftists trained in Nicaragua and by Colombian FARC rebels destabilizing the region.” He smeared the campesino movements as “outsiders coming here to destroy the country.” Several TV and print journalists in Tocoa and Trujillo have stated, insisting on anonymity, that Alfaro has approached them and offered bribes to report negative stories about the campesino movements. Some of them even boast about accepting the money. “Of course I took the money!” One TV reporter stated. “Look, Dinant owns the Aguán Vally, Facussé owns Honduras. Los tacamiches son jodidos,” The tacamiches are fucked! Tacamiches is a derogatory term equivalent to the “n” word in English, used in Honduras by the middle and upper classes, the police, and the military to denigrate and dehumanize the lower classes. This exemplifies how the culture of corruption sown by Facussé, Dinant, and JOH takes root and propagates through out Honduran society.

Several journalists were fired from their jobs or received death threats. They had refused the bribes and reported honestly regarding Dinant’s abuses to the environment or complicity with the military in creating conflict. Additionally their families were terrorized, and some had to go into hiding. In late 2013, Alfaro targeted the US human rights defender Annie Bird with a smear campaign when she exposed these and other rights violations by Dinant and the Military. The Honduran press published her photo and parroted Alfaro’s claims that she was “destabilizing the region.”

This is classic SOA and US Southern Command (USSC) counter insurgency propaganda to destroy legitimate movements in Latin America that oppose the pillaging and plundering by the ruling elite and to deny freedom of the press and to criminalize human rights defenders. It also has the elements of a US military psychological operation to criminalize popular movements and create terror in the minds of the local population.

Facussé, Alfaro, JOH and the USSC have implemented the “shock doctrine” in the Aguán and other regions by instigating and financing violence to justify the militarization of the region and the continued takeover of the natural resources of Honduras. Dinant gobbles up more land and tightens its stranglehold on every aspect of the market from seed sales to pricing of the fruit to processing and export with its monoculture of African Palm. JOH gets his continued military aid from the US, and the USSC maintains Honduras as a strategic point for militarizing Latin America and controlling US corporate interests in the region.

Small farmers are forced to become indentured servants to the African Palm industry to eek out a living. The seeds that Dinant claims that it sells to farmers at below market value are genetically modified so that the new plants don’t propagate viable seeds thus keeping the farmers dependent on Dinant if they want to expand their harvests. They sell their harvests of palm fruit at extremely low prices, which are dictated by Dinant and the global export market. Prices for basic grains increase on a monthly basis and there are no domestic market structures that would enable peasant farmers to grow sustainable food supplies. JOH’s solution for the lack of domestic bean harvests is to import beans from Ethiopia thus keeping the wheels of the global trade markets greased. The riches of the country are syphoned off into the ruling elite’s US and off shore bank accounts while the poverty rates increase. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, since the coup in 2009, “virtually 100% of all income gains have gone to the wealthiest 10%.”

Forbes Magazine places Facussé in the top 12 richest millionaires in Central America. The United Nations Development Program puts the poverty level in Honduras at 64.5% of the population (about five million people) with 42.6%, close to 3.2 million people, at extreme levels of poverty. The UN defines extreme poverty as, “severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.” Honduras meets all the criteria for being categorized as a failed state, which the Global Policy Forum defines as, “No longer (able to) perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty. Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime…” or they migrate to where they might be able to find a better life which often leads to further hardship. A recent AFL-CIO delegation to Honduras concluded that, “The U.S. government criminalizes migrant children and their families, while pursuing trade deals that simultaneously displace subsistence farmers and lower wages and standards across other sectors, and eliminate good jobs, intensifying the economic conditions that drive migration.”

Dinant’s PR spin calls the right of peasant farmers to have access to sustainable agriculture, and control over what and to whom they sell, “extreme and outdated political views.” Col Alfaro, Col Martinez, and Dinant officials have all attempted to paint the campesino movements as holding extreme political views influenced by outside forces. In reality, it is their along with JOH and the US government’s neo-liberal vision of the world that has proven to need extreme uses of force and militarization to maintain the status quo of the global corporate export-market-driven economy. They have been the ones to bring in outside forces. Colombian, Israeli, and US military forces train the Honduran military and police in crushing popular dissent and repressing campesino, indigenous and afro-indigenous Garífuna communities. USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) spread pro-neoliberal propaganda by infiltrating civil society organizations, looking for and rewarding those who comply and sabotaging those who dissent.

Dinant has proudly boasted of having retired Colonel Charles McFetridge as a consultant to guide them in “how we vet, recruit and train our security staff, and how they engage with members of the community.” McFetridge was a US Defense Department consultant to the US Embassy in Jakarta in the 1990s. He worked closely with then President Suharto, the dictator of Indonesia who committed numerous genocidal atrocities. A US Embassy staffer stated that McFetridge essentially “dismiss(ed) human rights claims to serve what he would consider the more important agenda.” That agenda being increased military aid to Suharto’s dictatorship and increased US militarization of Southeast Asia. McFetridge was recommended to Dinant by the IFC.

Is it any wonder as to why international business organizations heap praise on Facussé? It was, in part, through his influence peddling that the 1992 Modernization Act was enacted, and he has personally reaped the benefits of having collective land titles held by campesinos divvied up into individual titles; the easier it being to intimidate, swindle and assassinate individuals rather than a collective. This 1992 domestic law was a precursor to the international “free” trade deals such as NAFTA, CAFTA-DR, and the soon to be shoved down our throats Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP. All of these deals have been spun as being a great utopian vision to restore trade balances and generate jobs and prosperity for all.

Neo-liberalism is a failure if the rhetoric supporting it is to be believed. Its realization has been devastating. It has given corporations rights to plunder resources and the ruling-class more power and impunity while taking basic human rights away from citizens, sovereignty away from countries, and a clean sustainable environment away from the planet. The campesino movements in Honduras, with their demonstrations of localized power of self-determination and demands for economic justice and food security, threaten the divide-and-rule politics of the ruling-class.

The general consensus amongst the campesinos of the Aguán is that once the IFC makes its decision of whether or not Dinant gets its remaining loan funds, and as international scrutiny of Dinant fades, it will be business as usual with perhaps a greater use of force and greater numbers of assassinations by Dinant and the State security forces. They know this to be true because the IFC’s negotiating process has nothing in it to end the impunity of Facussé and the other ruling elite nor to secure food sovereignty to the campesinos nor to rein in the security forces from treating Honduran citizens as enemy combatants.

As JOH’s first year in office comes to an end, he may very well have succeeded in laying down the foundation for a dictatorship. Facussé and the other ruling elite as well as the US State Department will continue to pull his strings. And the US and Honduran militaries are poised to crush any popular resistance to the ruling elites continued plundering. Daniel Facussé, President of the Honduras Maquiladora Association, and a family member of Miguel’s, tellingly stated when appealing to the Congress, “It is in your hands to raise the Military Police to constitutional status so that no person, no one from the Executive class, has to withdraw from the streets, and that in the end, if we can bring investments we will bring jobs.”

Greg McCain has been monitoring and reporting human rights violations in Honduras since 2012 spending the majority of his time in the Aguán region. To follow his work please visit: Human Rights Observation Honduras.