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The Hidden Script of US Militarization in Honduras

On June 2, the United States announced that 180 Marines would be deployed to Honduras as a preventative measure primarily concerning the upcoming hurricane season. Both the U.S. Marines and the White House affirmed that the military mobilization will be temporary and that its functions will only be to protect local citizens in the case of a natural disaster.[1]

Regional specialists, however, fear that the presence of sophisticated U.S. military and surveillance equipment, as well as the sheer number of Marines that the United States brought to the Soto Cano Base Area in Palmerola, signal that this mobilization is the beginning of a new round of expansion of the United States presence in Central America reminiscent of Washington’s practices during the 1980s. These assumptions are based on how the United States has supported the new Honduran government, despite it being established by the illegitimate removal of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from office by military troops on the 28 of June 2009.

Countries in the Americas have been continually skeptical about both the 2009 coup d’état and the statements made by President Barack Obama regarding this issue. In fact, according to the journalist Michael Parenti, certain indicators suggest that the 2009 Honduran coup was sponsored by the United States[2] , especially after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in her book Hard Choices “that she used the power of her office to make sure that Zelaya would not return to office”.[3] It was later revealed that the cadre of influential lobbyists hired to galvanize support in Washington for the coup have strong ties to both Hillary and Bill Clinton.[4] Additionally, many Latin Americans have made historic links between the United States and the movement that overthrew President Zelaya in 2009 when, unlike his regional counterparts, President Obama shied away from promptly denouncing the military coup in Honduras.

On the other hand, according to a 2009 column written by Noel Brinkerhoff for AllGov, many of the accusations of past U.S. complicity with the military movement in Honduras are based on the fact that, at that moment and still today, a large segment of the Honduran military receives U.S. training.[5] This suggests that the military coup that overthrew President Zelaya would not have succeeded if the United States had not conferred the adequate training. However, what is most disquieting about this situation is that, despite knowing how extensively U.S. military training affects the behavior of Honduran troops, the United States agreed to continue providing strategic help to the Honduran armed forces. The United States thus continues to be targeted with accusations regarding its implication and degree of participation in the 2008 coup that overthrew President Zelaya, most notably since the plane carrying Zelaya out of the country stopped at and was refueled at the U.S. military base at Palmerola. U.S. authorities, however, insist that they had no knowledge of Zelaya being on the plane.[6]

The allegations of U.S. involvement in the coup are not the only reason why regional skepticism regarding the recent military deployment in Honduras persists. According to a LatinNews article on Honduras, the fact that the United States is considering a military expansion to attack regional drug cartels could not only worsen the U.S. reputation in Latin America, but also at the international level, because the failure of this mission would be disconcerting for its regional efforts. [7]

According to Heather Gies, it is not the recent military expansion that is most concerning to Hondurans, but rather the fact that neither the United States nor Honduran police have been particularly effective in combating the high index of criminality in the region.[8] In fact, some analysts find that the reason why the Honduran public views the recent U.S. military expansion as negative is because they do not understand how the six month deployment of 180 Marines will improve what thousands of police and military have failed to improve in six years of fighting impunity and crime in Honduras. [9]

Others take issue with the justification behind the military expansion, arguing that the geographic distance between Honduras and the United States is short enough that this deployment is not necessary and that, if a natural disaster does occur, immediate collaboration and rapid territorial deployment would be provided. Gies asserts, however, that hurricane protection is an excuse used by the United States to justify deploying its troops and thus expanding its military spread through Latin America.[10]

What is central in this debate is not whether the United States collaborated with Honduras, but rather why the United States is willing to collaborate with Honduras today, despite the fact that the Honduran government’s policy fundamentally contradicts the United States’ idiosyncrasy, specifically in regards to human rights. This controversy, according to Giles, will result in growing scrutiny and criticism of the hypocrisy of U.S. policies in Honduras and elsewhere in Latin America. [11]

In fact, according to Giles, what is most surprising about this situation is seeing how the United States applies its international policy selectively, isolating some autocratic regimes like Venezuela’s, while supporting perhaps more undemocratic regimes like the one in Honduras, where levels of crime are exorbitant and there is very limited freedom of expression. What is most unnerving about the situation, according to recent declarations of of former Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, is that there is no exact science determining what the U.S. is looking for in Honduras, nor is there a way to tell whether it is supporting the rule of law or rather the dictatorship. [12] The U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights Report, published this week, condemns the cycle of impunity, human trafficking, and domestic violence that pervade Honduras, concluding that, “The [Honduran] government took some steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, but corruption, intimidation, and the poor functioning of the justice system were serious impediments to the protection of human rights.”[13] Contrary to this stance, it is the government’s ardent militarization of Honduras that has proved to be a most detrimental impediment to promoting human rights.

Although it is stipulated that the U.S military expansion in Honduras will solely be allowed during the strict period corresponding to the hurricane season, there is growing uneasiness amongst the Honduran population. Recent political and social events in the region give credence to the idea that the U.S. troops will prolong their stay in Honduras. In fact, logic indicates that if the troops are meant to battle drug cartels in addition to possibly providing hurricane relief, then they will need much longer than six months.

Under these circumstances, it would also be important for the U.S. government to issue statements explaining its military support for the Honduran government, given that the “Leahy Law,” enacted in 1997, prohibits U.S. military support to countries with records of human rights violations and continued impunity. It is therefore unclear as to why the United States is providing military support to Honduras. It is also not clear what characteristics an autocratic regime must have to receive such acquiescent treatment from the U.S. government.

It is also of crucial relevance to define the time frame that the U.S. troops will be deployed in order to determine their success in countering the drug cartels and other factors contributing to elevated levels of crime and violence in Honduras. Finally, it would also be interesting to know the repercussions of the next U.S. presidential elections will have in this process due to the fact that many of the top contenders are running on interventionalist ideals, and, if elected, they could cause the military expansion in Honduras to be prolonged or even intensified. However, it seems that only time will tell how the military process in Honduras will evolve.

Laura V. Natera is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, where this article was originally published.

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