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Honduras at Ten Years After the Coup: a Critical Assessment

Photograph Source: Roberto Breve – CC BY-SA 2.0

On the morning of June 28, 2009, Honduran army units entered the home of President Manuel Zelaya Rosales and forcibly brought him to Palmerola, a joint Honduran-U.S. military air base where they put Zelaya on a plane and sent him into exile. This action was ordered by the Honduran Congress and the Supreme Court, in violation of due process set forth in the country’s Constitution. The head of Congress, Roberto Michelletti, assumed the presidency until elections were held five months later amid massive popular protests and heavy police and military repression. Since then, Honduras has been ruled by two post-coup governments of the National Party. While Latin American governments condemned what many called a coup, the Obama Administration at first hesitated, and then Secretary of State Clinton approved the removal of Zelaya, while carefully avoiding the term “coup.” United States support for the post-coup governments has not wavered in the ten years since 2009—perhaps until now.

As the tenth anniversary arrives, many Hondurans see the coup of 2009 as a major turning point that began a downward spiral in the country’s troubled history. In recent weeks huge popular protests have once again filled the streets and plazas of most of the country’s major cities and have appeared also in rural areas, leading up to what are expected to be even larger protests around the June 28 anniversary. The immediate cause of the latest protests was the government’s passage of a set of laws that for many Hondurans signaled the privatization of the public health and education sectors and the layoff of thousands of workers. Leaders of major medical and teachers organizations have been the organizing force of these demonstrations that have tapped the widespread generalized anger of many Hondurans against the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez whom some call a dictator.

This is happening as close family and associates of President Hernandez are under indictment or investigation for corruption and drug trafficking, and there are reports that the U.S Drug Enforcement Agency has been investigating Hernandez himself. Meanwhile increasing flows of emigrants continue to leave Honduras at a rate averaging 100,000 each year for the past few years. The recent migrant caravans have graphically illustrated to the world the country’s worsening condition.

There are many reasons for the popular anger that has been building in the decade since the coup. Underlying all is an extractive development policy that is selling the country’s resources to private and foreign interests and is at the root of much poverty and violence. There has been the systematic construction of a one-party state ruled by a president with nearly absolute power within a culture of official impunity. Over the decade, large protests have been sparked by a series of high profile government corruption scandals and a culture of corruption that robs resources from the public coffers and eliminates public services while enlarging the military and security forces and allegedly filling the pockets of government officials. With corruption, gang and drug violence has flourished, fueled by high poverty and few opportunities for youth. Privatized and more expensive but less reliable utilities and public services have especially irritated many people. And there is more.

In this context, the tenth anniversary of the 2009 coup is an opportune moment to take stock of what has happened to Honduras in the post-coup decade, and to ask what might happen going forward. The following is an attempt to highlight some major indicators and areas of change that raise questions about the future of Honduras and the future of United States involvement there.

The Frantic Pursuit of Neoliberal Extractive Development

For more than a century foreign mining interests have obtained concessions in Honduras. Granting concessions has long been a source of private wealth for those who controlled the state. In the 1990s, Honduran governments, with the urging and support of U.S. administrations, embraced a neoliberal economic development plan that included a significant expansion of extractive industries—mining, logging, export agriculture, along with tourism— and privatization of the economy and public services. The mentality that accompanied and enabled this development had roots in a long tradition of an elite that assumes exclusive right to use the land, resources, and population in ways thought best for the “progress” of the country, and to equate their own enrichment with national development. During his presidency (2006-2009), Manuel Zelaya “betrayed” this elite by imposing a moratorium on granting new mining concessions and beginning a process of consultation with local communities about mining—two actions that seemed to undermine the income of the elites and their prerogatives of rule. Although Zelaya had only a few months left in his term as president, his removal reinforced the control of the elites and the sacredness of the neoliberal extractive model.

One of the first acts of the post-coup government was to annul the moratorium on mining concessions and return, with an almost religious fervor, to issuing concessions to private and corporate mining and other extractive interests. Within the next few years, almost 30 percent of the country’s territory was under sone degree of concession for extractive projects, and it remains so today. Many of these concessions are held by foreign corporations or by a partnership of Honduran and foreign interests.

The expansion of mining and other extractive industries greatly increased conflicts over land and natural resources between the extraction entrepreneurs and local peasant and Indigenous communities and cooperatives. The Honduran government has consistently supported the extractive industries, even to supplying police and military to forcibly evict local people from the land. Formerly self-reliant and closely knit communities have been reduced to scattered groups and individuals without land or community, seeking a means to survive. Cities like San Pedro Sula have grown rapidly with landless people seeking jobs in the maquiladora assembly plants where jobs are too few and pay is too low. Urban neighborhoods in poverty have grown, and with them a generation of poor youth vulnerable to gangs and drug traffickers. For many teenagers, life caught between gangs and corrupt police is a nightmare from which many try desperately to escape by emigrating. Increasingly, whole families decide that emigration is the only way to survival. The urban poor especially have become ever more vulnerable to violence from gangs, drug traffickers, and corrupt security forces. Thus, poverty and violence are inextricably mixed so that Honduran emigrants are at once both economic immigrants fleeing unlivable levels of poverty and asylum seekers fleeing unbearable levels of violence.

To add insult to injury, the massive of extractive enterprises in Honduras has aggravated one of the more sensitive themes of Honduran history—sovereignty, both local and national. The ruling party and the economic and political elite are sometimes accused of selling out the country’s land, resources, and public services to private foreign interests (vendepatria, selling the country). The approach of the two hundredth anniversary of Honduran independence in 2024 highlights the loss of sovereignty, as well as the realization of how dominant has been United States influence in Honduras, and what responsibility the U.S. might have for the current condition of the country.

From Fragile Democracy to Party Dictatorship

In 1980 Honduras returned to civilian government after decades of military rule. A primary task in building and strengthening the fragile political structures of a democratic state was the promulgation of a new constitution in 1982. That constitution laid out a separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, other guarantees of democratic process, and a specific statement that if other means are blocked, “the people have the right of insurrection” to remove a government that usurps power (Article 3). In the 1990s, even as the country was embracing a policy of neoliberal extractive development, the government of Carlos Roberto Reina(1994-1998) managed to end the independence of the military and place it under civilian rule, as well as to install the first National Human Rights Commissioner. Some Hondurans say the 2009 coup marked the end, the destruction of a nearly thirty year fragile experiment in democracy building.

Widely seen both within Honduras and internationally as illegal, the 2009 coup violated the 1982 Constitution in the manner in which the leaders of the Congress and the Supreme Constitutional Court pushed through the forcible removal of President Zelaya. An early act of the post-coup government of Porfirio Lobo (2010-2013) was the proclamation of amnesty for all who participated in the coup (golpistas), covering the illegality with a blanket of impunity. One of those leaders was the new president of the Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez. In that powerful position and with the support of President Lobo, Hernandez managed to push through a series of laws that established a framework for concentrating power increasingly in the hands of the presidency and the ruling party. Among these were the Anti-Terrorism Financing Law (2010) that enabled the government to decide what was a terrorist organization (potentially almost any group in protest or resistance to government policies) and to cut off its sources of funding. The Special Law on Wiretapping (2011) provided some safeguards for individual privacy, but there was no way to ensure that the government would abide by these restrictions. Electronic communication became an area of caution.

Most important was the law establishing the National Security and Defense Council in December, 2011. The Council was to design, coordinate, and oversee policy and practice related to national security, defense, and intelligence. It was headed and controlled by the President, and included the head of Congress, the ministers of defense and security, the attorney general, and the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, among others. The establishment of the Council struck two deadly blows to Honduran democracy and protection of human rights. It brought the nominally independent Congress, the Supreme Court, and the attorney general’s office (Ministerio Público) under the control of the President, removing significant structural checks to presidential power. And the Council could define national security and defense in ways that labeled almost any criticism, protest, or popular resistance as a threat to national security.

In December, 2012, Hernandez as head of Congress was instrumental in getting the Congress to summarily dismiss four of the five judges in the Supreme Constitutional Court because they had declared unconstitutional a key part of the neoliberal economic development model—a law to enable the establishment of Charter Cities (ciudades modelos) on Honduran soil. This dismissal was done quickly and literally in the middle of the night. The removal of the judges and their replacement with judges more amenable to the ruling National Party was in clear violation of the Constitution, and earned the label, “the technical coup.” Some saw it as a direct product and a continuation of the 2009 coup.

In effect, Hernandez and his group of National Party supporters destroyed the supremacy of the Constitution with the 2009 coup, and the independence of the Supreme Court in the technical coup of 2012. With these obstacles removed, Hernandez ran as National Party candidate for president in 2013. By then, a massive opposition movement had formed out of the initial protests against the 2009 coup. Sectors of that opposition formed the Partido de Liberación y Refundación (Libre) with Xiomara Castro, wife of the deposed Zelaya, as its candidate. Many polls seemed to predict a Libre victory. But Hernandez was declared the winner. Monitoring of the voting process and the ballot counting seemed to reveal significant irregularities and evidence of electoral fraud. To many Hondurans, this began to look like yet another coup, a further continuation of the forces set in motion in 2009.

During his first years as president, Hernandez insured his control of the military. The National Interagency Task Force (FUSINA) that included the leadership and elite units of the military was formed and brought under the National Security and Defense Council which Hernandez headed as president. He also pushed through Congress an act creating the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP) that reports directly to him. The PMOP acts as a sort of praetorian guard for the president and a major vehicle for violent repression of popular protest. Its existence and functions also erase yet another safeguard of democracy and human rights by deliberately combining local and national internal policing with military functions, bringing the country closer to martial law. The use of the military in this way was also unconstitutional, but with a pliant Congress and Court, it became a reality.

The activities of many government agencies, including the national Defense and Security Council were cloaked in secrecy by more laws that also extended to such information as property ownership records and financial transactions of government agencies, among others. This removed yet another pillar of a democratic society—official transparency—and paved the way for massive corruption and impunity.

As his term as president neared an end in 2017, Hernandez announced that he intended to seek re-election later that year. The Constitution of 1982, still in effect despite many violations, strictly forbade re-election of a sitting president—a prohibition that could not be legally amended. One of the excuses given for the removal of Zelaya in 2009 was the (false) claim that he was seeking re-election. But in 2017 when Hernandez actually declared his intent to be re-elected, the now compliant Supreme Court declared that barring Hernandez from seeking re-election would violate his civil rights, and declared that the Constitutional ban was improper. In effect, the Court said that the Constitution itself was unconstitutional! (Nothing is simple in Honduras.) This was seen as yet another small coup, a step in the march toward dictatorship, and groups organized to protest against continuismo (continuing in office).

In November, 2017, Hernandez ran for re-election as National Party candidate. The Coalition Against the Dictatorship, a grouping of several political parties, closed ranks around the moderate candidate Salvador Nasralla, a well known media personality, to oppose Hernandez. Threats, attacks, and assassination attempts were made against several Coalition candidates, even as the Coalition led in pre-electoral polling. In the middle of the ballot count, a preliminary report revealed that Nasralla held an insurmountable lead. Shortly thereafter, the vote count was halted for more than thirty hours, and no reports were issued. When it was resumed later, Hernandez (mysteriously) held a small lead. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared Hernandez winner. The fact that the members of the TSE were Hernandez appointees made the result all the more suspicious. European Union and Organization of American States monitors noted various irregularities in the process. But United States officials quickly congratulated Hernandez. In Honduras, massive popular protests erupted against what many denounced as a stolen election. Protests continued for more than two months, into January, 2018, as the PMOP and other security forces shot tear gas canisters (made in Pennsylvania), and in some cases live ammunition at protesters. Protesters and bystanders were killed, and police beat and harassed news reporters covering the protests. The “stolen” election of 2017 was considered illegal both because of the disregard for the Constitutional ban on re-electing the president and because of the widespread reports of irregularities, and it was widely seen as yet another step in ignoring democratic processes and solidifying a dictatorship.

In the past year under Hernandez, the National Party that controls Congress has pushed through a revision of the country’s Penal Code, over the strong objections of opposition Congress members. The revisions weaken existing penalties and prison sentencing for gang members and drug traffickers, while providing stiff penalties for so-called “crimes against honor” that include most forms of public criticism and accusations against powerful individuals and members of the government. When the new Code takes effect in November, 2019, news media may find themselves accused of lawbreaking as they try to perform their professional duty to investigate and report. The Penal Code and other ancillary laws have the effect of criminalizing most forms of popular protest, while softening the legal consequences for crime and corruption.

Over several years, government agencies that have had the ability to monitor and regulate the activities of extractive industries and corrupt interests find their powers deliberately weakened or curtailed. SERNA, the government environment ministry, is an example.

Under the Hernandez government there has been a gradual but significant increase in the portion of the national budget allocated to the military and a significant decrease in the portion allotted to public health, education, and social services. According to many Hondurans, including the thousands in recent street protests, the government’s purpose is to rid itself of the “burden” of providing for health, education, and other services, and to privatize these—a plan that would free more money for other purposes, including enriching some individuals and freeing more money for the military. The PMOP has been especially rewarded, and Hernandez has expressed his intent to increase its numbers over the next few years. An example of the reach of militarization was the establishment of a program called Guardians of the Fatherland (Guardianes de la Patria) in which military personnel gave instruction over weeks or months to select groups of youth in the virtues of patriotism, duty, discipline, and more—an intervention of the military into an area usually the domain of family, school, and church.

While strongly pursuing policies and practices that have greatly increased poverty and economic desperation, Hernandez and the National Party have initiated a set of programs through non-governmental or semi-governmental structures that purport to provide some relief for the poor with what are, in most cases, short-term handouts or limited opportunities. Often, these are allocated to members or loyal supporters of the ruling National Party, while critics and others are excluded. There has been little or no transparency in the budgets and spending of many of these programs. Honduran social historian Marvin Barahona believes that these programs effectively reduce formerly self-reliant citizens to dependent clients of the government and the ruling party. Recipients of such largess will hesitate to criticize or protest against a government from which they receive a small lifeline. Hence, Hondurans often use the term clientelism to signal this aspect of the transition from democracy to dictatorship—the creation of dependency on the ruling party and its leader.

Corruption and Official Impunity

As elsewhere in human societies, Honduras has always had its share of corruption. Mostly, corruption involved individuals trying to enrich themselves by engaging in specific single or repeated acts of robbery against a particular source. But in the ten years since the coup, the nature and extent of corruption in Honduras has changed. Corruption has developed into a national criminal enterprise involving networks of individuals and groups, some apparently at the highest levels of government, using state institutions and programs to enrich the members of the network at the expense of services meant for the public, i.e., at public expense. According to some researchers, corruption has become not an individual and sporadic incident but rather the “operating system” of the Honduran state.The change is enormously damaging to both the democratic institutions of government and the human rights of the population. It also distorts and weakens the functioning of a healthy national economy.

Several characteristics define this “new” corruption. It often involves the creation of fake business enterprises, organizations, or programs that give a face of legitimacy to illegal activities that include drug trafficking, money laundering, and more. The new corruption includes the creation and passage of laws and agencies that benefit individuals or small groups, such as some members of the Honduran Congress. This corruption mixes legal and illegal enterprises and activities, often through government-private partnerships, so that illegality is blurred and impossible to prosecute. Impunity, non-transparency, and co-optation are essential for this system to continue. Laws and procedures are implemented that exempt members of corrupt networks from prosecution, or allow them to avoid disclosure of their financial and other actions. Corruption has been aided enormously by the transformation of Honduras toward a one-party virtual dictatorship. This allows laws and policies, procedures, and programs that facilitate or encourage corruption to be enacted and enforced. What follows are a few of the many examples of corruption that have ignited widespread protest from the Honduran people in the years since the 2009 coup.

In 2010, shortly after the coup, the Honduran Congress passed a law that created the Commission for the Promotion of Public-Private Partnership (COALIANZA). The Commission facilitates involvement of private businesses in public projects, including construction contracts for government buildings and public works projects. There is little public accounting of the expenditures for these projects, and in several cases large projects contracted to private enterprises have incurred cost overruns and failed completion dates. It has become increasingly difficult to rationalize these failures and incomplete projects, and there are questions about whether the Partnership acts as a source of private wealth and a front for a series of illegal activities that rob from the public and endanger public safety.

The National Electricity Enterprise (ENEE) has been the state run public electricity provider. By 2013, ENEE was losing money at the level of about $US 1.3 million each day, or more that $470 million yearly. Yet, ENEE had failed to make significant investments in improving electricity delivery, replacing aging electricity infrastructure, and curbing illegal siphoning of electric current. Investors and foreign financial institutions were wary of coming to the rescue. Congress passed a law to restructure ENEE and make it more efficient and accountable, but enforcement remained weak or nonexistent. Some government officials, members of the business elite, and foreign financial institutions began suggesting or demanding privatization of electricity. As of 2019, ongoing privatization has resulted in higher costs to consumers and more power outages, contributing to popular discontent. Through these developments, the energy sector has become an important revenue stream for the network of corruption, according to some researchers.

One of the most dramatic and high profile corruption scandals in Honduras in the past ten years was the revelation in early 2015 of a massive theft of funds from the Honduran Institute for Social Services (IHSS), the state agency that manages the country’s public health and social services programs. The scandal was first reported by a Honduran journalist who has since been under ongoing harassment, detention, and arrest by the government. Fake requisition and purchase orders with inflated prices were contracted with private providers for (in some cases nonexistent) medical supplies. The payments from state funds went to the pockets of private individuals in the network of corruption. The diverted funds amounted to about 7 billion lempiras ($US 297 million) that became unavailable to the public health system, creating shortages in medical care that affected the poor most severely. Many believed this corruption resulted in the deaths of several thousand Hondurans unable to access or afford health care.

The IHSS scandal provoked popular protests in many cities throughout Honduras through much of 2015. Thousands took to the streets in the evenings bearing lit torches-the so-called “marchas de las antorchas.” The protesters called themselves los Indignados (the indignant ones). Among their demands was for an internationally backed anti-corruption commission that could investigate and bring the force of law against corrupt individuals, groups, and practices. The idea was modeled on a similar commission in Guatemala that, under UN auspices, had gained the arrest and indictment of some high ranking Guatemalan officials on charges of corruption. Within weeks, an agreement was signed between the Honduran government and the Organization of American States establishing the Honduran Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción e Impunidad (MACCIH). The Mission had less authority to take legal steps against corrupt officials that its Guatemalan counterpart, and some Hondurans questioned its impartiality. Although it made gains in investigating official corruption, the MACCIH was hindered at every turn by Honduran government authorities, often with the well-worn rationale that Honduras did not need a “foreign” entity to deal with its own problems. In 2018, the international head of MACCIH abruptly resigned, saying his work was being undermined not only by the Honduran authorities but also by the head of the OAS itself who seemed to have a favorable relationship with Honduran President Hernendez. The MACCIH is still present in Honduras, although its survival seems always tenuous, given the forces arrayed to stop it from prying too deeply into official corruption.

Partly in reaction to the threat posed by the MACCIH and by rising indignation and calls for accountability within Honduras and abroad, the ruling National party pushed through a series of laws and procedures over the past few years that were designed to shield members of Congress from conviction. Meanwhile MACCIH and Honduran investigators began to speak of a network of corruption (red de corrupción) within the Honduran Congress, as more than one hundred members were under various levels of accusation or suspicion for corruption and other crimes. Some of these new scandals acquired interesting names, such as Pandora (open the box and out comes more corruption than you imagined), and Chica China (officials allegedly received bribes to make sure Honduras continued to offer diplomatic recognition to Taiwan and not mainland China).

The two post-coup presidents of Honduras—Porfirio (Pepe) Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH)—are currently at the center of corruption and criminal investigations that have involved close associates and family members of both presidents, and both have themselves been under scrutiny.The intervention of U.S. investigators and legal authorities may have provided the crucial factor in gaining this outcome. U.S. intervention is a response in part to the fact that the corruption allegedly perpetrated by such high level Hondurans involved massive drug trafficking into the United States and money laundering that affected U.S. interests. The extraditions of Hondurans to stand trial in the U.S. may also be part of an effort to clean up the image of the Honduran government that Washington regards as its principal supporter in the Central American region. National surveys over the past five years have revealed levels of popular confidence at well below fifty percent in the major institutions of Honduran society, with government and political institutions near the bottom.

Violence, Gangs, Drug Traffickers, and Those Who Must Leave

Within four years after the coup, the murder rate in Honduras had become the highest in the world, at least for any nation not actually at war, hovering around 89 per hundred thousand. Since 2016, the rate has declined somewhat, although it is still extremely high at around 44 per hundred thousand, more than six times that of neighboring Nicaragua (around 7 per hundred thousand). But statistics are one reality; everyday life is another. Many Hondurans say they are aware of or have directly experienced high levels of violence in their daily lives that have not gotten better. Women and youth especially seem to be targets of violence. The country has the highest rate of femicide in the world. The two largest categories of Honduran asylum seekers arriving in U.S. immigration courts in the past few years have been single women (often with children) and teenage males fleeing gang violence and police corruption. More recently, whole families have been fleeing in larger numbers.

Since at least 2014, the number of Hondurans leaving (fleeing) their country has been rising steadily. It reached an average of 300 leaving each day by 2017. After the re-election of Juan Orland Hernandez in November, 2017, that many deemed fraudulent and unconstitutional, the world began witnessing the formation and migration of the “caravans” from Honduras and Guatemala. In the first two months of 2019, U.S. officials reported more than 60,000 arrivals at the border. In April, an estimated 100,000 arrived in that month alone, about half from Honduras, the rest mostly from Guatemala and El Salvador. Emigrants, especially asylum seekers fleeing a country in such large numbers always raises embarrassing questions and speculation about what must be very wrong in that country. President Trump, some of his associates, and the Honduran government were quick to denounce the migrants as opportunists or criminals, and to claim that the caravans must be the work of outside forces bent on discrediting both governments—claims that were shown to be both ludicrous and false. Mainstream media promoted the idea that Hondurans were fleeing gangs and drug traffickers.

The roots of the “crisis at the border” include the devastation of rural communities and self-reliance wrought by the extractive development model pursued with a vengeance by the Honduran government since the coup, as indicated above. The displaced children of the landless living in urban poverty are at the mercy of gangs, drug dealers, and corrupt police. If one is listening, one can hear horrendous stories of sixteen-year olds who are afraid to leave their homes in poor neighborhoods for fear of being forcibly recruited by the local gang or shot by the police for suspected gang activity. School attendance and a job are too dangerous. Honduran researchers report that as many as one million children may be missing school in Honduras (in a total national population about 8.5 million) because of fear of violence and inferior or non-existent educational facilities.

The final blow for many Hondurans living in such conditions—a poverty rate of 70 percent with prices rising weekly due in part to corruption, and an extremely high rate of violence—was the highly suspicious 2017 election and the severe repression of popular protest that has continued since. Some have concluded that there is no peaceful way to bring about change, even as their survival seems to depend on things changing or they must leave the country. If there is a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. border there is also a crisis in countries like Honduras, and for many Hondurans the latter is far more dangerous than anything they will face on their trek north.

It is worth noting that the gangs and drug traffickers that plague Honduras are not entirely homegrown Honduran creations. The two largest nationwide gangs in Honduras, MS 13 and 18th Street (Mara 18) had their origins in the streets of Los Angeles and elsewhere in southern California among the children of Central Americans who had fled to the U.S. to escape the wars that ravaged Central America in the 1980s. U.S. officials deported many gang members to Central America, despite the fact that most of them had lived most of their lives in the U.S. In the unknown and difficult environment of urban Honduras and El Salvador, the deportees found a measure of security and community by re-establishing their gangs there. The narcotics industry in Honduras derives in part from two sources. One was the infiltration into Central America of traffickers and drug lords from Mexico in the north and Colombia in the south. The other was the use of arms-for-drug tradeoffs engineered by U.S. officials in the 1980s to bypass U.S. law and provide weapons to the Contras fighting the Nicaraguan revolutionary government from safe havens in Honduras (the subject of a major U/S. newspaper expose at the time and a subsequent Hollywood movie). Gangs and drug trafficking have flourished in the past ten years in the context of the poverty, official corruption, impunity, and lack of respect for law demonstrated by officials. And, of course, the ever present U.S. market demand for narcotics.

Has the U.S. Role Changed?

The United States has been deeply involved in Honduras for more than a century. U.S. mining interests were active in the south of the country as early as the 1870s. From 1900 to the 1960s, U.S. companies developed the banana empire, a vast stretch of plantation agriculture in the north. United Fruit and other companies held so much land, employed so many workers, and accounted for so much of the country’s export product that the the U.S. became the dominant influence in the relatively weak economic and political institutions of the Honduran state. Honduran officials simultaneously held positions with the fruit companies, with little separation or regard for conflicts of interest. As the power and influence of the banana kings began to decline after 1960, Honduras took on a new importance for the United States as a base for U.S. power and influence in Latin America in the middle of the Cold War. With the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and the popular insurrection in El Salvador, Honduras became the launchpad for U.S. military presence. The buildup of U.S. military presence in Honduras centered at the Palmerola (Soto Cano) base that was to be “temporary” during the regional conflicts of the 1980s is still present and larger than before, bolstered in the past decade by a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) presence, and additional U.S. military and intelligence installations and units such as special rapid deployment teams, especially in the eastern Mosquitia region. U.S. security aid has continued to supply materials, equipment, and other supports for the police and the military who use these in operations to forcibly repress peaceful protests.

In addition to becoming a major exporter of narcotics and immigrants to the United States in the past ten years,, Honduras remains a supplier of raw materials and agricultural products, including antimony (used in cellphones) gold and other metals and minerals,, wood for paper and cardboard, shrimp, some fruits, coffee, and palm oil. Extraction of metals and wood, and production of palm oil are particular flash points for conflict with local communities threatened with displacement by these activities and their related projects such as river damming for hydroelectricity; or, in the case of wood, the extraction of the few remaining large groves of precious mahogany that Indigenous peoples such as the Tolupanes have tried to safeguard while suffering violence, criminalization, and loss of life for their efforts. At least six Tolupanes in one community have been killed while peacefully defending their land and resources since 2015. There are ways to obtain these raw materials without such a high cost in human misery, but that will require major changes in economic policy and political will that seem like threats to the current system and its overseers in both Honduras and the United States.

U.S. economic and diplomatic support for the post-coup Honduran governments has hardly wavered in the past ten years. Secretary of State Clinton actively supported the the coup in 2009. The Obama Administration continued to provide “security” aid throughout the decade. As the irregularities and illegalities of the re-election of Hernandez were surfacing and popular protest was growing in 2017 and 2018, the State Department certified that the Honduran president and his government were making good progress in promoting democracy and human rights. But the increasing evidence of widespread official corruption and the large surge in Honduran immigration to the United States in the past few years seem to threaten the positive image and the continued functioning of the political system in Honduras. Environmental disaster—exacerbated by unregulated extractive projects and global climate change—is a further destabilizing force that increases the distress of Hondurans and makes small producers of coffee and other products even more insecure.

It is anyone’s guess whether the recent series of high profile extraditions of prominent Hondurans to stand trial in the U. S. is a sign of Washington’s loss of patience with the Honduran government or simply an attempt to clean up the image so that no real change will be demanded. Almost every year since the coup, there have been movements in the U.S. Congress to demand a halt or a review of how U.S. aid is actually used in Honduras, and whether it is used in the violation of human rights. Senators and Representatives have sponsored letters to Secretary Kerry and then Secretary Clinton, signed by dozens of Congress members. This has been followed by moves for Congress itself to act. The most recent is the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 1945), re-introduced earlier this year by Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA). The bill currently has over sixty House co-sponsors and is seeking more.

Evolution of Popular Resistance

At the time of the 2009 coup, Hondurans already had a long history of popular resistance. Indigenous Hondurans (Lenca, Tolupán, others) have been in continual resistance to forms of colonial occupation from Spanish colonial times into the present, as their lands and resources remain under threat. The great banana workers’ strike of 1954 is often described as the beginning of organized labor and peasant associations as recognized voices in the political discourse of the country. The 1980s saw the beginnings of many important human rights and social justice organizations in response to the oppression of the national security state. Many of these organizations continue today to denounce violations of law and rights and to offer support to those targeted by official repression. The leaders and staff of these organizations continue to face ongoing death threats and defamation. International solidarity presence and efforts to review and curtail foreign security aid to Honduras are often mentioned as important supports for human rights leaders under threat.

There has been a gradual and halting convergence of popular organizations and human rights and other groups and the extension of criticism, organizing, and resistance that has incorporated many local issues and protests into a larger movement around the discourse of human rights. When peasant or journalists are killed, it is not simply a concern of peasant organizations or media groups, but rather of human rights organizations and others, as well. The latest massive street protests that have continued amid police and military repression for weeks, began when medical personnel and teachers and their unions joined forces to oppose the process privatization and massive layoffs the government was pursuing in public health and education. But transport workers and many others have joined, and the demands have widened to include the resignation of President Hernandez.

Popular resistance has had many obstacles to overcome in Honduras, including efforts by powerful Honduran and foreign interests to divide, co-opt, or criminalize popular organizations and human rights leaders and activists. Internal differences in strategy, goals, and political agendas have hindered a united resistance—at least until now. As the massive public and largely nonviolent protests continue and the toll of killed and injured by police and military repression mounts, there are signs that even sectors of Honduran society not involved in popular protest have had enough and are suggesting or demanding change. Recently the Honduran Catholic Bishops Conference issued a scathing letter criticizing the government and seeming to sympathize with the protests. Sectors of the major business community have warned that change must happen in order to rescue a faltering economy. Units of the national police have stated their refusal to oppress their own people any longer, although it is uncertain how this will play out. Together with signs of concern and impatience with conditions in Honduras from the U.S. Administration and in the U.S. Congress, one can be pardoned for wondering if Honduras is at another turning point, ten years after the 2009 coup. Carlos Paz, director of social ministries for the Catholic organization Caritas in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, recently said in a Honduran radio interview:

“2009 was a point of inflection, a point that made more extreme the process of wealth consolidation in a few hands in Honduras, accompanied by organized crime and corruption…a tremendously dark time, and we were thinking that we didn’t have any exit. But soon we began to see on the horizon different lights. And what we are living through now [the massive popular protests] is a light.”

Further Reading Suggestions

The following books provide richly sourced detail and analysis in more depth that is possible in this article.

Sarah Chayes. When Corruption Is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras. Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017.

Dana Frank. The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018.

James Phillips. Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience. Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2015 (pb. 2017).

Tyler A. Shipley. Ottawa and Empire: Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras. Ottawa: BTL Books, 2017.

 

More articles by:

James Phillips, Ph.d., is a cultural anthropologist at Southern Oregon University. His book, Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience, was published by Lexington Books in 2015.

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