by Jack Johnson
The decision of about 160 Honduran migrants to travel as a group in the open to the U.S. — and the decision thousands have made since then to join them en route — is the result of a situation that has little to do with Trump, that, in fact, predates Trump by centuries.
In fact, since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1873, the political interests of North America and Central America have been joined at the hip. Nowhere is that more explicit than in Honduras, sometimes derisively called a ‘Banana Republic’ because of the monopolistic practices of a U.S. company called United Fruit, and its most prominent money making crop, the banana. For years, United Fruit’s machinations politically and militarily kept a firm grip on the Honduran country side; and pretty much ensured the company’s welfare was always aligned with the country’s welfare as well.
As historian Walter LaFeber writes in “Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America,” American companies “built railroads, established their own banking systems, and bribed government officials at a dizzying pace.” By 1914, U.S. banana interests owned almost 1 million acres of Honduras’ best land. These holdings grew through the 1920s to such an extent that, as LaFeber asserts, Honduran peasants “had no hope of access to their nation’s good soil.” Over a few decades, U.S. capital also came to dominate the country’s banking and mining sectors, a process facilitated by the weak state of Honduras’ domestic business sector. This was coupled with direct U.S. political and military interventions to protect U.S. interests in 1907 and 1911.
Such developments made Honduras’ ruling class dependent on Washington for support. A central component of this ruling class was, and remains, the Honduran military. By the mid-1960s it had become, in LaFeber’s words, the country’s “most developed political institution,” – one that Washington played a key role in shaping.
In exchange for military aid, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, John Foster Dulles and his law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, negotiated the land giveaways to the United Fruit Company in Guatemala and Honduras. John Foster Dulles’ brother, Allen Dulles, who did legal work for United Fruit and sat on its board of directors, also headed up the CIA under Eisenhower. In a flagrant conflict of interest, the Dulles brothers and Sullivan & Cromwell were on the United Fruit payroll for 38 years. Recent research has uncovered the names of multiple other government officials who received benefits from United Fruit.
Matters became worse under the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. As part of its effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua and “roll back” the region’s leftist movements, the Reagan administration stationed several hundred U.S. soldiers in Honduras. It trained and sustained Nicaragua’s “contra” rebels on Honduran soil, while greatly increasing military aid and arm sales to the country.
The Reagan years also saw the construction of numerous joint Honduran-U.S. military bases and installations. At that time, U.S. political and military policy was so influential that many referred to the Central American country as the “U.S.S. Honduras” and the Pentagon Republic. Such moves greatly strengthened the militarization of Honduran society. In turn, political repression rose. There was a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations, “disappearances” and illegal detentions.
According to Dr. Joseph Nevins, associate professor of geography at Nasser College, “The Reagan administration also played a big role in restructuring the Honduran economy by strongly pushing for internal economic reforms, with a focus on exporting manufactured goods. It also helped deregulate and destabilize the global coffee trade, upon which Honduras heavily depended. These changes made Honduras more amenable to the interests of global capital. They disrupted traditional forms of agriculture and undermined an already weak social safety net.”
In the post-Reagan era, Honduras remained a country scarred by a heavy-handed military, horrific human rights abuses and pervasive poverty. But there was a liberalizing tendency and an effort to self-heal, to provide for Democratic reform.
In 2006, these forces combined to elect Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformist, as president. He advocated progressive measures such as raising the minimum wage. He also tried to organize a plebiscite to allow for a constituent assembly to replace the country’s constitution, which had been written during a military government. However, these efforts incurred the ire of the country’s oligarchy, leading to his overthrow by the military in June 2009, quietly supported by the Obama administration.
Dr. Nevins writes, “The 2009 coup, more than any other development, explains the increase in Honduran migration across the southern U.S. border in the last few years. The Obama administration has played an important role in these developments. Although it officially decried Zelaya’s ouster, it equivocated on whether or not it constituted a coup, which would have required the U.S. to stop sending most aid to the country.
“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in particular, sent conflicting messages, and worked to ensure that Zelaya did not return to power. This was contrary to the wishes of the Organization of American States, the leading hemispheric political forum composed of the 35 member-countries of the Americas, including the Caribbean. Several months after the coup, Clinton supported a highly questionable election aimed at legitimating the post-coup government.”
Historian Dana Frank writes that since the coup, “a series of corrupt administrations have unleashed open criminal control of Honduras, from top to bottom of the government.” The Trump administration’s recognition, in December 2017, of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s re-election—after a process marked by deep irregularities, fraud and violence is just the latest in a long chain of such events.
Meanwhile, post-coup governments have intensified an increasingly unregulated, free market form of capitalism that makes life unlivable by undermining the country’s limited social safety net and greatly increasing socioeconomic inequality. Government spending on health and education has been eviscerated in Honduras, while the country’s poverty rate has skyrocketed. In May 2017, President Juan Orlando Hernández launched an initiative to revise the criminal code to allow children as young as 12 to be prosecuted as adults, rather than through the existing juvenile justice system, in violation of international standards. Abortion is illegal in Honduras and women who have an abortion, even in cases of rape, can be sentenced to up to six years in prison. In 2015, Honduras had one of the highest murder rates in the world. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) described Honduras in August 2016 as one of the “most hostile and dangerous countries for human rights defenders” in the Americas.
Maybe it’s time to insist that accepting Central American refugees is not just a matter of morality or American benevolence. Indeed, it might be better described as a matter of reparations.