As the Honduran migrant caravan makes its way through Mexico towards the United States–prompting widespread public acrimony and various threats by the administration–it is important to keep in mind the historical context fueling this seemingly sudden exodus. As Jericho explains:
In June 2009, Honduras’ democratically elected president, José Manuel Zelaya, proposed an extra referendum to take place alongside the general election. The purpose of the referendum was to reform the Honduran Constitution into a more inclusive document which would distribute agricultural land more equally between amongst the population.
The new constitution would also abolish term limits, giving Zelaya the opportunity to run for the presidency again. Two days before the referendum was supposed to be held, the Honduran military kidnapped President Zelaya and flew him into exile in Costa Rica.
At the outset, every other country in the hemisphere condemned Honduran coup, as did the United States, the IMF and the EU, all of whom withdrew financial aid to the Honduran government. The US and most of the international community called for a new election without Zelaya’s presence.
The new election was conducted without international observers — many of whom condemned its legitimacy — and under the watch of the military. The ostensible winner, Pepe Lobo Sosas, was sworn in as president amid violent clashes between Zelaya’s supporters — who boycotted the vote due to their candidate’s forced absence — and the military.
Despite all that, both the U.S. and the European Union were quick to normalize relations:
In 2013, the EU electoral observation mission declared the general election of businessmen Juan Orlando Hernandez to be transparent although the legitimacy of the election was condemned by the leading opposition party as well as most NGO organisations. One of the EU election observers, Leo Gabriel, also caused a stir by publicly condemning the eventual report:
“We had the opportunity to observe the elections at the polling stations and we arrived at conclusions that stand in diametric opposition to the EU-EOM leadership, with regards to the supposed transparency in the voting and vote-counting processes… To speak of transparency after everything that happened last Sunday is a joke.”
In 2015 the Hernández government was quick to rewrite the Constitution to allow for presidents to run for reelection, much as Zelaya had planned back to do in 2009. Under his rule however, life has become increasingly difficult for ordinary Hondurans. By the time the EU released their election report, Honduras had become the world’s most violent country outside an official war zone.
Today Honduras is a country where farmers are intimidated and sometimes killed by private security firms hired by big business for contesting their claims to land; discrimination against the LGBT community is rife and activists are at constant risk of being gunned down. Prize winning environmentalist Berta Cáceres stated in 2013 that, “the army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. When they want to kill me they will do it”.
She was shot dead in her own home three years later in what appears to have been an assassination.
Little wonder that so many Hondurans are desperate to flee what was already a deeply impoverished and unstable country. Unsurprisingly, things have only gotten worse:
In November 2017 another election was held. The Hernández government was challenged by a collection of opposition parties congregating under the banner of The Coalition Against the Dictatorship. The coalition was leading by more than 5 percentage points after 60 per cent of the votes were counted when the entire election system mysteriously broke down.
Twenty-one days later, Hernández was declared the winner by the government-controlled Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), leading to protests that continued throughout the next couple of months.
Recently however, the Honduran opposition seems to have realised that world opinion is not on their side. The former sports reporter-turned-charismatic opposition leader Salvador Nasralla now seems to have lost hope in the prospect of a democratic Honduras.
“I am getting the impression at this moment in time, I hope that I am wrong, that these international organisations are here as decoration and they are scared because they are funded by the US – if they misbehave they cut their budget and when they cut the budget, they lose their salaries and work. So, there is a global corruption, of which we are victims.”
These electoral irregularities have not dampened diplomatic support for the Hernández administration, which is still internationally recognized by most major countries, including the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, France, Brazil, Spain and Israel. As the Jericho piece concludes, “as long as this remains the case, countries stand behind the Honduran government, a democratic transition seems unlikely to occur and the tide of migrants heading north is unlikely to thin anytime soon.”
Of course, such interference in the affairs of our neighbors and backing of despots is nothing new: as early as the 1820s, American explicitly set the stage for interventions throughout the Western Hemisphere, up to and including military occupation. Here’s a quick rundown with respect to Honduras, courtesy of Mark Tseng-Putterman at Medium:
1911: American entrepreneur Samuel Zemurray partners with the deposed Honduran President Manuel Bonilla and U.S. General Lee Christmas to launch a coup against President Miguel Dávila. After seizing several northern Honduran ports, Bonilla wins the Honduran 1911 presidential election.
1912: Bonilla rewards his corporate U.S. backers with concessions that grant natural resources and tax incentives to American companies, including Vaccaro Bros. and Co. (now Dole Food Company) and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International). By 1914, U.S. banana interests would come to own one million acres of the nation’s best land — an ownership frequently insured through the deployment of U.S. military forces.
1975: The United Fruit Company ( rebranded as the United Brands Company) pays $1.25 million to a Honduran official, and is accused of bribing the government to support a reduction in banana export taxes.
1980s: In an attempt to curtail the influence of left-wing movements in Central America, the Reagan administration stations thousands of troops in Honduras to train Contra right-wing rebels in their guerrilla war against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. U.S. military aid reaches $77.5 million in 1984. Meanwhile, trade liberalization policies open Honduras to the interests of global capital and disrupt traditional forms of agriculture.
2005: Honduras becomes the second country to enter CAFTA, the free trade agreement with the U.S., leading to protests from unions and local farmers who fear being outcompeted by large-scale American producers. Rapidly, Honduras goes from being a net agricultural exporter to a net importer, leading to loss of jobs for small-scale farmers and increased rural migration.
It should go without saying that one does not meddle in foreign states for well over a century and then cry foul following the obvious blowback.