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Open Letter To US Ambassador: Stop The Assault On Honduran’s Human Rights

Above photo: Residents of the Brisas de la Candelaria community march to protest ZEDEs. Choloma, Cortés. October 29, 2021. Antonio Gutiérrez.

In 2009, a military coup in Honduras carried out by a School of the Americas-trained General replaced then-President Manuel Zelaya. Despite massive popular opposition, citizens were unable at the time to revert it, thanks largely to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic support for the overthrow of the democratically-elected President Zelaya. In the 12 years that followed, Honduras descended into a neoliberal narco-dictatorship, with both of the post-coup presidents installed following violent and fraudulent elections (rubber-stamped by the United States) currently facing major drug trafficking charges in U.S. courts.

Just as harmful as the transformation of Honduras into a narco-state, was the aggressive U.S.-led push to implement dramatic neoliberal reforms, accompanied by massive U.S. investment in militarization to repress opposition to them, in the name of “security.” These reforms included the privatization of public utilities, deregulation destroying labor and environmental protections in the name of attracting investment, and the development of a legal infrastructure paving the way for the creation of “Special Economic Development Zones” known as ZEDEs which—in a nutshell—enable massive land grabs particularly targeting afro-indigenous Garifuna and campesino (peasant) lands, for libertarian international investors to create semi-sovereign city-states with their own internal laws. In other words, colonies.

In November 2021, following electoral reforms making it more difficult for the dictatorship to exercise fraud (the result of years of struggle) and a massive voter turnout effort, Hondurans succeeded in voting out the dictatorship. The new president, Xiomara Castro—whose husband is former president Manuel Zelaya—campaigned on a promise to overturn neoliberal reforms including privatization of public utilities, anti-worker labor laws, the ZEDE law, and to restore democracy and sovereignty. Indeed, in the first months of her presidency, she began the process of ensuring that the energy sector would remain public. And the Honduran Congress, now controlled by members of her left-leaning Libre party, overturned the ZEDE law and the anti-worker hourly wage law.

And while there is broad support for these internal reforms in Honduras, U.S. Ambassador Laura Dogu (who was previously stationed in Nicaragua, where she played an active role in fomenting and supporting dissent aimed at overthrowing that government) has repeatedly and publicly spoken out against each of these sovereign policy decisions. She has gone out of her way to meet with ZEDE investors and critics of the current government, which has been broadly viewed in Honduras as an attack on the Castro administration and an attempt to foment division internally. Many Hondurans, including on numerous occasions Foreign Minister Enrique Reina himself, have denounced her actions as U.S. interference in Honduran domestic matters.

In a speech last week at the Annual Meeting of the Honduran American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), Ambassador Dogu harshly criticized the Castro administration’s policy decisions as inimical to foreign investment. In response, Foreign Minister Reina summoned her to an meeting on Monday, October 31, to receive a formal complaint for interference in sovereign Honduran affairs.

In the below open letter to Ambassador Dogu sent this past Monday (the same day that Min. Reina presented the letter of complaint to Dogu), I debunk her misleading claims about the benefits of U.S. investment in Honduras, and condemn her attacks on Honduran domestic policy reforms aimed at improving labor, environmental, and land rights as a clear attempt to increase U.S. hegemony and corporate profits, which in turn will only increase impoverishment insecurity and emigration. I call upon the ambassador and the U.S. government she represents to treat Hondurans and their government with respect.

October 31, 2022

Dear Ambassador Dogu:

I write to express my profound disagreement with your statement issued at the annual 2022 meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Honduras, and to affirm my wish as a U.S. citizen that U.S. foreign policy in Honduras, going forward, be grounded in a commitment to multilateralism, mutual respect, and human dignity.

In your statement, you assert that the United States’ focus is on “building prosperity, improving security, and strengthening democracy to benefit both countries”—certainly noble goals. Yet your subsequent arguments and admonitions belie the claim that U.S. has any interest in achieving them.

As evidence of U.S. commitment to Honduran prosperity, you cite the billions of dollars’ worth of investments pledge by U.S. corporations as announced by Vice President Harris earlier this year at the Summit of the Americas (more specifically, at the parallel “CEO Summit of the Americas”) in Los Angeles, as part of her “Call to Action initiative,” which grows out of the White House’s so-called “Root Causes Strategy” ostensibly intended to stem migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America to the United States. You then proceed to reprimand the Honduran government for “complicating [its] chances of success” through policy decisions in the energy sector; for what you term “the not very successful reforms of the hourly employment law”; and for “messages from the government about the need to reduce or eliminate investment incentives.”

Yet upon examining your assertions, they very clearly demonstrate a singular focus on increasing U.S. corporate profits to the exclusion of the labor, environmental, and basic human rights of Hondurans. A U.S. policy based in these arguments, in turn, represents a tremendous blow to Honduran prospects for prosperity, security, and democracy as it emerges from 12 years of dictatorship, and will only worsen the migration crisis.

Your claim, for instance, that the billions of dollars in U.S. corporate investments promised through the Call to Action initiative will ameliorate economic suffering, rests on the assumption that those investments would create good jobs that would improve living conditions for Hondurans. Yet since early July, your own embassy construction workers have been protesting abusive and illegal labor conditions at the site of the new U.S. Embassy complex. Rather than address their legitimate complaints, the Embassy, the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations and contractor B.L. Harbert have responded with threats, intimidation, violence, and the illegal and arbitrary firing of nearly two hundred workers in retaliation for simply requesting their legal rights be respected. The 1,100 workers and their families, who had been illegally contracted for three years under the coup-era hourly employment law (which, before its repeal—not reform—earlier this year, had been widely condemned in Honduras as a blow to workers’ rights), have suffered tremendously as a result of being locked out and denied pay. Many have gone hungry, and some have lost their homes. Among the fired workers in particular, dozens have been forced to make the painful choice to migrate to the United States in an effort to feed their families.

Meanwhile, unionized workers at PepsiCo—one of the major corporate investors in the Call to Action Initiative (having pledged over $190 million)—are protesting their employer’s refusal for over five years to bargain a new contract in good faith, while simultaneously engaging in a strategy of outsourcing the work of its unionized employees to third parties at preferential rates. PepsiCo’s transparent aim in stalling negotiations and undercutting its unionized employees is to destroy their union, Stibys, and more broadly to undermine labor rights in Honduras in order to increase profits. If PepsiCo succeeds in crushing its workers’ union through stalling tactics and unfair labor practices, then any future jobs created through U.S. corporate investment in Honduras will lack the hard-fought protections that had previously enabled unionized workers and their families to live dignified lives within their home communities.

Given these two brief examples of labor abuses and attacks on workers’ rights committed by the State Department itself through its contractor, and by one of the major investors in the White House’s Call to Action Initiative, the assertion that increased U.S. investment would lead to prosperity for anyone but corporations and their shareholders is specious. To the contrary, the type of jobs to be provided through this initiative as it is currently designed will only escalate Honduran impoverishment and insecurity.

The same is true for neoliberal, anti-worker labor laws like the hourly wage law; the privatization of public utilities including the energy sector; and other coup-era anti-democratic, anti-labor and environmentally harmful regulatory reforms, in addition to openly colonialist initiatives like ZEDEs. In criticizing the Honduran government for working to reverse these harmful policies, you euphemistically refer to them as “investment incentives.” They would be better termed “migration incentives.”

Indeed, if the United States succeeds in strong-arming the Honduran government to leave in place any of these pernicious neoliberal “incentives,” it will become increasingly impossible for Honduran families to remain in their communities, and to collectively carry out the hard but necessary work of rebuilding Honduran democracy following 12 years of dictatorship.

As a U.S. citizen and anthropologist who has published extensively on Honduras based in ethnographic research conducted there over the past 25 years, who has had the great privilege of teaching Honduran students at UNAH as a Fulbright scholar, and who has experienced firsthand the violence of the 2009 U.S.-supported coup and its accompanying policies both in person and through the more than over 100 asylum cases for which I have served as an expert witness in U.S. Federal Court, I am profoundly concerned by the implications of your words and actions, which Honduran government officials have correctly denounced as U.S. government interference in Honduras’s sovereign affairs. Hondurans have a right to determine the conditions of foreign investment in their country, and if they determine that those conditions should include labor and environmental protections, land rights, and other regulations aimed at improving conditions for prosperity, security and democracy, that is none of the United States’ business.

In the strongest possible terms, I call on the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, and you as their representative, to approach the Honduran government and the Honduran people with respect, and to cease intervening in their sovereign affairs.


Adrienne Pine

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