We Talk About One U.S.-Backed Coup. Hondurans Talk About Three.
Above Photo: Honduran migrants walk near Esquipulas, Chiquimula departament, Guatemala, on January 16, 2020, after crossing the border in Agua Caliente from Honduras on their way to the United States. (Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Tracing U.S. complicity in the ongoing human rights crisis in Honduras.
Despite ample evidence of extreme human rights abuses in the immediate aftermath of Zelaya’s removal, the United States decided to support elections widely considered questionable held in November 2009.
In the last three weeks, two groups totaling over 4,000 people attempted to flee Honduras. At the same time, Indigenous groups back in Honduras are engaged in fighting a new law they say will increase their displacement and the violence that is aimed against them. It is clear the crisis in Honduras that has pushed caravan after caravan to seek refuge in the United States is nowhere near an end.
These events are driven by the same thing: A 2009 coup in Honduras aided and abetted by the United States. A little over 10 years ago, the United States had the opportunity to stop much of the misery and human rights abuses occurring regularly today in Honduras by officially denouncing the forced removal of the president as a coup or by refusing to recognize the results of post-coup elections that many Hondurans and observers considered illegitimate. These actions would have ideally triggered automatic repercussions by cutting military aid from the United States and would have significantly weakened the right wing forces perpetuating the coup.
In June 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya proposed a popular assembly to change the constitution in response to demands by Indigenous, feminist and peasant movements, the ballot initiative was used as an excuse by the military and right wing forces to remove him from office. They claimed Zelaya would use the initiative, a tool that had been used previously by socialist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, to allow himself a second term, strictly forbidden by the Honduran constitution.
At this point, the White House and the State Department made the decision not to declare the forced removal of elected President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduran military (with some U.S. military support) a coup d’état—although the Obama administration came close to doing so. But pressure from allies of the involved Honduran generals who were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas (renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) combined with the potential political and economic benefits of a regime change to the United States to keep the administration on the fence about where to side. The 2009 coup stopped the “pink tide” of socialist governments spreading across Latin America from sweeping Honduras: Zelaya was toppled from power before he was able to implement the leftward turn he was headed in.
Despite ample evidence of extreme human rights abuses in the immediate aftermath of Zelaya’s removal, the United States decided to support elections widely considered questionable held in November 2009. In a familiar Cold War move, apparently any outcome but Zelaya was preferred in order to contain the pink tide.
Although it may seem like nothing can be done once a coup has already happened, recent Honduran history demonstrates just the opposite. Community activists like Miriam Miranda refer to not just one but three coups in Honduras between 2009 and 2019—meaning there were multiple watershed moments for the U.S. government to support better human rights outcomes.
Miranda represents the Afro-Indigenous Garífuna people in her capacity as the leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), a federation of the Garífuna people dedicated to the defense of their territory and cultural rights as a minority population in Honduras. She knows firsthand how devastating the coups in Honduras have been: The Garífuna community has been one of the most targeted by the land grabs and violent displacement that have followed them. Miranda herself has been subject to constant death threats. Since 2010, Honduras has consistently been on the list of most dangerous countries in the world for land and human rights defenders.
The “second coup” came in 2012 when then-president of the Congress Juan Orlando Hernández removed four out of five Supreme Court justices on the constitutional panel who ruled “model cities” to be unconstitutional. The model cities are fully privatized municipalities, the brainchild of economist Paul Romer, scheduled to be imposed along the northern coast in the Garífuna’s ancestral territory and one of the drivers of their displacement.
The “third coup” happened in November 2017. Juan Orlando Hernández was elected for the second time in what was widely considered to be a fraudulent result. (The Hernández-appointed Court ruled that Honduran presidents could run for a second term after all.) Two days later, with the election results still in dispute, the U.S. State Department certified the human rights record of Honduras, opening the way for continuing military aid. More than 30 people died in the post-electoral violence alone.
Each of these events has been followed by tacit or overt approval from the U.S. government, along with continued military aid. The total amount of aid is difficult to track because of the way it is appropriated across multiple agencies and given in kind as well as in dollars. The Washington Office on Latin America estimated that in 2017 $4.5 million alone was given directly for military equipment, while aid to Honduran security forces was sprinkled throughout most areas of the budget.
According to a trial in New York last fall, at least some of that military aid seems to be supporting drug trafficking. The president’s brother, Tony Hernández, was convicted of using the power of the Honduran military and state institutions to traffic 200,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. And the corruption goes right to the top: Mexican cartel leader Joaquín Guzman, better known as “El Chapo,” gave $1 million to Juan Orlando Hernández’s election campaign. Yet the United States has not distanced itself from the relationship, referring to Juan Orlando regularly as a “reliable partner,” and even certifying Honduras as a country designated to receive asylum seekers from Cuba and Nicaragua.
A call for solidarity
Shortly after the conviction of Tony Hernández, Miriam Miranda toured the United States and Europe seeking to build a movement for justice in the face of what her community sees as an extermination threat. Eight Garífuna community members were murdered in September and October 2019, many of them women political leaders. In a November 1, 2019 public conversation with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—also regularly targeted for her political leadership)—Miranda described how the location of the Garífuna’s ancestral territory on coastal drug trafficking routes and their organized resistance makes them targets for violence.
Now Miranda and OFRANEH are confronting the “Nájera Law,” nicknamed after the legislator who proposed it in Honduras, which they say will make it even easier for the Honduran government to expropriate their ancestral territory for mega-development projects. According to Óscar Nájera and its other supporters in the government, the law will encode the international standard of “free, prior and informed consent” in Honduran law. But in an interview with In These Times, Miranda says that it “does not benefit us as Indigenous people.” She says the law itself is “imposed by the state,” and along with other Indigenous groups, points to the fact that the law does not allow Indigenous people the right to veto a project as part of the “consultation” process. The Indigenous groups worry it is another way that the Honduran government is legitimating itself to the international community in a context of steadily worsening human rights abuses.
Crises in Honduras like the dispossession and violence faced by the Garífuna people are not natural disasters but the result of a series of political decisions, including foreign policy decisions made here in the United States. That means U.S.-based solidarity movements have an important role to play as well. More than 40 Honduran social movements, including OFRANEH, are calling for the passage of the Berta Cáceres Act, a congressional bill in the United States originally introduced in 2016 by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that calls on the United States to suspend all “security assistance to Honduran military and police until such time as human rights violations by Honduran state security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Honduran journalist, feminist and organizer for environmental justice, Karla Lara, spoke with In These Times about what international solidarity should really mean: “The thing I want most in my life is that we can construct solidarity based on rights … from the basis of a person that also drinks water,” she said. “It’s not just about the north giving to the south.”
Both Lara and Miranda emphasize that global solidarity must be intersectional—meaning it accounts for differences within as well as between groups—and be premised on boosting the organizing and support of rank-and-file movement organizers in the global south. According to Lara, international solidarity must be grounded in a deep understanding not only of nation, but class, race, indigeneity and gender. Careful attention must be paid to voices on the ground in order to distinguish, for example, which laws are merely covers for more land grabs rather than actual systems of consultation.
Miranda says that “international support is vital to make sure that information doesn’t disappear and the pressure remains on the governments.” But she also emphasizes, “just as important as the people doing the urgent, necessary work of making our struggle visible … There are also really serious problems that we’re confronting here in the south that are deeply related to the same problems that you’re confronting there in the north.”
The end of January was the two-year anniversary of Juan Orlando Hernández’s second inauguration, and Hondurans once again took the risk of protesting. The call from Miranda, Lara and other activists in Honduras is for solidarity activists in the United States to move forward by constantly building confidence, trust and personal relationships—and to take responsibility for the results of the foreign policy decisions of the U.S. government. And, as Miranda says, activists are calling on people in the United States to answer for their own government’s role in driving the cycle of crisis, human rights abuse and migration in Honduras.