By Guest Columnist Suyapa G. Portillo Villeda
Since the ousting of democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya Rosales on June 28, 2009 Hondurans have seen their hopes for a more democratic and participatory society shut down and repressed at gunpoint by a collusion of elements of their own government, U.S. supported business elites, and strongmen in the military. Most North American citizens are not well versed in the histories of Honduras and Central America, despite the region’s proximity and large populations of Central Americans in cities across the U.S., including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami and Houston, among others. While monumental events are developing daily in Honduras, here in the U.S. most of the public remains virtually unaware of the turmoil.
Why should we care about the ouster of a democratically elected president in a small poor country like Honduras?Here are three concrete reasons. First, the long history and current influence of U.S. economic, political intervention in Latin America and particularly in Honduras since the mid 1800s makes us partially responsible for its future. Secondly, the struggle for civil rights and social welfare programs in Latin America is not too far off what Americans currently face in the North; in this globalized economy people all over the world and their regional struggles for basic survival are interconnected. Thirdly, the continued impoverishment of the majority in Honduras—a primary reason for the exodus of Hondurans to the U.S.—should awaken serious concern about impending refugees and the inadequacy of U.S. policies to deal with the fallout from a repressive military regime.
Historically, Honduras has been a key outpost by the United States for well over 50 years. Even before the signing of the first bilateral military accord in 1954, the U.S. doggedly protected the economic interests of both the United Fruit Company (UFCo) and the Rosario Mining Company in Honduras. During a strike in 1912 in the banana regions, a U.S. naval ship stationed off the coast of Honduras’ principal port threatened to take action if workers did not continue production. During UFCo banana workers’ strikes in the first half of the 20th century it was common for the U.S. Embassy in Honduras to report daily to the U.S. State Department in Washington on worker movements perceived to be threatening to U.S. company operations. From 1962 to 1980, the U.S. supported and collaborated with a series of military juntas that stifled the country. In the 1980s Honduras became a military outpost for U.S.-trained mercenaries during the Contra War. Similarly, Honduras served as a key base for the U.S. invasion of Grenada, attacks on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and repression of Salvadoran refugees at the Honduran-Salvadoran border.
Business and politics have always gone hand in hand when it comes to U.S. policies on Latin America. The assumption is that private American investment in Honduras will result in economic development. Yet Honduras has witnessed only limited industrialization. Honduras continues to provide the U.S. and Canada with raw materials—a classic model of mono crop economy. Bananas, a staple in the U.S., remain cheap and accessible at the expense of workers lives. Work conditions, cost-cutting measures and the effects of a flexible economy threaten to deteriorate hard-won labor union contracts that enable workers to subsist. The eastern side of the Úlua River in El Progreso, Yoro, where Roberto Micheletti, the appointed head of the coup regime, began his corporate dominion over public transportation, is one of the poorest regions. It is also the number one migrant sending region. After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Chiquita Banana abandoned many lands granted in the first half of the 20th century. Chiquita did not return the flood-prone territories to the Honduran North Coast but rather sold these lands to workers. The U.S.’ market demands are linked to the political might of regional strong men, U.S. Banana companies and profound poverty in the North Coast and most of the country.
The Honduran economy is hurting with the global recession. Workers that spent much of their lives laboring in the banana fields in the 1950s now do not have a decent retirement, making 700 Lempiras ($35 Dollars) a month to survive. The retired and elderly struggle with the same issues many elderly struggle with here: access to quality healthcare, a fair and honest retirement, and social welfare system that alleviate their needs in later life. It is common to see the elderly working very late in life, as they become indigent or homeless, since there are virtually no senior homes nor senior centers.Teachers comprise another sector of Honduran society that has waged a long struggle for just salaries working Monday through Saturday in urban and rural state schools. They are often the first to feel the impact of state deficits. Often paid or given raises with “I owe you” promises, they have to strike for every single raise. Teachers often work in poor schools with substandard accommodations and where equipment and books are bought with their own money.
Issues of inequality and poor distribution of wealth are endemic to the Honduran system of the last several decades. Migration has offered one solution that has led the Central Bank of Honduras to note that immigrant remittances supply the Honduran government with the largest amount of income for the GDP of the country, more than bananas and other agricultural products. Honduras’ principal export is immigrants who become low paid workers in the U.S., Mexico and Spain. In El Progreso, the ex-banana lands have become semi-rural neighborhoods and outlying hamlets formed primarily after Hurricane Mitch. Here, at least one member of the family is an immigrant in the U.S., according to a study conducted by the international research center Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación in El Progreso.
The Obama Administration claims a hands-off policy yet barely conceals the U.S. intentions to legitimize the fraudulent elections of November 29. The wavering and lack of decisive action to restore democracy has incubated a repressive political military regime that has perpetrated over 4000 human rights violations, over 3033 illegal arrests, over 20 murders of peaceful protesters, 11 murders of Transgender women, 4 murders of gay men by military, national police and the special forces Cobra and 3 reported rapes. The Obama administration’s inaction reflects a specious analysis or a willful misunderstanding of the historical involvement of the U.S. in Latin America. President Obama must acknowledge the U.S. complicit role in Central America’s entangled past. Both President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton have a moral, ethical and diplomatic responsibility to uphold democratic and participatory processes in places like Honduras if they are setting a new agenda in Washington. Prolonged destabilization in Honduras will only worsen conditions and opportunities for most Hondurans and will push more people to migrate north as economic and political refugees.
It is within the U.S. power to pressure for a resolution that includes 200,000 marginalized people in the streets of Honduras. We have a responsibility to make right a wrong our policies helped create. President Obama was elected on the principles of change, responsibility, compassion and unity. He still has an opportunity to demonstrate all of these by taking action, (161 days late) in Honduras.
Suyapa Portillo is a PhD candidate at Cornell, CFD Fellow at Pomona. Here is a short creative bio of the author in Spanish:
Vivo en los bordes de la locura y el café fuerte con amistadas leales y viejas. Me gusta hablar con ancianos y mujeres vividas, pero de ves en cuando me descarrilo y escribo poesía para lograr calmar la falta de aire en el pecho causada por la contaminación y la gente sucia. Mucho del tiempo me la paso protestando por el derecho a la libertad de vivir, joder, comer, estudiar, trabajar….ser….en Los Ángeles, donde reina mi corazón nacido en La Hibueras. Mi nombre simplemente habla de las historias rojas en las aguas que corren por las venas de nuestros pasados. Algunas son sucias y feas, embarazosas, otras son revolucionarias y bellas, todas son apasionadas y con un aire a nostalgia de algo perdido y algo logrado.