Thanks to Donald Trump’s pre-election decision to send approximately fifty-nine hundred active-duty troops to “defend” the United States from a few thousand destitute refugees fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Americans have had one of their periodic reminders of the existence of these Central American countries. Occasionally, as with the full-blown US support for the Salvadoran regime during the 1980s guerrilla war, one of the countries will be granted a large measure of media interest, and even some in-depth analysis. Currently, however, beyond pro forma allusions to “violence” and “gangs,” our media tells us little about Honduras, least of all the role of the United States in reducing it to its current condition. To shed some light on this largely neglected story, I talked with Professor Dana Frank of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Endowed with firsthand knowledge of the realities of Honduras and its people, she has worked tirelessly to enlighten the rest of the world to the true state of affairs, regarding not only the ongoing political and economic repression, but also Hondurans’ unflagging resilience in the face of same. She has laid out the full story in her new and engrossing book The Long Honduran Night (Haymarket Press).
Let’s talk a little bit about the notorious caravan, what it actually was about, and why it started.
Who’d have thought poor Honduras would be the October surprise? But at least it draws attention to how terrible things are there. People are fleeing for very good reasons—not because they are trying to invade the United States, but because they’re trying to not die. They’re people seeking asylum, for the most part, who can’t afford to pay a coyote, who banded together for their safety to try to travel north together. The most recent caravan is like one of many smaller ones that people have formed spontaneously in the past. Its members met each other at the San Pedro Sula bus station. When the big northbound buses were full, migrants decided to move together anyway. Their plan is to ask for asylum, following legal procedures.
There’s the impression that the Honduran state is just not doing its job in protecting people from gang violence. Is that right?
You have to understand that the rule of law has been destroyed in recent years, ever since the June 2009 coup that deposed the democratically elected president. The post-coup regime, including the judiciary, the police, the military, the attorney general’s office, and the congress, destroyed the rule of law, top to bottom. I would underscore: the United States-backed post-coup regime.
So it’s a failed state?
Well, it is a failed state in the sense that it fails as a state to deliver what we think of as basic government functions and services. But it serves all kinds of economic interests for the drug traffickers, the gangs, the elites that control the vast majority, maybe 95 percent, of the economy, and the transnational corporations that control the other 5 percent. They all benefit from the state in its current form.
This feeds into the reason why people are fleeing. An estimated two thirds of the people in Honduras live below the poverty line. Livelihoods that allow people to survive are actively being destroyed by state policies, such as hydroelectric dams that are forcing Indigenous people and small farmers off their lands, and the mining concessions granted by the government that extend to something like 30 percent of the whole country. These mines are being dramatically expanded on Indigenous lands. Those who legally resist these new land takeovers by elites are being killed. A push toward palm-oil production, backed by multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, is forcing thousands of small farmers off their lands.1 Lands that belong to the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people on the Caribbean coast are being seized to expand the tourist economy. Meanwhile about 140,000 people are employed in the maquiladora sector, the export processing zones, which are largely garment production, but also electronics. They’re tremendously destructive to a person’s health. Workers inhale cotton dust and all kinds of contaminants. They work twelve hours a day. Their eyesight is damaged. Most of those that are employed are young people, and when their bodies give out, the companies just hire new people.
How does all this differ from what was happening in the period before the coup?
There used to be something of a functioning welfare state in Honduras, including a public health care system for those in the formal economy. But since the coup, the elites have used the state as a bank account, robbing its coffers blind. Most famously, the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and his ruling National Party, have been documented as having stolen as much as $90 million from the national health service in 2013, to pay for his election campaign that year.
That gutted the national health service. Now that it’s largely bankrupt, there aren’t enough dialysis machines, and the doctors and the nurses often don’t get paid. The education system has been similarly destroyed—the teachers’ pension fund was robbed right after the coup under Micheletti. The teachers have had to repeatedly strike, for long periods, to try to get their salaries.
Let’s go back to the June 2009 coup that sent everything downhill. Can you explain or just go through the background of the coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya, and why it happened when it did?
Zelaya was from one of the two right-wing parties that have ruled Honduras, trading power back and forth, for decades. He was a member of the elite, but he was moving somewhat to the center or even center left, starting to take on somewhat more progressive policies, as well as blocking privatizations the elites wanted. The coup took place because he was supporting a ballot measure to ask if there would be a vote in November, as part of the regularly scheduled presidential election, to elect delegates for a constitutional convention that would be held at some undisclosed point in the future. That convention, which would be held when Zelaya was no longer in office, would consider whether to change the constitution to allow a president to have a second term. And the right seized on that proposal, claiming with zero evidence that Zelaya was trying to get a second term. The Honduran military shipped Zelaya off in his pajamas to Costa Rica at five in the morning. That ushered in what I would call the post-coup regime. Later, current president Juan Orlando Hernandez, first elected in 2013, got the Supreme Court, which he himself had imposed by overthrowing the original court in 2012, to illegally overrule the constitution and allow him to run for a second term.
Did the United States have a role in promoting the coup?
We don’t have a smoking gun that the United States approved the coup, although we do know that the plane that flew Zelaya out of the country stopped at Soto Cano Air Base, which is a US–Honduran military base, on its way to Costa Rica. It’s not plausible that the plane could have stopped there without US approval. We definitely know, thanks to Hillary Clinton’s emails, as well as the WikiLeaked cables from the US Embassy in Honduras, that the United States supported the stabilization of the regime of Roberto Micheletti, who was installed as “president” immediately following the coup. All the signals that the United States sent, and also the work that the Obama administration did behind the scenes, was designed to stabilize the post-coup regime.
Let’s walk through that. What statements did they make following the coup?
On the day of the coup, Obama said that the United States hoped that the Hondurans would resolve the situation “peacefully through dialogue free of international interference”—that kind of thing. After that, the United States treated Micheletti as an equal to the democratically elected President Zelaya. The United States was saying: “We’re going to negotiate between the usurper and a legitimate president.”
This was like the spider and the fly negotiating over who’s going to control the spiderweb. The most important thing the United States did was to delay any kind of restoration of Zelaya until after November 2009, when the elections were scheduled.
The opposition candidates, for the most part, pulled out of those elections because a free and fair election was impossible. The army controlled the ballots. People were being beaten and teargassed on the streets regularly. All the major international observers, including the UN and the Carter Center, boycotted the election. The National Party candidate, Porfirio Lobo, “won,” and the United States immediately recognized the outcome as a legitimate government, which was absurd.
Why do you think the United States was so concerned to support this coup, even if they didn’t organize it?
It goes back to the victories of all these center-left and left governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Latin America during the George W. Bush administration.
I think that when Obama came into office in 2009, the State Department and the White House looked around and thought, “Whoa! We’re losing Latin America.” US power was, in fact, slipping dramatically in Latin America, because of these democratically elected governments. Once you had that democratic space, people were not going to be so subservient to the United States. I think that Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the folks running the show at the State Department figured that out. Zelaya was the weakest link in that chain of new, center-left and left governments.
US support for the Honduran coup was a warning to everybody else that the party’s over now. It was also about new Cold War politics: the idea that if the United States doesn’t control a country in Latin America, China, Russia, or Venezuela will. That’s a big part of it.
Some of it is just making Latin America safe for transnational corporate investments. That’s the agenda of the United States government, at the deepest level.
Which individuals would you point at as executing this policy at the time?
We have to talk about the policy during the whole nine and a half years of the post-coup regime and not just support for the coup. But certainly, at the time of the coup, it was Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and Barack Obama, who was president and oversaw her, that allowed this to happen.
It’s clear from WikiLeaks and her emails that this was Clinton’s policy. She wanted the coup to stabilize. Her actions make it clear she wanted Zelaya out. She greeted the post-coup’s vicious regime with open arms, celebrating what the State Department called the “government of national reconciliation and unity” of Porfirio Lobo in the months after the internationally condemned 2009 election. She also baldly lied about the coup. In a 2016 interview with the New York Daily News ,23 she claimed that the United States had never called it a coup. Of course, it did—the issue at the time was that the United States refused to call it a military coup, which would have made it legally obliged to cut all forms of aid. Even more chilling, she insisted in the interview that the coup had been legal, and was not unconstitutional—that is, not a coup at all. This is terrifying! Clinton wasn’t just rewriting history. She was rewriting it to take a position that was to the right of her own documented position at the time, which was to recognize and call it a coup.
In her autobiography, Clinton wrote that, after the coup, she strategized with the Mexican government and others “on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” Let’s be clear about what she’s saying here: she didn’t want to restore the legal president, she wanted to have an election that would appear to be legit, so that Zelaya could be ejected for good. That passage was so volatile that she had it cut out of the paperback version of the book. That’s creepy, too.
Who else would you point to as key figures?
The person who was really the mastermind or architect of US policy toward Honduras was someone a lot of people probably haven’t heard of named Thomas Shannon, who was the top-ranking person running Latin America policy for the State Department in the years following the coup, up until he left in February 2018. You can see it in Clinton’s emails and in WikiLeaks. For example, there’s an email the day of the bogus elections in November 2009 where he’s writing to Clinton, giving advice on what she should say about the elections. He wrote, “We should congratulate the Honduran people, we should connect today’s vote to the deep democratic vocation of the Honduran people.” He calls on the other nations of Latin America to recognize this “accomplishment.” And that’s almost exactly what she said that night. You can see Shannon choosing to create this narrative, and you can see him pop up at key moments over the years, such as during the so-called “crisis” of fifty-seven thousand unaccompanied, undocumented minors who arrived in Honduras at the US border in 2014, that was seized upon by right-wing media outlets.
I also want to point to John Kerry. When Kerry was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time of the coup, he was not all bad. He actually called on Hillary Clinton to designate the coup a military coup and to suspend aid as is legally required. And she would never do that. Obama would never do that. But when Kerry wanted to be Secretary of State, he moved rightward. So it was John Kerry as Secretary of State who gave a green light to Juan Orlando Hernández when he first started running for reelection in 2016, in violation of the Honduran constitution. The United States could have supported the opposition, and chose not to.
What about the role of the US military?
The United States Southern Command [Southcom] functions as a self-serving machine that wants money for itself and to have military power in Latin America. But John Kelly has been a major player for a long time. Kelly headed Southcom from 2012 to 2016, and he was extremely supportive, publicly, of Juan Orlando Hernández once he became president. Kelly even said that Hernández was doing a “magnificent” job of fighting drug traffickers—which is absurd, because there are drug traffickers at the very top of Juan Orlando’s government. His brother, Juan Antonio, has just been arrested in Miami on drug charges. His current minister of security and defense has been named as a drug trafficker. And there are allegations of his own direct involvement with drug traffickers.
There are other key US players. The US Ambassador to Honduras, James Nealon, was a State Department career officer, and before he became Ambassador he was Kelly’s right-hand man at Southern Command in Miami. His appointment as Ambassador was a signal that the defense department was going be powerful in Honduras.
Kelly was a hard-liner on immigration long before joining the Trump Administration. Back in 2014, when he was still at Southern Command, and while the Ebola epidemic was spreading in West Africa, Kelly said publicly that if Ebola came to Central America, “it’s literally ‘Katy, bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration to the United States.” He later suggested that he just said that so he could get more money for the Southern Command. It’s an early example of how alarmists like Kelly are using poor, starving children and adults trying to come into this country as a political weapon, to try to terrorize us with these imaginary invasions.
The book is full of other key agents of the Department of State and the White House, who’ve meticulously and with nefarious subtlety machinated support for the post-coup regime for years and years.
There are heroes as well as villains in your book. Can you talk about the mass resistance that emerged in response to the coup and the repression that followed?
The resistance seemingly came out of nowhere. In retrospect, you could see the building blocks. But at the time, it was this totally surprising and amazing massive alliance between the labor movement, the women’s movement, the campesino movement, the Indigenous movement, the Afro-Indigenous people, the LGBT movement, and the better part of the traditional Liberal Party, who remained loyal to Zelaya. And also middle-class people, all kinds of people who were loyal to constitutional order. In the United States, we suddenly understand this differently under the Trump era—what it means to be defending the constitutional rule of law.
Honduras had not been an exciting place of social movements during the 1970s and ’80s, when other countries in Central America were engaged in armed struggle and revolutions. And here it was, exploding with creativity and vision and bravery. It was an incredible experience to be part of that, and to write about it. I wanted the reader of the book to be able to feel what it was like to be in the streets.
There’s a new opposition party, LIBRE, which probably won the presidential election in 2013, and which had the second-largest number of members of Congress after the 2013 elections. In November 2017, an opposition leader who ran in coalition with LIBRE clearly won the elections. This electorally successful opposition disappears from the media, along with the beautiful, brave social movements. The decade-long murderous repression by the state of those in the opposition who fight for a viable economy, fight for the rule of law, who defend land rights and try to stop the out-of-control killing of women, disappears from the reporting. And so you just have powerless victims. And then we’re supposed to help the victims by pouring even more money into the Honduran government, which is of course what’s creating the victims.
Let’s talk about some of the people you got to know in the resistance, specifically Berta Cáceres, the Indigenous peoples’ activist who was murdered in 2016.
Berta Cáceres was this tremendously charismatic and dedicated and smart activist. She was the head of an organization called COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, and represented the Lenca people. The Lenca people had been fighting against a hydroelectric dam project in an area called La Esperanza. She was a central leader in that struggle along with other COPINH members, and they had been fighting with peaceful protesting, pursuing legal challenges, using every tactic imaginable against this illegal hydroelectric dam.
Other activists were killed before her. With Berta, one of the strategies of the opposition, including those of us in the United States, in Europe, and in other countries was—and still is—to try to protect activists by giving them an international profile. Because the theory was that they were less likely to be killed if they’re internationally prominent or internationally known.
And of course, thousands of people in the opposition have been killed in Honduras since the coup. At the time of her assassination, Berta was one of the two or three most famous people of the Honduran Resistance. In 2015 she was given the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco. Nancy Pelosi organized a reception in Berta’s honor on Capitol Hill. Berta even met the Pope.
So when she was assassinated on March 2, 2016 it was this incredible, terrifying shock, because it meant they’d kill anyone. She had gotten over thirty-three death threats, and reported them to the government, but the government did nothing. When she was killed, the government at first invented the fiction that it was a “crime of passion.” Now we know that it was, in fact, members of the military, as well as top officials of the dam company, DESA, who were responsible for her murder. They were, allegedly, working with elite figures that had interests in the dam, including the Atala family.
When Berta was killed, it was a devastating blow to the Honduran people, and to all of us around the world that care about Honduras. But then, they say in Honduras, “Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.” She became this symbolic figure, not only for the Honduran opposition, but also for Indigenous peoples’ struggles, and the environmental movement worldwide. Honduras remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an environmental activist. There’s been extraordinary international pressure in response to her assassination. Berta is a global representative of the amazing people of Honduras. The trial that concluded with seven convictions of some of her assassins, but didn’t touch the alleged intellectual authors of the crime, is also testimony to the ongoing corruption and impunity of the Honduran judicial system.
Your book is partly an account of your own personal involvement in Honduras, and in the resistance to the post-coup governments, both down there and in this country, particularly with regard to Congress.
One of the great joys and wrenching challenges of my life, and the lives of so many of us all over the United States since the coup, has been putting pressure on Congress, and Congress has indeed pushed back against Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration—very dramatically at times. But in the current coverage of the caravan, the long, strong backstory of Congressional criticism of US policy in post-coup Honduras has disappeared.
The initial response to the 2009 coup, by multiple Democrats in Congress, was to demand that all aid, not just security funding for the police and military, should be cut off, because it was a military-backed coup. But Obama never did that.
In 2012, ninety-four members of the House signed a letter led by Jan Schakowsky demanding that security aid to Honduras be cut. That year, largely because of the work of Senator Patrick Leahy, human-rights conditions were placed on a portion of the security aid to Honduras for the first time, and that portion has increased from 20 percent to 50 percent in the years since 2012. Those conditions have been included in the appropriations act every year since 2012. But every year, the State Department declares, preposterously, that the conditions have been met. The other key response has been the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which was originally introduced in 2016 and which now, in the current version, is H.R.1299, and will be reintroduced in January 2019. Seventy-one members of the House have signed onto this bill saying that US security aid to Honduras should be suspended. It also calls for a “no” vote on any new loans from multilateral development banks to Honduras.
So, there’s this long history now of Congress raising alarms and wanting to do something about US support for the post-coup regime.
Trump himself has called for cutting off aid.
Trump threw a wrench into the works by saying that if the governments of Central America keep sending their immigrants, the United States is going to cut all their aid. He wants to do it as a nasty punishment. Now his threats makes it more complicated to make our own demands about the security aid. Because now we have people leaping up to say, “No, don’t cut the aid!” James Nealon, the former ambassador and a great friend of John Kelly—and one of the architects of the horrors in Honduras—now writes op-eds saying, we shouldn’t do what Trump says, we should give them their money.
Senator Marco Rubio, who has supported President Hernández for years and who is reportedly driving Secretary of State Pompeo’s current policy, and who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, has tweeted that the aid shouldn’t be cut.
Wouldn’t it help to promote economic development?
Well, of course Hondurans need economic development, but the policies of the US and Honduran governments are the opposite of that. There’s something called the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, which was the Obama Administration’s response to the unaccompanied minors in 2014. It pours hundreds of millions of dollars into the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, ignoring the corruption and the vicious nature of the regimes in Guatemala and Honduras. That plan supports the very economic sectors that are actively destroying the Honduran economy and environment, like megadams, mining, tourism, and African palms. It also legitimates the government of Juan Orlando Hernández.
What about cracking down on corruption?
Just about everybody agrees that there’s spectacular corruption in the Honduran government. The scope of the corruption became visible in 2015, when there were mass middle-class protests, in the Indignados movement, in response to news that Hernández and his party had stolen as much as $90 million from the national health service to pay for their campaigns.
The protesters were people that patronize the national health service, and also in some cases pay taxes for their businesses and their employees into the national health service. At least three thousand people died after that money was stolen, because the health service was bankrupted. The protesters wanted a commission on impunity and corruption, like the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)4 in Guatemala, which has been powerful. Their other demand was that the president and the attorney general be removed.
But the Obama Administration didn’t want a commission like the CICIG, because it would have been through the UN and not under the control of the United States. So the United States took this mass demand and instead created a commission, the Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
But this has a very weak mandate compared to a superficially similar body in Guatemala. And it’s dependent on the attorney general, who is very tight with the president, and is sitting on all kinds of evidence and thousands of cases, related to the crimes of the regime and its supporters, that he’s not prosecuting. That attorney general just agreed to his own illegal reappointment to a new five-year term.
The commission is pursuing a few cases, but when it tries to do anything powerful, the Honduran Congress slaps it down, fast. For example, it tried to pursue cases against corrupt former congress members last winter, and the congress immediately passed a law protecting its own members—that was immediately denounced as the “impunity pact”—which would in effect allow for delays of up to three years in investigations of corruption charges against government officials. But the commission serves an important legitimation function, since both the Honduran and US governments can say, “Look, we’re fighting corruption.”
But it’s never, “Hello! We have the evidence that the president and his party and the president of Congress are implicated in stealing tens of millions of dollars.” There’s evidence of drug trafficking at the very top of the government and the security forces—but the Attorney General ignores it. The Minister of Security and Defense, Julian Pacheco Tinoco, a former general, has been named twice in US federal court as overseeing drug trafficking flights. No one’s going after the national director of the police, whom the Associated Press has documented to be overseeing drug trafficking. What we get instead is a flurry of anti-corruption activities, that in many ways can serve to legitimate the fiction that things are getting better down there—when they’re not.
What made you decide to write this book?
I didn’t initially intend to write a book. After the coup, I just wrote op-eds and policy pieces, for years and years. After a while, they all started to sound alike. I started referring to them to myself as “Dana’s latest atrocity reports from Honduras.” It was killing me, as a writer, at a literary level as well as an emotional one.
So I started also writing stories of things that I had seen, or things that had happened to me. Eventually I had a whole lot of those, but then they needed context. I ended up embedding my personal stories and observations into that big picture. I’m a professional historian, so I also wanted to be able to record the exact, damning history of the US policy in the years since the coup, and the history of the resistance, and the history of the Honduran government. Within that bigger narrative, I also wanted to give the reader a break by using a storytelling approach, that also includes, at times, humor and fun as well as terrible things. It’s too hard on the reader to just keep hearing about repression and horrors.
Some of the stories are really happy stories, and that’s something I want underscore here. People there are still dancing; it’s not just unrelenting horror. In the middle of this long night, the Honduran people are nonetheless also incredibly positive and loving and fun, as well as terrified and devastated by loss. I wanted to capture their joie de vivre and willingness to do amazing, brave, and beautiful things, and have fun doing it. I wanted the reader to experience all of that, and that’s a part of what the stories are about, too.
It’s also a transnational story. With my own stories, I wanted to be able to capture what happened in Washington, D.C. and the solidarity movement in the United States. The resistance to the post-coup regime is not something that just happened in Honduras. Usually what happens in congress has a curtain in front of it, because you’re not supposed to talk about the fact that the aides did the work, working with a vast network of solidarity activists. I was lucky that a number of aides allowed me to tell the story of the work they did. In the sections on the United States, I talk about the positive role of the US media when people broke stories that we would not have known about. You’ll see these moments of hope in the book, and also huge, surprising protests that break out in Honduras—all these hopeful things that you don’t see coming. Just like in this country up here. The historian in me knows in my bones: you never know what will happen next, and people always protest.