Blood upon the Soil

The Tragedy of Honduras

When President Obama requested $3.7 billion from Congress in early July he returned the issue of border security to the forefront where it had faded since the days of large scale Mexican migration a few years ago. The exodus from Mexico stemmed from the signing of NAFTA in 1994 which pitted Mexican corn farms, long a staple of the Mexican economy, against an influx of heavily subsidized corn inputs from the U.S. Over two million Mexicans left agriculture and many headed north, drawn by the Sunbelt building boom. It is quite easy to recall the hysteria of that epoch: the Minutemen, fear of Requista by increased numbers, illegal aliens bankrupting taxpayers, etc. And it wasn’t only the rabble raising the alarm. Here was renowned scholar Samual Huntington writing for Foreign Policy in 2004:

Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming Instead their own political and existing enclaves — from Los Angeles to Miami — and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.

Yet it wasn’t long before the housing crisis brought down the U.S. economy, ravaging the Sun Belt with foreclosures, and reduced migration from Mexico to a trickle, even causing many to trek back across the border.

The current crisis surrounds the flood of children coming across the border from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). So far this year over 50,000 have been apprehended trying to cross (in 2011 there were few than 4000 such apprehensions). The $3.7 billion Obama requested includes $1.8 billion to better house and care for children and families caught, $1.3 for the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice for border security (including crews to operate drones) and speed up deportation hearings, and $300 million to improve security in Central America. As of now Obama’s request is stalled in Congress.

While the President did correctly label the crisis a humanitarian one, predictively he failed to describe the scope, nor offer an inkling of a relevant solution. Even given the self-centered American punditry with its endless pontificating about the “land of opportunity” and the glories of lawful immigrant toil and advancement, to go with the tedious immigration debate, it is striking that one would have to look hard to come across the fact that the other countries bordering the Northern Triangle including very poor Nicaragua, along with Belize, Costa Rica, and Mexico have seen a 432 percent increase in asylum requests. The children are not fleeing to the promise-land of America as fleeing the desperate, deadly
environment of their homelands.

As of 2012 all three of the Northern Triangle countries have murder rates that rank in the top five in the world. The rate in Honduras was 90.4 per 100,000 which dwarfed even second place Venezuela’s rate of 53.7 (sketchy data suggest the rate in Honduras may have gone down somewhat recently). When drug violence exploded in Mexico in the mid-2000s violence in Central America increased along with it. Figures compiled by the Joint Interagency Taskforce, a U.S. military drug fighting command, reveal that in 2005-2007 the majority of drug flights bound for Mexico from Colombia shifted from the Caribbean to Central America. Due to Honduras’ weak drug laws, long Atlantic coast, and limited interior population, and rampant corruption, it proved to be a good transit point for traffickers bringing drugs north.

Locally street gangs (or Maras) dominate whole neighborhoods. The largest such gangs, the MS 13 and 18th Street Gang, which both infamously have roots in Los Angeles where young Central Americans (mainly from El Salvador and Guatemala) fleeing civil war and repression in the 1980s formed the gang Mara Salvatrucha- probably in response to being targeted by already established LA street gangs. In the 1990s when many were deported back to Central America the gangs returned with them. MS 13 and the 18th Street gang violently battle for people and territory, earning income through extortion in the form of ‘war taxes’ from residents and even the smallest businesses. Young people resisting intimidation to join a gang risk being brutally murdered.

Certainly the drug cartels and street gangs, and the alliance between them- Mara members often serve as middlemen and muscle for the cartels, are a large factor in generating the violence that has rocked Central American society (in El Salvador the Maras are estimated to be behind 60 percent of homicides- though this has been disputed by scholars who argue that young gang members serve as scapegoats or cartel and state violence). However in Honduras, the source of the largest amount of children migrants, it is the state itself that is the main purveyor of violence: better still the symbiotic relationship between the state and the street. The pivotal moment of recent times was the June 2009 coup that overthrew the elected government of President Mel Zelaya (a coup that had at least the tacit support of the Obama administration). Since the coup, which paradoxically weakened the central government thereby making the cartels even stronger, dozens of journalists, peasant farmers, and land activists have been murdered. A report by the Honduras based Violence Observatory (Observatario de Violencia) found that police killed 149 civilians between January 2011 and November 2012 (averaging six per month). The human rights group COFADEH documented 4234 human rights violations in the three months after the coup. Overall the murder rate jumped from a still high 58 per 100,000 in 2008, to the much higher present rate. As unemployment has skyrocketed young men can find little support or structure outside of gang life. All of this is lost in American media coverage that focuses exclusively on gang violence, mirroring the Central American media’s endless sensationalizing of street violence, to the point where the public has supported, at least initially, so called ‘zero tolerance’ policing that amounts to indiscriminately locking up, if not outright gunning down, young people of a certain profile.

A broad view of Honduran history can further illuminate its present troubles: At the time of its conquest by the Spanish, Honduras was inhabited by a variety of indigenous peoples, most prominently the Lenca, once a linguistically distinct people, then in control of territory stretching from Guatemala to modern El Salvador. After a series of rebellions against Spanish invaders, including one led by legendary Lenca chief Lempira (later to have the Honduran currency named after him), Spain gained control of the territory in the 1540s. Early on, gold and silver deposits kept the attention of the colonial powers but these wouldn’t compare to the richer deposits of Mexico or Peru. Honduras was soon an agricultural backwater, undergoing the same democratic collapse that afflicted the rest of the Americas. The indigenous population at the time of conquest was about 800,000. By the 1820s it had fallen to around 60,000.

During the colonial period Honduras was a province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala (administered in Mexico). In 1821 creoles of the Captaincy General declared independence from Spain, apparently out of fear the masses would soon take the step. After brief annexation to Mexico, on July 1st 1923 a congress met in Guatemala City where Central American declared independence. In 1823 a federal state called The United Provinces of Central America (encompassing Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua) emerged, with a constitution signed a year later on November 22nd, 1924. The federation immediately was overtaken by infighting between the states, disputes between liberals and conservatives, and a poor economy. Civil war broke in 1925. Liberals were triumphant in 1929 under Francisco Morazan (elected in 1930) and went about limiting the Catholic Church’s hegemony establishing freedom of religion, secular education and doing away with government sponsored tithing. Conservative reaction, including indigenous uprisings protesting taxation, helped along by propaganda, led by local priests, about a harsh cholera epidemic in 1937 being the result of the government deliberating poisoned the local water supply, took shape in an uprising under pig farmer Rafael Carrera (who would go on to rule Guatemala). In 1938 Nicaragua was the first state to secede, followed by Costa Rica and Honduras. Carrera would defeat Morazan in 1940 ending officially ending the federation.

For Honduras, a nation born in debt and with limited economic prospects, stability was elusive: between 1821 and 1876, 85 different presidents took office (lasting on average about 6.5 months). The political structure was (and has almost always been since) divided between the National and Liberal parties, which as time went on have only nominal differences between them. A crucial early factor that distinguished Honduras from its Central American neighbors was its lack of a large scale coffee industry. The discovery and development of synthetic dyes in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century reduced demand for cochineal and indigo, formerly two of Central America’s traditional exports, and left the region in need of a new economic staple. Given local conditions of soil and climate Central America became a major coffee exporter, meeting the demand of rapidly industrializing populations of Europe and the U.S. Merchants in Costa Rica saw the profitability of coffee in the 1830s. Coffee growing came to Guatemala and El Salvador in the mid-1950s, Nicaragua in the 1860s. By the end of the nineteenth century Central America was producing 10 percent of the world’s coffee. Scholarship suggests that the coffee boom of the late nineteenth century not only brought surrounding countries into the global economy but coffee elites also gave the new states a semblance of national structure and identity. The lack of a coherent landed (coffee) would have important implications on Honduras path of development.

In 1876 Liberal rebels, with military support from Guatemala, took power under Marco Aurelio Soto who, along with top advisor and cousin Ramon Rosa, sought to implement reforms to jumpstart a modern, liberal state. While they succeeded with some minor reforms: they set up telegraphic communication with the U.S., established a central statistical office, and abolished church taxes, their efforts didn’t bear much fruit (civil war would come in 1894).

On one hand the lack of a unified oligarchy strengthened local autonomy requiring at least in some respect that regional powers seek support from locals- in Honduras, unlike Guatemala and El Salvador, indigenous communal lands and lands rented to peasants were kept largely intact. It also meant, especially in the absence of a lot of exploited coffee plantation to oversee, that the Honduran military developed with a degree of autonomy (again unlike its neighboring country which by the late nineteenth century had strong military academies tying them to the state more strongly).

On the other hand, the lack of national elite meant that there was no counterbalance to the foreign interests that came with that the land concessions the Liberal government made, at first in the mining industry then more famously in establishing the banana industry- creating essentially the world’s first ‘banana republic’.

The first ever shipment of bananas to New York City is said to have come from Cuba in 1804. In the 1840s bananas were still priced as a luxury, a single Cuban Red going for 25 cents. Even in 1876 bananas were still exotic enough to draw crowds at the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition, probably right about the time they were dismissed as a ‘nigger crop’ by white planters in Jamaica. However with duties lifted in 1892 bananas soon became the first season-less fruit for mass consumption in the U.S. (marketed as “cheaper than bread”).

It was railroad concessions, railroads at the time being the key component for the Liberal government’s plan for modernization, which provided the legal means for U.S. fruit companies to establish control over vast stretches of land. Early twentieth century government concessions mainly worked off the same arrangement: in return for building and operating railroads, piers, and telegraph lines, a company received rights to soil, timber, and water around the railroads, as well as tax and duties exemptions.

In 1902, American William Streich received a concession to build a railroad in Omoa granting him the right to lease property along the railroad for banana farms. A couple of years later the New Orleans-based Vaccaro Brothers received one to build a railroad in what was a newly created province of Atlantida. The Vaccaros would get two additional concessions in 1906 and 1910. The Vaccaro Company would go on to become the Standard Fruit Company (now Dole).

Meanwhile in 1905 Streich’s concession was passed to one Samuel Zemurry (‘Sam the banana man’) who would purchase Steich’s Cuyamel Company. Only a few years later in 1910 Zemurray would be powerful enough a player in Honduras to fund an attempt by deposed president Manuel Bonilla (when in office Bonilla lavished important land concessions to Zemurray) to retake office via an invasion that set sail from Lake Pontchatrain abroad Zemurray’s private yacht. Bonilla and his hired mercenaries managed some early successes forcing the unpopular president Miguel Davila to appeal to the U.S. for support. A U.S. warship entered Honduran waters brokering an agreement that enabled an interim president to take office (one of at least seven interventions by the U.S. military in Honduras north coast in the early twentieth century).

In 1912 a third, eventually the largest, fruit company, through its subsidiaries the Telsa and Trujillo railroads, would get a foothold in Honduras: United Fruit Company, the name of which still echoes with images of exploitation and manipulative coups. United Fruit would swallow up Zemurray’s Cuyamel Company in 1929 (though Zemurray himself, by way of his large stock holdings, remained a large influence until 1957).

Bananas, which accounted for 11 percent of exports in 1892, were 63 percent of exports by 1913; and though small-scale growers maintained a presence through the 1930s, the multinationals produced 70 percent of Honduras’ banana exports by then. By 1925 about 13,000 workers labored on banana plantations. By 1950 the number would be around 40,000.Private investment flowed predominantly to the north coast rather than the country as a whole, the system of concessions (tax exemptions) that took root during the Liberal Era sapped the state of funds necessary for public expenditure. Small scale civil wars flared up from time to time, further draining the treasury.

When the Depression brought about a tumble in commodity prices unemployment increased rapidly throughout Central America. The expected discontent, strikes in 1931 and 1932 had to be violently suppressed violently in Honduras, alarmed the agrarian elites and fruit companies giving rise to a string of dictatorships. In El Salvador Colonel Maximiliano Hernandez came to power in a 1929 coup, ruling until 1944. Known for dabbling in the occult, Martinez oversaw the execution of at least 10,000 people suspected of taking part in a two day revolt by farmworkers in 1932. Guatemala saw the emergence of Jorge Ubico. Ubico was nominally elected to office (his name was the only name on the ballot) but soon tossed aside his limited democratic credentials by executing 100 student and labor leaders. His degree 2795 exempted proprietors of large estates from criminal prosecution for alleged crimes committed on their property. Pro-U.S. to an extreme degree, Ubico, like Martinez, ruled until 1944.

In Honduras it was Tiburcio Carias Andino. Carias too was elected into office, under the National Party ticket in 1932. Referring to his relationship with United Fruit, the U.S. Ambassador said in April 1933: “no fruit company, I believe ever exercised a more powerful influence and control of a Honduran government than does the United Fruit Company now on the government of President Carias.” While perhaps not quite as heavy handed as his Central American counterparts, by the mid-1930s Caria’s reign featured the requisite press censorship and political repression (the communist party was outlawed). He ruled until 1948 when he forced to step down in favor of another National Party member Juan Manual Galvez.

The slight liberalization under Galvez allowed an opening for workers to organize to great effect. In 1954 labor matters came to a head by way of the greatest political action in Honduras’ history. It started at the Tela port (owned by United Fruit) on Easter Sunday. Management refused to pay dock workers overtime. A wildcat strike broke out and was quickly joined by nurses in the company hospital. Before long all United Fruit’s plantations were affected. On May Day Standard Fruit workers walked off in solidarity. In all 50,000 workers went on strike bringing the banana industry and related ports to a standstill. The strike received widespread support in Honduras even beyond the labor movement, including the local chamber of commerce.

A settlement was reached on July 8, 1954. The results were mixed: workers won the right to form unions, paid holidays, and a labor code was established in 1959. The wage increases of 10 and 15 percent were less than the 50 percent demanded, but the settlement did pave the way for the Honduran working class to become the most organized in Central America by the early 1970s. However, the labor peace enabled the fruit companies to further mechanize production costing many workers jobs. United Fruit cut its workforce from 26,000 in 1954 to 13,000 in 1957. Standard’s workforce fell by half as well. By the end of the 1950s there were 19,000 fewer banana workers in Honduras.

After six years of stability under Galvez, the political establishment began to fracture. When Liberal Party candidate Ramon Villeda Morales won an election in 1954 (the first since Carias’ election in 1932) with less than a clear majority (48 percent) the selection of president went to congress where Nationalists were able to block Morales’ appointment. The crisis led to Galvez’s vice president Julio Lozano Diaz assuming power. Inevitably the only way for Diaz to maintain power was to repress any opposition. He crushed a student-led strike and exiled Liberal leaders making himself unpopular in every circle. The military stepped in with the first ever coup in Honduras history.

The Honduran military made a late entry into directing internal politics but subsequent years would demonstrate that it had developed a taste for it. Its first coup removed an unpopular president. In 1957 Morales again won an election but was himself deposed in another coup, this one in 1962 in the wake an agrarian reform bill that right wing opponents suspected proved Morales sympathy with the new revolutionary regime in Cuba. The leader of that coup, Colonel Lopez Arellano, stood as the Nationalist candidate in 1965 and was confirmed as president. The Nationalists would again have success in 1971 however another coup would return Lopez Arellano back to power a year later.

The Carias’ years saw the first true attempt at professionalization of Honduras’ military. With considerable U.S. support, made concrete by a treaty in May 1954-as the national strike was ongoing, army bases were built on a national basis, weakening the former regional structure, military aid was provided, and the first officer training school was established all in exchange the U.S. got increased access to Honduran raw materials. If this made the Honduran military even more susceptible to U.S. influence than its neighbors it didn’t, at least at first, completely lose its autonomy from the country’s elites. This would, particularly in the early 1970s, lead the military government toward reformist policies.

The question of land distribution became more prominent by 1960. Honduras was still predominantly an agrarian country. Over eighty percent of the working population labored in agriculture. As mentioned earlier, the investment and expansion of the fruit companies on the north coast did not alter the structure of the country as a whole. Large landowners, historically the poorest oligarchy in Central American (largely cattle ranchers to the mid-twentieth century), started to acquire more land for export expansion, coupled with the banana industry employing less workers, tension in the interior rose. Peasants began to challenge the landowners. In 1962 Honduras’ first national peasant union, the National Federation of Honduran Peasants (FENACH) was formed. Yet there was that lingering legacy from the lack of success of the original Liberal reforms of the late 19th century that left a large amount of land in state hands, either nationally owned or communal. As late as 1952 52 percent of Honduran land fell into the latter categories. This left an opening for the state to enact land reform without confronting the oligarchy (an option unavailable to El Salvador or Guatemala at the time partially due to their higher population densities).

Villeda’s land reform package in 1962 distributed 30,000 hectares of national land. Though designed along the lines of the Kennedy administration’s Alliance for Progress, an effort to forestall more radical movements, the legislation was one of the main causes of the coup that would overthrow Villeda in 1963.

Land invasions would continue and FENACH would be repressed during Lopez’s first term in office. However after taking office again in 1972, still in the aftermath of the so-called ‘football war’ with El Salvador in 1969 (where the Honduran military was saved from defeat only by intervention by the Organization of American States), Lopez, pressured by the newly formed National Peasants Union (UNC) would erect two further land reform packages in 1972 and 1975 before having to resign in the face of a scandal bringing the more conservative Colonel Juan Melgar Castro (a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning Georgia) into office halting further reform.

Though the reforms never achieved the scope they were intended to nonetheless they were significant. For example the 1974 law (Decree Law 170) limited the size of properties and prohibited their sale, requiring that they be reverted to the state for redistribution. Overall 409,000 hectares of land were awarded to 60,000 families, covering 12.3 percent of Honduras’ agricultural land (see Grabbing Power: the New Struggles for Land, Food, and Democracy in Northern Honduras by Tanya Kerssen).

Such reforms have been credited with sparing Honduras the violence that engulfed its neighbors in the 1980s. Of course Honduras was neither entirely free of violence nor a neutral spectator to the regional conflicts. With Liberal Roberto Suazo Cordova president and Gustavo Alvarez Martinez head of the armed forces (from 1982-1984), including the infamously brutal Battalion 3-16 (a battalion dedicated to carry out political assassinations and torture of suspected opposition), allying the country entirely to U.S. interests — a process that picked up speeded after the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, Honduras was a base for U.S. efforts against the Sandinista government (the Contras were organized and launched from Honduras) and for U.S. efforts to strengthen the dictatorship in El Salvador against the FMLN guerillas. The reward for client statehood was an exponential increase in aid both economic and military. Military aid increased from $3.9 million in 1980 to over $80 million by 1986 further cementing the military as the most powerful institution in Honduras and completing its conservative transformation.

The debt crisis that catastrophically affected many poor countries by the end of the 1980s didn’t spare Honduras. In 1989 external debt totaled $3 billion- almost 70 percent of the GDP. In a familiar pattern neoliberal reforms were introduced under the banner of IMF structural adjustment programs. These included the elimination of price guarantees for food staples and the liberalization of trade resulting in an increase of agricultural imports that were devastating to small scale farmers. Helped along by a 1992 Agricultural Modernization Law that enabled the privatizing of collectively held land, by 1994 over 30,000 hectares of state owned lands reserved for the peasantry, and which previously could only be resold to other peasant associations were brought by private investors (many of these sales no doubt assisted by manipulation and are still the center for struggle by land activists), empowering a landed oligarchy that Honduras has once largely lacked.

In addition over twenty Export Processing Zones were created, which in combination with the collapse of peasant farming, drove young men from the countryside to urban slums, where the allure of gang life is strong or to the U.S. Remittances from abroad have since become the largest source of foreign exchange for Honduras. Between 1990 and 2006 the percentage of people living in rural areas fell from 60 percent to 54 percent with the number of landless families more than doubling. Employment in maquilas, mainly in the apparel industry, increased from 1.3 percent to 4.4 percent of the workforce. The largely female workers of the maquilas face sweatshop conditions, low wages, and no collective bargaining. 70 percent of Hondurans remain living in poverty.

When Manual Zelaya was elected in 2005 his profile had all the proper credentials for membership in the elite: descending from a wealthy land owning family in the lumber industry, heading the by then stale Liberal Party, he even supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement that took force in 2006. Yet as his term went on Zelaya unexpectedly moved to the Left. He raised the minimum wage by 60 percent much to the dismay of the business community, called for drug use to be legalized, and traveled to Cuba to meet Raul Castro. More audaciously Zelaya joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the left leaning regional trade group made up of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Dominica (founded in 2004 under the leadership of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez) ALBA represents an attempt to counter U.S. led trade agreements.

However it was probably the land question that truly doomed Zelaya in the eyes of the elites. In 2001 an organization called the Unified Peasant Movement of the Aguan (MUCA) was formed to challenge land sales in the fertile Bajo Aguan valley stemming from the 1992 law on the grounds of fraud and corruption. In early 2009 Zelaya reached an agreement with MUCA whereby, under Decree Law 18-2008, peasants would receive land titles to properties they had occupied and produced on for ten or more years. The law would have resolved over 400 land conflicts.

The coup came on June 28th 2009. It could fairly be described as a traditional affair, paralleling earlier coups against Arbenz in Guatemala (1954), Allende in Chile (1973), and the failed attempt against Chavez in Venezuela (2002). Under the guise of Zelaya allegedly seeking dictatorial power through an upcoming nonbinding referendum that was to gage public interest regarding possible constitutional reform (critics claimed the point of which was to allow Zelaya to run for another 4 year term currently illegal under Honduran law; but with 6 months left in his term it is a difficult charge to justify), the military, led by another School of the Americas graduate Romeo Varquez, exiled Zelaya to Costa Rica and installed conservative businessman Roberto Micheletti. All the usual trimming of press censorship and violent suppression of protest went into effect.

The election that followed, boycotted by the opposition but immediately recognized by the U.S. (over the objections of the OAS), was ‘won’ by Porfino Lobo. American aid, military aid under the banner of the War on Drugs increased to its highest levels in at least a decade, and IMF loans resumed. Unlike Zeyala, who despite numerous requests didn’t get such a meeting, Lobo was hosted by the White House and praised by Obama for restoring democracy. The land reform law, passed by the National Assembly in March 2009, was declared unconstitutional in November 2010. Land invasions would increase. While Lobo paid lip service to land reform, at one point the government purchased thousands of hectares of land that was allegedly intended for redistribution (but only a trivial amount was actually redistributed), the main strategy for dealing with land conflict was to continually send in more security forces. The army was deployed in Bajo Arguan three times. Needless to say this method didn’t resolve any conflict or bring an ounce of justice to victims (see Human Rights Watch ‘There Are No Investigations Here’, February 2014). Meanwhile the country became a killing field. A report by Global Witness recorded 100 people killed in the Bajo Arguan region since 2010 putting Honduras second only to Brazil in deadliest for land and natural resource activists.

Exodus is a perfectly justifiable option for children living in such circumstances, even if it isn’t a viable long-term solution for Honduras’ troubles. Still in the short-term there is no good reason to deport children back to such a Hobbesian environment. Children who have managed to cross the border should be allowed to unite with relatives living in the U.S. and residence could be granted even to those who crossed alone. A New York Times article from July 20 reporting a recent decrease in child migrants shouldn’t be seen a good news, especially as the Times reports the Honduran government has forbidden the sale of bus tickets to the border for minors.

There are also plenty of broad policy changes the U.S. can enact. It could finally end its reactionary War on Drugs that has caused endless destruction from inflating the domestic prison population (especially with young African Americans) to putting American policy into direct conjunction with corrupt militaries from Colombia to Mexico turning those countries into warzones.

Lastly the U.S. government can acknowledge its historical role in keeping so much of Central American mired in grinding poverty and violence, provide reparations, cease providing aid to corrupt militaries, and promote economic reform by allowing CAFTA-DR to be renegotiated (since 2006 Northen Triangle economies have averaged 0.9 annual per capita growth) and no longer standing in the way of governments working towards more just societies.

Holding one’s breath for any of this isn’t advisable however given the alternatives of more violence and ‘illegal’ migration it seems the only reasonable way forward.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.