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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 397 | Agosto 2014
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Honduras

Why so many immigrants? The cup ranneth over...

More than two decades ago they promised us Honduras would grow, that the cup would finally overflow with profits and they would trickle down to the poor. But the real spill is the emigrant tide; the cup filled with disasters and has now overflowed. Neoliberal adjustments, the environmental-social tragedy of hurricane Mitch, DR-CAFTA, the coup in 2009 and the impunity and corruption in Honduran politics are behind the wave of children and adults who have arrived at the US borders.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

The data is irrefutable: an enormous wave of unaccompanied children from countries in Central America’s northern triangle has crossed the extensive Mexican territory and made it to the United States.

This tragedy, which has been published throughout the international press, isn’t new; it has been happening for years. It would have continued to go unnoticed if the US government hadn’t begun to apply the same aggressive policy it has used with adults, in some cases the children’s own parents: capturing, incarcerating and deporting these children.

Airplanes arrive one after another

The US government calls the phenomenon of unaccompanied minors “a humanitarian crisis” but responds to it exclusively out of its own geopolitical and security interests, considering it a threat to peace and stability. Thus, of the US$3.7 million that Obama has asked Congress for to deal with the child immigrant tide, almost half will go to security issues related to protecting the border and controlling migrants, both adults and children. The reality is that these children emigrate because their parents have fled to the US before them, and all of them for the same reason: extreme poverty and violence.

According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), more than 52,000 unaccompanied and undocumented minors, the majority from Honduras, crossed the border into the US between October 2013 and June 2014. Just one month later this number had surpassed 60,000 and if this rate continues, it could reach 100,000 by the end of 2014. This phenomenon has put US government institutions in a tough situation, forcing them to look at the Central American reality and to identify the causes of poverty and violence and their destructive dynamics.

Plane after plane arrives in Honduras from the US. Although they are passenger planes, these aren’t commercial flights arriving with tourists, businessmen or visitors. Each plane comes packed with children, most of whom are still smiling because they don’t understand the magnitude of the tragedy. They are received by helping hands and sorrowful faces, placed on buses dutifully supplied by the government, given a maximum of $100 dollars and sent back with their accompaniers, if they have them, to their community of origin.

While Honduras’ First Lady, Ana García de Hernández, and the government officials who curry favor with her, are moved by the children who have traveled alone and were deported, and while some pastors and religious people blame the parents for being irresponsible and talk about family disintegration, it only takes looking a bit deeper into recent Honduran history to discover the explanation for this phenomenon. It can’t be reduced to a deportation issue as the US government does, or analyzed moralistically as some churches do, or promoted as an emotional charity issue as government officials and politicians do.

The cup ranneth over

Almost three decades ago neoliberal economists told us it wasn’t the State’s job to be involved in economics, that we had to tighten our belts for several years and trust the national and multinational investors because at the end the cup would finally run over with profits for the entire society and the “trickle down” would reach the poor. “It reaches everyone when we don’t grab it for ourselves,” said one of those neoliberal apologists.

In fact, the cup hath run over, even more than expected, spilling everywhere, except that it’s not profits that have spilled out but disasters. No one could have imagined that these neoliberal promises would accomplish exactly the reverse. The drama of the unaccompanied children is the extreme expression of the overflowing cup.

Although today Honduran politicians and the US government are “rending their garments,” the massive migration of children and the resulting detentions and deportations are intimately connected to the overflow promised by the neoliberals. This social and political phenomenon has economic, social, historical and political roots that are worth tracing back.

Five factors are
behind this phenomenon

The unaccompanied migration of children is preceded by the migration of adults. At least five factors—some dating way back, others ongoing and all well identified—have caused the cup of disasters to overflow.

 One was the push to the neoliberal project with what were called “structural adjustments” to the economy in the early nineties, during the government of Rafael Leonardo Callejas.

 Then there was Hurricane Mitch, which had a major impact on Honduras at the end of 1998, leaving the infrastructure, means of production, economy and a major part of Honduran society devastated.

 After that came the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement with the United States (DR-CAFTA), passed in 2004, which placed Honduras’ weak economy in a situation of absolute dependency and precariousness, trying to compete with the economies of the US, Canada and the European Union.

 To make things even worse, the 2009 coup against elected President Zalaya culminated in an ongoing conflict between two ways of understanding the role of State administration and triggered great instability and deterioration in society.

 Finally, the corruption and impunity of politicians and public officials who plundered and used up the State’s financial resources has left the majority of the population utterly defenseless rather than benefited by the profits promised by the neoliberals.

Neoliberal adjustments mean
“belt tightening” for the poor

A quarter of a century ago, at the start of his term, President Callejas decided to “adjust” the economy, the State and the
life of society as a whole based on the neoliberal model’s requirements. It was a time of enthusiastic slogans by business leaders: “Let’s sweat for Honduras!” “Let’s sacrifice today in order to enjoy tomorrow!” “Everyone tighten your belt for a better Honduras.” It was a time for sacrifice. Callejas was surrounded by prestigious economists, students of Milton Friedman, chief honcho in the Chicago School of Economics, the group known as “the Chicago boys.”

The currency was devalued. The Modern Agriculture Law replaced the Agrarian Reform Law, allowing the sale to private businessmen such as Miguel Facussé Barjum and other major holders of lands that had been used to benefit groups of people. Backed by the new agrarian law, neoliberals promoted the call for “co-investment” under the slogan of “the land belongs to those who make it produce,” which replaced the agrarian reform law’s slogan that “the land belongs to those who work it.”

Co-investment was the term used to encourage small and medium-sized farmers to put their small plots at the disposal of big business. The “hook” was that the small farmer put in his land, the businessmen put in the technology and money, the land would produce and both the small farmer and the businessman would come out winners. However, the way it worked in reality was that the small farmer put in the land, became indebted to the wealthy businessman, and once the farmer was up to his neck in debt, the only thing he could pay it off with was his land. It was all legal because it followed the sacred law of competition.

In those years the neoliberals sold their line very convincingly: The State had to regulate the relationship between owners and workers from the investors’ perspective and the primary function had to be to create an institutional guarantor for the success of national and multinational investment. The State had to stop regulating the economy, they argued, because whenever the State gets involved with the economy it ruins everything and ends up driving the country into debt. The economy must be regulated by the marketplace which would establish the needed balance among capital, work and the social dimension via the law of supply and demand. Expenditures in health and education were cut. The military budget was also cut but officers were offered access to private business, particularly in the private security agencies. Investors were also given access to the maquila industry—apparel and other assembly sweatshops for re-export.. African palm replaced bananas and the cultivation of sugar cane and other agro-industries increased.

Then 22 years ago…

In 1992 Miguel Facussé, a successful and ruthless businessman who had ingeniously gotten hold of state funds earmarked for stimulating industry cut himself an underhanded deal with the leaders of several African palm cooperatives in the fertile Aguan Valley on Honduras’ Caribbean coast that had benefitted from the agrarian reform of the seventies. Through the deal the coop leaders got a few million lempiras, which they quickly squandered in uncontrolled binges, while Facussé ended up with immense holdings of African palm land in the Aguán.

This businessman of Arab descent had earlier taken over the funds of the state-run National Corporation of Investors (CONADI), which he bankrupted in the early eighties, and cancelled his own debts to the State by purchasing small loans and promoting what he called “the transformation plan for Honduras.” He is now the country’s largest African palm grower and a major supplier of palm oil in the international market.

Meanwhile thousands of cooperative families, now landless, migrated to the hillsides of the valley. They had to seek work in the informal economy, with many of the younger ones, especially young women, moving to Sula Valley where the maquila plants were beginning to flourish, mainly under the control of hard-driving Korean bosses. Thus began the neoliberal “trickle down.” Many of the parents of today’s migrant children lost their lands in those years.

The story of Elisa

Elisa is a daughter of one of those parents. She decided to hit the road to the North with her two-year-old son, following two of her brothers. She sold her house and 5-hectare plot of land, paid the coyote and succeeded in reaching Los Angeles two years ago, after experiencing all the difficult twists and turns of the migratory route. One of her brothers was there to greet her when she arrived.

She had left her two older children in Honduras—a boy of 12 and a girl of 10. After learning second- and third-hand about other immigrants whose children had crossed the border without being deported, she went into debt to pay a coyote to take them from her village on one of the hillsides of the Aguán Valley and bring them to the US border where she would be waiting for them. Now Elisa and her three children are one of the deported families the First Lady tenderly greets in the airport in San Pedro Sula.

Without money, a home, property or husband—he left her for a younger woman when she was pregnant with her youngest—Elisa received the equivalent of $50, a few provisions and some affectionate pats on the back by public servants from the President’s office. She has nowhere to go. Of her six siblings, two sisters live in Choloma, in the Sula Valley. One still works in the sweatshop and the other was fired ten years ago and now sells tortillas in Choloma’s plaza. The two brothers who emigrated to the North send back small amounts of money to help their mother, who has prematurely aged. Their father, Modesto, died of an untreated cough, though Elisa says he died of sadness. Their younger brother died a victim of delinquency in Honduras while working as a bus assistant on a run between La Ceiba and Tocoa in the Aguán Valley.


Elisa and her siblings were children in the early nineties and their father was still a member of San Isidro Labrador, a successful African palm cooperative headquartered in Tocoa. There were 79 families in that 784-hectare cooperative. After a quick “negotiation” process, the coop president and treasurer convinced a majority of the partners to sell the land, with the African palm plantation, for an amount known only by the president and treasurer. Each partner was given 81,000 lempiras, at that time worth about $10,000.

Modesto opposed the sale of the coop they had all inherited and was joined by 38 other partners in his fight against its officers. Some partners warned him of the risk and inded the death threats started. The pressure finally made him give up due to fear not only for his own life but for that of his young children who he knew could be kidnapped and murdered by those who wanted the land.

With the money he received from the sale of the cooperative, Modesto bought a small piece of property in the foothills of the Aguán Valley. He built a small house and dedicated himself to growing beans and corn. The two coop directors who had negotiated the sale of the cooperative were killed two months after the sale. No one was ever investigated for the crime, but many suspected they had been killed by Facussé’s hired thugs to keep the final sale price of the cooperative quiet. At the time of the sale, that cooperative sold about $109,000 in palm products a month; today Facussé has upped that to about $380,000.

From then to now

The sale of lands, the growing of African palm, co-investment and the conversion of the countryside for agro-industry—all processes started in the nineties—are directly related to the deterioration of the countryside’s economic and social situation and thus with emigration. With the spurious sale of the San Isidro Cooperative Elisa’s family they lost their only capital wealth and thus their ability to better their lives. They joined the families condemned to the economics of survival, many of which had been inexorably trapped in that situation for generations.

The lack of economic incentives to produce basic grains such as beans, corn and rice and other foodstuffs have forced the peasant population, especially young people to seek alternatives. Neoliberalism offers them jobs in the maquilas, but this is neither widespread nor permanent work. The maquilas form what is known as a “swallow” industry, because they’re here today, when the deal offered by the government suits them, then tomorrow pack up their sewing machines and fly off to another country if its offer is better. Thus the “overflow” announced by the neoliberals started years ago.

Hurricane Mitch:
“A downpour in revenge”

The migratory phenomenon had already started and youth unemployment was growing when the gangs boomed. That phenomenon is closely related to the emigration of Salvadorans fleeing civil war in their country and settling in the West Coast of the United States, particularly Los Angeles.

All these phenomena spilled over into our country when Hurricane Mitch dumped its fury in October 1998. It rained more water in a few days than ever before. The hurricane flattened Tegucigalpa, the capital so factories let their workers go. The banana plantations that still existed were buried under water, serving as an excuse by multinational capital to change us from the “banana republic” we had once been into an “African palm republic.” The country thus moved from one monoculture to another just like that, based on the demands of the international market.

It also rained international monetary help and solidarity, and by virtually wiping the slate clean, Mitch was an unparalleled chance to relocate the capital, which is situated on the wrong topography and its geographic, water, population, economic and urban planning conditions are contrary to what a capital city needs. But though the international community encouraged it, that opportunity for the government and society to rethink an alternative economic, architectural, industrial, public policy and social organization proposal for the country was lost, Because the government didn’t grab the opportunity, it vanished.

The disaster and the many resources international solidarity made possible offered the chance of the century to reconstruct the whole country from a new perspective. The neoliberals who held the reins of State, the very ones who had called on society to sacrifice and sweat for Honduras, were given the opportunity to allocate enormous, once-only resources to initiate “another possible Honduras.”

But everything went for paternalistic charity and nonstructural changes. The weight of the tragedy fell on the sectors of society already burdened by the consequences of the neoliberal adjustments.

While the neoliberals and professional politicians were busy celebrating the international financial help and solidarity—and transferring the funds to their accounts and personal projects—the neoliberal mechanisms shot out of control, with an unemployment rate that made much of the population look towards the US. The rural population with fewer resources moved to the cities, which quickly filled up with squatter settlements and new barrios. Juvenile street crime, informal street business, youth prostitution and organized crime increased. In particular, drug traffickers recruited these displaced youth into their illegal drug businesses.

That’s when the migration phenomenon started to grow massively. The stepchild of neoliberalism, it fed on the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. In a framework of inequality with wealth and resources concentrated in ever fewer hands, a government run by self-serving politicians and a massive presence of handguns among civilians, especially youth at the service of organized crime, Honduras predictably ended up what it is today: one of the most violent countries in the world.

Borders open to business
and closed to people

DR-CAFTA didn’t grow out of Honduras’ needs. It came from the North, from the pressure of the US, Canadian and European Union multinationals. Such “free” trade agreements were between giants and dwarfs, between the strong and the weak. It was a case of the strength of the strong taking advantage of the weakness of the weak, a completely asymmetrical relationship.

Neoliberal publicity about DR-CAFTA couldn’t have been more cynical: the poor Garífuna vendor of casaba, bread made from cassava flour, and the woman who sells her typical Honduran food of wheat tortilla with beans and cheese were told that the doors would be open in the US and they could sell in any US city…The propaganda was not only cynical but cruel.

DR-CAFTA turned Honduras into a territory for the free circulation of US and Canadian products without paying either sales taxes or import tariffs. They told us free trade would open our country to progress, but since the passage of the trade agreements between US, Canada, Mexico and Central America in 2004, fast food franchises have come into our country without paying any Honduran taxes. Corn and beans have come in from the US and are sold at much lower prices than small Honduran farmers can offer because farm production in the US is subsidized while small Honduran farmers’ only incentives or encouragement are their own resources.

They started DR-CAFTA with unequal and unfair competition. Foreign products and capital flooded both the country’s rural and urban economy. The Garifuna street vendor and the woman selling food on the streets of Honduran cities can’t sell their food in New York City or Los Angeles but the tax-exempt fast food franchises can displace both Honduras’ farmers and its urban street vendors who have to keep paying taxes.

One dramatic consequence of DR-CAFTA was the death throes of many medium, small and micro businesses—the sector with the greatest capacity for generating employment, thus condemning tens of thousands of people to unemployment, and of course swelled migration even more.

The history of immigration in the last decade is related to DR-CAFTA. The easier it is for foreign products to enter Honduras, the harder it is for Honduran emigrants to get into US territory and the harsher the US legislation toward those who succeed. The more the borders open to products from the rich countries, the more the borders in the North close to the flood of migrants from our country. The more ability multinationals have to invest in Honduras and exploit our natural resources, the less competitive advantages our own medium and small businesses have and the more discrimination towards those forced to emigrate to the US. The easier the business and political elites make life for multinational capital, the harsher the treatment is for their co-nationals and the more they are left to their fate.

Harsher immigration laws were passed in the United States just as DR-CAFTA was passed. Just a coincidence? But neither the harshness of the laws nor the increased border security between Mexico and the US has stopped immigration. The only difference is that it has become more dangerous and at times tragic.

The coup d’état

Starting in January 2006 the neoliberals felt their plans, interests and privileges threatened by the tepid populist and left-leaning proposals of the Manuel Zelaya administration. Ever since the coup on June 28, three years later, all figures from Honduras’ borders have shown a flood of emigrants trying to leave in quantities unequaled since the months following Hurricane Mitch.

The solid oligopoly built by the neoliberals over various decades of control of the economy was not supposed to be challenged. But President Zelaya did just that. Instead of becoming “neoliberal” himself, he slid towards populism and a kind of sui generis social democracy in a country with tight control by the extreme Right’s politics, ideology and economy. He began making decisions that confronted the neoliberal oligarchy without having all the internal conditions in his favor. Externally he was backed only by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). The coup was predictable.

After it the neoliberals took back the reins of the State and the economy with great gusto, but they couldn’t control the instability that was released this time with even greater severity than after Hurricane Mitch ten years before. The government institutions collapsed; the social, political and economic fabric was in tatters; the law of the jungle reigned and human rights were totally violated. The polarization tore apart any possibility of trust in proposals and solutions. The country embarked on a deterioration that continues to today.

The neoliberals passed all the laws they wanted, including ones that defended them from opposition. Emigration became the only outlet for the impoverished majority, the only possible way to not sink into despair, misery and depression. This is what a young emigrant told a Jesuit Network for Migrants volunteer in a halfway house in Tierra Blanca, Vera Cruz in Mexico, “I came from Honduras and I don’t want to know anything. I never want to return. I’d rather die on the way than go back so they can kill me like a dog.”

The corruption and
impunity of the politicians

The First Lady and her court seem sad about the children detained in shelters on the US border and those deported at the order of the Obama government—an order backed by her husband, President Juan Orlando Hernández. In late July President Obama met with the Presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the countries of origin of the vast majority of unaccompanied children emigrating from Central America. They all lamented that things have gotten to this extreme point and Obama recognized that only by attacking the roots of inequality and violence would they be able to stop the migration. But concretely the meeting had one exclusive objective: to let the three Presidents be well advised that the deportation of the children would not stop. Two months earlier, President Hernández had ranted against the US policy of involvement in Honduras’ internal affairs; at that time he was referring to US pressures to speed up the extradition of famous drug traffickers. In Washington in July, Hernández not only accepted the US government decision to deport the children but even promised to ensure that this policy be carried out to the letter of the law.

Juan Orlando Hernández became President with proven massive vote buying. According to a December 2013 investigation led by the political analyst Victor Meza and published this July by the Honduran Center for Documentation (CEDOH), 10.2% of those surveyed said they had sold their vote and 49% said they had witnessed vote-buying in their communities or voting centers. Of those who voted for Hernández 18% said they sold their vote. There are data that prove the use of the assistance program called “Voucher Ten Thousand” to buy votes. There was even vote-buying of delegates of other parties at the polling places.

How do you explain Hernández’ eagerness to be President of a country in rags? Like this: a President has a lot more power to act on his whims in a society and nation in which the rules of the game are in the hands of the strongest,. He has all the conditions he needs to impose his will and that of those who control society. In today’s Honduras the President has many more opportunities than in other countries to act with impunity because his actions—no matter how illegal they are—don’t even leave a trace.

According to political analysts. the present public administration is led not so much by sectors of the extreme political and ideological Right as by sectors historically related to corruption and crime. At the heart of the present government one finds the figures most suspected of involvement in diverse criminal networks for many years.

There are people in the political elite running this government who have held government posts for the past 30 years. They were public officials in the early nineties when the neoliberal structural adjustments were put into place. It’s enough to remember that Hernández himself was president of the National Congress during the time the Mining Law, Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDES) and Model Cities decrees were passed, and hundreds of concessions were given for rivers, watersheds and other resources and land.

Several of today’s government officials headed up both private and public entities that administered funds assigned to reconstruction after Hurricane Mitch. Many of them were legislators who ratified the CAFTA vote in 2004 during the Ricardo Madura administration. The present head of the National Party bench, Oscar Alvarez, was security minister between January 2003 and 2006 when the social cleansing policy against the youth of marginalized communities was implemented as part of the “hard hand” policy. That policy was responsible for many extrajudicial street killings and various massacres in Honduras’ prison system—the most scandalous being the murder and burning of 69 prisoners in the El Porvenir penal farm in La Ceiba in April 2003 and the fire in the San Pedro Sula Penal Center in May 2004 in which 107 prisoners were killed and burned.

Arriving at 500 daily immigrants

In both of those prison massacres the victims were overwhelmingly young male gang members. The killings coincided with the initial implementation of DR-CAFTA, when the cumulative effects—especially unemployment—of the Mitch tragedy several years earlier were being most strongly felt and we were experiencing a major increase in youth migration to the US and also Spain and other European countries, at that time new destinations for youth emigrating from Honduras.

Centers specializing on migration agree that in those years of repression, discrimination and stigmatizing of marginalized youth plus rampant unemployment, we had as many as 500 emigrants crossing the Honduran border into Guatemala every day trying to get to Mexico and ultimately the US. Those were the years of the “overflow” of remittances sent back to Honduras by emigrants, not only in money but in other expressions, including those related to violence, consumerism and individualism. Other painful packages were also sent back to Honduras in those years: migrants who returned mutilated or as cadavers.

Pity and contempt:
Two sides of the same coin

Unaccompanied children didn’t just start emigrating a few weeks ago; it’s been happening for a long time. Now they’re
all suddenly in the news because the numbers have become visible. According to data from people who work with migrants in the areas where the train called “the beast” passes, at least 20% of those who climb aboard it and are helped in shelters along the way are boys between 15 and 17 years of age.

Immigration is a phenomenon that speaks not only of the absence of opportunities for a decent life but also of the discriminating and exclusionary way the Honduran business and political elite treat the poor. Forced migration from Honduras is the result of xenophobia, racism and stigmatizing of the great majority of society by the Honduran ruling class.

The growing wave of migrant children searching for their families is an extreme expression of that contempt. Emigrants who flee for economic reasons or from violence carry the disdain of the wealthy class of the country where they were born. The giving of handouts by the First Lady when she greets the deported children reveals this disdain: pity and handouts for the deported children, and jail, abandonment and loneliness for the deported young people and adults.


Ismael Moreno, sj. is the envio correspondent in Honduras.

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