What will we be? Their backyard or our own home?
The United States is omnipresent in Honduras today
with programs on drug-trafficking clean-up, safe communities,
the fight against corruption, professionalizing the army,
preparing new political leadership and more...
all concerns that stem from their own interests.
Herein lies the big paradox:
The greater the US presence and investments in Honduras,
the more Honduras is for Americans and less for Hondurans.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
We are four years away from the bicentennial of the signing of the Central American Act of Independence from Spain by the native elite. Its introductory article calls for the Act to be published “to prevent the consequences, which would be frightening, should the people themselves proclaim it.” In effect, then, we will be celebrating 200 years of a “prevention” policy ordered by the region’s political elite who feared “the consequences” of the people proclaiming something different from what they decided for us.
The root of a historical identity
The “identity” of Central America’s elite is born out of this fear. For two centuries they have been distrustful of the grassroots sectors, whom they have always seen and treated as subordinates. They in turn have behaved equally servilely before foreign powers, whom they have always seen and treated as “superior.”
We are also six years away from the bicentennial of US President James Monroe’s annual message to Congress in 1823, in which he warned European powers that the United States would not tolerate further colonization or puppet monarchs in the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine, which came to be known as “America for Americas,” was ostensibly an anti-colonial policy on behalf of the fledgling independent countries of Latin America run by these same elites, but this statement in the full document that followed, penned by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, reveals the seeds of self-interest underlying it: “The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers (emphasis ours).”
As the US had little power to enforce the warning, it went largely unheeded by Europe at the time but it laid the groundwork for the nature of the US relationship with Latin American and Caribbean countries. Control and domination would be the characteristics of the 200-year relationship between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean, whose mode varies according to the situations of the times, the stability or the threats.
There was the “big brother” policy formulated in the 1880s by Secretary of State James Blaine, the Olney Corollary by the secretary of state of the same name in 1985, and most famously the [Theodore] “Roosevelt Corollary” of 1904, asserting the US right to intervene in Latin America in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation,” albeit arguing that it was to preempt intervention by European creditors in response to that “wrongdoing.” Roosevelt’s “big stick” ideology sparked strong criticism from Latin Americans, who argued that it simply asserted the US domination in the area, effectively making it a “hemispheric policeman.”
The 1928 Clark Memorandum, written by President Calvin Coolidge’s Undersecretary of State J. Reuben Clark and officially released by Coolidge, created a bifurcation with the Monroe Doctrine by no longer using the excuse of European interference. It established US intervention not as sanctioned by the Monroe Doctrine but as the right of America as a State if a country from this continent threatens the interests, rights or assets of US citizens or businesses, independent of the actions of those citizens or businesses.
In another swing of the pendulum, Franklyn D. Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Great Depression and the growing threat of Nazism. In line with his policy of rebuilding the economy and establishing alliances and stability in the hemisphere, he instituted his “Good Neighbor Policy” with Latin America, withdrawing US military occupation of Nicaragua and Haiti and emphasizing cooperation and trade rather than military force. That short-lived mending of fences was followed by World War II and the Cold War mentality that distorted Washington’s view of any posture in Latin America that wasn’t utterly subservient. In comparative terms, its “best” expression was President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, which attempted to buy the hearts and minds of any individuals or organizations of the poor who might be tempted to try to follow the footsteps of the Cuban revolution. Its worst was President Reagan’s illegal financing of the contra war to bring down a revolution in Nicaragua that got away from Washington.
There are many more examples, but in sum, the Monroe Doctrine has become a watchword of US policy toward Latin America since its inception, with each later policy, corollary and interpretation strengthening its interventionist intentions on behalf of US economic or geostrategic interests. Sometimes that interventionism involves cannons and military bases, other times it takes the form of “alliances for progress” or “alliances for prosperity.” Sometimes coup d’états are organized or supported, and at others a supervised democracy or controlled authoritarianism is promoted, but scratch the surface of any policy toward Latin America and its own raw interests are revealed, no matter the cost to the people of the country involved. As soon as the US government acquired the power to act on that doctrine, America for the Americas began to be converted ever more baldly into America for the Americans.
We are their “backyard”
Much of Central America, and especially Honduras, is approaching the anniversary of those 200 years of relationships with an absence of sovereign internal decisions and with societies managed by a small economic and political elite subordinate to the policies of the United States, which has treated us for 194 years as its “backyard.”
According to the Oxford dictionary, “backyard” is “the area close to where one lives, or the territory close to a particular country, regarded with proprietorial concern.” That is exactly what Central America and in fact all of Latin America and the Caribbean has meant to Washington for two centuries. Even before Donald Trump, we were reminded of how we’re seen in the North when, during a speech given as recently as April 2013 to the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs, Barack Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry thought nothing of saying Latin America “is our backyard... we need to reach out vigorously.”
Honduras slipped through its fingers
How has this “reaching out vigorously” been going for Honduras? How is the Monroe Doctrine expressed in our country? What does it mean today for Honduras to be the US “backyard”? How do the elite behave to “prevent consequences” in case the people construct their own proposal for sovereignty? How do the Monroe Doctrine and the elites’ racist concept of the Honduran majority currently mesh?
In recent years the US government—which I’ll refer to from now on generically as “the Embassy”—became convinced Honduras had slipped through its fingers. Despite all its intelligence instruments, it hadn’t perceived the moment it lost control of the strings it had always so skillfully handled. But since Honduras is its “backyard,” where laundry is commonly hung out to dry, it has seen that it was not only neglected, but had filled with quicksand and the people who had come in by the front door had acquired the same or even more power than the Embassy.
With more violence, more distrust
That shift of control over Honduras is expressed in all the violence spreading through different sectors of the country, with installed local autonomy and feudal powers. It’s expressed in the organized crime that pulls so many strings you can’t tell whether the tangle begins in national territory or originates outside the country and ends here or even extends on to other countries and if so, which ones.
It’s expressed through very active drug-trafficking along land corridors that feed on what comes from further south in the continent, with virtually no identification of all the ramifications within the country or of its ties with gangs and the transfer of large-caliber weapons.
The loss of control is also expressed in how the different mafias harmoniously divide up the territory for the trafficking of drugs, arms, natural resources, documents, stolen vehicles, humans and even human organs. It’s expressed in the ties that exist between crime’s illegal and underground corridors and the legal corridors of the political and private powers. And it’s expressed in the close ties the political and business leaders have with the different mafias.
The loss of control over Honduras is closely associated with a very important and concerning issue for the Embassy: the distrust it has come to feel towards its traditional strategic allies among the political and business leaders. This distrust is accompanied by the equally concerning realization that it hasn’t forged new allies in whom it could deposit that lost trust.
Verifying all this in its backyard explains the Embassy’s decision to seriously pump up its direct and active presence in the different spheres of Honduran reality. If Honduras has slipped through its fingers, the determination to recover it explains the obvious and decisive interventionist US presence in the country’s internal affairs, matched only during the first quarter of the 20th century, the years when the country became established as a banana enclave and acquired yet another derogatory label: “banana republic.”
Five US programs
Even though the Embassy has shaped Honduran reality for over a century based on an exogenous development model and a security policy that has conditioned all political life to the point of alienating any trace of national sovereignty, its presence over this last decade has been greater. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), USAID, the Southern Command, other agencies of the State Department and Justice Department and many other dependent agencies of official or para-official US authorities now come to Honduras, each one to implement a project through different channels that lead to one single objective: recover control over the country’s politics and security .
We’ve identified five of these interventionist programs, although their descriptions don’t match the titles used by the Embassy. They are: 1) Program to clean up organized crime groups; 2) Program to purge, fight corruption in and bring order to the judicial system; 3) Program to professionalize and recover the Armed Forces’ leadership; 4) Program to prevent violence; and 5) Program of new leadership for a new governability.
The priority: clean up the backyard
The program to clean up the outlaw leaders of organized crime comes from the idea that achieving a new institutional framework starts with tidying up the backyard. The success of every process to regain control over the country depends on this program succeeding.
This program’s priorities have been to investigate, arrest and arraign several heads of illegal drug activity, not only the purebred drug lords, but also all those who, concealed behind other activities, have ended up joining organized crime. Stories and rumors come and go, all related to the Embassy’s omnipresence in national life for the purpose of cleaning out the most renowned criminals and achieving control over the thus-far uncontrollable drug corridors.
On May 11, 2012, the DEA organized an operation in the Honduran Mosquitia, based on precise information, to wipe out a group of drug-traffickers. The order was relentless: exterminate all people on a boat traveling along the Patuca River in the municipality of Ahuas. Mission accomplished: of the 16 people traveling in the boat, 4 were killed and 7 injured. They only got one detail wrong: the boat. The victims had the misfortune of innocently traveling the same route as the boat to be targeted. Tragic DEA “collateral damage.” While we heard about this SNAFU through an international denunciation., there are hundreds of operations like it, both in the Atlantic and in the northwestern parts of the country.
This priority program, however, has had some successes, and hey should be mentioned. Many drug leaders have been investigated, although fewer have been arrested and even fewer extradited. The most renowned are the drug barons from the famous “Los Cachiros” cartel, who turned themselves in to the DEA after collaborating with it for a year; and the Valle brothers, from the western part of Honduras. They and others have ended up in US maximum security prisons and some have begun testifying in New York courts, with well-known consequences for Honduran politicians, military, police and businesspeople.
The clean-up will take a while
To conduct this clean-up program, US authorities haven’t taken the place of Honduras’ justice institutions but have intervened parallel to them. Honduran investigators, prosecutors, police, military officers and judges duly trained by Embassy security structures have conducted all investigations, arrests and extermination operations, including the last step: extradition.
There have also been joint operations. In most of them, Honduran authorities don’t get all the information until the operation has ended. And in some that the Embassy considers high-risk, it has even excluded top authorities of the country, including the President himself, from the information through this discretionary methodology.
Since there’s so much to clean up, this program has become a very lengthy task, already going on for some time now. Its main objective is to break up the main mafia groups, but its field of action was broadened after the discovery of the complicity and collaboration these groups achieved with important people in business and political life. The same plan that led to the arrest of mafioso like Negro Lobo or the Valle brothers was used to bring down powerful businessmen such as Rosenthal and other important figures in politics and private enterprise. The names of some have already been mentioned in the New York trials. Many more are on the waiting list, so the clean-up program still has a long life ahead.
During the months of the indignant torch marches
Now let’s take a look at the second program, the fight against corruption and impunity and the cleaning-up of the national judicial system. One Friday in June 2015, during one of the passionate mobilizations of the “Indignants” carrying torches demanding President Juan Orlando Hernández’s resignation by shouting “JOH out!,” the march went not to the Presidential House or the National Congress, but to the US Embassy. In so doing, the young leaders of the mobilization had no intention of protesting US intervention in the country. Their purpose was to acknowledge the ambassador’s support for the indignation the torches symbolized and ask him to continue backing them.
That unprecedented decision and unusual action obviously raised questions and doubts about the nature of the mobilizations. Even though the ambassador tried to distance himself, stating that the US government respects democratic order and legally elected authorities, the questions and doubts didn’t disappear. A few days later, a few torches just like those lit every Friday during that second half of 2015 decorated a 4th of July reception at the ambassador’s residence, where the ambassador conversed with President Hernández...
An ambiguous conscience
Stories and rumors come and go, and all are about the Embassy’s overwhelming presence in all spheres of the fight against corruption and impunity. According to the Embassy, it’s not sustainable to back a government with institutions and officers splattered with corruption who use and abuse government property and occupy positions from which they treat public resources as their own private assets.
The Embassy knows perfectly well how far public services have degraded and how much corruption there is among political party leaders in public offices.
However, this is the aspect where the Embassy’s ambiguous policies are experienced more clearly. On the one hand it backed the efforts and demands of the indignants and civil society organizations to have corrupt people investigated and tried, as we saw that afternoon in June, on the other it has stayed close to the suspects and those denounced. While it doesn’t trust them and is investing resources to investigate their acts of corruption, they’re still allies meanwhile.
The MACCIH has been given teeth
Whether active or veiled, the US backing for the 2015 mobilizations of the torches demanding investigation, trials and punishment, especially for the looters of the Honduran institute of Social Security, ended up expressing itself in part a year later. The Embassy decided to set up the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) under the responsibility of the Organization of American States (OAS). Given the longstanding reputation of the OAS as a tool answering to Washington, the indignants demanded that it be an agency under UN responsibility, like the CICIG in Guatemala.
The Embassy, however, apparently saw the grassroots demands against corruption as an opportunity to give the OAS a chance to recover its depreciated leadership. It not only pushed for the MACCIH as an OAS agency, but is also its main financial backer and is taking steps to guarantee its independence from the Honduran government, particularly the President.
The Embassy has leaned so effectively on Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla, who was close to President Hernández, that he has openly collaborated with the requests of MACCIH members, at the cost of become distanced from Hernández.
Under Embassy pressurey, Hernández himself had to convene dialogues, although they were unsubstantial in the end. He also had to accept MACCIH’s establishment, although he arrogantly demanded that it be subordinate to him. Despite all that, the Embassy has made sure the MACCIH has the necessary teeth to bite into specific lines of corruption, starting with the looting of Social Security, which was what triggered the march of the torches.
The Embassy similarly pressured for the purging of the Police, allying with civil society sectors critical of the government but close to its own political positions. It was the Embassy that decided the purging measures that led to the removal of police officers involved in the drug businesses.
Recover the Army’s leadership
Now we move to the Professionalization of the Armed Forces Program. In March 2010 a high-ranking State Department official said in a private conversation that the Obama government was concerned about the previous year’s coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and was committed to creating conditions to prevent repetition of this type of affront towards democracy and the rule of law either in Honduras or in other Latin American and Caribbean countries. To accomplish this, the official explained, the US government would launch a professionalization project for the Honduran Army just as it had successfully done in Colombia. “In Honduras we need to help strengthen the Armed Forces as a firm support for democracy. That would give us a model of authoritarian democracy.”
The military component is one of the most crucial in the Embassy’s security strategy for Honduras, not so much because of its interest in Honduras and its people as because of its primordial interest our country’s geographical location has acquired followed by its rich biodiversity. For the Embassy to be able to recover control over Honduras it needs to recover the Army leadership, its main strategic ally for the last fifty years, which has been more trustworthy than all the politicians and business elite.
The Armed Forces is the Embassy’s most profitable security investment because politicians come and go and businesses frequently play with interests that don’t always coincide with US geopolitics. Military forces are theoretically safer, but having lost control over them during these past thirty years by investing more in modernizing the State and in civil alliances goes a long way to explain why Honduras has slipped through the Embassy’s fingers.
This program is linked to the fight against drug-trafficking and requires a territorial presence to safeguard US geostrategic interests, both on the Atlantic and Pacific sides. It also requires strategic ties among Central America’s armies to face the dangers of violent irregular groups at the borders. To recover Armed Forces leadership so they can dissuade the politicians from their abuses is, for the Embassy, an essential condition to recover control over the country.
An alliance with evangelicals
Violence prevention and support for justice and human rights is another program underway. On hundreds of walls in the main cities of the country one can see messages in giant letters with a Christian tone calling for peace, family strengthening, good moral behavior and fear of God. These and many other Christian messages for peace are the fruit of one of the Embassy’s major investments to counteract violence in the communities and neighborhoods, hoping to have an impact on adolescents and youth as well as their parents.
The campaign is based on an alliance among the Embassy, the Security Ministry and different church sectors, especially evangelical ones. The Embassy knows very well that families in the poor urban neighborhoods and communities are mostly Pentecostal evangelicals and that simple messages with a fundamentalist touch have the capacity to influence these families. This explains why an alliance with Pentecostal denominations is sought out more than with the Catholic Church, but doesn’t keep the Embassy from also reaching out and seeking alliances with Catholic parishes and organizations to launch the violence prevention program in other places and with other messages.
The safe communities program
The Embassy believes safety is achieved when citizens take on responsibility to assure it. That’s why this program invests in formative projects around the issues of justice and human rights, imparted not only to community and barrio members but also to judicial branch officials, police officers and nongovernmental civil society sectors. The Embassy knows that only if justice works will the economy and productivity also work. That’s why USAID is investing in these projects in the municipalities and communities, in alliance with different civil society organizations.
It makes no sense, the Embassy would say, to approve laws and mechanisms to reduce violence, protect human rights and reduce homicides in the upper echelons if a woman in some house in the barrios or communities continues to be extorted and the youth can’t play soccer freely in a public space. The US investment to achieve safe communities, developing alliances among the Police, community organizations, General Attorney’s Office and churches, is done with more direct Embassy presence in many corners of the country.
This program’s main foundation is the formation and spreading of values. That’s why the communications component and support to both traditional and digital mass media is essential. The Embassy is critical of Honduras’ mass media and the control politicians and big business have over them. It thinks the lack of authentic freedom of expression lies within this control. It has increased its interest in supporting the different efforts by community media to form networks and increase their coverage. To implement this program, the Embassy’s policy is to support these community media.
Who the Embassy no longer trusts
The Embassy is also determined to implement a program of governability and support for the formation of a generation of new politicians.
Having lost its trust in the traditional politicians, the Embassy is going after many of them so they can be investigated, tried and sentenced for corruption, impunity, abuse of authority, ties to drug-trafficking, money laundering and many other crimes derived from their privileged relationship with the State. The Embassy is suspicious of the National and Liberal Party leaders; doesn’t trust leaders such as Salvador Nasralla and only has low-profile relationships with veteran leaders of some smaller parties such as the Innovation and Unity Party (PINU), Christian Democrats or Democratic Unification Party, which have lost any capacity they may have once had to influence public politics. The Embassy isn’t investing any energy in any of them.
The Embassy is keep its greatest distance from the leadership of Manuel Zelaya’, whose personality arouses its uncertainty and rejection. Its mistrust grows out of having seen him exercise power as the President ousted from power in the 2009 coup, and more recently seeing him in action as an opposition leader. The trouble is that the Embassy’s fear of a government controlled by Zelaya Rosales and the lack of trustworthy leaders are the main reasons it ended up backing dark and suspicious leaders such as Juan Orlando Hernández and his team of close collaborators.
A seedbed, but still no fruit
The Embassy is encouraging and promoting the rise of new leaders who can storm into public life with new ethical values and break out of the traditionally corrupt and corrupting politics.
One of the priorities of this program that involves looking for new political talents is to invest in and support schools for political formation in close relations with NGOs, including churches. So far it’s been a seedbed in which sprouts have yet to be seen, but which the Embassy is watering and watering in hopes of engendering at least a small but healthy crop.
If the Embassy could count on a good number of new politicians, it would no doubt be much more critical of Juan Orlando Hernández and would decidedly oppose the continuism represented by his reelection. It would also be even more severe with the clean-up program and from there would more effectively shake up the corrupt leadership of the parties.
To date only a small number of leaders are currently arising out of civil society organizations headquartered in the capital, but they’re playing an important role in promoting the fight against corruption and impunity, in alliance with the Embassy and with its resources. It won’t be until the 2022 electoral process that the first new leaders from the “made in the Embassy” school can run candidates for positions within the state apparatus. There’s still four more years to harden this first wave of new leaders and give them social and political recognition.
It’s doing a lot for its backyard...
The Embassy is doing a lot for Honduras, which is unquestionably the country it’s investing the most in to achieve new institutional frameworks and build dynamism to reduce violence, crime, corruption and impunity. It’s greatly concerned about generating new employment, the growth of a trustworthy economic environment for small and micro businesses and the rise of a new breed of politicians that can tidy up and give prestige to the institutional frame of a rule of law. All of this, of course, is in hopes of reducing migration to the North and forced displacements and putting a crimp in the drug-trafficking in the same direction.
No doubt several Embassy officials are honestly committed to making Honduras a viable State and society, just as many thousands of US citizens with great sensibility are committed to solidarity with our country. The assassination of Berta Cáceres and the condemning and demand for justice aroused by this crime are one of the more recent and important examples of this. The ambassador’s visit to Berta’s house the day of the wake can’t be interpreted just as a product of carefully planned politics. It also expressed genuine sensibility, rejection of what happened and his commitment to prosecute this crime.
Taking all these gestures and concerns into consideration is where the great paradox lies: the greater the presence of the Embassy and its investments in Honduras, the greater the danger that Honduras will be less of a country.
The dilemma of dignity
Washington’s presence suffers a structural problem: it treats Honduras and its people based on its own interests and sees us eternally as its backyard. That causes its relationship with Honduras to always be like it was dictated by the Monroe Doctrine: Honduras for the Americans and never Honduras for the Hondurans.
That logic runs through the investigations, arrests and extraditions of drug lords and is what also moves USAID, with the best intention, to invest in safer communities or give funds to the Alliance for Prosperity. The greater the investment in Honduras, the less Honduras is ours and more it is for the Americans. The more they give us, the less Honduran we will be. It’s been proven: the more the US presence in our country the more dignity we lose, even if the country does become safer and its economic stability increases. Dignity increases when there’s less US presence in the country. There may be shortages and poverty, but there will be more dignity.
Here lies the dilemma of Honduras today and in the future. Either we break away from dependency on and submission to Washington’s decisions, accepting that doing so means going through a period of deep crisis, but one that would inevitably push us to take on the challenge of building sovereignty. Or we continue accepting the overwhelming control by a handful of national elite supported by the growing US presence, and have “American peace and prosperity” with less and less dignity and the acceptance of continuing to be someone else’s “backyard” and not our “own home” for at least the next two centuries.
These are the only two paths: either we continue as we have up until now, resigned to being a backyard, or we gamble on the construction of a country with sovereignty and identity, and from within that house build fair and complementary relationships with the US or any other nation. One can’t travel both paths. One can’t please both God and the devil. We have to choose between God and money.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.