In June 2009, President Zelaya was overthrown by the Honduran military in the first successful Latin American coup in over two decades. In the following weeks, the Obama Administration moved quickly to recognise and stabilise the post- coup regime. A few months later, it endorsed the outcome of an illegitimate electoral process which was conducted by the coup’s leaders under martial law and condemned by much of international opinion.
The Zelaya government had achieved a lot, including free education for all children, subsidies to small farmers, school meals for more than 1.6 million children from poor families and direct state help for 200,000 families in extreme poverty. This was exceptional in Honduran politics, which had been dominated for much of the 20th century by oligarchs closely linked to US economic interests.
The coup began a downward spiral of repression, violence and increasing poverty. The post-coup regime destroyed the rule of law and gutted the welfare state, making Honduras the most unequal country in Latin America. It also opened the way for spectacular corruption and the rule of organised crime, Honduras became the murder capital of the world.
Mass protests against the 2009 coup erupted all over the country. The dictatorship imposed ferocious repression. Torture - with equipment paid for by the US - and police executions became increasingly commonplace. Activists were raped, disappeared or killed with impunity. Judges too were assassinated, along with anyone who upheld the rule of law, all while the US worked behind the scenes, praising each new electoral farce the regime orchestrated.
Nothing new there. But what was not anticipated was the energetic resistance that emerged, as new grassroots movements for constitutional order and social justice sprang up, involving farmers, trade unionists and other layers of society.
Alongside the grassroots movements grew the gangs, making their money from drug trafficking and extortion, hand in hand with the police. Some 40% of the Honduran police are estimated - by police chiefs themselves - to b e tied to organised crime. One anti-corruption official said 70% of the police were “beyond saving”. It’s estimated that in 2014 Hondurans paid $2 million to extortionists. Failure to pay is invariably fatal. This is the reality that fuels the huge wave of migration northwards.
Gang activity mirrors the state’s plutocracy and corruption. One of the coup perpetrators’ first acts was to raid the teachers’ pension fund. Government theft took Honduras to the verge of bankruptcy, The government sought loans from the IMF which in turn demanded the further dismantling of the Honduran welfare state. Cuts and sackings followed and unemployment and poverty surged.
Meanwhile, as word got out that $90 million had been siphoned out of the health service and into the coffers of the ruling party, outraged protesters took to the streets. Even the US began t apply pressure over the close links between government members and drug traffickers. The murder in 2016 of internationally recognised environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was revealed to have been on a Honduran military hit list, was a further catalyst to protest - and renewed repression.
In November 2017, the regime called fresh elections - and stole them. Anti-corruption campaigner Salvador Nasralla was unexpectedly ahead, with one member of the electoral commission declaring the trend in the remainder of the votes “irreversible”. Then without explanation the counting process was suspended: a computer malfunction was blamed. When the announcement of results resumed, the government was inexplicably ahead. In response to public outrage, it declared martial law and used live rounds on protestors, killing over two dozen. Predictably, the US endorsed the result.
Successive US administrations have manipulated governments in Central America for decades. Now they face the blowback, as hundreds of thousands of people from that region head north. One member of the migrant caravan was recently spotted with a backpack flying the Honduran flag and the message: “We aren’t leaving because we want to; violence and poverty expel us.” From this perspective, the caravan movement is an act of civil disobedience and a challenge to hold the US accountable for what it has done in the region. The global media coverage the movement has received shines a spotlight on what has happened to Honduras and confirms just how bad things are.
Dana Frank is an activist who spent 17 years working in Honduras. The great merit of this book is the high level of evidence provided, focusing on the local and human dimensions of the Honduran catastrophe.
When the Trump Administration howls about Venezuela’s democratic deficit, people should take a close look at Honduras to see the kind of undemocratic, brutal regime that the US really favour in Latin America - and draw their own conclusions.