Honduran Labyrinth

In a leftward-moving region, the iron fist of Honduras’ Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo makes him Obama’s sort of "democrat."

Illustration by Erin Schell

A fire at the la granja penitentiary in Comayagua, Honduras killed 361 last February. Guards refused to release prisoners from their cells, while police shot bullets and tear gas at family members trying to save relatives trapped inside. National police stopped firefighters and rescue workers from entering the prison for almost an hour.

Honduras is a key thoroughfare in the narco-corridor between Colombia and Mexico, and its economy and state apparatuses have long been permeated by drug power and its associated forms of violence. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, at 82.1 per 100,000 residents. The national prison system, originally designed to hold 8,000, houses 13,000 inmates in 24 prisons. Some cells are packed with over 60 inmates. A mere 53 percent of the prisoners have been convicted, fewer than 397 of the 858 that were in Comayagua before the blaze. Yet a Honduran media narrative depicting hardened, violent gang members and drug traffickers caught in unfortunate circumstances — if not receiving their just desserts — deflected blame from state officials. Another unhappy event in a hapless country, but certainly not a political one.

That asphyxiating evening, however, encapsulates the anatomy of a much wider, still-unfolding crisis that began with a June 2009 coup d’état. In pre-dawn hours, the military overthrew the social-democratic government of Manuel Zelaya and replaced him with Roberto Micheletti, a figure from a competing faction of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party. After Honduras was expelled from the Organization of American States (OAS) for the interruption of democratic rule, fraudulent elections designed to provide the regime with a legitimate face were carried out in November of that year. Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, of the National Party, won and was inaugurated amid mass protests in the streets of Tegucigalpa.

A People under Siege

A shadow of state repression cast itself over those elections, which is unsurprising since the reconstitution of the security forces following the coup involved the recycling of high-ranking personnel who had served under previous dictatorships. The atmosphere was a given. No candidate opposing the coup ran for election. It was boycotted by the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), along with all important international observers except the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, both of which receive financing from the United States. Most Latin American governments refused to recognize the legitimacy of the results.

According to the country’s leading human rights organization, Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH), there were 43 politically motivated assassinations of civilians associated with the resistance movement between the time of the coup and the end of February 2012. COFADEH acknowledges that this figure is a low estimate, as intimidation and fear of reprisal prevents communities and family members from reporting many such deaths. In November 2011, a report issued by Rights Action listed a higher figure of 59 politically motivated assassinations. Belying official announcements of national reconciliation and a return to democracy following Lobo’s victory, repression intensified immediately after he took power. COFADEH reported 250 violations of human rights in Lobo’s first three months alone.

As part of the pattern of intensified repression under Lobo, more than a dozen journalists were murdered by unidentified attackers between January 2010 and November 2011. Many of them had opposed the coup or highlighted corruption and human rights abuses. “Not a day has passed since the start of the year 2012,” notes Reporters without Borders, “without a journalist, local media owner, or social commentator receiving a phone call to say his or her life is in danger.” This trend led Reporters without Borders to conclude that post-coup Honduras was “the world’s most dangerous country for journalists in the first half of 2010.”

In the Bajo Aguán Valley, peasant activists fighting for access to land in the fertile palm-oil-producing region of northern Honduras have been under attack by both private and state security forces working for one of the most powerful landowners in the country, Miguel Facussé. He is also a notorious supporter of the coup, with ties to narco-traffickers cited in US embassy documents. Historian Dana Frank chronicled an incident exemplifying these attacks: in June of 2011, “seventy-five policemen destroyed the entire campesino community of Rigores, burning down more than 100 houses and bulldozing three churches and a seven-room schoolhouse; not one has been charged.”

In the immediate fallout from the coup, Human Rights Watch notes that “key civil liberties, including freedom of the press and assembly,” were suspended. The military “occupied opposition media outlets, temporarily shutting down their transmissions. Police and military personnel responded to generally peaceful demonstrations with excessive force. This pattern of the disproportionate use of force led to several deaths, scores of injuries, and thousands of arbitrary detentions.” The Lobo government, which succeeded Micheletti’s, has predictably failed to launch any serious investigation into these abuses.

Narcos and the State

“We are rotten to the core,” former congressperson and police commissioner Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde told the Miami Herald just weeks before being silenced by motorbike assassins at a traffic light in Tegucigalpa on December 7, 2011. According to Landaverde’s conservative estimate, one out of every ten members of the Honduran Congress is tied to drug cartels. The Honduran national police force is linked to death squads and traffickers, and judges and prosecutors are likewise implicated in complex and overlapping networks of power. According to Franck, “drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself, from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government.”

The impunity with which the coercive forces of the state operate was perhaps no more clearly demonstrated than when Tegucigalpa police murdered Rafael Alejandro Vargas, the twenty-two-year-old son of Julieta Castellanos, a university rector and member of the government’s Truth Commission, as well as Rafael’s friend Carlos Pineda. None of the suspects, all police, has been brought to justice.

In March 2012, a law facilitating the military’s takeover of ordinary police functions was extended for three months after having been introduced on a temporary basis in late 2011. Lobo has indicated his desire to make the initiative permanent. Honduras would not be the first country to take such a course of action; since his controversial election in nearby Mexico in December 2006, Felipe Calderón’s overt military escalation of the drug war has left tens of thousands dead. Colombia had an earlier start still: Plan Colombia and its successors have channelled $3.6 billion in American funds into the militarization of counter-narcotics regulation and enforcement in that country since 2000.

These sketches of a consolidating authoritarian state beneath a thin democratic veneer allow us to begin to understand why Washington has so powerfully backed the recent Honduran trajectory. In Empire’s Workshop, Greg Grandin presents Ronald Reagan’s 1980s counterinsurgency campaigns in Central America as a dress rehearsal for the subsequent American wars in the Middle East. A new stage in this dialectical exchange seems now to have arrived, with declining troop numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq freeing up personnel for a return to the Central American theater, and the Obama administration drawing novel tactical lessons and strategic variations from Bush’s war on terror.

The Stakes

Doug Stokes correctly remarked in America’s Other War that “by the end of the Cold War the ‘war on drugs’ increasingly came to replace the ‘war on communism’ as the primary justification for continued US military aid to South American governments.” Both of these conjunctural battle postures, of course, were meant to conceal a deep continuity across the epochs in the underlying promotion of strategic US economic and geopolitical interests in the region. Likewise, in Honduras today, the intensification of a militarized war on drugs has facilitated opportunities for new rounds of capital accumulation through deep and extensive neoliberal restructuring of the country under Lobo, while providing the basis for a fuller projection of US military power against the left-wing social movements and governments that have taken root elsewhere in the region.

The immediate and medium-term interests of US and Canadian capitalist forces in the country include mining, hydroelectricity, tourism developments, the banana export industry, textiles, auto parts, and other manufacturing activities in the low-waged female sweat zones of the industrial city of San Pedro Sula. Foreign investors are also looking to take advantage of Lobo’s plans to privatize the country’s public education, electrical, and water systems, as well as the state-owned ports.

But there are wider Central American concerns at hand, according to longtime Honduras analyst Annie Bird. She notes a resurgence of the “business- and government-backed death squads of the 1980s” that represent “powerful interests promoting large-scale development projects, including tourism corridors, open-pit mines, biofuel plantations, hydroelectric dams, carbon-credit forests, and more” throughout Central America. Guatemala is once again reliably under the hand of former general Otto Pérez Molina, Panama under the right-wing government of Ricardo Martinelli, and Costa Rica under the center-right Laura Chinchilla.

But the governments of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua, through gutted and pacified since the 1980s, represent potential barriers to uninhibited foreign investment, resource extraction, and longer-term US efforts to tame Latin America’s tilt to the Left.

Social movements opposed to aggressive mining have emerged in powerful form even within those countries governed by the Right. New waves of conflict around natural resource extraction and its attendant processes of dispossession have meant that disputes over control and access to land have repeatedly seen indigenous and peasant communities face off against mining multinationals and their paramilitary and state backers. If drugs and gangs dominate the diplomatic discourse of politicians, capital’s access to land and resources must be at the root of any materialist explanation for the expanding militarization of Central America, Honduras included.

It is abundantly clear where the US hopes to position itself amid these regional developments. At the outset of 2011, it was announced that the nineteen-year-old Central American Integration System would be expanding its remit to include the coordination of a new Regional Security Operations Center (COSR), with the guidance and funding of the United States and the Inter-American Development Bank. This new regional security strategy is to explicitly model itself on the avowed successes of the 2007 Mérida Initiative in Mexico — itself modelled on Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia — and its Central American corollary, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Also in 2011, two regional training centers and security operations were established in Panama, including what will become the headquarters of COSR. Logistics for the new operations will be supplied by the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force, a subordinate unit of United States Southern Command, which is responsible for coordinating US involvement in regional security, immigration, and drug operations in the area. According to Bird, police representatives from across Central America and the Dominican Republic will be trained to carry out the new regional security strategy at the headquarters once it is operational.

The Afghan-Iraqi-Honduran Nexus

“By countering transnational organized crime, we promote stability, which is necessary for external investment, economic growth, and minimizing violence,” Colonel Ross A. Brown explained to the New York Times from his headquarters in the Soto Cano Air Base just outside of Tegucigalpa — the only American air base between the US and South America. “We also are disrupting and deterring the potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.”

Before being stationed in Central America, Brown spent 2005 and 2006 serving as an armored cavalry commander in southern Baghdad. His Joint Task Force-Bravo has under its command six hundred US troops who are responsible for American military activities throughout all of Central America, in coordination with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Border Patrol, and US Army Rangers.

Since the coup, the US has built up its air base presence in Honduras through the establishment of three forward operating bases, ostensibly for drug interdiction — one each in the rainforest, savanna, and coast. According to one enamored Times reporter, this new tactical orientation “showcases the nation’s new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited troops, partnerships with foreign military and police forces that take the lead in security operations, and narrowly defined goals, whether aimed at insurgents, terrorists, or criminal groups that threaten American interests.” He goes on to explain that the new strategy in Central America “draws on hard lessons learned from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, where troops were moved from giant bases to outposts scattered across remote, hostile areas so they could face off against insurgents.”

The key distinction in the Central American theater is that US troops are officially prohibited from combat, even while accompanying and providing logistics for elite local security units such as the Honduran Tactical Response team. In practice, this careful delineation of duties doesn’t mean much. Last May, at least four people were gunned down by Honduran forces firing from a US State Department helicopter, under the supervision of uniformed DEA and US Navy agents.

In addition to the military bases in the country, the massive amount of military aid and high-level diplomatic support and engagement offered to the Lobo regime by the Obama administration reveal the extent to which the US considers Honduras to have resumed Reagan-era strategic significance. Under Lobo, Honduras is being reconstituted as a hub from which to combat popular movements and left-leaning Latin American governments, and to promote the immediate interests of US capital as well as the long-term geopolitical goals of the US state. Obama’s proposed budget for 2013 offers more than double the previous year’s military and police aid to Honduras. The country received more than $50 million in Pentagon contracts in 2011, and 62 percent of all Defense Department funds directed toward Central America that year went to Honduras. Referring to the drug war and wider US interests in the region, American ambassador to Honduras Lisa J. Kubiske characterized the Honduran armed forces under Lobo as “eager and capable partners in this joint effort.”

On January 18, 2012, Lobo was invited to Southern Command headquarters in Miami to meet with high-ranking officials. It was revealed that the US would offer new personnel to assist in further security operations in Honduras, beginning with the appointment of State Department security specialist Oliver Garza as special adviser to Lobo. A month later, Vice President Joe Biden visited the country, pledging that “the United States is absolutely committed to continuing to work with Honduras to win this battle against the narcotraffickers,” a battle to which he promised to contribute $107 million worth of new police and military funding through CARSI.

Imperial Statecraft

From the outset, the coup against Zelaya provided the United States with a diplomatic opportunity to recover some of its influence in the region, which had waned since the 1990s. In its calculated response to the coup, the Obama administration has been careful not to be seen as lending open support while nevertheless subtly undermining Zelaya and the anti-coup resistance. To brazenly champion the violent attack on procedural democracy in Honduras, in a context in which even the moderate governments of the region issued sharp condemnations of it, would have undermined whatever political capital Obama had mustered from the already waning liberal credentials of his early tenure. But this did not gainsay American aspirations to contain Zelaya and the reform movement in Honduras. Through the prism of US diplomacy, the events of June 2009 were framed as a regrettable interruption of the constitutional order in which Zelaya shared much of the blame. Micheletti’s government was depicted as transitional, and the Lobo regime, once established, was celebrated as a democratic godsend.

At each turn in diplomatic developments we witness this stylized progression. Referring on the day of the coup to the “detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya,” Obama merely called on “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law, and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” There was no reference to a coup, nor was there any demand for Zelaya’s immediate return, and the forces involved were not singled out for rebuke. Instead, attention was drawn to “all political and social actors,” tacitly implicating Zelaya and his supporters as responsible for his forceful removal from power. The Obama administration declared only that Zelaya was the rightful president of Honduras and should be allowed to return home after the OAS, the European Union, the UN General Assembly, and the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile had denounced the coup and demanded Zelaya’s restitution.

Over the course of July and August 2009, the United States sought to impose a mediation of the conflict through the Costa Rican president at the time, Oscar Arias, in what became known as the San José Accord. Micheletti, still in power at the time, initially agreed to participate in the proceedings, as the US was evidently willing to insist on draconian conditions from Zelaya before arriving at any resolution. Among the non-negotiable demands presented by the US were that Zelaya end any and all commitment to constitutional reform, and that he form a national unity government with the plotters of the coup that had just overthrown his democratically elected government.

Despite the fact that the parameters of the accord would have allowed significant elements of the authoritarian regime to continue in power through a “national unity” coalition, and that it would have utterly defanged Zelaya’s ability to build toward social justice and participatory democracy through constitutional reform, it was Micheletti, not Zelaya, who torpedoed the San José agreement. Micheletti withdrew from the talks, ultimately refusing to countenance even the idea of Zelaya’s return to Honduras under any conditions. He was emboldened by American support. From the outset, the US lent credibility to Micheletti’s undemocratic government by presupposing its legitimacy as an actor with which to negotiate, and further, its legitimacy as a major player within the envisioned coalition of national unity.

Cartagena Accord

But if the us worked hard to pave the way for the legitimation of the Lobo government and its reintegration into the international community, it was ironically their regional nemesis, Venezuela, that would ultimately bring those efforts to a successful conclusion. Promoted by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez, the Cartagena Accord was signed on May 22, 2011 by Santos, a representative for Chávez, Lobo, and Zelaya. In exchange for Chávez’s backing of Honduras’s readmission into the OAS—achieved on June 1—the Honduran government pledged to allow an end to Zelaya’s exile and to annul all legal proceedings against him. The agreement further committed the regime to protect the rule of law, to ensure the protection of human rights, and to permit popular plebiscites around political, economic, and constitutional matters. Finally, the Lobo regime, through the Cartagena proceedings, pledged to recognize any move by the FNRP to transform itself into a formal political party.

Few of the commitments made by the Lobo regime in the Cartagena proceedings were novel. Lobo had long ago formally committed his government to act within the rule of law, ensure the protection of human rights, to permit popular plebiscites around political, economic, and constitutional matters, and to recognize any political party formation the FNRP should decide to establish. There is no reason to believe, therefore, that simply because of Chávez’s support the Accord represented a serious progressive step for the Honduran people, or a setback for US interests. In fact, the Cartagena Accord provided ex post facto approval by Chávez and Zelaya for the political line to which the US has been wedded since Lobo was elected — that the Honduran government is genuinely committed to national reconciliation and deserves reintegration into the international community.

The precise reasons that motivated Chávez to support Cartagena are unclear. One possibility is the desire for stronger diplomatic ties to Colombia to ensure the continuity of economic relations with a major trading partner; another is suggested Venezuelan aspirations to upstage Brazil as the major diplomatic player on the South American left.

“Everyone is happy that Zelaya has returned,” said Bertha Cáceres of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras when we spoke with her shortly after the Cartagena Accord had been signed. His right of return “should have always been unconditional. He’s a human being and he has the right to return to his country. However, we believe that the Cartagena Accord is in accordance with US strategy. Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, played a key role, alongside Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president. For us it’s unacceptable that someone like Juan Manuel Santos, a recognized backer of paramilitarism in Colombia, and a violator of human rights, is talking about reconciliation and peace.”

In an interview with Carlos Amaya, son of the renowned Honduran novelist Ramón Amaya Amador and an important grassroots activist, we heard a common refrain of the Honduran resistance: “The Cartagena Accord opened up possibilities for resolving a critical ‘problem’ of the resistance that the Obama administration had been seeking to solve since the initial coup: how to channel the popular mobilization into an electoral path, how to defeat the resistance in the streets, and how to stamp out the construction of popular power and direct democracy outside of parliamentary institutions.”

Fraudulent elections may have brought to office a new face of the regime; Zelaya may have returned to Honduras; the Cartagena Accord may have been signed; but the coup — despite lacking the explicit initial backing of the United States — was successful in truncating Zelaya’s presidency, stifling efforts at constitutional reform, and instituting the basis for an authoritarian, militarized extension of the neoliberal political economy. The region’s progressive forces (leery of suffering Zelaya’s fate) and right-wing forces (emboldened by the successes of the coup) have undoubtedly taken notice. “We support the work that President Lobo is doing to promote national unity and strengthen democracy,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at a news conference in Guatemala shortly after Lobo’s assumption of power. “What we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope,” Obama explained to reporters in the Oval Office as Lobo sat next to him in October 2011. Lobo has demonstrated his “strong commitment to democracy.”

The democratic delusion on offer here has been a staple of US-Honduran relations since the late nineteenth century. If Lobo is the latest emblem of that delusion in practice — having apparently re-established law and order after the unseemly interruption of Micheletti — he also exposes its ruthless center: elections as theater, direct rule by capital, and unmediated violence in civil society. We have seen much of this before, and we’ll see it again.