How the US Created Violent Chaos in Honduras

The US-backed coup in Honduras ten years ago spawned a maelstrom of violence that terrorized ordinary Hondurans and forced caravans of migrants to flee the country. It was just another instance of US imperialism wreaking havoc on the world.

Civilians clash with army soldiers in Tegucigalpa in June 28, 2009 in Honduras. (Orlando Sierra / AFP /Getty Images)

In the predawn hours of June 28, 2009, heavily armed Honduran soldiers descended upon the Tegucigalpa residence of the nation’s president, Manuel (Mel) Zelaya, and carted him off to Costa Rica in his pajamas, never again to be restored to his lawful post.

Ever so slightly left-leaning, Zelaya had stepped on the toes of the entrenched Honduran oligarchy, whose members had long ago pledged allegiance to the predatory capitalism endorsed by their benefactors in the United States. Not only had Zelaya raised the monthly urban and rural minimum wages to a whopping $290 and $213, respectively, he had also shown himself to be more willing than his predecessors to listen to the complaints of impoverished communities affected by mining and other toxic operations by international corporations. All of this naturally indicated that the communist apocalypse was nigh.

The last straw came in the form of a nonbinding public opinion survey, scheduled for June 28, in which citizens would be asked whether they supported the inclusion of an extra ballot box at upcoming elections in order to then vote on whether to convene a constituent assembly to update the national constitution. As the Honduran right-wing and concerned gringos spun it, this was concrete proof that Zelaya was scheming to abolish the constitutional article that limited presidents to a single term and to thereby install himself as eternal dictator. Of no consequence, apparently, was that any constitutional tweaking would only take place after Zelaya had already left power. Eventually, the article in question was abolished anyway, albeit under a sufficiently ultra-rightist administration so as not to merit a peep from the guardians of democracy.

In the months following Zelaya’s pajama-clad expatriation, the United States busied itself hemming and hawing over how to categorize his ouster without resorting to the obvious descriptor — “military coup” — that would then trigger massive cutoffs in aid to the post-Zelaya allies. After initially declaring that the United States was “withholding any formal legal determination” regarding the Coup-Type Thing in Honduras, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set about “strategiz[ing] on a plan to restore order in [the country] and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.”

This, at least, is what she herself told us in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, in a passage mysteriously excised from the paperback edition the following year. New elections were indeed swiftly held, and mootness rendered — although it’s anyone’s guess as to how elections staged after an illegal coup could qualify as legitimate, particularly when the Honduran people had already chosen Zelaya to serve out his four-year term.

When I arrived in Tegucigalpa, exactly a month after the 2009 coup, Honduran men and women had once again found themselves in the crosshairs, as peaceful anti-coup marches were routinely met with maniacal opposition by Honduran soldiers and police. At the beginning of July, for example, Honduran teenager Isis Obed Murillo had been fatally shot in the head by security forces at a pro-Zelaya rally. A schoolteacher was shot at a subsequent demonstration, also fatally and in the head, after which the prominent Honduran newspaper El Heraldo obediently explained that the man “had abandoned his classroom in order to go out and protest in the streets,” in case there was any doubt about who was to blame for his murder.

While the Honduran golpistas and right-wing media didn’t much care when protesters were injured or killed, any reports of potential vandalism by the anti-coup crowd was cause for hysteria. Coup president Micheletti, predictably baptized the “first national hero of the twenty-first century” by the Honduran National Industrial Association, took it upon himself to condemn the application of graffiti to the “walls of private and state-owned establishments and the walls of churches” as “a great sin.” US fast-food chains and other corporate iconography — all-pervasive features of the Honduran landscape — were also near and dear to right-wing hearts.

In August, for example, one of the Tegucigalpa branches of Popeye’s was set ablaze following a month and a half of brutal military and police repression of peaceful marches. The ensuing grief and rage on behalf of this fast-food restaurant were almost sufficient, it seemed, to merit a national day of mourning. When I later made the mistake of suggesting to a Honduran university student with designer sunglasses and an SUV that the anti-coup resistance was perhaps actually nonviolent, she resurrected the brief demise of Popeye’s and put an end to my blasphemy, throwing in for good measure some demographic analysis: 80 percent of Hondurans were thugs, 80 percent of Hondurans were by coincidence also poor — lest there remain any doubt that poverty itself was a crime — and it was these statistics that were to blame for Zelaya’s overwhelming popularity. Never mind that overwhelming popular support automatically made Zelaya a representative of Honduran democracy and not, as the SUV-er contended, its enemy.

Which brings us to one of the golden rules of the Right: when democracy fails to deliver, invalidate the demos. From the perspective of the pro-coup crowd — many of whom had learned the joys of democratic freedom from fancy shopping trips to my own exclusive homeland — the real pueblo hondureño was whatever the elite minority said it was, regardless of whatever thoughts the ignorant and uncivilized masses might have on the matter. Meanwhile, the excessive violence perpetrated by the US-backed Honduran state against a range of domestic have-nots was in no way whatsoever to blame for Honduras’s increasingly violent state of affairs; ditto for the US habit of inundating the region with weapons.

For some idea of what non-elite Hondurans have traditionally been up against, it’s useful to revisit a 2002 report on Honduras from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in which Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned that “every child with a tattoo and street child is stigmatized as a criminal who is creating an unfriendly climate for investment and tourism in the country.” The popularity of this attitude coupled with “institutionalized impunity” had, Jahangir noted, resulted in a pattern of extrajudicial killing of children by Honduran security forces: “In most of the cases the child was unarmed and did not provoke the police to use force, let alone lethal force.”

Nor did the extrajudicial business subside in subsequent years. When I met in 2009 with María Luisa Borjas, the former chief of internal affairs for the Honduran police, she lamented that some three thousand young persons had been murdered by the state during the presidency of Zelaya’s predecessor, Ricardo Maduro (2002–6). The killing spree had been made possible, Borjas said, by a de facto criminalization of youth and a liberal application of the term “gang member” — a policy inspired by none other than the “zero tolerance” approach of ex–New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

I attended various marches in the company of a severely diabetic schoolteacher and his daughter from Zelaya’s hometown of Catacamas, who supplied me with red bandanas and other resistance wear. Among the songs and chants frequently heard was the Argentine “Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo” — “They’re afraid of us because we’re not afraid” — which seemed to apply to pretty much everyone present except me.

The vibrant solidarity of the crowds, which somehow never abated even after hours under the sun and the ever-present danger of military and police assault, was all the more noteworthy given what these crowds represented: this was not just about the rejection of an illegal coup or a demonstration of undying dedication to the figure of Zelaya, this was about defiance of an entire history of right-wing attempts to crush the aspirations of a people.

Flash forward to 2012, and an op-ed appeared in the New York Times detailing Honduras’s post-coup descent “deeper into a human rights and security abyss” that was “in good part the State Department’s making.” Written by University of California scholar Dana Frank, the piece slammed the Obama administration for recognizing the fraudulent November 2009 elections that brought Porfirio Lobo to power.

Citing reports that more than three hundred people had thus far been killed by state security forces since the coup, with at least thirty-four members of the Honduran opposition disappeared or killed, Frank noted that no fewer than thirteen journalists had been reported murdered since Lobo’s ascension to office. And yet the United States, true to form, had maintained and in some areas increased military and police financing for Honduras [while] enlarging its military bases there.”

In a 2014 dispatch for Al Jazeera America, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC highlighted some related  aspects of the coup fallout for which Washington was more than slightly responsible: “The homicide rate in Honduras, already the highest in the world, increased by 50 percent from 2008 to 2011; political repression, the murder of opposition political candidates, peasant organizers, and LGBT activists increased and continue to this day. Femicides skyrocketed.”

Of course, state repression in Honduras is more than compatible with US financial interests and corporate exploitation. And what do you know: the slogan of the Lobo government was “Honduras Is Open for Business.” This was a relief to international investors fearful at the prospect of the country’s economic sovereignty, but decidedly less heartening for Hondurans whose lives happened to stand in the way of “business.” According to the NGO Global Witness, for example, Honduras was the “deadliest country in the world for environmental activism” in 2017. Among those recently assassinated was Berta Cáceres, a fierce campaigner for indigenous land rights and against environmentally destructive megaprojects.

The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani, relaying the claim by a former Honduran soldier that Cáceres’s name had appeared on a hit list belonging to US-trained Honduran special forces, stressed that human rights groups had warned the US Congress “that death squads were targeting opposition activists [in Honduras], much like they did during the ‘dirty war’ in the 1980s.” To put it a different way: Honduras was not just open for business, it was back in business.

And in business it has remained under Juan Orlando Hernández, who was reelected in November 2017 in a vote widely denounced as extremely dubious (as previously mentioned, his reelection was made possible by scrapping the constitutional article limiting presidents to a single term — the very article that Zelaya was accused of violating and that was used as grounds for his overthrow). Post-election protests triggered a typically lethal response from the Honduran forces of law and order, while, in the midst of the vicious crackdown, the New York Times informed readers that the US State Department had just “certified that Honduras was meeting human rights conditions, strengthening transparency, and cracking down on corruption” — a prerequisite for the release of yet more US aid to those very same forces.

In October 2018, a US-bound caravan originating in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula attracted thousands of Central Americans hoping to reach the United States by foot — a journey that would take well over a month. The decision to travel as a large group mitigated the dangers generally faced by migrants, including murder, disappearance, and rape.

Predictably, the mass of peaceful pedestrians slowly inching their way northward lit a fire under Trump’s ass, and he took to Twitter to warn that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the caravan: “I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic].” Ten days later, he threatened to dispatch as many as fifteen-thousand additional troops to the southern border — on top of all of the personnel already stationed there — to fend off the encroaching enemy. After all, there is pretty much no better way to attack the United States than by walking there from Honduras.

But while Trump & Co. battened down the hatches, a critical history lesson was lost in the ruckus: US foreign policy in Central America over the past several decades is largely to blame for US-bound migration in the first place. It’s no coincidence that the caravan initiated in Honduras, the epicenter of recent US meddling in the region.

And yet the US commitment to nurturing a violent Central American milieu is nothing new; back in 1954, for instance, the CIA-orchestrated coup against democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz — a character insufficiently obsequious to US corporate interests — paved the way for a war in which more than two-hundred-thousand Guatemalans were killed or disappeared, many of them indigenous Mayans. From Guatemala to El Salvador and Honduras and beyond, it’s difficult to argue that US support for dictators, death squads, and egregious socioeconomic inequality has nothing to do with the present panorama of poverty and violence that Central Americans are fleeing. If anyone’s suffering from a National “Emergy,” it’s them.

The US obsession with the sacrosanctity of its own borders clearly hasn’t stopped it from violating everyone else’s. But there’s no time to waste contemplating double standards when evil incarnate is coming at you from all directions — hence the utility of converting a caravan of humans seeking a better life into a nebulous mass of criminal-terrorist-gang-member-rapists. Honduran president Hernández, meanwhile, did his own part to spice things up by proclaiming the whole shebang a leftist conspiracy financed by Venezuela.

It’s like a scene out of the Cold War circa 1986, when that pre-Twitter Emergy known as Sandinista Nicaragua compelled President Reagan to address his fellow Americans on the matter of the “mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States.” Nicaragua, a mere “two-hours’ flying time from our own borders,” was at the time the go-to spot for international evildoers, harboring “Soviets, East Germans, Bulgarians, North Koreans, Cubans and terrorists from the P.L.O., and the Red Brigades” and endorsed by “Arafat, Qaddafi, and Ayatollah Khomeini.” Furthermore, the president professed to “know [that] every American parent concerned about the drug problem will be outraged to learn that top Nicaraguan Government officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking” — though parents would presumably have been more outraged to learn that the United States and its Contra mercenaries were up to their ears in the drug business and more than slightly to blame for the crack cocaine epidemic that devastated South Central Los Angeles.

The moral of the story, according to Reagan, was that there was no conceivable “greater tragedy than for us to sit back and permit this cancer to spread” — i.e. the United States needed to funnel more money to the “freedom fighters struggling to bring democracy to their country and eliminate this Communist menace at its source.” This would also, incidentally, help avert a situation in which “desperate Latin peoples by the millions would begin fleeing north into the cities of the southern United States, or to wherever some hope of freedom remained.” As for how the noble battle for freedom played out in reality, Noam Chomsky has described the US Contra war as a “large-scale terrorist war against Nicaragua, combined with economic warfare that was even more lethal.”

Luckily for the United States, there is no shortage of imperial lapdogs who claim that the gringos have brought only good things to Central America. Back in 2000, for example, Thomas Friedman crowed with delight over the perks of life in the Honduran homeland: “Honduras, little Honduras, already exports seven times more textiles and apparel to the United States than all forty-eight nations of sub-Saharan Africa combined.” He followed up this absurdity five years later with an intervention on behalf of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), according to which, he explained, the United States would altruistically offer Central America the opportunity to engage in “labor-intensive sewing” and thereby “help consolidate these fragile democracies by locking in a trading relationship with the United States that is critical for their development.” He subsequently boasted in reference to the article: “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative [sic]. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”

With little Honduras now locked into an ever-tighter bond of economic servitude and human rights obliteration disguised as democracy consolidation, one can’t help but feel that, in terms of empire-building, Honduras has been one hell of a coup indeed.