Jan 19, 2020
In 2014, 70,000 children from Central America arrived at the U.S. border with Mexico alone, with no adult accompanying them. Since then, a wave of unaccompanied children, mothers with children, and whole families from Central America have been trying to gain asylum in the United States. In 2019, over 900,000 migrants were detained at the U.S. southern border. Unlike in the past few decades, when most people arriving at the southern border came from Mexico, the tiny countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador combined accounted for more than 70% of the people detained by the Border Patrol in fiscal 2019.
To get to the U.S. from Central America, migrants have to get through Mexico, braving the threat of gangs, of the Mexican army and police, of jumping on and off moving freight trains—and that is before they reach the dangers of the U.S. border itself, with the desert and the border patrol, not to speak of vigilantes. The Obama administration tried to prevent people from gaining access to the U.S. by deporting thousands and trying to get Central American governments to prevent people from leaving. Trump has doubled down on these attempts, pushing the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to crack down on migrants even harder, housing those awaiting asylum hearings in atrocious conditions in the U.S.—or even worse, in Mexican border towns—and making it ever more difficult to gain asylum in the United States. Despite everything stacked against them, thousands continue to attempt the journey.
Donald Trump cynically plays on this humanitarian crisis. He has made attacking workers from the poor countries a key part of his rhetoric, blaming immigrants along with “trade” with poor countries for the economic problems U.S. workers face. He attacks Central American migrants in particular for bringing violence to the U.S.
Trump, of course, is a self-serving hypocrite and demagogue. But the issue goes far beyond Trump. The desperation driving this mass migration is a direct result of more than 100 years of U.S. economic and political domination, exacerbated in the last decade by the consequences of the world financial crisis, a crisis set in motion by the U.S. banking system. And the situation in the small country of Honduras, located south of Mexico and Guatemala, clearly shows this disastrous history.
Almost a third of the population of Honduras remain subsistence farmers, barely growing enough food to feed themselves and their families. Last year, droughts combined with floods when it did rain ruined many farmers’ crops. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization, two million farmers in Central America faced hunger in 2019, including about 500,000 in Honduras, because of the failure of the bean and corn crops. Many farmers sold their tools to buy food. So what chance will they have of growing a crop next year even if conditions improve?
In many areas, one generation after another farmed the same land under circumstances where legal documents were unknown. Large plantations have recently been taking advantage of this, taking over small farmers’ land. Forcing the former farmers off the land, these plantations don’t employ nearly as many people as they displace.
On top of that, expanding mining operations throughout the country have poisoned rivers that supply the water small farmers need.
As a result of these three processes, many small farmers have been driven to the cities to look for work—if they can find it.
The few jobs that exist pay extremely low wages, mostly in sweatshop conditions. According to official statistics, the few who are lucky enough to get year-round work average about $4,000 a year. But most people in Honduras cannot get even one of these jobs. The bulk of the population lives in dire poverty: the World Bank reports that 60% of the population lives on less than $1,168 per year. According to the World Bank, this will buy about twice as much as it would in the U.S.—but that is still the equivalent of living on less than $2,500 for a year.
Those without land or jobs gather in the crowded slums around the big cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, where they are surrounded by violence and crime. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world—the official murder rate peaked in 2012, when the government reported over 7,000 people killed in this country of fewer than ten million people. By comparison, Chicago, which got huge attention that year for all of its murders, had less than one fourth Honduras’ murder rate. Violence against women is also rampant and carried out almost with impunity: in 2016, 463 women were murdered in Honduras, and as of July 2017, police were investigating only 15 of those cases.
This situation of abysmal poverty has been imposed upon the population with violence.
According to one 2015 report in The Nation, private security forces employed by companies or state forces killed at least 30 unionists in Honduras just between 2009 and 2015.
In the countryside, when the Dinant Corporation began seizing large swaths of land to expand its giant palm oil plantations in 2010, farmers protested. In response, U.S.-trained Dinant “security guards” killed five of them. When the local population responded by blocking roads, the military and police invaded the region, occupying villages and killing more people. Over the next three years, at least ten more people working with the peasant group fighting these land seizures were killed. Their lawyer was assassinated, and when his brother traveled to the capital to speak to the media about it, he was himself shot and killed. None of the killers were punished—five Dinant security guards were charged with the original murders, but none were convicted. And these are the killings tied to just one corporation, over only seven years, as described by historian Dana Frank in her book, The Long Honduran Night.
The level of violence reached the point that the non-profit Global Witness in 2017 named Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for “environmentalists,” listing 120 people who had been killed defending their land, rivers, or forests in the previous six years. Most of these people were in fact small farmers or their allies defending the resources they needed to survive.
This was the case in 2016 when assassins killed Berta Cáceras, a rural militant protesting the construction of a dam by the DESA Corporation that would destroy many people’s access to the water they need. According to the Honduran court that convicted seven of her assassins, “DESA executives proceeded to plot the death of Ms. Cáceres,” after company officials had infiltrated her organization. The assassins were almost certainly linked to the Honduran military: a former soldier reported that her name was on the Honduran special forces hit-list before her assassination. Her murder attracted attention because she had just won a prestigious environmental award and met with U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the Pope, but it was not unique. Rather, it was emblematic of the violence facing activists of all sorts.
Much of this violence came from the private armies operated by the corporations, but they are linked to and sometimes work directly with the state apparatus, as in the killing of Cáceras.
The Honduran economy that produces so much poverty for the population is dominated by the United States. U.S. companies use Honduran subcontractors to produce clothing and auto parts destined for sale in the U.S. market. Honduran plantations produce coffee, bananas, palm oil, and beef, much of it also to be sold in the United States. Honduran businesses rely on the financial system dominated by U.S. banks.
Some plantations and factories are owned directly by subsidiaries of U.S. companies. For instance, Standard Fruit, a subsidiary of Dole, operates giant banana plantations on the country’s north coast. Chiquita owns four Honduran subsidiaries, including a logistics company, in addition to banana plantations.
Other businesses are owned by a tiny Honduran elite that relies on loans and investment from U.S. and European capital and thus funnels interest and a share of the profits to these countries. For instance, Miguel Facussé, founder of the Dinant Corporation responsible for so much violence, made his fortune off of companies making consumer products in Honduras for sale throughout Central America and the Caribbean. Finally selling these companies to the giant multi-nationals Unilever and Proctor and Gamble, he used that money, along with loans from the U.S. dominated financial system, to set up Dinant’s palm oil production, much of which is today exported to Mexico to produce candy.
As could be expected in a country with so much U.S. investment, U.S. armed force is used to safeguard these investments and profit. According to the Security Assistance Monitor, the U.S. provided over 114 million dollars in direct aid to the Honduran military forces just between 2009 and 2017.
Many of the military’s commanders are trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Georgia (formerly the School of the Americas), which develops permanent links between these officers and their U.S. handlers. At least two of the accused murderers of Berta Cáceras received U.S. training from this “school.”
The U.S. also operates a joint base with the Honduran military called Soto Cano (formerly Palmerola), which serves as both the Honduran Air Force academy and the base for the main U.S. military task force in Central America, with about 500 U.S. military personnel.
The modern Honduran economy was largely established by U.S.-based companies, and the Honduran police and military were built, trained and armed by the U.S. from their beginnings.
Honduras’ current situation is a product of U.S. imperialism’s development in the broader region and in Honduras in particular for more than 100 years.
At the end of the 1800s, having finished its conquest of a big part of the North American continent, U.S. capital began looking for investment opportunities further afield. This was part of the broader growth of imperialism around the world, as capitalists from England, France, Germany, and Japan also looked to build or reinforce their empires as places to find raw materials, sell goods, and finally to export capital.
The U.S. expanded as vigorously as the European powers, but in the case of the U.S. expansion, it was into the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Latin America. And much of this expansion was carried out by warfare. In 1893, U.S. businessmen organized a coup in Hawaii, which led to its annexation by the United States as a territory by 1900. In 1898, the U.S. fought a war against Spain to gain control of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. The U.S. military then fought a bloody and brutal three-year war against Filipino nationalists to establish American control over that country. With the beginnings of an empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific, the U.S. sought to connect these two bodies of water by building a canal across Central America, maneuvering against its European rivals and carving the country of Panama out of Colombia to do so.
President James Monroe had already claimed the “right” for the U.S. to be the lone power in the region with his Monroe Doctrine in 1823, but it was not until the construction of the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914 that the U.S. was able to firmly establish its domination over Central America. In 1905, Elihu Root, Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt, wrote that “The inevitable effect of our building the canal must be to require us to police the surrounding premises. In the nature of things, trade and control, and the obligation to keep order which go with them, must come our way.” Roosevelt agreed, announcing his famous Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that the U.S. would act as the police force to maintain order in this corner of the world that included Honduras.
Before this, Honduras had been an extremely rural country with little industry or even commercial agriculture. While a few U.S.-based mining companies had begun extracting gold in the 1880s and some U.S. banana companies had already set up shop on the north coast starting in the 1890s, the vast majority of the population was little touched and survived by subsistence agriculture.
But beginning in 1905, when Samuel Zemurray—aka “Sam the Banana Man”—arrived in Honduras from the U.S. and began buying up huge swaths of land to set up banana plantations, which he eventually sold to the United Fruit Company, Honduras became increasingly dominated by U.S. investors. Two U.S. companies, United Fruit and Standard Fruit, soon came to control the entire north coast of the country. They expanded by taking land from peasants, leaving those they expropriated no option but to become their extremely low-paid workers. By 1913, bananas accounted for two thirds of the country’s exports. Honduras developed a one-crop economy, whose wealth was shipped off to New Orleans, New York, and Boston. Whatever infrastructure was built served the fruit companies in taking their crops out. As late as the 1960s, Honduras did not even have a railroad to its capital, Tegucigalpa. It became the country U.S. author O. Henry referred to when he coined the term, “banana republic.”
A small ruling class developed, which was closely linked with U.S. corporations. Large landowners profited by producing commodities, largely for the U.S. market, relying on the infrastructure built and controlled by the banana companies. Politicians—universally from large landowning families—fought over the customs receipts from the fruit companies. The central government that this ruling class built in alliance with U.S. companies was also extremely weak and corrupt: Lee Christmas, a U.S. Consul in Honduras in the 1910s, observed that “a mule costs more in Honduras than a Congressman.”
Unlike in neighboring Nicaragua, the U.S. did not establish a permanent military occupation of Honduras. The banana companies ran their section of the country with their own armed guards. As for the rest of the country, there was little to control. And the U.S. military was ready to invade if necessary: between 1903 and 1925, U.S. military forces “intervened” in Honduras seven times.
For the population, the domination by U.S. imperialism meant poverty and dictatorship.
This system lasted with few changes for six decades. But during World War II, with the U.S. occupied elsewhere and high demand and high prices for their goods driven by war orders, Honduras and other Latin American countries developed economically to a certain extent.
After the war, the U.S. came back, first of all by funneling money and military goods into Latin American militaries. Starting in 1951, this policy began in Honduras when U.S. advisors and U.S. money began to build a Honduran army out of the rag-tag force the country had possessed previously.
In 1954, the Honduran working class raised its head when United Fruit workers organized a massive strike demanding higher pay. This strike soon spread to Standard Fruit, and then to industrial workers throughout the northern city of San Pedro Sula, the center of the banana empire, involving over 40,000 workers and winning large raises. The Honduran Communist Party was born out of this strike. For the next nine years, the workers movement expanded across the country, demanding land reform and independence from U.S. domination in addition to higher wages, benefits, and the eight-hour day. In the midst of the ferment, a layer of the Honduran bourgeoisie sought to put themselves at the head of the movement by portraying themselves as reformers and at least nominally supporting some of the workers’ demands.
United Fruit and Standard Fruit gave in to some of the workers’ demands, including the eight-hour day. But when a new government led by the reformers announced its support for demands to distribute the company’s unused lands to small farmers, United Fruit and the U.S. ambassador turned to the recently developed Honduran Army. In 1963, the army struck. According to the U.S. ambassador himself, the army “slaughtered” the small force built by and loyal to the reformist government “in half an hour,” and put the leader of the army in power. This was the first of many coups that this U.S.-created army would carry out to protect the interests of U.S. investors who dominated Honduras.
Once Honduras was stabilized by the army, U.S. investment flowed into the country. U.S. banks—Chase Manhattan and National City—took over the small Honduran banks. These banks loaned money to Honduran landlords to expand production of cotton, cattle, and coffee. The landlords took over the land of even more peasants—often by simply stringing barbed wire around peasants’ land. U.S. companies bought, distributed, and sold the commodities grown on these new plantations. Unlike the old banana plantations, many of the new plantations were owned by Hondurans—but they were set up with U.S. loans, paid interest to U.S. investors, and mostly shipped products to the United States to be sold in U.S. owned stores or used in U.S. industry.
By the 1960s, Honduras might not have been just a banana republic anymore. But it was run as a colony of the U.S. in everything but name.
Throughout Central America, the local bourgeoisies were weak, and the U.S. relied on dictatorships with very small popular bases to maintain order. In the 1970s and 1980s, some of these regimes began to totter.
The Samoza dictatorship in Nicaragua was the first to fall. It was an extremely corrupt and unpopular government, run by one family that had dominated the country’s landed wealth. It maintained itself in power by resting on a National Guard built by the U.S. decades earlier, and that had become so corrupt as to be largely ineffective militarily. By 1979, this regime had lost support among even the country’s bourgeoisie, and a relatively small guerilla movement, the Sandinistas, was able to take power.
The U.S. government saw the danger that its other dominoes in Central America could fall, especially as U.S.-backed dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador were almost as weak and unstable as that in Nicaragua. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the U.S. was not ready to commit its own troops to restabilize the region. Instead, the U.S. used Honduras as a base from which to regain control.
With U.S. help, the remnants of the Nicaraguan National Guard gathered in Honduras to form a new organization called the Contras, which literally means “against,” in Spanish. The Honduran state itself was increasingly militarized and directed by the U.S. to aid the Contra mission of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. The U.S. military established a major base in Honduras, which remains open to this day, along with at least 11 more base camps and airfields. CIA agents swarmed over the country. By 1987, there were 7,000 U.S. military personnel and 40,000 Contras and their dependents in tiny Honduras. According to the New York Times (as quoted in Scott and Marshal, Cocaine Politics), in the 1980s: “American diplomats exercise more control over domestic politics in Honduras than in any other country in the hemisphere, and in private that fact is universally acknowledged.”
The U.S. encouraged the massive expansion of drug gangs in Honduras, enabling the Contras to fund themselves by producing and distributing illegal drugs for export into the U.S. market. In 1978, a “cocaine coup” brought to power a layer of the Honduran military tightly linked to drug cartels. In 1983, under pressure from the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Agency closed up shop in Honduras, ending any pretense that U.S. officials would try to stop drugs from pouring through the country or attempt to contain the gangs that trafficked them. One DEA agent recalled: “The Pentagon made it clear that we were in the way. They had more important business.” The New York Times (also quoted in Scott and Marshal) reported that the DEA had information linking five top Honduran army officers with the drug trade, but was “persuaded not to act on its information” at the end of 1987, “so as not to endanger Honduran cooperation in the Contra war.”
Two U.S. military “advisors” were shot, a restaurant was bombed wounding Honduran and U.S. soldiers, and even the Honduran Congress was bombed. In 1988, crowds of Hondurans attacked the U.S. embassy with firebombs. But, in fact, no one was able to mount a very effective resistance to the transformation of their country into a U.S. military base.
Even to this, the state responded savagely. Between 1980 and 1984, at least 290 people in Honduras “disappeared,” mostly peasant organizers, labor leaders, or teachers, killed and tortured by death squads, and the repression accelerated throughout the 1980s. The most famous of these death squads, “Battalion 3–16,” was trained by Argentine operatives who had experience torturing and “disappearing” people in that country’s Dirty War, and this death squad worked closely with the CIA. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights eventually indicted the Honduran government for having these death squads, which had been trained by the U.S.
After the U.S. had succeeded in doing away with any slight degree of independence in Nicaragua, it pulled out of Honduras, leaving the Honduran military to have to find new ways to fund its operations. As a result, the military turned more openly to corruption and drugs, helping the gangs become more fully implanted in the country than ever. Today, according to the U.S. National Defense University, the gangs have infiltrated the police, the military, the judiciary, and the political system. From being a banana republic, Honduras had become at least partially a cocaine republic, with a state apparatus completely entangled with the drug gangs. The violent consequences for the population were severe.
Starting in 2007 and accelerating in 2008, the financial crisis hit the United States and rippled out into the rest of the world, including Honduras. Credit dried up. Prices for commodities like coffee and palm oil fell. U.S. companies drove even harder bargains with their suppliers, including the Honduran sweatshops. As everywhere else during the crisis, the bourgeoisie looked to the Honduran state to bail them out and help them squeeze more out of the population in order to recover their profits.
One of the first political consequences of the crisis was the 2009 coup. When the crisis hit, Honduras was being run by a president, Manuel Zelaya, who had played a slightly populist card, trying to build a base of support in the population by funding some modest social programs and acting somewhat independently of the U.S. On June 28, 2009, elements of the Honduran army arrested President Zelaya, whisked him out of the country, and seized power for themselves.
In The Long Honduran Night, Dana Frank describes the enormous amount of circumstantial evidence linking the U.S. to this coup. The plane that flew Zelaya out of the country stopped at U.S.-run Soto Cano Air Force Base to refuel. Four of the six top generals who oversaw the coup were trained at the School of the Americas. The commander of U.S. forces in Honduras met with the Honduran general who led the coup the night before he carried it out.
The Obama administration refused to call it a coup, and gave its blessing to a highly suspect election that coup leaders “won.” Obama’s support continued even after the president who took office following the coup was linked in U.S. trial testimony to drug trafficking operations.
The Trump administration continued the policies of the Obama administration, blessing another “election” in 2017 that the European Union and the Organization of American States condemned as totally rigged. When thousands of Hondurans took to the streets in opposition to that election, the police and military killed at least 30 people. The president who “won” that election has also been accused in U.S. court of drug trafficking, and his brother was convicted of it. Unsurprisingly, U.S. aid to the Honduran military that carried out the coup continued.
From the perspective of the U.S. and Honduran bourgeoisies, the post-coup government has been effective. By 2017 and 2018, U.S. capital was flowing into the country to build new factories to make clothing and auto parts. The country’s clothing industry expanded by more than 15% in just those two years. In May of 2019, Guatemalan textile bosses even complained that they were losing business to Honduras because of that country’s more employer-friendly labor laws implemented by the government that took power after the coup.
But for the population, the coup reinforced the disaster already unfolding in the midst of the economic crisis.
The state and employers launched an attack on workers’ incomes and working conditions. Starting right after the coup, the Honduran government rolled back the laws that supposedly protected workers, such as those that limited part-time work or that required employers provide minimal benefits. Of course, most jobs in Honduras had long been irregular, and most employers had flouted the legal protections workers were supposed to have. But since the limited legal protections began to be eliminated, even the few regular jobs in the country eroded. The wages for low skilled workers in the country declined by seven percent just from 2018 to 2019—before inflation.
On top of these attacks on workers and farmers, the ruling class openly stole tens of millions of dollars from the health and education systems and sold adulterated drugs that killed thousands of people. The government even planned to privatize health care and schools, though strikes by school and health care workers supported by massive protests, which continued in the face of police repression, made them back off of these plans, at least temporarily.
The increased desperation of the population in the years following the crisis and the coup is what finally put in motion the mass migration of Honduran people to the U.S. beginning in 2014.
The catastrophic conditions driving migration from Hondurans were “Made in the U.S.A.” The poverty of the bulk of the Honduran population is the result of 100 years of U.S. domination. The military, police and many private “security” guards are trained and funded by the U.S. The violent gangs were implanted in the country by U.S. policy in the 1980s, and now flourish serving the U.S. drug market and taking advantage of the desperate population. The economic crisis was a product of the U.S. financial system. And the coup was supported, if not directly planned, by U.S. officials.
The U.S. role in the disaster unfolding for the population in Honduras and the rest of Central America shines a spotlight on the demagogic hypocrisy of Trump’s rhetoric.
But U.S. policy toward this part of the world does not depend on rhetoric, nor on which party is in power. The 2009 coup took place during the Obama administration, as did the first attempts to block child migrants from gaining asylum in this country in 2014. Today, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer decry Trump’s open embrace of migrant prison camps and family separation, but consistently back “border security” and “aid” to the Honduran state that is driving its population to flee.
The desperate situation Hondurans are fleeing is not unique. Thousands of people are also fleeing poverty and violence from El Salvador and Guatemala, and thousands more are fleeing countries in the Caribbean, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and many more. In all of these countries, people are fleeing the catastrophic consequences of imperialism.
If we are to create a world without millions of desperate migrants fleeing poverty and violence, it will not suffice to change which political party is in power nor agitate for a better policy. The reality is that this desperate situation for a large share of the world’s people is a product of the imperialist system rooted first of all in the United States. It is that system that must be rooted out.