Tegucigalpa (Tegus) is an American-made disaster. Traditionally the most subservient and tightly controlled US client state in Central America, it has been the base from which the US has launched a terrorist war of aggression (against the Nicaraguans in the 1980s) and ignited a savage civil war (in neighboring El Salvador). There is barely a restaurant in the city that is not part of an American corporation, and on the surrounding beautiful, rolling hills sits Tegus’s own version of the Hollywood sign – except this time it says Coca-Cola. There is barely anywhere in the city from which this imposing cutout is not visible.
When I arrived in the country in 2012, it had been three years since the US-backed coup that threw out the democratically elected president. I was told I could not leave the hotel, day or night, and had to take a taxi to interviews. The whole city was on lockdown. I did not comply – but as I walked the concrete streets of the center it was like a ghost town. There were various bits of graffiti, the walls being the last place for free expression in a country wrecked by authoritarianism and violence. “El pueblo nunca olvidará” (The people will never forget); “Venceremos los dueños!”(We will defeat the owners).
Honduras is one of the front-line states in the Drug War. It has become increasingly popular with traffickers owing to the corruption of its officials, the poverty of its people, and the fact that there are large tracts of barren land, particularly in the north of the country, that are off limits to the government. The geography is also a boon for narcos – Honduras is a halfway point for cocaine coming from South America to Mexico and the US. But combating drugs is like squeezing a balloon – when you push the drugs out of one region, they reappear somewhere else. Underneath all the puritan anti-crime rhetoric, the so-called Drug War, which is now a huge bureaucracy employing thousands of people all over the world, was always about control. This method of domination became more acute after the end of the Cold War when the US was running out of excuses to base its military personnel and agents throughout Latin America. The Drug War then became the perfect front for a sustained military presence in the region that would make all its countries slaves to US dictates: the situation that the planners wanted replicated was that of Honduras. Unsurprisingly, it was a plan the rest of the hemisphere was not too happy with. When I arrived in Tegucigalpa I was aware of the real reasons for the Drug War, but I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth what US operations were about. I organized an interview with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the major US agency dedicated to eradication of coca crops, to take me through it. The DEA agent, Jeff Sandberg, did not want to be named, but in the interests of full disclosure I will not conceal his identity. US agents don’t deserve anonymity, like the programs they oversee. Incidentally, that’s probably not even his real name – most US agents are given cover identities. He was a squat man with a shaved head and a wild-eyed look, the sort of proselytizing anti-drugs bureaucrat you might imagine would be working for the DEA in Honduras. When I asked him whether he felt he was winning the war against the cartels, he just laughed. “No, we’re not winning, but we’re trying very hard. The situation is very difficult, you have government institutions that have basically failed or are failing that require a lot of work and a lot of time to strengthen them and get them back on track.” He was no doubt correct, but he forgot to add that the government, the country and the state it was in, were in large part down to non-stop US intervention for pretty much a century. Any time it looked like the people were slinging off the imperial giant upstairs, the US would come in and launch a coup, as it did in 2009, President Barack Obama’s first coup. The problem had been the incumbent President Manuel Zelaya, who had had the temerity to raise the minimum wage for the poorest Hondurans. The local Honduran oligarchs saw the danger of a slightly more humane society and reached out to their natural allies, the US, overthrew democracy, kidnapped the president, dumped him in his pajamas on a runway, and reinstalled the political wing of the rich, the Liberal Party. The US initially called it a coup, then the position changed, the subsequent “elections” were validated, and Porfirio Lobo, the new and illegitimate president, was invited to tea at the White House.
Since the coup, a continuing phenomenon has been the huge increase in the number of human rights violations. This is not just perception. One human rights group told me that at a national level in 2008 they were dealing with 125 human rights violations throughout the whole year. In 2010, they had 2,700 cases, and in the period 2011–12 there was very clear targeting of specific groups. Among the countries of Latin America, Honduras has had the most journalists murdered in recent years. There has also been targeting of people who are aligned to the new political party, LIBRE, that has been set up by former president Zelaya and his wife, as well as people who are community activists involved in protest and resistance movements. When I was there the country had what Hondurans called (accurately) a “narco-congress”, a group of rich legislators who are in bed with the narco-traffickers with whom the US was ostensibly at war. Mr Sandberg himself agreed. “I believe there are plenty of people that are involved [in the drugs trade], that would have to be involved, to allow what goes on here, high up the food chain.” The number of deputies in the congress who have been assassinated in narco-related incidents has soared over recent years, while people at the local level will say openly which mayors, members of the city councils and deputies have been elected with narco funds.
Nothing to see here
The method of military control used in Honduras, under the guise of the Drug War, is simple: open a military base, but do not call it a base. This method is mirrored across other countries in the region and across the world. The US officially calls these areas Forward Operating Locations (FOLs), because apparently they are temporary, and it’s embarrassing to call them bases as an American empire, of course, does not exist. In Honduras, just before I arrived, the US had opened four new FOLs, ostensibly to deal with drugs. But, in truth, Central America was also showing signs of moving away from US control, with left-wing governments in El Salvador and (briefly) Honduras. The truth is that the US was trying to reassert its control of Latin America after a decade of concern about the Middle East, during which time a raft of independent leaders, not subservient to US interests, arose in the region.
In the course of my interview with DEA agent Jeff Sandberg in the gardens of the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, he denied that the FOLs were new, saying that “they have been around for a number of years, maybe not in as much use as they’ve gotten in the last year or maybe in the upcoming time frame, but those locations have been around for actually a number of years, so they are not really new.” This sounded like an admission that the US has had a surreptitious military presence at undisclosed locations through Honduras for “a number of years”. The flack (journalistic slang for PR people) who sat in on our interview chimed in: “We have no military bases, there are Forward Operating Locations, which are actually Honduran facilities where there was just renovations that were done to support these types of air operations, it’s not something that was built out of whole cloth. Even though I explained it’s a small operation, but these were existing facilities where it was built so that there could be the staging for these helicopters into the air where we’ve identified that the drug trafficking activity takes place.” The rhetorical gymnastics of imperialism. Of course, it was all smoke and mirrors. FOLs are the same thing as a military base, but the Americans don’t want to appear the imperialists. The flack even said there is “not a US base at Soto Cano. Soto Cano is a Honduran base”. But that same base houses the US Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-B), which is a regional force whose main goal is apparently to “assist in disaster relief” – and other more nefarious things. “I do want to reject categorically the idea that there is an American base in Honduras,” he told me. Imagine if the Hondurans had an elite team of Special Forces at a base in Florida, then said it didn’t comprise a base. Incidentally, the use of “advisors” in South Vietnam by President Kennedy in the early 1960s was another way of covering up for the build-up of troops and the take over of a foreign country under the veil of “altruism” and the “at their behest” ideology.
To understand the massive ideological construct that is the Drug War, designed to disguise the imperialism at its root, it is necessary to examine US claims about its efforts. Money is given by the US, alongside military and drug personnel and training, to Latin American countries in an effort to interdict drugs that are being smuggled from Colombia and other areas of South America through Central America until they finally arrive on the streets of Baltimore or Chicago. Interdiction does happen – the propaganda is not completely hollow – in the form of night raids and drug busts, but even Mr Sandberg admitted to me that “interdiction is a very small part of the puzzle”. In addition, the US’s Drug War hasn’t hit production levels at all, but has merely caused possibly millions of deaths and untold misery across the continent. When WikiLeaks released the US diplomatic cables, they revealed that the Americans in fact knew that the most powerful oligarch in Honduras, Miguel Facussé Barjum, was allowing drugs-laden aircraft to land on his property. Facussé, who had his own private militia that was killing campesinos fighting for land rights, was of course a US ally, so nothing ever happened. Many in Honduras believed Facussé was in fact behind the June 2009 coup, an allegation with some merit.
In short, the US is losing the war against drugs, but that doesn’t matter because it isn’t about drugs. The war will continue because it’s the perfect mask, the perfect means of maintaining high levels of military force and control throughout the Americas now that the excuse of the Soviet Union has disappeared. The Soto Cano air base in Honduras, in fact, became a vital control point for counter-insurgency in the region, and in more recent times it has been the watching point for the supervision of drug trafficking and movement throughout this region. More importantly, the US can police the people when they vote the wrong way: it was clearly concerned about President Zelaya’s policies in 2007–08, the entry of Honduras into the independent trade grouping ALBA, and the close relationship with Hugo Chávez. All of these set off warning bells for the US about whether it would lose access to the bases, so there was a coup, and the people of Honduras were crushed once again.
The functionaries at the front line of US imperial operations can’t – won’t – see it like this. “We’re making some progress, we’re trying to make more progress, what’s the alternative?” asked Jeff Sandberg when I mentioned that the war looks to be failing. “To throw up our hands and say we give up? Then what happens? Chaos, in my estimation. Is that the better alternative? Not in my world, maybe some people think so, but I bet if those people lived in chaos they’d think otherwise.” I later organized to meet with the heads of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department to see what kind of narrative they had developed to explain the descent of this close American ally into tragedy. Like many individuals working in the US imperial system, they obviously believed the lies that had been concocted to legitimize, both morally and legally, the US presence in Honduras. In fact, I believe it would be impossible to not imbibe all these false theories about US benevolence – many of these people are good people who want to believe they are doing the right thing. It is the institutions that are pathological; they are merely its human form, so convoluted forms of legitimization are a must. Every now and then someone like Edward Snowden has a moral awakening and reveals the true face of American power. But the collection of officials I met comprised the standard fare. We sat around the table at the USAID building opposite the embassy and they came out with the usual lines, which are not worth quoting as they just perpetuate the myths.
Culprits Running Free
Like most campaigns waged by the US government to pursue its interests in a particular region, the result in Honduras has been unadulterated misery for the people living there. In fact, when I was in Honduras it had been transformed into the most dangerous country in the world. The homicide rate was higher than in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, two other countries destroyed by the US government and military. I talked to a number of people who had lost friends and relatives – it was unusual to meet someone who did not know someone who had been killed by a gang or political interests. No one had seen justice done. Julio Funes Benítez, for example, was shot dead in broad daylight outside his house in Tegucigalpa in early 2010. The assassins unleashed a hail of bullets in his direction while driving past on a motorbike. Mr Benítez had been active in the resistance movement which flourished after the coup. But nearly three years on, no one had been charged with his murder. “From when they killed my husband to now, I never got any support from the authorities,” Lidia Marina Gonzales, Mr Benítez’s widow, told me. “There was never an investigation, the culprits are free. The agent who was meant to investigate told me that if I wanted there to be an investigation I would have to pay.” The fact that Mr Benítez’s killers got away with murder is not an exception in modern-day Honduras. There are 91 murders per 100,000 people, or one every 74 minutes. Nearly all remain unsolved, and many, as in the case of Mr Benítez, are not even investigated. One of the big problems is that the quality of criminal investigation is absolutely appalling; sentencing is less than 3 percent. This pattern of violence cannot be attributed solely to the coup, but has been growing since around 2002. The Honduran government itself says it is focusing on modernizing the justice system and reforming political institutions in its effort to bring down the homicide rate. “The advance of narco-trafficking alongside the geographical position of the country and corruption in the police make it hard to combat,” Julio César Raudales, the minister for planning in the Lobo administration, told me. “It is going to be a long road to reconstruct the social fabric, but that won’t stop us.”
As in all countries where the US has been intervening on the side of the oligarchs and the murderers, a heroic resistance, killed at a staggering rate, refuses to be cowed. Chief among these groups is Cofadeh, the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, which is a non-governmental organization (NGO). I walked over to their offices to talk with Dina Meza, one of its human rights workers, who was herself living in fear because of her work. “There are many threats, defenders of human rights have a lot of threats,” she told me in a coffee shop just down the street. “In my case they have increased since February of this year, text messages have come to me telling me to watch out, armed men have come to my house, I had to change my life radically, including where I live. I spend much more on security, but of course the government isn’t investigating the threats. This office is watched, all our actions are watched. I had to leave with my family from where we lived because armed men were watching us at home, even though Cofadeh had told the police, they had never come to protect us, they wanted to kill us all. They gave me a number to call of the police if I get in a bad situation, but the number doesn’t work, no one picks up. We have a state that doesn’t work.” So how does she go on? I asked. “I don’t want to see a country with no human rights; we have to keep fighting for our children. Even if I die, we are fighting for democracy, rights, it’s a natural bravery.”
When you travel around the world investigating how the US has uniformly tried to stub out popular movements through the most heinous and brutal programs, people like Meza also pop up everywhere. These are people who refuse to become just another statistic buried by the US media, people whose names will never be known beyond their communities but who continue to fight every day, at great risk to themselves, positioned against the most powerful state and military in the history of the world. Meza didn’t mince her words: “The US support the oppression of anyone lifting a finger against the coup government, I wish the American people could see this.”
In the aftermath of the June 2009 coup, the resistance had been strong and was brutally suppressed. A new party emerged which was said to represent the disparate groups allied against the de facto regime – these included unions, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups and women’s movements. It was called LIBRE and was led by Xiomara Castro, wife of the deposed president Zelaya. I met the international coordinator of the party, Gilberto Ríos Munguía, in Tegucigalpa. “The government doesn’t have real power,” he told me. “A de facto group have power in the country. They control the police and the military. It’s a group of narco traffickers, from Mexico and Colombia; it’s the same cartels that are in Mexico that control this place. They have more power than the state of Honduras; they have neutralized the functioning of the state, in police, investigations, in the military. This has provoked the high levels of violence.”
After the US and oligarchs threw out the democratically elected Zelaya, the narcos gained near-complete control of the congress. Although the US denied being involved in the coup and, in WikiLeaks cables subsequently released, privately said it was illegal, it has strongly supported the coup regime under President Porfirio Lobo. Many people in Honduras suspect that the US was involved in the coup itself. There is a famous joke in Latin America that the US is the only country in the hemisphere to have never had a military coup because it is the only country in the hemisphere without a US embassy. “The CIA had a lot to do with the coup. Obama with the new coup, he didn’t recognize the de facto government of [Roberto] Micheletti; however, he never did a commercial blockade, like in Cuba. In the case of Honduras he only criticized six months of de factogovernment, then recognized the government of the same coup,” added Mungia.
Mungia believed that the US favors some cartels over others, a view that is gaining increasing currency in Central America and is backed up by revelations from Mexico. He held that “the DEA is very corrupt, it’s a cartel, and they are working with the cartels, in Mexico as well”. Like in Iraq and Afghanistan, where someone who has a score to settle will erroneously tell the Americans that their enemy is al-Qaeda, the cartels in Central America are informing on their enemies to the DEA in the hope that the biggest military power in the world can help them vanquish their rivals. “In Mexico, the country started going bad at the start of the war on drugs, and in Honduras we are worse than even Mexico,” said Mungia. The activists in LIBRE, like many others who are standing against the US-backed coup regime, feel in constant danger. “Many people of us are under threat of death, we have received many threats,” he said. “I have friends that have been assassinated, the mayor, the deputies. I lost a friend who was very close six months ago. The first deputy candidate [from the LGBT community], he was killed.” That activist was a young man by the name of Eric Martinez, who was murdered by anonymous forces for speaking out too forcibly against the US-backed regime. Mungia said that most of the assassinations were the work of the police or military, a situation mirrored in countries that the US controls across Central America.
LIBRE is a rare beacon of hope in Honduras, where a sense of hopelessness pervades. In a country where dissent and democracy is attacked mercilessly, its activists, in the face of violence and murder, are organizing from a grassroots base to take on the oligarchy and their backers in the US embassy. Before they are successful, however, a lot of blood will have to be spilt. It’s the same for those fighting US-backed tyrants around the world, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. “Honduras is the most anti-democratic country in Latin America,” said Mungia. And of course it has to be this way, because as soon as real democracy appears and threatens US interests, it will have to be cut down. What the US likes, and promotes, is “low-intensity democracy”, a political system in which there are formal elections every four years but the social relations of the society, the control of a rich elite, is never questioned and the concerns of the country’s poor people are never heard.
Not long before I arrived in Honduras there was what became an infamous massacre. On May 11, a gun helicopter ship, US-owned but apparently Honduras-piloted (and overseen by DEA agents), murdered four people, including two pregnant women. “I wasn’t there in the incident, nor was I here in the country,” Jeff Sandberg said. I asked instead if there were regular firefights between the Honduran military and people they were ambushing. “I don’t know if I would say regularly,” he replied. “But there certainly have been incidents and there will be further incidents of government forces against people involved in the cartels.” I asked about the role of the DEA in such operations. “Mentoring, advising, and building the capacity of the Hondurans to at some point function on their own without our help.” It was the same excuse – of beneficence and aid – that had been used to control South Vietnam, Afghanistan and countless other countries. But many argue that the role of the DEA is much more hands-on. “In this case, that was a police operation not a military operation, and they were in a situation of trying to seize drugs out of a community that had a lot of arms,” Lisa Kubiske, the US ambassador to Honduras, told me in her office in the embassy. What that operation did provoke was massive anti-American feeling in Honduras. Mr Sandberg added: “It’s just part of the politics that goes along with any kind of country that is requesting assistance from another country, wouldn’t have to be just the US. What happens if Hondurans ask Guatemala for assistance, and you have Guatemalan police or troops to assist and an attack happens where some civilians are killed by the Guatemalans, I’m sure the Hondurans would say the same thing.” The problem for Sandberg and the Americans is that they work militarily in 130 countries around the world – no other country does that. Of course the dynamic is the same: people don’t like outsiders coming in and killing their people. But those outsiders are nearly always American. Ask an Iraqi or Afghani or Honduran or Guatemalan. The flack representing the embassy at this point reminded me that the Americans were “here at the request of the government, working in areas that the government has identified”. This is the oldest American propaganda line there is. Like all the best propaganda, too, it has a semblance of truth if decontextualized. So, of course, the Honduran government has invited the US, but it’s a government the US installed and is backing to the hilt against their own people, so it would be a huge surprise if they rejected US solicitations to base themselves in the country. This is the problem of the American empire: it has to hide itself continually, it has to live in the shadows, not allowing detection, because the country is founded on strong anti-imperialist ideas, and its media class would implode if it reported the truth. So the military bases have to be “forward operating locations”, the military presence has to be at the behest of the “Honduran people”, the military operations have to be operated by Hondurans, and “overseen” by Americans. It’s a constant dance to cover up rapacious power and give it the gleam of legitimacy. Once you scratch the surface, however, it falls apart.
The Economy of Despair
Although Honduras is a major military outpost for the US empire, it pales into insignificance when you look at the “tonnes of personnel” (Sandberg) that the US has in Mexico and Colombia. “Every Central American country has DEA personnel assigned in Central America,” Sandberg said. In fact, the US set up multi-billion-dollar programs in both Mexico (the Mérida Initiative) and in Colombia (Plan Colombia), alongside the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the US government program through which it filters money to countries in the region. Sandberg pointed to these two places as evidence of what might be achieved in Honduras. “There are many obstacles. I would say take a look at Colombia and Mexico. How long has it taken Colombia to get its handle on the drug trade and various anti-government entities operating in Colombia, it was a long time frame. Realistically it’s probably what it’s going to take here, but we have had tremendous success in Colombia, and I think we’re starting to have some very good success in Mexico, so it’s possible here.” Colombia, as has been noted, has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere; in Mexico, from 2004 to 2014, 200,000 people were killed in the Drug War fought by the military and the cartels. That’s what Honduras has to look forward to – courtesy of the US. But Sandberg was adamant that it’s the Hondurans who “need to change”, not the US. “Their country, their views, their legal system is what needs to be revamped, and I think that’s probably decades. Generations that have the wrong outlook, maybe, of how things function here, and accept how things function here, that’s what needs to change.” This is traditional imperial mentality. The colonial powers, and their agents, nearly always ascribe any faults in a country they are administering to the cultural mores of the local people. This provides an important function: it stops the colonial powers’ administrators from ever having to question the system that created the mess in the first place, and which they oversee. Another point that the US might consider is that nearly all the demand for these drugs comes from within the US, as well as a large portion of the guns used by the cartels. If the US government could reduce the demand for drugs and supply of guns, the violence might very well start to abate.
In the big debate about the Drug War, most politicians turn to simple demonization of cartels and their members, as well as the trade itself. The cartels are brutal organizations, but they are a product of a destroyed economy. When young kids are growing up in Honduras or northern Mexico, and their choice is between a life of penury in the formal economy or joining a cartel and becoming fabulously wealthy, unsurprisingly they often choose the latter. In the May 11 killings, for example, even if the people killed were guilty, they are likely to have been dirt-poor kids moving product up the river because they had no other option. DEA agent Sandberg had actually put his finger on the problem, when I asked why there were such high levels of violence in Honduras: “I think because the legal system in Honduras and the other social systems are so broken that there’s no impunity for people to not commit a crime, so it doesn’t have to be focused or because of drugs, it’s just a crime of opportunity or because you have a tonne of people who are living in poverty, people are trying to literally stay alive, and if that means committing a crime to get what is required to stay alive, then so be it. So I don’t attribute it all to drugs and cartels.” He did not, however, connect the state that Honduras was in to the fact that it had been the recipient of continuous US intervention. Was it a coincidence that Haiti, Honduras, and all the rest of these countries controlled by the US, were in tatters? Forcefully wrenching control from the people of any country, making it a dependency, a slave state for foreign capital, would, of course, not benefit the majority of the population.
Honduras economically is a playground for American capitalists, having been cursed by various neoliberal institutions. The multinationals operating in Honduras have nearly all been given tax-free holidays of up to 20 years to locate in Tegucigalpa, which has decimated government revenues. It is part of the reason why the justice institutions, education and health are so chronically underfunded. The profits are repatriated to the US and other western capitals, while the Hondurans spend their money in their restaurants. In this sense, Honduras is one of those unfortunate places where many facets of US imperial power converge – the neoliberal economics, the support for the military institution, the hysterical anti-leftist ideology. In such a situation, for people to retain their dignity and shake off the oppressor is extremely difficult. These tensions and problems contribute to the sluggish economy. When I was there, a “model cities” project was seen as a way to kick-start the economy, through creating privately run cities on Honduran land where immigrants from across Latin America could come to work in the maquiladoras (sweatshops). It was, however, rejected by the Honduran Supreme Court in October 2012 as “unconstitutional”, but it will, without doubt, be back.
“If you want security for citizens it’s interrelated with socioeconomic conditions of country,” said US ambassador Kubiske. “If you have people who can earn enough money, they don’t have to be tempted by criminal activity. If they think there are no options, they may be tempted.” True – but the US has kept Honduras chronically undeveloped. Like Haiti, Honduras experienced neoliberal economics on top of an already desperate situation. Hurricane Mitch, which hit in 2002, destroyed large parts of the infrastructure of the country and the livelihoods of many thousands. There was a big surge in male migration up to 2006. Then after that there was a big internal migration, mainly of women who moved toward the maquila sector. The majority of these “free trade zones” were in the north, like San Pedro Sula, which is now the most deadly city in the world. As late journalist Charles Bowden has pointed out, this mix of ultra-violence and ultra-capitalism is an apocalyptic vision of all our futures, as capital reforms governments around the world to make their people slave to it. Honduras is a very unequal society, as are most US client states. The concentration ofincome that is being captured by the top 10 percent of the population is growing, while the percentage that has been captured by the poorest 20 percent is decreasing, from about 3.7 percent of national income to just over 2 percent over the last decade. This inequality and the blatant consumerism are evidence that there is a section of the population who are concentrating income, which inevitably leads to violence – petty and otherwise.
Debt, both internal and foreign, is also beginning to grow in Honduras. There is an urgent need for job creation that is not dependent on the sweatshops, as it is difficult for the Hondurans to compete with China on wages. Zelaya tried to raise minimum wage by 61 percent overnight to give some dignity back to the poorest Hondurans. The economy did not break down as had been predicted by the oligarchs, and the fact that they were able to pay it shows just how much money had been accumulated.
One industrial park now has 18,000 workers in one spot, making textiles, clothes and footballs. Sally O’Neil, head of Irish charity Troicaire, based in Tegus, told me: “When you got to the maquilas in Honduras, the really big ones that make Christian Dior, the workers aren’t even allowed to bring in their handbags, it’s incredible. We’re working with a women’s organization, which work on occupational issues like repetitive damage to people working for hours on the things. We weren’t allowed to ask any questions or talk to any of the workers, but [when] we met the women afterwards we found out they have to have a pregnancy test every month. The women were given handouts. When they go through the turnstile in to work, they put their hands out, and they have to take the pill; before they used to throw it away, now they have to swallow it. You have to swallow it before you go out in front of them. Another one where the women we work with, they go in the morning, there’s a big sack and you put your hand and take out a piece of paper and the piece of paper will have a time on it, and that’s the time you can go to the loo, your one toilet stop. But you can start work at 6am and your toilet stop may be 7.15pm.”
I was granted the interview with Lisa Kubiske, whose first ambassadorship this was, probably because so few journalists were making it to Tegucigalpa, as the story was no longer “sexy” – another country destroyed by America, and forgotten. “If we have in Honduras a place that is democratic, and economically prosperous and has social inclusion for its people, has strong institutions of government, strong democratic institutions, that’s good for Honduras, it’s good for the region, and it’s good for the US in a lot of different ways,” she told me. Except I knew that wasn’t true. A truly democratic Honduras, where the will of its population would be put ahead of the interests of foreign multinationals and the local oligarchs, was exactly what the US didn’t want to see and had helped to shut down. Ms Kubiske refrained from mentioning that the US has implicitly backed a coup against a government whose biggest crime was raising the minimum wage, which would have pulled many people out of poverty.
So I asked about US support for the Lobo administration, which was a coup government that won the election merely because many did not vote in what they called an “illegitimate” contest. “Not only do we work with the elected government of the country if you think they were elected in a legitimate election, the reason we think that is because they were the candidates selected in primaries. We recognized this result.” I asked if the coup made the situation worse, as many in Honduras hold, and whether the elections were illegitimate. “The violence of this society is perpetrated by many different actors, and that’s the first thing,” she replied. “The second thing is there has been a rising trend in violence that goes back several years before the coup. I’m going to say something like 2004, 2005, but you can look it up. So to say that the violence is a result of the coup, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that.” She added: “They have other cultural weaknesses. For many years they had problems with how they treated women – women getting killed, beat up, that kind of thing. The family issues, that’s been there, it’s just worsened in the last few years.”
I mentioned that the militarization of law enforcement and drug interdiction, under the aegis of US forces and policy, has made the situation worse and resulted in murders like those on May 11. “I wouldn’t characterize them as murders,” the flack interrupted. “Killings, then,” I said, and added, “some people say ‘we are a sovereign country, we don’t need the superpower upstairs here with their trained officials’”. Ambassador Kubiske answered: “I would refer them to surveys about US participations in their country. Firstly, we do really just go where we’re invited.” She said that most Hondurans ask for more intervention and use of Soto Cano as a counter-drugs base (which it already is). For a long time, the Honduran military had a fearsome reputation and was hated by the population for its brutality and human rights abuses. Now, the coin has flipped and the police are feared while the military enjoys a better reputation. This is not a sign of progress, but rather how far in people’s estimation the police have fallen.
I mentioned I had spoken to human rights groups in Honduras, and Ambassador Kubiske shot back, “They don’t all have the same views”, which means that there are some critical and some supportive of the US. One of the major features of US imperial strategy is to maintain a pretense of an open civil society inside “low-intensity democracies” and then put money into certain human rights NGOs which are supportive of the US and its policies. So it looks as though the US is contributing to a vibrant civil society and human rights system, but actually it is creating bodies that shore up its position. It is structurally impossible for these organizations to threaten to upset the social relations of the country or impinge on the US-backed oligarchs. So you get “human rights” and control, with no need for a crisis of conscience.
Of course, the US doesn’t control all civil society groups, and so the ones outside US control, like Cofadeh, support groups that fight for justice on a more general level. For this reason, they must be discredited. Cofadeh had asked me why it was that the US embassy released a strong statement after a lawyer was killed in Tegus, but had said nothing about the campesinos in Aguan Valley where private militias rented by the local oligarchs to clear the land of protests and occupation murdered 80 people. “It’s very complicated,” said Ambassador Kubiske, in a common refrain from US officials overseeing an unjust policy. “It could be private guards, one time it could be one campesino group on another campesino group, one time it could be narcos. So for what we’re seeing, we’re seeing lots and lots of different motives.”
The case in Aguan was horrific – the wanton murder of powerless campesinos by private militias controlled by some of the wealthiest people in the region – but for the US embassy it was “complicated” because admitting that this was a horror show would mean taking on the oligarchs who represented their interests in the country and the region. “I think we’re known in general society for being quite an active voice on behalf of human rights because it is important to us,” said Ms Kubiske, ignoring the reality beyond the walls of the US embassy. When I asked about the huge private armies amassed by the oligarchs, she legitimized it as a natural reaction. “I can’t comment on Facussé himself, but I’ve lived in a lot of countries that have weak police systems, and when you don’t think you are getting adequate security from the state, you tend to go and pay for your own to do that. What I’ve seen in Honduras and elsewhere before are middle-class people on up hiring private guards, lots of them because they can, the police aren’t there when you need them. That’s what I think is going on, I think it’s a natural response.” A natural response. The people of Honduras had been beaten down to the point where only a whimper could be heard. But elsewhere in the continent people were breaking free of the vast web of control the racket had imposed on the region. Welcome to Bolivia.