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Obama's Honduran war

Why is the US arming and supporting a violent military regime against its own people?

Central America is currently the most violent region on the planet. Some of that is attributable to the drugs trade, which itself feeds on the atomisation and insecurity produced by global neoliberalism. Some of it stems from the region’s brutal and traumatic past, when state forces could commit atrocities with total impunity. But much of it is due to the attitude of the United States, which continues to look for military solutions to social issues.

As a result, the Obama administration is involved in arming some of the western hemisphere’s most repressive regimes. Honduras stands out as a glaring example of this policy.

The coup

In June 2009, a military coup overthrew the popular Zelaya government in Honduras. Under manuel Zelaya, free education for all children had been introduced, subsidies to small farmers provided, the minimum wage increased by 80%, domestic employees integrated into the social security system and poverty had been reduced by almost 10%. Direct state help was provided for 200,000 families in extreme poverty, with free electricity supplied to those most in need.

President Zelaya also aligned his country with the ALBA, the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas. Less than two-and-a-half years into his presidency, he was kidnapped by the army in a coup that was condemned internationally, and forced into exile.

The Obama administration appeared to distance itself from the putsch at the time and pushed for fresh elections. These duly took place under a state of emergency, without the participation of the ousted president, and were subject to widespread fraud and intimidation. Zelaya’s supporters called for a boycott and hundreds of candidates for congress and local councils withdrew their names and shunned the elections.

The Obama administration hailed the poll as a ‘very important step forward for Honduras’, despite 23 Latin American and Caribbean nations of the Rio Group refusing to recognise the election and Amnesty International proclaiming a ‘human rights crisis’ in Honduras. Abstentions were at a record high and there was evidence that government employees were ordered to vote and some residents were herded to the polls at gunpoint. Time magazine’s reporting carried the headline: ‘Obama’s Latin American Policy Looks Like Bush’s’.

Nearly three years after the coup, the result has been ‘social decay and political repression,’ argues activist Rosie Wong. She explains: ‘The homicide rate in Honduras has skyrocketed, registering as the world’s highest in 2010. Human rights groups highlight the ongoing political assassinations of regime opponents. In this small country of eight million people, 17 journalists have been killed since the coup. LGBTI organisers, indigenous rights activists, unionists, teachers, youth organisers, women’s advocates, and opposition politicians have also received death threats or been killed. Those responsible are rarely punished by the justice system, which instead devotes its energies to prosecuting social and human rights activists. Protests are often met with teargas canisters and live ammunition.’

Reporters Without Borders called Honduras the world’s most dangerous country for journalists in the first half of 2010. Yet while activists are shot down in broad daylight, the Obama administration appears to side with the death squads. ‘Now it’s time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,’ US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in June 2010. Within days, the US resumed military aid to the Honduran regime.

Since then, the situation has only worsened. There were 120 political assassinations in the country in 2010-2011. In the region of Bajo Aguan, where peasants are defending their land from large developers, 45 peasants have been murdered.

Organised crime too has thrived since the coup. ‘The lack of investigation and prosecution for crimes – and the evidence that state forces are involved in human rights violations against opposition and “undesirable” sectors – creates a paradise for criminals and a hell for the majority of citizens,’ writes Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen.

DEA raiders

In March 2012, 94 members of the US house of representatives sent a letter to Hillary Clinton asking her to suspend US assistance to the Honduran military. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is asking for increased military aid for Honduras for 2012.

Just how this ‘aid’ might be spent was underlined by a recent report from a Honduran human rights group that agents of the US drug enforcement agency (DEA), dressed in military uniforms, killed at least four and possibly six civilians in a raid which took place in May. The victims included two pregnant women and two children. Apparently, the DEA agents fired from helicopter gunships at a riverboat carrying civilians in the Mosquito coast area of Honduras.

After the shooting, the helicopters landed in a nearby village, where those on board stormed out and began breaking down doors of shacks and brutalising villagers. According to witnesses, one of the English-speaking troopers (presumably a US agent) pointed a gun at a teenager’s head and threatened to shoot if he refused to talk.

Many others who were attacked that night claimed their assailants were English speakers. The Obama administration admits US DEA agents were involved in the operation in an ‘advisory’ capacity.


Mike Phipps is a member of the editorial board of Labour Briefing, of the National Committee of the Labour Representation Committee (chair: John McDonnell MP) and a specialist in Central American affairs.