Thursday, May 17, 2012

What is the US doing in Honduras?

Today I’m venturing into a topic that I perhaps should treat more cautiously, but recent events – specifically the killing of at least four civilians (including 2 pregnant women) by Honduran drug agents who were accompanied by US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) persons – lead me to offer a few thoughts.

I offer these musings knowing that I am not writing from personal experiences, but my life here for almost five years in the poorest diocese in Honduras does give me a distinct perspective.

A few weeks ago a priest whom I trust asked me about US AID, the US Agency for International Development, and its work here in Honduras. US AID does some good working in agriculture, and health. But US aid is conditioned on the policy behind it.

If the agriculture policy is supporting use of chemical fertilizers and genetically manipulated seed, is this really helpful for the small farmers who are seeking to eke out a subsistence on the little land they own or have to rent? If the emphasis is on export agriculture, will this really help José and Cruz feed their family in a remote village?

But also US aid should be seen in the context of US policy in the region which is, I believe, very questionable, at the very least. The roots of this policy go back more than a hundred years when US supported the US banana companies that controlled agriculture in the northern coast.

The continuing presence of more than 500 US military personnel in the Soto Cano Air Force base near Comayagua is a thorn in the side of many Hondurans. The base was established in the 1980s, when repression was severe here. It served, together with a training base in northern Honduras, to support the Contra war against the Nicaraguan government and the US-backed repressive Salvadoran government in the civil war against the FMLN.

But the US military presence has increased in the few years. More bases have been built throughout the country, especially on the northern coast; the reason given is to control the transit of drugs, especially cocaine, through Honduras.

The US is providing the Honduran government with radar installations in the Moskitia, a very unpopulated region in the northeast which is said to be a major transit point for drugs from South America.

There are also more civic operations which include US troops (often National Guard) with Honduran military and Honduran government agencies. These go out into remote areas and provide one-time medical care. Why there are troops from both the US and Honduras there seems strange. In at least some cases my guess is that they are there as part of intelligence operations, supposedly looking for drug trafficking.

But these remind me of the Salvadoran military practice, endorsed by the US, to provide civilian services by the military in contested areas as a way to, supposedly, “win the hearts and minds” of the people who had many reasons to be suspicious of the repressive policies of the government and the brutality of the military.

Excuse my cynicism, but these “Medical Readiness Training Exercises” make me nervous, remembering the history of like programs in El Salvador and Guatemala – and Vietnam.

But the presence of DEA in collaboration with Honduran drug enforcement personnel is especially problematic as I see it.

Not only does it mean a militarization of what should be police work, but it ignores some very real deficiencies in Honduras. Specifically I refer to the massive corruption of police and government personnel – sometimes at high levels of authority. The drug lords can easily pay off police, mayors and others to ignore what they are doing. There are stories of a mayor who is tied to drug trafficking paying off the police in the region with $100 a month.

The human costs of the DEA presence can be seeing in recent events.

An event in the Moskitia last week reveals part of the problem. At least four people, including two pregnant women, were killed when a Honduras drug enforcement helicopter fired on them. According to some reports, in the pre-dawn hours, the helicopter was following some boats which were believed to be transporting cocaine. Some sources claim that there was a firefight, initiated by the drug-trafficking boats.

But why were the civilians attacked? Their boat had a light while the other boat didn’t.

But some reports from unnamed sources make it look as if the civilians were killed during a firefight. The way some reports are phrased make it appear that initial fire came from the civilian boat, which is highly unlikely.

But what is the word out of the US Embassy and the Honduran government?

I may not be finding the right sources but it looks as if they have not yet apologized or lamented the loss of life.

This is in stark contrast to the reaction to the brutal killing of a HRN radio journalist who was kidnapped and then killed. HRN is a mainstream – some would say conservative – news source in Honduras.

President Lobo is offering 3 million lempira (about $150,000) for information about the journalist’s abduction and killing. The US Embassy and the ambassador have expressed outrage at the killing – which is fitting.

But what outrage has been shown by the US Embassy about the other 20 some journalists killed since early 2010 or the more than 50 killed in Bajo Aguan (many at the hands of security forces of large landowners)?

This killing grieves me – as do the many other deaths throughout the country that are never investigated.

But the US usually seeks to put this all in the framework of a drug war, or blames "gangs". 

The drug trafficking situation has worsened here in the last three years. But I believe that it is closely connected with the continuing breakdown of law, in part due to widespread corruption and bribing of police and officials by drug lords and the ongoing failure of the government to respond to the needs of the poor. At times it appears that the government doesn’t really care about the poor but serves the interests of the elites.

What is also disturbing is the failure of the Honduran government to investigate human rights abuses, even abuses by police and military, and the failure of the US government, esepcially the State Department,  to pressure Honduras in this respect. There are efforts in the US Congress to place human rights condition on police and military aid to Honduras, but what chance is there of this really happening?

In the midst of all this I am still convinced that this is where God wants me to be. There is much to be done, mostly accompanying the people in their faith lives and in their struggles for a decent life.

There are signs of hope here, but they mostly come from the people at the base, not from institutions, especially not from government institutions, whether Honduran or US.

And so, today I pray for the people here – a people who are suffering but with the hope of resurrection.

Jesuit father Ignacio Ellacuría, martyred by Salvadoran government forces in 1989, talked about the “crucified peoples of the world.” I run across them almost every day but I see some of them trying to live the hope of resurrection. These are the persons I hope I can support and accompany as we work and pray together for the Reign of God.


Charles said...

The issue of how US assistance lowers the standard of living has been discussed by NGOs for decades.

In the simplest formulation, the US gives (or sells at reduced prices) food to a country. This depresses prices to the point farmers can't make a living and are driven off the land.

In the next formulation, the US brings "efficient" farming techniques to countries. Wealthy farmers are able to take advantage of this (this is happening in Haiti right now). But someone farming an acre or two can't, for example, efficiently use a tractor. So wealthy farmers are able to sell their produce at a larger profit, while the smaller farmers are less and less able to make a living.

In the third formulation, the US brings factories (sweatshops) that lure people off the land to make cash wages. But since they have to then buy food and pay for housing, they end up poorer, even as GDP rises.

In all of these formulations, the official standard of living rises even as the severity of poverty increases. This is because there are spillover costs of dispossession and monetization that are not measured creating openings for narcotrafficking.

All of this is widely known. The best solution is to keep small farmers on their land, even though it's less "efficient," because it results in less hunger, less social instability, etc.

When the best solution is known but not implemented, one can only infer that this is deliberate. I think it's pretty obviously US policy to create governments that can be controlled by Washington, even if that means completely destabilizing societies. In many ways, it is no different than the policy toward Indians in the 19th century, i.e. genocide.

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

Thanks, Charles, for providing much needed background. Many in the US presume that US policy is helpful. It often is not - especially when combined with military policies and policies that protect US economic interests. One should add that US policy often looks like a new type of imperialism or colonialism from here.

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

More information that I just ran across today:
"Similarly, the Pentagon (US) increased its military spending in Honduras by 71% on the previous year to $53 million in the 2011 tax year, and Obama proposes to increase the military aid to Honduras in its foreign aid budget of the Department of State. In 2011, around $24 million of this military spending went to the Palmerola US base.... This is despite persistent reports on corruption and human rights violations by state forces."