But the crisis has a long back story, including the U.S. militarization of Central America in the 1980s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support for an anti-democratic coup in Honduras in 2009 which ousted a populist president and increased the exploitation of the population.
Adrienne Pine, an American University anthropology professor, explained this harsh reality in an interview with Dennis J Bernstein of Pacifica’s “Flashpoints” program. Pine is the author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: on Violence and Survival in Honduras.
DB: We are hearing a lot that the kids are coming, many from Honduras, from a very violent situation. Maybe you could just give us a little background … your thoughts in the context of knowing so much about Honduras, and being there so much in this last year.
AP: Well, indeed Honduras is generally recognized as the most violent country in the world and that’s in the homicide rate, over 90 per 100,000. Which just to give you an idea, country number two is in the 60’s. So it’s well above and beyond. The risk of being murdered is far higher than any other place in the world right now. But that only tells a partial story, of course.
The most important part of the context to understand why not only the homicide rate, but the rate of so many other forms of violence is so high, is to understand the coup that happened in 2009. A coup that was carried out by military forces trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. And which was, in effect, supported by the United States which refused to follow the unanimous decision of the OAS [Organization of American States] at the time, to not recognize the usurping government, and instead negotiated with it and has continued through all of these years to send massive amounts of military aid, military and police aid, to a government that, in effect, has militarized the country and is murdering and terrorizing its citizens, both through this militarization and direct violence and through the more indirect violence, if you can call it, of neoliberal policy, which for many people isn’t indirect at all.
It includes the usurping of lands, indigenous peoples’ lands, of campesinos’ or peasant farmers’ lands. It includes the destruction of any notion of sovereignty and Honduran peoples’ control of their land, of their water, of their sub-soil rights, and of their government itself. So there are conditions of extreme violence in Honduras. You will hear politicians saying “Well, this is all the fault of the gangs.”
But the reasons why there is so much violence has to do with these bigger structural forces. Of course, the gangs are very dangerous but if young kids had work opportunities and had a chance to live a decent life, these gangs wouldn’t be threatening people in the way that they are.
DB: Talk a little bit about the situation on the ground in terms of the social setting, the level of poverty, the way in which all this violence unfolds.
AP: Well, it’s hard to explain. I’ve just come back from a year of living in Honduras. I was there teaching at the National University, and you live a constant embodied state of terror in Honduras. And, it’s hard to exaggerate it. Because everybody is always afraid.
I’m perhaps the only person I know who has lived a significant period of time in Honduras and has never been assaulted. So I’m very lucky, in that sense. But everybody, every Honduran I know has been violently assaulted at one point or another. And by that I mean with a gun, and it’s happened in front of me in several occasions, as well.
So it’s something that you become used to and expect. And just a month ago I walked by a man who had been killed in a targeted assassination, ten minutes earlier, and was lying there on the ground. So this sort of violence is day to day, and then even, more immediately for anybody who owns a small business right now, there’s what is called war taxes. Which is basically bribery from local gangs who, in many cases, are affiliated with the police, and also bribery on the part of the police basically. “You pay us this money” — like protection money – “and we won’t kill you.” And they will kill people if they don’t pay the money.
In one neighborhood, for example, Flora del Campo, in the past few week, three taxi drivers were killed for not paying their war taxes. Bus drivers pay phenomenal amounts of money. What generally happens is that businesses end up closing because they are not able to afford their war taxes and their business costs.
The environment on the ground is one in which there are very few businesses open, except in malls. So you are seeing an extreme privatization, and sort of closing off of public spaces, because they have become so dangerous. Complicity between the police and the military police, which was set up by the current president who won in extremely fragile elections last year – he set up a new military police force and re-militarized the country — and the gangs that are involved in all of this business. Perhaps the most powerful actors in the country are the drug traffickers who also happen to be very deeply involved in the financial sector and in the government.
So it’s a situation on the ground of day-to-day embodied terror. And all the United States seems to want to do — or rather what the State Department seems to want to do — is pour more money into a military apparatus that is terrorizing people, and defending the neoliberal vultures who are really stealing Honduran land and Honduran young peoples’ possibilities for a future and for survival.
DB: It sounded like this to me that President Barack Obama and various officials of this administration are sort of lecturing the parents of Central America and of Honduras, telling them that they need to keep their children home. That they will be in danger and they will be deported. It’s almost as if these parents don’t love their children, and they just want to let them go. Do you want to talk to the life of the child and why a parent might let go or somehow try and get their kid out of there?
AP: I think it’s really cynical that governments, both Honduran and the U.S., have been blaming the parents for this situation because Honduran parents love their children as much as parents anywhere do, which is to say a whole lot. And if they are desperate enough to agree to let their kids go — and in many cases, kids decide to go on their own — it’s not that the parents send them. But if the parents agree to let their kids go, it’s because their life is at risk in Honduras. And by their calculation, their life will be at less risk even with the massive dangers, in particular, on what they call the death train through Mexico, to the northern border of Mexico, the southern border of the United States……
When in reality, what I’ve seen over the past 17 years that I’ve been working in Honduras is that if it weren’t for the massive militarization, the military occupation of Honduras by the United States, where there is by the count of my colleague, David Vine, whose writing a book on military bases, there is over 14 bases and installations in Honduras, U.S. bases and installations. And if it weren’t for our support for a murderous, military and police services in Honduras most of these human rights abuses, that are causing people to flee from the country, would not be happening. And people would not be having to flee from Honduras….
DB: One final grand political question, it takes us back to the coup, but it also takes us forward to the next election. The leading candidate as far as I understand at this point is Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State. Did she play a role in terms of Honduras, in terms of supporting the coup that has apparently led to so much suffering in Honduras? How would you talk about her role in the U.S?
AP: Hillary Clinton was probably the most important actor in supporting the coup in Honduras. In part, perhaps, one would assume because one of her best friends from law school, Lanny Davis, who had actually run her campaign for a while, her presidential campaign against Obama, was hired immediately following the coup by the most powerful business group in the country, that supported the coup, as the representative for the Micheletti coup government in Washington.
In that capacity he was able to organize hearings in Congress through his friend, Eliot Engel, who at the time was the head of the congressional committee for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and he was able to directly have Hillary Clinton’s ear. And, what that meant was that whereas the initial signals from the White House, from Obama were that yes indeed this was a coup and that this was illegal, and that the coup administration wouldn’t be recognized.
Hillary Clinton was able to veto that position, in effect, and alongside her friend, Lanny Davis, and the State Department took a couple of months to even admit that a coup had happened. But they made this, theretofore unknown differentiation saying that this had not been a military coup, it had just been a regular coup. It’s a difference that didn’t make much sense. The military, in effect, had carried out the coup.
DB: Well, if there ever was a distinction without a difference, it was that.
AP: Hillary Clinton played a huge role in propping up the coup administration. And it was the State Department that went against the Organization of American States, which actually has had a positive impact hemisphere-wide in that it provoked the creation of CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] which is the new, sort of parallel organization of OAS that excludes the U.S. and Canada because they have had such a negative impact within the OAS, of really pushing back against the progressive governments in the region, that want to have a different kind of relationship with the north, and not just be in the sort of ongoing imperialism.
But the State Department ensured that the coup administration would remain in place through negotiations that they imposed, against the OAS’ wish, and through continuing to provide aid and continuing to recognize the coup administration. And so if it weren’t for Hillary Clinton, basically, there wouldn’t be this refugee crisis from Honduras at the level that it is today. And Hondurans would be living a very different reality, from the tragic one they are living right now.
DB: I guess you don’t see any end in the near future. It’s not going to work, I guess, you wouldn’t believe for Obama and the administration to lecture the parents of Central America that they shouldn’t let their kids go, right? More to come.
AP: It’s incredibly offensive that that’s the analysis they’re taking, it’s a culture of poverty, discourse that is meant to take all the blame away from the people who really deserve it, which are the governments who are carrying out this violence against families who are trying their best to stay together, and stay alive.
DB: You mentioned that the drug trade is integrated with the economy. And that also there are lots of U.S. military bases there. Does not the U.S. and the military know about the trafficking operations that are being interwoven with the financial community?
AP: Oh sure, the U.S. knows about them. And from time to time the U.S. Treasury Department will sanction one of the drug kingpins, as they call them. Like they did with the Los Cachiros organization and another group last year. And it tends to be the kingpins who have fallen out of their favor, for some reason or another. But I think the U.S. has a good sense of who are the real players in drug trafficking in Honduras as everybody does. Historically, the United States’ military and the CIA have been directly involved in drug trafficking in the region. And there’s plenty of evidence for that. Peter Dale Scott has written about that, for example, in the early 90’s and 80’s. And, of course, with the Iran-Contra affair, that was a big part of that. And the Honduran military is deeply involved in the drug trade, as well.
So, the drug war has never seemed to many to be an honest excuse for the massive military presence in Honduras. Many people consider what’s going on with the militarization of the regions like the Mosquitia as well as the north coast, is that those are incredibly resource rich regions that are being opened up for oil exploration, and they are being used for hydro-electric projects. This is all being carried out by international companies, British companies, Chinese companies, U.S. companies.
And, so, in effect, what many people have theorized, and there’s a recent article by Kendra McSweeney about this, is that really the military is terrorizing the population, and clearing these lands, helping with land grabs to remove the indigenous, and other people who live on these lands in order to pave the way for a complete exploitation of the water, land and sub-soil resources of those regions. And, I would have to agree with that analysis.