How the Obama administration is failing Honduras — and Central America

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The June 2009 coup that ousted Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya from office was the first 3 a.m. call of U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration. USflaghonduras flag icon

While Obama and Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, condemned the coup and the interim government’s refusal to reinstate Zelaya, the United States returned to business as usual with the election of Porfirio Lobo Sosa later that year, and U.S.-Honduran cooperation, especially militarily, has been on the rise during the Lobo Sosa administration.  As Juan Orlando Hernández prepares to assume the Honduran presidency — like Lobo Sosa, he comes from the conservative Partido Nacional (PN, National Party), it also likely means continuity in US policy toward Honduras, specifically, and Central America, generally.

But should it?

Though the votes aren’t even fully counted, and there are real questions about the November 24 election’s fairness, it’s hard to believe that U.S. policymakers are too upset about the apparent defeat of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the former president, and the leader of the newly formed LIBRE, which would have pulled Honduras in a more leftist direction – and toward closer contact with Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, each of whom have challenged U.S. influence in Latin America.

There’s another risk that the Obama administration’s Central American policy could be causing more harm than good by ‘feeding the beast’ of corruption among police officers and impunity among drug traffickers, the very things that U.S. aid to Honduras is ostensibly designed to combat.

With three more upcoming elections in Central America over the next six months, it’s a particularly relevant opportunity for the Obama administration to review its policy in the region.  Guatemala’s conservative president Otto Pérez Molina came to power early last year, promptly declared the ‘war on drugs’ a failure, and issued a powerful call to legalize drug use.  Even Felipe Calderón, who militarized the Mexican fight against drug traffickers in the late 2000s, has argued that legalization might be the most effective policy weapon in combatting drug-related violence in Latin America.

Even as some libertarian Republicans in the United States increasingly believe that the four-decade ‘war on drugs’ is a failure at home, it’s easy to underestimate the damage that war has wrought in Latin America, with North American demand fueling an illicit drug supply, together with subsequent US-sponsored military efforts throughout the region, that have destabilized entire countries – Colombia in the 1990s, Mexico in the 2000s and Honduras today.  Research from Horace Bartilow and Kihong Eom, professors of political science at the University of Kentucky, finds that U.S. drug policies have caused greater levels of drug violence in Latin America.  Even when countries are ‘successful’ in their supply-side fights against drug traffickers, demand dictates that the suppliers find new countries, establishing a vicious ‘bubble problem’ – success in one country means that a new chapter opens elsewhere as traffickers search out new bases for drug operations, a tragic game of ‘whack-a-mole’ on a hemispheric level.

It’s Central America’s turn, which now sources the vast majority of known cocaine shipments to the United States.  In particular, traffickers found Honduras a particularly attractive target, in part due to the breakdown in the rule of law that resulted from the 2009 coup.  Sadly, Honduras now boasts the world’s highest homicide rate, and has a thriving arms trafficking trade to match the drug trade.

U.S. assistance to Honduras isn’t just financial – it also includes training, intelligence-sharing and military equipment from the U.S. military and the Drug Enforcement Administration.  Last year, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, said that because the United States is no longer at war in Iraq, it would be able to deploy even more military funding to Honduras.  Joint military cooperation suffered some setbacks last year after the Honduran air force (working with U.S. help) twice shot down flights over the Caribbean Sea, though we still don’t know who was on board or even if the flights were involved in the drug trade.  Earlier in May 2012, a helicopter with Guatemalan pilots, Honduran police and DEA advisers, killed four civilians, including two pregnant women, during an attack on drug traffickers along the Patuca River in northeastern Honduras.

The effects of US military aid aren’t just more violence, but increasing numbers of drug addicts and the toxic corrosion of trust in public institutions.  Even those who support U.S. efforts to assist Honduran police efforts wish the United States would fund additional economic, social, cultural and educational development.

“The United States has not been of any help to Honduras for a long time.  Not money, not guns, not technology. Only words,” said Jonathán Roussel, a veteran reporter who’s been covering Honduran politics for five decades. “The United States has shown no interest in Honduras for a very long time, and it’s the same throughout Central America.  Maybe Costa Rica, but largely, we’re all in the same boat.”

That’s not entirely true, given that Honduras is part of the Central America Free Trade Agreement among the United States, the Dominican Republic and four other countries (though Castro de Zelaya and others in Honduras argue that U.S. agribusiness subsidies have made it impossible for small Central American farmers to compete).

Roussel is hardly a leftist squish.  When you ask him who he considers to be the best Honduran president over the past 75 years of his life, he says Oswaldo López Arrelano, who took power (twice) through military coups and is today remembered mostly for the ‘Bananagate’ bribery scandal that led the U.S. Congress to enact the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the 1970s (though Roussel credits López Arrelano with a strong economy and the development of roads, schools and hospitals throughout Honduras).

Still, even Roussel believes that U.S. policy in Honduras is largely failing.

Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that the United States should stop funding the Honduran police and military until the Honduran government starts taking human rights serious.  Until then, U.S. funds would be better spent on other tasks in Honduras.

“It could support community policing models instead of militarizing the streets,” she said in an e-mail interview before the election.  “This would mean we would need to stop our hysteria about drug trafficking, acknowledge the research that shows violent interdiction breeds violence, and the evidence in Honduras that it also involves civilian casualties. Put more aid into development of educational opportunities; Honduran universities are shamefully under-supported. Do more in technical assistance to non-governmental groups that are not either embedded in religious organizations or fronts for a few rich people.”

As the United States continues to drive military aid into Honduras, it’s not even clear that U.S. and Honduran policymakers can sort the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys,’ at a time when the Lobo Sosa administration and Hernández, currently the president of Honduras’s national congress, has used the drug war as an excuse to militarize Honduran politics and stifle internal dissent in the name.  That leaves the Obama administration open to charges that it’s ignoring human rights violations at time when hundreds of Hondurans, especially LIBRE activists who oppose the government, have been killed or beaten in the past four years.

More deeply, it also leaves the U.S. foreign policy community open to attacks that it learned nothing from the U.S. role in the region’s destabilization in the 1980s or, more historically, blowback against longtime U.S. support for banana companies that controlled vital infrastructure and captured concessions and favorable tax treatment from successive Honduran governments in the 20th century, a legacy that even today erodes U.S. soft power in Honduras and Central America.

Photo credit to Orlando Sierra / AFP.

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