The approach of the mid-term elections in the US has seen a sharp uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House.
On 16 October, Donald Trump sounded his discontent that a large group of Honduran refugees was heading towards the United States, tweeting that “if the large Caravan of people heading to the US is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!”
US financial support to Honduras via USAID amounts to $128m per year, but it is worth considering why exactly so many Hondurans feel the need to flee North. The country has been in the political doldrums for nearly a decade, and many argue that the US had no small part to play in precipitating the current crisis.
In June 2009, Honduras’ democratically elected president, José Manuel Zelaya, proposed an extra referendum to take place alongside the general election. The purpose of the referendum was to reform the Honduran Constitution into a more inclusive document which would distribute agricultural land more equally between amongst the population.
The new constitution would also abolish term limits, giving Zelaya the opportunity to run for the presidency again. Two days before the referendum was supposed to be held, the Honduran military kidnapped President Zelaya and flew him into exile in Costa Rica.
At the outset, every other country in the hemisphere condemned Honduran coup, as did the United States, the IMF and the EU, all of whom withdrew financial aid to the Honduran government. The US and most of the international community called for a new election without Zelaya’s presence. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in her memoir, Hard Choices:
“In the subsequent days I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including secretary (Patricia) Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”
Clinton removed that section the memoir’s paperback edition after severe criticism from human rights activists like Berta Cáceres, who drew attention towards Hillary Clinton’s own role in the coup:
“After [the coup], there was the issue of the elections. Hillary Clinton, in her book, ‘Hard Choices’, practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country. The return of the president, [José Manuel] Mel Zelaya, became a secondary issue. There were going to be elections in Honduras. And here she [Clinton] recognised that they didn’t permit Mel Zelaya’s return to the presidency.”
According to Cáceres, Clinton had wanted to see the back of Zelaya even before the Honduran coup, which she believed the US was involved in. New elections were arranged in Honduras with the absence of important international election observers, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who all condemned the vote’s legitimacy.
The election took place under the watchful gaze of a strong military presence and was boycotted by many of Zelaya’s supporters, who wanted their democratically elected president to return and refused to recognise the coup. In January next year, the National Party’s Pepe Lobo Sosa was sworn in as the president of Honduras despite violent clashes between Zelaya’s supporters and the military.
The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
Condemnation turns to apathy
In the wake of the election the United States was quick to normalise ties with Honduras, restoring military and humanitarian aid to the new government. Clinton notes,
“We think that Honduras has taken important and necessary steps that deserve the recognition and the normalization of relations. I have just sent a letter to the Congress of the United States notifying them that we will be restoring aid to Honduras. Other countries in the region say that, you know, they want to wait a while. I don’t know what they’re waiting for, but that’s their right, to wait.”.
The EU was also keen to normalise relations towards the Honduran government. In 2013, the EU electoral observation mission declared the general election of businessmen Juan Orlando Hernandez to be transparent although the legitimacy of the election was condemned by the leading opposition party as well as most NGO organisations. One of the EU election observers, Leo Gabriel, also caused a stir by publicly condemning the eventual report:
“We had the opportunity to observe the elections at the polling stations and we arrived at conclusions that stand in diametric opposition to the EU-EOM leadership, with regards to the supposed transparency in the voting and vote-counting processes… To speak of transparency after everything that happened last Sunday is a joke.”
In 2015 the Hernández government was quick to rewrite the Constitution to allow for presidents to run for reelection, much as Zelaya had planned back to do in 2009. Under his rule however, life has become increasingly difficult for ordinary Hondurans. By the time the EU released their election report, Honduras had become the world’s most violent country outside an official war zone.
Today Honduras is a country where farmers are intimidated and sometimes killed by private security firms hired by big business for contesting their claims to land; discrimination against the LGBT community is rife and activists are at constant risk of being gunned down. Prize winning environmentalist Berta Cáceres stated in 2013 that, “the army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. When they want to kill me they will do it”.
She was shot dead in her own home three years later in what appears to have been an assassination.
In November 2017 another election was held. The Hernández government was challenged by a collection of opposition parties congregating under the banner of The Coalition Against the Dictatorship. The coalition was leading by more than 5 percentage points after 60 per cent of the votes were counted when the entire election system mysteriously broke down.
Twenty-one days later, Hernández was declared the winner by the government-controlled Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), leading to protests that continued throughout the next couple of months.
Recently however, the Honduran opposition seems to have realised that world opinion is not on their side. The former sports reporter-turned-charismatic opposition leader Salvador Nasralla now seems to have lost hope in the prospect of a democratic Honduras.
“I am getting the impression at this moment in time, I hope that I am wrong, that these international organisations are here as decoration and they are scared because they are funded by the US – if they misbehave they cut their budget and when they cut the budget, they lose their salaries and work. So, there is a global corruption, of which we are victims.”
The Hernández government is still internationally recognised as legitimate by the biggest economies in the world such as, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, France, Brazil, Spain and Israel. As long these countries stand behind the Honduran government, a democratic transition seems unlikely to occur and the tide of migrants heading north is unlikely to thin anytime soon.