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Op-Ed

The Latin America mistake

Memo to Secretary Kerry: Stop funding the bad guys in Honduras.

February 12, 2013|By Dana Frank
  • Honduran soldiers guard cocaine in a military base in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Jan. 16.
Honduran soldiers guard cocaine in a military base in Tegucigalpa, Honduras… (EPA )

The United States is expanding its military presence in Honduras on a spectacular scale. The Associated Press reported this month in an investigative article that Washington in 2011 authorized $1.3 billion for U.S. military electronics in Honduras. This is happening while the post-coup regime of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo is more out of control than ever, especially since the Honduran Congress staged a "technical coup" in December.

But as the Obama administration deepens its partnership with Honduras, ostensibly to fight the drug war, Democrats in Congress are increasingly rebelling. Here's a message, then, for new Secretary of State John Kerry: Recast U.S. policy in Honduras and the murderous drug war that justifies it.

In the last few years, the U.S. has been ramping up its military operations throughout Latin America in what the Associated Press called "the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War." The buildup has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $20 billion since 2002, for troops, ships, clandestine bases, radar, military and police training and other expenses.

U.S. military expenditures for Honduras in particular have gone up every year since 2009, when a military coup deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. At $67.4 million, 2012 Defense Department contracts for Honduras are triple those of 10 years ago. The U.S. spent $25 million last year to make the U.S. barracks at the Soto Cano air base permanent, and $89 million to keep 600 U.S. troops based there. U.S. direct aid to the Honduran military and police continues to climb as well.

But the Obama administration's escalating military commitment in Honduras only deepens its support for the corrupt and repressive Lobo government. State security forces still enjoy near-complete impunity for thousands of alleged human rights abuses and even murders since the 2009 coup. The government hasn't paid many of its teachers for at least six months, and the country is close to bankrupt.

On Dec. 13, in a clash of two equally corrupt groups of competing elites, the Honduran Congress illegally deposed four members of the Supreme Court, swearing in new justices within hours. Since then, the congress has run roughshod over the constitution, rapidly repassing a series of laws that had been overruled by the court, including a much-criticized mining law and a notorious law authorizing so-called model cities in which the constitution itself doesn't apply.

These actions blatantly disregard the rule of law. Yet the U.S. State Department looked the other way at this "technical coup."

In pouring U.S. military resources into the corrupt Honduran government, Washington argues that it is helping fight drug trafficking, which is indeed rampant, murderous and growing. But the Honduran government and the elites who control it are widely alleged to be implicated in the drug trafficking.

The drug war, though, does provide cover for a new wave of U.S. aggression in Latin America. Honduras, with the only large U.S. Air Force base between the United States and South America, has long been important as a linchpin of U.S. military domination of the region, including, most famously, U.S. involvement in the 1954 coup in Guatemala and the 1980s Contra war against the Nicaraguan government. Today, the expanding U.S. role poses an enormous threat to the whole region, and to Honduras' sovereignty.

Moreover, as the media have reported, the Obama administration's drug war in Honduras has been a disaster. In May 2012, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration participated in an operation in which four Afro-indigenous villagers were killed and several others injured in the Mosquitia region of Honduras. The DEA acknowledges that it killed two alleged drug traffickers in separate incidents in June and July. In July, after the Honduran military shot down two supposed drug planes in violation of international protocol, the U.S. suspended radar cooperation for drug flights. In January, in the first joint operation after cooperation resumed, the Honduran coast guard killed an alleged drug trafficker utilizing intelligence provided by DEA agents.

Many Democrats in Congress have had enough. On Jan. 30, 58 members of the House, led by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Kerry and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. demanding that the May 2012 incident involving the DEA be investigated, calling attention to state-sponsored repression of Afro-indigenous Hondurans and questioning the drug war. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt. ) has on hold about $30 million in U.S. aid to Honduran security forces, pending answers to questions about abuses of civilians and corruption.

That's a start, but Kerry and the administration need to reverse U.S. policy in Honduras altogether. End the bloody drug war and focus on job creation and social justice instead. Stop treating the current Honduran government like a friendly partner; instead, forthrightly denounce its human rights abuses and corruption of the rule of law. Help guarantee a free presidential election in November by condemning the assassinations of at least five opposition party activists and candidates in the last year, and demand adequate protection for the hundreds of Hondurans in the opposition who have received death threats.

In other words, stop arming Honduran thugs and allow those in the opposition the space to define their own future, free of U.S. interference.

Dana Frank is a professor of history at UC Santa Cruz whose work focuses on modern Honduras.

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