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A police officer in Tegucigalpa last summer. (Courtesy Reuters)
Honduras is becoming notorious. The country now has the highest murder rate in the world. In 2011, more people were killed per capita in the industrial center of San Pedro Sula than in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, where the drug war rages on the U.S. border. It has also become one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist: At least 23 have been killed in the past three years. And according to the World Bank, 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, a statistic outmatched in the Western Hemisphere only by Haiti.
It is not difficult to spot the sources of the problem. A handful of entrenched elite families control the government in Tegucigalpa. They were never completely clean to begin with, but the June 2009 military coup, which toppled democratically elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, threw the doors wide open, and the government is now corrupt from top to bottom. The judicial system is broken. According to Marvin Ponce, the vice president of the Honduran Congress, 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime.
When Roberto Micheletti took over as de facto president, he faced enormous resistance. Micheletti and his successor battered it down with an iron fist. Since early 2010, there have been more than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses by state security forces, according to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras, the country’s leading human rights group. As chief of police in San Pedro Sula, Hector Ivan Mejía oversaw the tear-gassing of an opposition demonstration on September 15, 2010, when security forces broke into and threatened an opposition radio station; today, he serves as national spokesperson for the Honduran police.
In many ways, Washington is responsible for this dismal turn. From the earliest days of the coup, the United States made poor decisions. The Obama administration was willing to call Zelaya’s ouster a coup, but it refused to ever use the term “military coup,” which would have legally triggered a cutoff of all military and police aid. Instead, U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton legitimated Micheletti as an equal player in negotiations. They never denounced the repression that followed.
In November 2009, presidential elections proceeded under Micheletti. Most of the opposition boycotted them because it was impossible to campaign freely and the electoral process was controlled by the same army that had perpetrated the coup. International observers, including the Carter Center and the United Nations, agreed and refused to monitor the vote. Porfirio Lobo Sosa (known as Pepe Lobo), from the traditional ruling elite, claimed 56 percent of the vote, but most countries in the hemisphere refused to officially recognize his victory. Nevertheless, Washington praised the election and went on to call Lobo’s administration a “government of national reconciliation.”
It has been anything but. Upon taking office, Lobo reappointed many of the same figures who had perpetrated the coup. There are reasons to believe that many top officials in his administration are intimately tied to the illicit drug trade. Honduran Defense Minister Marlon Pascua has spoken of the “narco judges” and “narco congressmen” who run cartels. Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner, charged that ten percent of the Honduran Congress and “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated last December.
Regardless, the U.S. State Department has deepened its commitment to Lobo, reinforcing his government with an expanded U.S. military presence in Honduras and signing a new security pact last month. U.S. military funding, after an initial drop immediately following the coup, has increased every year since. Washington will send more than $50 million in military aid to Tegucigalpa this year, much of it as part of the $200 million Central America Regional Security Initiative. The Pentagon is spending $24 million more to make its barracks at Soto Cano Air Base permanent. Washington justifies this escalation in the name of fighting the war on drugs, although it is finally beginning to acknowledge the crisis.
The situation brings back haunting memories of other U.S. involvements in Latin America. Washington has a dark track record of supporting military coups against democratic governments and then funneling money to repressive regimes. In 1964, the United States backed a military coup in Brazil; in 1973, it supported a military coup headed by Augusto Pinochet in Chile; and during the 1980s, it threw millions of dollars at the leaders in El Salvador. All of these U.S.–backed governments ruled with enormous brutality. In Honduras today, the United States’ hands are already dirty: A botched drug raid in the Moskitia region on May 11, carried out by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Honduran security forces, left four civilians dead, two of whom were pregnant women.
The State Department is pursuing such a misguided policy for larger strategic reasons in the region: to push back against the governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, and others, which have moved considerably to the left in the last 15 years. Above all, Washington’s Honduras policy is a deliberate message to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Endorsing the coup served as a not-so-subtle threat that the others could be next. Paraguay only proves the point further -- in June, the State Department looked the other way when Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was overthrown.
On the day-to-day level, Obama and Clinton have reportedly ceded Latin America policy to lower-level officials in the State Department. Sources suggest that appointees who do care about human rights are boxed in by holdovers from the George W. Bush administration and conservative State Department career officers who are running the show. On the Hill, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl.), bolstered by her congressional allies who serve the Cuban-American right, overtly celebrated the coup. So does Mitt Romney, who recently criticized Obama for not backing it.
Forces in Congress, though, have been pushing back. On October 2, Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, wrote a letter to Clinton calling for a fundamental “re-set“ of U.S. policy in Honduras. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), James McGovern (D-Mass.), Sam Farr (D-Calif.), and Jared Polis (D-Col.) have led a group of nearly 100 members of Congress calling for the immediate suspension of U.S. police and military aid to Honduras. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and others have challenged the White House on human rights abuses by U.S.-funded police and military.
Congressional pressure notwithstanding, in early August the State Department reported that Honduras had met conditions for improving human rights and the rule of law required by the 2012 appropriations bill. In effect, the administration was officially declaring that the human rights situation in Honduras is acceptable. Yet it speaks volumes that funds were withheld from the new Honduran national chief of police until he could be investigated for allegations of overseeing death squads. The U.S. embassy in Honduras was reluctant to explain or defend its position when it did so, however, suggesting that the funds were suspended only because of congressional pressure.
But this strategy is undercutting Washington’s approach to its allies throughout Latin America. Brazil, the region’s economic powerhouse, condemned the coup as a threat to “the rules of democracy“ and allowed Zelaya to take refuge in the Brazilian embassy. In defiance of the U.S., Brazil and other nations agreed to admit Honduras to the Organization of American States only after a May 2011 agreement that allowed Zelaya’s safe return to the country.
A wiser approach would change course completely: The United States would distance itself from the Lobo administration, speak plainly about its deficiencies, and immediately cut police and military aid to Honduras. Short of that, it could use partial suspensions as leverage to force reforms. An international commission, led by independent regional powers and the United Nations, would carry out investigations of Honduran security forces and the judiciary. The nation’s vast army of private security guards, who now outnumber the 14,000 police by as much as three to one and operate almost entirely without state supervision, have to be reined in. Honduras, moreover, is in desperate need of meaningful agrarian reform, as land-rights activists continue to be assassinated. Newly proposed “model cities,” which would allow non-Hondurans to create enclaves in which neither the Honduran constitution nor its entire legal system would apply, should be stopped entirely. The U.S. should aggressively and publicly support these positions and those who advocate them.
In the longer term, backing the democratic process is paramount. Primary elections are set for November, in preparation for a presidential election in November 2013. The United States should throw its force behind free and fair elections, knowing full well that in an honest election process Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the former first lady and now the presidential candidate of Libre, the new opposition party, would likely win by a considerable margin. Recent polls show Castro far ahead in the polls, with the traditional ruling parties, including Lobo’s, well below. Washington, consistently hostile to Manuel Zelaya and critical of his links to progressive governments in Latin America, presumably feels the same way about his wife, whose candidacy emerges out of resistance to the coup. It should nonetheless refrain from privately backing an alternative candidate more of its liking.
Latin American and Caribbean heads of state, faced with overt U.S. support for a regime that threatens the constitutional order and rule of law for which their countries have fought long and hard, are drawing ever closer together and declaring their independence from Washington. The United States’ anachronistic position on Cuba at the April Summit of the Americas in Cartagena only made matters worse. As Washington opts for escalating military might over prosperous economic partnerships, the likes of which China is increasingly developing, it risks alienating its allies even further. In Honduras, Latin American and Caribbean leaders have a clear example of what the United States has to offer: the underwriting of a human rights disaster.