In Spanish, the word hondura means “depth; profundity.” The related word hondo means “deep, low; bottom.” Hondon means “dell, glen, deep hole.” An example given in my dictionary is meterse en honduras, “to go beyond one’s depth.”
I imagine some gold-seeking Spanish conquistador in the 16th century passing through the isthmus and, with a bit of cruel wit, calling the place where he stood The Hole. Sort of like when I was in the Army, Fort Hood, Texas, was known as “the asshole of the world.” In Honduras, my imaginary conquistador no doubt left a lieutenant with troops enough to turn the residents into slaves before he moved his entourage on to the more appealing Costa Rica.
Honduras is the saddest basket case in the Western Hemisphere, and the behemoth to the north has done everything in its power to keep poor Honduras in the basket case category. Technically, Honduras is a sovereign nation; but in reality it is a vassal state of the United States. Maybe more like a flea-ridden junkyard dog resigned to being kicked.
In 1935, two-time Medal of Honor winner and retired Marine General Smedley Butler famously wrote the following in an essay for the socialist magazine Common Sense:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service, and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. … I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. … Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
It’s an old story and a well-known one in Latin America. One of the highlights was the infamous 1954 CIA-led coup in Guatemala that overthrew an elected reform movement and institutionalized what became one of the most bloody, nefarious military regimes in western hemisphere history. Of course, there’s Chile 1973. A decade later, Ronald Reagan used poor Honduras to mount an illegal war against its neighbor, Nicaragua. During this period, Honduras was ruled by a US proconsul, Ambassador John Negroponte, a man I’m sure has a forked tongue. The little nation was jokingly referred to as Aircraft Carrier Honduras.
The poor, members of trade unions and anyone opposed to US military occupation of Honduras were treated as hostile, subversive forces. Groups not aligned with the US-occupation were closed down; leaders were disappeared and murdered. In 1984, with five other Americans, I visited Honduras to speak with labor leaders about state violence. We were quickly put on the subversive list, arrested and deported.
After the US Contra War, the aircraft carrier reverted again to its basket case status. By 2009, it had elected a left-of-center president who spoke of reform. In the early morning hours of June 28, 2009, President Manuel Zelaya was arrested by military troops and flown to Costa Rica. The Obama administration used an updated forked tongue approach and first declared the coup illegal, then did everything in its power to facilitate the newly established government, which, naturally, was good for certain industries. Since any protection they might have had under a reform regime had been lifted, the left and the poor were now even more at the mercy of corrupt military and police violence.
As far as most comfortable North Americans were concerned the story out of Honduras was just a case of politics in a place described as a hole, where people are sadly doomed to suffer. We musn’t forget either, the Zelaya government had cozied up to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Honduras had joined ALBA, the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. The coup broke these links completely, and the United States took the opportunity to immediately establish a host of small special-ops military bases in Honduras to prosecute its Drug War. No doubt the plan was outlined in one of thousands of State Department and Pentagon contingency files. It’s true, Honduras was more and more being used by the drug cartels as a transshipment point. The coup meant Honduras was a war zone again. Not exactly an aircraft carrier this time; maybe just a pack of trained junkyard dogs.
It was the same old story for the poor of Honduras. Feeble efforts at reform were crushed by unaccountable strongmen with guns, and a US-friendly, pro-business smiling face was installed as the new president. As might be expected in such a dark predatorial swampland, existing violent gangs flourished even better after the coup. Any fool could see that top-down violence was an acceptable arbiter of societal order, so it followed by natural logic that gang violence was the way to respond from the bottom-up. Unregulated, profit-making, capitalistic enterprise was facilitated at the top, while free enterprise was deemed illegal at the bottom when the product to be marketed was marijuana and cocaine. In a moral sinkhole like this, the poor and those seeking to work hard to rise into a middle class are caught between police violence and gang violence.
PLUTOCRATS AND CRIMINALS
Nils Gilman, a social scientist at the University of California and co-editor of the academic journal Humanity, wrote an essay in the May issue of The American Interest called “The Twin Insurgency.” He nicely explains the sort of sovereignty train wreck that is Honduras. These twin insurgencies began in the 1970s, he suggests, when ”social modernists states were increasingly failing to deliver on their promises.” Into the 1980s, with the growth of globalism, economic inequality grew as an empowered plutocratic class was on the rise and the political right was in its ascendancy.
“By the turn of the millennium, even elements of the Left had come to doubt whether states could be relied on to effectively and disinterestedly promote the public interest,” Gilman writes.
Here, he introduces his idea of twin insurgencies that both feed off the declining modernist state. At the top, there’s the plutocratic insurgency, made up of capitalists and financial manipulators who “see themselves as ‘the deserving winners of a tough worldwide competition’ and regard efforts to make them pay for public goods as little more than organized theft.” As they distance themselves from the public-oriented functions of the state, these plutocrats take full advantage of the state’s tax-based legal system, courts and the police to secure their rights and properties.
At the bottom, there’s the criminal insurgency,” which includes drug cartels and other “de facto political actors.” The insurgency at the top is noted for its gated communities attitude, while the insurgency at the bottom assumes a leadership role in “feral ‘no-go zones.’”
“What both plutocratic and criminal insurgents desire,” Gilman writes, “is for the social modernist state to remain intact except insofar as it impinges on them.” (Italics in the original.)
This idea of insurgencies from the top and the bottom certainly applies to the political world of 2014 in the United States. Think the Koch Brothers and war profiteers on one side and gangs and a huge criminal underclass in and out of prison on the other. In a place like Honduras where there is no middle class and no working modern state, it’s nothing but the struggle between th two insurgencies. Society becomes divided between gated communities and feral no-go zones — with nothing in between. “The ultimate losers in all this,” Gilman writes, “[are] the people who play by the rules.” For a Honduran, it’s either accept loser status “or join one of the two insurgences.”
Many Honduran parents accept the risks in order to save their kids; they scrounge together money to send them to the US border. Three years ago, 6,800 children were detained at the border; today the figure is 90,000. Twenty-five percent of them are from Honduras. The UN High Commission for Refugees interviewed 104 of these children, and 58% said they left due to violence.
DE-MILITARIZE THE US/MEXICAN BORDER
In a recent New York Times essay called “The Children of the Drug Wars,” Sonia Nazario, author of Enriques Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother, describes the case of 90,000 Central American kids fleeing over the US/Mexico border as a “refugee crisis,” not an immigration crisis. It’s critical how the story is framed. For example, plutocrat-friendly Republicans love to represent it as a military problem and an Obama problem. But it’s not even a Bush problem. It’s a problem rooted in history, and it’s a history in which the US has played such an instrumental role that it owes a degree of attention to the problem. Sending down more guns and troops or building more, bigger fences is not the answer.
Honduras is ground zero when it comes to the ascendancy of Gilman’s dueling armed insurgencies preying especially on children.
Fourteen-year-old Carlos Baquedano Sanchez tells Narzario he knows how dangerous a trip to the US border can be; but he’s also aware of the dangers of staying in his village. He knows a man who lost both legs falling off a Mexican train on the way to the US border. He also knows eight people who have been murdered; He witnessed three of those murders.
“I want to avoid drugs and death,” he told Nazario. “The government can’t pull up its pants and help people. My country has lost its way.”
Henry Carias Aguilar, a pastor in a poor village, put it this way: “You never call the cops. The cops themselves will retaliate and kill you.”
The right wants the US government to increase the militarization of the border. “Secure the border” and “Send in the National Guard” have become their mantra. It’s not to catch terrorists, but to snatch up refugee children before anyone in El Norte can be moved by their stories.
Instead of more weapons and more prison cells, for a change US policy should help bolster the citizen-protecting features of the Honduran state. We could look at it as an experiment. The right-wing president of Colombia asked President Obama to close down the US Drug War in Latin America and begin to deal with the demand problem here at home. A reasonable legalization program is not far-fetched; it would be a great start. It would help weaken the criminal insurgency Nils Gilman talks about.
But that leaves the plutocrats, and the Obama spine is not as stiff as that of the wheelchair-bound FDR. It may take a woman with a spine like Elizabeth Warren.
The point is to really help Honduras get out of its hole, and in the process make the border more human. If left to the forces of US militarism, the border crisis can only get much worse and much more dangerous.