Honduras, Immigration, and the Decline of the U.S. Empire

Hector Salazar

Summary: The manufactured “crisis” of immigration being touted by the press in light of tens of thousands of Central American refugees seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border makes this an important moment to review the roots of the present situation and the Biden Administration’s response to it – Editors.

You might ask: “why Honduras?” There are multiple answers. For one, it has been a favorite target of Fox News as well as other news media who enthusiastically report people are fleeing but never go into depth about who is responsible and why. Second, thanks to the news coverage, Honduras has become emblematic of the migration issue and also offers many parallels on how things have worked in Latin America for the last one hundred years. The story of Honduras is exemplary of how U.S. imperialism, the Drug Trade, and Climate Change come together to cause the kind of misery that makes people simply want to start walking to the U.S.

We want to start with some basic facts about the country:

Honduras is approximately 1,000 miles southwest of Miami and is located in Central America. It is bordered by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. It has coastal access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The country won its Independence from Spain in 1821. Within a century of the nation’s freedom from Spain, American banana companies had effectively established themselves as a new colonial power. They drew on a familiar set of tactics.

When the Honduran government gave Samuel Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Company unsatisfactory land concessions in 1910, Zemurray responded as any good businessman would: He enlisted the help of Honduran presidential hopeful Manuel Bonilla, hired a cohort of American mercenaries, and landed on the Honduran coast with automatic weapons and proceeded to disposes locals from what were now Cuyamel’s new lands. The unequal relationship that would exist between the banana companies and the Honduran state for the first half of the 20th century gave rise to the description “banana republic.”

A small group of families controls 90% of Honduras’ wealth. Known as the “Ten Families” or simply “the oligarchy,” most made their wealth during the early twentieth century in industries related to the U.S. banana trade. Together they own just about all of the major private institutions in Honduras: newspapers, TV and radio stations, fast food franchises like Burger King and Pizza Hut, banks, hotels, and soccer teams. The ten families are also implicated in many Honduran land conflicts.

Moving on to what Honduras meant to the U.S. in the 1980s, the U.S. has multiple bases in Honduras. Its largest remaining air force base in Latin America is Soto Cano. Strategically positioned 50 miles outside the capital, Tegucigalpa, Soto Cano Air Base served as a center for U.S. efforts to beat back pro-communist movements in Central America in the 1980s. When SOUTHCOM’s mission moved from fighting Communism to the War on Drugs, Soto Cano only became more important. In the 1990s SOUTHCOM’s budget increased more than any other U.S. military regional command. As other bases closed, its dependence on Soto Cano increased. SOUTHCOM is what the military designates South America as, and we’ll talk more about that later in this lead-off.

Now that you’ve got a flavor for its historical relationship to the U.S., we want to begin introducing you to the people in Honduras who have shaped its recent history, ultimately painting the picture that is the backdrop for the recent electoral disputes and “crisis at the border.”

Former Honduran president Mel Zelaya was in office from 2006-2009. He is the eldest son of a wealthy businessman. Before entering politics, he was involved in his family’s logging and timber business. In spite of many economic problems, there were a number of significant achievements under Zelaya’s presidency. Under his government, free education for all children was introduced, subsidies to small farmers were provided, the minimum wage increased by 80%, school meals were guaranteed for more than 1.6 million children from poor families, poverty was reduced by almost 10% during two years of government, and direct state help was provided for 200,000 families in extreme poverty.

Zelaya also made a number of modest challenges to the oligarch’s power, including Decree Law 18-2008, which would have entitled almost One Hundred Thousand Acres of disputed land to peasant families. After the coup, this decree was Reversed.

During his time as president, he also took a journey to the Left. On July 22, 2008, Zelaya sought to incorporate Honduras into ALBA, an international cooperation organization based on the idea of social, political, and economic integration in Latin America and the Caribbean. He had an alliance with Hugo Chavez, a friendship with Raul Castro, and began to act in concert with other ALBA members like Daniel Ortega in protesting U.S. policies toward Central America.

But he really fell out of favor with the military when he proposed a Non-Binding Referendum on allowing a president to run for a second term. It is important to note that Zelaya was not eligible to run in that election. Even if he had gotten everything he wanted, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term in office. This was a vote about having a vote. Honduras is still operating under a constitution that applied to a military dictatorship government in the eighties. It is not a democratic document. The proposed referendum also called for a Constituent Assembly capable of rewriting the constitution. Under such conditions, a sovereign country might rid itself of foreign military bases on its soil as other Latin American countries had. It just so happened that all the other branches of the government were against this idea and the judiciary had ruled against it.

Regardless of this, President Zelaya ordered that the vote take place. It just happens that in Honduras the military is in charge of setting up ballot boxes at polling places. It turns out the military was not in favor of this idea either. They did not follow his orders to set up the ballot boxes for this vote. Instead, early morning on Sunday, June 28, 2009, Honduran Special Forces escorted President Manuel Zelaya from his residence at gunpoint hours later a dazed Zelaya appeared on the tarmac of the airport of San Jose, Costa Rica. He was still wearing his pajamas. Back in Honduras, the military cut off power across the country, blocking media from reporting on the unfolding coup d’etat. After the coup, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made statements and took actions to give the coup legitimacy and set up new elections that excluded Zelaya. While Hillary pretended it was her decision to make, it was the Pentagon who had the closest relationship to the Honduran military and she simply worked PR for them.

Colonel Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, of the Honduran army, told the Miami Herald a few days after the coup that the military had broken the law in flying Zelaya out of the country but then added: “It would be difficult with our training, to have a relationship with a Leftist government. That’s Impossible.”

This is why we should talk briefly about the School of the Americas. The SOA, which has been renamed since 2001 Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning GA, is a school where the U.S. invites military personnel from foreign countries to come to be trained in torture and the most efficient ways of violating peoples’ human rights to protect the interests not of their home countries but instead the US empire. Students are politically indoctrinated and given clear instructions that if your government’s politics are turning Left; when in doubt Over Throw that government.

The Center for Hemispheric Studies in Washington DC serves a similar purpose. Once trained graduates go back as tools of control for the US Empire: a military coup waiting to happen. SOA graduated over 3,691 graduates in Honduras since 1946. Four out of the six generals involved in the Honduran coup in 2009 were graduates of SOA according to SOA watch. In 2015 160 SOA graduates were Honduran Soldiers. Three of the eight people arrested in connection with the assassination of environmental activist Berta Caceres were graduates of SOA, renamed WHINSEC. Your Tax Dollar at Work.


Image: Honduras’s president Juan Orlando Hernández and US’s president Joe Biden


On to the candidates in the electoral crime scene of 2017: The Pentagon’s choice was Juan Orlando Hernandez (or just JOH to the Honduran citizens) who probably still chant “Fuera JOH!” throughout the streets of Honduras. We should start by saying that Juan Orlando Hernandez comes highly recommended by Trump’s Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly who says he’s a great guy and a good friend. Gen. John Kelley served three years as head of SOUTHCOM; their headquarters is a building in Miami where US military domination of Latin America is coordinated. Hernandez and Gen. Kelly have met there before. Hernandez himself is 52 years old, a lawyer, and has a master’s degree in public administration from the State University of New York. He was a businessman in coffee cultivation, radio, television, and hotel industries. Hernandez belongs to the Honduran National Party. In 2012 he fought a campaign against Ricardo Alvarez to try to become the nationalist presidential candidate for 2013 and won the internal election of November 2012. Alvarez publicly denounced the result as fraudulent and demanded a vote-by-vote recount which the Supreme Electoral Tribunal the ultimate domestic arbiter of elections rejected.

The Honduran constitution does not allow a second term for a president. However, Hernandez’s National Party which also controls Congress says a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 by five Supreme Court Justices that Hernandez picked allows him to stand for a New term which he did. In 2015 Hernandez’s brother was called to Washington to answer for his apparent involvement with a major drug trafficker. That same month in a different case when a Mexican trafficker turned DEA informant was asked on the stand who offered to help him move drugs through Honduras, he named Hernandez’s current minister of security, Julian Pacheco, a longtime ally of the US military and graduate of the SOA.

Under JOH more than 40% of land would be conceded to mining companies, electric, mega agricultural, and mega tourist projects that will displace the Garifuna people and other residents from their coastal lands.

Then there’s Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother Tony Hernandez. Tony Hernandez has been an overachiever in the field of corruption with fundraising skills that would make Nancy Pelosi jealous. Tony was able to elicit a campaign contribution for his brother of $1 million from former Sinaloa Cartel leader, El Chapo. On Tuesday, October 18, 2019, Tony Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison. The judge in his sentencing required that he forfeit $138 million he got from somewhere. In announcing the reasoning behind his decision to impose a life sentence, Judge Castel said he was influenced by the fact that Hernandez was born into a life of privilege, earned a degree as a lawyer, and was a member of Congress. He could have used his considerable talents for good. But “Juan Antonio elected to go in a very different direction,” he said.

Four years ago, these were just rumors; today their cold hard facts. You name it Tony did it; drug dealing, bribery, and weapons sales. If you google “Tony Hernandez is Convicted” there is a press release from the States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of the State of New York which gives you all the details and names.

Salvadore Nasrala was the peoples’ choice in the 2017 election. How bad do things have to be to head an organization called Alliance Against the Dictatorship/Allianza for short in Spanish? Apparently, things were and are that bad in Honduras. Nasrala was 64 then. His parents are Palestinian. In his professional life, he’s been a CEO of Pepsi Honduras and a professor of engineering and business. He’s famous for being a sportscaster and has been on TV for 40 years. Nasrala today calls himself a “Centrist” but comes from right-wing circles. He founded the PAC or Party Against Corruption which has joined with Mel Zelaya’s LIBRE party as well as a smaller party called PINU.

While I’m wary of the whole “Centrist” running as the main candidate for a Democratic Socialist Party, Nasrala as a candidate carried himself with confidence and fearlessness in a country where assassination is common. He favored Free Education and Healthcare. He also favored calling out all institutions for their corruption. That included the president, Hernandez, who he says controls his own cartel, the military which is bought off by Hernandez, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal which regulates elections – and Nasrala says is at Hernandez’s service. If nothing else, his audacity is entertaining. He says he’s known Mel Zelaya for over 40 years. In his interviews, I didn’t hear a lot about policy, but he says seven in 10 people in Honduras live in poverty and that as president he would have been out to help them.

To give an idea of what the atmosphere has been for activists, it is appropriate to mention Berta Caseres. Caseres, a Lenca woman and Eco Socialist, had waged a 10-year fight against the construction of a dam over the Gualcarque River which would endanger the water resources of her community. She led a campaign which “involved filing legal complaints against the project, organizing community meetings, and bringing the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission,” according to The New York Times. Seven people were convicted in her murder.

On Nov. 26, 2017, Honduras held presidential elections. With 60% of ballots counted and a five-point lead (which some say assured an irreversible victory for Salvador Nasrala), mysteriously the electronic ballot tabulation system crashed, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal ceased to give any update till 36 hours later which was Tuesday. Suspiciously, when the computers of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal came back up, they showed Nasrala now trailing Juan Orlando Hernandez by 1.10%. This was met with disbelief, outrage, and cries of electoral fraud by the masses of the people who took to the streets all over the country blocking streets and highways to protest what they felt was the theft of an election.

Hernandez in response launched massive repression. The government kicked in people’s doors, pointing guns at people’s heads, teargassing people left and right, and sending death squads to disappear people who would be found dead later.

Fast forward to 2020; two Category 4 hurricanes. Eta and Iota made landfall in Central America on Nov. 3 and Nov. 17 respectively. Even today, the region continues to dig out from mudslides. Aid agencies say nearly seven million people in a zone stretching from Colombia to Mexico are in need of assistance. A YouTube channel called Indigo Traveler did a four-part series on Honduras where it shows how neighborhoods have buildings with 3 feet of mud filling rooms and no help from the government. Any of us would be trying to escape this situation. This led to 100,000 Hondurans being left homeless.

Another driving factor for migration is that domestic violence, sexual violence, and murder with no accountability is a regular occurrence. On the fourth episode of the YouTube series by @Indigotravler a local woman named Betty gives a testimonial about what life is like being a woman in Honduras.

All the above has been said to explain why things are the way they are today in Honduras. This is what is driving people to the border and much of this (as with the rest of Latin America) has U.S. influence and involvement written all over it.

How has Biden’s approach to immigration differed from Trump’s? Joe Biden signed an order on Inauguration Day ending the national emergency at the border which justified building and funding of the border wall and launched a 60-day review of the project. However, the Biden administration allowed the seizing of private land by eminent domain and sent mixed messages till April 30, 2021 (over a month late on his deadline), when he finally announced that he would redirect the $14 billion tied up by the Trump administration to where it came from. In the process of this wall construction, there were instances where pristine mountain wilderness usually used by local people for hunting was dynamited to make way. Kids in cages have turned into kids behind plexiglass. The facilities on TV look pretty familiar.

The Biden administration says the Trump-era policy known as Title 42, which relies on a 1944 public health statute to indefinitely close the border to “nonessential” travel remains necessary to limit the spread of Covid. At the same time, Biden officials say, migrants at the southern border still can seek protection in the United States a right afforded to them under U.S. law. Under Title 42, agents take migrants’ biometric information and perform a cursory health check for Covid-19 symptoms before returning them to Mexico, if they are from Mexico or Central America, or flying them back to their home country. Trump appointees boasted that Title 42 processing takes roughly 90 minutes on average. Officials say Trump aide and immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller and former Vice President Mike Pence pushed through Title 42 to achieve long-held political goals of restricting the immigration of people of color.

Then Sen. Kamala Harris called it an unconstitutional “executive power grab” that had “no known precedent or clear legal rationale.” Vice President Kamala Harris doesn’t say a damn thing about it now. In order to have a chance at staying you have to verbally tell the Border Patrol agent that you have a fear of returning to your home country due to fear of a violent threat, torture, or persecution in order to be referred to a Credible Fear Screening. Otherwise, you have no chance to make your case. “The Biden administration’s use of Title 42 is flatly illegal,” said Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, who sued the Trump administration over the policy, which the Biden administration is defending in court. “There is zero daylight between the Biden administration and Trump administration’s position. There’s more on this in an article by the Los Angeles Times called “Biden promised change at the border.”

After reading another article by Suzy Lee “The Case for Open Borders” in Catalyst I have come to the conclusion that securing an adequate flow of immigrant labor is no longer a problem for capital. Capital may want to turn the spigot on or off as is desired. However, under current conditions, immigration is most useful for capital as an Unresolved Problem – a convenient scapegoat for workers’ losses during the neoliberal era and an obstruction to labor solidarity. It makes sense to me because it is obvious that neither party has, nor wants a solution.

In a video with Oliver Stone, former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner says that in a private conversation with George Bush Jr. he suggested the U.S. fund and implement a Marshal Plan for Latin America to spur economic development and perhaps give somebody another place to go besides the U.S. border if they’re looking for a job. Imagine at least three or more industrialized cities in Latin America that would be magnets for labor. The Marshall Plan was supposed to help Western Europe following the devastation of World War II. According to Veterans for Peace in slightly less than a hundred years, 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government has intervened successfully to change governments or suppress popular movements in Latin America a total of 41 times, usually with military force. And of course, Kirchner’s idea was rejected out of hand by Bush Jr. who said war was the best way to grow your economy. Stone asked him with a disgusted look “Is that what he said?” Kirchner responded, “Yes that is what he said.” That interview can be found on YouTube.

This leads us to the issue of the decline of the U.S. Empire. One of the various tweets I came upon back in late February that had an impact on me read like this: “A failed empire is when your troops are warm and well-fed in 1,000 military bases around the world, but your citizens are in food lines, facing eviction, have no healthcare, and freezing in Texas with no electricity because your decrepit infrastructure can’t handle cold weather. All the while Ted Cruz is on a flight to Cancun?”

The decline of the U.S. is not an accident. It is something orchestrated by the highest levels of the bourgeoisie because it was to their benefit. From the time Mao called on Richard Nixon, followed by a visit from Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, the de-industrialization of the U.S. in lieu of cheap labor in Asia was set in motion. Every U.S. president since has supported this trajectory and Trump was no different. Chris Hedges notes in a recent article on this subject: “Because of the loss of unionized jobs, the real decline of wages, de-industrialization, chronic underemployment and unemployment, the punishing austerity programs, the country is plagued by a plethora of diseases of despair including opioid addictions, alcoholism, suicides, gambling, depression, morbid obesity, and mass shootings.”

In explaining what happened January 6th at the capital I agree with Dr. Bandy X Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and violence scholar, who described the Trump phenomenon early on as a “Shared Psychosis” also known as a Cult. She wrote about it in a book called “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” which was a collection of essays by 37 psychiatrists and mental health experts who eventually found Donald Trump not only unfit for the presidency but any other job as well. She says his supporters had “Wholly taken on Trump’s symptoms by contagion.” She also said his kind of psychology is usually confined to jails and prisons.

I don’t know that you can reverse that, but I think you can chip away at that movement by relentlessly getting out a counter-message that speaks to the human needs that they also are not getting met under this system.

No U.S. president will save us. Only a movement we organize can do that.


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1 Comment

  1. Edward Tapia

    Thanks, Hector! This is a very good analysis and overview of Honduras. Any thoughts on the upcoming presidential elections in November? On a separate note, since you highlight Stone’s documentary South of the Border I must ask have you seen Salvador? It’s perhaps his best film which covers the civil war in El Salvador. I also recommend In the Name of the People: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHO-WiiZba0