A few weeks ago in Honduras, six Americans were arrested and thrown in jail while salvaging from the ocean floor off the northern coast. Their charge: possession of illegal weapons while on board the ship. A spokesman for the salvage company the men work for said that port officials had approved the guns in advance for purposes of protection. Since their arrest, there have been reports that the men are poorly fed, the jail is foul and mosquito-infested, and vicious fights have broken out among the other inmates.
Publicity over the case has pried the lid off the longstanding human rights crisis in Honduras. Harassment, arbitrary arrest, crowded prisons, and a host of other human rights abuses are a way of life for many Hondurans, and especially the poor. Unionists, peasant activists, environmentalists, indigenous people, and the journalists, lawyers, and others who support them are particularly vulnerable to threats, disappearance, and murder. Over the years, politically motivated killings, along with other factors, have given Honduras the highest murder rate in the world.
The highly charged nature of politics in this country was on display last month when military police violently expelled members of former President Manuel Zelaya’s center-left party from the building for supporting a demonstration against military repression. Zelaya himself had been ousted from office in a 2009 coup, and his followers have suffered a wave of persecution since then. These events prompted a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry from 108 members of the House of Representatives asking him to review the human rights situation in Honduras and cut off aid to those responsible for abuses.
These and other dynamics have made Honduras one of the most dangerous places in the western hemisphere. It is curious that such conditions persist when armed forces in other parts of Latin America have long since come to terms with the principles of democracy. To understand the persistence of authoritarianism in Honduras, a comparison to neighboring Nicaragua reveals differences in the way that militaries in the region are trained and politicized.
Nicaragua: Dynastic Rule
For most of the 20th century, the United States maintained a strong influence in both Nicaragua and Honduras. The United States built the military forces there by establishing schools for military training, providing weapons and aircraft, and supplying funds. In both cases, the armed forces assisted with the U.S. Cold War objective of containing and suppressing the left in the region. The Nicaraguan military provided support for the U.S. invasion of Guatemala in 1954 as well as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The Honduran armed forces also provided assistance in the invasion of Guatemala and in the “Contra” war against the Sandinista government in the 1980s.
Yet there were important differences in the way the United States worked with the military in each case. While the strategy was more direct in Honduras,U.S. officials managed the military indirectly in Nicaragua by relying on the loyalty of a single family. This longstanding relationship began when U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson gained the assistance of Anastasio Somoza García during the peace negotiations that ended the Nicaraguan civil war in 1927.
Having been schooled in the United States, Somoza spoke American English fluently, a rare ability in Nicaragua at the time. This ability more than anything else enabled Somoza to become head of the National Guard, an elite fighting force trained by the U.S. Marines. When the Marines withdrew in 1934, Somoza became the essential conduit between U.S. officials and the Spanish-speaking Guardsmen.
After his death in 1956, Somoza was succeeded first by one and then another of his sons, so that the family remained largely in control of the country for some 45 years.
As Anthony Lake writes, after U.S. forces left, “Nicaragua’s problems were Nicaragua’s affair. American representatives scrupulously avoided taking sides or even offering advice.” The Somoza dynasty and its supporters in the Liberal Party would be the key to maintaining stability and order even “at the cost of the American ideal of democracy.” Left to their own devices, the Somozas rooted out political rivals and intimidated and corrupted business interests, public officials, political opponents, and rural communities. In time, they became one of the richest families in Central America.
Honduras: Institutionalized Militarism
While Nicaraguans regarded the National Guard with contempt in Nicaragua, the Honduran military forces actually attained a level of cohesion with society.
As Honduran historians point out, the predominant National Party has upheld both traditional and economic versions of “conservative” politics in Honduras. In the economic version, as far back as the 1910s, the National Party strongly supported investments by foreign investors such as United Fruit. In the traditional version of conservatism, elites and peasants were seen as part of a whole community united by the Catholic faith and a belief in strong military leadership. As an embodiment of these two views, the National Party effectively fused the interests of elites, foreign investors, the military, and a portion of the peasantry.
This philosophy also led the army, as a strong ally of the National Party, to recruit from a broad segment of society, including “those of low social origin.”In this way, the armed forces were able to identify with the claims of the people and maintain a certain measure of popular appeal. This practice stood in stark contrast to that of the National Guard in Nicaragua.
The opposition Liberal Party, by far the weaker of the two, sought support among small holders and banana workers along the northern Atlantic coast by promoting worker rights and opposing imperialism. Although more subject to coups and political repression, the Liberals were credited early on with improving wages and working conditions in that region. Nonetheless, the two parties took turns protecting the interests of the fruit companies by cracking down on strikes and persecuting union leaders.
Authoritarianism also differed in the two countries as a result of the different goals that the United States advanced.
In Nicaragua, U.S. military bases were first established in 1914 along with the exclusive right to build a canal across that country. Hoping to fend off European and other great power designs in the region, the United States turned its attention in Nicaragua to concerns outside the country.
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On the other hand,the United States chose Honduras as a central location for controlling unrest and revolutionary movements that threatened stability along the isthmus. U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox had noted in 1912 how Honduras bordered on three other Central American countries and effectively served as a pathway for the armies of other states in the region: “It has not been possible to prevent their passing through without committing her to the struggle here or elsewhere.” For Knox, peace in Honduras would always be the key to peace in Central America.
By the late 1970s, political tensions were high in both countries as President Jimmy Carter pressed for democratization. Yet once again, the outcomes were quite different.
In Nicaragua, where the Somoza family and the National Guard had been isolated from the population, the opposition was able to build a broad base of support. The situation worsened after the devastating earthquake of 1972 amid reports that government officials had embezzled international donations. The assassination of an opposition leader in 1978 led to a mass strike while conservatives, business leaders, and the archbishop in Managua denounced the government. Sandinista leaders took advantage of these events to increase their support. After the overthrow of the Somoza family, exposing the abuses of the National Guard became a way to heighten support for the Sandinistas while also paving the way for free elections.
In Honduras, where the military had become a governing institution, society did not undergo the same level of polarization. Faith, philosophy, a close alliance with the National Party, a populist character, and ample backing from the United States all helped maintain the continuity of military rule throughout the 1980s.
Failing at Defense
The faith of Hondurans in their armed forces was sadly misplaced, however. Not only did the armed forces repress their own population, they also failed miserably at actually defending the country against invasion.
On one occasion, an invasion by El Salvador set off what became known as the Soccer War in 1969. Despite air bombing by the Honduran Air Force, the superior Salvadoran ground forces attacked six points near the Honduran border and bombed 10 Honduran cities, including the capital. It took a negotiated ceasefire by the Organization of American States (OAS) to restore the old borders. The humiliation of the invasion and contempt for Salvadorans provoked a surge in Honduran nationalism and a new drive to expand and professionalize the army.
A second invasion took place during the Contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s. At that time, Honduras hosted the base operations of the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, or “Contras,” fighting to regain control in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration, determined to topple the Sandinistas, leaned hard on the Honduran government to continue that support, increasing military aid tenfold over what it had been in the late 1970s.
Nonetheless, in March 1986, 1,500 members of the Sandinista army successfully crossed into Honduras near the town of Las Vegas and engaged the Contras in combat. The Sandinistas subsequently withdrew without ever encountering the Honduran army. Honduran officials were reluctant to admit to this acute embarrassment, but U.S. officials used it as proof of Sandinista aggression and were thus able to obtain an additional $100 million in Contra aid from Congress.
Although many Hondurans tended to support U.S. policy toward the Contras, Honduran officials were uneasy about their presence inside the country. In a challenge to the United States, military leaders took decisive steps to close down a Contra hospital and other facilities, and even turned away two U.S. State Department officials intent on touring a Contra training camp. This unusual stance against U.S. policy by the Honduran government likely helped bring an end to the Contra war. But it did little to make the military itself more compatible with democracy.
Turning a Corner?
Since the end of the Contra war, social movements have sprung up in Honduras much as they have elsewhere. Students, workers, women’s organizations, indigenous groups, and LGBT activists have poured into the streets and into the world of print, radio, and internet journalism. The initial excitement of these democratizing movements gave way, however, as authoritarian brutality continued.
Since the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, leading activists have increasingly been targeted for harassment, arbitrary arrest, and assassination. More journalists have now been murdered in Honduras than in any other country, and many of those under threat have fled to the United States.
In the fertile Lower Aguán Valley where cooperative farmers battle wealthy exporters for the right to farm land, at least 88 peasant activists have been killed, likely at the hands of military forces. Human Rights Watch recently found that such killings are routinely ignored by the police and prosecutors and seldom investigated. In these and other ways the long history of military forces in this country suppressing social activism has continued.
The fact that American citizens are now being subjected to many of the abuses Hondurans have experienced for years has brought the issue to the attention of Congress. Recently, 108 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to review the human rights situation. Newly appointed Ambassador to Honduras James Nealon clearly recognized both the nature and urgency of the problem during his recent confirmation. Coming out against the use of the military in policing, he noted:
A Honduras with greater accountability and transparency will establish stronger rule of law institutions and be more likely to protect human rights. … Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability—a Honduras with strong human rights protections means enhanced security in our region.
With so much at stake and so few allies to count on, the poor and the vulnerable in Honduras are now watching the United States to see what these changes will bring. With the right response on our part, we can hope to see the dawn of a more congenial policy for the United States and a safer and more democratic era for Hondurans.