“How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer” was the headline over the lead article in the New York Times‘ “Week in Review” (8/11/16), with the teaser reading, “Programs funded by the United States are helping transform Honduras. Who says American power is dead?”
The piece never really got around to explaining, though, how Honduras became the most dangerous place on Earth. That’s American power, too.
Reporter Sonia Nazario returned to Honduras after a three-year absence to find
a remarkable reduction in violence, much of it thanks to programs funded by the United States that have helped community leaders tackle crime…. The United States has not only helped to make these places safer, but has also reduced the strain on our own country.
Nazario described US-funded anti-violence programs in a high-crime neighborhood in the Honduran city San Pedro Sula:
The United States has provided local leaders with audio speakers for events, tools to clear 10 abandoned soccer fields that had become dumping grounds for bodies, notebooks and school uniforms, and funding to install streetlights and trash cans.
She offered the results of this and similar programs as evidence that “smart investments in Honduras are succeeding” and “a striking rebuke to the rising isolationists in American politics,” who “seem to have lost their faith in American power.”
But Nazario failed to explain how American power paved the way for the shocking rise in violence in Honduras. In the early 2000s, the murder rate in Honduras fluctuated between 44.3 and 61.4 per 100,000—very high by global standards, but similar to rates in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala. (It’s not coincidental that all three countries were dominated by violent, US-backed right-wing governments in the 1980s—historical context that the op-ed entirely omitted.) Then, in June 2009, Honduras’ left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup, kidnapped and flown out of the country via the joint US/Honduran military base at Palmerola.
The US is supposed to cut off aid to a country that has a military coup—and “there is no doubt” that Zelaya’s ouster “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” according to a secret report sent by the US ambassador to Honduras on July 24, 2009, and later exposed by WikiLeaks. But the US continued most aid to Honduras, carefully avoiding the magic words “military coup” that would have necessitated withdrawing support from the coup regime.
Internal emails reveal that the State Department pressured the OAS not to support the country’s constitutional government. In her memoir Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton recalled how as secretary of State she worked behind the scenes to legitimate the new regime:
In the subsequent days [following the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras, and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.
With a corrupt, drug-linked regime in place, thanks in large part to US intervention, murder in Honduras soared, rising to 70.7 per 100,000 in 2009, 81.8 in 2010 and 91.4 in 2011—fully 50 percent above the pre-coup level. While many of the murders involved criminal gangs, much of the post-coup violence was political, with resuscitated death squads targeting journalists, opposition figures, labor activists and environmentalists—of whom indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was only the most famous.
At one point, it seemed like Nazario was going to acknowledge the US role in creating the problems she gives “American power” credit for ameliorating. “We are also repairing harms the United States inflicted,” she wrote—but the explanation she gives for that was strangely circumscribed:
first by deporting tens of thousands of gangsters to Honduras over the past two decades, a decision that fueled much of the recent mayhem, and second by our continuing demand for drugs, which are shipped from Colombia and Venezuela through Honduras.
No mention of the US supporting Honduras’ coup, or the political murders of the US-backed regime.
At one point, three-quarters of the way through the lengthy piece, Nazario did acknowledge in passing the sinister role the US plays in Latin America:
It will take much more than this project to change the reputation of the United States in this part of the world, where we are famous for exploiting workers and resources and helping to keep despots in power.
Surely it’s relevant that some of the despots the US helped keep in power were in the country she’s reporting from, and that this led directly to the problem she’s writing about? But she dropped the idea there, moving on immediately to talk about the US’s interest in reducing the flow of child refugees.
The most troubling part of the op-ed is that it didn’t feel the need to acknowledge or even dispute the relationship between US support for the coup and Honduras’ shocking murder rate. The New York Times covered much of this ground, after all, in an op-ed by Dana Frank four years ago (1/26/12). Now, however, that information is down the memory hole—leaving the Times free to tout donations of trashcans and school uniforms as an advertisement for American power.