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The dark history that underpins the Honduran caravan

Image credit: ProtoplasmaKid (Creative Commons: Wikicommons)

The recent mass migration of thousands of Hondurans across Mexico towards the US border signifies the long-term fallout of mismanaged foreign policy in the Latin American state.

As speculation continues to circulate regarding the organisers, funding, and prospective destinations, it should be clear that this situation has not occurred independently of US foreign policy in Latin America.

The Honduran caravan, originally estimated to peak anywhere between 4,500 to 7,200 Central Americans, started its journey in San Pedro Sula, in the north of Honduras, before making its way through Guatemala and past the Mexican border.

The US narrative as a response to this movement has been hostile. Donald Trump has labelled it as an ‘assault’, led by the Democratic Party in order to weaken US borders.

Through this rhetoric, as previously exhibited with Mexican and Muslim asylum seekers, President Trump can diminish the claims of migrants and dismiss the root causes of the issue. Instead of viewing migration as symbolic of severe inequality and exploitative relationships between states, it is characterised as an external threat. This migration is thus labelled a predatory movement, which opportunists are using to take advantage of the US system.

By adopting such conclusions and drawing arbitrary lines between citizens and immigrants generally, this rhetoric serves to devalue the cause that drives these people to seek asylum, diminishes public support to human rights, and impedes a holistic understanding of causation.

It is necessary here to consider the history of US foreign policy in Central America and the long-term destabilization this has incurred.

These issues date back to the early 20th century when US fruit corporations essentially turned the impoverished former colony into a banana plantation. The economic and political domination from US firms influenced all areas of society, and it is in reference to this that William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) first coined the term ‘banana republic’. These companies, primarily the well known United Fruit Company, effectively dictated all areas of the economy and politics.

US corporate interests in Honduras led to a developmental boom in the early 1900s. American companies built railroads, established banking systems, and inevitably placed significant influence on domestic policymakers and officials.

In his book “Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America,” historian Walter LaFeber writes that the majority of the Caribbean coast became a “foreign-controlled enclave that systematically swung the whole of Honduras into a one-crop economy…” This wealth was subsequently shifted off to the US with huge profit margins due to cheap labour, weak institutional resistance, and influential control over corrupt state officials.

By 1914, US firms controlled around 1 million acres of fertile Honduran land. Poorer communities had no hope of accessing the nation’s best soil for commercial farming or subsistence, and many were forced into working with US companies under horrific conditions. This systematic inequality persisted for decades as domestic firms were blocked out of the market and labour movements met with extreme suppression.

Of course, this was not exclusive to Honduras. Neighbouring Guatemala and Nicaragua suffered the same subjugation, along with a then-vulnerable Colombia.

The exploitative neo-colonial ventures resulted in the period roughly spanning 1901-41 known as the ‘banana wars’. The most violent case involving the United Fruit Company occurred in Colombia in 1928 known as the Banana Massacre (Masacre de las bananeras), when the government turned the military on striking workers, resulting in the death of around 3,000 employees.

As LaFeber notes in his book, by mid-way through the 20th century the military had become the nation’s “most developed political institution,” and was a critical element in suppressing labour and leftist movements throughout the century. Such military control preserved commercial interests for decades. This was expanded during the Reagan era, in response to increasing pressure from left-wing movements and suppressing drug trafficking cartels’ operations.

US military policy was so prominent in the region that Honduras has since been referred to as the ‘USS Honduras’ and the ‘Pentagon Republic’. The Reagan administration rotated hundreds of US soldiers there and featured prominently in arming and training Nicaraguan ‘Contra’ rebels on Honduran land. This further militarized an already suppressive government, and as arms supplies to military bodies and Contra factions inevitably made their way into the hands of drug trafficking organizations and other rebel groups, violence steadily increased.

This coincided with interference in Honduras’ only other viable economic industry: coffee. The US influenced trade liberalization pushed domestic Honduran policymakers into deregulating the coffee industry. In global trade terms the industry was still in its infancy, and opening it up to global capital made domestic firms vulnerable to foreign interests. Again, as in the case with the banana trade, local businesses were destabilized, agricultural land was restricted, and inequality rose in a state with few social protections.

Leaders promoting substantive change have been sporadic. Populist president Manuel Zelaya made some progress when he came into power in 2006, however, he was ousted by the embedded conservative ruling elite in a coup in 2009. The US initially denounced the take-over, but US aid to the government soon resumed through strategic partnerships and as an affront against Venezuela’s then-leader Hugo Chávez.

This event is where many analysts see the roots of the most recent migration wave. After right-wing leader Juan Hernández came to power there was a breakdown of government functions in rural areas, and as institutions opened up to further corruption organized criminal activity increased. He was re-elected in 2017, however, this was not without controversy, as several campaigners died during protests against the outcome.

Since 2009 the US has invested over $114m in security assistance in order to bolster police units, border security, and deploy counter-narcotics operations. This initiative has had significant success, such as halving homicides, the country is still rated as one of the most violent in the world. Among these domestic institutional issues is the fact that it remains a busy drug corridor for cocaine narcotics moving north into Mexico and the US.

The Honduran migrant caravan does not exist outside of US foreign policy influence. It should be noted that this is not the first occurrence, a similar movement took place as recently as May 2018, and there are constant smaller groups making their way north. Until domestic institutional and economic development issues can be treated, it is unlikely the flow of migrants will cease. For many, between violent criminal groups, lack of access to health services and scarce opportunities for the future, taking the dangerous road north is their only choice.

Emmett Howard is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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