Honduras – scope and limits of containment

Image: Matheus Bertelli


The Honduran crisis will have the misfortunes of containing the Latin American crisis over the years, which is at an advanced stage in Honduras

Anteroom and coup strategy

In 2009, Honduras grabbed headlines around the world when President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a covert legal maneuver coup. The “disguise” did not prevent the president from being taken out of his house in his pajamas and sent to Costa Rica on a military plane.

Zelaya belonged to the Liberal Party, one of the political arms of the oligarchy that has always governed the country. On that occasion, he joined forces with his opposing arm: the National Party. The reason that triggered the maneuver was the proposal to add a “fourth ballot box” to the upcoming elections: in addition to electing a new president, deputies and mayors, the population would respond to a consultation on a possible new Constitution.

At that moment, the progressive wave was at its peak: in addition to Lula, Kirchner, Tabaré Vázquez, Morales, Correa and Lugo in South America, Daniel Ortega presided over Nicaragua and Mauricio Funes had been elected in El Salvador. In this context, the hypothesis of a Constituent Assembly revived the ghost of Bolivarianism. The ruling class interpreted the consultation as the first step in Zelaya's strategy to perpetuate himself in power. A virulent anti-communist campaign was then unleashed, exaggerating a non-existent Cold War against a president who had never been leftist and who had only raised the minimum wage and joined ALBA. Zelaya was ousted five months before the end of his term.

It should be noted that the National Party was the first beneficiary of the coup, since since then it has governed the country for three successive terms. During Pepe Lobo's presidency (2010-2014), Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), President of Congress, positioned himself as the country's strongest figure. Influenced by the military school where he studied, Lobo's successor demonstrated a militaristic view of politics, marked by the conquest of institutional spaces and the neutralization of enemy reactions.

More with money than with ideology, he gained the loyalty of the police and the military. A series of arbitrary appointments ensured the alignment of the judiciary, which facilitated his re-election in 2017. Bitter irony, when we remember the pretext of the coup perpetrated a few years earlier. In addition, JOH cultivated the loyalty of the religious leadership – mainly evangelical, but also Catholic – and wove a vast network of social programs that ensured its clientelistic policy.

In short, JOH built and wielded power the old-fashioned way, as the antipode of Bukele from Salvador, the young king of social networks, self-defined as “the toughest dictator cool of the world".


the narco-state

Unconditional US alignment is part of this know-how and JOH followed Donald Trump in moving the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. More importantly, in a far from disinterested gesture, the government collaborated with the extradition of criminals linked to drug trafficking. Indeed, there is evidence that the government acted on the military model of Rio de Janeiro, where police operations target criminal organizations only to put others in their place. The growing links between drug trafficking, the paramilitaries and the three branches of state power, in addition to the police and the army, have outlined the contours of what many have defined as a narco-state.

In the territories, promiscuous relations with transnational extractivism produced evictions and violence, well symbolized by the murder of Berta Cáceres in 2016.

The work alternative that prospered was the maquiladora industry, attracted by low wages and the absence of regulations. Migration is the only option for those who do not submit. And the Hondurans led large caravans that crossed the region on foot. Those who have settled in the United States, legally or illegally, support the country's economy with their remittances.

It is a paradoxical reality: while some fight for the right to migrate, the population of the territories fights for the right to stay. The Honduran people emerge as a frontier of the “becoming-black of the world”, in Mbembe's expression: a kind of planetary limbo, in a world that produces more and more people without a place.

The narco-state led by JOH crystallized as a form of management the Honduran chapter of this world in which there is no place for people. In 2017, the president fraudulently renewed his term. From then on, social decomposition accelerated. Honduras is not just a transit territory for drug trafficking, and it doesn't just operate in the north of the country. Between fraud and criminality, the country caresses the limits of a narcodictatorship.


Castro's Victory

In this context, the question that arises is: how was Xiomara Castro's victory possible? For the opposition camp, only an incontestable electoral victory, like that of AMLO in Mexico, would be able to prevent a new fraud. On the other hand, JOH's main concern was the victory of an ally that shielded his possible extradition. His brother was condemned by the US justice system and many loose threads link the president to drug trafficking. In the meantime, Pepe Lobo's son was arrested and extradited, fueling the president's fury and aggravating the division of the National Party. While the Liberal Party was in frank decline and presented another convict who had just served his sentence as a presidential candidate, his rival did not follow a different path.

Given these intricacies, it is understandable that bipartisanship has lost favor in the United States. And sectors of capital. Three weeks before the elections, Castro's campaign convinced Salvador Nasralla, a sports commentator and radio announcer with great prestige among young people, to renounce his candidacy and negotiate his support. Election polls confirming the candidate's good performance among businesspeople were also decisive. Shortly afterwards, a herd of leaders from the Liberal Party – the same party that took advantage of Zelaya's overthrow so well – joined the campaign. The new bases of the right created a situation in which the only alternative for the JOH candidate was to impose himself through a coup, but the armed forces did not agree.


a heavy inheritance

Xiomara Castro was a candidate of the Party Free, which emerged as a political reaction to the 2009 coup. The party brings together leaders from the left, mainly from the student movement; liberal democrats, like Zelaya himself; and a motley crowd of militants with no definite affiliation.

O Free won a simple majority in Congress. But to dismantle the legacy he inherited, he needs an absolute majority. This will entail re-negotiating with the unstable forces on the right. This legacy ranges from the criminalization of social protests, which penalizes gatherings of five people, to the special economic zones, which create commercial enclaves in Honduran territory, excluded from national legislation. All this in the context of a failed state, which must urgently negotiate its debts with international financial institutions if public servants are to receive their salaries.

In summary, from day one, the government will be obliged to negotiate the basic conditions of governance with the right, with the international financial institutions and with the United States.


Historic rematch?

At first glance, the electoral triumph of Zelaya's wife looks like a historic revenge. Indeed, we should celebrate the defeat of a narcodictatorial regime.

But the country that Castro will find is very different from the one that Zelaya left. Over these thirteen years, certain corrosive trends, which predated Zelaya's government but remained during his tenure, accelerated. Drug trafficking, maras, the military and paramilitaries existed, as did corruption and violence. However, these and other dimensions of social degradation followed their rhythms and entered into a symbiosis, whose visible face is the narco-state.

At the same time, Honduran decomposition affects the United States, linked to the country by migration and drug trafficking (issues that have a different weight in Nicaragua than Ortega). In a moment of discredit of a repressive regime that strengthened the trends that produce migrants and criminals on a large scale, Xiomara Castro is the opposite face of the collapse embodied by JOH: it is an alternative of containment.

The attempt to contain the violent erosion of the social fabric also emerged during Zelaya's government. In that sense, they are two moments that echo each other. However, the crisis worsened in the country and its surroundings: today the scope and limits of containment are different. In the coming years, we will witness the misfortunes of containing the Latin American crisis, which is at an advanced stage in Honduras.

* Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos He is a professor at the Department of International Relations at Unifesp..

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin Latin America.


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