Honduras marks 195 years Thursday since winning its independence from Spain, but the small Central American country remains deprived of a second and true independence as it is stuck under ongoing domination of wealthy local oligarchs, foreign corporations, and a lasting legacy of longstanding U.S. imperialism.
The U.S.-backed coup in Honduras over seven years ago consolidated the power of the country’s elite and reaffirmed the prominent role of the United States in steering the country to favor its political and economic interests. The coup-perpetrators stormed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya’s house on June 28, 2009, and swept him out of the country in his pajamas, paving the way for an aggressive onslaught of neoliberal policies in the years to come amid harsh repression of social movements.
The “disaster capitalism” rolled out in the wake of the coup unraveled even modest reforms pursued by Zelaya, a wealthy rancher elected with the Liberal Party who increasingly shifted toward a progressive agenda during his time in office under the pressure of social movements.
Most contentiously, he planned to hold a non-binding poll on whether to have a referendum on rewriting the Honduran constitution. Social movements, particularly the unprecedented and broad-based post-coup resistance, have long insisted that convening a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the 1982 constitution is key in the struggle to “re-found” Honduras and strengthen its fragile, fledgling democracy. Coup-backers, on the other hand – including members of Honduras’ traditional oligarchy and then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – used Zelaya’s non-binding poll to justify his ouster, accusing him of manipulating the constitution to prolong his presidency. Never mind the ridiculous accusation was a impossible.
Under the subsequent National Party governments of Porfirio Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernandez borne out of the coup regime, Honduras’ elite have overturned Zelaya’s moratorium on new mining activity, instead opening up the country to a wave of contested mining and hydroelectric concessions to foreign companies. The Lobo administration scrapped negotiations with land rights movements in the northern Aguan Valley — home to an intense and bloody conflict between communities and large landowners that has killed over 100 campesinos since 2010 — and instead heavily militarized the region. The post-coup administrations have also attacked public health care and education with creeping privatization.
The neoliberal agenda has been fiercely policed by state security forces and what human rights defenders have described as “death squads,” recalling the violence and targeted assassinations of Cold War-era counterinsurgency in the region, particularly in Honduras under the CIA-trained secret army unit Battalion 316.
The assault on human rights and plunder of Honduras' resources has not gone uncontested. Protesters took to the streets in historic numbers in the immediate aftermath of the coup to reject the de facto regime. In 2015, months of weekly protests rocked Honduras in numbers not seen since the wake of the coup to protest rampant government corruption that had robbed millions of dollars from public coffers, including the crisis-stricken Social Security Institute. The movement, dubbed the “Indignados,” united Hondurans across class and partisan lines, even bringing to the streets groups that did not protest the coup. Radical factions criticized narratives in the movement that focused on rooting out “bad apples,” arguing that government fraud was systematically linked the elite stranglehold on power and its love affair with neoliberalism.
The systemic critique of corruption draws out the continuities between present-day Honduran politics and economics and the country’s past of imperialism.
Honduras was the original and quintessential “Banana Republic,” a moniker earned from its reliance on banana exports as early as the late 19th century as an economic enclave that overwhelmingly benefited foreign investors. U.S. fruit giants, most notoriously the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company, dominated both the economy and politics with major influence over the country’s affairs, particularly when they found a strong ally in the National Party dictatorship in power from 1932 to 1949. Foreign domination of Honduras’ economy deepened when the fruit companies diversified their business holdings in other industries.
Decades later, neoliberalism hit Honduras hard at the turn of the 1990s, when hardline President Rafael Callejas — charged in 2015 with bribery in the FIFA corruption scandal — ushered in austerity, privatization, structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and an export-oriented economic model. The new Washington Consensus came on the heels of U.S. military occupation of Honduras in the 1980s as the headquarters for the regional counterinsurgency strategy against left-wing uprisings in Central America, known as the Contra Wars. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are still stationed at the Palmerola Air Base, located over 50 miles outside of the capital city Tegucigalpa, while Washington continues to funnel military aid to Honduras despite grave human rights concerns, including accusations that local police and military personnel have been involved in extrajudicial killings.
Callejas’ policies in the early 1990s paved the way for further expansion of the sweatshop industry, free trade agreements, and industrial export agriculture throughout the decade, filling the pockets of foreign corporations while exploiting Honduran workers.
Although the economic rubric has taken a new form in recent decades, the imperialist trend has largely continued in Honduras while also consolidating economic power in the hands of the local oligarchy, who backed the coup when Zelaya threatened their interests. What’s more, Zelaya’s modest questioning of neoliberalism was beyond reversed with the coup, opening the door to radical, free market schemes like model cities — a plan that essentially proposed to privatize Indigenous and campesino land to be run by corporations or foreign governments — turning back the history of democracy and development in Honduras.
The conflation of elite interests is represented in the recent murder of renowned Indigenous leader Berta Caceres, shot dead in her home over six months ago after leading years of resistance against an unwanted hydroelectric dam on Lenca territory in western Honduras. Caceres was reportedly on the top of a military hit list before her death, and she long faced threats and harassment linked to the private Honduran energy company, DESA, behind the Agua Zarca dam, the focus of her activism in recent years. Human rights defenders have slammed the official investigation for failing to probe the role of DESA executives in ordering the murder, while they have blamed government officials for failing to shield Caceres despite orders for her protection. Many activists have also highlighted U.S. complicity in the murder due to its ongoing backing of corrupt security forces and support for the coup that fomented the current crisis.
As Independence Day rolls around once again, many signs still suggest that the Honduran people have not truly won their independence, as they still await liberation from the clutches of the transnational capitalist class, including Honduran and U.S. elites, that continues to dominate the Central American country.
And while social movements continue to flood the streets with outrage, demanding both reforms and deeper structural change, history has shown that the Honduran elite, transnational corporations, and U.S. State Department will work to suppress the popular will for radical change.