Here is the story of two very different policies toward Honduras…
In late October-early November 1998, a Category 5 hurricane — covering a larger area than the country itself — slammed into Honduras and then just hovered over it for a week, dumping up 75 inches of rain and killing at least 7,000 people in Honduras alone, plus an additional 2,000 in neighboring countries. Besides the human toll, Mitch left nearly $4 billion worth in damages in Honduras and would go down as the second worst hurricane in history (just behind the unfortunately named “Great Hurricane” of 1780, which greatly killed over 20,000 people in Hispaniola and the Lesser Antilles).
Two of its neighbors responded to Honduras’s cries for help.
Cuba sent members of its medical brigade, which had just been deployed to Haiti a month earlier after another hurricane struck that country. Seventeen years later, the Cuban doctors remain in Honduras, having treated over 29 million people and saved the lives of more than 250,000 Honduras, according to La Prensa.
Renamed the Henry Reeve Brigade in 2005 in honor of an American who served as a rebel general during Cuba’s First War of Independence, the army of Cuban doctors have seen action all around the world: in Indonesia following a tsunami in 2004, in Kashmir after an earthquake there in 2005, in Haiti again after the 2010 earthquake, and in West Africa during last year’s outbreak of Ebola.
Hours after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, Cuba offered to send 1500 doctors and more than 26 tons of medical supplies and equipment to New Orleans. But the U.S. government decided it didn’t need Cuba’s help and refused the offer.
For its part, back in 1998 the U.S. government, through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, offered hurricane-ravaged Honduras millions of dollars in recovery assistance, but under one condition — Honduras would have to open itself up to foreign ownership.
As Naomi Klein writes in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine:
In the two months after Mitch struck, with the country still knee-deep in rubble, corpses and mud, the Honduran congress passed laws allowing the privatization of airports, seaports and highways and fast-tracked plans to privatize the state telephone company, the national electric company and parts of the water sector. It overturned progressive land-reform laws, making it far easier for foreigners to buy and sell property, and rammed through a radically pro-business mining law (drafted by the industry) that lowered environmental standards and made it easier to evict people from homes that stood in the way of new mines.
It was much the same in neighboring countries: in the same two months post-Mitch, Guatemala announced plans to sell of its phone system, and Nicaragua did likewise … According to The Wall Street Journal, ‘The World Bank and International Monetary Fund had thrown their weight behind the [telecom] sale, making it a condition for release of roughly $47 million in aid annually over three years and linking it to about $4.4 billion in foreign-debt relief for Nicaragua.’ Phone privatization had nothing to do with hurricane reconstruction, of course, except inside the logic of the disaster capitalists at Washington’s financial institutions.
Hurricane Sam (the United States) would inflict even greater and longer-lasting injury on Honduras than Mitch ever could have. When a left-leaning president was elected in 2005 and began addressing Honduras’s many socioeconomic issues — namely poverty and land distribution — Washington cast a wary eye on its century-old banana republic, fearing it might be overrun by leftists just as Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia had up to that point.
Then, in June 2009, Honduran soldiers stormed the executive mansion and led the president (still in his pajamas) to a waiting plane which flew him (illegally) to Costa Rica — but not before stopping to refuel at a U.S.-controlled airbase. In her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices, former secretary of State Hillary Clinton admits she did everything in her power to keep the deposed President Manuel Zelaya from returning to office: “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.”
The United States was one of the only countries in the world to recognize the results of Honduras’s sham elections in November 2009. Cuba, along with most of Latin America, did not.
A coup regime has hovered over Honduras ever since, killing and disappearing countless opposition candidates, LGBT activists, dispossessed campesinos, besieged Garifuna, journalists, students and so on. But instead of condemning such a repressive government within its sphere of influence, the United States has drastically increased military and police funding to Honduras since 2009, sending a clear message to the reigning thugs in Tegucigalpa — whatever you’re doing, do more of it.
This is what Cuba means to much of Latin America. Its domestic policies aside, Cuba’s foreign policy across the region represents an important antidote to the exploitation and dependence spread by the United States. Washington could have chosen to help the people of Honduras in 1998, and it could’ve accepted Cuba’s help in 2005, but it didn’t, because doing so would have gone against the long-term economic goal of the United States: to turn the rest of the world into one, global U.S. colony.
The United States will never lower Cuba’s standing in the Americas and paint Cuba as a threat to its neighbors if Washington continues being the most destructive force that Latin America has ever known — whose effects Cuba has spent decades trying to alleviate.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.