President Biden recently unveiled a “Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America” that promises to invest $4 billion to address root causes driving migration from countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to the U.S. On the surface the plan sounds promising but upon further review, it is clear that what Biden is proposing replicates policies from the Obama Administration that contributed to poverty, inequality and violence in the region—including a coup. Closer scrutiny and hindsight prove that calling for private sector investment and training police and security forces led to human rights violations in Honduras, continuing today.
In 2014, I traveled to Honduras as a member of a human rights delegation organized by Witness for Peace and member groups of the Honduras Solidarity Network. During my visit, I heard from more than 30 human rights activists, clergy members, former judges (ousted by the 2009 U.S. backed coup), legislators and numerous community leaders. When asked to explain why so many Hondurans leave their homes to make the perilous journey to the U.S., they all gave a variation of the same answer. The U.S. funding of security forces and support for private investment promoted as “economic development” created a climate of impunity for targeted attacks on environmental and land activists, causing many to flee in fear.
Berta Cáceres, a world-renowned environmental activist, was one of the people I heard from on that trip. It was a last-minute addition to our itinerary due to the death threats she was receiving. Not mincing words, she highlighted how our U.S. tax dollars were funding the repression in Honduras. She pointed to U.S.-trained security forces tasked with protecting the economic interests of corporations. Two years later she was assassinated.
As the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, she was protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam on a river sacred to Indigenous Lenca people. The project was being funded internationally. Five years later, questions still remain about her death as her family and a global community of activists continues to demand justice. A number of people arrested in connection to her murder had ties to the U.S. military. She is one of many people in Honduras who have been threatened, jailed, disappeared and even assassinated by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s government—a corrupt politician considered an ally by the U.S who protects the drug trade that leads to migration. We have past precedent for what Biden’s plan for “private sector investment to promote economic stability” looks like.
Five Afro-indigenous Garífuna men were kidnapped from their homes in July 2020 and have not been heard from since. Among them was a land defender who had spoken out against the impacts of palm plantations on Garífuna coastal homelands. The Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) has been organizing to protect their communally-owned ancestral lands from land grabs and tourist resort developments that threaten their livelihoods and force Garífuna people to migrate. Similarly, the political imprisonment of eight Guapinol water defenders demonstrates how the Honduran state uses its military power against activists who threaten the economic interests of local elites. The Guapinol conflict originates from an illegal iron ore mining project in a national park that risked contaminating rivers and local water supply.
The common denominator between these mega projects and corporate investments is that they are imposed on communities, and activists who mobilize to protect their land and water, come up against the strong arm of the state, which acts with impunity and support of the U.S. to defend corporate interests.
Before further investing in Honduras, Biden must break free from the dangerous strategies of the past. A coalition of U.S. civil society organizations urged Biden to rethink U.S. security policy by performing a full review alongside human rights activists and indigenous defenders. They recommend refraining from the promotion of private-public partnership initiatives and eliminating the privatization of public services and natural resources that decreases access to basic needs for the most vulnerable and increases poverty. Instead of continuing to earmark funding for security forces that violate human rights, the U.S. should redirect funds to support the efforts of Indigenous and Afro-descendant environmental defenders. Standing with local leaders would show a willingness to benefit all by re-envisioning security and prosperity from the ground up.
To be sure the U.S. investing in Honduras and other Central American countries can be a good thing. U.S. and Organization of American States (OAS) funding for the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) was a short-lived but powerful example of how U.S. aid can provide a positive impact. Before the MACCIH’s mandate was allowed to expire in January 2020, it exposed deeply entrenched high-level corruption, such as the embezzlement of at least $300 million from the health care system, reportedly funneled through fraudulent private business contracts to finance political activities (including President Hernandez’s 2013 campaign) and led to jail time for Honduras first lady. Though corruption ran rampant in Honduras, this program gave hope that things could change. By continuing to prioritize corporations that only benefit a small circle of elites, there will continue to be death and destruction in the country. This leaves people desperate and is the main reason people are migrating to the U.S.
Rich and powerful Hondurans have used U.S. complicity and support to pillage the land for their personal and corporate profits for far too long. The new Biden administration has an opportunity to rectify the damage caused by their 2009 backed coup by prioritizing the country’s natural resources and the people who defend them—instead of continuing to fund a police force and military that serves only the rich.
Susana S. Martínez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Director of the Peace, Justice & Conflict Studies Program at DePaul University. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the Op-Ed Project.