By Allie McManus
Latin America has a history of external influences proven to be detrimental to its society, from Spanish colonialism to U.S. fruit companies. Today, this pattern of economic extraction continues, but a surprising new agent engages in the same behavior– Canada. Fatigued by centuries of imperialism impeding true autonomy, Latin American countries today continue to struggle ineffective self-governance.
This paper will focus specifically on Honduras, where on November 26, 2017, protests broke out across the country in response to government manipulation and voter fraud in the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hérnandez. Protests continue internationally by organizations such as the European Union and the Organization of American States, who have questioned the legitimacy and transparency of the Honduran electoral commission. Squelching the voice of the Honduran populace either through the election of illegitimate political actors or the improper removal of legitimately elected officials by a series of military coups–as recent as eight years ago–Honduras remains a democratically fragile state.
Given the desire of international businesses to protect their interests in Honduras and other Latin American countries, it comes as no surprise that the propagation of illegitimate political actors and military coups would be fomented abroad. Each of the three Honduran military coups (1963, 1975, and 2009) was supported by international powers. A battle-weary populace jaded by the undue influence of foreign actors continues to yield a wavering democracy.
In this paper, I will argue that Honduras’ democratic fragility, and the current allegations of election fraud, are the result of centuries of economic imperialist intervention from Spanish colonialism to modern U.S. and Canadian economic imperialism.
History of ‘Imperialism’ in Honduras
The history of imperialism in Honduras began when the Spanish crown colonized San Gil de Buenavista in 1502 (Leonard 2011, pg. xxiii). The Spanish strategy for colonization was highly effective: they captured Limpera, the indigenous’ leader, to subdue the opposition. As the Spanish acquired the wealth of the indigenous peoples, they appropriated control of the existing methods of taxation, tribute, and forced labor, transferring power from the former leader to themselves, a new societal elite. It wasn’t, however, just the creation of a social elite that created a new order. The Spanish also created a web of institutions designed to exploit the indigenous population, such as encomienda, mitas, repartimiento, and trajin. These economic structures created a new subclass that turned the indigenous into indentured servants (Acemoglu & Robinson 2012). The Spanish, at the inception of colonial rule, constructed institutions that centralized power for the interests of the new elite while marginalizing the indigenous.
In 1821, Honduras gained independence from the Spanish crown (Leonard 2011) yet the small nation remained an economic colony of the industrial powers. Ellen Meiksins Wood, a prolific Marxist theorist, posits that today “capitalist imperialism has become almost entirely a matter of economic domination, in which market imperatives, manipulated by the dominant capitalist powers, are made to do the work no longer done by imperial states or colonial settlers” (Wood 2003). In particular, it is maintained that throughout the twentieth century, the world hegemon, the United States, used ‘market imperatives’ such as inexpensive labor in autocratic states to control the fate of Honduran politics in its favor.
U.S. economic imperialism began in Honduras at the dawn of the banana industry when major U.S. multinationals, like United Fruit Co. and Standard Fruit Co., took control of Honduran telecommunications and national newspapers (Bucheli 2008). United Fruit Co. financed the presidential campaign of Tiburcio Carias out of fear that emerging left-leaning worker’s policies would damage the growing industry. Carias was subsequently elected and his presidency led to a military dictatorship until 1949 (Bucheli & Kim 2012). Carias jailed and exiled his opponents, outlawed the Communist Party, and fortified the military, leaving a long-lasting impact that damaged any hope of developing democratic institutions (Leonard 2011, pg. 113). Meanwhile, the U.S. ratified the “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933, agreeing to nonintervention in Latin America, while legislating certain trade agreements to decrease tariffs abroad to stimulate U.S. industry during the Great Depression (Leonard 2011, pg. 116). On paper, the U.S. claimed that they kept their hands out of Latin American politics, but the reality was much different: the United States supported General Carias dictatorship (Fenner 2012).
In the 1950’s, in response to imbalanced and unfair U.S. policies, several communist and populist organizations emerged in Honduras. In 1957, Ramón Villeda Morales, an anti-American, left-leaning physician became president on the platform for increased welfare for the country’s poor. Morales initiated a new national labor code that provided an increased minimum wage, improved working conditions, mandatory severance pay, vacations, workmen’s compensation, and maternity leave (Leonard 2011, pg. 144). These policies not only threatened profit margins for banana companies but also alarmed the U.S. government who was amidst the Cold War on an anti-communism ideology. In 1963, the United States was “decisive” in delivering a coup in Honduras — ousting President Morales weeks before an upcoming election and replacing him with Oswaldo López Arellano (Coatsworth 2017; Buceli 2008; Leonard 2011).
Just like with Carias, López Arellano’s dictatorship was fraught with human rights abuses and a buttressing of the foreign Banana industry. Under his leadership, United Fruit Co. and Standard Fruit Co. did not pay income tax on their gains in the country (Leonard 2011, pg. 151). Several years later, a number of Honduran press releases discovered that Arellano had received a $1.25 million bribe from United Fruit Company to lower a banana export tax (The New York Times, 1975). Displeased with his corruption, the military found it essential to overthrow Arellano, which only continued to weaken the leadership in Honduras and facilitated yet another military dictatorship.
The 2009 Coup
In the next fifty years, Honduras was unable to free itself from the shackles of external influence. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and similar patterns of economic imperialism continue to persist. It is argued that the 2009 Honduran coup and subsequent international support was the product of U.S. and Canadian fears that their economic interests were in jeopardy.
On June 28, 2009, José Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected President of Honduras was deposed by the military, forced into exile, and replaced by Roberto Micheletti (Leonard 2011, pg. 174). Five months later, in November 2009, a second election was managed by the pro-coup supporters and Porfirio Lobo emerged as the new leader. There are several problems with this Lobo’s administration. The first problem goes to the very structure of the administration, where many whom Lobo appointed initiated the undemocratic coup, an act that threatens democratic order. The second is the cessation of fundamental human rights and state-sponsored repression under Lobo’s administration. In 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report stating “at least eight journalists and ten members of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) – a political group that opposed the 2009 coup and advocated the reinstatement of Zelaya – have been killed since President Lobo assumed power on January 27, 2010. There has also been a significant increase in threats against journalists and opposition members during this period” (Honduras: Ongoing Attacks Foster Climate of Intimidation 2010).
The U.S. Role in 2009 Coup
Despite the obvious threat to democracy and lack of protection for journalists and free speech, the Americans and Canadians have prioritized their economic interests above their democratic responsibility by supporting President Lobo.
The previously ousted President Zelaya created too much risk for U.S. business interests through his economic reforms to support small landowners, raising the minimum wage by sixty percent, and lowering interest rates (Valle 2013). He also sought to limit the monopolistic behavior of U.S. mining companies operating in the country by banning open-pit mining and the use of several toxic substances (COHA 2015). Zelaya’s policies are remarkably reminiscent of those of policies of President Morales who was ousted in 1963 for similar reasons.
Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State of the U.S., writes in her book Hard Choices that she admits her desire to prevent Zelaya’s return: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary Espinosa in Mexico. 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” (Clinton 2014). Equally, in July 2013, four years after the coup, President Obama met with President Lobo at the White House and praised him for leadership and “restoration of democratic practices” in Honduras (“Obama Meets Honduran President Lobo” 2015). Yet, in contrast, and what might be most telling, is Honduran scholar Dona Frank’s opinion in Foreign Affairs magazine (2013) where he offers that U.S. support for coup loyalists opens the door for further “violence and anarchy.”
The Canadian Role in 2009 Coup
Canada has thirty-seven companies operating in Honduras totaling $26.8 million CAD a year in business volume (Honduras – Export Development Canada, 2017). Canada imports manufactured and industrial raw materials, fuels, machinery, and transport equipment, and food and animal products (Gordon & Webber, 2016). Most striking is that ninety percent of Canada’s foreign mining investment is limited to one country: Honduras (Escalera-Flexhaug 2017).
As Zelaya built ties with other center-left governments in Latin America, the Canadian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, sought to end Honduran protectionist policies. When Zelaya was ousted, the Canadian government made no effort to condemn those preventing the democratically elected president from returning. Rather, Peter Kent, the Canadian Minister of State for the Americas, stated in a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) program that Zelaya’s “attempts to re-enter the country… [are]…very unhelpful to the situation” (“Rights Action Coup Alert #41” 2009).
Post-coup, Canadians positioned themselves as mediators between Zelaya’s forces and the dictatorship with the affirmation of the “Tegucigalpa-San José Accord.” This deal is particularly alarming because it affirmed “national unity” between Zelaya and the dictatorship. Post-signing, Neil Reeder, the Canadian Ambassador to Honduras, reported that “as a long-standing aid, trade, and investment partner with Honduras, we were delighted with this outcome,” (Reeder 2009), an explicit demonstration of Canadian powers to push for an unequal and unjust resolution to resume its trade and support its economic interests.
Neil Reeder, Canadian Member of Parliament, speaking to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, condemned Zelaya’s ousting but stated:
“we should not deny the people of Honduras the opportunity to benefit from a free-trade agreement with us….There is a lot of potential for them to profit from Canadian markets, in that they can export their food products to Canada…We saw this with Costa Rica, for example, or in the small Central American countries that have huge export potential, which helps the national economy, creates jobs and attracts Canadian investments. This is already going on in Honduras, but I think that a free-trade agreement will increase confidence” (House of Commons Canada, 2011).
Despite President Lobo’s relationship to the 2009 coup and gross human rights violations, House of Commons members and other Canadian officials were delighted with the new President because of his willingness to facilitate Canadian business interests. In 2011, President Lobo held an investment conference called “Honduras is Open for Business” attended by many Canadian investors (Escalera-Flexhaug, 2014). Former Canadian Ambassador to Central America Cameron Mackay published an op-ed piece in the Honduran Daily titled “Canada and Honduras, working together” where he says he is “pleased that Honduras is under the leadership of Porfirio Lobo” (Mackay, 2014).
Indeed Canadian political theorists Todd Gordon and Jeffrey Webber’s attack Canada’s veritable incongruity of words versus actions in their book “Blood of Extraction” (2016) where they the authors argue that “Canadian interests are fraught with contradiction and instability in Latin America and require state protection if they are not to be undermined. Providing such protection is the overarching goal of Canadian foreign policy in the region – whether it’s diplomatic, developmental, or security form—to ensure the successful expansion of Canadian capital in its relentless and insatiable drive for profit” (pg. 3). Herein lies the very essence of introverted political interests with little regard for the institutional development of marginalized nations.
While approaching their extractive economic interests is different, both the Americans and Canadians have remarkably similar intents, particularly after the 2009 coup.
Election Fraud in 2017
This pattern continues into the present. This November 26 in a national election for the presidency, Salvador Nasrella (Kahn 2017) challenged incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández, who National Public Radio (NPR) calls “a close U.S. ally,” After the first partial results were released, Nasralla lead by 3.3%. Immediately counting stopped for 36 hours and then resumed with paradoxically with Hernández leading, causing suspicions since Congress, controlled by Hernandez’s party, appoints the election tribunal. (“Honduras election: Opposition candidate Nasralla rejects poll count”). The Organization of American States (OAS) released a statement that “irregularities, errors and systematic problems” with the election process meant they could not be certain of the results (“OAS says Honduran vote results in doubt due to ‘irregularities'”, 2017).
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital, Tegucigalpa, to protest manipulation of the vote count (“Honduras Election”). Across social media, videos were shared of young protesters being killed or beaten by security forces. A ten-day curfew was imposed, but law enforcement ignored the curfew to join in the protest (Kahn 2017).
Despite the irregularities in the voting process, little mention is given to President Hernandez’s “Supreme Court Packed” group of individuals who overturned recent legislation on term limits enabling Hernandez to continue to remain in office (Kahn 2017). These actions were found to be egregious even to the countries that participated in this centuries-long paradigm, including the United States Department Official who advised Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Central America, Juan Gonzalez: “the electoral commission should find a way to be transparent and make sure that the O.A.S. and the E.U. have as much access as possible,” said that the final result should have “international validation,” he said (Malkin, 2017).
Equally, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, called for “all parties to resolve any disagreement peacefully, transparently, and in line with the highest democratic and human rights standards. Participatory, transparent, and credible electoral processes are cornerstones of democracy” (Government of Canada, 2017).
Centuries ago, Spanish economic structures in the name of commerce sapped economic and political potential among the Latin countries to create perpetual dependence, instability, and a permanent underclass. In North America, it was impossible for the British to coerce the indigenous to work and as a result, they were forced to complete the work themselves (Acemoglu & Robinson 2012). The British realized that it’s only option was to create economically viable institutions that incentivized investment and hard work (ibid).
U.S. and Canadian involvement in Honduras served only to advance a centuries-old structure of instability in its political economy, creating the recipe for modern institutional failure. As Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) write in their book Why Nations Fail, contrary to the political and economic stability enjoyed in the developed world, these same foreign nations (to protect their financial interests in the developing world) create a different incentive for its political leaders. Their foreign policy towards Honduras for example, prioritizing economic interests, sets a precedent for further anarchy. The Spanish colonial regime created the institutions used to exploit those who lived in the colonies, and later in history, power shifted to U.S. and Canadian interests, who then capitalized on pre-existing institutions to perpetuate this dynamic.
For centuries, Honduras and its people have been denied political transparency, accountability, and political power of, by, and for the people. As a result, these institutional weaknesses materialize into an unraveling democratic crisis. Despite their condemnation, the United States and Canada are responsible for the perpetuation of institutions that facilitate the present situation in Honduras.
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