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“Eat, Pray, Starve”: Greg Grandin on Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton & the U.S. Role in Honduras

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On Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, delivered a prime-time speech in which he spoke about the nine months he spent with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras in 1980. To talk more about the significance of Tim Kaine’s time in Honduras, we speak with Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University. His most recent article for The Nation is headlined “Eat, Pray, Starve: What Tim Kaine Didn’t Learn During His Time in Honduras.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are “Breaking with Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.” We’re in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, covering the Democratic National Convention, inside and out, from the streets to the convention floor. On Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, delivered a prime-time speech in which he spoke about the nine months he spent with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras in 1980.

SEN. TIM KAINE: And let me tell you what really struck me there. I got a—I got a firsthand look at a different system, a dictatorship, a dictatorship, where a few people at the top had all the power, and everybody else got left out.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the significance of Senator Kaine’s time in Honduras, we’re joined by Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University. His most recent article for The Nation is headlined “Eat, Pray, Starve: What Tim Kaine Didn’t Learn During His Time in Honduras.”

Professor Grandin, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what you understand Tim Kaine did when he took a year off of Harvard Law School to go to Honduras and work with the Jesuits, through to the policies today.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, well, he spent about nine months in Honduras, in El Progreso. It’s a Jesuit mission. And he volunteered. He did pretty politically neutral work, by his own accounting. He taught carpentry and he taught welding. The Progreso mission is in the old region of the old United Fruit—the storied United Fruit Company, a lot of old company towns, banana plantation workers, former banana plantation workers. The industry in that area was already kind of in decline at that moment.

And this was a very formative period in Tim Kaine’s life, according to Tim Kaine. He calls it transformational. He said that it changed his life. It made him think more about poverty. It made him think more about social justice. And he’s used his time in Honduras—he wasn’t in—he wasn’t in political office until the late 1990s—municipal politics in Richmond, then mayor of Richmond, then he went on to be governor of Virginia and then senator. In pretty much every campaign, he’s referenced his time in Honduras.

Now, what’s interesting about that is nine months in 1980 Honduras is the equivalent of being in Weimar Germany in 1933. There was a lot going on, particularly if you were working with the Jesuits. The Jesuits were on the front lines of a lot of the changes that were taking place in Central America. There was, you know, those insurrectionary wars, those revolutionary wars. The Sandinistas won in nearby Nicaragua in 1979. Guatemala, El Salvador, there was large insurgencies. They were as much Christian as they were socialist. The rise of liberation theology, the left-wing turn within the Catholic Church that was largely driven in Latin America, had radicalized beyond just a concern for the poor, beyond just a concern for structural issues, to actually side with revolutionaries to join the revolution.

Not all Jesuits were revolutionaries. The order was, in some ways, torn by debates. It was a cauldron. There were massacres. Political repression started in Honduras. Ronald Reagan, when he won in 1980, appointed John Negroponte, who worked very closely with death squads. In Honduras, people started to disappear. There were massacres of peasants. There was the beginning of the genocide in Guatemala. So, these were very consequential years. There’s no way that he could have spent nine months in the center of this cauldron without coming away from—with the debates. And the debates within the Jesuit community, within that Jesuit mission, in particular, was: Should we side with the revolution, or should we—should we slow it down, should we be more conservative? And there were Jesuits on both sides of that debate within that mission.

And what’s interesting is that, when Kaine comes back to the United States, there’s no doubt that this had an impact on his life. There’s no doubt, when you listen to him speak about Honduras, he’s sincere. He is concerned about the country. And I think this speaks to a split in the neoliberal mind. He reduces his time in Honduras to a series of platitudes. It would be as if somebody spent nine months in Weimar Germany in 1933 and come back with the lesson that money can’t buy happiness. I mean, that’s literally what he said in one—paraphrasing something that he said in an interview on how Honduras impacted him. He was also asked how it made him think about the United States. And he said, “Well, Honduras was a dictatorship at the time, and it made me appreciate our system of government.” So, there’s a way in which the structural analysis—

AMY GOODMAN: What was the U.S. role at the time in Honduras in the coups, in the military?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, one, that dictatorship—that dictatorship that Kaine referenced was installed by the United States. It was a couple—it was many years old. It dated back to a coup that John F. Kennedy presided over after the Cuban revolution. The JFK and LBJ administrations set off a series of coups in order to contain the Cuban revolution, and Honduras was one country. So, that dictatorship can be traced back—that dictatorship that Kaine lived under could be traced back to U.S. patronage. But also, at the time, in order to stem the Contra—as a response to the Sandinista revolution, the Contra war was getting underway. Honduras was the front lines in that. Honduras, when Tim Kaine—exactly when Tim Kaine was there, was the third-largest recipient of military aid in all of Latin America. Honduras, a country with, you know, at the time, maybe 2, 3 million people. So, the U.S. was—

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we only have two minutes.


AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to bring the policy from then to here.

GREG GRANDIN: To now, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, gunmen assassinated Berta Cáceres, the well-known Honduran indigenous dissident—


AMY GOODMAN: —winner of a prestigious Goldman Prize, environmentalist. In her home, she was killed. In 2014, she spoke about Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2009 Honduran coup, and we have played that before. Of course, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time. Talk about Hillary Clinton’s role, and how now this will become a discussion, because of Tim Kaine’s experience with Honduras, as well.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, it will become a discussion, in a way, yes. Hillary Clinton helped legitimize and consolidate a coup that happened in 2009, much to the criticism of the rank and file of the Democratic Party, the left, people concerned with those issues. And during the primary, there was a lot of talk—on your show; Juan González asked her a question during his Daily News interview with her. But largely, she skated. You know, that debate was held on the margins. That the campaign is now fronting—front-and-centering Honduras is quite an audacious act, I think. Right? And transforming Honduras from a real place, in which a sharp—people like Berta Cáceres, with a sharp political analysis of U.S. policy, gets transformed into a kind of an imaginary kingdom of bromides, of feel-good uplift, hence the title, “Eat, Pray, Starve.”

The second consequences is that Tim Kaine supports free trade, and he has supported the militarization of Honduras. So, yes, quickly, while he is decent on immigration and humane on immigration, even signing a letter recently calling for a halt of the horrible deportations—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

GREG GRANDIN: —he structurally supports the policies, free trade and militarization, that produced the poverty, the violence and the immigration in Central America. So, that’s the split in the neoliberal mind that Kaine—that Tim Kaine represents.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Grandin, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of Latin American history at New York University.

And that does it for our two weeks of “Breaking with Convention.” Special thanks to our fellow Pedro Rodríguez on his final day with us. All the best to you, Pedro. I’ll be doing a report back from the conventions tonight, Friday, July 29th at Provincetown Town Hall in Massachusetts, and Saturday, July 30th, at Martha’s Vineyard Old Whaling Church. Check Democracy Now! Special thanks to the team here at PhillyCAM—Laura Deutch, Gretjen Clausing, Ryan Saunders—and to Mike Burke and Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Laura Gottesdiener, Deena Guzder, Sam Alcoff, Charina Nadura, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Elizabeth Press, John Hamilton, Denis Moynihan.

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