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“It Is Not a Natural Disaster”: Dana Frank on How U.S.-Backed Coup in Honduras Fueled Migrant Crisis

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As the United States continues to face criticism for tear-gassing asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border, we look at the crisis in Honduras and why so many Hondurans are fleeing their homeland. Honduras has become one of the most violent countries in the world because of the devastating drug war and a political crisis that stems in part from a U.S.-backed 2009 coup. We speak with Dana Frank, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book is titled “The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dana Frank, your book comes at a particularly important time, as clearly the whole nation has been seeing what’s been going on at the U.S.-Mexico border with the caravan of migrants from Central America, most of them from Honduras. But there is very little discussion of what is fueling, what is forcing them to leave. And if you could talk about what has been the night of terror that has descended on Honduras, especially following the 2009 coup against President Zelaya?

DANA FRANK: Well, you know, when you read the interviews or the mainstream news reports about why the migrants in the caravan are fleeing, they’ll say, “Well, they’re fleeing gangs and violence and poverty.” And that’s true, but what’s missing from that narrative is where the gangs and violence and poverty come from. It’s not a natural disaster. It’s actually the result of the deliberate policies of this government that came to—the successive post—what we call the post-regime governments that came to power in the aftermath of the coup, most recently the illegal government of Juan Orlando Hernández.

And so, if you look at those causes, where does all the violence and the gang terror come from? It comes from this almost complete destruction of the rule of law. The coup itself was a criminal act. But it’s also that it opened the doors for every kind of conceivable criminal activity. In that context, the gangs proliferated. Drug trafficking proliferated. They’re infiltrated throughout the police and military. So you have a situation in which the government itself is implicated in these gangs and in this military that people are fleeing.

So it’s not just random violence. It’s a U.S.-backed regime that is in cahoots with this. For example, a lot of people are fleeing gangs, or small business people are—their businesses are being destroyed by gang taxes. The police are very much cooperating with the gangs in extracting those kinds of so-called war taxes that the gang members pay—excuse me, that the gang members charge. So, it’s this lawlessness that then opens the door for this kind of terror that people are fleeing, and the government is very much part of that terror.

The second factor here is poverty, because people are very much fleeing poverty. But that poverty, again, is not a natural disaster. It’s the direct result of the post-coup policies, because, first of all, the state itself has been destroyed both by neoliberal policies of multilateral development banks, like the International Monetary Fund; state services have been destroyed because the elites that run the government are just robbing it blind. For example, the president and his party stole as many as $90 million from the national health service in 2013 to pay for their campaigns, and so then there’s no national health service that functions.

But also, the sectors of the economy that are supposed to be the growth sectors are in fact the ones that are destroying the livelihoods. So, for example, palm oil production is being imposed at the point of a gun, killing—that kills campesinos who are trying to defend other forms of agriculture. Extractive mining projects and hydroelectric dams are what are forcing indigenous peoples off their land, and that’s why Berta Cáceres, the famous leader, was killed in 2016. So these things that are—tourism is forcing the Afro-indigenous Garifuna people off their land at the point of a gun. The only other functional sectors are agriculture and the maquiladora sector, which is apparel and electronics factories for the export market. And those are very, very destructive of people’s bodies, under really repressive working conditions.

So, when we hear about economic development in Honduras, it’s actually accelerating more of this destruction, along with the gang activity that is destroying small businesses, because it’s not viable to have a small business. I know a lot of small business people that have—I know of people that have been killed if they didn’t pay the taxes or they reported it to the police. So there are no other options here.

And the other piece of this is those who are trying to have an alternative economic future for Honduras, through Libre, the opposition party, through social movements at the base. These are the people that are getting tear-gassed just like at the U.S. border. These are the people that are getting assassinated. The journalists that report on this alternative vision and the people who would like some kind of democratic alternative, these people are being repressed. So that’s the other piece of this, if you’re trying to actually achieve some alternative economic model.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the repression in the countryside, because I thought that was some of the most graphic material that you have in your book about the—especially the escalation of the repression, not immediately after the coup in 2009, but in 2011, after Manuel Zelaya comes back as a result of a brokered agreement between Venezuela, the leaders of Venezuela, and Colombia, the Latin American countries, for him to come back to the country, that actually in places like the Aguán Valley, the campesinos were subjected to even greater mass repression.

DANA FRANK: Well, some of that is because the campesinos, who had these collectives that had been in place for a long time and were being forced off their land, started reoccupying land that they had been forced off of by these neoliberal policies, and particularly members of the elite, especially Miguel Facussé and his Dinant Corporation. So, as they start reoccupying their lands and following agrarian reform legal processes for reclaiming their lands, then they start being killed one by one, two by two, in what we could call a slow-moving massacre. As many as 150 campesinos have been assassinated in the Aguán Valley beginning in 2010.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Dana Frank, professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book, The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Pacificos de Tijuana. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our conversation with Dana Frank, professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book, The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.

I wanted to go back to 2009, when there was a coup in Honduras, and the democratically elected leader, the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, spoke on Democracy Now! about what happened to him.

PRESIDENT MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] They attacked my house at 5:30 in the morning. A group of at least 200 to 250 armed soldiers with hoods and bulletproof vests and rifles aimed their guns at me, fired shots, used machine guns, kicked down the doors. And just as I was, in pajamas, they put me on a plane and flew me to Costa Rica. This all happened in less than 45 minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Manuel Zelaya. Democracy Now! followed him back to Honduras after he was flown back—that brokered agreement. We flew on the plane with him from Nicaragua to Honduras. But the new regime was put in place, the coup regime—Porfirio Lobo, whose son has now been sentenced to well over 20 years in prison for drug trafficking.

And, Dana Frank, I was wondering if you can just talk about this history, that went from the Democrats—I mean, Juan, when you interviewed Hillary Clinton when she was running for president, when you were working at the Daily News, you asked her about the coup. She was not pleased. You asked her about her support, the U.S. support, for the coup when she was secretary of state. So it went from the Democrats right through to President Trump. And if you can talk about the extent of this support and why you see that linked to what we’re seeing with the migrants today? As you say, these are refugees from U.S. policy.

DANA FRANK: Well, we don’t have a smoking gun that shows the U.S. backed the coup from before it happened, but all the evidence is very clear that the U.S. wanted the coup to stabilize after it took place, that the U.S. recognized the bogus election of November 2019 [sic] that brought Porfirio Lobo to power, and that the U.S. has continued to recognize the ongoing coup regime, especially that of Juan Orlando Hernández, although he has come in—he stole—probably stole an election—we don’t really know—in 2013. He very clearly ran for president last year in violation of the Constitution, which bans re-election, and then he stole the election in November last year.

AMY GOODMAN: Against Salvador Nasralla.

DANA FRANK: Yeah, you know, against a united opposition, which very clearly won. So the U.S. has given—so it’s not just a question of the U.S. supporting the coup itself. I mean, clearly Hillary Clinton was responsible for that, but don’t forget that Barack Obama was her boss, and he’s responsible, too. But it’s not just that moment. The U.S. could have supported—recognized Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife, when she probably won the election in 2013. The U.S. could have intervened or—not intervened, excuse me—the U.S. could have protested when Juan Orlando Hernández overthrew the Supreme Court in 2012 when he was president of Congress. The U.S. could have protested when he ran for re-election. And, of course, it could have called for a new election last winter, when—or recognized the outcome of Nasralla as the winner last winter’s elections. The U.S. has given this post-coup regime green light after green light after green light.

And it’s not just Obama. It’s not just Hillary Clinton. It’s also John Kerry and now Donald Trump and his secretaries of state—Tillerson, Pompeo—John Bolton at the National Security Council, Senator Marco Rubio, who is reportedly the person advising Pompeo on U.S. policy in Honduras right now. So, this is an ongoing policy, and the Hondurans will be very quick to tell you that Juan Orlando’s regime continues because of U.S. support, not just the police and military aid which is pouring in, but this legitimization of the regime.

And if you want to see the continuities, the key figure here is General John Kelly, who was the head of the United States Southern Command out of Miami before he was chief of staff for Trump. And he very much has supported Juan Orlando Hernández. He called him a magnificent guy and a good friend. And here’s how we can see this continuity from one regime to the next.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You say that there is no smoking gun in terms of the U.S. involvement, but your book does talk about a highly unusual meeting that happened the night before the coup between the key general who led the coup and a U.S. official?

DANA FRANK: Yeah, that’s Jake Johnston’s research for The Intercept. I mean, we have a top U.S. official, the liaison to the military, I think he was, meeting with General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez the night before and then leaving a U.S. Embassy party that night and coming back. So, that’s the best we have that the U.S. knew about it. And, you know, Hillary Clinton says in her autobiography that she was at the pool in Cape Cod, and she was surprised by the phone call. And she also famously says, “We helped them with the election of 2009 make the question of Zelaya’s return moot.” And that was so outrageous that she said that, she actually took it out of the paperback edition of her autobiography.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have now a situation where you have thousands of Hondurans that are fleeing to the U.S. border. Your response to the tear gassing, which we’re going to be talking about in our next segment, of the migrants? And also Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, not the government of Peña Nieto, but the government of AMLO, of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, saying that they have agreed to wait, that the migrants should stay waiting on Mexican soil as they wait to hear their appeals, but that, in return, the U.S. government should pay at least $20 billion for a Marshall Plan-style program aimed at developing the economies of Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

DANA FRANK: Well, two things here. One is that obviously the use of the tear gas is terrifying, as is the presence of the U.S. military at the border in violation of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. So let’s mark that, as well as tear gas fired into a foreign country against terrified, starving people trying to seek legal asylum applications in the United States. So this is a terrifying, militarized response to these refugees, really, I think, so morally disturbing, and also illegal use of federal troops here, and that’s the Border Patrol shooting at it. But, I mean, this is a very terrifying militarization of our own border.

And I want to make the parallel of that to the militarization, the U.S.-funded militarization within Honduras, because now the Honduran military is also, since 2014, with the so-called crisis of undocumented, unaccompanied minors coming to the United States, the Honduran military actively stops people from leaving their own country. And these are U.S.-funded and -trained forces that are doing that. And I find this armed encirclement terrifying.

And, of course, the same tear gas, which is often manufactured in the United States, is used against peaceful protesters and bystanders in Honduras for years and years and years. You know, I have this story in the book about a friend of mine saying, in the first couple months after the 2009 coup, that he was learning to taste all the different flavors and types of tear gas that were being used against Hondurans after the coup. And this has just been going on in the last week against the protests on the anniversary of the stolen election. So, I want to underscore that there’s these militarized parallels of what’s going on in both countries.

And then this question of the $20 billion Marshall Plan. Well, I don’t know if people remember after the so-called crisis on unaccompanied children coming to the United States in 2014, the Obama administration’s response was something called the Biden Plan, promoted by Vice President Joe Biden, that wanted to give a billion dollars to the governments of the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in order to stop migration and address root causes. And if you look at that—and it was $750 million of that was eventually funded by Congress. If you look at that, it’s pouring precisely into the same security forces and sectors of the economy that are causing the very repression, the very destruction of the economy that people are fleeing.

So, when you start hearing—I mean, of course, we’re all watching to see what López Obrador is going to do in Mexico, and of course the Honduran economy does need to be rebuilt, but not according to a model run by the current U.S. government and run by the repressive regime of Juan Orlando Hernández and the Honduran elites. And that’s what’s so terrifying here, is like you pour that kind of money in, in the same model, and we’ve been down this road before, and you’re just handing money over to the elites to steal and use it to really terrorize their people over and over again at higher and higher levels.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dana Frank, one of the most interesting parts of your book is your portrayal of this enormous and widespread popular movement that develops after the coup against Zelaya. And you contrast it, and rightfully so, that back in the '80s, Honduras was a relatively quiet place, while El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala were all embroiled in major civil conflicts and uprisings and government repression. But yet Honduras, I remember being there in 1990, and it was then a terrorized state—there were military all over the place—but there wasn't the kind of popular movement that somehow developed after the coup against Zelaya. Could you talk about that and how it inspired you and shaped your own thinking of your role as an academic?

DANA FRANK: Yeah. You know, there certainly was an active left in Honduras in the ’80’s, but much smaller scale than in the other countries, and tremendously repressed by some of the figures that are currently popping up again since the coup in Honduras. You know, the Honduran resistance was, and still is, a tremendously beautiful thing that was a great surprise, although, in retrospect, you could see the social movements that were building at the grassroots in the women’s movement, the campesino movement, the indigenous movement and Afro-indigenous movement and human rights defenders.

And when the coup happened, people poured into the streets and formed this tremendous coalition called the National Front of Popular Resistance, known as the Frente or the Resistencia, which was an amazing coalition, not just of the folks I just named, but of the labor movement, the LGBT movement, but also people committed to the constitutional rule of law. It wasn’t about so-called Zelaya supporters as it was often framed, but people who were committed to a transformation, a positive transformation, of Honduras, as well as defending the constitutional rule of law, which is something that, of course, resonates differently in the United States today with Trump threatening the constitutional rule of law all over the place.

And that resistance was a very beautiful thing, and in the first chapter of my book, I wanted the reader to really feel the joy of it, both the terror and the joy, of the creativity, of the music, of the humor, the bravery, the graffiti and the way it changed Honduran culture for good and made people proud of their resistance and discovering ties across different social movements in a massive coalition of the kind that we fantasize of in the United States today.

Unfortunately, that resistance has been repressed and repressed and repressed. A lot of key figures are now in exile. People have been killed. Journalists that cover it are killed or in exile. And so it’s been also terrifying to watch that repression, but also Hondurans have that in their hearts that they know what they can do and how they could feel a beautiful sense of solidarity.

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Honduras: As Berta Cáceres Murder Trial Nears End, Will True Perpetrators Be Brought to Justice?

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