Stopgap Methods Won’t Fix Migration Challenge, by Tom Whitney

The continuing press of migrants from Mexico and Central America arriving at the U.S. southern border has forced the Biden administration to send Vice President Kamala Harris south on a negotiating mission. According to The New York Times, “She will work with the leaders of Central American governments.” Armed with “billions of dollars,” she will seek collaboration in  “reducing the violence and poverty” that predispose to migration.

A look at realities in Honduras and Guatemala suggests her goal is unattainable.  That’s because past U.S. policies and actions in the region, interventionist and exploitative, contributed to the very life-threatening conditions Harris is targeting. To succeed, the Biden administration must grapple with a dark legacy fashioned by the United States itself.

In Honduras presently, 62 percent of the population live in poverty, 40 percent in deep poverty. The impact of the pandemic and of hurricanes during 2020 caused 700,000 more Hondurans to fall into poverty and 600,000 more to lose jobs. Estimates of Hondurans facing food insecurity range from 1.3 million – with 350,000 close to starvation – to   2.9 million.

Journalist Giorgio Trucchi recently catalogued other hazards of Honduran life. He cites at least 2000 attacks on defenders of human rights in 2016-2017, 278 murders of women in 2020, 86 journalists killed over two decades, 372 killings of members of the LGBTQ community over 10 years, and a 12.5 percent GDP loss in 2018 ascribed to corruption.

As of September, 2020, 2.8 million Guatemalans were “severely food insecure. Now 80 percent of Guatemala’s indigenous population are malnourished, and 59 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty. According to the World Food Program, “The number of households that did not have enough to eat during COVID-19 nearly doubled in Guatemala compared to pre-pandemic numbers. In Honduras, it increased by more than 50 percent.”

That agency indicated that, “Hunger in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua has increased … from 2.2 million people in 2018 to close to 8 million people in 2021 – a result of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and years of extreme climate events.” Now, “nearly 15 percent of people surveyed by WFP in January 2021 said that they were making concrete plans to migrate.”

U.S. political leaders have turned a blind eye to the suffering. The two governments win points by welcoming multinational corporations and repressing leftist political movements.  All three governments are fine with a worldwide economic system featuring support for healthcare, schools, and pensions; freedom for corporations; and the selling-off of public assets. 

Officials in Washington put Honduras to good use. The country is a transfer point for illicit drugs heading north, with the result that Honduras is a regional center for drug-war activities. The Soto Cano U.S. airbase was ground zero for U.S. support in the 1980s for Contra mercenaries fighting Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. That base, where 1500 U.S. troops are stationed, is the hub of U.S. military operations in the country and farther afield.

President Manuel Zelaya was advancing progressive reforms, that is, until June 29, 2009, when a military coup deposed him. U.S. interventionists played a role.  The plane transporting Zelaya from Tegucigalpa to Costa Rico stopped at the Soto Cano base. And, according to Wikileaks, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton knew beforehand what was happening, but took no action.

Corruption and criminality took over after the coup. The drug-dealing activities of President Porfirio Lobo, winner of a low-turnout election shortly after the coup, recently came to light. Analyst Karen Spring explains that a drug cartel financed Lobo’s campaign; that Lobo reciprocated by arranging for foreign agencies to finance developmental ventures; that he, along with family members, fixed it so that drug money was laundered through projects like mining operations, hydroelectric works, highways, and other energy-related initiatives.

In 2019, a U.S. court convicted Juan Antonio Hernández of drug-trafficking. His brother is Juan Orlando Hernández, who is Lobo’s successor as Honduras’s president. Citing evidence from other trials, The New York Times recently suggested that Juan Orlando is “a key player in Honduras’ drug-trafficking industry [and] that formal charges against Mr. Hernández himself may not be far away.”

Guatemala’s recent history set the stage for another anti-people government.  A 36-year war pitting leftist guerrillas against military forces led by U.S.-trained officers and assisted by the CIA led to the deaths of 200,000 people. Most of them were poor, rural, and indigenous.

In 2019, lawyer and activist Jennifer Harbury lamented that “so many of the high-level Guatemalan intelligence leaders of that era, who were trained in the School of the Americas and who served as CIA paid informants [became] involved in the drug trade and … started their own cartels… And they’re devouring the country using the same techniques of torture and the terror that they used before. Once again, everyone is roaring north.”

According to nacla.org, “Guatemala’s market democracy” was founded on “genocidal violence that murdered successive generations of political leaders.” The peace process itself led to “neoliberal policies of resource extraction, free trade, and privatization” with the result of “poverty, landlessness, decrepit institutions.”

The U.S. Vice President deserves a little sympathy. She and the Biden Administration do get credit for recognizing that migrants from Central America are running for their lives. But as she confers with Central American politicians, her hands are tied.

Her negotiating partners understand the rules of international capitalism: loan payments are continued, labor is cheap, natural resources are plundered. Her government and theirs operate on the premise, one, that “money talks” and, two, that satisfaction of human needs is provisional.

Vice President Harris embodies a contradiction. She wants to fix a migration problem due mostly to capitalism. But to do so, she must betray basic capitalist assumptions.

The pressure is on. News item, March 30: “A new migrant caravan began to form Monday night (March 29) in the Honduran city San Pedro Sula … Hundreds of citizens have gathered at the main bus terminal to organize and begin the new mobilization.”