Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras
The US-backed dictatorship here in Honduras is refusing entry to foreign journalists, but you can slip in if you pass yourself off as a tourist. Nationwide protests, which have been churning for months, reached a peak on June 28—the 10th anniversary of the coup that first subverted democracy here. The regime deployed thousands of soldiers and police across this country of 9.5 million in a failed effort to intimidate pro-democracy forces.
The unpopular president, Juan Orlando Hernández, had already crossed another line on June 24, when he violated a century-old Latin American tradition of respecting university autonomy by sending soldiers onto the campus in Tegucigalpa, the capital, where they fired live ammunition at protesting students.
Teachers and health workers have been staging rolling strikes over the past two months, which include demonstrations that regularly blockade major national highways. They are protesting controversial new privatization measures that they fear will be used to carry out mass firings in their sectors.
People here blame the United States for tacitly supporting the 2009 coup, and for the theft of the November 2017 election. The opposition coalition candidate that year, Salvador Nasralla, was leading until “technical problems” interrupted the vote count. When it restarted, Hernández had somehow pulled ahead.
Despite the fraud, the United States, in the person of the senior diplomat here, Heidi Fulton, promptly accepted the election results. In return, Hernández has just awarded her the Gran Cruz (Great Cross), Honduras’s highest honor. She had become a household name here, and when she released a departure statement before moving on to her next assignment, the now-tamed local newspapers carried it at length.
Hernández also appeared the other day with a detachment of US Marines, who just happened to be here to do some “civic action.” The Pentagon maintains a permanent military base at Soto Cano, in the middle of the country, with an estimated 600-1,000 uniformed personnel stationed there.
The angry nationwide protests center around the slogan “Fuera JOH” (referring to Hernández’s initials, it means “Out with JOH”). In several days of conversations, I struggled to find anyone who still supports him. A dissident journalist observed: “Before JOH came to power, he was an ordinary middle-class lawyer. Now he’s one of the richest men in Central America.”
Meanwhile, a regular visitor will notice right away that poverty continues to get worse here, and you can quickly understand why Hondurans were the largest single Central American nationality in the refugee caravans headed north. Second-hand yellow US school buses provide much of the long-distance transit, and at every stop, up to several dozen vendors jump aboard, desperate to sell drinks, snacks, even home-cooked food. The majority of them are men of working age.
In the fields, you see campesinos planting with wooden digging sticks, forced to rely on New Stone Age technology because the government has failed to invest in modern agriculture. The power of the small oligarchy is still intact, as you can recognize every day in the newspapers’ obnoxious “Social Pages,” which glorify the lighter-skinned elite.
Crime is also still a major factor pushing Hondurans north, especially in bigger cities like San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Taxi drivers tell you they pay daily “protection” to the huge criminal gangs, called “maras.”
Yet another reason Hondurans are fleeing is hardly ever reported in the mainstream US media: the steep drop in world coffee prices. Coffee is now Honduras’s largest single export, having passed the country’s traditional product, bananas, and here in this mountainous region, everyone knows that the world arabica coffee price in New York is only $1.06 today, down from $2.99 in 2011.
Carlos Nahon Sarmiento and his family grow their high-quality specialty coffee, Café La Taza, at their local finca, where they also roast and sell it at their shop in this charming colonial town. Sarmiento said that until recently, a coffee community near their finca had 2,000 inhabitants. “In the last year or two, 600 have gone north,” he said. “They can’t pay their debts; they can’t pay school fees for their children, so they leave.”
For now, what is keeping Honduras from drowning is remittances from the migrants who have already left; you see outposts of MoneyGram everywhere. One estimate is that hard-working Hondurans in the United States and elsewhere send home 20 percent of the nation’s GDP every year.
But even this survival mechanism is at risk because of the Trump administration. There are at least 300,000 Hondurans in the United States without documentation, a number that is surely growing swiftly. Some 57,000 of them can stay for now under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which means that the secretary of Homeland Security has found they cannot be deported because they “are unable to return home safely.” Trump’s zealots are trying to end TPS (which also applies to Haiti, El Salvador, and other troubled nations). Only court cases have prevented the administration from kicking out all these people; if it wins and throws them out, that could tip Honduras and countries like it right over the edge.