Early in Hillary Clinton’s primary contest against Bernie Sanders, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous environmental leader in Honduras, was murdered by a coup regime that Clinton, as secretary of state, helped consolidate in power. Apart for one quick statement denying any wrongdoing—“simply nonsense,” a spokesman said of the charges that Clinton was in anyway responsible for Cáceres’s killing—the Clinton campaign largely ignored the issue. As far as I know, the only journalist who asked Clinton directly about Honduras was Juan González, during Clinton’s interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News. Clinton provided a wordy and vague answer. She admitted that the situation was bad, that activists were being slaughtered, but insisted that at the time she “managed a very difficult situation, without bloodshed, without a civil war, that led to a new election. And I think that was better for the Honduran people.” For the most part, criticism of Clinton on Honduras largely stayed on the margins of the primary process, even as the killing in Honduras continued and evidenced mounted that Washington was once again was funding old-school death squads (see the invaluable investigation by Annie Bird).
Now, having beat back that part of the Democratic rank-and-file that cares about dead feminist activists in small Third World countries, the Clinton campaign has gone full Sun Tzi, turning its Honduran weak point into a strength, or, à la Karl Rove, its vulnerability into a virtue.
In picking Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate, the campaign has front-and-centered Honduras—not as a victim of Clinton’s realpolitik neoliberalism but as a sacred space of healing poverty.
Kaine, a Catholic, spent nine months in Honduras, from 1980 to 1981, in the Jesuit mission in El Progreso, very close to the company towns and plantations of the storied multinational banana company, United Fruit.
The sojourn, Kaine says, changed his life. Honduras “was really the turning point in my life. I was at Harvard Law School and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And I took a year off and worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras,” Kaine told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “Every day I think of the lessons I learned from my friends there,” Kaine said elsewhere. The experience, he says, set him on his life’s journey to fight for social justice. Honduras “made him who he is,” said Kaine’s mother, Kathleen.
As soon as Clinton announced her pick, the liberal press converged, following the Clinton campaign’s talking points that spun Kaine as a progressive. “A Pope Francis Catholic.” Fine. To be expected. But that Honduras—Honduras!—is being highlighted as the beginning of Kaine’s conversion narrative truly is audacious.
Kaine, then 22 years old, showed up in Honduras during an especially consequential moment. The country in 1980 was quickly turning into the crossroads of Cold War. A year earlier, next door, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas had won their revolution. Father James Carney, a Chicago-born Jesuit priest who was executed in Honduras in 1983, recalled the moment in the Spanish-version of his memoir (published in English as To Be a Revolutionary): “If Nicaragua won, El Salvador could win, and then Guatemala, and then Honduras could win.” Carney said that in early 1980, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, himself soon to executed, had declared that all conditions had been met for Christians to join the revolution: Life had become intolerable; all non-violent avenues of reform had been tried and failed; and, considering the misery in which most people lived, it would have been impossible for the revolution to produce injustices worse than those that already existed. “The popular war for liberation in Central America was one single war,” Carney wrote.
At the same time, CIA operatives quietly began to move into the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa’s discreet Hotel Alameda, and began setting up the paramilitary network that would execute the Contra war against Nicaragua, a war that would claim 50,000 lives and lay the Sandinista revolution to waste. CIA agents also began to work closely with Honduras’s security forces, which began their campaign of political disappearances in late 1979. On January 31, 1980, Guatemalan security forces firebombed the Spanish embassy, killing dozens of peasant protestors, including Rigoberta Menchú’s father, an atrocity that inaugurated a three-year genocidal campaign that would claim hundreds of thousands of Mayan lives. In March 1980, Monsignor Romero was murdered. Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, and appointed John Negroponte ambassador to Honduras. Negroponte, who later in his diplomatic career would move on to larger operations in Iraq, helped cover up the activities of Battalion 316, a death squad that disappeared scores of Hondurans. On May 14, 1980, Salvador’s National Guard, along with a paramilitary unit, slaughtered at least 300 people trying to flee into Honduras across the Sumpul River. On December 11, 1981, the United States trained Atlacatl Battalion massacred upward of 900 people in the remote Salvador village of El Mozote. Throughout the region, including in Honduras, “multinational ‘hunter-killer’ squads on the Condor model” began claiming victims. Thousands of refugees, from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, poured into Honduras.
It was into this whirlwind that young Tim Kaine flung himself on his voyage of self-discovery.
The Jesuit order was on the front lines of Central America’s political upheaval. By no means were most Jesuits left wing, but many, perhaps the majority, were at least broadly committed to what was called the “social gospel.” Some, like Father Carney in Honduras and Fernando Hoyos in Guatemala, committed themselves to the revolution and gave their lives. Others were more intellectual, deciding to master worldly knowledge, obtaining advanced degrees in political science, economics, sociology, history, psychology, and anthropology, and then use that knowledge to work for social justice. The most well-known among this group were the six Jesuits who would be executed in San Salvador in 1989 by the Atlacatl Battalion (the same US-trained battalion that committed the El Mozote massacre).
By the time Kaine arrived in Honduras, the Jesuit mission in El Progreso was focusing its work on labor issues and the welfare of plantations laborers and their families. Jeff Boyer, an anthropologist who did fieldwork in rural Honduras around the time Kaine was in El Progreso, tells me that the Jesuits “consistently endeavored to be thorn in the side” of the company, they had “no qualms going after United Fruit.” Boyer recalls a split among Honduras’s “North Coast Jesuits,” caused by, on the one hand, the rise of left-wing Liberation Theology and, on the other, the 1979 investiture of Pope John Paul II, a theological conservative who actively worked to weaken Liberation Theology in Latin America. According to Boyer, the US Jesuits in Honduras tended to be more conservative, while younger Latin American and European Jesuits “consistently held democratic socialist positions.” (The one exception to this was Father Carney.)
In interviews, Kaine says his mentor in El Progreso was Father Jarrell “Patricio” Wade—known as Padre Patricio—a Jesuit who spent nearly his whole life ministering in Honduras and who passed away there in 2014 at the age of 81. By all accounts, Wade was a decent, caring, and well-liked cleric—a “bear of a man,” remembers Boyer—but his ethics were more pastoral than political. Father Carney says that Wade blamed his political work with peasants for provoking the growing repression against priests. A “traditional Jesuit,” remembers Boyer, unable to see the need for structural change.
Kaine was in Honduras for nine months (though two-year commitments for US volunteers were the standard for Jesuits). Mary Jo McConahay, a journalist with longtime experience in Central America, told me that it is “notable that Kaine’s work is being described as ‘missionary,’ as if fishing for converts, when it was anything but.” According to his own account, he provided politically neutral technical training, helping with a program that taught carpentry and welding. Yet, as Boyer tells me, “if Tim Kaine was working as a Jesuit volunteer in 1980, he could not have avoided become immersed in these socio-religious, political currents and cross-currents. He would have been exposed to both conservative and generally more left and activist work of his hosts and mentors.”
Kaine, in other words, had found himself in the cauldron of the Cold War. “It was hot,” Boyer remembers of the Jesuit debates over what the proper course of action should be.
None of this, however, comes across in anything Kaine says about his time in Honduras. Kaine didn’t run for public office until the 1990s, so there is no public record of what his opinion was of the Contra war, or the Guatemalan genocide, or the 1989 murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador, or what his Honduran mentors thought of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to neutralize Liberation Theology. Rather, Kaine, who has been talking about his time in Honduras at least since the early 2000s, when he was mayor of Richmond, uses his nine-month stay as a kind of platitudinous catch-all, to prove he is a true Christian to Virginia conservatives, to court the Latino vote, and, now, to convince rank-and-file Democrats he’s a progressive.
Recently, in a C-SPAN interview, Kaine was asked what he learned about “America” during his time in genocidal, insurgent, impoverished, revolutionary, counterrevolutionary, priest- and peasant-killing Central America in 1980–81. “Happiness is not that correlated with wealth,” he said; and, since Honduras was a “dictatorship.… It really taught me about things that we take for granted here…having a government that is the rule of the law.”
That dictatorship was created and maintained by the United States, a fact lost in Kaine’s uplift. Here’s a report from NACLA from 1981: “Honduras almost outdoes the stereotype of a banana republic. The vast plantations run by United Fruit (now United Brands) envelop the countryside, while Honduras is second only to Haiti in per capita poverty. It has seen 150 governments in 160 years, and spent the last 18 under military rule.” It should be noted that that 18-year dictatorship was installed by the Kennedy administration, in a coup, one of many in Latin America brokered by Washington following the Cuban Revolution. In 1980, exactly the moment Kaine landed in El Progreso, Honduras “was the second largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance to Latin America, despite a sparse population of three million. It has received $3.5 million in military aid since April 1980, with $10.7 million projected for fiscal 1982.” Happiness, indeed, is not that correlated with wealth—or at least the wealth that comes in the form of military aid from Washington.
One story that Kaine likes to tell—and he’s been telling it for a decade now, through his runs for Virginia governor and senator, and may again this Wednesday in his acceptance speech—is how he once tried to refuse a gift of food from a family with four, malnourished children. Padre Patricio accepted the food, and when Kaine asked how the Jesuit could take food from the needy, Patricio told him: “Tim, you really have to be humble to accept a gift with food from a family that poor.” Kaine say he has “not forgotten the lesson.”
All this Christian charity would be fine, had Kaine, during his time in public office, especially as senator, taken political action to help make food less expensive in Honduras. But he supports NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Though he wasn’t in the Senate yet to vote on those treaties, he says anyone opposed to free trade exhibits a “loser’s mentality.” So while Kaine is decent on immigration, and has signed on a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for an investigation into Berta Cáceres’s death, he has consistently supported economic and security policies that drive immigration and contribute to the kind of repression that killed Cáceres.
CAFTA has been an unmitigated disaster for the peasants Tim Kaine thinks about every day. It has flooded local markets with cheap agroindustry-produced corn and other products, leading to a collapse in the price of locally grown food stuff and a rise in the cost of food in general. Malnutrition increased under CAFTA, and, during some acute periods, so did starvation. The trade treaty makes it difficult, if not impossible, for local governments to impose regulations on certain industries, like mining. A recent report issued by Congress’ Progressive Caucus concluded that “free trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have led to the displacement of workers and subsequent migration from these countries.”
In Honduras, extreme poverty has increased since CAFTA has gone into effect, as has political repression, especially following the 2009 coup. Kaine, as far as I can tell, has said nothing about that coup (his beloved Jesuits condemned it in no uncertain terms). Watching Kaine talk about Honduras, he does seem troubled by the country’s poverty and political repression. But, like most neoliberal politicians, he disassociates in his political rhetoric the trade and security policies he votes for from the catastrophic consequences of those policies. As I wrote elsewhere about Clinton’s Latin American policies, “there’s no violence caused by over-militarization that more militarization can’t solve. There’s no poverty caused by ‘free trade’ that more ‘free trade’ can’t solve.”
Kaine helps the Clinton campaign transform Honduras from a real place, engaged in political struggle, into an imaginary kingdom of banality. The sharp political and economic analysis of someone like Berta Cáceres, who before her death named Hillary Clinton and US policy as responsible for Honduras’s terror regime, is converted into the virtues of anonymous poor people offering up their ever-more-costly (thanks to CAFTA) food as a life lesson in humility. It’s a neoliberal Eat, Pray, Love. Or, better, Eat, Pray, Starve.