When tens of thousands of Central American migrant children streamed across the US-Mexico border last year, some in this country received them as refugees fleeing violence and poverty; others demonized the “invasion” from the south with bigoted panic. What many overlooked was that these “unaccompanied minors” weren’t just coming in search of new homes—they were actually sent; their migration had been sponsored by some of the biggest corporations in the hemisphere.
A new report from the AFL-CIO examines the migrant influx in the context of global trade programs, tracing the the migration from one key “trading partner,” Honduras, back to the chaos wrought by years of transborder economic exploitation. Labor activists say that as the United States exports misery to the south, “free trade” has plunged a generation of youth into free fall.
While free-trade deals are routinely criticized in the US for promoting the outsourcing of “American jobs,” according to the research of a union-led delegation to Honduras, the trade system is systematically undermining democracy in the Latin American nations Washington has sought to control for decades through commercial exploitation and political coercion.
Honduras presents a case study in how the regime of free trade steels the corporate dominion that is both cause and effect of Latin America’s violence and oppression. One major factor is the 2009 coup that ousted the populist Zelaya government—a right-wing plot clandestinely supported by the Obama administration—and ushered in a wave of regressive economic policies in rural and industrial sectors and intensified corruption.
…since the 2009 coup, the ruling governments have failed to respect worker and human rights or create decent work, and instead have built a repressive security apparatus to put down dissent. Numerous trade unionists and community activists who participated in resistance to the coup were killed, beaten, threatened and jailed.
While many factors have contributed to this instability, according to the report, exploitative trade has helped embolden the government’s impunity, in turn driving the brutality and displacement that sends countless families to seek refuge in the north. The current crises facing Honduran society emanate from direct political suppression as well as the economic turmoil under the massive Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).
CAFTA-DR was sold to lawmakers as a boon for US trade with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. And indeed, bilateral trade has boomed in recent years. But the cost is outsourced to workers tethered to the neoliberal export-economy model, in which multinationals have systematically weakened trade and regulatory protections. So far, the free market has allowed an estimated 70 percent of employers to violate minimum-wage and overtime standards. Meanwhile, the pauperization of Honduras’s rural sector has led to widespread displacement of small farmers.