Try something for me. Think of all the recent articles you’ve read, the programs you’ve watched on Central American migrants. Now think of how many times you’ve heard someone — a reporter, a news anchor, an expert— mention the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras. What’s the number? If it’s more than zero, I’d be surprised.
But that overthrow helps explain why Hondurans flee their homeland. And it succeeded with our government’s help. Bear that last point in mind. Because while pundits lament the partisanship, the tribalism ruining our political system, there’s no talk of how the two parties, working together, helped dismantle Honduran democracy.
Here’s what happened. A decade ago, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya proposed a non-binding referendum. He wanted the public to decide whether or not to revise the 1982 constitution, a relic from the country’s years of military rule. It preserved military autonomy from civilian control, for example. And it rigged the system in the elite’s favor, Zelaya believed. He felt a new charter could make the country more democratic. According to U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens, most Hondurans felt the same way: There was “55-75 percent popular support ... for the concept of being consulted” on constitutional reform.
Before dawn on June 28, 2009, the day slated for the referendum, hundreds of soldiers invaded Zelaya’s home, kidnapped him and flew him to Costa Rica.
Illicit acts on this scale need a pretext. In this case, the claim was that Zelaya, by proposing constitutional change, was really trying to win himself a second, illegal presidential term. Not that anyone really bought this story. The military lawyer advising the coup’s plotters called their act “a crime.” Llorens essentially agreed. “The fact is we have no hard intelligence suggesting any consideration by Zelaya or any members of his government to usurp democracy and suspend constitutional rule,” he wrote at the time.
So why was Zelaya toppled? The answer is simple— and unsurprising. His policies provoked people with power. Honduras is the original “banana republic,” a country with a small ruling class and an indigent majority. Zelaya seemed responsive to people and organizations working to undo that legacy. He raised the minimum wage. He ensured aging citizens received pensions. He backed land reform to protect peasants from rich ranchers after their farms. In the eyes of powerful Hondurans, these were sins.
As they were in the eyes of the U.S. government. After the coup, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced a simple choice. They could have called Zelaya’s ouster what it was: a military coup. Doing so would have immediately — dramatically — cut U.S. aid. But that never happened. Our taxpayer dollars continued flowing south. They flooded a country where, for many, life became a kind of nightmare.
People protesting their elected president’s removal were beaten. Others were killed. And it was in this climate, under government intimidation, that the next presidential election occurred in November 2009. Apart from repression, there were charges of fraud, but the U.S. recognized the winner. The same process repeated — a sham election, followed by Washington’s endorsement of the victor — in 2013 and 2017. In this regard, President Trump proved a worthy heir to Obama’s legacy.
The situation in Honduras today is not pleasant to think about. Over 70,000 people have been murdered there since 2004 — about the same number killed in El Salvador’s 1980s civil war. It’s the most dangerous country in the world for indigenous groups defending their ancestral lands from logging and agribusiness firms. Women are slain regularly, with impunity. Poverty rates have exploded since 2009, as corrupt, unaccountable officials enrich themselves at the public’s expense.
The point can’t be stressed enough: this is a despotic government we helped install, one we’ve supported for 10 years with our money. If you were living there amid the poverty, amid the bloodshed, would you stay? Or seek a new life elsewhere? The least we can do is consider these questions as Hondurans attempt to enter the U.S.
Nick Alexandrov studied U.S. foreign policy and Latin America at George Washington University. He teaches humanities at Holland Hall School.
Planning the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre history center