Root causes of forced migration from Honduras: Some background
Honduran street protest against 2009 coup | Rodrigo Abd/AP

It was my honor last week to travel with 75 delegates representing diverse religious traditions and advocacy organizations on a “Root Causes Pilgrimage” to Honduras. Sponsored by the the Bay Area-based SHARE – El Salvador and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, we spent seven days traveling throughout the country, meeting with local grassroots groups, Indigenous activists and faith leaders to learn about the root causes of forced migration—particularly those driven by U.S. policies and multinational corporate profit.

While there has been a great deal of justified attention paid to the cruel and unjust immigration system in the U.S., there has been far less public discussion of how our country contributes to the poverty, violence, and displacement that causes forced migration from Central America and other countries across the global south.

Of course empires, nations, and corporations have been colonizing and exploiting the natural resources of Central American countries for centuries. Shortly after Honduras gained its independence from Spain in 1821, U.S. corporate influence in the country began with the development of the banana industry. Over the next century, the intervention of the United and Standard Fruit companies in the politics of Honduras would usurp indigenous communal lands to trade for capital investment contracts as the fair rights of Honduran laborers were ignored and exploited. This corporate/political exploitation brought instability, misery, and poverty to the people of that country.

However, corporate exploitation is only one side of the story—the other is the courageous resistance of the Honduran people. The general strike of 1954 for instance, was a watershed moment, marking the first time in the history of that country that a private corporation was pressured to negotiate with protesters to reach a collective agreement. In the 1970s, agrarian land reform reached a peak, in which the campesinos (small farmers) were able to create farm cooperatives. This came to a halt in the 1980s when neoliberal reforms opened the way for the widespread mono-cropping of the African palm tree, which overwhelmed local farms and has created environmental havoc for the region ever since.

By the time of the coup d’état in 2009, the fortunes of Hondurans were actually starting to improve. President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, who came from the Honduran elite and belonged to one of the two traditional conservative parties, had begun to take more progressive positions, influenced by democratically elected governments that had come to power in Central America throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2009, Zelaya introduced a non-binding referendum that included the creation of a new constitutional convention that would expand the rights and power of Indigenous people, women, campesinos, and other disenfranchised populations in Honduras. The promise of Zelaya’s reforms, however, were dashed by a military coup in June 2009, encouraged by the Obama administration.

As a result of the coup, a massive popular protest movement arose throughout the nation of Honduras. Despite widespread grassroots resistance, however, the new regime was strengthened by the tacit acquiescence of the U.S. government (Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton famously refused to use the phrase “military coup,” which would have legally obligated the U.S. to stop almost all foreign aid to Honduras immediately.) A sham election in late November was likewise supported by the U.S. State Department.

Since the coup, privatization of public lands, the construction of mega-projects on Indigenous and campesino land, targeted political repression and violence have increased throughout the country. Human rights defenders, environmental activists, and others have been targeted by state repression and violence, including the March 2016 assassination of indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres.

In November of 2017, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected with overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud, and in contradiction to the Honduran constitution’s prohibition against multiple terms for presidents. In response, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans again took to the streets to defend their vote and their democracy. In turn, they were met with widespread and systematic human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearance, kidnapping, and arbitrary detention. The abuses committed by Honduran security forces that receive U.S. training and funding amount to crimes against humanity.

I’m sure at this point some readers might be glazing over this all-too-familiar litany of Central American military/corporate interventions. But this history is crucial for so many reasons, not least of which is the U.S. government’s culpability in the forced migration of Hondurans. Indeed, it is impossible to underestimate how our encouragement/acquiescence to the Honduran coup and its subsequent regime has normalized the rapid immiseration of the Honduran people and has caused so many to migrate northward.

As Professor Joseph Nevins of Vassar College has observed:

“Organized crime, drug traffickers and the country’s police heavily overlap. The frequent politically motivated killings are rarely punished. In 2017, Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization, found that Honduras was the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists.

“Although its once sky-high murder rate has declined over the last few years, the continuing exodus of many youth demonstrates that violent gangs still plague urban neighborhoods.

“Meanwhile, post-coup governments have intensified an increasingly unregulated, free-market form of capitalism that makes life unworkable for many by undermining the country’s limited social safety net and greatly increasing socioeconomic inequality. Government spending on health and education, for example, has declined in Honduras. Meanwhile, the country’s poverty rate has risen markedly. These contribute to the growing pressures that push many people to migrate.”

Editor’s note: Rabbi Rosen encourages readers to check out the links provided here, which contain critical context for the experiences to be expanded upon in future articles over the next few days and weeks.

Reprinted by permission of the author. The original posting from March 30 can be viewed here.


Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Brant Rosen

Brant Rosen is the rabbi of Tzedek Chicago, a Jewish congregation based on core values of justice, equity, and solidarity, and the Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee.