Stopgap methods won’t fix migration challenge
Migrants walk on the train tracks in Palenque, Chiapas state, Mexico, Feb. 10, 2021. When Guatemalan authorities blocked a migrant caravan last month drawing international attention, the flow of migrants might have seemed to slow down but a growing number of small groups continue to flow daily from Central America into Mexico with the goal of reaching the U.S. | Isabel Mateos / AP

The continuing press of migrants from Mexico and Central America arriving at the U.S.’ southern border has forced the Biden administration to send Vice President Kamala Harris south on a negotiating mission. According to The New York Times, “She will work with the leaders of Central American governments.” Armed with “billions of dollars,” she will seek collaboration in “reducing the violence and poverty” that predispose tens of thousands to migration.

A look at realities in Honduras and Guatemala suggests her goal won’t be easily obtained. That’s because past U.S. policies and actions in the region, interventionist and exploitative, contributed to the very life-threatening conditions Harris would be targeting. To succeed, the Biden administration must grapple with a dark legacy fashioned by the United States itself.

In Honduras presently, 62% of the population lives in poverty, 40% in deep poverty. The impact of the pandemic and of hurricanes during 2020 caused 700,000 more Hondurans to fall into poverty and 600,000 more to lose jobs. Estimates of Hondurans facing food insecurity range from 1.3 million—with 350,000 close to starvation—to 2.9 million.

Journalist Giorgio Trucchi recently cataloged other hazards of Honduran life. He cites at least 2,000 attacks on defenders of human rights in 2016-17, 278 murders of women in 2020, 86 journalists killed over two decades, 372 killings of members of the LGBTQ community over 10 years, and a 12.5% GDP loss in 2018 ascribed to corruption.

As of September 2020, 2.8 million Guatemalans were “severely food insecure. Now 80% of Guatemala’s Indigenous population are malnourished, and 59% of Guatemalans live in poverty. According to the World Food Program, “The number of households that did not have enough to eat during COVID-19 nearly doubled in Guatemala compared to pre-pandemic numbers. In Honduras, it increased by more than 50 percent.”

That agency indicated that “hunger in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua has increased…from 2.2 million people in 2018 to close to 8 million people in 2021—a result of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and years of extreme climate events.” Now, “nearly 15% of people surveyed by WFP in January 2021 said that they were making concrete plans to migrate.”

U.S. political leaders have long turned a blind eye to the suffering. The governments of Honduras and Guatemala win points with the U.S. by welcoming multinational corporations and repressing leftist political movements.

Honduras—Hub for U.S.’ regional domination

Officials in Washington have put Honduras, in particular, to good use over the decades. The country is a transfer point for illicit drugs heading north, thus it was a natural regional center for the U.S.’ “war on drugs.” The Soto Cano airbase was also ground zero for U.S. support in the 1980s for Contra mercenaries fighting Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. That base, where 1,500 U.S. troops are stationed today, remains the hub of U.S. military operations in the country and farther afield.

President Manuel Zelaya was advancing progressive reforms in Honduras in the early part of the new century, that is, until June 29, 2009, when a military coup deposed him. U.S. interventionists played a role. The plane transporting Zelaya from Tegucigalpa to Costa Rico stopped at the Soto Cano base. And Secretary of State Hilary Clinton knew beforehand what was happening, but took no action.

Corruption and criminality took over after the coup. The drug-dealing activities of President Porfirio Lobo, winner of a low-turnout election shortly after the coup, recently came to light. Analyst Karen Spring explains that a drug cartel financed Lobo’s campaign; that Lobo reciprocated by arranging for foreign agencies to finance developmental ventures; and that he, along with family members, fixed it so that drug money was laundered through projects like mining operations, hydroelectric works, highways, and other energy-related initiatives.

In 2019, a U.S. court convicted drug trafficker Juan Antonio Hernández. His brother is Juan Orlando Hernández, Lobo’s successor as Honduran president. Citing evidence from other trials, The New York Times recently suggested that Juan Orlando is “a key player in Honduras’ drug-trafficking industry [and] that formal charges against Mr. Hernández himself may not be far away.”

Guatemala—Generations of genocide

Guatemala’s recent history set the stage for another anti-people government. A 36-year war pitting leftist guerrillas against military forces led by U.S.-trained officers and assisted by the CIA led to the deaths of 200,000 people. Most of them were poor, rural, and Indigenous.

In 2019, lawyer and activist Jennifer Harbury lamented that “so many of the high-level Guatemalan intelligence leaders of that era, who were trained in the School of the Americas and who served as CIA paid informants [became] involved in the drug trade and … started their own cartels… And they’re devouring the country using the same techniques of torture and the terror that they used before. Once again, everyone is roaring north.”

According to, “Guatemala’s market democracy” was founded on “genocidal violence that murdered successive generations of political leaders.”

The peace process itself led to “neoliberal policies of resource extraction, free trade, and privatization” with the result of “poverty, landlessness, decrepit institutions.”

The Harris mission

Harris, the U.S. vice president, deserves a little sympathy. She and the Biden administration do get credit for recognizing that migrants from Central America are running for their lives. But as she confers with politicians in the region, her hands may be tied.

Her negotiating partners understand the rules of international capitalism: loan payments must continue, labor has to remain cheap, and natural resources have to be kept available for plundering. Her government and theirs have long operated on a couple of key premises: one, “money talks,” and two, satisfaction of human needs is provisional.

Harris’s mission thus embodies a contradiction. The current administration wants to fix a migration problem that has its roots in capitalism and imperialism. But truly tackling it would require a betrayal of basic capitalist economic assumptions. So failing that, what can be achieved?

The pressure is on to find out.

News item, March 30: “A new migrant caravan began to form Monday night (March 29) in the Honduran city San Pedro Sula … Hundreds of citizens have gathered at the main bus terminal to organize and begin the new mobilization.”

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article represents the opinion of its author.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.