It’s Not Just Covid That Has Hondurans Starving. It’s Also U.S. Policy.

On the roots of the Honduran hunger crisis.

Meghan KrauschJune 22, 2020

A soldier of the Honduran presidential guard disinfects shopping carts outside a supermarket during a break of the curfew imposed by the government against the spread of the new coronavirus, in Tegucigalpa, on March 19, 2020. (Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)

The spread of Covid-19 is ter­ri­fy­ing in Hon­duras, where the health­care sys­tem has been dec­i­mat­ed by cor­rup­tion and defund­ing. But when I talked to con­tacts in Hon­duras, the first con­cern on their mind was hunger. Hon­duran human rights lawyer Prisi­la Alvara­do Euce­da tells me at this point,” peo­ple in Hon­duras are suf­fer­ing a famine.” Alvara­do says that dur­ing the three months that Hon­duras has restrict­ed move­ment at gun­point based on iden­ti­ty card num­ber — includ­ing trips to gro­cery stores, phar­ma­cies and work — many peo­ple have not received any food from the state.” Melisa Mar­tinez is an orga­niz­er with the Black Fra­ter­nal Orga­ni­za­tion of Hon­duras (OFRANEH), in anoth­er part of the coun­try: Pun­ta Gor­da, Roatán, Melisa Mar­tinez. She tells me, The hunger, in my view, is fatal.”

Hunger is no more a product of natural forces than the palm plantations that have replaced the bananas along the northern coast.

Hon­duras has been under strict lock­down since March. This has meant almost total restric­tion of poor people’s abil­i­ty to go out and seek work, while the wealthy and peo­ple con­nect­ed to the cur­rent gov­ern­ment seem able to flout the order at will. As in the Unit­ed States, shel­ter-in-place orders have not been accom­pa­nied by robust social pro­grams to ensure that peo­ple are able to eat and pay rent while stay­ing at home. In a coun­try where 48.3% of peo­ple live in pover­ty, includ­ing 16.5% who live in what is con­sid­ered extreme pover­ty,” and more than 70% rely on work in the infor­mal sec­tor, the effects of the lock­down for ordi­nary Hon­durans have been dev­as­tat­ing. If we don’t die of Covid, we will die of hunger,” Alberti­na López Mel­gar, one of the gen­er­al coor­di­na­tors of the Broad Move­ment for Dig­ni­ty and Jus­tice (MADJ) tells me.

Yet hunger is no more a prod­uct of nat­ur­al forces than the palm plan­ta­tions that have replaced the bananas along the north­ern coast. From ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion on behalf of banana com­pa­nies to recent sup­port for a right-wing coup, the U.S. neo­colo­nial rela­tion­ship with Hon­duras has a direct hand in dri­ving hunger and pover­ty. Despite the con­text of risk, orga­niz­ers are step­ping in to fill the gaps, mod­el­ing pow­er­ful forms of food secu­ri­ty and sov­er­eign­ty in the midst of tremen­dous hard­ship. López points to the fact that Pres­i­dent Juan Orlan­do Hernán­dez had mil­lions of Hon­duran lem­pi­ras allo­cat­ed for aid to cit­i­zens dur­ing the lock­down at his dis­pos­al, yet the peo­ple have received nei­ther food nor med­i­cine. She put it this way: The peo­ple have received noth­ing, and when they go out to protest for food what they receive is repres­sion.” In a sep­a­rate inter­view, Alvara­do, a lawyer and mem­ber of a group of women defend­ers of envi­ron­men­tal and human rights in El Pro­gre­so, Yoro, high­light­ed that the Unit­ed States has con­sis­tent­ly been impli­cat­ed in bankrolling and man­u­fac­tur­ing the weapons used to repress Hon­durans who take to the streets demand­ing their rights, includ­ing in recent demon­stra­tions for food.

Argu­ing that the basic struc­ture of the Hon­duran econ­o­my remains the same since the days of the pow­er­ful banana com­pa­nies, Corie Welch, coor­di­na­tor of the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Col­lec­tive Hon­duras Pro­gram, says, This cre­ation and per­pet­u­a­tion of pover­ty in Hon­duras has led to mas­sive amounts of hunger in Hon­duras and this is inten­tion­al — it’s not some­thing that hap­pened by chance.”

The orig­i­nal banana republic

Forty-nine years ago, Uruguayan nov­el­ist Eduar­do Galeano wrote, The Koran men­tions the banana among the trees of par­adise, but the bananiza­tion’ of Guatemala, Hon­duras, Cos­ta Rica, Pana­ma, Colom­bia and Ecuador sug­gests that it is a tree of hell.” In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, Unit­ed Fruit (now Chiq­ui­ta) received mil­i­tary assis­tance from the Unit­ed States to steal pub­lic land and install a more U.S.-friendly gov­ern­ment in Hon­duras. O. Hen­ry, author of The Gift of the Magi,” coined a term for sup­pos­ed­ly unsta­ble coun­tries gov­erned by proxy by the Unit­ed States: the banana republic.”

Point­ing to one con­tin­u­a­tion of this lega­cy, Welch says, You see that with the 2009 coup, the Nation­al Par­ty has expand­ed con­ces­sions on min­ing and mega projects.” Welch is refer­ring to the 2009 coup in Hon­duras, dur­ing which the cur­rent­ly rul­ing Nation­al Par­ty took pow­er in moves con­demned inter­na­tion­al­ly yet sup­port­ed by the Unit­ed States. This coup was fol­lowed by two oth­er soft coups,’ includ­ing an elec­toral fraud in 2017, through which the Nation­al Par­ty has main­tained pow­er. Through­out this peri­od, cur­rent pres­i­dent Juan Orlan­do Hernán­dez has fig­ured promi­nent­ly, includ­ing in sev­er­al drug traf­fick­ing and cor­rup­tion scan­dals. One of the first acts of the coup gov­ern­ment in 2009 was to approve a flood of land con­ces­sions. Welch notes that after the coup, you see a big eco­nom­ic change, and that’s in favor of U.S. cor­po­ra­tions. And the same hap­pens in 2017 with the elec­toral fraud.”

Welch under­scores that there is a long his­tor­i­cal lega­cy of pri­or­i­tiz­ing eco­nom­ic wealth over human rights in Hon­duras,” and adds that Hon­durans who push for food sov­er­eign­ty or just their own auton­o­my, whether it be in how they make their own food or how they sur­vive day to day with alter­na­tive economies, are being repressed by the gov­ern­ment itself which is using mon­ey from the Unit­ed States to do that.”

Welch is echoed by Alvara­do, who holds the Unit­ed States respon­si­ble for maintain[ing] these types of gov­ern­ments like the nar­co-dic­ta­tor­ship of Juan Orlan­do Hernán­dez, who in addi­tion to being despot­ic, is a mur­der­ous gov­ern­ment … and the Unit­ed States knows this. … And we also know that the Unit­ed States sends a good amount of mon­ey to main­tain the repres­sive bod­ies in Hon­duras, like the Hon­duran army, this army that goes out to the streets to kill the Hon­duran peo­ple.” Appar­ent­ly, sov­er­eign­ty is still bad for business.

The fight for sovereignty

I’ll be back and we will be mil­lions” were the last words of the anti-colo­nial hero Túpac Amaru II at his exe­cu­tion by the Span­ish in 1781. In Hon­duras, these words often accom­pa­ny the image of Indige­nous leader Berta Cáceres, who has become a nation­al hero since her mur­der in 2016 for defend­ing a sacred riv­er from the impo­si­tion of a hydro­elec­tric dam. Aure­lia Arzu, anoth­er OFRANEH com­mu­ni­ty leader in San­ta Rosa de Aguán, Colón, reflects on the dan­ger­ous cir­cum­stances for activists, espe­cial­ly the Afro-Indige­nous Garí­fu­na peo­ple in post-coup Hon­duras, who strug­gle for sov­er­eign­ty and auton­o­my. Recall­ing the many Garí­fu­na com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers assas­si­nat­ed last year, Arzu told me that she did not want to be just one more sta­tis­tic in this coun­try… killed for defend­ing what’s right­ful­ly ours.” Despite hos­tile cir­cum­stances and sig­nif­i­cant per­son­al dan­ger, each of the women I spoke with are engaged in heal­ing and life-sav­ing com­mu­ni­ty work to rec­ti­fy the fail­ure of what they all refer to as the failed narco-state.

Alberti­na López tells me that MADJ is work­ing on a food sov­er­eign­ty project. This is a project we already had going as an orga­ni­za­tion, a pro­pos­al to cre­ate sov­er­eign­ty for our­selves with dig­ni­ty,” she says. Across MADJ’s three anti-extrac­tion encamp­ments in Pajuiles, Jil­ami­to and San Fran­cis­co de Locoma­pa, mem­bers have plant­ed corn, beans, yuca and plan­tains, with the inten­tion to swap once the crops are har­vest­ed. One crop of yuca has already been shared.

In El Pro­gre­so, Prisi­la Alvara­do and her com­pañeras have formed two com­mu­ni­ty kitchens for kids. Locat­ed in sec­tors of the city that are total­ly mar­gin­al­ized by the munic­i­pal author­i­ties,” they feed the chil­dren so that the par­ents can at least have a lit­tle bit of calm, and the kids can at least have one or two meals a day.” Alvara­do and her group of women defend­ers work with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and friends to raise the resources and buy the basics, feed­ing 90 chil­dren a day in one of the kitchens.

The many Afro-Indige­nous Garí­fu­na com­mu­ni­ties orga­nized with OFRANEH have built on their exist­ing base to insu­late each oth­er from the hunger. Arzu says they too are grow­ing their own food, and that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers young and old are recon­nect­ing to every­thing our ances­tors did.” Tania Iden, in Corozal, Atlán­ti­da, tells me that they are doing home vis­its (espe­cial­ly to old­er peo­ple), mak­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing masks, mak­ing hand san­i­tiz­er, mak­ing an immu­ni­ty-boost­ing tea, hand­ing out food rations, and run­ning clin­ics for vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. These respons­es are echoed by women from many OFRANEH com­mu­ni­ties, who sound remark­ably empow­ered dur­ing such a dire time.

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