by Todd Gordon
On Friday Aug. 12, Stephen Harper became the first foreign leader to visit Honduras and meet with President Porfirio Pepe Lobo since the country was readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS) June 1. This shouldn’t be a point of pride for Canada, however; it reflects a very dangerous and problematic feature of the Conservative government’s foreign policy in Latin America.
Honduras was kicked out of the OAS after the June 28, 2009, military coup that removed from power the democratically elected but moderately left-of-centre president, Manuel Zelaya. The coup was followed immediately by an intense campaign of repression against anti-coup activists waged by the military, police and death squads, echoing the dark days of the Central American dirty wars in the 1980s.
Harper’s visit, during which he announced the completion of the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, is the culmination of the Canadian government’s strenuous efforts to deepen political and economic ties with the post-coup Lobo government following its election on Nov. 28, 2009. The Harper government has been building its relationship with Lobo in spite of international criticism of the ongoing human rights abuses in the impoverished country.
Harper, former minister of state for the Americas Peter Kent and former and current Canadian ambassadors to Honduras have all sung the praises of the Lobo government. They portray it sanguinely as one of national reconciliation and a return to democratic normalcy. But this is nowhere near the truth of what is happening in Honduras. Indeed, as a leading Honduran human rights organization, the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras(Committee of the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, COFADEH) has argued, the human rights situation was actually worse during the first year of the Lobo government than it was immediately following the coup during the dictatorship of Roberto Micheletti.
During Lobo’s first year in power (January 2010-January 2011) there were at least 34 targeted assassinations of activists within the Resistance Front (COFADEH also notes over 300 suspicious deaths of people associated with the resistance), 34 killings of peasant activists involved in land struggles, 10 politically motivated murders of journalists (leading Reporters Without Borders to declare Honduras to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists in 2010), and 31 slayings of members of the LGBT community, many of whom were associated with the resistance.
Not surprisingly, anti-coup activists scoff at the idea that the Lobo regime represents the return of democracy. They suggest instead that it represents the consolidation of the coup — with key coup actors, such as military leader Gen. Romeo Vásquez, rewarded with important economic and political positions — under the shallow veneer of democracy. There have been no charges made in any cases of political assassination.
But the veneer is good enough for the Harper government — cover for Canada’s pursuit of its political and economic interests. Despite the repression surrounding Lobo’s election, the refusal of internationally recognized electoral observers to participate in the election, and the failure of the Honduran Congress to ratify the San Jose-Tegucigalpa Accord (a condition for Canadian support for the election, the accord, backed by Canada, would have allowed for the exiled Zelaya to return to the presidency but with his powers dramatically reduced), Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the new government.
Soon after Lobo took power, Kent started lobbying for Honduras’s return to the OAS, while Canadian officials pushed for and received meetings for Canadian investors with Lobo and some of his key cabinet ministers. Behind the scenes, Canadian officials and a mining executive discussed how to promote a new foreign investor-friendly mining law.
Apart from one press release raising concerns about the killings of journalists and Harper’s very terse acknowledgement of human rights problems during his trip (in which he absolved the Lobo government of any responsibility), Canada has said and done little about targeted repression of political activists. Two days before Kent’s February 2010 visit to Honduras, for example, a union activist and resistance member, Julio Fúnez Benítez, was assassinated. Nevertheless, Kent was fulsome in his praise for Lobo, declaring that he “is beginning the process of national reconciliation.”
And toward that end, Lobo established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unlike other such commissions, however, like that in post-apartheid South Africa or post-civil war Guatemala, Honduras’s commission took place as repression was occurring. Sensing a charade for the benefit of the international community, members of the Resistance Front refused to participate. Unfazed, Canada financed the commission and provided a member, former diplomat Michael Kergin, who happened to be employed by one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms, Bennett Jones, which just happens to specialize in, among other things, investment law and mining. Predictably, while acknowledging a coup d’état had occurred, the commission blamed Zelaya for breaking the law by disregarding a Supreme Court ruling to cancel a straw poll referendum that asked Hondurans if they wanted to hold another referendum during the November 2009 election. The second referendum would have enabled Hondurans to decide whether or not to replace a constitution written during the days of military dictatorship. Rewriting the constitution remains a very popular idea with many Hondurans.
As intended, Canada’s engagement with post-coup Honduras is reaping benefits for Canadian investors. Lobo has been adopting an aggressive free market plan: rivers have been concessioned for dam-building projects; the state electricity and telecommunications companies will likely be put up for auction; a new mining law is coming; large tracts of Garífuna (Afro-Indigenous) land on the north coast are being illegally sold for tourist development; and the constitution has been amended to allow for the creation of corporate-run city states (the so-called model cities).
Canada is one of the largest foreign investor nations in the country, with over $600 million in investment, according to Ambassador Cameron Mackay. Canadian companies play leading roles in mining, maquilas and tourism, and are central actors in the recent announcement of plans for a tourism-focused model city, the first such city announced.
When I was in Honduras in June, I spoke with activists organizing against Canadian companies in all these industries. They spoke of being displaced from their land, environmental destruction and exploitative working conditions. Some alleged they had received death threats for their opposition to Canadian company practices. Canada, I was told, is acting like a colonial power: supporting a repressive government to facilitate the exploitation of the country’s natural resources and cheap labour. It is unlikely that Harper’s visit and the new trade agreement will change this perception.
The Harper government has already successfully consolidated its political and economic ties with Colombia — a country which annually accounts for approximately two-thirds of trade unionists assassinated worldwide and witnesses severe human rights violations in mining zones. Honduras is the latest target of an increasingly aggressive Canadian foreign policy for the Americas, guided by a very simple but frightening philosophy that places corporate profits and geostrategic interests well above human rights.
Todd Gordon teaches political science at York University and is the author of Imperialist Canada (Arbeiter Ring, 2010). He visited Honduras in June.