February 14, 2008

Second in series

So as promised here is the second blog (follow-up to the one called “Sustainable Development”) on the history of foreign influence in Honduras. Some of you may already be familiar with this information while others may not. Either way, it can help us to understand better the situation that Honduras finds itself in today. To write this blog, I referenced several books including: “Inside Honduras: The essential guide to its politics, economy, society and environment” by Kent Norsworthy with Tom Barry (1994), “Honduras and Beyond: A Memory of Inequality” by T.Y. Okosun (2006) and “Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran woman speaks from the heart” translated and edited by Medea Benjamin (1987).

Here is a short account of US foreign policy in Honduras. In 1954, Honduras gave permission for its territory to be used as a training ground for the CIA-supported, rightwing military force that overthrew the reformist government in Guatemala. In that same year, Washington singed a bilateral assistance pact with the Honduran military that assured the close US-Honduran military cooperation of the 1980s. According to Norsworthy, “it was also during the Honduran banana strike of 1954 that US labor representatives associated with the State Department began infiltrating the Honduran labor movement and exerting a conservative, anticommunist influence that has long obstructed the advance of a unified, progressive popular movement in Honduras”.

In the 1980s, Honduras became the center for US policy in the region. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of NGOs operating in Honduras tripled. The majority of these organizations were US private and church organizations. According to Kent Norsworthy, the rapid rise in nongovernmental organizations was due largely because of the country’s strategic role in U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s. (If you are asking yourself, what was the U.S. up to during the 1980s in Central America, I recommend reading “The Death of Ben Linder” by Joan Kruckewitt or “Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran woman speaks from the heart” by Medea Benjamin).

What was this foreign policy? Well, in the 1980s, the Sandinistas were in power in Nicaragua and in El Salvador the growing strength of the National Liberation Front threatened to oust the US-backed Salvadoran government. Honduras quickly became the key for the United State’s geopolitical interests and both countries soon reached an agreement – in exchange for an increase in US military and economic aid, Honduras would join the US in its effort to topple the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. To give you an idea what kind of “effort” this was, the US spent well over a billion dollars in economic and military aid in Honduras between 1979 and 1989. According to Medea Benjamin, the influx of US dollars created a gold-rush atmosphere which aggravated the endemic corruption and infighting within the Honduras military. So while the military chiefs and politicians were getting rich off US aid, the majority of Hondurans were getting poorer. Although democratic elections were held in 1981 (from pressure by the US), the military maintained a firm grip on reins of power and rather than reducing the power of the military, allowed them to act with greater impunity because they were now covered by the facade of a civilian government. Payment on foreign aid debt gradually began to take up more and more of the government budget (read “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” by John Perkins (2004) to learn about how the US has, for over half a century (and still today??), loaned out money to countries in need with the goal of pushing them into a hole of debt so deep that they are forever indebted to the US, thereby making them “pay” their debt other ways, namely in whatever happens to be of US interest at the time). So anyways, in order to pay back their debt, Honduras reduced it’s already inadequate health budget from $130 million to $97 million between 1986 and 87. Unemployment shot up to 41 percent and there was an alarming rise in human rights abuses. Despite a five-fold increase in US economic assistance between 1981 and 1990, per capita income for the population actually declined. Kent Norsworthy sums up the effects of foreign policy in Honduras nicely:

“Democracy, development, and stability have been the oft-repeated US goals in Honduras. But after more than a decade of aid and intervention, these goals still seem distant. In fact, rather than moving Honduras forward, US policies and programs in Honduras appear to have sown the seeds of economic and political instability. This failure can be attributed in part to the contradictory and misdirected character of US economic and military assistance. But it also has to do with the fact that from the beginning Washington’s interest in Honduras has been mainly a product of US foreign-polity concerns in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.”

While I am a little afraid to ask it, Honduras’ history does beget the question: Am I as a United States Peace Corps volunteer here in Honduras today to help fix years of misguided and misdirected aid that has resulted in a Honduras worse off today than before US influence?

Comments, criticisms, other sides to the story and perspectives are welcome!

PS: Please remember that what we post on our blog does not represent the opinions of any other organization or people, just us!


Jarod said...

You bring up great points which are unknown by most, under-taught, and under-reported. Further reading if people are interested in understanding the detrimental effect of recent/current economic "development" policy - Globalization and its Discontents - by Joseph E. Stiglitz (Nobel prize economics, fomer Clinton advisor and former Chief Economist and Vice President of the World Bank.) American foreign and economic policy is often marketed to Americans as benevolent but, as in the case of Latin America, consistently does more harm than good. If we know this, then why don't we change? It's often expeditious to have someone owe you a favor...

Roberto S said...

I was browsing through some Honduras-related blogs and came across a link to your post on sustainable development. I’ve read your second installment on the topic and wanted to take you up on your request for comments…

I believe the answer to your question is no. Peace Corps volunteers are not in-country to help fix years of misguided and misdirected aid. The footprint and scope of the PC and its volunteers in any given country is so small, narrow, and localized to make any impact on the donor-recipient relationship and the final allocation, implementation, and objectives of the aid or assistance. Please keep in perspective that US foreign aid is a foreign policy tool employed to further US interests and not particularly the interests of the recipient.

Interestingly enough, it has been in the interest of the US to see democracy, development, and socio-economic stability take hold in places like Honduras. So how to explain the fact that little progress has been made in these areas in spite of the billions of dollars in aid and assistance that have come into the country? Placing the blame on donor policy, as Nosworthy seems to do, is simply wrong. It ignores the misguided, contradictory, and inefficient nature of the recipient governments through which the aid and assistance is filtered before reaching the masses – if it ever does. Because of sovereignty issues, IFIs and donors can’t bypass recipient governments, so by default foreign aid and assistance strengthens the very system that stymies its success.

With communism defeated and debunked, the US really didn’t have much of a foreign policy for the Western Hemisphere beginning in the early 90s. This is why economically and socially, countries in the region like Honduras fell into a policy "blackhole" that allow its government to essentially run it into the ground. Is Honduras worse off today because of misguided and misdirected foreign aid? Not quite. While donor policy may have played a part in the current state of affairs, in the final analysis, Honduras is worse off today principally due of its misguided, misdirected, mismanaged, and inefficient government and leadership and not by the nature of the foreign aid it has received.

I had the same view that foreign aid and policy was the big bad wolf until I had a front row seat to the inner workings of recipient governments. Yes, truly disappointing.

Mel said...

I really like what roberto had to say. I agree mostly and that no matter what the intentions of our aid to other countries in governmental and nongovernmental agencies is; it will not matter until high positions in that government are no longer corrupt. Especially in Honduras, for example their national health care system receives enough medical supplies for the USA in four shipments a year to cover a large portion of their need. But, after the first week they have run out as the presidents and members of the boards of the hosptial have taken the supplies and sold them so that the patients themselves have to go to the street to purchase their necessary medications and supplies. And the sellers get rich off of our contribution.