Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Situation in Honduras

Congressional Record

Anyone who follows the situation in Honduras, as I and many Vermonters do, cannot help but be disappointed and concerned by what is happening there.  I won’t take the time to discuss in detail the lengthy litany of circumstances that have resulted in the deep social and political divisions, the rampant corruption, violence and insecurity, the prevalence of threats and assassinations by gangs, the dysfunctional justice system, and the sense of desperation and hopelessness that so many Hondurans are feeling.  But I do want to mention several that should concern every senator. 

To put the situation there in perspective, it is important to keep in mind what is happening in our own country. 

For purely political reasons, President Trump has directed his wrath and contempt on the thousands of Central American migrants seeking entry to the United States, many of whom are women and children, and many of whom are from Honduras.  Regrettably, his xenophobic attacks have encouraged other extreme voices demonizing migrants and asylum seekers.  They have apparently forgotten that America is fundamentally a nation of immigrants.

There is no question that our government is woefully unprepared to humanely and expeditiously handle this influx, and that there is a humanitarian crisis at our southern border.  We are each aware of the appalling treatment to which many of these desperate migrants have been subjected, both during the harrowing journey from their home countries to the U.S. border and in our government’s custody.  Human beings trafficked, robbed, and sexually abused by unscrupulous smugglers.  Defenseless, impoverished people crammed into grossly overcrowded detention facilities.  Frightened children forcibly separated from their families and sleeping on cement floors in wire cages.  A backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum applications.  And if that were not enough, racist and disparaging Facebook posts by U.S. Border Patrol officers about the people in their custody.

This – not the Statue of Liberty – is what awaits the Hondurans who have abandoned their impoverished, violence-ridden communities in search of safety and a better life for themselves and their children.  Yet they continue to come, because remaining in Central America is a worse option.

While the White House justifies its mistreatment of Central American migrants by falsely labeling them all as criminals who have engaged in asylum fraud, it has rightly asked Congress for millions of dollars to help care for refugees from Venezuela who are fleeing economic collapse, violence, and political chaos in that country.  The similarities of the factors that are motivating the exodus of Hondurans and Venezuelans are far greater than their differences, which illustrates the blatant hypocrisy and unfairness of the Administration’s incoherent policies.   

Honduras has been in a state of convulsion since the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, and the 2013 election that was plagued with vote buying, violence, and fraud and that ended with President Hernandez declared the winner.  The situation was exacerbated by the 2017 election that was widely regarded as flawed before it even took place.  After President Hernandez secured the support of the National Assembly, the electoral commission, and the Supreme Court, each of which was beholden to him, to change the Constitution so he could run for a second term, the election was marred by reports of egregious vote counting irregularities. 

Given these circumstances, after being sworn into office a second time President Hernandez would have been wise to appoint a politically, ethnically, and geographically diverse cabinet and to promote policies designed to rebuild confidence and trust with the opposition and civil society.  Instead, he and his government have often embraced policies and practices that have further deepened divisions in an already polarized society.

Popular protests over election fraud, corruption, land disputes, and seemingly intractable poverty have been met with the indiscriminate use of live ammunition by the police and armed forces resulting in multiple deaths, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and prolonged detention without trial.  Despite repeated appeals by the international community, including the United Nations and the U.S. Embassy, to the Honduran government to respect the rule of law and use restraint against protesters, the situation has not improved and those responsible have not been held accountable.  The country is afflicted by near daily confrontations, and the number of people seeking refuge outside the country continues unabated.

Many of us also remember the emblematic case of Berta Caceres, a courageous indigenous environmental activist who was repeatedly harassed and threatened and ultimately assassinated for opposing the illegal construction of a hydroelectric plant.  After the police tried to cover up the crime, it was only thanks to international outrage that seven individuals, including an employee of the DESA hydroelectric company, a former security chief for the company who was an ex-U.S.-trained army lieutenant, another U.S.-trained special forces major, and a former special forces sergeant, were arrested and convicted.  Yet more than three years after that horrific crime, none of them has been sentenced.  The prosecution of an eighth individual, David Castillo, the former DESA president who was also a U.S.-trained former military intelligence officer, has been stalled for months.  It is also widely believed that there are other co-conspirators who have not been charged.   

Scores of similar assassinations of social activists and independent journalists in the past ten years have never even been investigated, much less resulted in prosecution or punishment.  By its inaction, the Honduran government is sending the unmistakable message that impunity for these crimes is acceptable.

Mr. President, for many years, Vermont and Honduras were “sister states”.  I have traveled there, as have many Vermonters, including some who have served as volunteers providing primary health care, education, and other humanitarian services to isolated rural communities.  So I have a longstanding interest in Honduras and its people, and over the years I have supported hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance for Honduras.

Yet today Honduras faces every imaginable problem.  It is a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine and a haven for ruthless drug gangs.  Millions of Hondurans live in dangerous, squalid conditions with no hope for the future.  The police have a history of corruption and are mistrusted.  Violent crimes are common and almost never result in conviction.  And the government is plagued by corruption, its officials often seeming to be more concerned with staying in power and enriching themselves than addressing the needs of their people.

Why is this?  There are obviously many factors, but one is undoubtedly a failure of leadership in Honduras and in the United States.  For too long, successive U.S. administrations made excuses for – and continued to support – Honduran governments that were corrupt, ineffective, unaccountable, and whose commitment to fundamental rights and democratic principles was lacking.  It was a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars and a disservice to the Honduran people. 

In a reversal, the White House has suspended assistance for Honduras, and the other Northern Triangle countries, because President Trump says they have not done enough to stop the exodus of migrants.  The President seems to believe that the Honduran government should somehow prevent its citizens from leaving, even though they have a legal right to.  At the same time, there is no doubt that the Honduran government can and must do far more to address the violence, poverty, corruption, and injustice that cause people to seek refuge elsewhere.  That includes firing corrupt officials, enacting and implementing the plea bargaining legislation that has been pending for years, strengthening the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity instead of weakening it as the Honduran government is trying, and defending civil society activists who are frequently harassed, threatened, arbitrarily arrested, and even assassinated.       

The United States has not had an ambassador in Tegucigalpa for more than two years.  The message this sends to the Honduran people is that it doesn’t matter.  That Honduras is not important.  That’s wrong. We need an ambassador who is a strong voice for good governance, for human rights, for accountability, and for defending the independence of the judiciary and other democratic institutions against fraud, exploitation or improper influence.     

Those who were involved in conceiving, carrying out, and attempting to cover up the assassination of Berta Caceres should be brought to justice without further delay.  The Honduran people also need to see justice done in the cases of excessive, deadly force against protesters by Honduran military police following the 2017 election.  There needs to be fair trials of the protesters who were arrested and who have languished in jail without due process for a year and a half.  Justice delayed is justice denied, yet unfortunately that is the norm in Honduras.

And finally, it is the Honduran government’s urgent responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to reform Honduras election laws and procedures. The Honduran people need to have confidence that the next election, only two and half years away, is, unlike the 2017 election, free and fair and will not result in more social upheaval, more excessive force by the police, more impunity, and a further exodus of people seeking safety and a better life. 

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