Tuesday, February 10, 2015


By David Bacon
Equal Times, 2/10/15

In a waiting area for port truck drivers and their families in Puerto Cort?s, Honduras, a driver sleeps in a hammock by his truck.

OAKLAND, CA - In the wake of the political crisis in the United States last year, caused by the migration of large numbers of children from Central America to the U.S./Mexico border, the AFL-CIO in November sent a delegation to Honduras, the country that sent the greatest number of unaccompanied minors.  "What we witnessed," reported Tefere Gebre AFL-CIO Executive Vice President, "was the intersection ?of our corporate-dominated trade policies with our broken immigration system, contributing to a state that fails workers and their families and forces them to live in fear."

The delegation issued a report, "Trade, Violence and Migration: The Broken Promises to Honduran Workers."  It is unusually critical of U.S. foreign and immigration policies, and marked a return, in some ways, to the way voices in U.S. labor condemned the government's intervention policies during the civil wars in Central America. 

The report, in fact, contains a frank assessment of the history of U.S. foreign policy in Honduras, and draws out the disastrous consequences it has created in that country today.  "The fate of Honduras long has been tied to ?that of the United States," it charges. "Throughout the 20th century, Honduras was key to maintaining U.S. military and economic interests on the isthmus. The U.S. military intervened in Honduran politics throughout the early 20th century to protect the foreign investments of large U.S. corporations like the United Fruit Co. Later, Honduras served as a base of operations during the U.S.-supported 1954 coup in Guatemala, as well as the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and during the years of civil war and Cold War proxy wars in Central America in the 1970s and '80s, the government provided support for the 'Contra' counter-revolutionary war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua."

More recently the U.S. raised only pro-forma objections to the 2009 coup that overthrew Honduras' elected president Manuel Zelaya, and then quickly restarted military aid to the junta that seized power.  "Under the left-leaning Zelaya administration, the minimum wage was raised by 80%, direct assistance was provided to the poorest Hondurans, and poverty and inequality declined," the report says.  After the coup, however, "numerous trade unionists and community activists who participated in resistance were killed, beaten, threatened and jailed," it declares. 

Francisco Palencia Espinoza shows the bald tire on the truck he drove from Honduras to the Salvadoran Port of Acajutla, and which he'll have to drive back.

Based on extensive interviews with unionists, it details current abuses of labor and human rights.  The government has built an apparatus to put down dissent, while the Secretariat of Labor and Social Security has passed laws to reduce permanent work, protections and freedom of association.  Teachers face news laws limiting their right to strike.  Farm worker unionists face an increase in violent attacks and threats against their lives in the sugar cane fields.  Five union executive councils have been fired by the partnership of the Kyungshin Corp. of South Korea and the Lear Corp. of Michigan. 

According to Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America and a participant in the delegation, Honduran unions "confirmed constant violations of organizing rights in direct violation of CAFTA. These included everything from the murder of leaders to the collapse of bargaining rights where they once existed."

In the port of Puerto Cortez, the delegation reports deteriorating conditions due to the privatization of docks, with over 1000 workers fired.  The head of the dockers' union, Victor Crespo, was forced to flee Honduras after his father was killed and mother injured, and he himself received threats to his life.  A support campaign by the U.S. International Longshore and Warehouse Union helped save his life, and eventually won guarantees that allowed his safe return to Honduras.

The AFL-CIO report condemns a plan to "reduce the wage bill" in the public sector by cutting jobs and privatizing public services, especially in electricity.  It points out that this reflects the policies of the International Monetary Fund called for cutting the public sector from 7.5% of GDP to 2% in four years.  The resulting job loss has a clear impact on increasing poverty, forcing many Hondurans to migrate in search of survival.

A family of port workers in a neighborhood outside Puerto Cortez.

The report makes the case that poverty in Honduras has been deepened by the impact of the Central American Free Trade Agreement: "Today, Honduras is the most unequal country in Latin America."  Poverty rose from 60 to 64.5% from 2006 to 2013.  By emphasizing a policy that deregulated business and used low wages as an incentive to attract foreign investment, "CAFTA only exacerbated the desperation and instability ?in Honduras," it charges.  "Honduran workers identified the 2009 Honduran coup d'├ętat and the subsequent militarization of Honduran society, and the implementation of CAFTA and its impact on decent work and labor rights, as two essential elements to understanding the current crisis."

Cohen urged, "We need to look at our own immigration policy, concentrating enormous resources on deportation and nothing on resettlement.  We need to look at the trade deals, in this case, CAFTA, that accelerated free market devastation."

Backing up the increasing militarization of Honduran society is U.S. military aid, which reached $27 million in 2012.  The report notes that both Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield and Commander John Kelly of the United States Southern Command praised Honduran "advances in security."  In the U.S. media, General Kelly has demonized migration from Central America, calling the movement of families and children a national security threat and a "crime-terror convergence."

That migration, described in the AFL-CIO report, has grown sharply.  More than 18,000 unaccompanied Honduran children arrived in the United States in 2014 alone.  "In 1990, there were approximately 109,000 Honduran migrants in the world. In 2010, that number grew close to 523,000, with the vast majority living in the United States," it says. "Today, migration is seen by many families as a means to escape violence or seek employment opportunity or reunite with family, while the government has embraced the remittances from migrants as a major economic resource."

Marvin Mejia, a port truck driver, his sister Wendy and his mother Isabel, in one of the two rooms of their rented house.

Josie Camacho, executive secretary of the Alameda Central Labor Council in California, was a member of the delegation.  "As a mother, I couldn't imagine why a Honduran mother would ask her child to walk 1700 miles to the border, alone, and put her in the hands of unscrupulous people," she relates.  "I got a real education about the consequences of our military policy, and now I see people have no choice.  We should embrace and protect them - it's part of what being a union really means."

Three quarters of those migrants, arriving in the U.S. after the immigration amnesty of 1986, have been undocumented.  As a result, Hondurans, even children, have felt the impact of the U.S. policy of mass deportations - about 400,000 per year for six years.  In 2013 alone, the U.S. deported 37,049 Hondurans.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka last year called on the U.S. president to suspend deportations:  "Continuation of the deportation crisis is incompatible with our values as a country."  He urged "an end to a deportation machine that criminalizes hardworking immigrants while deporting hundreds and hundreds of people a day without even an appearance before a judge."

The report, however, pointedly differs with the immigration reform policies proposed by the U.S. administration and the Democratic Party in Congress, which call for vast expansions in temporary, guest worker programs, in which workers labor for low wages and have few labor or civil rights.  "Temporary visa programs are not a safe alternative to undocumented migration," it declares, noting the history of rights violations in the U.S., and abuses in recruitment, including extortion, fraud and the confiscation of documents.  

Erasmo Flores, president of the Honduran union for port truckers, talks with drivers about the impact CAFTA will have on them.

The report ends with a series of recommendations for both the U.S. and Honduran governments.  It demands that the U.S. extend refugee status to people, especially children, fleeing violence and persecution, and end the mass detention of migrants.  Instead of CAFTA, it calls for "trade policies that lead to the creation? of decent work," and instead of support for repression, "ending all aid to the military." 

"The Honduran government must turn away from militarization," it asserts. It recommends longer-term sustainable development policies and investment in public services. The report even urges the Honduran government to refuse to accept deportees from the U.S. unless they are given due process before deportation. 

Ultimately, the AFL-CIO concludes, the U.S. government must move away from policies that "criminalize migrant children and their families, while pursuing trade deals that simultaneously displace subsistence farmers and lower wages and standards across other sectors, and eliminate good jobs, intensifying the economic conditions that drive migration."

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