What is the Hondurans Caravan really telling us?

For the past week, the news spotlight from Central America has centered on a group of families headed northward from Honduras toward the United States. What began as a caravan of a couple of hundred Hondurans, mainly from San Pedro Sula, quickly turned into a mobilization of several thousand people, including entire family groups with children. Despite the obvious humanitarian concerns that a large movement of people, including so many mothers and children, should generate, this Caravan has gained international attention mainly because of the obsessive focus by Donald Trump on it. The US President has focused in a virulent and opportunistic manner on this Caravan as an additional way to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment in hopes of boosting the Republican Party’s electoral campaign in the last stretch towards the Nov. 6 midterm election in the US.

More responsible news coverage has now reached the region, providing a step-by-step account of the Caravan’s travels through Central America and into Mexican territory, including the heart-breaking images of children and families exhausted by the physical demands of this long walk. But this coverage still just skims the surface. It tells us what is happening but not why. We need to take a harder look at the history of Honduras, as well as the recent economic, political and social events that triggered this particular Caravan.

Honduras is a country controlled by an extremely wealthy economic elite, whose power has intertwined with powerful transnational corporations for most of the past hundred years. The name Chiquita Banana still echoes as a symbol of power in a country governed by a long history of military dictators, and more recently by highly unpopular civilian governments. In many cases, and certainly in the case of the current government, the rulers were not really elected by the Honduran voters, but effectively installed into power by the all mighty United States of America.

As recently recorded by the Economic Council on Latin American and the Caribbean (CEPAL by its Spanish acronym), Honduras remains as one of the top countries in Latin American when it comes to poverty and extreme poverty levels. However, the term “poor” masks what is in fact a concentration of wealth in the hands of a very small circle of families and individuals, with misery and poverty for the majority of the Honduran people.

In addition to long-term and entrenched social and economic systems of exclusion, Honduras entered nearly a decade ago into a highly unstable political phase that remains in place until today. This phase initiated with the coup d’état carried out by the Honduran Armed forces in June, 2009 against the legitimately elected government of Manuel Zelaya. In the ensuing unrest, the Obama Administration sided with anti-democratic forces in Honduras, backing the interruption of the constitutional order. This decision further damaged Hondurans’ hopes for a more stable democracy that might have been capable of overcoming the long-standing economic and social ills affecting the nation. Since then, conditions have gone from bad to worse.

The next crisis occurred in 2017, when sitting president Juan Orlando Hernandez declared his intent to run for re-election, despite the fact that the Honduran Constitution specifically forbids presidents to seek re-election. Hernandez mounted a re-election campaign tacitly supported by the US government. Presidential elections took place in November 2017. According to the vast majority of international observers, the elections were characterized by widespread irregularities. Early results showed a clear trend towards a victory by the opposition. In the end, however, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, a body controlled by the executive branch, declared Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner. As in 2009, the US government sided with a highly unpopular government and quickly congratulated Hernandez on his “victory”, thus demonstrating its support for anti-democratic and even anti-constitutional forces in Honduras. As one would expect, this did not sit well with those who dream of a democratic future in Honduras. Honduran voters quickly took to the streets and mounted a sustained protest of his illegitimate administration. The government’s response has been increased political repression, including the assassination of protesters, an increased number of political prisoners, and constant harassment of those who dare to criticize the current government.

Compounding this political crisis is the ongoing security crisis. Honduras is deeply affected by the presence and influence of drug cartels, as well as youth gangs. The combination of the violent actions by these illegal actors, as well as the increasing politically repressive and overall authoritarian role of the Honduran military and police forces create a perfect storm for generating profound and generalized desperation among the Honduran people. The recent Caravan did not mark the beginning of people fleeing Honduras. They have been doing so in increasing numbers for at least the past decade.

The Migrant Caravan that began its trajectory a little more than a week ago, quickly caught the imagination of tens of thousands of Hondurans who are desperate to flee deteriorating conditions, including lack of employment, infrahuman living conditions, escalating governmental repression, and increasing criminal activity by drug cartels and gangs. The notion of fleeing together, keeping each other safe, and avoiding the human smuggling rings who charge exorbitant amounts of money, as well as human trafficking networks who literally enslave women and children created a powerful magnet for people to join the Caravan. More than a carefully planned action, the Caravan should be understood as a spontaneous action taken by many individuals facing desperate circumstances.

As the Caravan winds its way northward, it has exposed the yawning gap that separates the world of politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats from the world of people who seek a way out of increasingly dire conditions. Over the past two years, many countries have been working in the United Nations system to develop Global Compacts for “safe, orderly and regular migration” and “functional humanitarian protection frameworks” for migrants and refugees. This caravan, and the negative response it has sparked from politicians, should serve as a stark reminder of how far we are from that lofty goal.

Clearly there is an urgent need to develop new and creative sets of rules to handle the reality of human mobility in today’s world. The current paradigms that throw open the doors to the free movement of capital and goods, while slamming them shut against those seeking safety and opportunity is a recipe for the kind of human suffering we are now witnessing at Mexico’s southern border. This is a task that requires better answers, and finally tackles the challenge of transforming countries like Honduras into places where most people are able to live a way of life that is dignified, secure, and sustainable.

But in the shorter term, there are a few steps that could start to move the needle in the right direction. There is an urgent need for a national conversation in Honduras to repair the damage to democratic institutions and move towards a new national social compact. Such a conversation must involve the private sector, independent civil society actors (beyond those who mainly cheer for government leaders), the political leadership of the country, the US government, and other interested national and international actors. The current national government could help such a process in multiple ways, but it simply does not have the credibility to be the driver or convener of that process.

With respect to those who have traveled in the caravan to seek asylum, instead of passing the buck to Mexico, as the United States appears to be doing now, we should be insisting that the Honduran and other Central Americans must be treated fairly, in accordance to international obligations by all countries. Their rights as people seeking humanitarian protection must be respected. Practical and responsible solutions should be provided to them, rooted in the understanding that immigrants and refugees have a proven track record as contributors to the betterment of the new nations they adopt as theirs, as well as key contributors to the well being of their relatives in their country of origin.

The United States has a critical short-term and long-term role to play, but only if it stops using Honduras and the caravan as a political football with its eyes focused on the November 6 midterm elections.

President Trump has already made political hay from the Caravan, using it to reinforce his anti-Mexican, anti-Latin American immigrant discourse and his plea for a border wall in the last stretch of the current electoral season. For their part, many Democrats appear to view the Caravan as a political inconvenience for their mid-term electoral hopes. This response hides a disappointing lack of vision and strategy on the part of Democratic Party leaders. This moment should offer Democrats an opportunity to re-shape the understanding about migration as a challenge that requires a carefully coordinated domestic and international policy response. Such a new vision and strategy should begin with the articulation of a narrative that recognizes and celebrate all immigrants as a net asset for the United States of America.