By Corie Welch
On Sunday night, I made the extremely difficult decision to leave Honduras and return to the United States to continue my work stateside in the wake of the spread of COVID-19. Ultimately, I decided that as the only staff person on the ground here, the risks of staying in Honduras during the pandemic were too high. However, as I was purchasing my flight home, the Honduran government closed its borders without warning, and now I find myself unable to leave.
Risks in Honduras under COVID-19 Pandemic
As I mentioned previously, my decision to leave Honduras came after hours of deliberation and was challenging for me to make. Ultimately, I chose to leave for personal reasons. But as cases of COVID-19 rise, there are two factors that increase the risk for anyone in Honduras: the abismal public health sector and extreme militarization.
The public health sector in Honduras remains one of the least equipped in the world, lacking supplies, medicine, and general funding from the government, due to widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds by public officials. Before COVID-19 reached Honduras, the healthcare system was already suffering and facing its own crisis with dengue fever. In this year alone, Honduras has seen 9 deaths due to dengue. As the threat of COVID-19 looms, the Honduran public health sector will be unable to handle such a severe outbreak. There are few respirators available in public hospitals, no biohazard equipment for health workers, and general lack of faith, which has been exacerbated by the President's recent purchase of respirators that cannot be used to treat COVID-19 patients. In a place like Honduras, we are likely to see record high death rates given the inability of the Honduran government to respond to the previously outstanding medical needs of its population, let alone a global pandemic.
The other life-threatening risk in Honduras, actively spreading since 2009, is the militarization of society. Currently, there are many more weapons in Honduras than there are respirators, exposing the true priorities of the government, influenced and funded by the United States. These security forces, characterized by human rights violations, are actively patrolling the streets, enforcing lock-downs, and raiding homes for suspected cases of COVID-19. Five cities are under complete lockdown, including Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, Choluteca, and El Progreso -- residents are forbidden from leaving their residences under threat of arrest unless en route to buy groceries or to the hospital. More military presence means more concern for safety in Honduras, especially given the history of increased human rights violations under “states of emergency in Honduras,” not to mention constitutional rights have already been suspended, including freedom of expression, which cripples the ability of journalists and citizens to document and speak out against potential violations.
Lack of support for US Citizens Abroad
Immediately after the Honduran government announcement it would be closing its borders, I reached out to a personal contact of mine in the US Embassy of Tegucigalpa, but was simply told that for the next seven days there would be “no in or out” of Honduras and was instructed to call the emergency Embassy number for assistance. However, the Embassy evacuated its employees and their family members deemed at higher risk. My question is: why did the embassy not extend this courtesy to the other 60+ US citizens currently stranded in Honduras?
Not only has the US government physically abandoned us, but has provided little to no help for stranded citizens as we attempt to find passage out of Honduras. After many calls made to the Embassy sent directly to voicemail or not connected, the one representative I managed to get in touch with simply told me to contact the airlines, who in turn told me to contact the Embassy. What I noticed from these interactions was the complete lack of motivation from the Embassy to help US citizens leave Honduras. What I found especially odd was the abrupt switch in US policy, a country with a long history of intervening in Honduran politics; despite having immeasurable influence in Honduras, the US has suddenly decided to respect the sovereignty of Honduras and its government’s action to close the border.
Recognizing the failure of the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa and the US consulate, members of the Solidarity Collective, as well as personal friends and family, have been reaching out to Congressional senators and representatives, calling on them to help me, as well as other US citizens, leave Honduras. We’ve been met with support, especially from my own state of Massachusetts where Rep. McGovern and Senator Markey’s offices have been doing everything they can to get people like me home, including Markey’s signature on the letter to Secretary of State Pompeo to address the issue of US citizens stranded abroad. Honduras was the first country listed, which I believe is due to the persistent calls from our supporters and I’d personally like to thank everyone who has called on my behalf. The goal is to see what the State Department can do to get us out of Honduras and home to the US, while we continue to wait for a solution.
US Policy at the Root of the Crisis
The factors that already push thousands of Hondurans to flee for their lives will only be exacerbated as COVID-19 spreads in Honduras, which can be connected back to US policy and corporate practices. From support of a dictatorship marred with corruption, including the intentional crippling of the public health sector, to funding security forces actively involved in human rights violations, US pressure and intervention in Honduras set the stage for the current crisis.
The Honduran healthcare system is under-equipped, understaffed, and inadequate, which results from corruption and looting of public funds by officials propped up by the US government, as well as pressure from international financing mechanisms like the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank, of which the US wields major influence as a primary donor, to privatize healthcare. However, for Hondurans that speak out against the injustices in the healthcare sector, they are met with repression from government security forces.
For example, this past summer, massive protests enveloped Honduras in response to an attempt from the Honduran government, with pressure from the IMF, to adhere to austerity measures that would allow the government to hire private contractors. As a result the Platform for Health and Education formed, organizing thousands across the country against the two executive decrees passed that would effectively privatize the health and education sectors. There were steady protests across the country — citizens blockaded roads, occupied universities, and exposed the wide level of corruption in Honduras that reaches even beyond these two sectors. However, like most protests here, Honduran security forces continued to respond to massive peaceful mobilizations with extreme levels of repression: using US-made tear gas, rubber and live bullets against civilians.
Yet, amidst the repression, Charges D’affaires of the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa at the time, Heidy Fulton, thanked the very same forces committing atrocious acts of violence publicly on her Twitter.
Almost ten years following the US-backed coup d’etat, the US not only continues to give its full fledged support to a regime that blatantly violates the human rights of its citizens but gives them the training and equipment to do so. Honduran security forces like the National Police and Tigres, among others, which receive training and equipment from the United States, are committing human rights violations regularly. According to our calculations, live bullets have been used against protestors in 18 different departments since June 2019. Moreover, the teargas that is used most regularly to break up protests comes from the US company, Nonlethal Technologies in Pennsylvania. While the US government may not sell weapons directly to the Honduran armed forces, US companies continue to be the number one provider of weapons to Honduras, which when combined with training from the US armed forces, results in lethal consequences.
Under the state of emergency declared in response to COVID-19, this kind of violence against activists will only get worse. Precedents for abuse of authority and state sponsored human rights violations during times of crisis include the aftermath of the 2009 coup d’etat and the 2017 Post Electoral Crisis. In both of these crises, state security forces, trained and equipped by the United States, committed widespread and systemic crimes against humanity including: disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings.
Ongoing challenges for Hondurans
While I find myself stuck in Honduras, it should be noted that I, as a US citizen, still have such privilege to be able to pressure my representative in the United States to find a solution to extract myself and other US citizens from this dangerous situation, a privilege that 8 million Hondurans do not have. As this crisis unfolds, the struggles of the Honduran people will continue, as risks for human rights defenders (HRDs) increase and the lives of individuals and the members of the organizations we work with are put in further jeopardy. That is why it is so important for us to continue supporting the work of Hondurans here on the ground, and to stand in solidarity with Hondurans and push for changes in US policy that adversely affect the human rights situation here.
For example, as part of Honduras’ Red Alert, all court hearings have been suspended, but this means that HRDs in legal processes will remain criminalized, prolonging their pre-trial detention or other pre-trial measures until their cases can resume. This is particularly dangerous for political prisoners, including the 8 Guapinol defenders who remain in prison. Quality of life in Honduran prisons is already abysmal, especially after the string of murders in Honduran penitentiary centers at the end of 2019, but with the spread of COVID-19 they will become infinitely more dangerous. Overcrowding and lack of sanitation in prisons create the ideal environment for the virus to spread. Not to mention that inmates already lack access to healthcare, so given the track record of the penitentiary system in Honduras, infected inmates will not be cared for appropriately. Activists in Honduras and internationally remain committed to the freedom of political prisoners, especially in the wake of this crisis.
On the outside, HRDs face increased risk as military enforced lockdowns are enforced across Honduras. So far, there have been 240 raids of homes in search of COVID-19 cases by the military, and activist, Aleyda Huete, was arrested in Choluteca earlier this week. With lowered accountability by the armed forces, our partners on the ground face serious danger of state violence. Now, with the borders closed and borders closing around the world, threatened human rights defenders will also be trapped in Honduras, without any means of fleeing for their lives.
What can you do?
Solidarity with Honduras is more important now than ever. Here’s what you can do!
Keep up to date on what is happening in Honduras by following our social media accounts -- you can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and our website. We also encourage you to follow the Honduras Solidarity Network for more updates on the situation in Honduras.
Reach out to your representatives to support the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR1945) -- During this time of crisis, this crucial legislation proves to be more important than ever, as we seek to suspend all funding from the United States to Honduran security forces and prevent further human rights violations from occurring.
Donate to keep this vital work alive -- Now more than ever, our collective needs your support to be able to fund our work in Colombia, Cuba, and Honduras and keep our campaigns going in the US.