After graduating college at the age of 21, Warscapes contributor Belén Fernández exiled herself from the United States and began traveling the world. Since then, she's emerged as a leading journalist and political analyst of world affairs, and has developed the reputation for fiercely criticizing twenty-first century American imperialism. Fernandez has reported from dozens of countries during critical moments of upheaval and transition, and seen firsthand how American hegemony influences outcomes there--often to the detriment of ordinary people. Fernandez recounts some of these experiences in a new memoir, Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, out now from OR Books. Warscapes is proud to publish an excerpt of the book, which covers her time traveling and reporting from Honduras following the 2009 coup. Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World is available now direct from the publisher, or in stores everywhere beginning this fall.
Ever so slightly left-leaning, Zelaya had stepped on the toes of the entrenched Honduran oligarchy, whose members had long ago pledged allegiance to the predatory capitalism endorsed by their benefactors in the United States. Not only had Zelaya raised the monthly urban and rural minimum wages to a whopping $290 and $213, respectively, he had also shown himself to be more willing than his predecessors to listen to the complaints of impoverished communities affected by mining and other toxic operations by international corporations. All of this naturally indicated that the communist apocalypse was nigh.
The last straw came in the form a nonbinding public opinion survey, scheduled for June 28, in which citizens would be asked whether or not they supported the inclusion of an extra ballot box at upcoming elections in order to then vote on whether or not to convene a constituent assembly to update the national constitution. As the Honduran right-wing and concerned gringos spun it, this was concrete proof that Zelaya was scheming to abolish the constitutional article that limited presidents to a single term and to thereby install himself as eternal dictator. Of no consequence, apparently, was that any constitutional tweaking would only take place after Zelaya had already left power. Eventually, the article in question was abolished anyway, albeit under a sufficiently ultra-rightist administration so as not to merit a peep from the guardians of democracy.
In the months following Zelaya’s pajama-clad expatriation, the US busied itself hemming and hawing over how to categorize his ouster without resorting to the obvious descriptor—“military coup”—that would then trigger massive cutoffs in aid to the post-Zelaya allies. After initially declaring that the US was “withholding any formal legal determination” regarding the Coup-Type Thing in Honduras, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set about “strategiz[ing] on a plan to restore order in [the country] and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.”
This, at least, is what she herself told us in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, in a passage mysteriously excised from the paperback edition the following year. New elections were indeed swiftly held, and mootness rendered— although it’s anyone’s guess as to how elections staged after an illegal coup could qualify as legitimate, particularly when the Honduran people had already chosen Zelaya to serve out his four-year term.
Not that the US has ever been overly keen on permitting the public in Honduras—or anywhere in America’s self-declared “backyard,” for that matter—jurisdiction over its own future. The Contra war of the 1980s comes to mind, when the affectionate moniker “USS Honduras” was bestowed on the banana republic-cum-launchpad for US proxy forces assaulting Nicaragua, a nation that had veered from the straight and narrow path of obsequiousness to the big northern boss. In a 1986 essay, famed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano observed that Ronald Reagan’s “demonization” of Nicaragua served to “justify the US war economy.” Paraphrasing a suggestion from Sandinista leader Tomás Borge that pretty soon Nicaragua would also be held responsible for AIDS as well as the devaluation of the dollar, Galeano pointed out the irony in the fact that the nation claiming that “even the stars must be militarized . . . to confront the terrorist threat” was the same one engaged in “terrorist acts against Nicaragua, practicing terrorism as an imperial right and . . . exporting state terrorism, on an industrial scale, under the registered trademark of the National Security Doctrine.”
Nor was US National Security in short supply in Honduras, where, as the Baltimore Sun reported in 1995, a CIA-trained élite death squad by the name of Battalion 316 had “stalked, kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of Honduran men and women”—in short, “terrorized Honduras for much of the 1980s” on behalf of the US war on communism. Other US exploits of the Contra period included collaboration with top Honduran drug lord Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, whose airline SETCO was, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in her Contra war memoir Blood on the Border, known as the “CIA airline.” To be sure, factoids like these greatly boost the US government’s credibility in waging its interminable war on drugs.
I had traveled to Tegucigalpa from Argentina, where I was visiting my parents following a four-month hitchhiking excursion with my friend Amelia through Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. Knowing approximately nothing about Honduras—part of my brain had even assumed it was an island—I nonetheless decided that the Central American nation was as good a place as any to postpone sorting out my life. In the process, I became ever more acquainted with my homeland’s own intimate role in fucking over other people’s homelands.
Obviously, traveling to Honduras as a US citizen was quite a bit easier than the inverse scenario, as Hondurans who have risked their existence journeying to the US border can testify. I was also, of course, able to extricate myself from the country at will—no small luxury in the postcoup era of near-total impunity, when Honduras maintained the distinction of being the homicide capital of the world.
My initial accommodations were an $8-per-night windowless room in the rundown Hotel Iberia, which was managed by a cranky old man with apparently implacable nostalgia for a mythological Spanish past and unlimited scorn for the anti-coup resistance, whose alleged litany of violations of the norms of civilization he never ceased to recite. Things got especially bad when the Honduran coup regime decreed a 4 PM curfew and I became a one-woman captive audience to the Iberian’s sermons on the latest transgressions of the delinquents, thugs, and hooligans who opposed the righteous “presidential succession” that had delivered Honduras from the grasp of the Zelaya- Chávez-Castro-Satan alliance. The only available palliative was a stockpile of the aptly named Imperial beer, which quickly ran out.
When the situation eventually became unsustainable, I relocated across town to a $5-per-night room in a hotel-restaurant complex run by a family that had immigrated from China some decades before, the patriarch of which was too consumed with business operations—including chasing off drunks and other potential troublemakers with an ever-present baseball bat—to inflict his political opinions on the clientele.
This hotel was conveniently located not far from the Brazilian embassy, where Zelaya would take up residence after smuggling himself back into Honduras in September 2009. Also close by was the US embassy, where I attended an August meeting between a human rights delegation and embassy officials who had not adequately rehearsed the US line on the Honduran governmental switcheroo of June 28.
After Deputy Mission Chief Simon Henshaw had broken the ice by proclaiming his conviction that Zelaya’s overthrow “was a coup and that it was a military coup and that it was wrong,” US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens arrived on the scene to rectify matters by detecting a “clear-cut case of a coup” and then downgrading it to the status of a “whatever-you-call-it.” Llorens went on to assert that the joint US-Honduran military base at Soto Cano had been “shut down,” ostensibly as punishment for this “whatever-you-call-it,” although he then backtracked and acknowledged that US troops were indeed still there but weren’t talking to their Honduran counterparts. The delegation questioned why the postcoup repression of protesters by what Henshaw had described as Honduras’ “extremely uneducated troops and policemen” had not resulted in a suspension of “education” for Honduran soldiers enrolled at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA)—which, founded in Panama in 1946 and then transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, had traditionally been the go-to institution for Latin American dictators, torturers, and death squad leaders. Llorens triumphantly countered that the SOA no longer existed, after which he was reminded that the school had simply been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).rare opportunity to interview one particular SOA alumnus by the name of Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the Honduran general who had spearheaded the coup. As Vásquez was fond of telling the Honduran media, prior to the events of June he had been on the verge of retirement to a quiet family life, but God had devised other plans for him. Perhaps in support of this claim, he appeared at a televised mass on Honduran Armed Forces Day clutching a crucifix.
My total lack of credentials notwithstanding, an acquaintance at a Honduran radio station pulled some strings and put me in contact with Vásquez’s assistant, Colonel Wilfredo García Rodríguez, another SOA alumnus who spent several weeks hanging up on me before grudgingly granting me an appointment at military headquarters. When I turned up at the appointed time, García announced that he had assumed I would be “old and fat” and proceeded to entertain me for two hours with tales like the time he saw Jennifer López in person.
The diminutive Vásquez took over from there and ushered me into his spacious office, which boasted a variety of religious paraphernalia, a wine rack, and a book about Western Sahara—which, it turned out, was not being considered as an exile destination for Zelaya but was simply the site of a UN mission in which Honduran troops participated. We took a seat side by side and commenced to have a jovial chat about the political intricacies of Honduras, where, Vásquez warned, “there will always be people who want to attain power through ways other than the proper way of being elected”— although it was not clear that he had fully thought through the implications of this line of reasoning given that he himself had just perpetrated a coup.
Contending that Zelaya’s proposed nonbinding public opinion survey had been “part of an international project commanded by Hugo Chávez,” Vásquez assured me that the Honduran military was composed of “very democratic soldiers” who were conveniently also god-fearing, because “religiously devoted armies are generally the ones that win.” He denied reports that Honduran troops and policemen had been blasting music at all hours of the night outside the Brazilian embassy in order to further disrupt the sleeping patterns and sanity of Zelaya and companions housed therein: “We are soldiers but we are not people who want to hurt anybody.”
The image of Honduran soldiers as armed cherubs was repudiated by Human Rights Watch’s write-up of the situation in Honduras in 2009, which specified that, in addition to engaging in lethal violence, “security forces also repeatedly used wooden batons, metal tubes, and chains to beat protesters,” while there were coincidentally “no reports of protesters carrying or using lethal weapons.” Among other documented trends was a “surge in rape, beatings, extortion, and arbitrary detention of transgender persons in Honduras by law enforcement officials.”
As my encounter with Vásquez came to an end, the general affirmed that the problem in Honduras was that there was in fact “too much liberty,” which meant that members of the anti-coup resistance were able to run around “doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” such as “insulting people, dirtying walls” with graffiti, and “setting buildings on fire.” Once I had turned off my tape recorder, Vásquez turned to me with all of the sex appeal one might expect from a short, aging coupmonger and informed me that he wouldn’t at all mind acquiring a second wife. In light of the current political ambience in Honduras, I determined that the most prudent course of action was to smile, nod, and promise to call him.
Belén Fernández is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine, and her writing has apperared at Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, Jacobin, and Warscapes.