Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

From Tegucigalpa. Xenophobia and Racism in the Honduran Crisis

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The political crisis has brought out the worst of Honduras.  The media has already documented many of the country’s ills since June: the reliance on the military to address internal political problems and the sharp polarization with Cold War echoes as well as political violence, repression and censorship.  One nasty phenomenon, however, has slipped under the radar: the frightening nationalist sentiment, xenophobia and racism that have been on display since June 28—the day of the coup.  Hondurans on both sides of this crisis have continually failed to recognize that substantial domestic support exists for both Manuel Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, and that these domestic forces are willing and able to mobilize themselves.  They have proceeded by first defining “us”—the true Hondurans who “love their country”—and then using racial and national markers to identify a blameworthy “them.”

Since the coup, Hondurans have been crying for leadership from “people who really love their country.”  Honduran politicians, media pundits and radio-show callers have repeated this banal phrase ad nauseum.  They suggest that “true” Hondurans would never have gotten into this mess and that love of country is sufficient to ward off political crisis.  That both Micheletti and Zelaya supporters utter this phrase reveals the patent absurdity of such arguments.  People with widely divergent interests can all profess to “love their country.”  Democratic politics is about aggregating and balancing interests and developing representative institutions to mediate these interests and protect citizens’ rights; it is not about who can be the loudest cheerleader for the nation.

Unfortunately, these “love of country” statements are not simply vacuous.  In addition to being unhelpful, nationalist rhetoric since June 28 has gone hand-in-hand with troubling expressions of xenophobia and racism.

Xenophobia has plagued the rhetoric of both the Micheletti and the Zelaya camps.  On Micheletti’s side, condemnation of outside influences and a rejection of multilateralism has become commonplace after the international community’s condemnation of the coup.  This is bad news, but it’s not quite xenophobia.  Instead, xenophobia has reared its ugly head in the continuous references to “outside agitators”— Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, and Colombians (from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC)—stirring up the Zelaya supporters.  The Honduran Right claims that their country has been infiltrated by Leftist, Communist and Marxist (any Cold War adjective will do, actually) rabble-rousers from all of these nations.

These phantom foreigners have taken the blame for organizing violence and funding insurrection.  Some even blame them for the wave of pro-Zelaya graffiti that’s gone up throughout Tegucigalpa.  As one Micheletti supporter told me, “Hondurans have never put up graffiti like this.  It’s being done by people from those other countries.”  Meanwhile, first-hand experience at pro-Zelaya protests reveals that it’s primarily adolescent Hondurans putting up the graffiti.

Perhaps the nastiest case of such “othering” came when the de facto government stripped Catholic priest Father Andrés Tamayo of his citizenship.  Tamayo, a naturalized Honduran citizen born in El Salvador, has been an outspoken Zelaya supporter while the historically conservative church sided with Micheletti.  The response from the Right: he’s Salvadoran, he’s not one of us.

The contempt for certain sectors of the Latin American Left has both long-term and short-term causes.  Historically, Hondurans have always been relatively conservative for the region—the two dominant parties have been right-of-center, and leftist ideology never really took hold here.  Widespread distrust remains for the leftist politics of other Latin American countries.  The Right’s reaction to Zelaya’s alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the other Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) countries brought this into relief.

People may be right to condemn Chávez’ influence in Honduras and his bellicose rhetoric over these past few months.  But this condemnation has fed a bilious blame game, where “true Hondurans” respect the government, while “foreign meddlers” sow instability.  Those who use this language deny that Zelaya has substantial support in Honduras; instead of trying to understand and communicate with those on the other side, they simply deny their existence and blame it on foreigners.

Zelaya’s supporters are equally guilty of xenophobia and racism, though with different targets.  Their first targets are Honduran Arabs, whom they identify as a crucial part of the Honduran “oligarchy,” owning major businesses and pro-Micheletti media outlets.  Merchants of Arab origin have long occupied a place in Honduras; ironically, in the early- and mid-twentieth century they played a critical role in challenging the dominance of the United Fruit Company and even supporting labor organizing.  As Dario Euraque’s work has shown, this sector was critical in opposing caudillo rule and modernizing the brutal enclave economy, even if these businessmen were primarily driven by self-interest to improve conditions for capital.  But few people here remember (or ever knew) this part of the country’s history.  Instead, Zelaya supporters have taken to blanket condemnations of the Arabs that, as the argument goes, control this country’s economy and polity.  Never mind that these people are Honduran citizens whose families have been in Honduras for generations; their last names mark them as enemies of the nation.

Ironically, Zelaya supporters have unleashed equally vigorous rhetorical attacks against Israelis and Jews.  This was initially motivated by Israel’s recognition of the Micheletti government (the only other country to do so was Taiwan).  Things turned ugly, however, when Zelaya and his supporters started blaming Israeli commandos for chemical attacks on the Brazilian embassy.  And they reached their apogee when a pro-Zelaya commentator, David Romero, shamefully denounced Israelis and Jews as “people who damage the country” and wondered aloud why the world had not “allowed Hitler to complete his historic mission.”

The U.S. ambassador, Hugo Llorens, issued a public condemnation of this unconscionable diatribe, but no one has taken on the deeper issue: the ease with which Hondurans have reached for both foreigners and domestic “others” as the cause of the crisis.   The Latin American Public Opinion Project recently noted the low levels of political tolerance—namely, the low respect for the rights of those with unpopular or contrary views—among Honduran citizens.  In the last few months, however, Hondurans have displayed a different type of intolerance—this time for those of different nationalities, faiths and skin colors.  This second type of intolerance is always deplorable, but in this crisis it has also had the unfortunate effect of displacing blame and curtailing honest debate about the causes of this crisis and the sharp polarization within Honduran society.

As Honduras hopefully moves toward resolving this crisis, leaders on both sides should condemn the xenophobic rhetoric coming from within their ranks.  Both sides must own up to the fact that substantial sectors of Honduran citizens—all of whom “love their country”—support both Zelaya and Micheletti.  And when the dust settles, Honduras’ new leadership must also reflect on the roots of—and potential remedies for—the troubling xenophobic and racist sentiments that this crisis has brought to the fore.

*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.


Daniel Altschuler has written extensively on Central American politics and U.S. immigration politics for publications including the Christian Science MonitorForeign Policy, The Nation, CNN, and Dissent. He is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and holds a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.

Tags: Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, Xenophobia
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