Crucible of Courage

IN THE PRESIDENTIAL election in Honduras last November, ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner despite serious irregularities documented by international observers. Violence and intimidation marked the campaign period, including the assassination of at least 18 candidates and activists from Libre, the new left-leaning party.

Hernández, past president of the Honduran National Congress, supported the June 2009 coup. His record of operating outside the rule of law includes bold measures to gain control over the congress, judiciary, military, and electoral authority. He helped establish a new military police force in August 2013, deploying thousands of troops to take over police functions. Hernández ran on a campaign promise to put “a soldier on every corner.”

Honduras has been named the “murder capital of the world,” with relentless violence coming from crime, drug cartels, and police corruption. Attacks on human rights defenders and opposition activists have been brutal and have allegedly involved death squads reminiscent of the 1980s. Those working to reverse poverty and injustice receive death threats, priests and lay leaders among them. They are bracing for even greater repression under Hernández’s administration.

The growing militarization of Honduran society, justified as a way of fighting crime, is fueled by U.S. support for the country’s security forces—forces reportedly involved in widespread human rights violations. By denying the repression against social movements, and congratulating the Honduran government for its supposed progress on human rights, the U.S. Embassy has made it possible for rampant impunity to continue.

For decades, Honduras played a key role in U.S. efforts—including counterinsurgency wars—to maintain its military hegemony in the region in the face of alleged threats from “communism.” A number of left-leaning governments in the region are now seen as posing a threat to corporate interests and to U.S. foreign policy goals.

U.S. policy interests need to be unmasked and examined. Historically, Honduras has been a reliable source of cheap labor and export crops. Today, its energy, mineral, and water resources are being sought. Extractive industries, biofuel plantations, and hydroelectric dam projects are ravaging the environment and uprooting indigenous communities, often displacing and killing those who stand in the way.

The U.S. faith community could play a crucial role and help avoid repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. Prayerful accompaniment is needed, as well as a steady stream of delegations to Honduras to “touch the wounds,” not unlike what we did in the 1980s and ’90s for El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Honduran social movement leaders depend on international accompaniment to provide protection so that they can do their work. Vigilance is critical; without it, dissent will be silenced.

People-to-people solidarity has already helped to make a difference and to bring to light in the U.S. what is happening in Honduras with our government’s complicity. We can ask the U.S. Congress to suspend U.S. aid to the Honduran security forces until concrete progress is made in addressing ongoing abuses and impunity.

Our work here is easy. By comparison, those in Honduras who work for human rights and social change face an ongoing barrage of attacks and death threats. Since the coup, many have been killed, and at times their children have been targeted, but the work goes forward. Their wounds, as well as their courage, cannot help but inspire us to do more, to learn more, and to speak out.

The brave members of Honduran civil society are the real hope for democracy. For them to be able to continue their work without being killed and intimidated, our support will be crucial. 

Jean Stokan is director of the Institute Justice Team of Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

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