Vice President Joe Biden is slated to travel to Mexico and Honduras in the first week of March. He is visiting the region at a particularly difficult moment. The security situation throughout Mexico and Central America is getting worse. Honduras has been particularly hard hit. A recent United Nations report sets the murder rate in Honduras as the highest in the world, at 82 homicides per 100,000 people (for perspective, the United States hovers around four).
The political situation in Honduras is also complicated. After the Supreme Court ordered the removal of President Zelaya in June of 2009, the two party system which had stabilized Honduras over the last thirty years collapsed. The ensuing mess has provided room for corruption and drug traffickers to flourish, which has led to spiraling violence. The careless word “de-facto” used by the Administration to inaccurately characterize the interim Honduran government led to a frivolous lawsuit against interim President Roberto Micheletti.
Far from helping the tiny nation of Honduras, the Obama Administration’s policies have exacerbated a tenuous situation. The Administration’s knee jerk condemnation of the legal removal of President Zelaya made it impossible to assist the interim government of Roberto Micheletti to re-establish constitutional democracy; something it should be noted they did anyway, despite the U.S. objection. Ceasing cooperation went so far as to turn off the radars in Palmerola (popularly known as Soto Cano); making it impossible for the interim government to track drug flights.
Yet the situation is worse. Honduras has also been the victim of the ill-fated federal gun-running program. While the lion’s share of the media attention has focused on Operation Fast and Furious which involved federal government officials selling high-power weapons to Mexico; few know that the United States government ran a similar program in Central America – called Operation Castaway. Just like the more public disaster, this smaller Central American gun-running scheme also slipped out of control; leading to the deaths of Hondurans and with some of the weapons allegedly appearing as part of the FARC’s arsenal.
To make matters even worse, there have been important missed opportunities to bring to an end the drug running which is the cause of much of the violence. In August of 2009 Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled, the #3 drug kingpin in the world, was captured by the Colombian security services on an arrest warrant issued by a Federal Court in Manhattan. Instead of serving the extradition to the United States, the Justice Department allowed his extradition to Venezuela (where he has since been held in solitary confinement and without trial). Makled famously bragged in an interview that he ran five cocaine flights a day between Venezuela and clandestine airfields in Honduras. In allowing his extradition to Venezuela, the United States has lost an important opportunity to publically expose Venezuela’s narco-regime and begin dismantling the sophisticated global drug network set in place by Makled and his Venezuelan military allies (including, allegedly, current Venezuelan Defense Minister and OFAC designated drug runner General Henry Rangel Silva).
The Administration has also not provided the financial support necessary for Honduras to deal with many of its challenges. A previous recipient of an Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact (multi-year budget support); in December of 2011 the Board of Directors of the MCC only approved Honduras for a threshold program – a program meant to be administered by a US contractor and which focuses on certain deficiencies necessary to address before a full compact is awarded. The issue for Honduras was corruption, and rightly so. However the Administration failed to recognize that rampant corruption in Honduras is an after-effect of a disastrous Zelaya Administration, an administration they desperately sought to illegally return to power.
Finally, there is the issue of the visas. In the aftermath of the Zelaya kerfuffle, the Obama Administration withdrew visas from dozens of people they considered participants in a “de-facto” government. So anxious were they to punish the people who defied their attempts to manage Honduras’ domestic politics, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras sent visa cancellation letters even to people who had no active U.S. visas. Almost three years later, after President Porfirio Lobo’s herculean effort to restore Honduras to its rightful place within the Organization of American States and the international community; these visas remain cancelled.
The Obama administration clearly has a debt to pay with the Honduran people. Vice President Biden could go a long way to rebuilding the U.S. relationship with this important Central American partner by apologizing for the mistakes of the past. He will find in the Hondurans a gracious and forgiving people.