Honduras transition in the New Cold War

Hondurans last month elected Xiomara Castro of the left-populist LIBRE Party to be the country’s first woman president, defeating Nasry Asfura of the conservative National Party. Taking office next month, Castro is to replace the National Party’s President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose term has been plagued by scandal and accusations of ties to narco-trafficking. The wife of Manuel Zelaya, the populist president who was removed in a coup in 2009, Castro seems poised to revive his program—and take it much further.  “Never again will the power be abused in this country,” she declared upon her victory. She has proclaimed herself a “democratic socialist,” and pledges to govern through a new model of “participatory democracy,” placing a series of reforms before the voters through referenda or “consultas.”

Castro also pledged during her campaign that she will “open diplomatic and commercial relations with continental China,” which was widely taken as meaning a switch of diplomatic recognition. Honduras is currently one of only 14 countries that recognize Taipei rather than Beijing. (The Hill, NYT, El Economista, Mexico, El Heraldo, Honduras, Taipei Times)

“It’s an attempt to balance the hegemony of the United States,” economist Ismael Zepeda of the Honduran thinktank FOSDEH, told The Guardian. “Honduras wants to enter into the dynamic of saying if you do not support me internally, I have another ally who will give me the resources I need if I want to build megaprojects.”

One of these megaprojects is the Patuca III hydro-electric dam in marginalized Olancho department, La Miskitia region—being built by the Chinese firm SinoHydro, and bitterly opposed by the local Tawahka, Pech, Miskitu and Garifuna indigenous peoples. (Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival, International Rivers, BankTrack) SinoHydro was also involved in construction of the Agua Zarca dam—that which was being opposed by the martyred indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres.

According to World Bank data, Honduras owes 4% of its $10 billion external debt to China compared to 0.01% to the US. The country’s principal creditors are international bondholders, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), and the World Bank.

But Honduras has traditionally been strategically important to the US; it has long hosted Joint Task Force Bravo, the Pentagon’s principal component for hemisperic policing. “The US will not let Honduras go because it is crucial for homeland security,” Antonio Yang, a Taiwanese Latin America expert and honorary professor at the National Defense University in Tegucigalpa. told the Financial Times.

And indeed, the incoming Castro administration has already started to equivocate. Gerardo Torres, the LIBRE Party’s secretary of international relations and a member of Castro’s transition team, this week said: “The new government will maintain relations with Taiwan. President-elect Xiomara Castro has been clear, these ties will be maintained. Nobody in the party wants to enter government distancing ourselves from the United States.” (Al Jazeera)

One senses quiet pressure from the US embassy behind this back-pedalling. In the past five years, three countries in Central America and the Caribbean have switched their recognition from Taipei to Beijing: El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic. In all three cases, the US responded by symbolically recalling its ambassadors. But the hypocrisy of the US position is obvious: Washington itself has recognized Beijing instead of Taipei since 1979.

On Dec. 10, Nicaragua became the latest country to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, which is what prompted the seeming back-pedalling from the LIBRE Party. (BBC News, Al Jazeera)

It is the archaic fiction of “One China” that reduces Central America and Taiwan alike to diplomatic pawns in the New Cold War between Washington and Beijing. It is tragic to see the Central American republics, in their struggle to break free of Washington’s orbit, acquiesce in Beijing’s design to incorporate Taiwan into its own orbit—or, more ambitiously, its national territory. Yet another illustration of how a global divide-and-rule racket is the essence of the state system.

Map: Perry-Castañeda Library