Honduras—New Damage from Old Wounds: US-backed ‘Contra’ War on Nicaragua in the ‘80s still takes heavy toll
When Hurricane Katrina struck the coastal towns of Louisiana and Mississippi in September 2005, among those who suffered great hardships were the uncounted thousands of destitute, undocumented immigrants from Latin America, most notably from Honduras.
Honduras, in spite of its fertile lands and bundant natural resources, today remains one of the poorest countries in the Americas. On the “Human Development Index” including child mortality and life expectancy, Honduras is second from the bottom, after Haiti.
Few people realize the magnitude or longevity of the damage to Honduras caused by the US-supported “CounterRevolution” against the Sandinistas of Nicaragua in the 1980s. In terms of its “human development,” the UNDP estimates that socioeconomic and environmental damage caused by the Contra War set Honduras back 15 to 20 years.
The violence, disability and environmental demise set in motion by the Contra War continues to this day. Even now, 20 years later, innocent people and farm animals still have legs blown off by land mines. Destructive floods, made worse by the Contras’ strategic deforestation, are driving more and more poor farmers from their homes. The mass exodus of land less, jobless peasants to the dreamed of “land of plenty” in the North is still in motion.
To the thousands of Hondurans who fled the dangers, floods and social upheaval in their homeland, settling in shanty towns of Louisiana and Mississippi, their run-in with Hurricane Katrina and the government’s callous response must have seemed like going from the frying pan into the fire.
On these pages, David Werner reports first-hand on the some of the new damage in Honduras caused by landmines and deforestation stemming from the Contra War, and on community-based efforts to cope. Next, Bruce Hobson relates how Honduran migrant workers in the US were especially hard hit by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Both disasters—the Contra War and the US government’s inhumane response to Katrina—are rooted in the same short-sighted market forces, disregard for human rights, and abuses of power.
Landmines, Floods, and Banditry: Ongoing Damage in Honduras from the Contra War on Nicaragua in the 1980s
Honduran farming communities living in the towns and villages near the Nicaragua border are still suffering new damages from the US-backed war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s.
In October 2005 I (David Werner) became acutely aware of these problems. I was visiting Honduras as a consultant to a Community Based Rehabilitation program coordinated by the Instituto Juana Leclerc. Among the areas I visited was the mountainous region bordering Nicaragua. Here a significant cause of disability, even today, is landmines. Villagers—as well as their cows, horses, mules, pigs, and other livestock—are still being maimed or killed by landmines planted by the Contras over 16 years ago. Because some of the mine victims are leaders in the local CBR initiative, I had an opportunity to talk with them.
A Meeting with Landmine Victims
Traveling to the Departamento de Paraíso, on the Nicaragua border, I was able to examine the injuries and listen to the stories of persons who are coping with injuries from landmines and other disasters resulting from the Contra War. What is most disturbing is that some of the injuries and damage stemming from that war during the 1980s occurred a decade or more after the war ended! New injuries—both personal and collective—continue to take place up to the present, with no end in sight.
One amputee from a landmine, Santos Barrientos, told me his story. Santos lives in in the border town of Trojes, and is president of the local CBR Committee in the district.
Santos explained that during the Nicaragua War the Contras used Trojes as one of their main bases to invade Nicaragua. He was a schoolboy at the time.
Many of Santos’ neighbors and friends were injured or killed by artillery fire from the mountains, or from stepping on mines. When the war officially ended in July 1988. Santos was thankful that he and his family had been spared.
Eight years went by. Santos had married and had children. He worked on a coffee farm. Then, one morning in 1997 when he was working on the hillside farm, suddenly the ground under him exploded. Both his legs and his right hand were shattered. His right leg had to be amputated.
Santos' landmine injury did not occur in the high-mountain area still posted as dangerous for landmines, but at a much lower elevation. A decade before, high in the mountains along the Honduras-Nicaragua border, the Contras had planted mines by the thousands to deter the Sandinistas from attacking their bases on the Honduran side.
Over the years, however, heavy rains and mudslides have washed mines from the forested highlands down into the coffee plantations on the lower slopes. It was Santos’ bad luck to step on one.
Even today, villagers are still terrified of stepping on landmines. Mine-cleaning projects coordinated by the United Nations and Red Cross have to date defused over 80,000 landmines, 30,000 of them in the Dept. of Paraiso. But huge numbers of these cruel explosives still remain, and the “no-man’s lands” along the border are still blocked off.
Ironically, with the passing years, the danger zone has enlarged. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, with its torrential mudslides, carried landmines much farther down the mountainsides into corn fields and the pasture land of the plains. As recently as April 2005, a farmer’s tractor picked up a landmine in its tread. Luckily it didn’t explode. But the shaken farmer abandoned both his tractor and farm. His family joined the thousands of refugees who have moved to the growing slums of the cities.
A perpetual disaster area. Following the end of the Contra War, the UN classified the southern border of Honduras a disaster area, and has sponsored several refugee and development projects, some of which continue to this day. Landmines still remain an ever present danger. For years after the war, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), in an attempt to reduce the ongoing harm and win the hearts and minds of the people, initiated an array of community “self-help” projects. We saw the vestiges of these as we drove along the roads between border towns, where fading signs announced a USAID water project or other undertaking, now defunct.
Despite such efforts, the damage resulting from the war continues to escalate. Landmines are just the tip of the iceberg.
A growing ecological disaster has precipitated from the massive deforestation caused by the Contras on the mountain slopes along the Nicaragua border.
The rationale for destroying the forests was essentially the same as that used by the US troops in the war against Vietnam. In Vietnam, toxic (cancer and birth-defect causing) defoliants were used to denude the forests and expose the hiding places of the Viet Cong. In the “low-intensity” war on Nicaragua, instead of defoliants, the US-sponsored Contras razed the mountain forests with an army of chainsaws. After the trees were felled, they were set aflame. Hundreds of thousands of hectors of remote mountain forest went up in smoke. Consumed in the inferno were some of the ecologically most precious cloud forests, together with their endangered wildlife: monkeys, ocelot, deer, etc.
From deforestation: erosion and floods. With this systematic destruction of the mountain forests, top soil began to erode. Widespread deforestation is one of the reasons why Honduras was so severely devastated by Hurricane Mitch.
In the long run, hidden landmines have taken far fewer lives – and caused less displacement of families – than has the wanton destruction of the trees. But there are other pernicious results as well.
Contras turned bandits. Yet another long-term aftermath of the Contra War has been a pandemic of lawlessness and crime, which has swept the border region and to some extent continues to this day.
During the height of the war, over 40,000 Nicaraguan Contras were stationed on the Honduran side of the border. Although US President Ronald Reagan called them “Freedom Fighters,” they were essentially mercenary “soldiers of fortune,” trained by the US military in terrorist tactics. From Honduras they made barbaric attacks on towns and villages in Nicaragua, plundering villages, raping women, and massacring even children. In Honduras, too, they behaved like thugs. They routinely stole pigs, chickens, vehicles, and anything else they fancied. They marched into homes and helped themselves to anything they wanted—including to anything they wanted—including recourse. They either suffered in silence, fled in despair, or protested and suffered the consequences.
During the war the Contras—being salaried by US taxpayers—lived high on the hog. But when the war ended so did the paycheck. Many Contras were young men who since adolescence had known no life other than that of armed hoodlums. So at the war’s end they continued the only profession they knew. In lawless gangs they roamed the border area, robbing homes, assaulting busses, stealing cattle, trafficking drugs, and kidnapping for ransom. Many Honduran families along the border who had weathered thewar fled after peace was declared. Some who had moved away during the war returned hopefully afterwards, only to discover that the violence and law lessness continued—and so fled again.
But for those who left, finding a peaceful and productive place to live wasn’t easy. In the years following the war, the wave of crime and violence spread through much of Honduras. Even in formerly peaceful cities like Tegucigalpa, now homes are often broken into and cars are stolen every day. To try to control the crime wave, the countryside swarms with heavily armed soldiers and police.
From what people told me, many police have become thugs and thieves themselves. Some sell their guns and uniforms to hoodlums. This makes it hard to tell a real policeman from a crook in police clothing. Too often, alas, it comes to the same thing.
Exodus to Gringolandia
The combination of landmines along the border, floods and climate change through out the country (with more devastating hurricanes), together with increased crime, violence, corruption, and police repression, has prompted countless Hondurans to look for greener pastures. Thousands have made their way through Mexico to enter the United States, mostly as undocumented workers. Over the years, an enclave of Honduran migrant workers settled along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.
How cruelly ironical their fate! A mass of Hondurans flees their country to escape the aftermath of the Contra War, the ravages of Hurricane Mitch, and other calamities— only to end devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the government’s deadly failed response. They have learned the hard way; their problems are of a global nature.
Landmines and the Contra War—A Closer Look
After the official end of the Nicaragua War, the border area of Honduras and Nicaragua was littered with hundreds of thousands of landmines. The United Nations declared it a disaster area, and cordoned off a tenmile-wide strip of mountain forest, posting it as unsafe for anyone to enter.
The ongoing devastation of Honduras—including landmines, environmental demise, and social deterioration—resulting from the Contra War is particularly tragic because most Hondurans (and most Nicaraguans) wanted no part in the war.
The war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was fomented and funded by the US “military industrial complex” for political and economic reasons. In the early 1980s, when the US decided to destabilize the Sandinistas by supporting the Contra-revolutionaries, it pressured the adjacent nations of Honduras and Costa Rica to allow their lands to be used for training the Contras and launching the attack. In exchange, the US offered the governments of these countries extensive military and development aid. Costa Rica resisted, but the Honduran oligarchy agreed. Like most Central American countries, Honduras had long been servile to US interests. A large part of its agribusiness and commerce were controlled by US corporations. Honduran statesmen were aware of how the US has historically responded to small Latin American countries that fail to comply to its wishes. So they tolerated the Contras, along with a strong (if covert) US military presence, who used their country as a base for invading Nicaragua.
Most Honduran citizens opposed their government’s complicity with the US scheme. There were mass protests, especially in border towns, which were turned into a war zone. To quell the opposition, the US began its famous campaign to “win the hearts and minds of the people.” It inundated the country side with hundreds of Peace Corp volunteers and community health centers staffed by US medics.
At that time, our organization received an order from the US Army for 300 copies of Donde No Hay Doctor, the Spanish edition of my book Where There Is No Doctor. We refused to sell them; we wanted no part in the US war on Nicaragua. But the Army got the books elsewhere.
Sadly, the US Peace Corps was dragged into the US military objectives. During the Contra War, Honduras had more Peace Corps volunteers than any other nation. On my recent visit to Honduras, a village health promoter in the border town of Trojes, made it clear to me that during the war, the Peace Corps played two distinct roles. “On the surface,” he said, “it was good deeds and big smiles, and under neath, covert surveillance.” He explained how volunteers would try to win the trust of the people, to find out the names of persons actively opposed to the Contra war and the US role in it. Then those local “war resisters” would suffer an accident or mysteriously disappear.
US shirks responsibility for harm done. The US government, which provided the mines and trained the Contras to plant them, has largely turned its back on the ongoing “collateral damage.”
As the world’s biggest producer and exporter of landmines, the United States has repeatedly refused to sign the International Agreement to Ban the Manufacture and Sale of Landmines. Not surprisingly, therefore, the US tries to sweep under the carpet the whole issue of civilian landmine victims. And, sadly, US mass media have largely been complicit in this conspiracy of silence: Don’t look, don’t tell!
Leftover landmines The landmine danger in Honduras is, of course, only one part of the larger problem. Central America has been deeply impacted by mines placed during the long history of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. The UN estimated that in 1999, a decade after the Contra War, over 100,000 landmines and other unexploded munitions still dotted the country side of Central America. Of these, approximately 73,000 were in Nicaragua and between 5,000 to 8,000 in Guatemala. Since the Organization of American States has removed thousands of landmines in recent years, Honduras has now been declared “landmine free,” but there is no guarantee that every mine has been removed.
A small number of landmines can make large areas of land uninhabitable. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports that “in 1996 … a village in Mozambique, had been abandoned by the entire population of around 10,000 villagers due to alleged mine infestation. After three months of work, the deminers found four mines. Four mines had denied access to land and caused the migration of 10,000 people.”
Canada and Mexico to the rescue. While the American government has largely down-played this problem, fortunately the countries bordering the US have taken a far more responsible and humanitarian stand. In 1999, Mexico and Canada joined with the Panamerican Health Organization (the branch of the World Health Organization covering the Americas) to form the so called “Initiativa Tripartita para la Atención a Víctimas de Minas en Centroamérica” (Tri-party Initiative for Assisting Victims of Landmines in Central America).
From 1999 to 2003 the Tri-party Initiative joined the mine-defusing program of the Red Cross. It has introduced three measures to help landmine victims and their families “improve their quality of life.”
The first measure was to provide artificial limbs and mobility devices to those who lost arms or legs. With this, the Barr Foundation, based in Florida (which has also assisted PROJIMO in Mexico) has helped by donating prosthetic components.
The second measure was to help these families with home improvements. It provides economic and technical support for improving buildings or roofs, by replacing pole and thatch walls with adobe block, and by constructing protected wells and water storage tanks.
The third measure was to help the land mine victims and their kin increase their income through “productive family projects”—providing the family with a start up stock of pigs, goats, chicken, cattle, or other livestock.
On my visit to the CBR center in Trojes, I learned that 11 families of landmine victims had received such help. In one family that was helped, the mother and three children had been injured by a single mine, years after the war was over.
The Tripartita has been cooperating with the Community Based Rehabilitation program of the Juana Leclerc Institute. Landmine amputee Santos Barrientos, now President of the local CBR Committee, was one of the first recipients of a new leg.
Damage from the Contra War continues. Despite the good will and international assistance, the damages deriving from the Contra War continue to mount. The combination of migrating landmines, deforestation, increased flooding, and escalation of delinquency and corruption have led to a mass exodus of farm families to the cities, where urban slums are mushrooming—and to the United States in search of safer conditions and higher wages. But often the “illegal aliens” in the US, again find life is difficult, dangerous, and unfair.
Looking at the larger picture, the whole world is still being hurt by the Contra War: The strategic deforestation of the border region destroyed thousands of acres of cloud forest with rare species of plants and animals, reducing the biodiversity of the planet. The decimation of the forests adds to the overall trend of climate change and global warming—leading to more disasters like Hurricanes Mitch, Katrina, Wilma, and Stan. And others to come.
We all live on the same planet. The damages of war and greed that we sow in distant lands return home like boomerangs. Unless we can find a way to live in peace with one another and in balance with our imperiled environment, we will go the way of the Dodo. Learn and live!
A first step toward sustainable change is FULLER UNDERSTANDING OF CURRENT EVENTS. We the people need to know what is happening to this earth. We need to become better informed about what our leaders are up to, and why. We need to understand why what we call “democracy” and “development” are widening the gap between rich and poor, worldwide. And we need to find ways to collectively make participatory democracy and sustainable development work.
By helping one another to become better informed, we can collectively choose better leaders: ones who put the well-being of all before the shortsighted greed of a few.
Politics of Health Knowledge Network
Sharing critical information about how “the larger picture” affects our collective health and survival is the intent of our HealthWrights web site, www.politicsofhealth.org. The site will be much more useful if it is interactive. Please take part!
Announcing a New Network of Community-Based Rehabilitation Programs in Central America
In Honduras I took part in a “Central American Seminar on Community Based Rehabilitation.” An important outcome was the formation of a new Network of CBR Programs in Central America. Several of us stressed the need for stronger leadership by disabled persons in CBR. After much debate, they decided that at Network meetings at least 50% of participants should be disabled. This is a huge step forward for CBR! A liaison is also underway with the CBR Network in Mexico. Hooray!