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Cut Military Aid, Not Humanitarian Aid, to Reduce Refugee Numbers

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GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. Late last month, the Trump administration decided to cut aid to humanitarian projects in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These projects were put in place in order to alleviate economic and social crises that drove people to emigrate from these countries in the hope of finding a better life to a large extent in the United States. In 2016, U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador totaled $750 million and for this year, it was programmed at $450 million. Trump argued that the aid does not do enough to stop migration and so he will cut all humanitarian assistance. Speaking to the Republican-Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, Trump explained why he cut the aid. Let’s have a listen.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP I have to say, I said I was going to close the border. It’s gotten so bad. I said we’re closing the border and as soon as I said that, and I really thanked the President of Mexico because they stepped up. And now, they are apprehending people on their southern border coming in from Honduras, El Salvador, and various other places, Guatemala. And I stopped paying almost $600 million to those three countries. Now I got a lot of heat. The Democrats say, how dare you do that? That money is used for all this good but no, it’s not. It’s largely stolen. I sent $600 million. We do. $600 million to three countries and they form caravans. Now if their government wanted to, I have a feeling, they’d be able to stop caravans from forming in those three countries. I have a feeling. They’re pretty tough. They’re pretty toughed out. But they didn’t, so I stopped the payment. Do you mind? Are you okay with it? [crowd cheers]

GREG WILPERT Joining me now to discuss the relations between the U.S. and Central America and the migration issue, is Adrienne Pine. She teaches Anthropology at American University in Washington D.C. and is author of the book Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras. Thanks for joining us today, Adrienne.

ADRIENNE PINE Thanks for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT So tell us a bit about the aid that the U.S. provides to these three countries, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador. What is it used for and what is going to happen now that the money is cut?

ADRIENNE PINE Well to be honest, Greg, the bulk of the aid is going toward military and police forces in those countries that are actively operating death squads and carrying out acts of horrific repression against the people in those countries and that’s the aid that has not been cut. The other aid— it depends on the context in the different country— but a lot of it is implemented through USAID and not necessarily having the degree of benefits that many of the Democrats claim. But the benefits of the aid that Trump has cut pale in comparison to the direct harm that the military aid is implementing against these populations. In Honduras, in particular, there’s the Berta Caseres Act that many Congress members have been supporting in the United States, which would cut military and police aid to that country precisely because it has been used to terrorize the population, in particular land rights defenders. People who are fighting to be able to ensure that their country is livable and that they can remain in it, are being killed like Berta Caseres who it was named for. And so, obviously if Donald Trump really wanted to do something to make sure that people from the Northern Triangle of Central America were able to stay in their countries, what he would do would be cut military aid. But of course, that’s not really his priority.

GREG WILPERT Now there’s a tendency— not just in the U.S. but also in Europe and Australia— to instead of addressing causes of mass migration, is to fortify borders and to keep refugees out. Now how do you see this dynamic working out with regard to Central American migration to the U.S. Is this something that is also part of the policy? Does that make sense? What’s your reaction to this?

ADRIENNE PINE Well of course that’s his policy. We’ve seen this playing out at the border, not just with the wall but with the concentration camps that are being built, with the genocidal policy of family separation, and of course with the threats that are coming from the Trump administration toward Honduras. But again, the walls are not going to keep people from migrating if the situation that they are facing at home is so dangerous that their only option is to leave. That is in fact the case in Honduras. I just returned a few days ago from Tegucigalpa, the capital. Ever since the 2009 military coup that ousted the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, things have gotten far worse than they had been before. But it’s really worse than I’ve ever seen it. It’s unsurvivable in neighborhoods where you have really police in collaboration with the gangs carrying out these “war taxes.” Basically that’s what they’re called in Honduras so that anybody who has a small business, anybody who lives in a neighborhood, in a working-class neighborhood has to pay exorbitant amounts to the police and the gangs in collaboration, or they will be killed, or their family members will be killed. Under such circumstances, no matter how much aid might come, no matter how much people really do want to stay in their own country, leaving is their only chance to diminish the chance that they’ll get killed because everybody in Honduras is perfectly well aware of the dangers of migrating north, the dangers of traveling through Guatemala, through Mexico, and of course the dangers of arriving at the United States in such a hostile environment. Of course that’s why these caravans have formed. The caravans, I should point out, don’t really represent an increase in the number of people migrating, but rather a way for people to protect themselves from being killed on route to the United States.

GREG WILPERT Of course the tricky question is now, what’s the alternative? Trump says in the talk that we just saw. He says that he thinks that the governments could actually try to stop these caravans and the migration, which of course would mean something like closing their own borders and preventing people from migrating, which would be pretty outrageous if that were to happen. They certainly want this aid it seems, but what can they do now? Assuming that the governments actually want to do something to help people stay in their countries, what would be the alternative?

ADRIENNE PINE I think the assumption is challenging because the governments, at least in Honduras and Guatemala, just don’t seem to have any interest really in keeping people in their country because if they did, they wouldn’t be creating such a hostile environment that people are fleeing. Those governments, in particular in Honduras, the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez is not elected. It is a dictatorship. There was such completely, patently blatant fraud in the 2017 elections that it took a really long time for the United States to force the rest of the world to recognize them. Of course during that period, over 40 protesters were killed by state security forces under the orders of Juan Orlando Hernandez and dozens of people were taken political prisoners for protesting against the electoral fraud that put the dictator Juan Orlando Hernandez in place. At least two of those people from that period, Edwin Espinal and Raul Alvarez, are being held in a maximum-security prison, La Tolva, and the conditions there are torture. They’re only allowed an hour of sunlight per month. They are not allowed to see medical doctors when they need them, and their life is constantly at risk. And so, what you have is these situations where the presidents of the country talk about wanting to reduce migration. But the only way that they really see, like Donald Trump, of doing that is by putting up walls to block people’s mobility because they are not at all invested in creating conditions that make people’s lives safer and more livable.

GREG WILPERT I want to turn to something that’s slightly different, which has to do with the relations between Guatemala and Honduras more generally, and particularly also the relationship of how this connects to Israel. That is, in the past two years Guatemala and Honduras have improved their relations with Israel and also said they want to move their embassies to Jerusalem, basically following the Trump example. They’ve begun to turn more of a blind eye to the occupation of Palestine, which is a break from their previous position. President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala and President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, have actually appealed to Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to intercede on their behalf to convince Trump to cancel the aid cut, but so far without success. So my question is, what’s going on here? Talk to us about these two governments and why they’ve shown such enthusiastic support for Israel in recent time.

ADRIENNE PINE Well this largely has to do with the security issues that I was just talking about and both governments illegitimacy, vis-a-vis their peoples. Both presidents are ultra-Zionists. In fact, President Hernandez of Honduras when he was younger, attended a training with Israel’s Agency for Development and International Cooperation, the MASHAV. He’s a graduate of that. And they have both depended very heavily by purchasing weapons and advanced crowd-control methods from Israel in order to really keep their populations in line. We’re talking about the LRAD, the Long-Range Acoustic Device, large scale purchases of I.D.F.’s Tavor 21 series assault rifles for the Honduran Secret Service, extensive violence prevention trainings by MASHAV for Honduran security forces. Israel has been a key player in terms of the Honduras government being able to successfully repress its population, so that those who are in power could remain in power. In terms of Juan Orlando Hernandez agreeing to place the embassy in Jerusalem, for these reasons I don’t think it was a stretch for him to do that. But I think one of the reasons he first offered to put it there was because he was trying to regain his upper hand with the United States after blatantly stealing an election, which of course makes the United States look complicit in that because it is. This was something that curries favor with both the United States and Israel. I don’t think they have any qualms in doing that. And of course, there’s a deeper irony there in that much of the elite of Honduras is actually of Palestinian descent and traditionally opposed Israel policy against Palestinians. But the interest in repressing the Honduran population seems to supersede that historical complexity.

GREG WILPERT Actually that’s also interesting to note of course that the Salvadoran President himself, Bukele, is also of Palestinian descent. But we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Adrienne Pine, Professor of Anthropology at American University. Thanks again, Adrienne, for having joined us today.


GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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