An update on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Central American countries

By Martin Mowforth

Clearly the coronavirus pandemic is affecting economic, social and environmental development in Central America. The problem for a website entry that updates a fast-changing situation such as this pandemic is that by the time the entry is made onto the website the data it presents soon becomes out-of-date. So I have tried to limit the significance of the statistical data given here and to paint a background picture to the spread of the virus in each country.

That said, I begin with virus statistics as at 18th April 2020. The data are taken from SICA, the System of Central American Integration at:  https://www.sica.int/coronavirus and are updated each day, so readers can easily check current levels of infection. Also more detailed statistics are given on the Worldometer website at: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/panama/

(Note: The Dominican Republic is included in the data because it is a member state of the DR-CAFTA free trade treaty signed in 2006.)

Quite apart from the epidemiological trends and features of the pandemic, various political, economic and social trends have resulted from the spread of the virus. A few of these are briefly mentioned in the remainder of this summary.

Clearly, the worst affected countries are the Dominican Republic and Panamá. In the case of Panamá, the government declared a state of emergency on 10th March. By the 22nd April, the number of new cases in Panamá appears to have subsided somewhat and the number of new deaths per day has reached a plateau. Because of poor compliance with self-isolation measure, in early April Panama took a different approach to combat the spread of the virus: separation of the sexes. Only women are allowed to leave their homes to buy necessities on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Men in Panama are allowed to venture outside to run errands on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Everyone has to stay home on Sundays.

In Costa Rica a state of emergency was declared on 10th March, especially because people were not following guidelines on social distancing. On 18th March the country closed its borders to all foreigners. Internationally, Costa Rica has attracted attention due to the suggestion made by President Alvarez that the world should develop a Technology Intellectual Property Pool [TIPP] that will accelerate scientific discovery, technology development, proof of safety/efficacy/quality, and broad sharing of the benefits of scientific advancement and its applications in furtherance of the right to health. As proposed by Costa Rica, the formation of TIPP would be coordinated in the first instance by the WHO after which operational implementation might be assigned to other coordinating entities. Such an agreement would bring pressure to bear on the large pharmaceutical companies to share their patents and so is unlikely to be supported by President Trump. It is possible, however, that such an initiative will be instigated through the WHO in the near future despite Trump’s suspension of US payment of dues to the WHO.

The Nicaraguan government has adopted the Swedish approach to the virus – that is, recommendation of social distancing but without a lockdown. For this they have attracted considerable criticism from the opposition who have been spreading all kinds of rumours on social media, not the least of which suggests that President Daniel Ortega is either very ill or dead. The small but voluble, US-supported opposition is essentially claiming that the government is taking a ‘do little‘ approach, and is irresponsible in its disregard for its population. Of course the government counters these arguments, pointing out its high level of testing, the fact that it has the best and most accessible health system in Central America and the lowest number of Covid-19 cases (10 as of Monday 20th April) and deaths (2 as of the same date). In response to the data, the opposition claims governmental manipulation of the figures – i.e., fraudulent reporting. As almost always, the opposition never feels the need to present evidence for its claims.

In El Salvador, the virus appears to have given President Nayib Bukele an opportunity to extend his authoritarian tendencies with enforcement measures being strictly implemented to ensure that people self-isolate. He has given local mayors the power to enforce isolation instructions. A recent report has surfaced of a doctor requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals after being critical of the government’s approach to the virus. The economic toll of the lockdown is reported to be especially harsh in rural areas where many businesses have simply closed making it difficult for many people to get their basic necessities.

Honduras has over 500 cases of infection by the virus and has suffered 46 deaths resulting from it. But it also has the weakest public health system in Latin America. In part this is due to attempts to privatise the system and in part due to a series of corruption scandals involving the embezzling of funds supposedly destined for the health system. Over recent years the public health system has been looted by corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen, and is in a poor state to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. As this website has reported at various times in previous articles, the Honduran government is run by organised crime and drug traffickers who care nothing of the public health of the Honduran population. San Pedro Sula, the country’s second city, and the Sula valley in which it is located are reported to have an exceptionally high rate of infection which may or may not be associated with the extensive plantations in that area – see below under ‘Plantations’. COFADEH, the most respected and reliable Honduran human rights organisation has reported that around 800 Hondurans have been detained since the regime’s coronavirus military-enforced lockdown began. The exploited poor simply cannot stay at home and obey the order because they live day-to-day and don’t have the economic means.

Worldometer reports over 300 cases of infections and 8 deaths caused by coronavirus as of 22nd April in Guatemala. On 20th April eight public health officials were fired (including two deputy health ministers) for conspiring to defraud state funds that were destined for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, has formally requested the removal of Health Minister Hugo Monroy from office due to his slow and poor management of the pandemic. As with most of the other Central American countries, Guatemala has a historical shortfall of hospital beds and personal protective equipment for health workers.

Belize has closed most of its ports of entry, although its international airport remained open until the state of emergency was declared. On 1st April the government declared a state of emergency to last for 30 days along with a curfew from 8 pm to 5 am every day. As of 22nd April, there are believed to be 18 cases of infection and to have been two deaths.

Unionised workers on plantations in Latin America have been seeking special measures to protect their health and their incomes while transnational fruit companies seek to ensure continued supplies of tropical fruits to supermarkets in Europe and North America. German supermarkets have committed to sourcing their bananas from companies that commit to paying their plantation workers a living wage.

The following statement by Dr Juan Almendares Bonilla presents the Covid-19 pandemic in a perspective that differs from the usual commentary. Juan Almendares is a Honduran physician, former university rector and formerly director and leading light of both the Movimiento Madre Tierra (Friends of the Earth Honduras) and the Centre for the Prevention of Torture. An interview I conducted with Juan in 2010 appears in the Interviews section of this website.

“Honduras and Guatemala are countries of pandemics: the pandemics of hunger and no access to water, of dengue, corruption, repression, and today of Covid-19. All these pandemics are inter-related. Trying to focus public, private, social and international cooperation actions and resources on one pandemic – COVID-19 – without an integral approach strategy, only deepens the others. That is, there will be more people living with hunger, dengue, lack of water and loss of resources due to corruption and repression.”

Pandemic to bring about a change of development model in Central America?

By Martin Mowforth

Key words: neoliberal economic development; system shock; export model of growth; de-growth.

In a 2nd May article published in El Salvador’s daily newpaper La Prensa Gráfica, Ernesto Mejía reported on a speech made by Seynabou Sakho, Director for Central America within the World Bank in which he asserted that the region would have to change its model of development when the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic has subsided.

As examples of the kind of changes that would be needed, Mr Sakho cited the need to close the technology gap between Central America and the developed world, the need to give access to education and health services at a distance, and to give higher priority to spending on health and social protections for the most vulnerable sectors. He also cited the need for business to develop an economy based on much lower carbon emissions.

“This crisis has the potential to affect access to education, nutrition and health for many people. We shall have to invest more in human capital and ensure that people are protected,” stated Sakho. He also spoke of the need to postpone for at least six months the debt repayments to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund of the two most indebted countries, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Whilst recommendations to focus more on health, education and social protections are laudable as aims, his speech did not sound like the fundamental switch of direction that is required if development policy is to genuinely benefit the vast majority of people in the region. Instead of bolstering big business and continuing with the export model of development, the World Bank and IMF should be refusing to invest in fossil fuel exploration and exploitation, and refusing to support an industrial model of agriculture which uses the best land in the region to grow crops destined for Europe and North America. They should stop their promotion of privatisation of public services and natural resources and should urge the governments of the region to legislate for stringent regulation to ensure that the production of all goods does not harm humans or their environments or communities.

A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for the bosses of capital. The neoliberal model of economic development – capitalism on steroids – is failing all around us, and its failings have been shown most clearly by the capitalist system’s inability to cope with such a shock. The frailty of a system which divorces people’s means of consumption from their means of production has become exposed. If capitalism recovers from this shock, it will only be until the next shock exposes again its unsustainability. It cannot continue to recover indefinitely. A new model based on de-growth, the marriage of local production and consumption, and the valuation of human and environmental wellbeing rather than financial accumulation, is urgently needed if humanity is going to advance into the 22nd century with a planet in reasonably productive and healthy shape.

Honduras During The COVID19 Pandemic: Why We Shouldn’t Go Back to ‘Normal’

By Karen Spring

May 12, 2020

Karen Spring is the Honduras-based Coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network (HSN). We are grateful to Karen for permission to reproduce the article here. The article appeared in ‘Popular Resistance’ and was produced with the help of ‘Task Force on the Americas’. Karen blogs at aquiabajo.com. The HSN can be found on Facebook: Honduras Solidarity, and Twitter: @hondurassol.

Key words: Capitalism; COVID-19; Garifuna; OFRANEH; Honduras; Deportations of Hondurans.

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On May 5, a group of Afro-indigenous Garifuna men stood guard at the entrance of La Travesía community in the department of Cortés in northern Honduras. The men were fumigating vehicles, documenting the traffic transiting through their community, and implementing other bio-security measures as part of community-led prevention efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

In the afternoon, a police vehicle arrived and stopped at the check point. The Garifuna men were told they had to disperse and could not put up a check-point, which according to the police is illegal. When the local residents insisted on maintaining it, the police threatened to return with a military convoy and to launch tear gas to break it up. The community refused to budge.

The measures at community access points are just one of many strategies that local Honduran communities are using to protect themselves. According to Miriam Miranda, the General Coordinator for the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH) who spoke on a May 6 webinar organised by the Honduras Solidarity Network, “We initiated the creation of COVID-19 attention centres in the communities. We activated networks that have historically operated in the communities. One of the fundamental aspects is that we decided that it was urgent and necessary to create solidarity networks to protect our elders, not just because of their physical vulnerability but because they are the repositories of Garifuna culture and knowledge.”

Miranda also explained how Garifuna leaders in over 26 communities are offering workshops on medicinal plants that can be used to strengthen the immune system and organising community food distribution projects.

Community-led efforts are inspiring for many but they are also a sign of citizen mistrust of governmental COVID-19 management and mitigation efforts led by President Juan Orlando Hernández and Honduran state security forces. From the time that a few cases of coronavirus were reported in Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández imposed an absolute nation-wide curfew and partially suspended constitutional rights including freedom of expression. Military and police set up check-points all around the country to enforce the curfew.

In response, all around the country, many began to protest insisting that they could not afford to lockdown. Large protests organised by hungry and poor Hondurans who cannot work or have been fired from their jobs, are broken up with tear gas and live bullets fired by state security forces. Thousands of people have been arrested.

An already difficult political, human rights and economic situation in Honduras is being exacerbated by the pandemic. The crisis that led to the exodus of Hondurans to the southern U.S. Border lay bare in 2019 the level of the poverty, desperation, and political crisis unfolding in the country over 10 years since the 2009 U.S.-backed coup d’état. Like in many places around the world, the pandemic is only worsening an already terrible and desperate situation. At the time of writing, the Honduran government has reported 1,685 COVID-19 cases and 105 deaths and the numbers continue to grow.

In alleged efforts to minimize the impact of the pandemic, the Honduran Congress approved over $888 million including loans from international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Despite these efforts, Hondurans are convinced that the government has no intention of equipping the public hospitals or helping those in dire need citing the ‘corruption pandemic’ that has totally depleted public institutions, particularly the healthcare system, for years.

Sure enough, it did not take long for the first scandal to erupt. On April 27, the Anti-Corruption Council (CNA) published a report outlining the most recent COVID-19 corruption scandal involving four companies – three Honduran and one based in the United States – that were contracted by the Honduran government to provide coronavirus bio-security equipment to hospitals. According to the report, the contracts overvalued the purchases of N95 and disposable surgical masks by $2.3 million and all four companies are linked directly to family members of the National Party, the current party in power.

A few days after the CNA report, another scandal hit the Honduran media calling into question, yet again, the legitimacy of the government.  On April 30, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Southern District Court of New York indicted the former head of the U.S. funded and trained Honduran National Police, Juan Carlos ‘El Tigre’ Bonilla Valladares on drug trafficking charges. The indictment directly takes aim at President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) and his brother, Tony Hernández, the latter awaiting sentencing in a New York prison for large-scale drug trafficking.

The indictment reads: “… on behalf of convicted former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández and his brother the president, Bonilla Valladares oversaw the transshipment of multi-ton loads of cocaine bound for the U.S., used machine guns and other weaponry to accomplish that, and participated in extreme violence, including the murder of a rival trafficker, to further the conspiracy.”

Despite the serious charges against Bonilla, the mention of JOH in the indictment sparked new hope in Honduras that the head of the ‘narco-military dictatorship’ would one day be charged. However, many in Honduras remain confused about how the clear accusations in the DOJ statement strongly contradict the U.S. government’s consistent support for JOH’s government. This includes President Donald Trump’s recent mention of “the President of the Republic of Honduras is a really nice guy” in a press conference in the Oval Office less than a week before the DOJ indictment of Bonilla Valladares was made public.

It seems that President Juan Orlando Hernández has mastered how to remain in the good graces of President Trump by promoting policies of specific interest to Trump. On March 13, two days before the COVID-19 lockdown was implemented, the Honduran government published and therefore, activated the Honduras- U.S. ‘safe third country’ agreement. The agreement is one of Trump’s racist immigration policies that forces asylum seekers in the U.S. to be sent to Honduras and other Central American countries to allegedly seek protection there.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the timing of the agreement’s activation may increase the number of deportations to Honduras. Despite widespread reports of COVID-19 cases in U.S. migrant detention centres, deportations to Central America have not stopped. According to a report recently published by the Centre for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), the U.S. sent 18 deportation flights to Honduras from March 15 (the day the coronavirus lockdown was imposed in Honduras) to April 24.

At least one case of a Honduran woman recently deported from the U.S. suspected of having COVID-19 has been reported by the local press. Upon arriving to Honduras, the woman was arrested in relation to a pending charge, sent to prison in western Copán, and then a few days later, taken to the emergency wing of one of the largest public hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms. To date, there have been no reports of COVID-19 cases in the prison where the woman was held, but her brief, unprotected presence may lead to cases reported in the future.

There are still several weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic crises to unfold in Honduras, particularly since the virus infection rate has not yet peaked. Despite over ten years of active resistance and subsequent repression, Hondurans continue to organise locally, regionally, and nationally to protest the causes of the crises and put forward solutions.

Like in La Travesía, and other Garifuna communities along the coast, Hondurans from all parts of the country are finding ways to protect themselves and gathering together, like in Tegucigalpa, to organise food distribution networks to support the families most in need. These efforts are ways that Hondurans hope to avoid returning to ‘normal’ which according to Miriam Miranda, “would be irresponsible.”

“The pandemic really calls upon us to reflect about how the current ferocious, murderous, capitalist system that kills our environment and natural resources does not work for humanity” says Miranda, “we should not go back to the same as before.”

 

Dangers confronting the region

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The Dependency School of Thought

The Dependency School of thought had some influence and bearing upon the rise of liberation movements in Central America during the 1960s and 1970s, although the sheer brutality of the dictatorships and militaries which ruled was also a major factor in their emergence. In the context of the global cold war between capitalism and communism, the liberation movements represented a threat to US hegemony in the western hemisphere and had to be put down. Along came US President Ronald Reagan who gave free rein to his dogs of war to do just that, but it would be wrong to credit Reagan with only the butchery that went on in Central America. The Reagan-Thatcher axis was a prime mover in the extraordinary influence of the Washington Consensus in the globalising spread of capitalist relations of production and consumption under what is known as neoliberal economic development. This spread increased in speed through the 1980s and 1990s, and after the fall of communism and the end of the cold war at the beginning of the 1990s, neoliberalism had a honeymoon period in which to dominate Third World nations such as those in Central America without fear of the influence of a competing ideology.

The last decade of the twentieth century witnessed an industrialisation of production that had always failed to happen under the efforts of Central Americans, possibly because the capitalist metropolitan core (Europe and North America) had sufficient control over the capitalist relations of production to keep Central America as a source of primary products, raw materials and cheap labour. The industrialisation that did occur, however, was the result of the globalisation of the production of processed and fabricated goods and still, therefore, deprived Central American people and governments of any degree of control over the production of these goods. This globalised production involved the installation of maquilas, often referred to as sweatshops where pay is worse than poor and work conditions are often appalling. It was not the kind of industrialisation process envisaged by the dependentistas, and it failed to stimulate local production of the raw materials required by the processing. Instead, the raw material for the process was imported (without import tariffs), the material was processed and then exported to some other maquila, probably in another part of the world, for further processing. .

The maquilas needed a plentiful supply of cheap and largely unskilled labour. At the same time the plantations of primary agricultural goods needed more land for expansion and new crops such as the biofuels. The latter displaced many rural inhabitants from their land and means of survival, but supplied the former with their cheap labour after they had been moved from the rural areas.

The maquila industrialisation of production was accompanied by the supermarketisation of consumption, another facet of globalisation.

Selected quotes

Juan Almendares:

“I came to the understanding that the essence of capitalism is anti-human and racist, … and that we can’t be indifferent nor neutral but have to take a position against injustice, war and the violation of human rights.”[1]

Juan Almendares:

“but I can’t keep silent before the crimes and lies of the military geopolitics of international financial capitalism, articulated with the oligarchic power and the ideology of neoliberalism. In essence, I am anti-imperialist.”[2]

Rodrigo Carazo (1989) Tiempo y Marcha, San José, Universidad Estatal a Distancia.
His observations about TNCs after 2 years as Executive Director of Recope, the Costa Rican Petrol Company (1963 – 1965) whose parent company was the US based Texas Petroleum (and later during this time bought by Allied Chemical), and the way they operate. He described himself as a “high status errand boy”.

“De la experiencia con Recope derivé enseñanzas de gran importancia para mí. Lo mismo sucedió con mis tareas de asesor internacional de Allied Chemical. A pesar de las buenas relaciones que mantenía con los representantes de sus socios mayoritarios, no podía menos que concluir que las empresas transnacionales no prestan importancia alguna a la suerte de los pueblos en cuyos países hacen sus negocios: tratan de cumplir estrictamente sus compromisos contractuales y legales, pero hasta allí llegan. La frialdad es total. Lo que manda es el ‘balance de situación’, la rentabilidad, la productividad, en fin, los negocios de la empresa. Si para que éstos sean mejores se requiere endurecer sus posiciones con sus funcionarios o trabajadores, esto no importa … los negocios privan y sus requerimientos son vinculantes. No hay consideración social, política o de relaciones humanas que pueda privar por sobre los intereses de la empresa.

Nada de esto es moralmente aceptable para el nacional de un país sede de inversión extranjera, salvo que asuma la actitud – tan generalizada y común – de ser “más papista que el Papa”, de olvidarse del país y de su pueblo y entregarse en cuerpo y alma a la empresa extranjera.”[3]

Rodrigo Carazo (p.121-2), from his experience as Executive Director of Recope at the time when the parent company Texas Petroleum was taken over by Allied Chemicals (1963 – 1965), suggests that “the transnational companies take their decisions by comparing the benefits which various countries offer them and they choose those which can give them the most” (p. 121). From this it’s easy to conclude that “the investments are motivated exclusively by what the businessmen of short-term vision call ‘productivity’ and ‘successful enterprise’ and, in one word, ‘development’.” (p.121)

“Las empresas buscan, por lo general, beneficios especiales a cambio de la inversión. A la postre, si tienen éxito llevan estos beneficios a los socios extranjeros y tratan de poner a los países pobres en competencia entre ellos para que les dan más. Hemos vivido lo anterior, entre 1982 y 1988 con características de tragedia, en el caso de los inversiones bananeras, que han logrado disminuir casi a cero los impuestos de exportación a base de decir, en cada país, que esos impuestos nacionales ponen a la respectiva nación que los establece “fuera de competencia en el mercado mundial”. [4] Cuando Figueres. El 11 de octubre de 1973, decide nacionalizar Recope, sentí una gran satisfacción como costarricense.”

Dennis Rodgers:

talks of “a new growth model led by narco-trafficking and Free Trade Zones.”[5]

Stephen Corry:

“No open-minded student of history could possibly conclude that the passing of time leads inevitably to an improvement over what has gone before, yet that is the belief which underpins, at least in part, the assertion that industrial society is more advanced than others.”[6]

 “Why, for example, should a mineral resource under tribal land not be exploited to help the majority? In reality, those who benefit most are not the needy and the poor, but the directors and shareholders of multinational corporations, development banks and senior government officials. Such arguments are little different from those used to support colonialism, communism or fascism: one group takes what belongs to another, with the excuse that they need, or deserve, it more.”[7]


[1]   Juan Almendares (2010) ‘Letter to Mother Earth and Humanity of the Planet’, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, April.
[2]   Ibid.
[3]   Rodrigo Carazo (1989) Tiempo y Marcha, San José, Universidad Estatal a Distancia, p. 121.
[4]   Ibid.
[5]   Dennis Rodgers (January-February 2008) ‘A Symptom Called Managua’, New Left Review, 49, London.
[6]   Stephen Corry (2011) Tribal Peoples: for tomorrow’s world, Alcester, UK: Freeman Press, p. 33.
[7]   Ibid. p.295

Chapter 11: Whither Development?

That the current level of violence (illustrated particularly in Chapter 9) is so high even twenty years after the end of the region’s wars reflects the same prevailing power structure which reigned during the wars of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. That same power structure still reigns largely thanks to the influence of the US, the international financial institutions and the traditional Central American oligarchies which all combine to promote neoliberal economic development rules that favour western TNCs and national elites over local communities and environments.

The violence may range from a bureaucratic refusal to recognise a valid claim to land ownership, the denial of the results of a consultation exercise by indigenous groups, denial of the right to form a union, the use of tear gas by security forces against a peaceful demonstration, unlawful imprisonment of non-violent protestors, threats against personal and family well-being, death threats, assassinations, massacres and the use of terror against whole communities. As the preceding chapters have shown, the inclusion of those last items in the list is not an exaggeration of the levels of violence. Death threats, assassinations and terror are precisely the tactics used to ensure the ‘success’ of development projects.