Canada’s Imperial project in Honduras

American imperialism is so undeniably a central part of the contemporary world system that even mainstream writers acknowledge its existence. Canadian imperialism, by contrast, is an idea viewed with scepticism and discomfort, even by large sections of the Canadian left. The most naïve convince themselves that Canada’s international engagements have a positive effect in the world, while those who cannot ignore the negatives outcomes of Canadian policy insist that Canada simply falls in line with the interests of the United States.

This latter position is most clearly articulated by Linda McQuaig, who describes Canada as Uncle Sam’s accomplice, “holding the bully’s coat.” 1 McQuaig, who is a candidate for the NDP (ironically, she is significantly farther to the left than the party’s leadership) is convinced that Canada’s natural tendency would be to act benevolently in the world, and is prevented from doing so because of our dependence on the US. Reducing Canada’s dependence on the US, then, would free Canada to be its natural, generous, self.

If only it were so simple. What McQuaig and much of the Canadian left-nationalist tradition misses is that Canada has long pursued its own imperial agenda, independent of the US (if linked to it) and for the benefit of a uniquely Canadian capitalist class. That class is deeply consolidated (Canada’s largest 250 firms have less than 500 different individuals sitting on their combined boards of directors) and since the early 2000s has been exporting more capital than it imports, with over $500 billion in foreign direct investment annually. 2

Canada’s imperial agenda has become more and more evident, notably in its military interventions in Afghanistan, Haiti, Mali, Libya, and now in Iraq and Syria. But Canadian imperialism may be most clearly articulated in the small Central American republic of Honduras, where Canada supported a violent military coup in 2009 that installed a dictatorship friendly to Canadian investment. While the United States also participated in the whitewashing of the coup, Canada did the heavy-lifting and earned itself the right to help rewrite Honduran laws since 2009. This has been good news for the fabulously wealthy owners of Gildan, Goldcorp, and other Canadian firms exploiting Honduran land and labour.

Honduras was only a peripheral player in Canadian foreign policy before 2009. History weighs heavily in Honduras, a society still traumatized by the hyper-violence that was introduced during the US occupation in the 1980s and the neoliberal shock therapy imposed in the 1990s. But by the early 2000s, defiant new organizations were forming in opposition to the austerity agenda, and in 2003 they converged into a national social movement that used direct action tactics to force the state to respond to its demands. Though necessarily limited in its capacities, the social movement was able to exploit divisions within the Honduran ruling class, after the election of the Liberal Party candidate Manuel Zelaya in 2005.

Faced with over 100 strikes in his first year in office, including massive marches that shut down the capital city, Zelaya’s administration found it necessary to negotiate with the movement in order to maintain a functional capitalist state. As a result, the movement made significant gains—dramatic increases to minimum wages, a moratorium on foreign mining concessions, some protection of peasant communities’ access to land—and Zelaya was viewed with increasing suspicion by his allies in the oligarchy. By the middle of his four-year term, his position was growing dependent on the support of the social movement, which was now pushing for a re-opening of the country’s constitution in order to draft laws that would better support Honduras’ poor majority. 3

Zelaya, alienated from his traditional supporters in the ruling class, re-branded himself as a left populist and endorsed the constitutional project, which might have opened the door to significant social democratic reform. This was the final straw for the Honduran right, which conspired to have the military overthrow the President and take dictatorial control of the country in June 2009. Zelaya was abducted and flown out of the country from a US air force base, a fake resignation letter was presented to Congress, and a new President was appointed. Hondurans filled the streets in protest, and found themselves attacked by military and police who now ruled with absolute authority.

There is an important point to be made here: the social movement in Honduras was not a revolutionary force. Although many of the organizations that made up the movement had vibrant critiques of capitalism drawn directly from their experience of it, the movement was not united by, or organized around, an anti-capitalist project. The revolutionary left in Honduras—the most prevalent of which was a Maoist party based in the peasant movements—was violently crushed in the 1980s by the allies of the US occupation. The social movement of the 2000s, then, was fundamentally reformist; nevertheless, it was possessed of a militant social democratic reformism that would not hesitate to fight for the reformist gains it sought. As such, it posed a threat to the kind of hyper-exploitative capitalism that foreign powers wanted to maintain in Honduras.

With Zelaya and his allies removed from office, the oligarchy was back in charge and the proposal to re-open the constitution was scrapped. Critical media was taken off the air, organizations that supported the social movement had their offices ransacked, and movement activists were selectively targeted for violence and assassination. Heads of state across the Americas reacted quickly, condemning the coup and the violence and demanding Zelaya’s immediate re-instatement. Canada, by contrast, was the last country to issue a statement, which called upon “all parties” to “show restraint.” 4

Indeed, as the repression and violence became worse and worse, and with international organizations reporting widely on the project of state terrorism that the new Honduran regime was carrying out, Canada’s statements became increasingly sympathetic to the dictatorship. Canada repeatedly called the coup a “political crisis” and invoked the language of restraint and non-violence; this sounded innocuous on the surface, but given the actual concrete reality in Honduras, it was the absence of a serious condemnation of the coup regime that really stood out in Canada’s statements.

In November 2009, the dictatorship carried out a farcical electoral process, boycotted by the majority of Hondurans, designed to demonstrate to the international community that everything was fine and Honduras was still a democracy. Even the most liberal NGOs—the Carter Center, for instance—rejected the possibility that Honduras could experience fair elections under the dictatorship. 5 Nevertheless, Canada “congratulated” the Honduran people on “relatively free and fair” elections and quickly established a relationship with the new ruler of the dictatorship, Pepe Lobo. 6 Calling his a “unity government,” Canada offered to contribute to the re-integration of Honduras into the international community, in part by sending a former diplomat to participate in a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” reflecting on the coup. 7

Like the elections, the Commission was a sham from the start, designed to whitewash the coup government. Perhaps a hint could have been found in the man Canada sent to sit on the commission: Michael Kergin was once a diplomat but was spending his retirement acting as a consultant for a law firm, Bennett-Jones, that specialized in representing extractive industry clients. By happy coincidence, Canada is the largest foreign investor in Honduran mining.

The original mining code, which governs the behaviour of Canadian companies like Goldcorp and Breakwater Resources, was written in consultation with Canadian companies in the late 1990s. One of the primary demands of the social movement was a revision of the mining code. Mining companies in Honduras typically build mines on territory stolen or seized from rural, often Indigenous, communities. Their labour practices are dangerous and exploitative, and activists trying to form unions have been targeted for violence and assassination. The runoff from their activities is regularly dumped into local water systems, causing massive and terrifying health crises for affected communities. 8 Within a year of the 2009 coup, the mining code was re-opened, but rather than introducing stronger protection for communities, it facilitated even greater exploitation.

Canada’s investment in Honduras is not limited to mining. Montreal-based Gildan is the largest private-sector employer in Honduras, operating several massive sweatshops producing socks and t-shirts. The mostly-female workforce is a significant part of the social movement, with a long history of struggling against the exploitative conditions imposed in the maquiladoras. Workers are forced to meet quotas that place extraordinary strain on their bodies, but when they succumb to pain they are sent to company doctors who inject painkillers and send them back to work. 9 After several years, many workers’ bodies collapse and they are unceremoniously fired as their productivity drops off. In 2011, Stephen Harper visited a Gildan factory in Honduras and praised its commitment to corporate social responsibility. 10

The occasion of Harper’s visit to Honduras—the first by a foreign leader following the coup—was announce the signing of a free trade agreement (FTA) between Canada and Honduras. Prior to the coup, Canada had been negotiating with a coalition of the four largest economies in Central America, the CA4. But within months of the coup, Canada saw in the right-wing dictatorship an ideal partner for trade, and cut off talks with the CA4 in order to focus on Honduras. That FTA is now in effect, to the glee of Canadian capital in the mining and maquiladora industries, as well as the growing tourist sector that Canada has a dominant share in.

And what of the millions of Hondurans who spent a decade building a reformist social movement in opposition to this neoliberal agenda? The conditions of that struggle have become exceptionally dangerous and difficult. Honduras has by far the highest homicide rate in the world, as an already-violent situation has spiralled out of control in the context of impunity for state repression. 11 Under this pressure, the movement has suffered a variety of defeats and splits, not the least of which came around the decision to form a political party and run candidates in the 2013 elections, which were predictably stolen by the oligarchy. Meanwhile, the winner of those elections, Juan Orlando Hernandez, is now positioning himself to rule Honduras indefinitely, having reformed the constitution to allow his re-election, stacked key state positions with loyal people, and created a new paramilitary “military-police” unit that answers directly to him.

But the movement continues to resist. In 2015, when it was revealed that Juan Orlando had stolen money from the social security institute to fund his electoral campaign, the movement launched demonstrations to be held every Friday night calling for Juan Orlando’s resignation. This defiance is exceptionally courageous given the incredible personal risk associated with any political opposition to the coup regime. But it nevertheless remains stuck in the social movement model which is ill-equipped to confront a powerful military dictatorship backed by imperialist powers like Canada, which has actively worked with the regime to strengthen its police and military structures. 12

Those in the movement who consider the prospect of armed revolt acknowledge that the organizational structure does not yet exist to facilitate a successful guerrilla struggle. It remains to be seen, then, whether the movement will be able to form more effective structures for a long-term confrontation with the Honduran dictatorship. What is clear is that any such struggle will have to contend with the imperialist powers that are invested in keeping Honduras “open for business.” 13

Marie-Ève Fortier
  • 1. Linda McQuaig, Holding the Bully’s Coat, Toronto, Doubleday, 2007.
  • 2. Jerome Klassen, “Canada and the New Imperialism: The Economics of a Secondary Power,” Studies in Political Economy, No. 83, 2009.
  • 3. Tyler Shipley, “The New Canadian Imperialism and the Military Coup in Honduras,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 40, No. 5, September 2013.
  • 4. DFAIT, “Statement by Minister Kent on the Situation in Honduras,” June 28, 2009.
  • 5. The Carter Center, “Carter Center Statement on the Honduran Elections,” October 24, 2009.
  • 6. DFAIT, “Canada Congratulates Honduran People on Elections,” December 1, 2009.
  • 7. DFAIT, “Statement by Minister Kent on Inauguration of Honduran President, January 28, 2009.
  • 8. Sabrina Escalera-Flexhaug, “Canada’s Controversial Engagement in Honduras,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, August 11, 2014.
  • 9. Adrienne Pine, Working Hard, Drinking Hard, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2007.
  • 10. Steven Chase, “Harper exits Honduras with new free trade deal,” The Globe and Mail, Aug 12, 2011.
  • 11. Mo Hume, “Why the murder rate in Honduras is twice as high as anywhere else,” The Conversation, November 26, 2014.
  • 12. Sandra Cuffe, “Is Canadian ‘aid’ actually making things worse in post-coup Honduras?” Ricochet, February 17, 2015.
  • 13. Tom Kavanagh, “Honduras is ‘open for business’,” New Statesman, May 8, 2011.