United States President Barack Obama’s visit to El Salvador on March 22 became a focal point for protests.
Protests were organised that day by Central American social movement organisations and their North American allies outraged by US trade policy and military meddling in the region.
Local environmental and community organisations joined with allies such as US-El Salvador Sister Cities and Committees in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador to mobilise students and workers for rallies in the US and El Salvador on March 22.
The protests coincided with Obama’s meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, whose election two years ago ended decades of right-wing rule.
The Salvadoran left and the international solidarity movement are deeply disappointed and frustrated with Obama’s stance toward Central America.
The purpose of Obama’s visit was supposedly to support the eradication of poverty, violence and government corruption.
Yet, Obama’s administration is perpetuating these problems (and their natural result, immigration).
US policy on Central America reflects more continuity with past adminstrations than change.
This is especially the case with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the 2009 military coup in Honduras that overthrew elected president Manual Zelaya.
It has been six years since the passage of CAFTA. As predicted by its critics, free trade has not reduced economic inequality or created many new jobs.
Exports from El Salvador and foreign investment in the country have both decreased. The price of goods has dramatically risen, but the number of small businesses able to sell products to the US has not.
Thanks to CAFTA, which supersedes national law, North American mining companies are now suing El Salvador for US$100 million because the government has thwarted an environmentally dangerous resource extraction scheme approved by previous governments.
Next door in Honduras, the Obama administration has become the leading ally and cheerleader for Zelaya’s conservative successor, de-facto president Porfirio Lobo.
Hillary Clinton’s State Department is campaigning for re-admission of Honduras to the Organization of American States, which strongly condemned the ouster of Zelaya.
Since the 2009 military coup, the US has built two new military bases in Honduras and increased its training of local police.
Meanwhile, union organisers, farmers and teachers, women and young people, gays, journalists and political activists have faced violent repression under Lobo’s corrupt regime.
With its worsening record of murders, disappearances and rabid resistance to land reform, Honduras is beginning to look more and more like El Salvador before it slipped into full-scale civil warfare three decades ago — with the US backing the wrong side then and now.
In January, I witnessed first-hand what life is like under the “golpistas” of Honduras as part of a fact-finding delegation led by the Honduras Accompaniment Project.
We spent a week in the Honduran capital and countryside interviewing multiple victims of recent political threats, beatings, jailings, and kidnappings.
Human rights groups estimate that more than 4000 serious human rights violations and 64 political assassinations have occurred in Honduras since the coup.
Police drag-nets target anyone wearing t-shirts or hats with anti-government messages, not to mention the threatening visages of Che Guevara or Hugo Chavez.
Youth organiser Victor Alejandro said: “Many Honduran youth woke up politically when the coup began, when they were beaten up or arrested by the police at a march or just for walking down the street.
“And now they are one of the driving forces behind the resistance, and as a result they are one of the main targets of state repression.”
Organised campesinos (peasants) are a target of repression. During our stay, we visited Zacate Grande, a sparsely populated peninsula in the Gulf of Fonseca where small tenant farmers and fishers are fighting eviction by rich businessmen who want to build luxury hotels and summer homes on their land.
One source of hope and optimism for Hondurans like these was the land reform measure enacted under Zelaya. It created a mechanism for the expropriation of unused private lands for subsistence farming and a way for the poor to gain title to land they had worked for years.
But in January, the Supreme Court ruled that Zelaya’s land reform decree was unconstitutional.
Campesinos in places such as Zacate Grande and the embattled Bajo Aguan region in northern Honduras are now in a constant fight for their lives and land.
Public school teachers, because they are part of the opposition to Lobo’s regime, have come under similar attack.
On January 27, we joined a large, peaceful demonstration in Tegucigalpa held on the first anniversary of Lobo’s inauguration.
The turn-out reflected a resistance movement that draws from diverse sectors of society and whose goals go far beyond ending the exile of Zelaya.
There were young people spray-painting the walls with slogans against US military intervention, teachers shielding themselves from the sun under multi-colored umbrellas, and embattled gay activists waiving rainbow flags.
This is not reflected in mainstream media coverage in the US.
In typical fashion, the Washington Post described the January 27 marches in the capital and two other cities simply as “protests by supporters of ousted former leader Manuel Zelaya”.
As one gay activist explained, however: “Zelaya is part of the movement, but the movement transcends Zelaya. He gave people hope and started a process, but it is our goal to continue and finish that process, the process of re-founding Honduras.”
Obama’s track record so far includes little change that Central Americans can believe in.
Salvadorians still labour under the burden of CAFTA and its costly barrage of big business litigation aimed at punishing even the smallest exercises of national sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Hondurans are experiencing a rapid US-assisted return to a country that is poor, militarised, and terrorized — the same set of conditions that so many Central Americans have long struggled to escape.
[Abridged from CounterPunch.org. Alexandra Early works for US-El Salvador Sister Cities, an organisation that promotes cross-border solidarity between communities in North and Central America.]