Soccer, Imperialism, and Resistance in Honduras

Never let them tell you it’s ‘just a game.’ Much is on the line, as the Canadian and Honduran national soccer teams prepare for their World Cup Qualifying match on June 12 in Toronto, but the real stories that animate this match are taking place a long way from BMO Field. Just ask Honduras’ most famed footballer – once a local star with Toronto FC – the aptly named Amado Guevara.

Paul Carbajal

During the run-up to the last FIFA World Cup, the democratically elected President of Honduras was kidnapped by the armed forces and whisked out of the country, to be replaced by a violent and illegal military regime. As the country rose up in a dramatic non-violent movement in resistance, Guevara, the captain of the national team, was put in an awkward position. The regime was trying to marshal Hondurans’ love for their squad as a way of building support for the unpopular military government. But Guevara’s family, hailing from a poor suburb in the capital city, were active in the resistance. Indeed, his mother, Flor Guevara, had been marching in the streets against the coup, holding firm in the face of repression, intimidation, violence, torture and assassinations.

After Honduras surprised everyone by earning a berth in the World Cup, the regime engineered a parade through the capital for the team, with a strategic stop at the Presidential Palace. Guevara was expected to present his sweater to the President and, no doubt, the endorsement of a national hero like Guevara would have buoyed the strength of the illegal regime. But Guevara, like most Hondurans, insisted that his President was in exile and that the man sitting in his seat, Roberto Micheletti, was a usurper. He sent his sweater to deposed President Manuel Zelaya instead – a bold and courageous action that gave a jolt of support to the resistance in a moment when its peaceful demonstrations were being shot at with tear gas, pepper spray and even live ammunition.

Guevara is notably absent from the national team this year, despite the fact that he is still one of the top players in the Honduran league, leading his Motagua team to a first place finish in 2010 and scoring twice to win a cup championship in 2011.

Political Assassinations

The coup regime, however, remains in power, after holding fraudulent elections, and continues to rule the country with brutality. Last month, two well-known journalists were killed – that makes over 25 journalists assassinated since the coup – in a country that has become one of the most dangerous in the world, with homicide rates in some cities reaching a staggering 1 in 1000 people. But with a movement of resistance that represents the overwhelming majority of Honduras’ eight million people, urged forward by the support of popular figures like Amado Guevara, how is it possible that the regime hasn’t fallen, like that of Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia?

Well, that’s where Canada comes in. Yes, as our Leaf-spangled footballers take the field on Tuesday it is worth bearing in mind that it is Canada, above all other countries, that has offered the full weight of its diplomatic, military and economic support to the military regime that rules Honduras with violence and impunity.

When Micheletti held fraudulent elections, handing Presidential power to his ally Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo, few countries deigned to recognize the process and official elections observation teams from the Carter Centre and the United Nations refused to participate in the sham. Some international soccer teams were, at the time, refusing to play matches in Honduras because of the intensity of the violence – in the year following the coup, there were at least five deadly shootouts at soccer matches, including an attack against Guevara’s Motagua club supporters, three of whom were left dead. And yet, while it wasn’t even safe enough to host an international soccer match, still the regime claimed that it was holding perfectly safe, secure, transparent and peaceful elections.

It borders on utter absurdity, and yet Canada, inexplicably, officially “congratulated the Honduran people” on elections held “freely and fairly and with a strong turnout,” despite a nationwide boycott that saw some 60-70% of people refuse to vote. Since then, the military regime has imposed violence and hardship upon any who dare to defy its will; thousands of people have been killed by police, military and private security in a state where the government is run by a cabal of local and foreign businessmen imposing a hyper-exploitative brand of capitalism that is driving Honduras’ poor into the ground for the benefit of foreign capital, a tiny local elite, and the transnational criminal networks that have infiltrated every level of the Honduran political apparatus.

Sports and Politics

Sport is a crucially important space when it comes to building – or losing – legitimacy for such projects. There are countless examples and one need only look at the intensity with which weekly instalments of “Hockey Night in Canada” promote the occupation of Afghanistan to recognize the power that popular sport can wield. After Amado Guevara’s sweater snub was received with enthusiasm by Honduran soccer fans, the military regime recognized the importance of lining itself up with the beloved game.

After ‘winning’ the fraudulent elections in 2009, Pepe Lobo’s first act as ‘President’ was to take his entire retinue to South Africa to support the Honduran team in the World Cup. Calculated to endear him to the people he was repressing, his plan backfired when it turned out that he had left upon the eve of a major outbreak of dengue fever, an insect-borne illness that exploded as a result of the governments’ failure to properly spray for mosquitos that year (preoccupied as it was with kidnapping the President and crushing the largest social movement in Honduran history.) The regime looked foolish – even the Health Minister had been taken to the World Cup – as cynical pandering for popular support took precedence over a national health crisis.

But despite almost-universal revulsion, the despised military regime retains power by a combination of naked violence in Honduras and deliberately misleading statements and reports from international allies, especially Canada.

A snapshot of contemporary Honduras: taxi drivers pay ‘war taxes’ to narco gangs or get shot in their cars. Women in Canadian-owned garment factories are injected with painkillers to keep them working on 11-hour shifts, only to be fired when their bodies inevitably collapse. Prisons are stuffed with young men and teenagers who are often never charged with any offence and many – like the 360 who died in a fire in Comayagua – never get out. U.S. and Canadian troops are arriving from Afghanistan to assist in ‘counter narcotics’ efforts, but well-known drug routes are left suspiciously unattended while soldiers target communities mobilized against exploitative mining or hydro concessions – as the recent killing of children and pregnant women in the Moskita tragically demonstrated.

The picture slowly begins emerging, highlighting Canada’s deeper and deeper complicity in the crimes of the Honduran military regime. Maybe it is no coincidence, no accident that Canada has supported this regime – in the three years since the coup, Canada has signed a new free trade agreement with Honduras, participated in a sham Truth Commission that all but exonerated the regime of the crimes it was still committing, and successfully encouraged Honduras’ re-entry into the OAS. Canada is now helping to formulate a new mining law that will open the door to a rush of new Canadian investment in the industry that is still the most notorious in Honduras, as hundreds of Hondurans continue to die each year from diseases caused directly by mercury leaching, acid spills, repression of workers and other hazards created by the mining companies.

Canada is already the largest investor in mining in Honduras and has the overwhelming majority of new concessions set to be approved when the new mining law is passed. Canada is one of the largest investors in Honduran sweatshops. Canada is emerging as the powerhouse in the north coast tourism industry, which displaces Indigenous and Garifuna people from their ancestral territory and carves it up for the profit of men like Randy Jorgenson, famous for his pornography company, Adults-Only Video, and now the owner of huge tracts of Honduran land being sold to snowbirds by his Life Vision Properties. Life Vision’s promotional materials include images of swimsuit-clad Honduran women and transplanted Canadians in the area, like disgraced OPP officer Rick Mowers, brag openly about the cheap price of prostitutes.

And Canada has successfully persuaded the Honduran government to pass legislation allowing for the creation of territorial concessions to foreign businesses – literally, chunks of Honduras that would become the jurisdiction of Glamis, Goldcorp, or Gildan, with their own laws, police, taxes and treaties. This is otherwise known as colonialism and, as a rule, it is considered bad.

What’s at Stake?

With all of this in mind, surely, it is fair to say that there is more at stake in this match – at least symbolically – that at first there appears. In Honduras, Canada is gradually taking the place, once held uniquely by the United States, of the imperial power using local strongmen to impose its will on an entire nation of people. That does not make Canada very popular in Honduras, and ordinary Hondurans are not taking it lightly, as they continue to organize tirelessly and courageously against the overwhelming forces brought against them.

These struggles are sometimes manifested in the smallest of details.

Flor del Campo is one of the poorest slums of Tegucigalpa, and it is one of many such communities that have been organizing to protect themselves. Recently, the military government tried to take control of a small soccer field used by kids in the neighbourhood, with the intention of fencing it in and privatizing it, such that only those who paid a fee could use it. This is a tiny piece of the ‘progress’ that Canada is encouraging in Honduras and it was deemed unacceptable to the kids of Flor del Campo, who felt they deserved to be able to play soccer, to emulate heroes like Amado Guevara, as much as anyone else. So the community is organizing against it, insisting that they would rather have a dirt field where everyone plays than a grass pitch for the rich. The kids of Flor del Campo have some experience with this type of struggle – last year, they effectively managed to block an effort to turn a public basketball court into a private kindergarten. Protecting every kid’s right to play sports, then, has become an important part in the mobilization of communities against the regime.

Of course, the liberation of Honduras from the Canadian-sponsored military regime will not be accomplished by a Honduran victory at BMO Field on Tuesday. In fact, the regime has already shown that it will try to claim the victories of the national soccer team as its own. So this is not, necessarily, a call to support the Honduran side. What it is, emphatically, is a plea to pause before painting red leaves on our faces, to consider the implications of Canada’s relationship with Honduras.

More than mindless patriotism, what the world needs from Canadian people is a thoughtful self-awareness of our deeds and misdeeds in the world, and a commitment to take control of the government that acts in our name and make right what we have made wrong. •

This article is republished from new sports and politics magazine Left Hook: A Critical Review of Sports and Society.

Tyler Shipley is professor of Culture, Society, and Commerce at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning and he has written for academic journals and local and mainstream media across North America and Europe. His most recent books are Ottawa and Empire: Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras, and Canada In The World.