Posts Tagged ‘free trade’


Bruce Livesey

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Nov. 27 2014
Charlotin Odinel lives in the Village de Dieu, Bicentenaire shantytown in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where his home is a cinder-block shack consisting of two tiny windowless rooms—no running water—that he shares with his wife and three children. To get there, you navigate a warren of makeshift homes, stepping over garbage and mud puddles. Nearby, a canal filled with brackish black water is rimmed by heaps of rotting waste where dogs and pigs run wild and mosquitoes, carrying the threat of malaria and dengue fever, are omnipresent. Says Odinel: “As a human, this is not a good place to live.”

Odinel, a slight 34-year-old with a touch of facial hair, has been unemployed since he lost his job last summer at the nearby Premium apparel factory, which makes clothing for Gildan Activewear Inc., the Montreal-based multinational. He’d spent four years there inspecting T-shirts for defects. Never given a reason for his dismissal, Odinel believes it was due to his union activism.

Odinel found his job stressful. Employing more than 1,100 workers, the sweltering Premium plant maintained an intense pace of production. For his efforts, Odinel was paid 500 gourdes a day, about $12—considered high in Haiti’s apparel industry, where many workers earn less than half that sum. Today, he’s broke and in debt, one of Haiti’s millions of unemployed (as much as 40% of the working-age population is jobless). “I can’t afford the needs of my family right now,” he says simply.

Odinel was a cog in Gildan’s vast production network, which stretches from Central America and the Caribbean Basin to Bangladesh, employing about 41,000 people and producing apparel that is sold in more than 30 countries. While the lives of workers like Odinel are grim, Gildan is a success story. It had fiscal 2013 revenues of almost $2.2 billion (U.S.), net earnings of $320 million (U.S.), and a stock that’s soared from less than $17 in 2011 to more than $67 as of early November. The company is gaining market share, having more than doubled sales since 2009.

Once merely a manufacturer of “blank” T-shirts and sweatshirts that others put their logos on, Gildan later added fleece, sports shirts, underwear and socks. Lately, it has been stepping up the marketing of its own label, even airing an ad during the 2013 Super Bowl. Analysts are enthusiastic. “I view [Gildan] as one of Canada’s best consumer growth stories,” says Stephen MacLeod, vice-president of equity research at BMO Capital Markets.

When it’s doing so well, does Gildan need to play hardball with workers in impoverished countries?

If Odinel was truly fired for associating with a union—and it’s a claim echoed by many others who worked at plants making Gildan clothes—it flies in the face of Gildan’s robust corporate social responsibility program and internal code of conduct. Gildan also belongs to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a Washington, D.C.-based body dedicated to protecting the rights of workers globally, and ascribes to the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) system of workplace standards. “[CSR] is a staple of the overall business strategy of the company,” says Peter Iliopoulos, Gildan’s senior vice-president of public and corporate affairs. Iliopoulos says he’s surprised to hear there are reports of workers being fired for union activity. Such information should be brought to the company’s attention, he adds, “and we will deal with it proactively.…I can assure you this is something we take very seriously.”


Gildan was founded in 1984 in a small shop in Montreal by brothers Glenn and Greg Chamandy, whose family has deep roots in the city’s garment trade. They bought a knitting mill to supply fabric for their childwear business, Harley Inc.

Gildan later changed its focus to selling cotton T-shirts to wholesalers, which resold them to distributors and Canadian and American screen-printers. The brothers ran the company together until Greg left in 2004. (CEO Glenn Chamandy declined to be interviewed; the company would not permit a visit to any of its factories.)

As a young company, Gildan benefited from being in Canada, receiving government subsidies, and, when it hit a rough patch during the ’90s, even borrowing from Quebec’s labour-sponsored fund, the Fonds de solidarité FTQ, which invested $3.5 million in Gildan shares starting in 1996 and lent the company up to $30 million in debentures.

As it turned out, making inexpensive clothes in Canada was a dicey proposition. Once heavily unionized and protected by tariffs, the country’s apparel manufacturing sector was levelled by trade liberalization and globalization—all quotas on apparel were lifted by 2005. The number of Canadians making clothes fell from 108,400 in 2001 to 36,700 in 2013, while GDP in the sector dropped from $4.3 billion in 2001 to $1.4 billion by 2011. The reason was simple: the cost of labour. Jobs were moving abroad.

The Chamandys soon realized staying in business meant following their competitors overseas. “Competition began to intensify and what you saw was that the average price of a T-shirt dropped by 24% from 1995 to 1998,” says Iliopoulos.

Finding cheaper labour was not, however, the only method Gildan used to cut costs—it also chopped its tax bill. In 1999, the company opened a subsidiary in Barbados to manage marketing and sales. Barbados has a treaty with Canada that permits multinationals to repatriate profits they earn abroad without being taxed here. The result: Gildan no longer pays much corporate income tax in Canada.

Indeed, between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2013, despite earning $1 billion (U.S.) in net profits, the company has paid only $10.5 million (U.S.) in income taxes (or about 1%). If one includes recoveries Gildan received stemming from acquisitions and restructurings, it paid no corporate income tax at all from 2009 to 2013. “To us, it’s totally immoral,” says Robert Bouvier, president of Teamsters Canada, which once represented Gildan workers. “Immoral in the sense that you start your company in Canada…you benefit from the health system…you benefit from the banks that loan you money. You benefit from everything. And after you’ve established all of this, then you move out.”

Nevertheless, as McGill tax law professor Allison Christians observes, Gildan is simply taking advantage of what the Canadian government has wrought. “That’s exactly the system we designed,” she says. “We designed the system not to have manufacturing here in Canada, to not have low-wage jobs here. The tax system is built to send manufacturing offshore.” Gildan, then, is the ultimate fruit of globalization—the “virtual” company that has no nationality. Just 230 of its employees work in Canada, at the company’s Montreal head office.


The search for cheap, pliable labour sent major North American and European clothing manufacturers and retailers to Asia—first to low-wage countries like Korea and China, and then, as costs rose, to nations like Cambodia and Bangladesh, where the infamous collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka took the lives of more than 1,100 workers in 2013.

Gildan has demonstrated the same restlessness, but has focused instead on the Caribbean Basin. By 2007, Gildan had shuttered all of its plants in North America and relocated production to Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Haiti (it also produces clothing in Bangladesh).

The company settled on Honduras as its main base of production, opening its first plant there in 1997. Today Gildan employs 26,000 people at half a dozen facilities in the country, making textiles, socks, underwear and activewear.

Complaints about labour conditions have followed the company since the late 1990s. To critics, there’s a consistent pattern of foot-dragging and half-measures in Gildan’s responses.

Currently the third-largest exporter of apparel and textiles to the U.S., Honduras has been bedevilled by military coups, narco-trafficking and drought. It has the highest murder rate in the world, and is the second-poorest country in Central America. And while unions are legal, trade unionists are regularly murdered: 31 have been assassinated and 200 injured in attacks since 2009, according to the AFL-CIO.

The minimum wage in the country’s free-trade zones—set up with special rules to attract investment—is about $283 per month, or about $1.18 an hour, according to the Honduran government. Gildan’s Iliopoulos says that “we pay wages that are significantly above the industry minimum wage.” But Iliopoulos won’t disclose what those wages are, saying it is competitive information.

Honduran trade unions estimate that a Gildan worker earns an average of $351 a month. But the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a Washington D.C.-based NGO that monitors the industry on behalf of North American and British colleges and universities (the destination of much screen-printed clothing), estimates that a living wage—that is, sufficient to support a family—in Honduras is $683 a month, far higher than the minimum wage in the free-trade zones. (Iliopoulos won’t address whether Gildan pays a living wage, saying it is a “complex issue,” with the level varying from country to country, and from NGO to NGO.)

It was in Honduras that Gildan had its first major run-in with non-governmental organizations over pay, working conditions and the treatment of its workforce. In 2001, the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN), an NGO focused on labour rights, began researching Gildan’s record in Central America, with the help of a small grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a Crown corporation.

Before MSN could complete its report, however, things turned nasty. In 2002, according to MSN, Gildan fired close to 45 workers at its plant in the Honduran city of El Progreso after they began making noises about unionizing. NGOs complained, but Gildan refused to reinstate the workers.

The Fonds de solidarité FTQ did its own investigation and alleged that Gildan had violated the workers’ labour rights under Honduran law. Gildan refused to budge, so the Fonds divested its shares and resigned its seat on the board. “Pulling out is a last resort, where there is no indication there’ll be an improvement in the practices of our business partner,” says Patrick McQuilken, a Fonds spokesperson.

In the summer of 2003, MSN released its report about Gildan, stating that its Honduran workers were receiving less than a living wage: gross average weekly pay of $76.91 for working four 11-hour shifts. The report said intense production pressure at the El Progreso plant led to repetitive strain injuries. As well, employees reported that female workers were dismissed during their probationary periods if compulsory tests indicated they were pregnant. There were reports workers would be fired if they tried to join a union, the MSN found. Iliopoulos notes that this incident happened 10 years ago and “we have evolved tremendously with our corporate social responsibility program [since then].”

But back then, Gildan’s response was swift; it threatened to sue MSN. Then Gildan fired another 37 workers in El Progreso, according to MSN. Acting on formal complaints, the Fair Labor Association and the WRC found that the workers’ labour rights had been violated. The FLA produced a report in July, 2004, and another in December, 2006, that confirmed the violations of freedom of association, and the WRC produced a report in July, 2004, that also supported the complaints in detail. But by the time the WRC report appeared, Gildan had announced it was closing the plant.

After the FLA reacted by putting Gildan’s membership under review, the company relented and began negotiating a remedial plan with the NGOs. The FLA accepted the company back once Gildan had met some conditions. “[Gildan] apologized profusely when it came to light that everything we’d been saying actually was true, that the report was valid and that they had to eat their words,” says Kevin Thomas, a former MSN director of advocacy.

Gildan’s Iliopoulos admits “we had some issues back then” and “that was a starting point for us to create CSR programs.…Over the last 10 years, we have worked very diligently and placed a significant amount of emphasis on developing a robust corporate social program.” The company has an ongoing dialogue with MSN and other NGOs, he adds.

“They respond now, they don’t [threaten to] sue people,” agrees Lynda Yanz, executive director of MSN. “Some specific problems are resolved. But the fundamental issues of freedom of association and health and safety problems are not resolving.” When the WRC did a follow-up on Gildan’s compliance with its promised corrective action, it found mixed results.

Complaints in Honduras have continued. In 2012, the FLA was notified of worker unrest at the Star SA factory in El Progreso around the time it was being bought by Gildan; two managers used the changeover to demand concessions and foment dissension among the unionized workforce. Union leaders were threatened by other workers worried about layoffs. Reports by the WRC and the FLA chronicled the upheaval. A wildcat strike ensued. “Gildan was aware of what was happening and did nothing to stop it until it was pressured by outside groups,” says Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, whose investigation was aired in its report. Iliopoulos says, however, “as soon as we completed the acquisition, we communicated with the workforce in respect to freedom of association and to deal with the union in good faith and in a constructive manner. We’ve respected every provision of the collective bargaining agreement that’s in place.”

Last year, workers at Gildan’s Villanueva plant sought the help of a human rights NGO to improve working conditions. Soon afterward, five workers involved were terminated (although the WRC says the number eventually rose to as high as 19). Gildan said that in fact these workers were among more than 300 who were let go owing to a drop in production. But a WRC report concluded that “Evidence demonstrates beyond any doubt that Gildan terminated the worker leaders because of their outreach [to the NGO].”

Iliopoulos says Gildan has co-operated with a Honduran Labour Ministry investigation into the case. “We’ve been in regular dialogue with the WRC to address the other employees on the list,” he says. This fall, the employees who had approached the NGO were reinstated after the WRC’s intervention.

Allegations about problems with freedom of association are not limited to Gildan’s Honduran operation. According to an FLA report, complaints arose at the company’s Dortex plant in the Dominican Republic in 2010, alleging the company had intimidated and fired workers who had been trying to unionize. When a union was formed, Gildan responded by negotiating a contract with another, less assertive union, according to the FLA. An independent assessor’s report in 2011 alleged that Gildan had undermined the first union’s efforts and signed a sweetheart collective agreement with the alternative union. Iliopoulos says Gildan has co-operated with all of the investigations, that no collective agreement was put in place owing to wrangling between the two unions, and the company has made the changes the first union wanted. “We fully implemented all of the benefits in terms of that agreement with those employees,” he says.

The Dominican Republic also figured in a different sort of controversy for Gildan. In 2010, the company agreed to pay $22.5 million (U.S.) to settle a lawsuit alleging that Glenn Chamandy had taken advantage of inside information. According to the suit, Chamandy cashed in more than $95-million (U.S.) worth of Gildan stock in 2007 after the company’s plant in Santo Domingo was hit both by a shutdown owing to managerial bungling and violent protests stemming from the plant’s pollution of local waterways. These problems, however, were not revealed to other investors; hence the lawsuit. No wrongdoing was admitted in the settlement.

(Through indirect control of two corporate entities, Chamandy has cashed in an estimated $280 million (U.S.) in stock since 2006, in addition to an estimated $12 million (U.S.) in salary and bonuses; he continues to hold stock options.)


The quest for lower costs eventually brought Gildan to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti has a GDP per capita of $1,300 (U.S.) a year, and by some estimates nearly 80% of its 10.3 million citizens live on $2 (U.S.) or less per day. The country has been devastated by colonization, environmental degradation, resource depletion, dictatorships, foreign invasions, hurricanes, coups d’état, an unscrupulous oligarchy, and finally an earthquake that killed 220,000 people in 2010.

In Port-au-Prince, the signs of a society teetering on the brink are glaring: Sidewalks are packed with people out of work, selling anything they can find. Shantytowns teem with people living in tin-roofed shacks. The high unemployment benefits employers, say activists. “It’s worse than slavery,” maintains Jean Bonald Golinsky Fatal, a union leader. “The slave owners had obligations to feed and clothe the slaves. Here you don’t have to do that.…The employer uses the extreme poverty and unemployment in Haiti because they know other workers will take the wage.”

Gildan opened three factories in Haiti starting in 2004. By 2009, it had sold them and begun contracting production to suppliers to have sewing assembly done in local factories. A key supplier is the Apaid family, led by André Apaid Jr. The Apaids’ factories also contract with Gildan’s competitor, Hanes, while the clothing of another rival, Fruit of the Loom, is also produced in Port-au-Prince. At least two Apaid factories—named Premium and Genesis—assemble clothes for Gildan. The family’s GMC factory has also done Gildan work.

The Apaid family is controversial due to its support for dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, its opposition to the governments of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and for lobbying against increases in the minimum wage (the Apaids backed the 2004 coup that removed Aristide from power, at a time when the minimum wage was a pivotal national issue). “They’re tough,” declares Yannik Etienne, spokesperson for the Haitian workers’ federation, ESPM-BO. “They have their own rules and are very authoritarian.”

In 2009, the Better Work program, run by the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corp. and the International Labour Organization (ILO), began producing surveys on wages and working conditions in Haiti’s apparel factories, including those supplying Gildan. In Haiti, the minimum wage has been, until this year, 200 gourdes a day (or $4.92), and 300 gourdes for piecework ($7.48). (The basic rate rose to 225 gourdes, or $5.61, this year.) In contrast, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center estimates a living wage in Port-au-Prince is about $28 a day. Two Better Work surveys conducted in 2013 revealed that none of the Haitian apparel factories were paying their entire workforces as much as 300 gourdes, even though most employees are doing piecework. “Gildan has been aware of these violations for years,” says Scott Nova of the WRC.

Iliopoulos says the minimum wage matter is an “industry-wide issue” and that there is confusion in the language of Haiti’s laws about whether companies really have to pay the 300 gourdes. Indeed, in October, 2013, the Haitian government issued a statement that the piecework minimum rate should not be construed as a minimum wage.

Such semantic distinctions aside, the WRC investigated the minimum-wage issue in 2013, producing a report which concluded that nearly one-third of Haitian workers’ wages was being “stolen” by garment manufacturers that refused to pay the minimum wage. The report said these poor wages had “devastating effects on workers,” including miring them in debt and effectively denying them the necessities of life. The WRC and the AFL-CIO also did their own separate estimates of a living wage in Port-au-Prince, calculating that a family needed at least $850 a month—compared to the estimated $186 that a typical worker in one of the Apaid factories might earn.

The WRC report triggered a firestorm of controversy. Gildan immediately said it would investigate and urge its suppliers to pay the minimum wage. But the WRC says that while negotiations with Gildan did begin, wages haven’t changed (the company disagrees). This fall, Gildan helped its suppliers and unions to negotiate a new base piece rate, but it won’t disclose what it is. And while one of Gildan’s suppliers has signed a contract with the unions, the Apaids have not. “We’ve since conducted internal audits that the piece rate is being applied and we’ve agreed to the terms and conditions in writing,” says Iliopoulos.

That’s not much consolation to people such as 32-year-old Archil Feraire, who used to make Gildan clothes. He lives in Blanchard, Plaine du Cul de Sac, in a three-room cinder-block shack with his wife and two children. Hired at the Premium factory in 2010 as a machine operator, his shift typically went from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Feraire said the salary in the torrid plant was 175 gourdes a day ($4.36) to start, rising gradually to 225 gourdes ($5.61). He said there was no change in his wage after the WRC’s revelations in 2013. All told, his monthly salary was $133. “The salary is so low, you can only pay for food,” he says.

In April of this year, Feraire was fired. He says it was due to union activism. Feraire fears he’s been blacklisted from the industry. “Gildan has a tight relationship with the owners,” he says, noting that the company has sent representatives to the factory to gather workers’ complaints, “but nothing would change…Gildan wants the product but is not concerned about the situation with the workers.” Iliopoulos says Gildan conducts regular audits. “If there are issues with working conditions, I am quite surprised that the unions wouldn’t speak directly to us given our rapport with them,” he says.

Natacha Saint-Cyril is a quiet 29-year-old single woman with a gap-toothed smile who lives with her brother and his family in Village de la Renaissance, a town built on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince to house people displaced by the 2010 earthquake. She worked at the Premium factory from 2010 until this past August, inspecting and packing Gildan T-shirts. It was not uncommon for her to leave home at 5 a.m. to arrive at the plant in time to start her 10-hour shift, which paid 225 gourdes ($5.61) a day. She estimated her monthly salary ranged from 5,000 gourdes ($124) to 6,000 gourdes per month ($150). “I am used to being hungry,” she says. “Gildan should know what is going on in the factory.”

Wherever one looks, the workers’ living conditions are squalid. We visited the Delmas 33 slum one night to interview a worker employed at the Genesis plant. The shantytown is almost pitch dark because no one can afford electricity; we conduct our interview by the light of an oil lantern. The heat is oppressive, as is the crowding—noise from neighbours is omnipresent.

Many workers are driven into debilitating debt, borrowing from co-workers or street lenders at high interest rates. One former worker at the Genesis plant is 32-year-old Marie-Bénie Clerjo, a mother of three sons who lives in Solino, a slum of tottering shacks and crumbling apartment blocks. Clerjo’s home is one small room where she and her children sleep on two beds. There’s no kitchen, toilet or sink, and she is two months behind in her rent. “We are not treated like humans, we are treated like animals,” she says. “I am living a miserable life.”

Before she was laid off in November, Clerjo worked at Genesis six days a week and earned the equivalent of $160 a month. Since she can only afford to eat one meal a day, Clerjo is hungry all the time. To make ends meet, she has to borrow money and is $9,500 in debt.

She saw Gildan’s personnel visit Genesis every two to three months. “Gildan is responsible because when they come, they don’t talk to workers or inspect the shop floor,” Clerjo remarks. Iliopoulos again points to the regular compliance audits that Gildan conducts on its suppliers as evidence it keeps abreast of what is happening in the plants.

Employees of the Apaid factories feel they have good reason to be cautious about what they say: In 2011, four worker leaders at the plants were dismissed, allegedly for union activity. They were eventually rehired, but only after extensive lobbying by NGOs, including a letter-writing campaign and delegations travelling to Montreal to ask Gildan to intervene.

Jean-Robert Louis is a thoughtful 40-year-old former worker who used to work in quality control in a plant that supplied Gildan. Louis says he was fired for taking part in a protest demanding a hike in garment workers’ minimum wage to 500 gourdes per day, or about $12 (he earned less than half that). “Haitians are used to fighting against hunger,” he says, sitting in the hot sun in a small village on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. “We survive with only salt and water. But we are not healthy.”


Things look different from Gildan’s headquarters in Montreal. “From our perspective, we have put a lot of investments in terms of working conditions and the health of our employees,” says Iliopoulos, noting the company has 16 employees devoted to CSR, and that it offers environmental and ergonomics programs at its plants. “We have 45 employees overseeing health and safety at all our operating locations. We have standard mandatory rest breaks that employees have to take, and specially designed ergonomic exercises. We have 22 doctors, 37 nurses on staff 24 hours, seven days a week, at our facilities, looking after our employees. Each factory has a health and safety committee and ergonomics committee.”

He points out that Gildan was named to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for two years in a row—the only North American apparel company to be so honoured. “When they did the whole detailed assessment,” he says, “we are ranked in the 95th percentile.” Maclean’s has had Gildan on its list of Canada’s 50 most socially responsible corporations since 2009.

Gildan also passes muster with the giant Caisse de dépôt et placement, which manages the pension fund of Quebec’s public employees. The Caisse owns about 9% of Gildan’s shares. The fund’s policy on responsible investment says that the Caisse likes companies it invests in to “respect workers’ rights, to take the necessary measures to guarantee them a safe, healthful working environment and to prohibit any form of abuse.” But a Caisse spokesperson said the fund would not comment on its investment in Gildan.

Those critical of CSR programs say they function merely as window-dressing to hide the reality of how companies conduct business. Ronen Shamir, a sociologist and law professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel, says CSR programs are designed to meet certain “indicators” that often have little to do with substantive change on the ground. “I’m not saying it’s a sham, but I am saying there is an increasing gap between the indicators corporations use to report on their CSR and the actual efficacy of these systems when it comes to protecting communities, workers and indigenous people,” explains Shamir. “The indicators are about corporate risk and not about employee or community risk.… It becomes two different universes.”

This rings true with Gildan’s most vocal critics, like Scott Nova of the WRC, who characterizes Gildan’s record on labour rights as “ruthless.” He believes Gildan has “gotten very adept at making promises at moments of real pressure to fend off the prospect of harsher public criticism. But then we’ve had challenges to get them to fulfill commitments.”

“We came back to Struggle”

Indigenous communities in Honduras are fighting against new mining projects

The dirt road winds its way up into the mountains of Yoro, dropping down to cross the Locomapa River at several points along the way. It’s March, nearing the end of the dry season in this part of Honduras, and the pink blossoms of carao trees stand out against the dusty landscape of corn fields and coniferous forest. Near the river, in the community of San Francisco Campo, Celso Alberto Cabrera sits outside his simple wooden home. It is here that Indigenous Tolupan members of the San Francisco de Locomapa tribe maintained a 13-day road blockade in August 2013 to protest antimony mining in the tribe’s territory. And it is here that three Tolupan blockade participants were murdered on August 25. Cabrera’s 71-year-old mother, María Enriqueta Matute, was shot and killed in her kitchen. Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez were shot on the dirt patio outside the house, next to the road that runs through the middle of town.

photo of a hillside that has been stripminedphoto John Donaghy

“They died because they were involved with the resistance,” Cabrera said. The blockade ended with the murders and, that same day, Cabrera and seven other community leaders fled the region due to death threats. An arrest warrant issued for the two murder suspects hasn’t been carried out, but after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered precautionary measures for 38 people from the region, Cabrera and six others returned to Locomapa in February.

In theory, tribal policies mandate that no resource extraction can take place in the tribe’s territory without the approval of the tribal assembly, in which a majority of the tribe’s 900- plus members must be present to make decisions. No such authorization has occurred. “If the communities say no to mining, then that must be respected,” said Ramón Matute, who spent six months in exile due to his leadership in the struggle against mining.

Extractive projects are moving forward at an ever-increasing pace across Honduras, as the government tries to stay afloat by putting natural resources on the auction block. A combination of militarization and the lack of proper consultation – let alone free, prior, and informed consent from local communities – is causing conflict and resistance in Indigenous territories.

“We’re up against powerful interests,” Bertha Cáceres, general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, said of the struggles against extractive and energy projects throughout the country. It’s not only mining that worries her, but also hydroelectric dam construction, logging, and oil exploration. “Our concern is that all of the territories could end up in the hands of transnational corporations,” she said.

In the five years since the June 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran government has issued an unprecedented number of natural resource concessions. National and international energy corporations now hold rights to dozens of rivers, including waterways on which Indigenous Tolupan, Lenca, and Garifuna communities depend. In March, British multinational BG Group began offshore oil and gas exploration in a 13,500-square-mile area off the coast of the remote Moskitia region, and Chevron has expressed interest in the area. Mining activities are expanding, and mining interests are exploring the mineral potential of 950 sites throughout the country.

Honduras is a signatory to the International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 on the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples, as well as a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet the government’s obligations under these international agreements have not been adopted into national legislation. At the same time, legislative initiatives such as the 2011 Investment Promotion and Protection Law have strengthened the legal protections for private investment.

“Never before in all the history of Honduras has there been a greater push by the state to guarantee foreign investment,” said Miriam Miranda, general coordinator of OFRANEH, a federation representing the 46 Afro-Indigenous Garifuna communities spread out along the Caribbean coast. The Honduran government is increasingly focused on natural resource exploitation, and particularly mining, as a solution to its crippling debt. “The greater the economic crisis of the state, the greater the crisis for Indigenous peoples as well because the resources in our territories are placed at much greater risk,” Miranda said.

A new General Mining Law, passed in January 2013, opened the floodgates for mining around the country. The law put an end to a moratorium on mining concessions in place since 2006. Less than a week before the National Congress ratified regulations defining how the new mining law would be enacted, the Honduran government announced that 280 new mining concessions were in the works.

North American and European companies are currently operating four large-scale metallic mines in Honduras that produce gold, silver, zinc, lead, and iron. The extraction of iron oxide for export to China is expanding at a rapid pace, and new metallic and non-metallic mining plans are underway. The environmental and social impacts from the now closed San Martin gold mine in the Siria Valley, less than 100 miles from Locomapa, have been the center of mining resistance. “We’ve heard and seen that mining in the Siria Valley left behind destruction, left behind illnesses,” Ramón Matute said. Siria Valley residents have carefully documented and shared with communities throughout Central America their experience with community displacement, contamination and depletion of water sources, and health problems in the region affected by Goldcorp’s open pit mine.

Tolupan activists don’t have to look far for positive inspiration, either. Fifty miles west of Locomapa, thousands of residents of the municipality of El Negrito took to the streets on March 28 to protest gold and coal mining concessions. During a packed town hall meeting, municipal authorities backed the communities’ decision to ban all mining in the municipality. More often, however, the official response to community struggles for their lands and resources is militarization, criminalization, and repression. For example, when residents in Santa Barbara in western Honduras took to the streets on March 24 to protest mining, the Honduran government sent in the military police to evict their road blockade. Under the 2013 mining law, a percentage of mining royalties are paid directly into a security fund that finances the military police and other recently created security forces.

In Tolupan territory the resistance movement continues despite the 2013 murders and ongoing threats. Since Matute and other community leaders returned home to Locomapa and reunited with those who stayed behind, they have been busy organizing. “We didn’t come here to stay hidden in our houses. We came back to continue the struggle,” said Matute, secretary of the grassroots tribal Preventative Council, which was organized in the 1990s to defend natural resources from unrestrained exploitation.

José María Pineda hasn’t returned to Locomapa since August 2013. One of the most visible community leaders speaking out against resource extraction in Tolupan territory, Pineda has been the main target of death threats. But his time away from home hasn’t been wasted. He has traveled as far as Washington, DC to denounce human rights violations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. For Pineda, the issue comes down to consultation and consent. “So long as that doesn’t happen, we’re right to oppose the continuing extraction of the riches of our Indigenous tribes in the municipality of Yoro,” he told Earth Island Journal in an interview in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

Back in Locomapa, the sweet aroma of ocote pine lingers in the air as the sun begins its descent behind the mountains. Sitting outside the house where his mother was killed, Celso Alberto Cabrera plays with his granddaughter. “My mother died defending a right, and we have to do the same because we’re thinking of the children who will be around after we’re gone,” he said.

Cabrera takes comfort in the fact that communities throughout Honduras are speaking out against destructive mining practices. “We feel it gives us great strength because we know that it’s not just us, that there are other organizations that are fighting this same battle,” he said. “We know that if at a certain point all of us in this struggle shout together, we will be heard.”

Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist currently based in Central America. Follow her on Twitter: @Sandra_Cuffe.

Mining Watch Canada declares new Mining Law in Honduras is ‘true Disaster Capitalism’ in which the Canadian government has played an entirely self-interested role.

Honduran Mining Law Passed and Ratified, but the Fight is Not Over

Thursday, January 24, 2013

(Ottawa) On Wednesday January 23, 2013, the Honduran Congress quickly passed and ratified a new mining law that has been developed with support from the Canadian International Development Agency against the will of important sectors of Honduran society. The law only remains to be published in the official Gazette, which could take place as early as next week. Once published, it will enter into effect and a moratorium on new mining concessions that been in place since 2006 will end. It is anticipated that this will be followed by an accelerated process to approve some 300 mining concessions, and that another 154 concessions that have already been approved will become active.

The following represent some of the most worrisome aspects of the law, as analyzed by the Honduran National Coalition of Environmental Networks:

  • It leaves the door open to open-pit mining,
  • Water sources that communities depend upon are left unprotected, except for those that have been declared and registered, which are a minority. This puts at grave risk the survival and economic sustenance of peasant farmer communities,
  • Mining is not prohibited in populated areas, which will continue to permit forced expropriation and the destruction and displacement of entire communities,
  • The consultation process described in the law theoretically allows communities to say no to mining, but only after the exploration concession has already been granted and after there is a contract established with mining companies. This means that community voices will not be heard because the state of Honduras will be bound by Free Trade Agreements that it has signed – such as the forthcoming agreement with Canada – that give transnational companies access to international tribunals in order to protect their investments,
  • It does not include a civil society proposal to incorporate a schedule of environmental crimes such that the Public Ministry could initiate criminal proceedings against those responsible when these occur, sanctions will only be of an administrative nature,
  • The law denies access to information about technical and financial aspects of projects and companies involved.

This is true disaster capitalism in which the Canadian government has played an entirely self-interested role.

In 2009, Honduran civil society had achieved a proposed mining law that had it passed would have incorporated their proposals. But this was shoved aside following the June 2009 military-backed coup of then President Mel Zelaya and never debated. In the wake of this rupture in the democratic life of Honduras, a country that has since become the murder capital of the world with frequent attacks and threats against human rights advocates, journalists and activists, the Canadian Embassy, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and CIDA have all gotten involved in lobbying for and providing assistance toward a law that would be satisfactory to Canadian industry, such as the one that passed yesterday.

The fight is not over for communities and organizations in Honduras. A November 2011 survey found some 91% of Hondurans opposed to open-pit mining and near unanimity in support of the environmental movement for a more just mining framework. In other words,
despite the repressive environment, we can anticipate that communities will continue to organize to defend their lands and waters supplies. Also, the National Coalition of Environmental Networks plans to fight this Canadian-backed law through the Honduran courts and will once again be calling for international solidarity in order to urge the court to proceed fairly and expeditiously with their case.

In Canada, it’s vital that this attempt on the well-being of communities – in which our government agencies are complicit – not go unnoticed and that the work to build solidarity with affected communities and their allies continue.

Canada-Honduras Economic Growth and Prosperity Act
Government Orders

March 31st, 2014 / 4:10 p.m.


Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Mr. Speaker, let me be clear. There are three fundamentally important criteria for assessing the merits of trade agreements.

First, does the proposed partner respect democracy, human rights, adequate labour and environmental standards, and Canadian values? If there are challenges in these regards, is the partner on a positive trajectory toward these goals?

Second, is the proposed partner’s economy of significant or strategic value to Canada? Third, are the terms of the proposed agreement satisfactory?

The proposed free trade agreement with Honduras clearly fails this test. Honduras is a country with undemocratic practices, a corrupt government, weak institutions and a record of human rights abuses. It has low standards and insignificant strategic value.

Honduras is a very poor country with a history of repressive, undemocratic politics and a seriously flawed human rights record. Leftist president Manuel Zelaya’s democratically elected government was toppled by a military coup in 2009. Since then, international observers have severely criticized the government’s actions and the elections because they fail to meet acceptable democratic standards.

I recently received some information from a friend on Vancouver Island as a response to an op-ed that I had written on the Canada–Honduras trade agreement. He had just conducted a development and peace workshop about Honduras, and had spent six weeks in northern Honduras last fall on a personal accompaniment project with Father Melo Moreno, S.J., the director of an independent radio station and a human rights centre called ERIC.

This is what he wrote me when referring to Father Melo:

Either job puts him at the front of the firing squad and he lives with death threats and intimidation. As well some of his workers have received death threats. Twice I accompanied Melo to a prison near La Ceiba to visit a political prisoner—a peasant farmer who has been in jail for almost 6 years but a leader of a campesino community.

….Canada is very much present in Honduras through mining companies and through the sweatshops…which are there because labour laws and environmental protection laws are weak or non-existent thanks to the Free trade agreement conditions that Canada imposed.

I would like to read again from a paper entitled “Faith in Action: Padra Melo”, written by a woman by the name of Molly Holden. It says:

On October 9, Rev. Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J. popularly known as “Padre Melo” spoke to a group of Boston College students and faculty on the violence and ongoing human rights violations in Honduras, currently the ‘murder Capital of the world’. His presentation, the Price of Truth: Human rights in Honduras since the Coup, addressed the struggles and successes of building a fair and inclusive society. In his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Committee of the US Congress in 2012, Padre Melo asked members of the Committee how freedom of expression could ‘be defended in a country like Honduras where the biggest violators of the this fundamental freedom are the friends and partners of a “democracy” backed by the policies and agencies of the U.S. government?’ Padre Melo stated that around 80% of cocaine imported to the United States comes through Honduras by way of Colombia. However, U.S. attempts to combat drug trafficking in Honduras (and elsewhere in Latin America) place power and money in the hands of the Honduran military officials and politicians who are deeply tied to the drug lords. In other words, drug traffickers, weakening the rule of law and increasing violence, control the Honduran government at all levels.

I would like to finish by sharing an article entitled “Canada profiting off the backs of Honduras’ poor”, by the Troy Media publication columnist, Mark Taliano, who was part of a Canadian delegation that went to Honduras to observe elections. The article states:

In March of 2007, Gildan Activewear Inc., a Montreal-based textile manufacturer, decided to leave Canada for sunnier climes.

The company laid off hundreds of Canadian workers, and resettled where business was good: Honduras. The end result? Canada lost jobs and Honduras’ asymmetrical, toxic economy, was further entrenched.

Honduran sweatshop workers are basically commodities and their status will likely remain unchanged, or get worse. The 2009 coup that removed the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya was condemned internationally (even U.S. resident Obama declared it illegal), and the new regime dismantled or corrupted institutions that might be of benefit to humans (including constitutional judges), and created a heavily militarized and murderous environment. “Since 2010,”reported Raul Burbano, delegation leader of election observers from Canada, “there have been more than 200 politically motivated killings.”

In the meantime, Canada’s Gildan profits from the misery. Gildan pays no taxes in Honduras, and the workforce (primarily women) is easily exploited. Unions and collective bargaining are not allowed and human rights are not a concern.

This is who we are dealing with in the free trade agreement.

It continues:

The Collective Of Honduran Women…a brave voice for freedom in Honduras, comprehensively documents the exploitation of workers. Spokespeople told us:

1) Workers produce T-shirts from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. four days a week, at jobs that are physically repetitive. Repetitive strain injuries are common, proper care is elusive, and injured workers are easily discarded.

Further, it states:

At Gildan, inspectors aren’t allowed in to the plant, and workers are fired (or worse) if they try to organize unions.

2) One former worker explained that she would be given a cortisone shot to treat her calcified tendinitis, and then sent immediately back to work.

Later, it states:

It’s no surprise then, that by age 25, chronic work injuries, coupled with poor medical treatment, often prevent workers from performing their fast-paced tasks.

Worse still, once a worker leaves Gildan, she is likely to have irreversible health problems which preclude her from finding alternate employment. Some women need crutches to walk; others can’t hold their babies or do housework. Savage poverty imposes itself on their already precarious existences, and decimated social institutions perpetuate the misery.

Healthcare, schooling, and other social/public institutions are abysmal, and only those (few) with money get adequate service.

What are the drivers behind such misery?

Those who control the levels of power in Honduras are governed by interests that do not include the common good, consequently, society and the economy have been spirally downward since the coup.

Prior to the 2009 military coup, freedom and democracy were making inroads into the malaise, but now the power structure looks something like this:

At the top of this asymmetrical and entirely dysfunctional political economy are transnational corporations, including banks. They are seamlessly aligned with governments in Canada and the U.S. They tacitly, if not overtly, drive foreign policy decisions.

On the ground in Honduras looms the invisible hand of the U.S. military, viewed by locals as an “occupying force”, that arguably enables destabilization—drug trafficking has increased since the coup—and is allied with the corrupt dictator Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Locally, the nexus of powerful polities includes narco gangs, the police, the military, the para-police…and rich oligarch….

Corruption throughout society is so pervasive that people trying to make a living often have to pay extortion money not only too gangs, but also to the police.

Now, with a growing number of U.S. military bases and the murderous dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernandez solidified, profits are basically guaranteed for transnational corporations.

As Canadians, we need to continue asking important questions. For example,

“Why are these “Free Trade” Agreements, such as the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, so secret?” and “Why have we chosen to profit from the misery of others?”

Once we get some answers, we might choose to pay a couple dollars more for our next T-shirt.—

This is who we are dealing with. This is the country we are trying to do a free trade agreement with.

By the way, in these agreements, we have provisions allowing companies to sue governments, similar to chapter 11 in NAFTA, if they are not treated to their liking. Theoretically, a Canadian company perpetuating injustices in Honduras could actually sue the Honduran government if it were not happy with the policies of that government.

Why are we signing an agreement with a country with this record of human rights abuse and that even allows our companies to continue this abuse in their country?

I think that is the question we have to answer here today before we talk about free trade with a country like Honduras.

Canada – Honduras Free Trade Agreement Part I

March 4th, 2014 – 1:15pm

There has been a great deal of speculation over the past year on various trade agreements Canada wishes to sign.

Although the Conservatives like to brag about the trade agreements they have concluded in the last eight years, the facts tell a different story. In truth, they have concluded a total of six trade agreements with the following countries: Jordan, Panama, Peru and Colombia, as well as a goods-only agreement with four small European countries including Liechtenstein and Iceland.

The question arises therefore, how do we know if a trade agreement is beneficial for our country or not?

My party (NDP) believes that we should apply three important criteria to assess trade agreements:

First, is the proposed partner a democracy that respects human rights, adheres to acceptable environmental standards and Canadian values, and if there are challenges regarding these, can it fairly be said that they are on a positive trajectory toward these goals?

Second, is the proposed partner’s economy of significant and strategic value to Canada?

Third, are the terms of the proposed agreement acceptable?

The proposed free trade agreement with Honduras fails this test.

Honduras is a country with a seriously flawed human rights record; weak institutions; corrupt police and army; and a history, both entrenched and recent, of repressive, undemocratic politics. The last democratically elected government, that of President Manuel Zelaya, was toppled by a military coup in June 2009. This coup was staged by the Honduran army under the pretext of a constitutional crisis that had developed between the supreme court and the president. Following the coup, the government suspended key civil liberties, including freedom of the press and assembly. In the ensuing days, security forces responded to peaceful demonstrations with excessive force and shut down opposition media outlets, causing deaths, scores of injuries, and thousands of arbitrary detentions. The coup was widely condemned around the world, including by all Latin American nations, the European Union, the United States, and the UN General Assembly.

In January 2010, Porfirio Lobo Sosa assumed the presidency through what has overwhelmingly been deemed undemocratic and illegitimate means. Most foreign governments and election-monitoring agencies refused even to send observers, and many countries rejected the results of the election. The recent election held in November 2013 has similarly been condemned by independent observers.

Since 2009, there has been documentation of serious human rights abuses; extra-judicial killings; kidnappings of political figures; intimidation of citizens; severe restrictions on public demonstrations, protest, and freedom of expression; and interference in the independence of the judiciary are well established in Honduras.

Transparency International ranks Honduras as the “most corrupt country in Central America”, which is no small feat. It is a major drug-smuggling centre, and it has the worst income equality in the region. The U.S. state department estimates that 79% of all cocaine shipments originating in South America lands in Honduras.

In 2012, Honduras became the murder capital of the world, reaching a record high of 7,172 homicides, or 81 per 100,000 people.

By signing a free trade agreement with Honduras, we basically give Honduras repressive regime a legitimacy that it does not deserve.

Part II of this column will provide more of an update on the political situation in this country.

Honduras: Mining Law Reform  – 2010-2012

In the wake of the 2009 military-backed coup in Honduras, a coup that Canada tacitly supported such as by refusing to consider sanctions against the de facto regime and pressuring other OAS members to do the same, the Canadian Embassy began lobbying for a new mining law. Several years earlier, in 2006, thirteen articles in the existing mining law were declared unconstitutional and a moratorium put in place on all new mining projects pending the passage of a new law. Honduran civil society had been lobbying for a ban on open pit mining and stronger protections for community participation in decision making over mining projects, among other reforms. At the time that then President Mel Zelaya was ousted in 2009, a draft law was ready to be debated that incorporated their proposals. But the debate never took place. From January 2010 to January 2013, Canadian representatives worked hard to help pave the way for a law that would be more favourable to the interests of Canadian companies. For example, in early 2010 then Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder travelled to Honduras and arranged meetings between Canadian mining executives, President Lobo and members of his cabinet. They also “discussed with a Breakwater Resources executive possible strategies to influence the development of a new mining law.” Later, in early 2012, when a Honduran legislative committee announced that a new mining law had been drafted sparking outcry from Honduras civil society, Ambassador Cameron MacKay organized a meeting of government officials, companies and NGOs under the banner of Corporate Social Responsibility at which MacKay emphasized the positive relationship between Canada and Honduras. This and other Canadian support to get a new mining law passed in January 2013, including a technical support project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, run contrary to the interests of Honduran society, who according to one public opinion survey undertaken in the fall of 2011 are 90% opposed to open pit mining.


Harper in Honduras: Left Solidarity and the Future of Coup Resistance

Harper Honduras Lobos 2.jpg
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Honduras coup president Porfirio Lobo, Honduras, August 12, 2011

By Tyler Shipley
Published in The Bullet, August 25, 2011

It must have been a struggle for Honduran coup-President Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo to keep a straight face during his recent press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on August 12, 2011. After all, even Lobo’s supporters have never gone so far as to claim – as Harper inexplicably did– that the man who was installed as President after a military coup, fraudulent elections and a violent and murderous crackdown on dissent was “a prominent human rights leader in this country.”

Lobo certainly didn’t attain his credentials as a human rights leader while he attended business school in Miami or when he took up his wealthy landowning family’s cattle ranches in Olancho, or in his long relationship with the Honduran National Business Council (COHEP). And it’s unlikely that anyone would have called the positions he took during his tenure in Congress – his insistence on reintroducing the death penalty, for instance – to come from a preoccupation with human rights. Most notably, in his eighteen months as de facto President, his name has only ever been connected to human rights when he has been accused of coordinating a systematic and brutal campaign of state terror that continues to this day. Naturally, this didn’t stop Stephen Harper from claiming that he shared with Lobo “a relationship based upon a commitment to human rights, democracy, security and prosperity,” which will no doubt be reinforced by the 150 soldiers Canada is sending to Honduras to conduct joint military exercises.

‘Honduras is Open for Business’
In June 2009, the Honduran military kidnapped then-President Manuel Zelayaand flew him out of the country, setting off a wave of popular resistance and state repression that quickly led to a complete military lockdown and a descent into utter impunity for a violent police apparatus. Over 200 people have been killed and many hundreds of others have been attacked, injured, tortured and otherwise terrorized in an effort to stamp out dissent. The press was immediately and violently muzzled and remains so; not only have media outlets had their offices ransacked and equipment broken, but journalists have been subject to intense repression. Reporters Without Bordershas called Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, noting that dozens have been killed or threatened; sometimes the cruelty is unimaginable, as when critical radio journalist Enrique Gudiel came home in February 2010 to find his seventeen-year-old daughter hanged.

Meanwhile, the state apparatus was purged of any elements deemed to be a threat to the new far-right reality, from criminal court judges like Maritza Arita Herrera, who had the nerve to rule in favour of anti-coup student activists, to the head of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), Darío A. Euraque, whose department was accused of “indoctrinating” racial minorities with the idea that they should participate in writing and celebrating their own cultures. And now, with their enemies marginalized and on the defensive, the oligarchs who rule Honduras are pursuing a ruthless neoliberal agenda that is ravaging the already heavily exploited Honduran people: crushing strikes and breaking unions, offering up natural resources like rivers for major construction projects, establishing corporate city-states, selling off public utilities and empowering foreign investors to carve up traditional Garífuna (afro-indigenous) and campesino lands to exploit as they see fit. This shameful crusade reached its nadir in May 2011 with the aptly titled “Honduras Is Open For Business” conference, during which the coup regime fell upon itself to show foreign investors that Honduras was for sale.

And at the centre of it all stands President Pepe Lobo, grinning and shaking hands with Stephen Harper. And they have reason to smile; the situation in Honduras is working out well for both of them. For Lobo and his friends in the oligarchy, the coup has succeeded. The golpistas (coup-makers) were defiant in the face of an initial wave of international remonstrations of the coup and, with the help of U.S. and especially Canadian diplomatic leverage, used fraudulent elections and a sham truth commission to rebuild their legitimacy such that they have now been re-admitted to the OAS and are being reintegrated into the international community. At the same time, they orchestrated a campaign of state terror that was effective, in part, because rather than committing large-scale massacres that would draw international attention, it targeted movement activists in their homes and workplaces and served to instil a profound sense of fear that has convinced many Hondurans to stay away from anti-coup activism.[1]

For Harper and the Canadian owners of businesses in Honduras, their friendship to the coup regime – when most of the world rightly condemned it – has earned them a new free trade agreement that will undoubtedly strengthen the already powerful position that Canadian businesses hold in that country and lead to even greater profits being taken from it. Canadian businesses currently invest some $600-million in Honduras, and the new free trade agreement will ensure that an even greater share will flow in – and quickly back out – of Honduras in the future, leaving a swath of ecological and social destruction in its wake. Already the complaints against Canadian businesses are innumerable: notorious mining giant Goldcorp, known for ordering assassinations and violence against union organizers, has been leeching cyanide into the Siria Valley, infecting countless mineworkers and community members with ongoing health problems. Canadian ‘porn king’ Randy Jorgenson is implicated in what some have called the ‘ethnocide’ of Garífuna communities, on whose land Jorgenson’s company and others are building massive tourist resorts. Montreal-based Gildan – the largest private investor in the country – is infamous in Honduras for a litany of abuses connected to its sweatshop factories in tax-free maquiladora zones.

Gildan: A Good Corporate Citizen?
Not coincidentally, Stephen Harper’s visit to Honduras was not hosted in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, but in San Pedro Sula, the centre of Honduran industry and a convenient base for Harper to visit one of Gildan’s facilities in Choloma, a maquiladora-zone in Northern Honduras where foreign companies are exempt from the usual labour and environmental codes and operate in a tax-free haven. “As a general rule, our Canadian companies have a very good record of social responsibility,” said Harper as he toured the facility. “[Gildan] pays above minimum wage. It runs health, nutrition and transport programs for its employees and is a very good corporate citizen.”

He was so busy gushing over Gildan’s benevolence that he didn’t take notice of the demonstration that had gathered outside the Expocentre where he and Lobo were signing the free trade agreement. The gathered protestors carried banners and placards admonishing Gildan and other Canadian companies and denounced Harper as a golpista in spirited chants. Among the gathered were a group of Honduran women who work for Gildan, who attempted to deliver an open letter to Prime Minister Harper. The letter, which Harper ignored, painted a very different picture of Gildan than that of Harper’s “good corporate citizen.” The detailed letter, drafted by the Honduran Women’s Collective (CODEMUH) explained:

“Prime Minister Harper, there have been constant reports of Canadian company Gildan Activewear’s anti-organizing and anti-union policies, among other labour violations. For example, Gildan El Progresoin Honduras closed in 2004 to avoid the certification of a union… other reports have surfaced of violations of other human and labour rights of workers, such as the right to live without violence, the right to work, health and life.

“Presently, Gildan Activewear is contravening the legal regulations for labour, with regards to treaties and international conventions that protect occupational health and safety, by implementing 4×4 shifts in their factories, where workers work for 4 days straight, 11.5 hours per day, and then have 4 days off. With this system, it’s common that on their days off, workers do extra hours, up to 2 day shifts or 2 night shifts. This means that the workweek can be 69 hours long, with a salary of $89.99 (U.S.) (L$1700 Lempiras) per week.

“The production goals or quotas imposed by Gildan Activewear are the highest in the industry in Honduras. To earn $89.99 per week, workers have to produce 550 dozen pieces every day, and are exposed to awkward postures, executing up to 40,000 repetitive movements in their joints, tendons, and muscles per day. These conditions produce Occupational Musculoskeletal Injuries (MSI)…In Honduras, Gildan does not pay taxes because they are exempt, so it is absurd when we see that a company with such a high level of exploitation of the work force has been applauded as one of the 50 best Canadian corporations and one of the 20 most responsible companies.”[2]

To earn $89.99 per week, workers have to produce 550 dozen pieces every day, and are exposed to awkward postures, executing up to 40,000 repetitive movements in their joints, tendons, and muscles per day.

Gildan represents only one example of Canada’s shameful corporate behaviour in Honduras, and yet these are the very companies that Harper is representing by so aggressively supporting the repressive Lobo regime. Indeed, Canada’s engagement with the coup government in Honduras is partly predicated on that very repression; recognizing that the military regime would be a better friend to its interests than any other in Central America, Canada broke off talks with the CA4 (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua) shortly after the coup in order to focus on a bilateral deal with the golpistas in Honduras. Details of the deal have not been made public, but it is reasonable to expect that the agreement will further empower companies like Gildan, who already terrify and exploit their employees; as Juana López Nuñez, a Gildan employee with chronic and debilitating pain caused by overwork, told Dawn Paley, “[workers] here don’t want to talk…they are scared to talk to the management because they think they will get fired or get a lower grade of pay.”[3]Now, Canada will likely use its deal with Honduras as a model for those it will push on the rest of Central America.

The Future of the Frente
But if Canada’s imperial aspirations in Honduras are clear, the form that the resistance will take is not. The movement that coalesced in opposition to the coup – the FNRP or Frente – was always a loosely organized collection of groups rather than a single unified entity. The energy with which it responded in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the fraudulent elections and the inauguration of a false president was remarkable and inspired. But as time has passed, the repression has been relentless and fierce and the international community has increasingly turned a blind eye, leaving the Frente to sustain its non-violent opposition – in the face of intense state violence – largely on its own steam.

Not surprisingly, the united front against the coup has been difficult to maintain, especially as the context has shifted in the last six months. The signing of the Cartagena Accord in May 2011 secured the return to Honduras of exiled President Manuel Zelaya and was the final step in the coup regime’s reintegration into the international community. The Accord offered guarantees of a variety of social and political rights that Hondurans ostensibly already have under the Honduran constitution; the same rights which the regime has demonstrated, before and after the signing of the Accord, that it will not uphold. As a result, many in the Frente consider the Accord little more than a ploy to bolster the regime’s legitimacy without dismantling the apparatus of state terror that keeps it in power.

But the more worrying effect of the Accord could be the splits it has encouraged within the ranks of the Frente. Zelaya’s return puts him at the centre of the movement again; he retains a great deal of popularity as a friend of Honduras’ poor and the victim of the coup, even if the former is exaggerated and the latter an accident of history. The gathering of people to welcome him back to Honduras was, according to Canadian journalist Jesse Freeston, the largest public demonstration in Honduran history. Zelaya and his closest supporters – largely centre-left liberals from privileged classes – have used his return to push the Frente toward an electoral strategy, suggesting that the Frente become a political party and run Zelaya as a candidate in 2013 elections. However, the more radical forces within the movement – often those that represent the poorest and most marginalized within Honduras – have rejected this path, insisting that the Frente must resist the coup and re-found Honduras from below, through mass mobilizations and grassroots struggle.

This latter position has, more or less, framed much of what the movement has done in the past two years, but the return of Zelaya and the relentless repression that dogs even the smallest activist projects[4]has pushed the Frente into adopting the electoral strategy, though not without significant dissent. At a meeting of over 1500 delegates in June 2011, with Zelaya present and dominating the discussion, it was agreed that the movement would create a Frente Amplio (FARP) political party. There was no question that this was the will of the assembly; the period prior to Cartagena has been one of the hardest since the coup, especially given the disheartening defeat of the teachers’ strike, and Zelaya’s return gave the movement a shot of energy that it desperately needed. But many of the more radical delegates expressed disappointment at both the electoral strategy, which validates the corrupt political system that brought Lobo to power in 2009, and at the less-democratic manner in which the assembly was conducted, with Zelaya and his mostly male supporters dominating the microphones in a tight three-hour schedule.

The Canadian Left and the Split in the Frente
Even as these debates play out in Honduras, they are reflected in the debates within the Canadian left, which is united in its opposition to Canadian imperialism in Honduras but divided on what its solidarity with anti-coup forces should look like. On one hand, John Riddelland Richard Fidlerhave suggested that the return of Zelaya – whose popularity is at an all time high – is a partial victory in a context where victories have been few, and that his presence will embolden the resistance. In a piece co-authoredwith Felipe Stuart Cournoyer, Riddell acknowledged that there was no guarantee the Lobo regime would follow the terms of the agreement, but that the agreement provided another lever through which the Frente could assert its rights in Honduras. Fidler has also noted that opening up another avenue of struggle – engaging in an electoral process with Zelaya at the head – could be an important way of supporting the activist work seeking to re-found Honduras. After all, the movement has shown no desire to overthrow the state by converting into a guerrilla struggle; as such, popular demands to rewrite the constitution and dismantle the repressive police apparatus would necessarily require a state that was willing to hear and reflect popular will, and Zelaya is much more likely to fulfill that role than Lobo, especially if Zelaya’s political base for the elections is located in the Frente.

On the other hand, Todd Gordon and Jeffrey Webber have insisted that Cartagena serves to weaken and divide the movement while simultaneously casting a “democratic veneer” over the regime’s continued atrocities. Reintroducing the ambitious and opportunistic Zelaya marginalizes the activists who form the political centre of the movement, reducing the image of the Frente to an appendage of Zelaya, who is not rooted in popular struggles and only became part of them when he was overthrown in the 2009 coup. Gordon and Webber ground their position in the recognition that some of Honduras’ most important and activist groups – COPINH, for instance[5]– are those most marginalized by, and least interested in, a Zelaya-headed united front to win elections in 2013. Indeed, Zelaya’s participation in the Cartagena Accord, which paved the way for the coup regime’s reintegration into the international community, and his expressed willingness to work with coup-leader Lobo in pressuring for reform, only emphasizes the fact that he is not, and was never, a member of the movement he claims to lead. Zelaya’s government, prior to the coup, was progressive only compared to the utterly merciless brand of military neoliberalism imposed by Lobo and his far-right allies; there is no reason to expect that a Zelaya victory in 2013 would address the most important demands of the movement.

None, that is, unless the Frente could find a way to maintain the strength of its conviction to build a movement to re-found Honduras along more just, equitable and sustainable lines while, at the same time, supporting efforts to put its own candidates into the government. Nearly two years into Lobo’s term in office, he and his North American allies have gained, not lost, international legitimacy. The prospects for re-founding Honduras by having Lobo internationally isolated and domestically harried by protest and social upheaval are beginning to seem bleak. Though courageous and inspiring, the movements that coalesced into the Frente do not have the strength or the desire to raise their level of militancy. Lobo remains strong despite massive demonstrations, crippling strikes, land occupations and a variety of other forms of direct action against his government, and even radical groups at the centre of it all have acknowledged, as COPINH did last month, “that the situation in Honduras is getting worse and there exists very real possibilities for it to culminate in further crimes.”[6]

More of the same will not bear fruit, and if an escalation of militant resistance is what is needed to shift the balance of power, one is left to wonder what form of escalation is available. Any hint of armed struggle would be swiftly and brutally put down by the now confident and empowered military/police apparatus at Lobo’s command and, given the horrific memories of the civil wars in Central America in the 1980s, it is unlikely that such a suggestion would even be raised. Already, Zelaya’s speeches often begin or end with “golpe de estado, nunca mas,” meaning “never again” to a coup d’etat. The coup, then, according to Zelaya and his followers has succeeded; the challenge now is to find a different path to a new Honduras.

As such, the electoral path cannot be dismissed as easily as Gordon and Webber suggest. Nonetheless, the warnings they raise – warnings that are expressed by key figures in social movements that pre-date the Frente – must be taken to heart by those of us seeking to support the movement from the outside. A Zelaya presidency in 2014 would shift the political terrain slightly in favour of those who are struggling for a better Honduras, but it would not, in itself, alter the social, political and economic structures that make Honduran society profoundly unequal and unjust. Nor, indeed, would it alter the regressive dynamics that still pervade many activist spaces; machismo, patriarchy and racism are just a few of the problems associated with Zelaya’s caudillismo (strongman leadership) and the supporters it attracts.

A victorious Zelaya, then, would have to become – as he was prior to June 2009 – the target of the movements’ energies, not its representative. For activists outside of Canada, there must continue to be a concerted effort to support grassroots and community organizing, rather than blanket endorsements of Zelaya’s Frente Amplio. These include the women working in Canadian garment factories demanding an end to sweatshop exploitation. They include the campesinos of the Aguán Valley demanding access to farms that were stolen from them by Honduran oligarchs. They include Garífuna activists who are watching their traditional lands seized and carved up by Canadian tourism magnates bent on exploiting Honduras’ tropical climate and virtually non-existent tax regimes.

The Cartagena Accord and the return of Manuel Zelaya have undeniably strengthened the immediate positions of the coup regime and its allies, and Stephen Harper’s visit last week only crystallized that fact. His arrogant declaration that Canada has “no information to suggest that [human rights abuses] are in any way perpetrated by the government” is a slap in the face to the hundreds of Hondurans who have received violence and intimidation as a direct result of their involvement in the Frente or in anti-coup activism. But it is also a sobering reminder that the Lobo regime and its allies are taking full advantage of a resistance movement that is not strong enough, in this moment, to stem the tide of the far-right onslaught that Lobo’s regime represents. Our solidarity with the Honduran resistance will have to understand the limitations of both a Zelaya-fronted electoral program and a politically pure ‘politics from below,’ neither of which can – on its own – carry out the project of re-foundation that Hondurans so desperately need. •

Tyler Shipley teaches at York University in Toronto, Canada. His dissertation examines the new Canadian imperialism in Honduras and beyond.


1. The extent to which Honduran opposition to the coup has gone unexpressed is impossible to calculate, but it is certainly clear from my own interviews and conversations that many Hondurans have avoided anti-coup activism not because they support the golpistas but because they fear them. In November 2009, the military sent letters to mayors across the country demanding a list of names of people associated with anti-coup organizing; actions like this have served to create terror which has kept many people away from demonstrations that they would otherwise support.

2. CODEMUH, “An Open Letter to Harper from the Women of Honduras,” August 12, 2011.

3. Quoted in Dawn Paley, “Unfinished Business: Sweatshops, oligarchs, and the fear of a new constitution in Honduras,” Briarpatch Magazine, May 5, 2010.

4. The scale of the repression makes it impossible to adequately reproduce here, but to give just one example: landless campesinos in the Aguán Valley have spent the past two decades building a legal case around claims to land currently controlled by Miguel Facussé (one of Honduras’ wealthiest businessmen and a close associate of Pepe Lobo). The land was recovered from a former U.S. military base and, after many years of struggle, was to be redistributed through the National Agrarian Institute (INA). After the coup, Facussé began using private security and paramilitaries to attack and intimidate the campesino families who lived and worked on the land, beginning what has become essentially a siege against poor and unarmed farming families. When called to respond to paramilitary killings – over 40 people have been assassinated by Facussé’s private army in the past two years – the police have only helped the paramilitaries in carrying out the so-called ‘evictions.’

5. The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) is one of Honduras’ most radical and consistent activist organizations. They responded to the Cartagena Accord by writing an open letter to the OAS detailing the litany of abuses the coup regime has conducted – assassinations, abductions, illegal detentions, torture, evictions, intimidation leading people to flee the country – in just the past months, and holding the OAS responsible as an accomplice to those crimes for reintegrating the regime into its ranks solely on the basis of Zelaya’s return.

6. COPINH, “Impunity and Human Rights Violations Reign in Honduras,” July 19, 2011.

Military Coups are Good for Canadian Business: The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement

March 10. 2011

Military Coups are Good for Canadian Business: The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement
Source: The Bullet
Last week Canadian negotiators met with their Honduran counterparts in Tegucigalpa to discuss a free trade agreement (FTA). Negotiators from the two countries last met in Ottawa in December. According to the Honduran press, an agreement is close to being completed. This marks an alarming development in the efforts of the Canadian state and multinational corporations to deepen their relations with Honduras following the military coup of June 28, 2009.The trade agreement with Honduras is part of Canada’s broader political and economic engagement with Latin America, driven by the desire to “lock in market access” (to quote Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s economic policy strategy) in the region for Canadian corporations. Canadian companies have expanded into the region at a considerable pace over the last 20 years, particularly in mining and banking. Canada is now the third largest foreign investor nation throughout the hemisphere south of the United States. Control for the size of their respective economies, and Canadian companies have a higher investment orientation to the region than those of the United States.

Property Rights vs Human Rights

Trade agreements, with their strong protections for the rights of foreign investors, including the ability to sue governments, offer great security for the private property and profits of Canadian capitalists, human rights be damned. And indeed, signing trade agreements with gross violators of human rights is becoming a bit of an art form for the Canadian state. In 2008, Canada concluded trade agreements with Colombia and Peru. Colombia has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, and accounts for two-thirds of the trade unionists assassinated in the world annually. The implementation legislation of the Peruvian agreement, meanwhile, was passed in the Canadian parliament two weeks after the Peruvian security forces attacked an indigenous blockade, killing at least 50 protesters. The blockade was set up to protest the Peruvian government’s free trade policies and its goal of opening indigenous land to mining and oil and gas investors.

And now Canada is about to sign an agreement with Honduras, whose citizens still live under the large and menacing shadow of the military coup against left-of-centre president, Manuel Zelaya. Concluding a trade agreement with Honduras is an important achievement for the Canadian state – payoff for the strong support it has given the Honduran coup forces centred among the country’s political, military and economic leaders.

Supporting a Coup, Again

The military removal of Zelaya was the second successful coup in the hemisphere since Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori‘s autogolpe in 1992 (for background on the Honduran coup see Greg Grandin’s articles at and my article “Acceptable Versus Unacceptable Repression“). The first successful one was the 2004 overthrow of Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which Canada also supported diplomatically, economically and militarily (that’s Canada’s “whole of government” approach to foreign policy in action for you). This makes Canada two for two in successful coup support so far this century (and we’re only a decade in!).

Of course, the Canadian state hasn’t come out and said “we support the coup,” and nor should we expect it to. But it has ignored the well-documented repression meted out against the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (“Frente”). It also argued against Zelaya’s return from exile before he snuck back into the country only to be holed up in the Brazilian embassy. It then criticized him for returning. Canada, along with its American counterparts, pushed the San José-Tegucigalpa Accord, which was signed by Zelaya and the coup forces and allowed for the ousted president’s return to office. But the return to office was on terms that would’ve effectively made him little more than a figurehead president unable to pursue his reform agenda had the coup forces actually followed through with the agreement, which they didn’t. That reform agenda was in fact fairly moderate. It did include, though, a proposed vote the day of the coup on whether to proceed with a referendum during presidential elections on establishing a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The prospect of constitutional reform was the final straw for the country’s oligarchy and was consistently misrepresented by international media as a power grab.

Current President, Porfirio Pepe Lobo, subsequently won the sham election five months after the coup amidst ongoing repression of anti-coup media and the Frente, which boycotted the elections. International election observers refused to participate, arguing that there was no possible way free and fair elections could take place in such a situation. But Canada, despite initially stating it wouldn’t recognize the elections unless constitutional order had been restored, including the return of Zelaya to the presidency, quickly backtracked and hastily recognized the new Lobo regime. Most countries in Latin America still haven’t recognized the Honduran government.

Following the election, Canada has positioned itself, along with the U.S., as the Lobo regime’s biggest ally. It has pushed (thus far unsuccessfully) for Honduras’s reintegration into the Organization of American States and stressed at every opportunity that Honduras was entering a new period of democracy. This was made clear in press releases issued by Peter Kent when he was Minister of State for the Americas, and during Kent’s and Ambassador Neil Reeder’s various meetings with Honduran political and business leaders.

When the Lobo government, as part of its international public relations campaign to demonstrate its support for national reconciliation, established its Truth Commission to look into the events surrounding the coup, Canada quickly offered up financial support and a commission member. But the Truth Commission has been derided by human rights activists inside and outside of Honduras due to, among other things, the fact that repression is ongoing and the Frente is boycotting it. A network of Honduran human rights organizations, known as the Human Rights Platform, has established its own alternative truth commission. The Canadian member of Lobo’s Truth Commission, meanwhile, is former diplomat, Michael Kergin, who happens to be employed by one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms, Bennett Jones, which just happens to specialize in investment law and mining.

As Canadian officials worked to improve Honduras’s public image, they pushed for stronger access to Honduran resources and protection for Canadian investors. Not long after Lobo’s election, Reeder and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) head for Honduras, Daniel Arsenault, set to work arranging meetings between Canadian mining executives and Lobo and members of his cabinet. Reeder, Arsenault and other Canadian representatives also discussed with a Breakwater Resources executive possible strategies to influence the development of a new mining law for the country (which is still pending). Canadian porn mogul (of “Adult Video” fame) turned real estate developer, Randy Jorgensen, has also enjoyed direct access to Lobo in his quest to build retirement properties for Canadian snowbirds on contested Garifuna land on the country’s north coast.

Moving Toward a Trade Agreement

In August, 2010, Reeder was promoted (for job well done! no doubt) to Director General for Latin America and the Caribbean in Foreign Affairs and International Trade (FAIT). He was replaced by new Ambassador, Cameron Mackay. Mackay’s appointment was likely influenced by a desire to advance trade negotiations between Canada and Honduras. His CV for FAIT, which should give you a good idea of the role the Department envisions for the Canadian embassy, includes stints as a member of Canada’s Permanent Mission to the World Trade Organization; trade and economic relations officer; senior trade policy officer (WTO); Trade Policy and Planning Division; deputy director of the Regional Trade Policy Division; and director of regional trade policy for the Americas.

Honduras was originally part of the Central American Four (CA4) multilateral negotiations with Canada, which also included Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. But having built up its political capital as an ardent ally of the coup and post-coup Honduran regimes, and knowing Lobo is a strong supporter of foreign investment and free markets, Canada started negotiating with Honduras independently of the rest of the CA4 this past December. Talks appear to be moving along fairly quickly.

Representatives of the mining industry excitedly talk up the opportunities for increased investment provided by a FTA. Exploration has stalled since Zelaya placed a moratorium on new exploration activities and in the absence of a new mining law. The president of La Asociación Nacional de Minería Metálica en Honduras (Anaminh), Santos Gabino Carbajal, says that “without a doubt it [the FTA] will increase investment.” He adds that 90% of investment in Honduras’s mining sector is Canadian.

Last January, 2010, Carlos Amador, an activist organizing against Goldcorp (a Toronto-based gold mining company with a shoddy rights record and assets in Honduras and beyond) told me that the majority of exploration permits waiting for the green light in Honduras belong to Canadian companies. An FTA is likely one important step in opening the floodgates to Canadian mining capital, and will almost certainly lead to a sharp increase in community-company conflict as small farmers, indigenous peoples, campesinos and others defend their land and ecologies from predatory Canadian mining multinationals.

Maquila investors are also touting the benefits of the FTA. Early in February, Canadian company Gildan Activewear, one of the largest T-shirt and sock manufacturers in the world, announced it was closing its last North American factory in Alabama, and that it would be investing more than $100-million (U.S.) in a new sock factory in Honduras. Gildan is one of the largest maquila investors in the country, with a track record of terrible working conditions and union busting. Gildan also had 7 meetings between June, 2010 and mid-January of this year alone with Canadian politicians and FAIT representatives, which were officially registered with Ottawa’s Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying and labelled under “International Trade.” (The official registry, it must be noted, obviously doesn’t record informal meetings and electronic communications between companies and state representatives, which are not infrequent).

Bloody Violence of the Lobo Regime

The FTA negotiations are rapidly moving forward despite ongoing human rights abuses in Honduras. According to the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared of Honduras, COFADEH), a leading human rights organization in the country, there were 1,071 documented violations of human rights (including arbitrary detentions, threats of physical harm, torture and assassinations) during the first four months alone of the Lobo regime. During Lobo’s first year – a year, Canada claims, of reconciliation and democratic renewal – there were 64 targeted assassinations of activists in the Frente.

As many as 20 campesinos in the Bajo Aguan organizing to regain land taken illegally from them by a wealthy landowner, Miguel Facussé, were assassinated in 2010 by police, the army and Facussé’s own security forces. Ten journalists were killed in 2010 – though the government claims the killings are unrelated to their work despite many being critics of the coup – leading Reporters Without Borders to declare Honduras to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. And in the last year and half, 31 members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered community have been murdered, some of whom were known members of the Frente, while the community in general is known to oppose the coup.

These are not the signs of a country healing its post-coup wounds through a process of national reconciliation and dialogue. This is premeditated bloody vengeance against people who dare speak out against an illegitimate government. What we’re seeing is not the end of the coup and the return to democracy, but the consolidation of the coup and state terror under the shallow blood-stained veneer of democracy. And one of the Honduran government’s best allies, Canada, is about to conclude a free trade agreement with it.

In the case of the Colombian FTA, Canadian leaders, while downplaying the scale of the human rights catastrophe in the Andean nation, nevertheless were forced by critics of the Agreement into defensively arguing that the deal will improve human rights. An absurd claim, to be sure, since foreign investment in countries like Colombia and Honduras is based in part on the opportunities provided by the systematic repression of peoples’ rights. Mining companies, for example, benefit from the dispossession of campesinos or indigenous peoples of their land and resources. The trickle-down theory of human rights is about as historically accurate as the trickle-down theory of economics. But in the case of Honduras, Canadian officials say nothing about the repression of anti-coup, anti-mining or labour activists.

Toward a New Resistance

Clearly social justice and international solidarity activists in Canada have our work cut out for us. Not enough people (in Canada at least) know about Canadian political and economic connections to the Honduran coup forces, or of Canadian imperial practices in general.

But I’ve also met a lot of people in a number of Canadian cities in recent months who understand that Canada isn’t the benign defender of human rights on the international stage our leaders make it out to be. Some of these folks are already getting involved in solidarity work with people affected by Canadian mining multinationals, or are challenging the increasing presence of these companies on their campuses (such as the Goldcorp Centre for Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University or the Munck Centre for International Affairs at the University of Toronto). Some have been engaged in Haiti solidarity activism. In Toronto, a fledgling Honduras Solidarity Committee has been formed that is seeking to build a fight against the FTA and Canadian support for the Honduran coup forces.

Spaces are beginning to open up to challenge the various manifestations of Canadian imperialism. Conversations are slowly beginning between activists in different parts of the country about their work. Honduras needs to be part of that conversation, and part of our efforts to begin reaching new layers of people who are open to the idea of organizing against the plundering international activities of Canadian companies and the terrible foreign policy record of the state. The FTA isn’t fait accompli, even though we should expect the Liberals to side with the Tories and support it (as they did with the Colombian FTA). It still has to go through parliamentary hearings and debate. There is time, then, to organize, to raise awareness and to build solidarity with the people of Honduras. •

Todd Gordon teaches political science at York University. He is the author of the recently published Imperialist Canada. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

(I include this article which while not specifically about Honduras provides insight into Canada’s push for a Free Trade Agreement with Honduras)
January 8, 2014

Commercial motives driving Canada’s foreign aid, documents reveal


Internal CIDA analysis of bilateral aid programs suggests Canada’s commercial interests have become a key consideration in determining how much aid a developing country will receive

The federal government is evaluating trade and investment opportunities in dozens of developing countries to help determine how foreign aid should be disbursed, raising questions about whether Canada’s push for “economic diplomacy” is an effective way to reduce global poverty.

An internal analysis of bilateral aid programs, produced by the Canadian International Development Agency and obtained by The Globe and Mail, suggests Canada’s commercial interests have become a key consideration in determining how much aid a developing country will receive. The report, titled Reviewing CIDA’s Bilateral Engagement, was written shortly before CIDA was merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in June.

The CIDA assessment is the clearest sign yet that Canada’s development objectives were shifting even before the merger was announced in the 2013 federal budget. And it comes as Foreign Affairs has instructed officials to make opening new markets to Canadian goods and services the dominant focus of Canada’s foreign policy.

A majority of the three dozen countries included in the foreign aid report are promoted as destinations for Canadian aid in part because of the commercial benefits they can offer to Canada.

For example, Indonesia is “an important commercial and political partner” for Canada in Asia, and growing commercial interests in Egypt and Jordan mean those countries should both continue to receive foreign aid, the document says.

Benin is favoured because it provides a stable political and investment climate, while Ghana is a “promising economic partner.”

More than a dozen countries are identified as having mineral resources that are of interest to Canadian firms, including Mongolia, Peru, Bolivia and Ghana. The conflict-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo is of “strategic interest” to Canada, the document notes, because of significant investments in that country’s extractive sector by Canadian companies.

Stephen Brown, an aid expert at the University of Ottawa and author of a book about CIDA, said the document suggests that trade interests are increasingly winning out over development values.

“Over all, the government seems to have forgotten that Canadian law defines the purpose of Canadian foreign aid as poverty reduction,” he said. “Even before the merger, we’re seeing huge emphasis – not in every country, but in the majority of countries – on what Canada has to gain and especially what Canadian private companies have to gain.”

Margaux Stastny, a spokeswoman for International Development Minister Christian Paradis, wrote in an e-mail that Canada’s development work remains focused on improving the lives of those who are most in need. But she added that the goal of reducing poverty cannot be addressed in isolation, meaning security, governance and trade must also be taken into account.

Mr. Paradis has noted that the “vast majority” of global markets the federal government is targeting for trade and investment are located in developing countries. “By stimulating the economy in these countries and helping them create an environment conducive to investment, we are contributing to the well-being of people living in poverty,” he told an audience in Montreal late last year.

Poverty, aid effectiveness and other considerations, such as domestic politics and regional security, are also considered but appear to receive less attention over all in the partly redacted document. In the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the assessment notes that that there is “tremendous need” in the African country, which is among the poorest countries in the world, and points out that Canada has worked there to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.

The report was produced in March, 2013, less than two weeks before the government announced it would eliminate CIDA as a standalone agency. It was provided to The Globe in response to an access-to-information request.

The decision to merge CIDA’s development work with the Foreign Affairs and International Trade department prompted criticism from some international development experts and non-governmental organizations, who worried Canada’s commitment to poverty reduction and humanitarian aid would be diluted. Others welcomed the amalgamation, saying it would reduce conflicting messages in Canadian foreign policy and could help increase overall resources for poverty-reduction efforts.

Although commerce and politics have played a role in Canada’s development decisions in the past, aid experts say the emphasis on favouring developing countries that offer trade and investment benefits to Canada is a more recent shift.

Diana Rivington, a former director of human development and gender equality at CIDA, said the change shows a greater focus on the short-term benefits Canada can gain from development work. “What I see in these choices is a vision of Canada that is not as broad as it was,” she said.

Scott Gilmore, founder of a development organization called Building Markets, said he does not see a problem with Canada’s foreign aid benefiting domestic interests when it is also helping people in developing countries.

“It’s not a zero-sum game,” said Mr. Gilmore, who is also a member of an external advisory group that is being consulted about the CIDA merger. “There are lots of things that Canada can do that maximize our ability to reduce poverty which also – simultaneously – are of benefit to Canada, either [to] our foreign policy interests or our trade interests.”

In 2011, the federal government announced it would launch a series of jointly funded pilot projects involving Canadian mining companies and non-governmental organizations – a move often cited as an example of CIDA’s work with the private sector. The agency also established a new institute aimed at providing regulatory advice to developing countries with significant mineral potential.

The projects were criticized for providing what was seen by some as indirect subsidies for mining companies’ corporate social responsibility programs. Proponents argued CIDA’s work with the extractive sector can help harness those companies’ resources to help improve the lives of people in poverty.

Hélène Laverdière, the NDP’s international development critic, said the CIDA assessment demonstrates that Canada is increasingly using foreign aid to further its trade interests. “That’s not the job of our international assistance, and the ODA Accountability Act is very clear that [aid] should focus on poverty reduction, taking into account the perspectives of the poor and human rights, of course.”

The handful of countries where commercial interests do not appear to be a significant factor include Haiti, which is of “long-term foreign policy interest” because of its large diaspora community in Canada and past commitments. Aid to Afghanistan is important to honour past sacrifices and commitments, and to “burden share” with Canada’s allies, and development efforts in the West Bank and Gaza should continue because they have been welcomed by Israel as crucial support for peace in the region.

Kim Mackrael is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

Free trade with Honduras