At the top of Rotulo Coca Cola, where the heat of the city weakens with altitude and the pavement edges up against the jungle, a plateau rises from the mass of banana trees.
From here, all of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, looks small — a city of almost a million stretched beneath the humid haze, its raucous soundtrack replaced by the drone of crickets.
“It looks so peaceful from here,” Eduardo Hermida said, overlooking his hometown. “That’s why I like it.
“From here, it looks like everything down there is going well.”
Above the trees, it’s almost possible to forget all that ails perhaps the most maligned city in Honduras, and many other parts of the country, too. The houses, from this distance, all appear similar in size; the good streets and the bad streets, the scrap housing and the mansions bleeding together in a single flowing mural.
But down the hill, reality waits: the poverty and inequality, the gangs and the violence, the routine corruption, the sidewalks strewn with discarded pizza boxes, plastic cups, abandoned shoes.
A set of train tracks crosses through the center of town, with extreme violence on one side and relative safety on the other — a very literal representation of “the right side of the tracks.”
But even on the “safe” side, so much needs to change, says Eduardo, a 20-something aircraft repairman who is studying engineering but dreams of writing music for a living.
The city, like other places in Honduras, needs more security forces to reckon with the gang activity, the murder, Eduardo says. It needs more job creation and opportunity. It needs, simply, basic public services that work well.
To realize those lofty goals, of course, a lot of money will be required. So one might assume that those looking for change would have been further demoralized by President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he intends to cut the multi-millions in foreign aid sent annually to Honduras (along with Guatemala and El Salvador).
But Eduardo’s reaction might surprise you.
To understand why, it’s necessary to understand the United States’ long, complicated relationship with Honduras.
The U.S. presence here began in the late 1800s, when the region’s banana industry was first booming. Seeing clear opportunity in an operation that was succeeding even without much technology or business expertise, U.S. interests swooped in and started buying up plantations.
Historian Walter LaFeber writes in the book “Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America” that American companies “built railroads, established their own banking systems, and bribed government officials at a dizzying pace.” As a result, the Caribbean coast “became a foreign-controlled enclave that systematically swung the whole of Honduras into a one-crop economy whose wealth was carried off to New Orleans, New York, and later Boston.”
“That’s how we sold our country to the U.S.,” Eduardo told me. “Through bananas.”
There are more than a few accounts of just how horrendous — slave-like — the conditions were for Honduran banana workers employed by U.S.-controlled companies. (They’re not much better now.)
With incentive to protect those interests and more, U.S. troops invaded Honduras seven times from 1903 to 1925.
During the Reagan era of the 1980s, the cozy relationships with Honduran governments were critical in U.S. efforts to stifle the perceived threat of communism and left-leaning governments. The U.S. pumped weapons and military training into Honduras, establishing major military bases from which to mobilize an attack against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
“They gave us weapons in exchange for control,” Eduardo said.
These events contributed to the violent militarization of Honduran society. The number of murders, disappearances, rights violations and illegal detentions, ignored by the U.S., rose dramatically while the governments, sanctioned by the U.S., increasingly oppressed the Honduran people.
In 2009, the U.S.-fueled Honduran military staged a political coup, deporting then-President Manuel Zelaya, who had broad support among the Honduran working class after implementing reforms such as raising the minimum wage and seeking to settle land disputes between peasant farmers and the powerful palm oil companies. (This was probably central to Zelaya’s ouster, as it infuriated the wealthy elite.)
Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state in the Obama administration, all but publicly supported the change of regime, declining to call it a coup despite near consensus among the international community (including the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization of American States). The aftermath was disastrous for Honduras; those studying the country say life became almost categorically worse.
Protesters were beaten, tortured and killed. Human rights deteriorated, with an escalation of murders in the LGBTQ community and a loss of protection for activists and journalists. Death squads made up of U.S.-armed Honduran police and private security forces for the palm oil companies — from which the U.S. benefits — reappeared, assassinating many of the vulnerable farmers Zelaya had attempted to protect.
In 2017, President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a politician with a record fraught with human rights abuses, corruption and enemy-silencing, was re-elected in a process widely acknowledged as fraudulent. The Trump administration acknowledged the re-election and congratulated Hernandez, even as more accounts of a deadly crackdown on the president’s enemies were emerging.
All the while, the U.S. has continued to send millions of dollars in aid — $182 million in 2017 alone — and to work closely with Hernandez’s government. Publicly, the justification for the aid is to help quell the flow of migration by addressing its root causes. But realistically, the funds function as something else, too: a bribe for the Honduran government to carry out the wishes of Washington.
Eduardo recalls watching the news when Clinton, as secretary of state, would visit Honduras again and again.
“She came here and she said everything is fine,” he said. “Her speeches were crazy. She’d say: ‘The aid is managed well, they’re doing good things.’
“It was like — what? Are you seeing the same Honduras?”
Meanwhile, albeit less loudly and animatedly than Trump, the Obama administration was fighting its own “humanitarian crisis” at the U.S. border, with many desperate migrants flowing north from Honduras.
When Eduardo talks about his city, his face twists with pain.
“It’s my home,” he said. “But I don’t love it.”
It’s hot here — so hot that it’s almost oppressive to walk around during the day. But many live in such poverty that they can’t escape the heat. Even basic services in the city can’t be relied on. Eduardo recounted other anecdotes I’ve heard about the public bus system actually being dangerous.
“There are mafias in everything,” he said. “The bus system, they’re drug lords, they’re laundering money, they’re a mafia — and they also run buses.”
While Eduardo considers himself lucky — he’s from a stable family and was schooled, for a year, in the states — he laments that many in his country are “living in dirt” with “cardboard for walls.”
Still, he says, immigration isn’t the answer. In fact, the steady flow of migrants to the U.S. has left him frustrated.
Especially since Trump was elected in 2016, immigration has been a divisive topic in U.S. politics, and many on the left have focused on what they see as sympathetic approaches to accepting those who show up on our border.
But how we react to migrants at our border is superficial. It doesn’t demand answers to the real problems: the conditions that force Hondurans to make the trek in the first place, the systemic violence and corruption that is exacerbated by heavy U.S. intervention and political control.
“We can’t keep going to the U.S.,” Eduardo said. “We don’t need more immigration. We need people to start doing things here. Our country can’t lose its people, too.”
That’s why, when Trump threatened to cut aid — due to the Honduran government not doing enough to dissuade its constituents from migrating north — Eduardo cheered.
The way he sees it, the government isn’t doing anything to deter the exodus. While stories have detailed where the U.S. money goes, corruption infects all sectors of Honduran society, and Hernandez’s history of redirecting funds is spoken of casually, defeatedly, on the street.
Most believe the aid that rolls in from the U.S. every year stays in the pockets of the elites, further separating the haves from the have-nots in a country that boasts the worst economic disparity in Central America.
So hearing Trump say that aloud — in fewer words — was akin to someone calling out the teacher’s kid who everyone knows cheats on every test.
“It was like ‘Oh my God, someone else said it,’ ” Eduardo said, throwing his hands in the air. “I loved him for that. He’s not a good guy … but at least he’s not lying to us anymore.”
Whether the aid is indeed cut indefinitely remains to be seen.
Others I’ve met in San Pedro Sula have told me they can’t take the posturing seriously because they believe the U.S., involved in Honduras for so long, would never do what Trump has threatened.
“The U.S. will never stop sending money,” a friend named Thomas told me. “Honduras is too important to them.”
But Eduardo thinks that Trump is just crazy enough that perhaps his threats will be taken seriously — and the Honduran government will feel bound to ensure that the people get more of the aid money moving forward. Or perhaps Trump really will do it, he contends, and rid Honduras of its shackles.
In the U.S., the headlines following Trump’s announcement declared, defiantly, that this move would break from “decades of U.S. policy” and the “conventional wisdom” regarding the approach to Central American countries.
Here in Honduras, such a break is welcomed. Most see Trump as a hateful human being or a “clown.” But many also see him as a rare leader willing to question the ways Washington has always done things. And here, the idea of change — even for change’s sake — is powerful. Why wouldn’t it be: America’s century-plus intervention in this country has proven nothing but catastrophic for the people.
“The only way Honduras can become great is if we do it ourselves,” Eduardo said. “We don’t know what it is to be Honduran. We say we love our country, but we don’t because we gave it up.
“We gave it to people that would give it to the U.S.
“That’s not love.”
In the morning, before the sun had turned the city into a sauna, Eduardo and I started up the hill to the Rotulo Coca Cola peak. In those early minutes before the jungle enveloped us, we enjoyed a bird’s-eye vista of the area’s sprawling mansions. Turrets overlooked corresponding stone walls, functioning as tiny fortresses to guard against the world outside.
But soon a different view came into focus: sheep grazing beside modest homes with chicken coops and wooden stoves. As we walked, mountainside residents hacked at brush to collect for kindling.
For what feels like all of time, these Hondurans have been passed over, their resources pillaged, their needs ignored, their aid handed over to the powerful and the wealthy.
Up here, though, it all faded, if only momentarily.
“It’s kind of funny,” Eduardo said, looking back toward the lavish complexes we’d left below.
“Here the poor live on top of the rich.”
Amelia Rayno is a former Star Tribune reporter who has been traveling full time, mostly across Central America, for the last nine months. You can follow her continuing journey and find much of what she writes via her Instagram account at @ameliarayno.