Don't Try To Understand Trump In Ukraine – Or Latin America. You Might Pull Something

Oct 16, 2019

COMMENTARY

Last Sunday a Honduran immigrant on my middle-aged soccer team asked me about an issue before our weekly game. And it didn’t involve Bengay for a pulled muscle.

“Honestly,” he said, “do you think the president of Honduras is involved with drug traffickers?”

He was referring to sordid but compelling testimony in a New York courtroom this month that links Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández to his country’s psychopathic drug cartels. It emanated from first-hand witnesses in the trial of the president’s brother and former Honduran congressman, Tony Hernández, who’s accused by U.S. prosecutors of trafficking cocaine and weapons. President Hernández is named as an unindicted co-conspirator. He denies narco-ties.

READ MORE: Trump Trap: Don't Expect Rule of Law from Americas If We Can't Expect It from America

I told my teammate the trial testimony seems to leave little if any doubt President Hernández knew his brother was involved with narcos – and that he knew Tony was helping funnel narco-cash into his presidential campaign coffers. I added we’ve seen this before: President Hernández himself admits his campaign received (he says without his knowledge) hundreds of thousands of dollars in embezzled government healthcare funds. Repeat: healthcare funds.

“But if the drug connections are true,” my friend said, “wouldn’t the Trump Administration condemn President Hernández?”

I started laughing so hard I pulled a middle-aged muscle. He went to get me some Bengay.

My friend assumed that even under the Trump Administration, U.S. foreign policy actions still make grown-up sense. They don’t – not in Ukraine or Syria and especially not in Latin America. In fact, President Trump a la Latinoamérica offers a helpful glimpse into how and why he slid so brazenly into his Ukraine impeachment mess.

Watching Trump forge quid pro quo in Central America – with no less than a Honduran president accused of narco ties – offers a helpful glimpse into how and why he slid so brazenly into his Ukraine impeachment mess.

As most Americans now realize, Trump foreign policy isn’t about geopolitical goals. It’s about personal transactions. How it benefits Donald Trump – his political and, many critics assert, business fortunes.

In Honduras, the bottom line is that any other U.S. administration, Democrat or Republican, would be calling for Juan Orlando Hernández to step down, and right now. They’d cite the alleged narco-ties and healthcare pillaging. They’d also point out he won his second term two years ago in an election so fraudulent even the Organization of American States called for a new vote.

But the White House is mum on President Hernández because, using the trial testimony as transactional leverage, Trump was able to strong-arm him into signing an immigration accord last month. It obliges Honduras to receive and hold asylum-seeking migrants the U.S. turns back from its southern border.

The pact makes little grown-up sense for several reasons. The most obvious is that Honduras – because of its wretched poverty and horrific, ubiquitous, extortionist gang violence – is the sort of place asylum-seekers are seeking asylum from. Another is that this arrangement doesn’t promise to alleviate the migrant rush at the U.S. border. It could actually worsen it.

HORRID NARCO-STATE

By coddling a horrid head of state like President Hernández, Trump is coddling the horrid narco-state Honduras has become. That in turn means tens of thousands of desperate Hondurans will keep heading to the U.S. border. Just talk to any Honduran asylum seeker from the Olancho province, most of which is under de facto narco-gang rule. Among the first things they’ll mention are the alleged ties that powerful Olancho-born politicos like ex-Presidents Manuel Zelaya and Porfirio Lobo – whose son is now in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking – have to local cartels.

Those ties apparently mean little if you play Trumpster foreign policy. What does matter is the personal transaction payoff for Trump.

NARCO-BOUGHT BRO? Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez's brother and former congressman Tony Hernandez.
Credit AP

In this case: being able to tell his nativist voter base that he bullied “sh—hole countries” that plague America with migrants into becoming U.S. Customs and Border Patrol holding pens. The presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala, the latter of whom is also in hot legal water at home, recently inked immigration agreements with Trump, too – and this week the Administration announced it was resuming aid to all three nations. 

Watching Trump forge quid pro quo in Central America makes his alleged Ukraine transaction – military aid for dirt on a political rival, his electoral interests over U.S. interests – less surprising. Ditto in the rest of Latin America. Giving a right-wing narco-state like Honduras a pass doesn’t exactly lend credibility to Trump’s crusade against a left-wing narco-state like Venezuela. But then you realize what interests Trump most about Venezuela isn’t U.S. diplomatic interests but his Florida voter interests.

Remember that and, in your confusion, you won’t pull any muscles.