By State Rep. Nika Elugardo
When I was a kid, a series of events led me to a leisurely drive through a lush wealthy enclave in Miami. Don’t ask me questions, but it involved a drug deal, a small bribe, and my first real lesson in political corruption. By the time I’d return home to Ohio by car, I’d realize that our black communities were getting played by drug bosses and political cronies living in lily-white, gated paradises like that one. The “bosses” routinely sent our youth to their deaths, like my relative who was the driver on our road trip. Bosses would never be held accountable for the havoc they were wreaking on our communities in the name of their illicit and perfectly laundered profits.
In mid-August, I traveled to Honduras with a Massachusetts delegation. I joined fellow State Representative Andy Vargas, Boston Globe reporter Marcela Garcia, and the local leaders who invited us from Centro Presente, Alianza Americas, and Lawyers for Civil Rights. We were investigating realities driving unprecedented immigration from Central America to the United States. It was so like my Miami ride— miles of coastal beauty ostensibly indicative of the area’s rich resources, but in reality a deceptively lovely frame for unfettered institutionalized corruption, oppression, and murder.
Meeting with a diverse range of leaders from around the country, we learned the Honduran president is known as a narco-dictator. His drug money pays off all branches of the government and the military, even as he embezzles tax-payer money and steals local farmland to enrich the fully militarized narco-empires of his family and allies. He sells stolen land and water to North American and other corporations who hire private security that harasses locals when they don’t get out of their way. Local legitimate companies pay exorbitant and arbitrary Sheriff-of-Nottingham-style taxes, filling traffickers’ coiffures even as health, education, security, and commerce deteriorate. New narco-lobbied laws reduce penalties for felonies and criminalize resistance. The judiciary is infiltrated too. Those who assert their rights through the courts, law enforcement, or peaceful protest are threatened, framed, kidnapped, or killed. That’s why many are fleeing the resource-rich country they love.
We met with right-wing business leaders, left-wing labor organizers, climate and public health champions, and Jesuit activists. These historic enemies are drawn to partnership by a present crisis more devastating even than their dark shared war-torn history. Across the board, they agree that the U.S. props up their illegal government. They say, for example, the understaffed U.S. embassy legitimized the president’s illegal re-election, despite all kinds of shady action at the polls and the president’s blatant casting off of the Rule of Law. Does President Trump’s seeming preference for a leadership vacuum in the Honduran Embassy provide cover for greedy corporate interests who violate human rights with impunity in this lush but failing state?
It’s a question worth investigating, and it’s why I became a legislator after years of cynicism about politicians. It’s not enough to drive by oppression like a tourist. We must uncover the truth of our nation’s political influence and responsibility. Whether it’s combating ignorance about the violent corruption driving migration from Central America or investigating our national hand in propping up dirty dictators, we have to hold our government and ourselves accountable.
For reasons like my admittedly limited experience of mid-1980’s Miami, “politician” used to be a dirty word to me. My heart changed when I realized the aspiration of our national Pledge, “liberty and justice for all”, is not a lie. It’s a vision. It requires leaders like those hosting our delegation in Honduras, determined to see the vision through.
In the current immigration debate, we hear more division than vision. We can forget that we are all angry about the same core things. The struggle of a scrappy kid from Ohio turned Boston politician is the struggle of the Honduran activist turned American immigrant is the struggle of the Massachusetts independent turned Trump voter. The beauty of the American vision is that it isn’t just for any one of us. We’re all in this political “shit hole” together. It’s time for Massachusetts to stand with immigrants. Given our role in the region, Central America is a great place to start.
Nika Elugardo is Massachusetts State Representative for communities in Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, Roslindale, and Brookline.