Not long ago, Honduras was a country in crisis and had the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate per capita in the world. At over 86 homicides per 100,000 citizens, this lawless violence was unsustainable and tearing the country apart.
Adding to Honduras’ instability over the past decade have been a constitutional crisis that led to its president’s ouster, the drumbeat of illicit trafficking, gang extortion of innocent civilians and senseless violence continued.
However, after spending time last week in Honduras, I am encouraged by promising signs that the country's trajectory is on the right path, with violence still too high but down significantly, and the United States having a real partner in the Honduran government and people.
For the United States, our interests in Honduras are clear: to see a safe and prosperous Honduras with a thriving economy based on manufacturing, tourism and agriculture. Ensuring that the U.S. government's Alliance for Prosperity is well funded, and that those funds are properly apportioned to enhance security, incentivize programs that help reduce the levels of corruption, and provide economic opportunities that combat poverty must be a priority for Congress and the administration this year. A special focus on Central America is warranted considering our national interests in this hemisphere.
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In Honduras, we have a committed security partner willing to do more to increase training and capacity building exercises between the U.S. military and law enforcement with Honduran police and military units. The demand in the United States for illicit narcotics like cocaine will continue to promote illicit traffickers, and as producing countries like Colombia cease aerial eradication of coca plants, we know a tsunami of illicit narcotics is headed to the United States via transit countries like Honduras over the next several years.
The United States has a special responsibility in this case to work with partner nations seeking our assistance. Congressional mandates are in place to ensure countries receiving U.S. funding are complying with U.S. law, but we cannot allow old prejudices against Honduras to impede training efforts or funding provided by law for security cooperation with this willing partner. My conversations with senior Honduran government officials made clear that the government is taking seriously the need to reform a historically weak and compromised civilian police force, and is now accelerating efforts to do so. U.S. support and patience during this process will be essential for its success.
The men and women of the U.S. military and Foreign Service I encountered in Honduras are truly remarkable and essential to charting a prosperous future for this country. I am proud of the role our military plays in Central America. U.S. Special Operations Command 7th Group based at Eglin Air Force Base, Special Operations Command South from Homestead Air Force Base and the Florida National Guard all are working symbiotically to better Honduran forces that will have a direct impact on U.S. national security.
The Honduran government is working in good faith and has proven its commitment to the rule of law by recently extraditing 11 high value narco-traffickers to the United States to face justice. The Honduran government is in the middle of implementing important anti-corruption campaigns to restore public confidence in government institutions, especially the police force. These efforts are essential to providing the foundation for stable democratic governance and enhanced security which will lead to greater economic prosperity for Central America.
Under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the country is working to improve its workers’ rights and labor conditions and must continue to do so; in addition, the country must also recognize the significant role women play in society.
Florida and Honduras share a common relationship. In 2014, Honduras ranked as Florida’s ninth top merchandise trading partner with exports surpassing $4 billion in bilateral trade. No other U.S. state trades with Honduras more than Florida. A key drive of this continued economic opportunity will be to ensure that Florida’s ports are modernized and business partnerships are further encouraged.
My trip to Honduras has further proven to me how indispensable U.S. leadership is in the Western Hemisphere, and the extraordinary costs — and missed opportunities — that have resulted from the absence of sustained and serious leadership by the current administration. In the long run, economic, security and political cooperation between the United States and Honduras will not only benefit our two nations; it will benefit the entire region as we work with our other partners in Central America to create a freer, more secure, and more prosperous future.
Marco Rubio is the Republican U.S. senator from Florida.