Honduras: coup leaders continue stalemate
by Sandhya Jain on 11 Jul 2009 0 Comment

The Obama administration lost international credibility when obdurate Honduras coup leader Roberto Micheletti aborted the 10 July proposed mediation by Costa Rica President Oscar Arias.

In an unsurprising anti-climax, Micheletti left San Jose without meeting ousted President Manuel Zelaya who insisted on reinstatement even as the usurper was adamant to stay in power. President Oscar Arias sought more time to resolve the crisis triggered by a military-backed coup on 28 June, which threw the Central American nation into turmoil as the people rallied round the democratically elected and popular Zelaya.

Trigger point

The crisis erupted on 28 June, the day Zelaya planned for holding a non-binding poll (called a public consultation) to ask the electorate if voters wanted a binding referendum during the November ballot on redrafting the 1982 constitution. Had the 28 June vote taken place and been passed, and if the November referendum was held and also passed, this November election would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped down on 27 January 2010.

But the 28 June ballot was scuttled as troops stormed into Zelaya’s home and forcefully flew him out of the country, to Costa Rica. The Parliamentary Speaker Roberto Micheletti was made interim leader.

Zelaya’s opponents alleged that his aim was to remove the current one-term limit on serving presidents, and pave the way for his re-election. But this was constitutionally impossible because the drafting of a new constitution could take years (as in Bolivia recently), and Zelaya would have to step down in January 2010 regardless of anything. He could, at best, under a new constitution, seek a second term in office at a future date.

Honduras’ 1982 constitution derived from a context of counter-insurgency policies supported by the US government, civil façade military governments, and generally undemocratic policies. A new, progressive and inclusive constitution could have impacted the nation’s corrupt politicians, powerful sweatshop owners and repressive military institutions, according to Benjamin Dangl (Counterpunch, 8 July 2009).

That is why the proposal for a new Constituent Assembly triggered the coup. The Honduran oligarchs wanted to preserve their power and status, and given the failed talks, it remains to be seen if the Obama Administration will try to bully Zelaya to drop plans for a new constitution or checkmate progressive reforms he may want to enact if he returns to office.

People, oligarchs and the School of the Assassins

Manuel Zelaya was elected as a conservative, but enraged the economic and military elites with his pro-people policies. These included sharply hiking the minimum wage, free school lunches for children, more scholarships, milk for babies, pensions for the elderly, cheaper public transportation, energy saving light bulbs and more roads and schools in rural areas. The overall poverty reduction was 10%, even as the economy grew by 7%.

This was too much for a group of about 10 families that control the entire economy. Backed by former members of the Bush Administration, they waged a campaign against Zelaya in the US. Otto Reich, a former official in charge of Latin American affairs, made allegations of corruption in Honduras, especially in government-owned telephone company, HONDUTEL.

Then there are questions about the role of Obama Administration men like Hugo Llorens, current envoy to Honduras. From 2002-2003 - the year of the attempted military coup in Venezuela - Llorens was Director of Andean Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC). He is reputed to have advised then President Bush and his National Security Advisor on issues pertaining to Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Although Llorens and Obama Administration do not recognize the coup regime, they seem to have been aware that the coup was going to take place, as Roberto Lovato argued

The Obama Administration deepened suspicions of complicity by failing to cut off economic aid to Honduras (more than $43 million); but as international pressure mounted, on 8 July, the US Embassy in Honduras announced suspension of $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras, after Zelaya met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.

Zelaya’s real crime was alignment with Washington’s pet hates - Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, besides his popular reforms. That is why the coup was barely reported in the US press and broadcast media, which served as propaganda machines of US imperial interests.

The coup was backed by the Honduran business elite, the Congress, the courts and the Church – but not a peep out of the human rights and other industries in America!

Michael Parenti points out that virtually all senior Honduran military officers involved in the coup graduated from the Pentagon’s School of the Americas (also called “School of the Assassins”). The Honduran military is trained, equipped, indoctrinated, and financed by the United States. The generals would never have dared act without tacit consent from the White House or the Pentagon and CIA [http://informationclearinghouse.info/article23001.htm]

Moreover, the Honduras military, as Mark Weisbrot of The Guardian noted, has vast experience in organized repression, including selective assassinations conducted during the 1980s when the country served as a military base for US operations in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Besides close ties with the US military and State Department, it is intermeshed with the country’s economic oligarchy and ideologically committed to keeping Zelaya out of power.

Honduras has long served as an important base for US military intervention in South America: 

- In 1954 the successful US-backed coup against the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was launched from Honduras.

- In 1961 the US-orchestrated Cuban exile invasion of Cuba was launched from Honduras.

- From 1981-1989, the US financed and trained over 20,000 ‘Contra’ mercenaries in Honduras which comprised the army of death squads to attack the democratically elected Nicaraguan Sandinista government.

- During the first seven years of the Chavez government, Honduran regimes were staunchly allied with Washington against the populist Caracas regime.

- A decade ago, US marines ousted democratically elected Bertrand Aristide in Haiti; openly backed the failed coup against President Chavez in 2002; and more recently funded the botched coup against President-elect Evo Morales in September 2008.

Latin American solidarity

In 2007-2008 Liberal President Zelaya opted for improved relations with Venezuela to secure generous petro-subsidies and foreign aid. He joined ‘Petro-Caribe’, a Venezuelan-organized Caribbean and Central American association that provides long-term, low-cost oil and gas to meet the energy needs of member countries.

More recently, Zelaya joined ALBA, a regional integration organization launched by Chavez to promote greater trade and investment among member countries in opposition to the US-promoted regional free trade pact called ALCA.

Washington grew anxious that Zelaya may in future limit access to Honduran military bases – the launch pads for intervention in the region.

Washington also wanted to demonstrate to Latin America that it had the capability to implement its policies through Latin American military elites, even when tied down in wars in Asia and the Gulf.

This has firmed up suspicions among South and Central American countries that Washington wants to return to the days of pro-US military regimes, economic pillage and monopolized markets.

What went wrong?

Obama – who refused to meet President Zelaya - never expected a furore over the coup, and was forced to join the crescendo that rose throughout Latin America, demanding reinstatement of the elected president.

The UN General Assembly condemned the coup, the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Honduras’ membership on 4 July, and the European Union and most Latin American nations withdrew their envoys; the World Bank and some governments suspended or froze loans to Honduras.

Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez travelled with the Presidents of Ecuador and Paraguay to El Salvador on 5 July to support Zelaya, saying, “We’re not just defending Honduras. We’re defending ourselves.”

James Petras noted that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton were startled by the anger of Latin American regimes and the people of Honduras, who came on the streets, braving bullets in the teeth of state repression. The Honduran teachers union launched a 60,000-strong strike in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Trade unionists, workers, the unemployed and rural poor, participated wholeheartedly.

On 5 July, troops barricaded Tegucigalpa airport, fired on unarmed demonstrators who hoped to welcome Zelaya back, but his chartered plane was not allowed to land and returned to Costa Rica. At least two persons died in the firing and several were injured.

Caught unawares, Obama and Clinton were reluctant to disown their Honduran clients, though they were forced to condemn what they coyly designated as unspecified ‘violence.’ They called for ‘negotiations’ between the powerful usurpers and the weakened exiled President, giving the Honduran generals the status of interlocutors.

By refusing to recognize the ousting of Zelaya as a ‘coup,’ the Obama Administration evaded the law that would have automatically suspended the annual US $80 million military and economic aid to Honduras (though military aid was finally suspended as world indignation grew).

The Honduran crisis is likely to reverberate in the region in the coming weeks.

The author is Editor

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