By Rodrigo Acuña
15 July 2009
Last week’s military coup in Honduras highlights the limits of democracy in Latin America.
The coup’s leaders complained that the country’s president, Jose Manuel Zelaya, was attempting to extend his presidency with a referendum on the constitution which if passed, would have facilitated his potential re-election.
Much of the mainstream media have repeated this view but it is simply false.
As Latin American experts Pablo Navarrete and Victor Figueroa-Clark recently pointed out in the New Statesman, the referendum, which was “non-binding”, even if won by Zelaya, would have only paved the way for another vote that would have taken place after Zelaya stepped down from office in January 2010.
The current Honduran constitution was written in the early 1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and shortly after 16 years of military dictatorships. Like other constitutions in Latin America, which were created during or briefly after the generals stepped down, Honduran’s has countless restrictions, loop holes and flaws. The same could be said about the country’s other institutions.
Commenting on the Central American state, Greg Grandin – professor of history at New York University – recently said:
“The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government. Honduras, as a whole, if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it’s Honduras. Its economy is wholly based on trade, foreign aid and remittances.”
During the 1980s, with heavy backing from the Reagan administration, Honduras was used as a permanent base for the right-wing Contras against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Currently, the country hosts one of the largest US military bases in Central America and receives $US 1.4 million per year in education and exchange programs.
It is precisely because of the nature of the relationship between the United States and Honduras that the role of the Obama administration in recent developments needs to be scrutinized. Did Washington give the Honduran military the green light to remove Zelaya? While for now that question cannot be answered in full, we do know the following.
Both the head of the Honduran military, General Romero Vasquez and airforce General Luis Suazo, who led the coup against Zelaya, are graduates of the notorious US School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), where key Latin American dictators and tortures during the Cold War were trained.
According to lawyer Eva Golinger, who has been crucial in uncovering Washington’s role in the 2002 coup in Venezuela, the US has been providing up to $US 50 million to organisations in Honduras which look favourably on US interests.
In a recent report in the Washington Post on June 29, it was claimed US diplomats had been negotiating privately to stop the coup. An official quoted in the paper said events had “been brewing a long time”.
Also, while after some hesitation, US President Barack Obama did call events in Honduras an illegal coup, the British newsagency Reuters reported that “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration was not formally designating the ouster as a military coup for now, a step that would force a cut-off of most US aid to Honduras”.
For those familiar with US-Latin American relations, the above pattern is all too common: a coup takes place against a leader not adhering to Washington’s interest, the US at the time denies involvement and then 20 years later archival evidence confirms the White House did in fact support a military take over.
Zelaya’s own political trajectory fits the scrip neatly.
Elected to the presidency in 2005 on a conservative law and order ticket, once in office Zelaya soon moved to the political left.
Criticising the practises of local and international business, he increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent. Justifying his actions, Zelaya claimed he had the support of the country’s unions and that his decision would “force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair”.
On other fronts, the president increased teachers’ wages and invited Cuban doctors into the slums. In a country where 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, Zelaya’s actions did not go unnoticed by most Hondurans.
Then he crossed another boundary. The president travelled to Cuba and Venezuela and signed Honduras to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) – a fair trade agreement between nine Latin American countries which stands in sharp contrast to free market doctrines.
In late 2008, it was reported that Zelaya sent Obama a personal letter harshly criticising Washington’s history of “interventionism” in the region, and demanded a new approach to fighting the drug trade.
Earlier this year, at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, the ALBA countries declined to sign the final statement of the conference which was heavily promoted by the Obama administration. It claimed the declaration did not “respond to the global economic crisis” and “unjustly excludes Cuba, without mentioning the general regional consensus that condemns the embargo”.
As numerous experts on Latin America are aware, the region is now clearly divided between those which want to remake the status quo (ie the ALBA camp through agreements such as a regional currency), and those which want to reposition it – eg Brazil or Chile.
While the Obama administration may make all the appropriate diplomatic statements about the coup in Honduras, it is doubtful it is really lamenting the removal of Zelaya.
In past Unleashed articles I have argued that the US has not taken kindly to the ALBA alliance, or any country which has joined the Venezuela-Cuba alliance.
Whatever one may think of these countries, they are pushing for a regional alliance which questions US hegemony in the region.
Organisations like the Union of South American Countries (UNASUR) and the Bank of the South stand in direct contrast to the aims of the US-led Organsiation of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Bank in the way they do business.
Also, various countries (again led by the Venezuela alliance) have been moving to have US military bases removed from their countries.
Honduras may have eventually moved in that direction and this is why Washington is not pushing for sanctions on the new military government.
Even if Zelaya did not move in that direction, the fact that he joined the Venezuela-Cuba alliance was enough to upset the local political right and again, the United States and its pro-free market organisations.
Back in Honduras, developments still look bleak despite recent talks in Costa Rica to end the crisis. Zelaya’s attempt last week to return home failed after his aeroplane was denied entry into Tegucigalpa’s main airport. Awaiting supporters were gunned down by police in front of the international press.
Throughout the country, military repression has cost the lives of several of the Zelaya’s supporters. Dozens others have been arrested and beaten after protesting against the coup. A media black out has occurred with Amnesty International reporting that:
“Many broadcasters appear to have closed for fear for their safety. Others, such as
Canal 36, have been closed by the security forces and members of the military are
reported to be patrolling their premises.”
Despite almost universal condemnation, the new Micheletti regime is confident it will hang on to power claiming credits from the US and the European Union will continue to flow into the country.
And with a US-trained military, Honduran ‘democracy’ should be more than safe.