Monday, June 29, 2009

Honduras Coup: Throwback or Dress-Rehearsal?

"... The new government has imposed a curfew and, amusingly, is said to have blocked all US news channels apart from Fox news. ... "

By John Sexton
29 June, 2009

While most news reports are parroting the line that all world leaders have condemned the coup against left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras as a throwback to the bad-old days of military rule in Central and South America, a close look at Washington's reaction shows that the US government's position is far from clear-cut.

President Zelaya was ousted by the military on June 28 after he attempted to organize a consultative vote on constitutional change. He sacked armed forces chief, Romeo Vasquez, after the general refused to cooperate in providing security for the poll. The Honduran Supreme Court re-instated Vasquez and, following the coup, announced that the military had acted on its orders. The Honduran Congress then accepted a forged "letter of resignation" from Zelaya and appointed parliamentary speaker, Roberto Micheletti, to succeed him.

In a carefully worded statement released hours after the coup, Barack Obama stopped short of demanding the re-instatement of Zelaya. Instead he said the issue should be resolved "without outside interference", which might be interpreted as a veiled warning to Zelaya's ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and a hint to the coup leaders in Honduras that the USA would not take serious action to enforce Zelaya's return.

Obama went on to call for "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter." Again, this appears to leave the door open for Washington to accept, after a decent interval, the democratic fig-leaf given to the military action by the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress.

The US makes no secret of its wish to see the back of Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and the other neo-leftist Central and South American leaders. And even if Washington is not openly and directly engaged in attempts to overthrow them, non-state US actors, including multinational companies and NGOs are undoubtedly involved in destabilization activities.

Washington based analysts have been vocal in their criticism of Zelaya. Immediately prior to the coup, vice-president of the think tank Inter-American Dialogue Michael Shifter said "Zelaya has provoked this institutional crisis. He seems to have a very strong appetite for power. He's trying to be the victim, but he won't get a lot of sympathy by defying the country's institutions." Shifter is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was formerly director of the Latin American program of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Zelaya particularly irked the USA in early June when, hosting a meeting of the Organization of American States in Honduras, he played a leading role in overturning the 47-year-old suspension of Cuba from the organization. After the vote, Zelaya declared "the Cold War is over" and, referring to Fidel Castro's famous claim that history would absolve him, said "today, he is absolved."

The links between the US and Honduran militaries are particularly close. There are around 600 US troops stationed at the Soto Cano airbase in Honduras, and General Vasquez attended the controversial School of the Americas – a United States military training facility that became notorious as a torture training center after the Pentagon inadvertently released incriminating classroom materials.

Honduras was the principal base for US actions in support of the Contra guerrillas against the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua in the 1980s – actions that were partly financed by secret arms sales to Iran. Coincidentally, the other party in the Iran Contra scandal was then Iranian PM Mir-Hussein Mousavi, now Washington's preferred candidate in the disputed Iranian election. (Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is also, once again, president of Nicaragua).

Like many Central and South American countries Honduras has a long history of military rule. Following a 1963 coup, the military remained in power for nearly 20 years. The civilian governments of the 1980s were heavily compromised by their involvement in the US campaign against Nicaragua, and throughout this period army death squads continued to kill hundreds of civilians.

But a return to open military regimes in Central and South America does not appear to be likely in the near future. In fact it appears that the coup in Honduras has brought a nominally civilian government to power. The model is of a surgical military action that removes a troublesome leader, while not openly suppressing civilian rule.

It can in some ways be compared to the recent ousting of the democratically-elected Thai government. Following their disastrous attempt to rule from 2006 to 2007, the Thai generals were content to remain as arbiters, but not exercisers, of power in the 2008 "constitutional coup". They remain in the background, leaving governance in the hands of civilian politicians. As Thai Prime Minister Abhisit said while on a recent visit to Beijing: "We are playing according to parliamentary rules," which, of course, is not the same thing as respecting the will of the people.

Similar semi-constitutional coups, orchestrated and supported by traditional oligarchies, were attempted in Venezuela in 2002 and in the regional governors' revolt in Bolivia last year. Unlike those fiascos, the Honduran coup seems, so far, to have been successful. Chavez, Morales and other left-wing leaders in the hemisphere will undoubtedly see the Honduran coup as a dress-rehearsal for further actions against them. Barack Obama could eliminate any suspicion of US involvement and allay their concern by announcing that the US will act decisively to re-instate President Zelaya. So far, there is no sign that he is willing to do so.

Meanwhile in Honduras there are street demonstrations against the coup and reports that shots have been fired. The new government has imposed a curfew and, amusingly, is said to have blocked all US news channels apart from Fox news.