the US's awkward legacy in Latin America complicates its inaction regarding the Honduran coup

by by Simone Landon

On Friday, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint (R) returned from a “fact-finding” mission to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. In a press release, DeMint stated that his travel party, which included three other congressmen, “saw a government working hard to follow the rule of law, uphold its constitution, and to protect democracy for the people of Honduras.”

These "found facts" were the product of meetings with de facto Honduran president Roberto Micheletti, who took power in June on the heels of a coup that ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Micheletti’s government has not followed the rule of law, upheld the constitution, or protected Honduran democracy, according to the US State Department, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and every country in the world—none of which has recognized the rogue government.

An August 7 report from the International Mission for Human Rights counted ten extrajudicial assassinations of demonstrators, three disappearances, hundreds of illegal arrests and detentions, and continued threats against political activists and journalists.

DeMint’s actions—taken in defiance of the State Department’s orders and the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments—point to the US government’s inability to organize a coherent policy regarding the Honduran coup.

Traitors in Tegucigalpa
It started simply enough. On June 28, a pajama-ed President Zelaya (who usually sports a cowboy hat in public) was awakened in the middle of the night and forced onto a plane and out of his country. Several hours later, the Honduran Congress swore in Roberto Micheletti as interim president. With the backing of a congressional majority, the judiciary, the military, and the business elite, Micheletti moved to consolidate his power by suspending constitutional rights and imposing a curfew across the country.

As Hondurans held mass demonstrations in protest of their loss of democratic government, the coup drew immediate international condemnation. The Organization of American States voted unanimously to suspend Honduras’s participation in the group until constitutional democracy could be restored. All Latin American and many European nations withdrew their ambassadors from the country.

But a strong US stance was absent from the early outrage of the international community. Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Zelaya, the US ambassador remained stationed in Tegucigalpa. President Barack Obama named the event a “coup” in his initial remarks on the situation, but the State Department later backtracked and said it couldn’t yet determine whether what had occurred was a “coup” in legal terms. The State Department dithered about the semantics for months while still claiming to recognize Zelaya as the only legitimate president. It was not until September 3 that the US officially terminated all aid to the Micheletti government, a full nine weeks after the coup.

Grabbing power
The takeover was a show of force in an ongoing national dispute over a referendum proposed by Zelaya. The ballot question, scheduled for a July 1 vote, asked voters to place a further question on the general election ballot: “Do you agree that, during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?”

Micheletti and his supporters claim asking the voters if they would like to vote on holding a constitutional assembly was a power grab by Zelaya designed to abolish office term limits. They link the referendum tactic to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez (the boogeyman for conservatives in Latin America politics) and assert rewriting the constitution would be tantamount to imposing dictatorship. They also accuse Zelaya and his government of widespread graft and corruption.

The Honduran Supreme Court (which has supported Micheletti since the coup) ruled that holding the referendum was unconstitutional because it would have taken place in an election year. Zelaya ignored the ruling and continued to distribute ballots and insist on a July 1 vote.

The coup disrupted the referendum plans, but the de facto government intends to go ahead with the scheduled November 29 general elections, which would elect a new president. In the months since the coup, Zelaya and his supporters have abandoned the idea of holding a referendum prior to those elections but are still pushing for a constitutional assembly in 2010.

Zelaya’s reforms
While the battle over the referendum may have sparked the coup, tensions had been building between an increasingly progressive Zelaya and the traditional centers of Honduran power. Though he signed the foreign-interest-favoring Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2004, he later joined ALBA—the Chávez backed Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America that opposes North American economic domination. In December 2008, Zelaya raised the national minimum wage by 84 percent. He also refused to privatize the state-owned telecommunications company Hondutel, counter to the desires of then-congressman Micheletti.

For Zelaya and his supporters the coup was a deliberate move to maintain the power of Honduras’s old oligarchic interests, as well as the profits of multinational corporations. Honduras primarily exports textiles. After the coup, Nike and Gap wrote to Secretary of State Clinton stating their impartiality in the “internal dispute.” But the largest textile companies in Honduras, Fruit of the Loom, Hanesbrands, and Gildan (all US-based), have remained silent on the matter and continue to operate as usual.

Zelaya associates the coup with these broader, extra-national political interests. In a September 4 interview in The Nation, he claimed, “The same opponents of Obama in the US are mine in Honduras. The transnational trade, oil and banking systems. Those who do not want health insurance here are the same as those who do not want to pay a living wage in Honduras.”

Toward a resolution
On September 21, Zelaya re-entered Honduras secretly and took up residence in the Brazilian embassy. The OAS has planned talks for this week that will be the first direct dialogue between Zelaya and Micheletti since the coup.

The talks are meant to broker a political compromise in order to go ahead with the November 29 elections. The conservative Honduran daily La Prensa reports Zelaya is insisting on the adoption of the San José Accord, crafted by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. The Accord, which calls for the conditional restoration of Zelaya, political amnesty for the coup plotters, and a national reconciliation government, also has the support of the US State Department and many members of the OAS.

Last week, a group of prominent Honduran businessmen put forth a different compromise plan. Facing the revocation of their US visas because of their support of Micheletti’s regime, the National Association of Industrialists is calling for the restoration of Zelaya, but insists that he also stand trial on charges of graft. Micheletti has so far rejected the San José Accord, and Association president Adolfo Facussé told the New York Times he is concerned that without a compromise, the international community will not recognize the results of the November elections.

Although the frontrunner presidential candidates (Elvin Santos of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party and Porifirio Lobo Sosa of the National Party) told Costa Rica’s Arias they were willing to recognize the coup as legitimate in order to move forward with the elections, they met with Zelaya last week. Leaders in the country’s four political parties have succeeded in getting Micheletti to reinstate some civil liberties. La Prensa optimistically reported that a solution to the crisis was “closer than ever.”

What would Teddy Roosevelt do?
The situation in Honduras is a bad 1980s US policy hangover. The economic and social positions of the coup leaders are eerily similar to those of the US-backed, anti-democratic actors in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua’s civil wars. Precisely because of that history, the US has insisted on the restoration of constitutional order in Honduras, but equivocated throughout the crisis on what actions it should take.

Many have said the US’s lack of resolve shows a tolerance of the coup that is almost as bad as instigating it. At an August meeting in Mexico, President Obama described this Honduran policy paradox: “Critics who say that the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say that we’re always intervening and the Yankees need to get out of Latin America.” To an extent, Obama is right. The claim that the coup was essentially a product of 1980s US neoliberal ideology, and the claim that the US ought to be doing more to restore Zelaya to power, do not neatly dovetail.

Of course, it’s more complicated. As few as 20 years ago the US could easily have supported exactly such a power move by the Honduran Right because it would have been in its economic and foreign policy interests. And it still is. The 2009 Honduran coup protects and maintains the same power structures that the coups of the 1980s were meant to protect. The State Department and Obama Administration are so ambivalent about Honduras because they know this but cannot admit it while maintaining any kind of foreign credibility.

And because it’s not in US interest, the government can’t throw its full political (or even military) clout behind Zelaya. In the statement reneging on calling the coup a coup, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley likened Zelaya to Chávez and said it “would be a good lesson” for Zelaya to learn that when it comes to gaining US support, “the current leadership in Venezuela would not be a particular model.” After being a bully for the Right for so long, the US is not willing to turn around and become a bully for the Left—and nor should it.

What’s really at question is whether the US should continue to be a bully at all. If the US were to use its power for "good" rather than "evil" in Latin America, it would still be using its power and imposing its preferences and interests. Intervention is never neutral.

SIMONE LANDON B’10.5 unida jamás será vencida.