From Guantanamo to Honduras: Psychological Wars Then and Now

October 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

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Honduran military surrounds Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. (Photo: AFP)

By Joseph Shansky

Recently, musicians such as Rage Against the Machine, Steve Earle and Pearl Jam joined the newly-formed National Campaign to Close Guantanamo Bay.  It’s a public effort to protest the past misuse of recordings during “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo prison.  An exaggerated volume and incessant repetition of loud music are just a few auditory torture techniques famously used by the American government overseas to disorient prisoners. 

However, the issue of psychological warfare should not only be seen in a past context.  Since these revelations, the question of its continued use in other parts of the world deserves exposure.

One timely example is Honduras.  In June of this year, President Manuel Zelaya was violently removed from power in a military coup d’état and replaced with a non-elected government, led by former National Congress leader Roberto Micheletti.  Since his return to Honduras September 21, President Zelaya has been residing with supporters in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, with Honduran armed forces stationed outside.

Following orders by coup government officials, the army has been frequently directing harsh noises at the embassy occupants.  The most recent example took place early in the morning of October 21, when the broadcast included military anthems, rock music, and animal noises (pig grunts, in an apparent attempt to add insult to injury) at an excessive volume, and on a constant loop from around 1:30 am to 7 am. 

This was the latest in a series of increasingly dramatic acts of harassment against embassy occupants, including flashing blinding lights at the windows during the night, designed to cause sleep deprivation.  Little has been mentioned in the international press of these sonic and visual assaults on the embassy which began upon the President’s return.   

Sources from inside the embassy confirm that the harassment has been almost constant.  Andrés Conteris, founder of Democracy Now! en Español, is one of an estimated forty Zelaya supporters still camped out at the embassy.  Conteris, who has been reporting internationally throughout the siege, says the latest techniques follow an earlier blueprint:

The psychological warfare methods directed against the Brazilian embassy follow an arbitrary pattern which is part of keeping us off balance.  The all-night assault with noise and music on Oct. 21 is the latest use of Directional Energy Weapons (DEW), which began with the unbearably shrill sound known as the LRAD on Sept 22.

The LRAD (Remote Long Range Acoustic Device) is a sinister sound cannon used to emit piercing and pain-inducing sounds designed to disperse crowds and can cause severe loss of hearing.  The LRAD was also used by police in Pittsburgh at the G-20 protests on the same day it was first used at the embassy.

Apart from the appalling nature of such attacks, not to mention the legal implications, a question arises as to how this is allowed to go on in such a blatant manner for so long without fear of consequence.  When General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez was asked on the following morning about the noises, he sarcastically attributed the music to an early celebration of Honduran Armed Forces Day.  An even more telling attitude would be that of de facto Defense Minister Adolfo Lionel Sevilla, who said that the occupants “should be grateful it was music and not bombs”[1].

What allows the regime to believe they can operate with impunity is that basically they can, and they have been doing so since the coup.  The US, which instantly “condemned” the coup on June 28, has since taken virtually no real punitive measures of consequence.  Verbal condemnation and heel-dragging have been substituted for effective action.  This has been echoed in some form for months, from the Organization of the American States to the United Nations, which responded to the latest reports with this statement:

The Permanent Council denounces and strongly condemns the hostile action by the de facto regime against the embassy of Brazil in Tegucigalpa and the harassment of its occupants through deliberate actions that affect them physically and psychologically and violate their human rights. [2]

In this context, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice’s response to the initial September 22 embassy attacks is not surprising:

We condemn acts of intimidation against the Brazilian embassy and call upon the de facto government of Honduras to cease harassing the Brazilian embassy. [3]

But since September this harassment has only increased both at the embassy and among the general population.  Numerous reports have emerged from leading human rights groups in Honduras documenting the ongoing violations of the rights of citizens in the streets and in private homes.  In addition, the attitude of “no consequence” has undermined negotiations to bring about a just resolution to the crisis.  The coup government is under no pressure to negotiate in good faith. 

Several attempts from within the US to pass congressional legislation demanding more pressure on the coup government have fallen short.  Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) has sponsored the strongest legislation so far. These attempts have been overshadowed by US Republicans leading stateside efforts to support the November presidential elections in Honduras. This follows the position of coup officials, who have successfully delayed negotiations with a renewed focus on the elections they claim will wipe the slate clean for Honduras. 

However, the voices dismiss the destructive aftermath of a coup which also allows small elites to monitor the circulation of virtually all information.  The few independent media outlets that have voiced dissent against the coup have been taken off the air or severely limited. This cuts off the democratic process essential to fair elections.  Two of the major presidential candidates, César Ham of the Democratic Unification Party (UD) and Carlos H. Reyes (Independent) have recently stepped down, calling the elections illegitimate at this point.

This leaves a campaign in full swing by candidates who have been directly supporting the Micheletti de facto government.  They ignore the pleas of a clear majority of the country wanting to stabilize Honduras by reinstating President Zelaya.  Coup supporters in both Honduras and the US have cited Zelaya’s removal as necessary to prevent the leftist influence growing throughout Latin America, even if it means overthrowing a democratically-elected leader.  In reality, Honduras can now be seen as a laboratory in which any real social reforms are violently squashed before they can spread.  Many see it as a return to a fearful era of past military coups in Latin America. 

Defenders of the coup regime often point to the constitutional aspects of Zelaya’s removal and specifically to an August analysis from the Library of Congress which deemed the coup legal and constitutional.  This was flatly contradicted by a new Forbes Magazine investigation which concluded by declaring the Law Library of Congress “complicit in the illegal acts of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime”.[4]

There is now overwhelming evidence that Zelaya’s removal was illegal, and that it paved the way for serious violations of human rights and civil liberties (including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and transit) all over Honduras. 

The US, with a firm economic grasp on Honduran business and political interests, has the leverage necessary to act directly against this regime in a number of concrete ways, the least of which are laid out in Rep. Grijalva’s letter to President Obama.  It has chosen not to.  And this is exactly what battalion officials like Velásquez depend on when they give reckless orders to blast the embassy with intolerable sound and light.

President Obama pledged to show Latin America a new face and a new respect from that of a dismissive Bush administration.  With the first military coup d’état in many years, he’s had a golden opportunity.  Instead, State Department language has only grown more tepid since first vehemently denouncing the coup in June.  The few actions it has taken, such as suspending visas of coup leaders and limiting certain channels of aid, have done nothing to resolve the crisis or to halt the repression in Honduras. 

Thanks in part to an almost calculated show of US inaction, the regime in Honduras has operated a campaign independent of international law and without consequence.  In doing so it recalls the US’s own shameful crimes in Central America and elsewhere, long promised by President Obama as an era to never revisit.

[1] http://www.tiempo.hn/secciones/crisis-politica/6052-ministro-de-defensa-no-estamos-de-acuerdo-con-restitucion-de-zelaya

[2] http://hondurasemb.org/2009/10/22/condemnation-of-the-acts-of-intimidation-against-the-embassy-of-brazil-in-honduras/

[3] http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2009/0925/breaking73.htm

[4] http://www.forbes.com/2009/10/20/honduras-manuel-zelaya-law-library-opinions-contributors-coup.html

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