First published in Upside Down World, 10 December 2009
President Obama was elected partly because of his promise to a large Hispanic constituency to give both new attention and new respect to Latin America. Judging from the US role in the military coup in Honduras, he must think that one of the two is enough.
For those who closely followed the coup and its aftermath, a tiny fear sat in the back of our minds. Eventually it was confirmed. As the State Department position shifted from condemning to condoning the illegal government, the outline of a bigger picture became clear. If this violent takeover were really to be approved by the US, it would mark a frightening new focus on the region.
In late June, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and forced out of the country. For the next five months, an illegitimate government, headed by Congressional leader Roberto Micheletti, suppressed the outrage of many Honduran citizens against this regime through a number of violent means including murder, torture, and detention of citizens.
Throughout this time, the US response to these allegations was silence.
Even though it was impossible for a free or fair election to take place under these circumstances, the US endorsed what is internationally recognized as a fraud. After months of stumbling through embarrassing press conferences dominated by contradictory statements, doublespeak, and back-pedaling, the US appeared firmly committed to helping overthrow democratic order by blessing the Honduran elections as the way out. It has deliberately chosen sides in the battle between the popular struggle for social justice in Latin America and the assured continuation of its own economic interests with the election of coup-supporting conservatives like Porfirio Lobo.
A REGIONAL DIVIDE
Throughout the coup, Zelaya had overwhelming verbal support from the majority of his counterparts in the region.
Upon his bold return to Honduras in late September, Brazil’s President Lula opened the doors of his Tegucigalpa embassy to shelter the president, journalists, and supporters as his “guests”. That was the moment that things might have turned around for those fighting for his restoration. The populace had grown weary of struggling since late June demanding Zelaya’s reinstatement and protesting peacefully against the violations of so many basic rights. Zelaya’s homecoming was a move which energized them once again. But thanks to endless delay tactics on the part of US officials, his position in the embassy soon grew to resemble less that of a president than a prisoner.
Additionally, the US position may have drawn a line in the sand among other Latin American governments.
Over the past 5 months, of all Latin American countries, only Columbia, Peru and Panama (all strong US allies and economic dependents) rejected Zelaya’s status as the rightful leader of Honduras. But since the elections, others seem to be falling into line behind the US. El Salvador’s newly-elected FMLN President Funes agreed with the US line, stating that the elections will “end the crisis and lead to a unity government, the restoration of constitutional order and reconciliation in the brother country”. Now even Brazil appears to be adjusting its stance.
“There is a new situation,” Brazil’s Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff said recently. “There was an election. That process will be taken into account. We cannot turn a blind eye to the coup, but we can also not turn a blind eye to the election.”
At a Special Meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) on December 4, conflicting views were clear. US Ambassador Carmen Lomellin confirmed the US position to recognize the election results regardless: “The TSE and the Honduran people conducted remarkably free, fair and transparent elections.”
Costa Rican Ambassador Jose Enrique Castillo Barientes concurred: “Any position against the elections means crushing the solution.”
However, Bolivian Ambassador Jose Pinelo vehemently disagreed: “Under no circumstances will my government accept this objective. Recognizing a government formed like this means recognizing coup plotters.”
ELECTION DAY- VIOLENCE AND ABSTENTION
The Nov. 29 election passed with predictable results. For most Hondurans, Election Day in Honduras was never seen as a turning point. Rather, it followed a familiar rhetoric that democracy can be always gained, or restored, in the ballot box. That this simple action could clean up the violent elimination of democratic order is a profound lie.
On the contrary, it provided opportunity for an escalation of abuse under the guise of protection. This is nothing new for Honduran citizens. Armed forces dispersed throughout the country to ensure a climate of fear and intimidation leading up to and especially on Election Day. As of Nov. 29, not only were national independent media banned from the airwaves, but as Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program, recently reported, even international journalists became subject to vicious harassment and threatening to the point of fearing for their lives.
Most of the violence was kept out outside of the capital on election day, but the repression was intense in smaller towns and especially in the second largest city, San Pedro Sula. Micheletti’s claim that an additional 30,000 armed forces for this particular week was for the citizens’ “protection” is absurd. Reports of all kinds of abuses by police and military poured in from human rights delegations and journalists stationed all around Honduras that day. A Real News video clearly shows police officers deliberately smashing windows of cars, beating protesters with batons in the street, and hitting journalists who dared to do their job. Again, these tactics were for the most part not unique to that day. They were consistent with the regime’s behavior throughout the coup and represented the usual degree of violence against its own citizens.
Amnesty International has now called for an independent investigation into all human rights violations since the coup, including “killings following excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests of demonstrators by police and military, indiscriminate and unnecessary use of tear gas, ill treatment of detainees in custody, violence against women, and harassment of activists, journalists, lawyers and judges.”
Lobo has announced that he wants political amnesty for all parties involved in the coup, effectively requesting that all of the above violations, still unacknowledged, now also go unpunished by their perpetrators. If this was to happen, it would represent the final elimination of almost all legal processes in Honduras since Zelaya’s ousting.
While the coup government claims to have seen the highest electoral turnout in Honduran history, the National Front against the Coup (or Frente) claims the lowest. They cite an enormous victory in their much-promoted nonparticipation, claiming that 65-70 percent stayed away from the polls.
On the other hand, the coup government claimed a 62 percent turnout. However, a new investigation by Jesse Freeston of the Real News has revealed that this figure, which was distributed and repeated by almost every major media outlet in the world, appears to have been an arbitrary creation by one of the heads of the Supreme Tribunal Electoral (TSE). According to TSE’s own numbers, in reality less than half of the country voted that day.
Both the regime and the Resistance know the importance of keeping their supporters energized beyond the elections. Some of the international community (led by CNN headlines that evening boasting “high turnout” and saying the day was “calm and without incident”) are inclined to accept the idea that the elections are a healthy step forward. To believe that they are a clean break from the recent troubles is a convenient but dangerous assertion.
A NEW PRECEDENT
By most accounts, the coup was a surprising success for its leaders and backers. It now sets an alarming example that military coups can be sustained with backing of the world’s leading power. But many Latin American leaders are warning of a dangerous model.
“What is at stake is whether we validate or not a new methodology of coups d’etat,” said Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana at the recent Ibero-American Summit. His Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, agreed: “To recognize the spurious government emerging from these illegitimate elections will betray principles of peace, democracy and justice.”
Fidel Castro wrote in a recent editorial: “I hold the view that before Obama completes his term, there will be from six to eight right-wing governments in Latin America that will be allies of the empire.”
It’s not an outrageous prediction. Threatening signs are appearing all over the region. In Columbia, the United States just signed an agreement to expand its military presence by building new bases, igniting a feud between the US ally and Venezuela. In Paraguay, coup rumors were stirred when leftist president Fernando Lugo fired top military officials last month. In Guatemala, Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace laureate, indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu, warned of plans amongst the Bolivian oligarchy against President Evo Morales.
However, on the same day of the fraudulent Honduran elections, Uruguayans selected José Mujica, a leftist and former guerilla, as president. And in Bolivia, Evo Morales just won another term in a landslide victory. The tide has not yet turned.
Most disturbing is that even amongst US officials there is now no dispute that what happened in Honduras was a military coup d’état. When I met with US Ambassador Hugo Llorens in Tegucigalpa in August, he was able to reluctantly confirm this when pressed. In his first State Department briefing on the day after the elections, Arturo Valenzuela, the new Assistant Secretary for the US Bureau of Hemispheric Affairs, described what took place as a “military coup” twice, marking the first time US officials have officially admitted this.
THE CONSTITUYENTE AND THE FUTURE
Those who’ve been fighting against the regime and against the elections have done so primarily for the return of legal order to Honduras. The Honduran Resistance, which formed in response to Zelaya’s expulsion, became a social movement no one could have predicted. In many ways, the level of repression by the regime throughout the coup was a direct response to the surprising force of the Resistance movement. It is also a testament to the movement’s strength.
While some right-wing forces are doubtlessly watching to see how far Micheletti and his cohorts can get, others are taking notes from the Resistance in preparation for what comes next. The demands of the people are not limited to the restitution of President Zelaya. They want to ensure all Hondurans that the systemic injustices they’ve lived under for so long will be one day turned around. Their ultimate goal is a new Constitution for Honduras.
The project they seek to implement is a large one, and is designed to follow a successful model already in place in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. It will not be easy. The constituyente (constituent assembly) is an effort to rewrite the outdated Honduran constitution with new cultural, economic, and social reforms. After Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proved it was possible to gain mass support for the idea in 1999, Bolivia adopted a new constitution in 2007. The following year, the people of Ecuador approved a draft constitution which guaranteed among other radical ideas, “free education through university and social security benefits for stay-at-home mothers” and “inalienable rights to nature”.
Likewise, Manuel Zelaya proposed reforms for Honduras which focused on land re-distribution, an increase in the minimum wage, and new rights for women and the poor. It was partly because these ideas were so popular with economically-disadvantaged Hondurans that he was overthrown. But his supporters are moving on with an eye to the future.
Now Resistance leaders have called for the people of Honduras to “close that chapter” of their struggle. They are turning their focus to the constituyente and to the 2013 elections.
It’s uncertain what form their action will take. But they are still riding the momentum of their struggle. Emboldened by almost unanimous international support, Hondurans are now re-awakened to just how fragile a democracy can be.