One of the hemisphere’s most critical struggles for democracy in 20 years is now unfolding in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa (nicknamed “Tegucigolpe” for its long history of military coup d’états, which are called golpes de estado, in Spanish). Despite censorship and repression, popular anger over the June 28 military overthrow of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya is growing. International condemnation has been near-unanimous, and the Organization of American States has suspended Honduras, the first time the hemisphere-wide body has taken so drastic an action since 1962.
In a reversal of many decades of U.S. support for right-wing golpistas in Latin America, the Obama administration has denounced the coup. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rather than backing the largely nonviolent popular uprising for Zelaya’s unconditional return to power, has instead been pushing for the country’s legitimate ruler to compromise with the very forces which illegally exiled him from the country and have been violently suppressing his supporters.
The United States is now offering support for mediation efforts to be led by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. The Obama administration tried to discourage the exiled Honduran president from his attempt this past Sunday to return to his country and has apparently succeeded, for the time being, in preventing him from trying again. Clinton pressed this point on Tuesday in pushing for mediation, arguing that it would be a “better route for him to follow than attempt to return in the fact of the intractable opposition of the de facto government.”
Clinton also said, “Instead of another confrontation…let’s try the dialogue process.” What this ignores is that while the coup plotters have no legitimate standing, the Honduran people have a constitutionally guaranteed right to rebel under such circumstances. According to Article 3 of the Honduran constitution:
No one owes obedience to a government that has usurped power or to those who assume functions or public posts by the force of arms or using means or procedures that rupture or deny what the Constitution and the laws establish. The verified acts by such authorities are null. The people have the right to recur to insurrection in defense of the constitutional order.
What the Obama administration apparently fears is that if it allows the burgeoning pro-democracy movement to take its course, it may end up with a similar outcome to what transpired in Venezuela in 2002 — following a similar coup against that country’s left-leaning president, Hugo Chávez. Within days, a popular movement had forced right-wing elements of the military and their wealthy civilian allies to step down. Chávez returned to govern and emboldened by such a popular outpouring of support, he moved the country further to the left.
The United States could help such a movement succeed if it wanted to. If the Obama administration chose, the United States could impose strict economic sanctions on Honduras that would, combined with ongoing strikes and other disruptions, grind the economy to a halt and force the illegitimate junta in Tegucigalpa to step down.
Unfortunately, while there’s no evidence suggesting that the United States was responsible for the coup, there appear to be reasons the Obama administration may not want the coup plotters to suffer a total defeat.
Despite being a wealthy logger and rancher from the centrist Liberal Party, Zelaya has moved his government well to the left since taking office in 2005. During his tenure, he raised the minimum wage and provided free school lunches, milk for young children, pensions for the elderly, and additional scholarships for students. He built new schools, subsidized public transportation, and even distributed energy-saving light bulbs. He also had Honduras join with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and three small Caribbean island states in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an economic alliance challenging the neoliberal orthodoxy that has dominated hemispheric trade in recent decades.
None of these are particularly radical moves, but it was nevertheless disturbing to the country’s wealthy economic and military elites. More frightening was that Zelaya had sought to organize an assembly to replace the 1982 constitution written during the waning days of the U.S.-backed military dictator Policarpo Paz. A non-binding referendum on whether such a constitutional assembly should take place was scheduled the day of the coup, but was cancelled when the military seized power and named Congressional Speaker Roberto Micheletti as president.
Calling for such a referendum is perfectly legal under Article 5 of the 2006 Honduran Civil Participation Act, which allows public functionaries to perform such non-binding public consultations regarding policy measures.Despite claims by the rightist junta and its supporters, Zelaya was not trying to extend his term. That question wasn’t even on the ballot. The Constitutional Assembly would not have likely completed its work before his term had expired anyway.
Yet the Obama administration is implying that the country’s legitimate democratic president somehow shared responsibility for his illegal overthrow. The initial White House response was rather tepid, initially failing to denounce the coup, simply calling upon “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” Similarly, Clinton insisted the day after the coup that “all parties have a responsibility to address the underlying problems that led to yesterday’s events.” When asked if her call for “restoring the constitutional order” in Honduras meant returning Zelaya himself, she didn’t say it necessarily would. Similarly, in a press conference on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly evaded reporters’ questions as to whether the United States supported Zelaya’s return. This places the United States at odds with the Organization of American States, the Rio Group, and the UN General Assembly, all of which called for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya.
There are serious questions as to whether Clinton can be trusted to make a clear stance for democracy, given her traditionally pro-interventionist position on Latin America. As a senator, she argued that the Bush administration should have taken a more aggressive stance against the rise of left-leaning governments in the hemisphere, arguing that Bush has neglected such developments “at our peril.” In response to recent efforts by democratically elected Latin American governments to challenge the structural obstacles that have left much of their populations in poverty, she expressed alarm, saying, “We have witnessed the rollback of democratic development and economic openness in parts of Latin America.” Though no doubt aware that U.S. policy toward leftist regimes in Latin American in previous decades had included military interventions, CIA-sponsored coups, military and financial support for opposition groups, and rigged national elections, she argued that “We must return to a policy of vigorous engagement.”
The United States and Honduras
The United States certainly has a history of “vigorous engagement” in Honduras, actively supporting a series of military dictatorships from 1963 through the early 1980s. Though military rule formally ended by the end of 1982, the weak civilian presidents who followed in the subsequent decade served only at the pleasure of Honduran generals and the U.S. embassy. John Negroponte, who later served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, as well as his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras during this period.
During the 1980s, thousands of U.S. forces were sent to Honduras to train Honduran security forces as well as train and support the rightist Nicaraguan contras, which were engaged in a series of cross-border terrorist attacks. The CIA organized, trained, and equipped a special military unit known as backed Battalion 316, bringing in Argentine counterinsurgency experts as advisors on surveillance and interrogation. These advisors had been part of the “dirty war” in their country during the 1970s, in which more than 10,000 people were murdered. Honduran armed forces chief Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez personally directed the unit with strong U.S. support, even after acknowledging to Negroponte that he intended “to use the Argentine method of eliminating subversives.” Though Alvarez’ personal involvement in large-scale human rights abuses were well-known to State Department and other U.S. officials, the Reagan administration awarded him the Legion of Merit for “encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras.”
Former Honduran congressman Efraín Díaz told the Baltimore Sun, in reference to U.S. policy towards human rights abuses in his country, “Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed.” Under Negroponte, CIA officers based in the U.S. Embassy frequently visited a secret prison where captured dissidents were routinely tortured. It was one of a number of facilities to which U.S. officials had regular access that were off-limits to civilian Honduran officials, including judges looking for victims of kidnapping by right-wing paramilitary units.
Despite this history, including revelations of his role in covering up for such human rights abuses, Negroponte had little trouble on Capitol Hill during the Bush administration. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Negroponte for having “served bravely and with distinction,” and for bringing “a record of proven leadership and strong management.” Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), then the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, praised him as “a seasoned and skilled diplomat, who has served with distinction,” saying he was a “smart choice” to become the first DNI. This enthusiastic support for Negroponte among leading congressional Democrats, despite his well-documented role in human rights abuses while U.S. ambassador to Honduras, is indicative of how little regard the majority party in Congress cares about democracy in Central America.
The Legacy Today
The legacy of U.S. support for repression in Honduras is very much part of recent events.
The leader of the June 28 coup, Honduran General Romeo Vásquez, is a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas, a U.S. Army training program nicknamed “School of Assassins” for the sizable number of graduates who have engaged in coups, as well as the torture and murder of political opponents. The training of coup plotters at the program, since renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” isn’t a bygone feature of the Cold War: General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, who played an important role in the coup as head of the Honduran Air Force, graduated as recently as 1996.
Former members of Battalion 316 were involved in the coup as well.
Unfortunately, while far more knowledgeable of recent history than most recent presidents, Obama doesn’t seem willing to apologize, much less make amends, for U.S. complicity in supporting repression in Latin America. I am writing this article en route to Chile, where the United States played a major role in the downfall of another democratically elected leftist leader, Salvador Allende, back in September of 1973. Just five days before the coup in Honduras, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet visited President Obama in Washington. When asked by Chilean reporters whether he was willing to apologize for the U.S. role in bloody 1973 coup and its aftermath, Obama brushed off the suggestion by saying, “I’m interested in going forward, not looking backward.”
Meanwhile, U.S.-armed and trained security forces have violently dispersed largely nonviolent demonstrators protesting across the country, including shooting into a crowd of demonstrators near the airport on Sunday, killing two. Rather than acknowledge the widespread popular opposition to their illegitimate rule, the Honduran junta, like its authoritarian counterparts in Iran, have instead tried to blame outsiders for the unrest, in this case Cuba and Venezuela. Yet the Honduran people, like the Iranians, don’t need outside agitators or foreign funding in order to resist. This isn’t about geopolitics but about democracy. Unfortunately, backers of the rightist junta in Honduras, like backers of the rightist regime in Iran, are repeating fabricated stories of outside interference to discredit a genuine home-grown pro-democracy movement.
What may be at work in these U.S. and Costa Rican-led mediation efforts is some kind of deal where Zelaya can return, but under conditions that would preclude a constitutional assembly, any challenges to oligarchic interests, or any further efforts to promote economic justice. Similar kinds of pre-conditions were forced upon the deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, prior to U.S. assistance in his initial return from exile in 1994.
How much the junta leaders are willing to compromise will depend on what is going on outside the meeting rooms.
One factor would be the ability of the pro-democracy movement to organize, think strategically, expand their ranks and maintain a nonviolent discipline. Fortunately, the rebellion thus far has been largely nonviolent, which would be far more effective in such circumstances.
For various historical reasons, Hondurans don’t have the same kind of history of armed revolution as their neighbors. Even during the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s— while the country’s immediate neighbors Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua experienced major armed insurrections — the armed Honduran revolutionary movement was quite small and never had much of an impact.
By contrast, civil society organizations engaged in strategic nonviolent conflict have grown dramatically in recent years, including peasant organizations, indigenous and Afro-Honduran movements, human rights monitoring groups, environmental groups, women’s groups, an anti-militarization movement, and student groups, as well as three major labor federations. A series of strikes, blockages of major highways, and land seizures occurred over the past year as civil society became increasingly mobilized.
The second factor which could tip the balance is how firmly the United States comes down in support for democracy. Obama has at times been clear in his support for the legal process, declaring, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there.” Recognizing larger implications of this stance, he added, “It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backward into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections.”
Still, it was a full week before the United States announced it would slash aid to Honduras, and there have been no imminent signs of tougher sanctions. Unlike most Latin American countries, the United States has not withdrawn its ambassador from Tegucigalpa.
The United States, which hosts a U.S. Southern Command task force at the Soto Cano Airbase, 50 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa, exerts enormous influence on Honduras. Therefore, the pressure pro-democracy forces in the United States can bring to bear upon our government may prove as crucial as the efforts of brave pro-democracy forces within Honduras.