Dangers in US ambivalence to ditched Honduran democracy
OPINION:If Honduras were Iran or Burma, the assault on its democracy would be a global cause celebre. Instead, Obama just sits idly on his hands, writes SEUMAS MILNE
IF HONDURAS were in another part of the world – or if it were, say, Iran or Burma – the global reaction to its current plight would be very different. Right now, in the heart of what the United States traditionally regarded as its backyard, thousands of pro-democracy activists are risking their lives to reverse the coup that ousted the country’s elected president. Six weeks after the left-leaning Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped at dawn from the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa and expelled over the border, strikes are closing schools and grounding flights as farmers and trade unionists march in defiance of masked soldiers and military roadblocks.
The coup-makers have reached for the classic South American takeover textbook. Demonstrators have been shot, more than a thousand people are reported arrested, television and radio stations have been closed down, and trade unionists and political activists murdered. But although official international condemnation has been almost universal, including by the US government, barely a finger has been lifted outside Latin America to restore the elected Honduran leadership.
Of course, Latin America has long been plagued by military coups – routinely backed by the US – against elected governments. And Honduras, the original “banana republic”, has been afflicted more than most. But all that was supposed to have changed after the end of the cold war: henceforth, democracy would reign. And, as Barack Obama declared, there was to be a “new chapter” for the Americas of “equal partnership”, with no return to the “dark past”.
But, as the coup regime of Roberto Micheletti digs in without a hint of serious sanction from the country’s powerful northern sponsor, there is every sign of a historical replay. In a grotesquely unequal country of seven million people, famously owned and controlled by 15 families, in which more than two-thirds live below the poverty line, the oligarch rancher Zelaya was an unlikely champion of social advance.
But as he put it: “I thought I would bring about changes from within the neoliberal scheme, but the rich didn’t give an inch.” Even the modest reforms Zelaya did carry out, such as a 60 per cent increase in the minimum wage and a halt to privatisation, brought howls of rage from the ruling elite, who were even more alarmed by his links with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba, and his determination to respond to the demands of grassroots movements to wrest political power from the oligarchs and reform the constitution.
Zelaya’s attempt to hold a non-binding public consultation on a further vote for a constitutional convention was the trigger for the June coup. The move was portrayed by the coup’s apologists as an attempt to extend Zelaya’s term in office, which could not have happened whatever the result. But, as in the case of the Chilean coup of 1973, a supreme court decision to brand any constitutional referendum unlawful has been used by US and Latin American conservatives to give a veneer of legality to Zelaya’s overthrow.
Behind these manoeuvres, the links between Honduras and US military, state and corporate interests are among the closest in the hemisphere. Honduras was the base for the US Contra war against Nicaragua in the 1980s; it hosts the largest US military base in the region; and it is almost completely dependent economically on the US.
Whatever prior traffic there may have been between the Honduran plotters and US officialdom, it’s clear Obama’s administration could pull the plug on the coup regime tomorrow by suspending military aid and imposing sanctions. But, so far, despite public condemnations, the president has yet to withdraw the US ambassador, let alone block the coup leaders’ visas or freeze their accounts, as Zelaya has requested.
Meanwhile, an even more ambivalent line is being followed by Hillary Clinton. Instead of calling for the restoration of the elected president, the secretary of state – one of whose longstanding associates, Lanny Davis, is now working as a lobbyist for the coup leaders – promoted a compromising mediation and condemned Zelaya as “reckless” for trying to return to Honduras across the Nicaraguan border. A clue as to why that might be was given by the state department’s Phillip Crowley, who explained the coup should be a “lesson” to Zelaya for regarding revolutionary Venezuela as a model for the region.
Obama this week attacked critics who say the US “hasn’t intervened enough in Honduras” as hypocrites because they were the same people who call for the “Yankees to get out of Latin America”. But of course the unanimous call from across the continent isn’t for more intervention in Honduras – but for the US government to end effective support for the coup-makers and respond to the request of the country’s elected leader to halt military and economic aid.
The reality is that Honduras is a weak vessel on the progressive wave that has swept Latin America over the past decade, challenging US domination and the Washington consensus, breaking the grip of entrenched elites and attacking social and racial inequality. While the imperial giant has been tied down with war on terror, the continent has used that window of opportunity to assert its collective independence in an emerging multipolar world.
It’s scarcely surprising that the process is regarded as threatening by US interests, or that the US government has used the pretext of the lengthy “counter-insurgency” war in Colombia to convince the right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe to allow US armed forces to use seven military bases in the country – which goes well beyond anything the Bush administration attempted and is already heightening tensions with Ecuador and Venezuela.
That’s why the overthrow of democratic government in Honduras has a significance that goes far beyond its own borders. If the takeover is allowed to stand, not only will it embolden coup-minded military officers in neighbouring countries such as Guatemala, but it will act as a warning to weaker progressive governments and strengthen oligarchies across the continent.
It would also send an unmistakable signal that the radical social and political process that has been unleashed in Latin America – the most hopeful development in global politics in the past two decades – can be halted and reversed. Relying on Obama clearly isn’t an option: only Latin Americans can defend their own democracy.
Seumas Milne is a British journalist and writer based in London. He works as a columnist and associate editor at the Guardian