New Internationalist

Out of the barracks

Issue 424

A military coup in Honduras puts Latin America’s fragile democracy in peril, reports Richard Swift.

Late in June Latin America was shaken by a nightmare from the past. In the early hours of 28 June 150 balaclava-clad soldiers from the Honduran military surrounded the house of President Manuel Zelaya in downtown Tegucigalpa where the President slept unawares. A dozen of them broke into his bedroom, grabbed Zelaya in his pyjamas and bundled him off to the airport where he was unceremoniously put on a flight to Costa Rica.

the international outrage that started in the region soon spread outwards to the rest of the world, taking the coup-makers and their supporters in the Honduran political élite by surprise

By traditional Latin American standards it was a fairly bloodless affair – although blood began to be spilt shortly afterwards as Hondurans took to the street to protest this blatant violation of their fragile democracy. But the international outrage that started in the region soon spread outwards to the rest of the world, taking the coup-makers and their supporters in the Honduran political élite by surprise. Apparently, a military coup to remove a leader that threatened to disturb the status quo of power and privilege and champion the needs of the poor majority was no longer just a question of ‘business-as-usual’.

The outrage quickly spread beyond the ‘usual suspects’ such as Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela to every country in the region, no matter what its ideological inclinations. Neighbouring Guatemala, hardly a beacon of radical activity, was having none of it. The right-wing Columbian Government’s foreign ministry expressed ‘deep consternation’. The conservative Felipe Calderon in Mexico added his voice to the chorus of condemnation. In Washington, Barack Obama took the moral highroad, condemning the coup and pointing out that ‘the US has not always stood as it should with democracies in the region’ – a major understatement. He worried about a return to ‘a dark past’ that Latin America had moved away from.

Here lies the crux of the matter and the reason for the outcry. Military coups and the generals they put in power have since the end of World War Two (and before) resulted in tens of thousands of deaths of civilians (mostly leftists and sincere democrats) and tilted the whole Latin American polity to the Right. Support for this ‘militarized stability’ came from an alliance of wealthy oligarchs, foreign investors, and of course a military élite keen to get access to the wealth that came with the exercise of arbitrary rule. From the slums of Santiago in Chile to the highlands of Guatemala, the unmarked grave became the main archeological artifact of the rule by a generation of ‘guerrillas’ trained in the Pentagon-run School of the Americas in Georgia. The Argentinean military avoided the problem by dropping troublemakers from helicopters far out at sea.

No more guerrillas

But since the end of the Cold War there has not been a military coup in the region. The military was pushed back into the barracks. Much time and energy has been allotted throughout the region to coming to terms with this painful past, including legal charges against perpetrators, truth commissions, victim compensation schemes, the recovery of stolen children and a vast outpouring of music and literature to try and help shape a popular reckoning. Little wonder the balaclava-clad troops in the middle of the night in Tegucigalpa rang such alarm bells.

from the slums of Santiago in Chile to the highlands of Guatemala, the unmarked grave became the main archeological artifact of the rule by a generation of ‘gorillas’ trained in the Pentagon-run School of the Americas in Georgia

But despite the international outcry, at this writing (21 July) the coup seems to have taken hold. How could this be? Honduras is a small country, one of the poorest in the Western hemisphere and highly dependent on aid, trade and investment flows from the US and Canada. How could it survive in the face of this avalanche of international pressure?

Surely it can’t have been the thin constitutional fig leaf the perpetrators used to cover their actions. The idea that Zelaya had embarked on an anti-constitutional power grab is paper thin. Where was his support for such an undertaking – surely not with the military or the congress or the upper courts who issued a ‘post-facto’ justification for the coup. The idea that he was angling for a second term is hardly enough reason for the military to grab power. Challenging term limits (whatever you think of it) has become a major issue on the continent, from leftwing Chavez in Venezuela to rightwing Uribe in Colombia. If Zelaya’s crimes (arrogance and a lack of tactical caution may have been the main one) had been as great as proclaimed, an orderly process of impeachment was always an option. None of the leaders overthrown in Latin American coups has ever been faultless. They range from sincere reformers to corrupt members of the kleptocracy. But military cure always proves worse than the civilian disease.

Neither can the coup be presented as a gentle removal from power of one man. It has been accompanied by the usual mass arrests, censorship, overturning of laws, suspension of habeas corpus, brutalizing of demonstrators that are de rigueur in such affairs. Several demonstrators have been killed. There have been disappearances. Perhaps most frightening is the appearance on the scene of the sinister ‘men-in-the-shadows’ such as Billy Joya, a former commander of the 1980s 3-16 battalion known for their murderous human rights abuses and associated with Honduran death squads, including the infamous Cobras. Joya has been appointed ‘a security advisor’ to Speaker of the National Congress and coup front man Roberto Micheletti. It was Micheletti who produced a phony arrest warrant for Zelaya plus a counterfeit letter of resignation to provide legal cover for the coup.

The Zelaya ‘threat’

To understand the heat of feelings against the Zelaya Government it is only necessary to look at some of the actions they were undertaking. First, Zelaya had done the unthinkable and put up the minimum wage in Honduras by 60 per cent. A number of major US (Fruit-of-the-Loom, Haines) and Canadian (Montreal-based Gildan – the world’s biggest blank T-Shirt producer) brands outsource their production to Honduran sub-contractors because of the pitifully low wages (15 cents for a shirt that retails for $40) that exist in the country. An increase in wages endangers this profitable arrangement. The Honduran apparel industries have been outspoken supporters of the coup. Back in 2006 Zelaya decided to cancel all future mining sector projects. The Honduran mining industry has been plagued by village removals, spills and hugely destructive open pit mines. The Canadian journalist Ashley Hall, in a recent article in the Vancouver-based Web Newspaper Tyree, traces some of the history of US and particularly Canadian mining companies in Honduras:

‘Shortly after Hurricane Mitch (2003) weakened the Honduran state, Canada and the United States joined to establish the National Association of Metal Mining of Honduras (ANAMINH), through which they were able to rewrite the General Mining Law. This law provides foreign mining companies with lifelong concessions, tax breaks and subsurface land rights for “rational resource exploitation”.’

none of the leaders overthrown in Latin American coups has ever been faultless. They range from sincere reformers to corrupt members of the kleptocracy. But military cure always proves worse than the civilian disease

The lucrative mining sector, including Canadian firms such as Breakwater Resources, Yamana Gold and Goldcorp, were not pleased by Zelaya’s attempt to get some kind of local control over mining concessions and their economic and ecological impact. Both the mining and the apparel sectors can be counted as staunch Zelaya foes.

But perhaps Zelaya’s biggest ‘mistake’ may have been his musings about turning the Soto-Cano military air force base (just 50 miles outside of Tegucigalpa) into a civilian airport with the help of funding from the Venezuelan-led ALBA trade alliance. This may have been going a step too far. The base has been the most reliable station for US military south of the Mexican border. It currently houses the US Joint Task Force-Bravo military group, composed of members from the army, air force, joint security forces and the First Battalion Regiment 228 of the US Air Force. This was the base used by Oliver North to coordinate the Contra operation that killed thousands in neighbouring Nicaragua in the 1980s. Honduras is known as the US’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ and it is very difficult to overstate the close relationship that exists between the armed forces of the two countries. Both General Suazo and General Vasquez, who played key roles in the coup, attended the School of the Americas.

Which side are you on?

This leads to the question of US and to a lesser degree Canadian involvement in and support for the coup. The situation is complicated. Obama’s words of ‘soft power’ against the coup were plain enough. But a whole network of US funding (mostly through AID and the National Endowment for Democracy) and influence has been used to encourage and sustain the opposition to Zelaya. While they may or may not have supported the coup, they definitely shared the aim of getting rid of the President. Post-coup neither the US nor Canada matched their disapproving words with deeds. While Latin American and European diplomats were unceremoniously yanked out of the country, for the US and Canadian embassies it was business as usual. The US State Department avoided using the words ‘military coup’ in order not to have to suspend $45 million in aid and trade perks. The Canadians went one better when their Canadian Foreign Minister for the Americas, Peter Kent, suggested to a 4 July meeting of the Organization of American States that Zelaya not return to Honduras – putting Canada in select company as the only country to go on the public record as being in favour of maintaining the exile of the elected President.

some fear a kind of new localized `cold war’ with the Honduran coup as a prototype to either intervene against or chasten the continent’s new generation of leftist governments

While Obama has taken the high road, at least in his rhetoric, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leaning more towards the tough cop as ‘realistic negotiator’ role. Apparently one of her advisors is former contra war architect John Negroponte (a US ambassador to Honduras under Reagan), and her good friend the PR man Lanny Davis has been hired (by the Latin American Business Council) to act as the Washington enabler to make sure the coup-makers get a hospitable hearing in the Capital. They have no shortage of friends there, including former Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain and a bevy of congressmen from both sides of the house. The names of Negroponte and former Assistant-Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Otto Reich (who stands to benefit if the Honduran telecommunications sector is privatized) add a distinctively sinister tone to the affair. Both have histories that date back to the worst days of death squad politics in Latin America. In this situation one can imagine the consequences of Obama taking a go-along-to-get-along approach to foreign policy that is becoming a trademark of the administration.

As long as the coup holds the danger increases of further military interventions in Latin American political life. Indeed, some fear a kind of new localized `cold war’ with the Honduran coup as a prototype to either intervene against or chasten the continent’s new generation of leftist governments. So while some may think of Honduras as an insignificant backwater, the legitimacy of the coup and the people it has brought to power is crucial for the continent. Overturning the coup would send a clear democratic message. The cost of leaving the coup in place may prove very high indeed.

Sources: www.upsidedownworld; The Council on Hemispheric Affairs; www.thetyree.ca; www.globalresearch.ca; The Associated Press; Reuters; The Bullet.

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