The military coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras took a new turn when Zelaya attempted to return home on Sunday. The military closed the airport and blocked runways to prevent his plane from landing. They also shot several protesters, killing at least one and injuring others.
The violence and the enormous crowd -- estimated in the tens of thousands and reported as the largest since the coup on June 28 -- put additional pressure on the Obama administration to seek a resolution to the crisis. On Tuesday Secretary of State Clinton met with President Zelaya for the first time since the coup.
In many ways this is similar to the coup in Venezuela in 2002, which was supported by the United States. After it became clear that no government other than the United States would recognize the coup government there, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets to demand the return of their elected president, the military switched sides and brought Chavez back to the presidential palace.
In Honduras we have the entire world refusing to recognize the coup government, and equally large demonstrations (in a country of only seven million people, and with the military preventing movement for many of them) demanding Zelaya's return. The problem in Honduras is that their military -- unlike the Venezuelan military -- has more experience in organized repression, including selective assassinations carried out during the 1980s, when the country was known as a military base for U.S. operations in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Honduran military is also much closer to the U.S. military and State Department, more closely allied with the country's oligarchy, and more ideologically committed to the cause of keeping the elected president out of power. Colonel Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, a Honduran army lawyer who admitted that the military broke the law when they kidnapped President Zelaya, told the Miami Herald, "It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That's impossible." Mr. Inestroza, like the coup leader and army chief General Romeo Vasquez, was trained at Washington's infamous School of the Americas (now renamed as WHINSEC).
This puts a heavy burden on the people of Honduras, who have been risking their lives, confronting the army's bullets, beatings, and arbitrary arrests and detentions. The U.S. media has reported on this repression but only minimally, with the major print media sometimes failing to even to mention the censorship there. But the Honduran pro-democracy movement, through their courage, has in the last few days managed to change the course of events. It is likely that Clinton's decision to finally meet with Zelaya was the result of the large and growing protests, and Washington's fear that such resistance could reach the point where it would topple the coup government.
The Obama administration's behavior over the last eight days provides strong evidence that if not for this threat from below, the administration would have been content to let the coup government stall out the rest of Zelaya's term.
This was made clear again on Monday, at a press briefing held by State Department Spokesperson Ian Kelly. Under prodding from a reporter, Mr. Kelly became the first on-the-record spokesperson for the U.S. State Department to say officially that the U.S. government supported the return of President Zelaya. This was eight days after the coup, and after the United Nations General Assembly, the Organization of American States, the Rio Group, and many individual governments had all called for the "immediate and unconditional" return of Zelaya -- something which Washington still does not talk about.
Meanwhile, on the far right, there has been a pushback against the worldwide support for Zelaya and an attempt to paint him has the aggressor in Honduras, or at least equally bad as the people who carried out the coup. Unfortunately much of the major media's reporting has aided this effort by reporting such statements as "Critics feared he intended to extend his rule past January, when he would have been required to step down."
In fact, there was no way for Zelaya to "extend his rule" even if the referendum had been held and passed, and even if he had then gone on to win a binding referendum on the November ballot. The June 28 referendum was nothing more than a non-binding poll of the electorate, asking whether the voters wanted to place a binding referendum on the November ballot to approve a redrafting of the country's constitution. If it had passed, and if the November referendum had been held (which was not very likely) and also passed, the same ballot would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped down in January. So, the belief that Zelaya was fighting to extend his term in office has no factual basis -- although most people who follow this story in the press seem to believe it. The most that could be said is that if a new constitution were eventually approved, Zelaya might have been able to run for a second term at some future date.
Another major right-wing theme that has spilled over into the media and public perception of the Honduran situation is that this is a battle against President Chavez of Venezuela (and some collection of "anti-U.S." leftist allies, e.g. Nicaragua, Cuba -- take your pick). This is a common subterfuge that has surfaced in most of the Latin American elections of the last few years. In Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, for example, the conservative candidates all pretended as if they were running against Chevez -- the first two with success, and the second pair losing.
It is true that under Zelaya Honduras joined the ALBA, a grouping of countries that was started by Venezuela as an alternative to "free trade" agreements with the United States. But Zelaya is nowhere near as close to Chavez as any number of other Latin American presidents, including those of Brazil and Argentina. So it is not clear why this is relevant, unless the argument is that only bigger countries or those located further south have the right to have a co-operative relationship with Venezuela.
As this article goes to press, Clinton has announced that she arranged for Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to serve as a mediator between the coup government and President Zelaya. According to Clinton, both parties have accepted this arrangement.
This is a good move for the U.S. State Department, as it will make it easier for them to maintain a more "neutral" position so long as mediation is taking place -- as opposed to the rest of the hemisphere, which has taken the side of the deposed president and the Honduran pro-democracy movement. "I don't want to prejudge what the parties themselves will agree to," said Clinton in response to a question as to whether President Zelaya should be restored to his position.
It is difficult to see how this mediation will succeed, so long as the coup government knows that they can stall out the rest of Zelaya's term. The only thing that can remove them from office, in conjunction with massive protests, is real economic sanctions of the kind that Honduras's neighbors (Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala) imposed for 48 hours after the coup. These countries account for about a third of Honduras's trade, but they would need economic aid from other countries to carry the burden of a trade cutoff for a longer time. It would be a great thing if other countries would step forward to support such sanctions and to cut off their own trade and capital flows with Honduras as well.
So it is up to the rest of the world to help Honduras; it is clear that Hondurans won't be getting any help from the United States. The rest of the world will have to scream bloody murder about the violence and repression there, too, because Washington will not be making much of an issue about it.
This column was published The Guardian Unlimited on July 9, 2009.