ON the face of it, last weekend’s dramatic events in Honduras are a throwback to the past, when the armed forces in any number of Latin American countries routinely ousted civilian governments. It’s inaccurate, however, to portray the unwarranted regime change in Tegucigalpa as the first post-Cold War coup in the region. After all, in some ways the removal from power of President Manuel Zelaya is remarkably reminiscent of events in Caracas little more than seven years ago, when elements in the Venezuelan armed forces collaborated with the country’s capitalist elite - with Washington’s approval and possible connivance - to overthrow Hugo Chavez.
The coup in Caracas fizzled out within 48 hours or so in the face of massive popular resistance, but also because significant sections of the armed forces remained loyal to the elected president. What’s more, the nervous coup-makers played their cards badly: by seeking to elevate the head of the chamber of commerce to the presidency, they made it all too clear that their action was essentially part of a class war.
There are good reasons to suspect that those who broke into Zelaya’s compound in the dead of night, kidnapped him in his pyjamas and bundled him off to Costa Rica were similarly motivated. But before looking at the specific circumstances that led up to this travesty, it’s pertinent to point out that the atmosphere in the region has changed in the interim. Although the 2002 action against Chavez caused some consternation among Venezuela’s neighbours, the Bolivarian leader had only one truly resolute ally in the region: Fidel Castro. The Bush administration and even some supposedly liberal sections of the US media could barely conceal their glee - and their palpable sense of disappointment a couple of days later was immensely gratifying.
In contrast, Zelaya’s removal from power immediately prompted a vociferous - and all but unequivocal - chorus of condemnation in Latin America. Although Chavez has, characteristically, been particularly outspoken, even regional leaders far removed from him on the ideological spectrum have expressed their displeasure. And notwithstanding indications that the United States might be hedging its bets, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed their support for Zelaya and called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, through constitutional means and without foreign intervention.
It would, of course, be useful if they could bring themselves to admit that in the past century, intervention in Honduras has been more or less exclusively a US pastime. Besides, although the change in Washington’s attitude since the departure of the neocons deserves to be welcomed, it does not necessarily follow that a US role in the Honduran developments can be completely ruled out, even if there is no immediate reason for assuming that it enjoyed the imprimatur of the White House.
According to the State Department, beyond a certain point the military headquarters in Tegucigalpa stopped taking calls from the US embassy. If true, that’s clearly a far cry since the days when that embassy was headed by John Negroponte, a Reagan administration appointee whose task it was to oversee the training of contras and their infiltration into Nicaragua, plus intervention in El Salvador, while trying to make sure that the local exploits of the Honduran military regime - characterized by its reliance on right-wing death squads - did not attract US media attention. Negroponte was chosen for this vital assignment on account of his extreme hawkishness, which can be gauged from the fact that in his previous role as an aide to Henry Kissinger, he had, according to The Washington Post, “criticized his patron for making too many concessions to the North Vietnamese”.
Negroponte - who more recently served in Bush administration in various capacities, including national security czar and ambassador to Baghdad and to the UN - has never admitted that his crucial role in Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist crusade involved close collaboration with a Honduran regime that routinely terrorized its own people. The country’s present constitution, which Zelaya’s opponents have accused him of violating, dates back to the days of Negroponte’s proconsulship. The trend in Latin America those days was towards superficial transitions from military regimes to civilian governments, as far as possible without disturbing the socio-economic status quo - which invariably meant entrenched advantages for the rich and callous disregard for the poor. It also meant that all aspects of what is broadly described as “security” remained the preserve of the military establishment.
The experiment appeared to be working in Honduras, with centre-right governments not only steering clear of military affairs but also taking care not to interfere with the pattern of institutionalized privilege that sustained one of the deepest economic divides in Central America. As a Liberal Party presidential candidate, Zelaya gave little indication of being a mould-breaker: although his platform ahead of the 2005 election mentioned poverty reduction, this was presumed to be little more than a rhetorical tactic. However, as president he displayed a reformist inclination and caused some surprise when he allied himself with Chavez and, last year, took Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) - having realized that ALBA was a better bet than the IMF in combating the chronic poverty in his country.
He also understood that meaningful change in Honduras depended on amending the Negroponte-era constitution. To this end he organized a non-binding vote, scheduled for last Sunday, merely to determine the popularity of combining next November’s presidential election with a constitutional referendum. This seemingly unobjectionable move not only attracted the ire of the generals but also clarified the resistance to change of civil institutions such as the congress and the supreme court. Although the army was ostensibly placed under civilian control 10 years ago, when Zelaya sacked the armed forces chief late last month, General Romeo Vasquez was rapidly reinstated by the court. The supreme court this week endorsed the coup, and congress lost little time in naming Roberto Micheletti as interim president.
From his forced exile in Costa Rica, Zelaya has condemned the powerful forces arrayed against him as “right-wing oligarchs”, which doesn’t sound like an unfair description, given their evident determination to defend their misbegotten privileges. There have been protests in Tegucigalpa, albeit not on a scale that presaged Chavez’s restoration in Caracas in 2002. ALBA members and other Latin American leaders have been meeting in Nicaragua to determine their response, and there can be little doubt that the atmosphere in the region doesn’t suit the coup-makers. At the same time, however, there is the risk that if they get away with it, retrograde elements within other Latin military establishments might be encouraged to make similarly undemocratic moves. There’s an opportunity for Washington to nail its colours to the mast by making use of the leverage it still enjoys in Tegucigalpa. But, as they say, don’t hold your breath.