The Resurgence of US Interventionism in Latin America
By Amy Oyler at Aug 28, 2009
In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 28 2009, approximately 200 Honduras soldiers stormed the house of President Manuel Zelaya. After firing 4 shots inside his home, they detained the President and flew him into exile in Costa Rica. In the following hours, several media outlets were shut down by military force, journalists were arrested, beaten, or deported. Diplomats from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua were arrested, along with Honduras Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas. Cell phone power was cut throughout most of the country, and a military curfew was imposed. The only television networks allowed to continue their broadcasts, were showing cartoons and soap operas throughout the day. Since that day, media broadcasts (anyone other than ardent coup supporters) have been intermittent with the exceptions of Telesur and Radio Globo, though these two networks have also continuously faced shut down by the military. Tens of thousands of people have protested the coup, marches have been led across the country, and tens of thousands of teachers, hospital workers, airline crews, taxi drivers, and other workers have declared an indefinite strike in protest. Accounts of over 100 deaths during the military curfew hours have been reported since June 28th, some have been violent murders conducted by the Honduran military against demonstration leaders. Hundreds of people have been arrested either for protesting, being out during curfew hours, or on plain grounds of suspicion of being against the coup regime.
What happened in Honduras that led up to a military coup? The interim government, headed by Roberto Micheletti, issued a statement saying that Zelaya's removal was largely due to a referendum on constitutional reforms he was seeking to carry out. They stressed (and continue to do so) that he was unconstitutionally seeking to extend his term limits. The Honduras Supreme Court voted unanimously to impeach, and thus the military coup was carried out. While it is true that Zelaya was intending to carry out a nationwide poll that Sunday afternoon, it must be stated clearly what it the poll was actually for. President Zelaya was seeking to carry out a non-binding opinion poll that asked, "Do you think that the November 2009 general elections should include a fourth ballot box in order to make a decision about the creation of a National Constitutional Assembly that would approve a new Constitution". There was nothing in there about term limits, in fact, the ballot would have appeared during the elections for a new president.
During his presidency, Zelaya strengthened unions and raised the minimum wage of Honduras workers by 60%, to reflect the rise in the cost of food and other basic necessities. Zelaya and Micheletti (then president of Congress) often crossed paths in legislation. While Micheletti supported a bill to privatize the state owned telecommunications firm Hondutel (of which he is the former CEO), Zelaya refused to carry this forth. Zelaya also vetoed a bill (supported by Micheletti) that would have banned the sale of emergency contraception such as the morning after pill. Zelaya accepted low cost petroleum from Venezuela, and finally, sought the opinion of the people on the idea of re-writing the 1982 Honduras Constitution. All of these events culminated with a right wing congress and supreme court overthrowing a democratically elected president whom they feared was turning too far to the left.
The international response to the coup was swift and nearly unanimous. The European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) immediately denounced the coup and withdrew their ambassadors to Honduras, stating that they would not recognize any government without the return of President Manuel Zelaya. The EU also froze $92 million in aid, while members of the OAS froze aid and enforced trade embargoes against the Honduran government. Yet, even In the midst of immediate international condemnation, the United States government was one of the last to issue a response. Initially, President Obama stated, "we believe the coup was not legal, and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras". The official response from the White House later left out any mention of a coup, as in recognizing it as such the US would be required to cease all aid and withdraw its ambassadors.
Since the crisis broke out in late June, the US has tread very lightly with its official response, and a cursory glance at the available information reveals why. The United States has been the top benefactor of Honduras for decades. Honduras exports amount to 70% to the United States, while imports from the US were at 52% in 2006. Investors from the US account for two thirds of foreign investment, with amounts of capitol surpassing $568 million in 2006. In its military role, the coup was led by General Romeo Vasquez, who was fired by Zelaya for refusing orders to distribute the ballot boxes, then reinstated by the Honduran Supreme Court. Vasquez, and the head of the Honduran Air Force, were both graduates of the notorious US Army School of the Americas, known for its graduates going on to lead coups, death squads, and become high level officials targeting the more democratic sectors of society (unions, church groups, humanitarian organizations, etc). All graduates continue to keep close ties to the US military as they have maintained relationships through training and advice. Ties to the US military do not end there. According to the US State Department, the United States maintains a presence of 550 military personnel and 600 US civilians at the Soto Cano Air base in Honduras. Joint Task Force Bravo conducts joint exercises in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, peace keeping, and civic actions, to name a few. The Honduras military and the police department have received extensive training, funding, and equipment from the US Army.
Considering such investments into Honduras, it comes as no surprise that there is significant support from US congressional leadership for the coup regime. The International Republican Institute (IRI), chaired by US Senator John McCain, has shown considerable interest in Honduras. Three months before the coup, there were talks on Honduras regarding the removal of President Zelaya, who, by turning to more "leftist" policies, had begun to "destabilize" a country which had been a bench mark of US policy toward Latin America since the 1980's. These statements are important when you consider the role that IRI had in the coups of both Venezuela and Haiti. Through the funding of USAID and NED (National Endowment for Democracy), IRI funded and trained political parties that were implicated in the violent overthrows (in Venezuela's case, attempted) of governments in those countries. During the Hondutel scandal in 2008, in which charges of corruption were led by Former State Department Official (under Bush) Otto Reich and Robert Carmona-Borja (key player in the Venezuela coup), US telecommunications companies donated $200,000 to IRI. The IRI has been a fierce advocate of telecom privatization in Latin America, and these companies would have stood to gain if the privatization of Hondutel took place. Just a few days after the coup in Honduras, John McCain and IRI leadership invited the coup leaders to Washington DC to offer the services of a lobby group, the Cormac Group, to lobby Washington on their behalf.
One cannot speak of the International Republican Institute without mention of their parent organizations, NED and USAID. They both share a notorious record of interference in Latin American politics and governments. While humanitarian, education, and voting observation programs do indeed take place under their guidance, the majority of their funding goes to organizations of a more political nature. According to documents retrieved via freedom of information act, they work primarily in the strengthening of alternative political parties, leadership counseling, campaigning, information dissemination via media channels (communications counseling), and neo-liberal (privatization, foreign ownership, low wages, union busting, tax shelters, etc) economic studies. These policies have usually been highly resisted unless brought to fruition by a violent regime change or fraudulent elections (Chile, Argentina, Venezuela in the 1980's, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, etc). Funding for USAID/NED in Honduras jumped from $37 million in 2007 to more than $50 million in 2009, a majority of this funding going to the Archbishop of Teguciagalpa, the Honduras Private Enterprise Council (COHEP), the Council of University Deans, the Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Private Media, and the group Paz y Democracia (Peace and Democracy), just to name a few. All of these groups have expressed support for the coup regime, while others have coordinated anti-zelaya media campaigns and marches throughout the country before the crisis, as well as on the very day of the coup.
Another aid group funding the coup in Honduras is the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The MCC is a US government run corporation set up in 2004 to provide developmental assistance to low income developing countries. The MCC is tasked with managing the Millennium Change Account, which disperses these funds to various countries according to need and their meeting of criteria in order to receive aid. The chairman of the board to the MCC is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk also sit on the board of directors. The MCC has dealt with three coups in the last year, and while Mauritania and Madagascar were prescribed an immediate suspension or termination of funds and contracts, the MCC has yet (2 months later) to follow protocol with Honduras. While the official US State Department's response to the turmoil in Honduras was a cessation of non-humanitarian funding, this funding was redirected to MCC to the tune of roughly 18 million dollars since June 28th.
Finally, while the Honduras coup regime did not take the IRI up on the Cormac offer, they did utilize other ties to the US capitol. Lawyer to former President Bill Clinton, and presidential campaign adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Lanny Davis is now lobbying on behalf of the coup leaders and Honduran business elite in Washington. Lanny Davis works on behalf of industries who back the current coup government in Honduras. Among those industries are some American companies, Russell, Fruit of the Loom and Hanes, who have been ardent backers of the coup regime due to the decreased wages, decreased union participation, and privatization of industries in Honduras.
Considering these extensive ties to top level US officials and to the coup regime in Honduras, it becomes quite clear that not only did the United States government know about the coup in advance, but financially aided the coup leaders in the overthrow of their democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya. Therefor, the United States government bears some responsibility of the actions taken by the coup leaders and complicity in the human rights abuses. This is not the first time that the United States has been directly involved in the politics of countries in Central and South America. In 1973, Henry Kissinger committed a coup in Chile, resulting in decades of torture chambers, disappearances, and some of the most damaging economic policies that have begun to take shape in Latin America. We have committed (covertly) or funded and aided coup actors in Guatemala (United Fruit), Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and most recently, Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, and the crisis in Bolivia in 2008, just to name a few. While the US citizenry thought that with the election of a new president, and a new administration, our relationship with the world would be one of more transparency, dignity, and one of less military aggression, it seems that this is just not the case. In fact, President Obama recently increased the funding to USAID and NED in Latin America, and since the coup in Honduras has increased US military presence from two bases in Colombia, to seven.
The US involvement in the coup in Honduras speaks to the larger picture of our placement in all of Latin America. The policy that the US has had with Latin America has been pushed aside in recent years (with the exception of Venezuela, and increased NED funding to "alternative political parties" in Bolivia), but now it is apparent that while we are distracted with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that officials in the Obama administration seek to continue our long standing policy of directing politics on another continent, at the expense of human rights, justice, and sovereignty. We the people, should not stand for this, nor allow ourselves to think that there is nothing that we can do to help this country in Central America. If we allow these acts to continue unchecked, we will end up watching the demise of a truly democratic revolution in our hemisphere, while our government, again, holds the direct responsibility of bloodshed in its hands.
You Can Help:
Call the State Department at 202-647-5171 or 1-800-877-8339 and ask for Secretary Clinton. Call the White House at 202-456-111. Deliver the following message: "Legally define the de facto regime in Honduras as a military coup and cut off all aid to Honduras until President Zelaya is unconditionally reinstated."
Helpful Links on Honduras: