It’s like the 1980s all over again.
During that decade, the Reagan administration – with the support of Congress – sent billions of dollars worth of unconditional military and other support to the right wing-junta in El Salvador, just as the Obama administration is today with the right-wing government in Israel.
When Salvadoran forces massacred 700 civilians in El Mozote, Congressional leaders defended the killings, saying that the U.S-backed operation was “fighting terrorists.” Similarly, when Israel massacred over 700 civilians in the Gaza Strip early last year, Congressional leaders defended the killings for the same reason.
When Amnesty International and other groups investigated the El Mozote killings and found that it was indeed a massacre targeted at civilians by the Salvadoran army, members of Congress denounced these reputable human rights organizations as “biased.” There was a similar reaction when Amnesty and other groups documented similar Israeli war crimes, with Congressional leaders accusing them of “bias.”
Even when the Salvadoran junta murdered international humanitarian aid workers, that right-wing government’s supporters in Washington insisted that the victims were actually allied with terrorists and that they somehow provoked their own deaths. We’re now hearing the same rationalization regarding the attack on the humanitarian aid flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean.
The difference is that, back in the 1980s, members of Congress and the administration who were responsible for such policies were targeted with frequent protests, including sit-ins at Congressional offices and other kinds of nonviolent direct action. Unlike supporters of the El Salvador’s former right-wing government, however, today’s Congressional supporters of Israel’s right-wing government seem to be getting a free ride.
Senators Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, Russ Feingold, Barbara Mikulski, and Carl Levin – who led the attack against Justice Goldstone and others who documented Israeli war crimes – are still supported by many so-called “progressives” who apparently believe that, despite these senators’ attacks on basic human rights, they should still get their vote, campaign contributions, and other support. For example, here in California, Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans and singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt, who were active in opposition to U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s, are major contributors to Boxer’s re-election campaign. The willingness to challenge such right-wing Congressional militarists has substantially diminished.
The problem is less a matter of the power of AIPAC and the “pro-Israel lobby” as it is the failure of those on the left to demand a change in Obama administration policy. Progressives must recognize that the lives of Arab civilians are as important as the lives of Central American civilians; that it is just as inexcusable for the United States to support a government that kill passengers and crew on a humanitarian flotilla in international waters as it is to kill nuns, agronomists and other civilians working in the Salvadoran countryside; and that, when it comes to international humanitarian law, the differences between the policies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are not as great as we would like to think.
The decision by Honduran coup leader Roberto Micheletti to renege on his October 30 agreement to allow democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya to return to power was a severe blow to pro-democracy forces who have been struggling against the illegitimate regime since it seized power four months ago. The disappointment has been compounded by the Obama administration’s apparent willingness—in a break with Latin American leaders and much of the rest of the international community—to recognize the forthcoming presidential elections being held under the de facto government’s repressive rule.
Still, there are reasons to hope that democracy can be restored to this Central American nation.
The primary reason the de facto government was willing to negotiate at all was the ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign by Honduran pro-democracy forces. The role of popular nonviolent action has not been as massive, dramatic, or strategically sophisticated as the movements that have overthrown some other autocratic regimes in recent decades. There were no scenes of hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets and completely shutting down state functions, as there were in the people power movements that brought down Marcos in the Philippines or Milosevic in Serbia.
Nevertheless, the nonviolent struggle has been of critical importance.
The sustained nonviolent resistance movement has prevented the provisional government, which was formed after the June 28 coup, from establishing a sense of normalcy. What the movement has lacked in well-organized, strategic focus, has been made up for with feisty and determined acts of resistance that have forced the provisional government into clumsy but ultimately futile efforts at repression—exposing the pretense of the junta’s supposed good intentions.
Sometimes a resistance movement just has to stay alive to make its point. Day after day, thousands of Hondurans from all walks of life have gathered in the streets of Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, demanding the restoration of their democratically-elected government. Every day they have been met by tear gas and truncheons. Over a dozen pro-democracy activists were murdered, but rather than let these assassinations frighten people into submission, the opposition turned the martyrs’ funerals into political rallies. Their persistence gradually has torn away the outlaw regime’s claims of legitimacy. Rather than establishing themselves as a legitimate government, de facto president Micheletti and his allied military officers have been made to look like little more than a gang of thugs who took over an Old West town and threw out the sheriff.
Since the return of the exiled President Zelaya to Tegucigalpa (he successfully sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy), the pro-democracy movement has surged. Micheletti and his henchman initially panicked—suspending basic civil liberties, shutting down opposition radio and television stations, and declaring a 24-hour curfew. This disruption caused the business community’s support for the de facto government to wane; the Obama State Department, which had been somewhat timid in pressing the junta up to that point, began to push harder for a deal.
It has been a great credit to the pro-democracy forces that, save for occasional small-scale rioting, the movement has largely maintained its nonviolent discipline. It would have been easy to launch a guerrilla war. Much of Honduras consists of farming and ranching country where many people own guns. The neighboring countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have experienced bloody revolutionary struggles in recent decades. Yet, despite serious provocations by police and soldiers loyal to the provisional government, the movement has recognized that armed resistance would have been utterly futile and counter-productive. Indeed, they recognize that their greatest strength is in maintaining their commitment to nonviolence.
Those who have engaged in these courageous acts of resistance will feel betrayed, however, if the Obama administration is indeed ready to defy the international community by allowing Micheletti to stay in office and to recognize the results of an election held under such repressive conditions. The United States does have the power to force the illegitimate regime out and to facilitate the return of the country’s democratically-elected president to power if the Obama administration chose to use it. Indeed, there are few countries in the world as dependent on trade with the United States as Honduras.
As for those of us in the United States, it is not enough to cheer from the sidelines at courageous acts of nonviolent action by the people of Honduras. We must be willing to challenge our own government—through engaging in nonviolent direct action ourselves, if necessary—to support democracy in Honduras.
However, even if the Obama administration refuses to take a more responsible position and the coup is allowed to stand, the struggle will not have been for naught.
The Honduran opposition movement consists of a hodgepodge of trade unionists, campensinos from the countryside, Afro-Hondurans, teachers, feminists, students, and others who, along with insisting on the right of their elected president to return to office, are determined to build a more just society. Prior to the coup this summer, there had never been a national mobilization in Honduras lasting for more than a week, much less four months. The protracted struggle against Micheletti may have served as a vaccination: Popular forces may now have developed the antibodies to engage in a sustained struggle for social justice, deepening the capacity for radical change in a society that has a rather weak tradition of social movements relative to much of the rest of Latin America.
Regardless of who occupies the Honduran presidential palace, there is a critical need to replace the old constitution, imposed by the outgoing military junta in 1981, which minimizes the participation of ordinary citizens in political decisions and effectively suppresses popular social movements. It must be replaced by one in which members of the country’s poor majority will have more of a say in determining their future. It was the movement for a popular, non-binding referendum to gauge support for a Constitutional convention that prompted the coup last June.
This struggle may be only the first chapter of an important and prolonged struggle for justice in one of Latin America’s poorest and most inequitable countries. It is important that the people of North America become engaged as active allies.
One of the hemisphere’s most critical struggles for democracy in 20 years is now unfolding in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa (nicknamed “Tegucigolpe” for its long history of military coup d’états, which are called golpes de estado, in Spanish). Despite censorship and repression, popular anger over the June 28 military overthrow of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya is growing. International condemnation has been near-unanimous, and the Organization of American States has suspended Honduras, the first time the hemisphere-wide body has taken so drastic an action since 1962.
In a reversal of many decades of U.S. support for right-wing golpistas in Latin America, the Obama administration has denounced the coup. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rather than backing the largely nonviolent popular uprising for Zelaya’s unconditional return to power, has instead been pushing for the country’s legitimate ruler to compromise with the very forces which illegally exiled him from the country and have been violently suppressing his supporters.
The United States is now offering support for mediation efforts to be led by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. The Obama administration tried to discourage the exiled Honduran president from his attempt this past Sunday to return to his country and has apparently succeeded, for the time being, in preventing him from trying again. Clinton pressed this point on Tuesday in pushing for mediation, arguing that it would be a “better route for him to follow than attempt to return in the fact of the intractable opposition of the de facto government.”
Clinton also said, “Instead of another confrontation…let’s try the dialogue process.” What this ignores is that while the coup plotters have no legitimate standing, the Honduran people have a constitutionally guaranteed right to rebel under such circumstances. According to Article 3 of the Honduran constitution:
No one owes obedience to a government that has usurped power or to those who assume functions or public posts by the force of arms or using means or procedures that rupture or deny what the Constitution and the laws establish. The verified acts by such authorities are null. The people have the right to recur to insurrection in defense of the constitutional order.
What the Obama administration apparently fears is that if it allows the burgeoning pro-democracy movement to take its course, it may end up with a similar outcome to what transpired in Venezuela in 2002 — following a similar coup against that country’s left-leaning president, Hugo Chávez. Within days, a popular movement had forced right-wing elements of the military and their wealthy civilian allies to step down. Chávez returned to govern and emboldened by such a popular outpouring of support, he moved the country further to the left.
The United States could help such a movement succeed if it wanted to. If the Obama administration chose, the United States could impose strict economic sanctions on Honduras that would, combined with ongoing strikes and other disruptions, grind the economy to a halt and force the illegitimate junta in Tegucigalpa to step down.
Unfortunately, while there’s no evidence suggesting that the United States was responsible for the coup, there appear to be reasons the Obama administration may not want the coup plotters to suffer a total defeat.
Despite being a wealthy logger and rancher from the centrist Liberal Party, Zelaya has moved his government well to the left since taking office in 2005. During his tenure, he raised the minimum wage and provided free school lunches, milk for young children, pensions for the elderly, and additional scholarships for students. He built new schools, subsidized public transportation, and even distributed energy-saving light bulbs. He also had Honduras join with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and three small Caribbean island states in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an economic alliance challenging the neoliberal orthodoxy that has dominated hemispheric trade in recent decades.
None of these are particularly radical moves, but it was nevertheless disturbing to the country’s wealthy economic and military elites. More frightening was that Zelaya had sought to organize an assembly to replace the 1982 constitution written during the waning days of the U.S.-backed military dictator Policarpo Paz. A non-binding referendum on whether such a constitutional assembly should take place was scheduled the day of the coup, but was cancelled when the military seized power and named Congressional Speaker Roberto Micheletti as president.
Calling for such a referendum is perfectly legal under Article 5 of the 2006 Honduran Civil Participation Act, which allows public functionaries to perform such non-binding public consultations regarding policy measures.Despite claims by the rightist junta and its supporters, Zelaya was not trying to extend his term. That question wasn’t even on the ballot. The Constitutional Assembly would not have likely completed its work before his term had expired anyway.
Yet the Obama administration is implying that the country’s legitimate democratic president somehow shared responsibility for his illegal overthrow. The initial White House response was rather tepid, initially failing to denounce the coup, simply calling upon “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” Similarly, Clinton insisted the day after the coup that “all parties have a responsibility to address the underlying problems that led to yesterday’s events.” When asked if her call for “restoring the constitutional order” in Honduras meant returning Zelaya himself, she didn’t say it necessarily would. Similarly, in a press conference on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly evaded reporters’ questions as to whether the United States supported Zelaya’s return. This places the United States at odds with the Organization of American States, the Rio Group, and the UN General Assembly, all of which called for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya.
There are serious questions as to whether Clinton can be trusted to make a clear stance for democracy, given her traditionally pro-interventionist position on Latin America. As a senator, she argued that the Bush administration should have taken a more aggressive stance against the rise of left-leaning governments in the hemisphere, arguing that Bush has neglected such developments “at our peril.” In response to recent efforts by democratically elected Latin American governments to challenge the structural obstacles that have left much of their populations in poverty, she expressed alarm, saying, “We have witnessed the rollback of democratic development and economic openness in parts of Latin America.” Though no doubt aware that U.S. policy toward leftist regimes in Latin American in previous decades had included military interventions, CIA-sponsored coups, military and financial support for opposition groups, and rigged national elections, she argued that “We must return to a policy of vigorous engagement.”
The United States and Honduras
The United States certainly has a history of “vigorous engagement” in Honduras, actively supporting a series of military dictatorships from 1963 through the early 1980s. Though military rule formally ended by the end of 1982, the weak civilian presidents who followed in the subsequent decade served only at the pleasure of Honduran generals and the U.S. embassy. John Negroponte, who later served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, as well as his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras during this period.
During the 1980s, thousands of U.S. forces were sent to Honduras to train Honduran security forces as well as train and support the rightist Nicaraguan contras, which were engaged in a series of cross-border terrorist attacks. The CIA organized, trained, and equipped a special military unit known as backed Battalion 316, bringing in Argentine counterinsurgency experts as advisors on surveillance and interrogation. These advisors had been part of the “dirty war” in their country during the 1970s, in which more than 10,000 people were murdered. Honduran armed forces chief Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez personally directed the unit with strong U.S. support, even after acknowledging to Negroponte that he intended “to use the Argentine method of eliminating subversives.” Though Alvarez’ personal involvement in large-scale human rights abuses were well-known to State Department and other U.S. officials, the Reagan administration awarded him the Legion of Merit for “encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras.”
Former Honduran congressman Efraín Díaz told the Baltimore Sun, in reference to U.S. policy towards human rights abuses in his country, “Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed.” Under Negroponte, CIA officers based in the U.S. Embassy frequently visited a secret prison where captured dissidents were routinely tortured. It was one of a number of facilities to which U.S. officials had regular access that were off-limits to civilian Honduran officials, including judges looking for victims of kidnapping by right-wing paramilitary units.
Despite this history, including revelations of his role in covering up for such human rights abuses, Negroponte had little trouble on Capitol Hill during the Bush administration. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Negroponte for having “served bravely and with distinction,” and for bringing “a record of proven leadership and strong management.” Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), then the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, praised him as “a seasoned and skilled diplomat, who has served with distinction,” saying he was a “smart choice” to become the first DNI. This enthusiastic support for Negroponte among leading congressional Democrats, despite his well-documented role in human rights abuses while U.S. ambassador to Honduras, is indicative of how little regard the majority party in Congress cares about democracy in Central America.
The Legacy Today
The legacy of U.S. support for repression in Honduras is very much part of recent events.
The leader of the June 28 coup, Honduran General Romeo Vásquez, is a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas, a U.S. Army training program nicknamed “School of Assassins” for the sizable number of graduates who have engaged in coups, as well as the torture and murder of political opponents. The training of coup plotters at the program, since renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” isn’t a bygone feature of the Cold War: General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, who played an important role in the coup as head of the Honduran Air Force, graduated as recently as 1996.
Former members of Battalion 316 were involved in the coup as well.
Unfortunately, while far more knowledgeable of recent history than most recent presidents, Obama doesn’t seem willing to apologize, much less make amends, for U.S. complicity in supporting repression in Latin America. I am writing this article en route to Chile, where the United States played a major role in the downfall of another democratically elected leftist leader, Salvador Allende, back in September of 1973. Just five days before the coup in Honduras, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet visited President Obama in Washington. When asked by Chilean reporters whether he was willing to apologize for the U.S. role in bloody 1973 coup and its aftermath, Obama brushed off the suggestion by saying, “I’m interested in going forward, not looking backward.”
Meanwhile, U.S.-armed and trained security forces have violently dispersed largely nonviolent demonstrators protesting across the country, including shooting into a crowd of demonstrators near the airport on Sunday, killing two. Rather than acknowledge the widespread popular opposition to their illegitimate rule, the Honduran junta, like its authoritarian counterparts in Iran, have instead tried to blame outsiders for the unrest, in this case Cuba and Venezuela. Yet the Honduran people, like the Iranians, don’t need outside agitators or foreign funding in order to resist. This isn’t about geopolitics but about democracy. Unfortunately, backers of the rightist junta in Honduras, like backers of the rightist regime in Iran, are repeating fabricated stories of outside interference to discredit a genuine home-grown pro-democracy movement.
What may be at work in these U.S. and Costa Rican-led mediation efforts is some kind of deal where Zelaya can return, but under conditions that would preclude a constitutional assembly, any challenges to oligarchic interests, or any further efforts to promote economic justice. Similar kinds of pre-conditions were forced upon the deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, prior to U.S. assistance in his initial return from exile in 1994.
How much the junta leaders are willing to compromise will depend on what is going on outside the meeting rooms.
One factor would be the ability of the pro-democracy movement to organize, think strategically, expand their ranks and maintain a nonviolent discipline. Fortunately, the rebellion thus far has been largely nonviolent, which would be far more effective in such circumstances.
For various historical reasons, Hondurans don’t have the same kind of history of armed revolution as their neighbors. Even during the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s— while the country’s immediate neighbors Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua experienced major armed insurrections — the armed Honduran revolutionary movement was quite small and never had much of an impact.
By contrast, civil society organizations engaged in strategic nonviolent conflict have grown dramatically in recent years, including peasant organizations, indigenous and Afro-Honduran movements, human rights monitoring groups, environmental groups, women’s groups, an anti-militarization movement, and student groups, as well as three major labor federations. A series of strikes, blockages of major highways, and land seizures occurred over the past year as civil society became increasingly mobilized.
The second factor which could tip the balance is how firmly the United States comes down in support for democracy. Obama has at times been clear in his support for the legal process, declaring, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there.” Recognizing larger implications of this stance, he added, “It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backward into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections.”
Still, it was a full week before the United States announced it would slash aid to Honduras, and there have been no imminent signs of tougher sanctions. Unlike most Latin American countries, the United States has not withdrawn its ambassador from Tegucigalpa.
The United States, which hosts a U.S. Southern Command task force at the Soto Cano Airbase, 50 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa, exerts enormous influence on Honduras. Therefore, the pressure pro-democracy forces in the United States can bring to bear upon our government may prove as crucial as the efforts of brave pro-democracy forces within Honduras.
The United States and Bolivia: The Taming of a Revolution
Latin American Perspectives Vol. 28 No. 5 (September 1, 2001): 33-49