Friday, July 3, 2009

Honduras President Zelaya Faces Acid Test

Accompanied by OAS head José Miguel Insulza, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Ecuadorian leader Rafael Correa, and Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, the Nicaraguan president of the UN General Assembly and enjoying the support of international opinion and working class solidarity around the world, Honduras President Manuel Zelaya returns home today to a hero's welcome.

The military putsch has lost steam in the face of massive local protests and the ruling elite backed by the men in uniform have developed cold feet. The show of support from the OAS and the UN has been joined by a series of moves by governments in Latin America and Europe as well as international bodies aimed at isolating the new regime in Honduras and intensifying pressure on it.

Ten Latin American countries have withdrawn their ambassadors, as well as Spain, France and Italy. The World Bank announced that it was suspending all loans to Honduras. The country’s Central American neighbours - Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador - said they were cutting off all overland trade.

The Obama administration has officially joined, albeit reluctantly, in condemning the coup and calling for Zelaya’s reinstatement - US representatives participated in the votes at the OAS and the UN - but it has signalled its hostility to Zelaya. The 56-year-old land owner and logging baron, who was elected in 2005 as the candidate of the bourgeois establishment Liberal Party, has won the enmity of Washington in recent years by adopting a populist posture and allying himself with Venezuela President Hugo Chávez.

The US has refrained from formally declaring Zelaya’s ouster a “coup,” a designation that would, under US laws, require Washington to cut off military aid to the country and impose sanctions. Nor has it recalled its ambassador. But Washington said it is putting aid to Honduras "on hold".

There is ample evidence that the Obama administration was deeply involved in plans by Zelaya’s opponents within the Honduran ruling elite - sections of business, the military, the political establishment and the Church - to destabilize or topple his government.

The New York Times on Tuesday cited an unnamed US official as saying that US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon and US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens spoke to “military officials and opposition leaders” in the days before the coup.

He said, “There was talk of how they might remove the president from office, how he could be arrested, on whose authority they could do that.” Both Shannon and Llorens served under the Bush administration as top advisers on Andean affairs - covering Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Their stints on the National Security Council and at the State Department coincided with the US-backed coup that briefly toppled Venezuela’s Chávez in 2002.

It appears that the Obama administration was seeking to effect a de facto coup, but without a direct use of the military and under the cover of constitutional legality. That would, it hoped, reverse Washington’s declining influence in Latin America and pave the way for an offensive against Chávez and his left nationalist allies in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries aligned with Venezuela in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

Since Sunday’s coup, Washington has been working for a negotiated settlement between Zelaya and the new government, possibly involving restoring Zelaya to power, but on terms more favourable to the US and under conditions where Zelaya’s government would be politically crippled.

As Kevin Casas-Zamora, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former vice president of Costa Rica, told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re talking about a guy who is at odds with virtually every institution and political actor in the country. He won’t be able to govern.”

On Tuesday, following his speech before the UN, Zelaya made a concession to Washington, telling reporters that if returned to office he would abandon his plans for a constitutional assembly and declaring that he would not seek a second term when his tenure expires in January. He also thanked the Obama administration for its “support.”

The Obama administration is attempting to maintain a façade of support for democracy in Honduras in part because of the political difficulties it would face were it to openly back a military coup there while conducting a propaganda war against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad based on unsubstantiated allegations that he “stole” that country’s June 12 election. Moreover, it wants to avoid a debacle for the US similar to that which the Bush administration suffered as a result of its open support for the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela.

The real attitude of US imperialism to democracy in Honduras and the rest of Latin America is revealed in the virtual silence of the US media on the events unfolding in the impoverished country. Virtually no coverage is being given to the repression being carried out by the coup regime, or the ongoing resistance of workers and other opponents of the coup.

Government ministers have been arrested and beaten. If you leave your home after 9pm, the population have been told, you risk being shot. Tanks and tear gas are ranged against the protesters who have thronged on to the streets.

For the people of Latin America, this is a replay of their September 11. On that day in Chile in 1973, Salvador Allende – a peaceful democratic socialist who was steadily redistributing wealth to the poor majority – was bombed from office and forced to commit suicide.

He was replaced by a self-described "fascist", General Augusto Pinochet, who went on to "disappear" tens of thousands of innocent people. The coup was plotted in Washington DC, by Henry Kissinger.

The official excuse for killing Chilean democracy was that Allende was a “communist”. He was not. In fact, he was killed because he was threatening the interests of US and Chilean mega-corporations by shifting the country's wealth and land from them to its own people.

When Salvador Allende's widow died last week, she seemed like a symbol from another age – and then, a few days later, the Honduras military coup came back.

Honduras is a small country in Central America with only seven million inhabitants, but it has embarked on a programme of growing democracy of its own. In 2005, Zelaya ran promising to help the country's poor majority – and he kept his word. He increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent, saying sweatshops were no longer acceptable and “the rich must pay their share”.

The tiny elite at the top – who own 45 per cent of the country's wealth – are horrified. They are used to having Honduras run by them, for them. But this wave of redistributing wealth to the population is washing over Latin America.

In the barrios and favelas (shanty towns made out of mud and rusted tin) now have doctors and teachers and subsidised supermarkets for the first time, because they elected leaders who have turned the spigot of oil money in their direction.

In Venezuela, for example, the poorest half of the country has seen its incomes soar by 130 per cent after inflation since they chose Hugo Chavez as their President, according to studies cited by the Nobel Prize-winning US economist Joseph Stiglitz. Infant mortality has plummeted. No wonder so many Latin American countries are inspired by this example: the notion that Chavez has to “bribe” or “brainwash” people like Zelaya is bizarre.

It was always inevitable that the people at the top would fight back to preserve their unearned privilege. In 2002, the Venezuelan oligarchy conspired with the Bush administration in the kidnapping of Hugo Chavez. It was only a massive democratic uprising of the people that forced his return.

Now they have tried the same in Honduras. Yet the military-business nexus have invented a propaganda-excuse that is being eagerly repeated by dupes across the Western world. The generals claim they have toppled the democratically elected leader and arrested his ministers to save democracy. Here's how it happened.

Honduras has a constitution that was drawn up in 1982, by the oligarchy, under supervision from the outgoing military dictatorship. It states that the President can only serve only one term, while the military remains permanent and “independent” – in order to ensure they remain the real power in the land.

Zelaya believed this was a block on democracy, and proposed a referendum to see if the people wanted to elect a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. It could curtail the power of the military, and perhaps allow the President to run for re-election.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that it is unconstitutional to hold a binding referendum within a year of a presidential election. So Zelaya proposed holding a non-binding referendum instead, just to gauge public opinion. This was perfectly legal.

The military – terrified of the verdict of the people – then marched in with their guns. But there has been progress since the days of 1973, or even 2002. The coups against Allende and Chavez were eagerly backed by the CIA and White House.

But this time, Barack Obama has said: “We believe the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras.” He called the coup “a terrible precedent.” His reaction wasn't perfect: unlike France and Spain, he didn't withdraw the US Ambassador yet.

He supports the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which are vast brakes on Latin American democracy, and he bad-mouths Chavez while arming the genuinely abusive Colombian government. But it is a vast improvement on Bush and McCain, who would have been mistily chorusing “We are all Honduran Generals now.”

The ugliest face of the Latin American oligarchy is now standing alone against the world, showing its contempt for democracy and for its own people. They are fighting to preserve the old continent where all the wealth goes to them at the end of a machine gun.

But history is against them. The revolution in Latin America is unstoppable.

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