Whom the gods would destroy, Part One: The Crisis in Honduras

Introduction: Antecedents. The expulsion of President Zelaya of Honduras and the "politics of destruction" deployed against Bill Clinton both represented illegitimate attempts to remove popular progressive political leaders. In each case, a few very wealthy men employed a campaign of defamation, amplified by media under their influence or control, to weaken the Executive. The attacks were characterized by wild accusations against the Presidents of involvement in drugs, financial crimes, and lust for power, as well as by a tone of exaggerated anti-communism.

Using control of the Congress and highly-politicized courts, a pseudo-legal process was used to accuse the Presidents of civil crimes and eventually to initiate proceedings to remove them from office. In the case of Honduras, a military coup was used to complete the process of usurpation of power. This politics of seizing power by creating a furor based on falsehoods has rendered both nations incapable of solving major problems that are tending toward economic, social, and ecological collapse.

This diary is the first of a well-documented multi-part series.

(Crossposted at DailyKos as a diary by my MR co-blogger Charles Utwater.)

Whom the gods would destroy, part 1

                       By Charles Utwater II

"[O]ur power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

– Barack Obama, inaugural address [1]  

Antecedents to the Coup. As Barack Obama took office, we were told that he would replace the clumsy unilateralism of George W. Bush with "smart power" [2], in which military power would serve as a last resort to the use of diplomatic and economic soft power [3]. According to Joseph Nye, Jr., a bipartisan consensus had developed that "the U.S. had to move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope." And yet the United States has now blindly plunged into a dangerous and hubris-drenched adventure in Honduras that will damage US credibility and power for a generation.

    Most Americans could not locate Honduras on a map. A small and desperately poor nation of almost 8 million, its GDP is about $14B, much of that derived from humanitarian assistance and remittances from abroad [4]. It borders Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and relies on bananas, coffee, and sweatshop labor for most of its internally-generated GDP. The population is young, with a median age of 20. A substantial population of African descent arrived as slaves, and intermarried primarily with indigenous peoples to form what are called Garifunas or Black Caribs [5]. Polarization of wealth in Honduras is extreme. [6] Poverty and corruption make all of Mexico and Central America vulnerable to control by narcotics traffickers, and Honduras is no exception. Honduras was a transit point in the guns-for-narcotics trade of Iran Contra, with Oliver North stating openly in his diary, "Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S." [7]

    Honduras became known as America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier during the Contra Wars of the 1980s [8], having served as the site for repeated US interventions in the region. From Soto Cano air base, known as Palmerola to Hondurans, Contra attacks into Nicaragua caused 30,000 deaths. Many Hondurans died, were kidnapped, or were tortured at the hands of paramilitaries. Presently, Palmerola is operated as a joint US-Honduran operation, with approximately 500 troops on-site. One of the points of contention between President Manuel Zelaya and the US, as will be discussed later, had to do with the president’s plan to close Palmerola and offer the US a base in the Mosquitia area, a major transit site of much of the drug trade.  

    The militarization of Central America under American direction undermined the strength of civil society. As recently as 1991, Stephen Van Evera (presently at MIT, Department of Political Science) wrote [9],

"American ambivalence toward Third World democracy is also revealed by the thuggish character of many American Third World clients.

America’s client regimes in Central America are illustrative. The U.S.-backed governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras hold regular elections, but none pass the first test of democracy—that those elected control government policy. Instead, the army and police effectively rule all three countries; the civilian governments are hood ornaments on military vehicles of state. Civilian officials who defied the military would promptly be removed by assassination or coup. Knowing this, they obey the military. Moreover, the preconditions for fair elections-free speech, a free press, and freedom to vote, organize, and run for office-are denied by government death squads that systematically murder critics of the government."

    Subsequently, however, there was a dramatic shift. Governments of the extreme right were replaced by leftists in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and by centrists in Honduras and Guatemala. Much has been made by the likes of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages on the role of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in this swing to the left, but the reality is more complicated. The nations of Central America are intensely nationalistic.

    In Honduras, at least, Chavez is extremely unpopular, with 83% of respondents rating him unfavorably [10]. So, more likely the swing to the left has been driven by a combination of disaffection with the right and a loss of prestige of the US and its typically right-leaning allies. The US has provided mediocre leadership in disaster relief and economic development, is the proximate cause of the economic meltdown in the region, and continues to emit racially-charged rhetoric that rings loudly in Latin American ears.  

    José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, the President of Honduras, was never much of a leftist. Born the son of a prosperous rancher in the state of Olancho, he joined the Liberal Party in 1970[11]. In 1985, he was elected to Congress, and re-elected in 1989 and 1993. He served in a post with ministerial rank as Executive Director of the Social Investment Fund in the administration of President Carlos Roberto Reina Idiáquez. In 1997, he was elected to the Congress from the state of Francisco Morazán, and served beginning in 1998 in the cabinet of President Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé. Facussé had sufficient confidence in Zelaya to name him to serve as a special advisor on dealing with the devastation of Hurricane Mitch.

    In 1999, Zelaya left office to work in the private sector, but also to work internally in the party for the 2001 election, for which he hoped to be the candidate. Instead, Rafael Pineda Ponce was chosen and lost. In 2005, Zelaya was nominated. An indifferent, though charismatic orator, he ran on the slogan "Citizen Power" and other platitudes, promising to be tough on corruption. He did promise to cut the budget by 5-10%, create 400,000 private sector jobs, build 200,000 homes, get computers into schools, make graduation free for students, eliminate dengue and malaria, and stop the pillage of the forest. Zelaya won with a plurality of 49.9% of votes against National Party leader Porfirio Lobo Sosa, with turnout an abysmal 46%. The Liberal Party held a near-majority in the unicameral Congress, with 62 of 128 seats.

    A critical point to understand is that the slogan "Citizen Power" was an element of a broader discussion in the 2005 election of the need to revise the Constitution. Costa Rican President and diplomat Oscar Arias famously described the Honduran Constitution as a "monstrosity" [12], "the worst in the world [13]."

    In a little-noticed but extremely important article [14], former Defense Minister Edmundo Orellana, who is also a long-time public servant and professor of constitutional law at the National University, described the situation as follows:

"The need to review the Constitution in its entirety was put forward during the electoral campaign, because the present Constitution is a poor copy of the Constitutions of 1957 and 1965. Contradictions within it are abundant, many of its articles are written in stone, it does not allow the effective participation of citizens in the processes of deciding and solving local and national problems and, most importantly, it is not responsive to the national reality of the Twenty First Century."

    While the Honduran Constitution is indeed a mess, the disgust with it masked a broader distress with the structure of Honduran society. Polarization of wealth is so extreme that just a dozen families control almost all business in Honduras. According to Leticia Salomon [15, 16] of the University of Honduras, who has researched the matter, ten of the twelve families of the oligarchy supported the coup. Media concentration is high, and diversity of opinion slight.

    Foreign multinationals also exert considerable power. Chief among these is Chiquita [17], which was infamous in its previous incarnation as United Fruit for its role in Central American interventions. A number of oil companies and mining companies are interested in Honduras, and sweatshop operators are also major players.

    In government, critical reforms were essentially impossible to address, since the Constitution—comprised of 378 Articles—created a nearly-impassable legal thicket. The effect was not dissimilar to that of the rules of the US Senate which, at least in the hands of Democrats, make it impossible to legislate clean elections, reform the health insurance system, or punish massive fraud by investment banks. One of the central problems in the Honduran Constitution is that the Supreme Court is appointed by the Congress, so there is no real judicial independence [18]. The nominating committee is a laundry list of every special interest in Honduras.

    And yet, Zelaya received fairly high marks for governance from the US government [19, 20], with most scores being above median. He also was found to be especially cooperative in the war on drugs by the U.S. State Department [21]. Contrary to reports in the pro-coup media, both in Honduras and in the U.S., Zelaya was moderately popular. In the above-mentioned Greenburg-Quinlan-Rosner poll, as of October 2009, 67% said that he had done a good or excellent job, versus 31% who said bad or poor; 60% disapproved of the coup. This is actually higher than popularity polls conducted by CID-Gallup before the coup. The June 2008 poll, for example, showed him with 48% favorable [22] to 46% unfavorable, pretty decent for an incumbent late in his term. In February of 2007, he was at 57% (he did dip lower in approval briefly early in 2009, which is the poll cited by those who want to argue he was unpopular).

    So, why was a popular and effective president forced out of office just months from the normal conclusion of his term?

_____________________________________________________________________

Blogs you should be reading and probably aren’t:

http://www.hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com

http://www.quotha.net

    Both are written by experts with good academic credentials, extensive experience in country, contacts throughout Honduran society, and—perhaps most important—a  knowledge of history.

______________________________________________________________________

References

  1. Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, 1/21/09, http://www.whitehouse.gov/…
  1. The phrase was probably coined by Suzanne Nossel. Laura Rozen, Foreign Policy: The Cable 1/14/09,  The Origins of Smart Power, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/…
  1. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., LA Times, 1/21/09, The US Can Reclaim Smart Power,   http://www.latimes.com/…
  1. CIA Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/…
  1. Garifuna website http://www.garifuna.com/
  1. UN Human Development Reports, http://hdr.undp.org/…
  1. The Oliver North File, National Security Archive, 2/26/04, http://www.gwu.edu/…
  1. Alex Sánchez, Honduras Becomes U.S. Military Foothold in Central America, NACLA, 11/16/06, https://nacla.org/…
  1. Stephen Van Evera, American Intervention in the Third World. Less would be better, Boston Review, 1991, http://bostonreview.net/…
  1. Greenburg-Quinlan-Rosner, Honduras Frequency Questionnaire (October 9-13, 2009), 10/09, http://www.gqrr.com/…
  1. Centro de Estudios Internacionales de Barcelona, 1/3/09 updated 9/1/09, (Roberto Ortiz de Zárate, ed.) http://www.cidob.org/…  (This paragraph and the one that follows are drawn essentially entirely from this source).
  1. Unsigned, Candidatos desilusionados con declaraciones de Arias, Tiempo, 10/3/09, http://www.tiempo.hn/…
  1. Greg Grandin, Honduran Coup Regime in Crisis, 10/8/09, The Nation, http://www.thenation.com/…
  1. Edmundo Orellana, Coup D’état in Honduras. A Juridical Analysis, http://quotha.net/…
  1. Unsigned, ¡Conozca las diez familias que financiaron el golpe de Estado en Honduras!, El Libertador, 8/6/09 http://ellibertador.hn/…
  1. Decio Machado interview, Quiénes apoyan al gobierno ilegítimo de Roberto Micheletti, 9/30/09, Rebelion http://www.rebelion.org/…
  1. Larry Rohter, Honduras Journal: Where Banana Was King, Workers Fight Evictions, New York Times, 22 July 1996, http://www.nytimes.com/…
  1. See Article 311 of the Constitution. Honduran Political Constitution of 1982 through 2005 reforms, http://pdba.georgetown.edu/…
  1. Bill Conroy, Honduran President Zelaya earns high marks for governance, U.S. agency scorecard shows, 11/21/09, Narconews, http://narcosphere.narconews.com/…
  1. Millenium Challenge Corp. Country Indicator Data for 2010 http://www.mcc.gov/…
  1. Peter J. Meyer and Mark P. Sullivan, Honduran-U.S. Relations, 6/8/09, Congressional Research Service RL34027, http://fpc.state.gov/…
  1. Unsigned, President Zelaya Keeps Positive Balance, CID-Gallup Poll, 6/08, http://www.cidgallup.com/…

© 2009 Charles Utwater II

(This is included simply to permit the publication of this elsewhere)  

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