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Latin America Asks: Are the Gorillas Back?

After the Honduran Coup

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City.

The June 28th coup d’etat in Honduras that toppled leftist president Mel Zelaya sends us back to the bad old days of the "gorillas" – generals and strongmen who overthrew each other with reckless abandon and the tacit complicity of Washington.

Perched on a hillside in the Mexican outback, we would tune in to these "golpes de estado", as they are termed in Latin America, on our Zenith Transoceanic short wave.  First, a harried announcer would report rumors of troop movement and the imposition of a "toque de queda" (curfew.)  Hours of dead air (and probably dead announcers) would follow and then the martial music would strike up, endless tape loops of military marches and national anthems.  Within a few days, the stations would be back up as if nothing had happened.  Only the names of the generals who ruled the roost had changed. 

Guatemala was the Central American republic par excelencia for such "golpes."  Perhaps the most memorable was the overthrow of General Jacobo Arbenz by Alan Dulles’s CIA in 1954 after Arbenz sought to expropriate and distribute unused United Fruit land.  Like Mel Zelaya, the general was shaken rudely awake by soldiers and booted out of the country in his underwear. 

Coups in Guatemala continued unabated throughout the 1970s and ’80s.  General Efrain Rios Montt, the first Evangelical dictator in Latin America, who had come to power in a coup himself, was overthrown in 1983 by the equally bloodthirsty Romeo Lucas, a much-decorated general.  In 1993, the Guatemalan military brought down civilian president Jorge Elias Serrano, the last gasp of the Gorillas until Zelaya was deposed last week.  It has been 15 years since the generals had risen in arms in Central America.

Zelaya’s overthrow has stimulated generalized revulsion throughout the world.  The Organization of American States, the General Assembly of the United Nations, the European Union, virtually every regional organization in the Western Hemisphere, and the presidents of 33 Latin American republics have condemned the Honduran Gorillas – yet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can’t quite get her plumped-up lips around the word "coup", preferring to describe the low-jinx in Tegucigalpa as an "interruption of democracy" or some such euphemistic flapdoodle. 

One wonders what descriptives Hillary would have deployed if she and Bill had been aroused from a deep snooze in the White House master bedroom on a Sunday morning by gun-toting troops and put on the first plane for Ottawa in their pajamas?

Why is Clinton so reluctant to label the Honduran military coup a coup? Because such nomenclature automatically triggers a U.S. aid cut-off through which Washington subsidizes the very same Honduran gorillas who facilitated Zelaya’s overthrow – $66 million of U.S. taxpayers’ money is programmed for 2010 to this end.  Unlike Washington, both the World Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank have suspended payouts to the coup plotters.

The U.S. works in cozy cahoots with the Honduran military.  Honduras sent a contingent to Iraq as part of George Bush’s Coalition of the Willing.  Coup leader Romeo Orlando Vazquez and at least two other officers who participated in Zelaya’s overthrow are School of Americas’ graduates – according to School of Americas’ Watch, the "coup school", as it is called by opponents, once produced two generals who returned to Honduras and overthrew each other. Nearly a thousand Honduran officers were trained in the U.S. under the IMET program in 2005-06, the last year for which numbers are available. The Pentagon calculates that the camaraderie between U.S. and Honduran military officers developed during such training enlists valuable collaborators for a generation.  In fact, these U.S.-trained assets threatened to scramble U.S. super light F5 fighter jets to prevent Zelaya from landing in Tegucigalpa a week after the coup.

In collaboration with the gorillas, Washington maintains an advance airbase in the country at Soto Cano (formerly Palmarola) with 500 troops under the direction of the U.S. South Command on the ground at all times on the pretext of fighting the War on Drugs and Terrorism. 

Gregorio Seltzer, the late great historian of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, described Honduras as "a county for rent" and from the 1920s on, United Fruit rented this impoverished nation of 7.2 million, transforming Honduras into the quintessential Banana Republic.  During the 1980s with revolutions raging in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua, the CIA rented Honduras as a platform for counter-insurgency.  The Nicaraguan Contras’ supply lines began at Palmarola.  More discreet intelligence operations were housed at Puerto Castilla where suspected insurgents were reportedly tortured, dismembered, and fed to the crocodiles. 

The nerve center for U.S. counter-insurgency in Honduras was Washington’s embassy in Tegucigalpa, then under the thumb of the notorious John Negroponte, known throughout the Americas as the gringos’ "pro-consul". Negroponte, of course, went on to become George Bush’s Intelligence capo de tutti capos.  Events in Honduras suggest that he is still pushing buttons. 

Latin American leftists often refer to the Central American country as "The U.S.S. Honduras."  Perpetual susceptibility to manipulation by Washington was perhaps best encapsulated by former president Jose Azcona (1986-90): "we are too small and too poor to afford the luxury of dignity." 

Honduras is in fact the second poorest country in Latin America, a few degrees behind Haiti where the poor eat mud cakes for lunch.  Things went from "Guatemala to Guatapejor" as they say in Central America ("from bad to worse") in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which leveled the region in October 1998. Hundreds of thousands of jobless refugees took to the roads headed for El Norte to escape the devastation of their homelands.  Nearly a million Hondurans are thought to have made it to the U.S., a seventh of the nation’s population.  Many poured into New Orleans, a traditional landing spot for Hondurans, where they found slave labor employment in the Katrina clean up.  Remittances from relatives working in the U.S. are Hondurans’ chief source of revenues.

Meanwhile back on the homefront, violence driven by unemployed youth holds the country in thrall. Over 30,000 Mara Salvatrucha gang members have turned the streets of Tegoosh and San Pedro Sula into an inferno.  86 perished in a Mara-induced prison riot in 2003 under Zelaya’s predecessor Ricardo Maduro, one of the most deadly prison uprisings in Latin America annals, and 28 women and children were mowed down in a hail of gunfire when the Maras attacked a San Pedro Sula city bus in 2004.

The scion of a prosperous cattle ranching family from the north of the country with ties to the gorilla class, Mel Zelaya is an unlikely champion of the poor – during the anti-guerrilla campaigns of the 1980s, human rights workers claim that suspects were burnt alive in bread ovens on one of the family’s haciendas.  Backed by the Catholic Church and the oligarchy, Zelaya won high office in 2006 as the candidate of the right-wing Liberal Party – Honduras has two hegemonic parties, the Liberals and the Nationals, which take turns repressing the populace. 

An early advocate of CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement that annexes the economies of the region to Washington, Zelaya beat back protests by labor unions, farmers’ organizations such as Via Campesina, and the left Bloque Popular.  During 36 months in office, Mel Zelaya navigated through two general strikes and 771 social conflicts, according to data assembled by Mexican columnist (La Jornada) Luis Hernandez Navarro who contends that the president’s flipflops did not inspire much enthusiasm for him on the Honduran left, despite his increasingly radical pronouncements, a flaw that proved fatal.  With congress and the military bitterly opposed to Zelaya’s leftwards tack, the Honduran president’s room for maneuvering was undercut by mistrust from down below.       

Cheap oil was apparently what first attracted Zelaya to Hugo Chavez and the new Latin Left.  Under the San Jose Pact, Venezuela distributes low-priced petroleum to Central American and Caribbean governments (including Cuba) and Honduras was an eager beneficiary.

In recent years, Mel Zelaya has been a frequent guest of Comandante Chavez, appearing side by side up on the podiums with Big Hugo, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Raul Castro, and his government has joined the ALBA, Chavez’s Bolivarian alternative to CAFTA and NAFTA.

Mel Zelaya’s swing to the left did not much please the highly venal oligarchy that controls the Honduran Congress. Obligated to Washington via commercial and military pacts, the impresarios and gorillas who comprise that less-than-august body did their duty and  tossed out their Chavez-loving president.  In the words of Samuel Zemurray, owner of the United Fruit predecessor in another century: "I can buy the Honduran legislature for less than I can buy a mule."

Mel Zelaya’s forcible removal from power was set in motion by a proposed popular consultation asking voters whether or not they favored rewriting the Honduran constitution, a document that heavily serves the interests of the oligarchy.  If the yes vote carried, the measure would have been placed on the upcoming November 29h ballot. 

At this writing, a week into the coup, it appears that those elections are on hold.  All civil liberties have been suspended by the gorilla government of Roberto Micheletti and a witch-hunt of "communists" and foreigners instigated – the military urges citizens to report suspicious types speaking in "foreign accents" and dozens of purported Nicaraguans and Venezuelans have been arrested.  Micheletti and his goons have sworn out an Interpol arrest warrant for Zelaya alleging drug dealing among other criminal acts.

Although Zelaya’s proposed constitutional reform was multi-faceted and included such items as agrarian reform (anathema to the oligarchy), CNN and the New York Times et al fixated on the Honduran president’s intentions to write “re-election” into the nation’s Magna Carta.  Similarly, presidential re-election has been incorporated in constitutional reforms recently passed in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. 

But reforming constitutions to allow for re-election is not just the property of the left. Having rewritten Colombia’s constitution twice, right-wing president Alvaro Uribe is now looking at a third term in office.  Indeed, the U.S. electoral process is motored by the possibility of presidential re-election.

U.S. involvement in the Honduran coup remains veiled but clearly Washington had prior knowledge that Mel Zelaya’s overthrow was in the wings. For Barack Obama who, like Zelaya, aspires to re-election, the Honduras uproar represents his baptism in Latin American upheaval.  Informed of Zelaya’s ousting while hosting Colombia’s Uribe at the White House, El Baracko stumbled through a sparsely worded condemnation. In response, the gorillas’ new foreign minister Enrique Ortez called Obama "a negrito (black boy) who knows nothing." 

Perhaps the U.S. president would not have been so constrained in his comments had he perused the volume gifted him by Hugo Chavez during a recent Latin American summit.  Eduardo Galeano’s "The Open Veins of Latin America" chronicles centuries of U.S. intervention in the Americas in precise detail.  Nonetheless, Obama’s chief spokesperson Robert Gibbs characterized the book as "a work of fiction."

The key question for Latin America is whether Honduras is a nostalgic aberration or a whiff of what’s in the wind for newly left regimes throughout the hemisphere?  Certainly, the Honduran scenario must excite the current generation of the gorilla class.  But making a coup is mostly a function of the strength of alliances between the military and the oligarchy and how closely their interests coincide.  Coup-making in Latin America in 2009 is also very site-specific.

In Bolivia, for example, a nation that suffered 193 violent changes of government between liberation from Spain in 1835 and 1981 when civil rule was restored (the two presidents prior to Evo Morales were overthrown by popular rebellion), threats by right-wing, white landowners in the lowland "media luna" provinces to secede from this dirt-poor Andean nation have had faint scratch with the military, largely a highland Indian army.   

Similarly, although Venezuela has an active right-wing oligarchy that appears to be active in the Honduras "golpe", the military was neutralized by the short-lived 2002 coup to unseat Hugo Chavez engineered out of the U.S. Caracas embassy by Bush henchman Otto Reich, that was foiled when a million citizens descended on the presidential palace to demand the return of the kidnapped Chavez, himself a failed coup plotter.  

In the southern cone, Argentina has a resurgent right-wing but the military remains so discredited by the memory of the 1976-79 "dirty war" in which 30,000 leftists were thrown to their death from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean that a coup remains out of sync with reality.  Ditto in Chile where a new Pinochet will not emerge any time soon.

In other newly left countries like Ecuador (where the army has sometimes sided with the left) and Paraguay, now governed by the former liberation bishop Fernando Lugo, father of at least two, the military is unpredictable and the emergence of civil society serves to counterbalance residual right-wing sympathies.

Perhaps the most likely proscenium for a Honduras-like "golpe" remains coup-prone Guatemala where military gorillas thrive, right-wing death squads enjoy unbridled impunity, and the civil society is weak.  History, in fact, points in this direction – Alvaro Colum is the first president to be elected from a left-wing party since Jacobo Arbenz who, 55 years ago, was forced to flee Guatemala in his underwear.  

JOHN ROSS will present "Iraqigirl" (Haymarket Books) at Modern Times in San Francisco July 30th.  Ross developed and edited the new volume, a coming-of-age diary of an Iraqi teenager growing up under U.S. occupation that has been called "An Anne Frank for our times." He can be reached at: johnross@igc.org