The recent street rebellions against the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran were touted by many as the first baptism-by-fire of Twitter as a political tool. Celebratory articles abounded for a brief time, before such foolish dreams came crashing back to earth under the weight of a metric ton of misinformation, unsubstantiated rumor, and idle gossip.
…And the Tweeters Fell Silent
Any Iranian foolish to put her hopes in this most fickle of constituencies that is the Tweeter must have begun to doubt the wisdom of such an approach as short attention spans inevitably set in and, most devastatingly of all, the death of Michael Jackson stole the headlines. Ahmadinejad couldn’t have planned it better if he had offed MJ himself (in cahoots, perhaps, with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, the other clear beneficiary of Jackson’s untimely demise). Indeed, the Iranian dissidents were the biggest losers of the day, suffering an even worse fate than Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Billy Mays, condemned to historical oblivion by sheer bad timing. But to this list of those suffering from the technophiles’ abandonment of their brief flirtation with the political, we must now add Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, legitimately elected president of Honduras, recently deposed in a barefaced military coup from the far right.
Zelaya, a former centrist who has recently made leftward moves, raised the ire of the entrenched Honduran oligarchy by, among other things, joining the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a radical counterpoint to U.S.-promoted free trade agreements. His overthrow has been followed by a press blackout, military curfew, and repression in the streets, as hundreds of thousands have rallied to the cause of their former leader, only to meet an iron heel reminiscent of Honduran military regimes of the past (dodging bullets in the street, as the magnificent BoRev puts it, “is sort of like Twittering, for poor people”). There have been mass arrests, injuries, and deaths, but some exceptions notwithstanding, these Hondurans are nevertheless, to quote one observer, “Protesters We Don’t Tweet About.”
Following the Venezuelan Blueprint
Comparison to the April 2002 coup against Chávez seems obvious to many. For Kiraz Janicke, for example, the move against Zelaya constitutes a “carbon copy” of the earlier coup, while Atilio Boron calls it a “repeat” of Chávez’s brief ouster. Certainly, Zelaya is no Chávez, and as we will see, Obama is certainly no Bush, but especially in light of efforts on the liberal left to deny any similarity, it is worthwhile nevertheless laying out the striking parallels between the strategies adopted by the Honduran golpistas and their Venezuelan counterparts:
The faithful media sows the seeds: in both Venezuela 2002 and Honduras 2009, the national and international media prepared the ground for an eventual coup by distorting the truth and calling into question the democratic credentials of the president. In Honduras, this has taken the form of misrepresenting Zelaya’s constitutional proposal as a re-election bid, a line which was and continues to be shamelessly pushed in the media, when the referendum question had nothing to do with re-election at all, but was instead a completely legal mandate to transforming the existing constitution (itself a holdover from the far-right governments of the 1980s). Some nominally of the left repeated this tasty morsel of misinformation, while Fox News’ Shep Smith argued today that not only had Zelaya sought to extend his term, but to do so would have been “treasonous” (an interesting perspective on constitutional amendments, to say the least).
A coup which is not a coup: in both Venezuela 2002 and Honduras 2009, every effort was and is being made to deny that what is happening is actually a coup (here the preceding media efforts really pay off). It was not the military gorilas who violated democratic norms, we are told, it was the democratically elected president who brought this on himself by undermining the “established institutions.” Here, of course, there is no mention of the origins these institutions have in military government, or the far-right partisan bias with which the Congress and Supreme Court declared the non-binding constitutional referendum illegal. In Venezuela, this even led to a situation in which, after Chávez’s return, the Supreme Court ruled that what had occurred was not a coup, but instead a “power vacuum” into which the military and the far right just conveniently stepped.
Cartoons and soap operas conceal repression: both coups were followed by an immediate and total press blackout by the elite, oligarchic media outlets. News of the national crisis gave way unexpectedly, and in an undeniably Kafkaesque manner, to reruns of cartoons and soap operas. An effort to put a lid on the brewing resistance, to be sure, but it does little when the smell of burning tires is already in the air and established popular organizations are communicating by text message. For those not responding to the calming effect of mindless programming, hegemony gives way to domination and live ammunition will have to suffice.
A fake letter of resignation: in an effort not so much to convince detractors as to give supporters a less embarrassing explanation of events, coup leaders produced a resignation letter allegedly written and signed by Zelaya. The only problem? Zelaya was still very much alive to deny that he had ever written such a letter (and the wonderful BoRev.net adds the insightful observation that, had Zelaya actually resigned, he might have changed out of his pajamas before boarding a flight to Costa Rica).
A botched timeline reveals premeditation: when sniper deaths at a march sparked the Venezuelan crisis in 2002, the military high command released a videotaped statement denouncing the government very quickly, almost too quickly. As it turned out, the statement, complete with a nearly-accurate death count, was filmed ahead of time, strongly suggesting the premeditated massacre occurred at opposition hands. In Honduras, this has not been quite so dramatic, but the message is the same: the fake resignation letter allegedly signed by Zelaya was dated three days prior to the coup.
But speaking of premeditation, we come to arguably the most important similarity, one which has been controversial in recent days, as liberal/leftist supporters of Obama bend over backwards to reinforce their waning “hope” in the final days of the post-electoral honeymoon: the covert U.S. role in the coup.
Dissecting the U.S. Response
Previously resigned Obamaphiles, desperate to grasp at any shred of proof suggesting that they were right to get high on hope and expect imminent change, are closing ranks around their government and insisting that the U.S. government’s response to the Honduran coup is proof positive of such change. Some even go so far as to claim that the Obama administration’s support for Zelaya has been “unambiguous,” adding that “complaints that Washington hasn’t acted fast enough to denounce the Honduran coup are silly and ignorant on the face of them.”
Let’s be clear: no one is saying that U.S. foreign policy is the same under Obama as under Bush, but nor did we expect them to be. Rather, we expected things to look very different while maintaining an underlying continuity. And for anyone who looks closely, Washington’s response to the Honduran coup has been the definition of ambiguity, and such knee-jerk reactions to criticism simply fail to explain the subtle progression of this response, and moreover willfully neglect the subtleties and nuances that State Department officials and Obama himself have deployed. Let’s lay this out briefly:
On Sunday, at a meeting with narco-terrorist Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, Obama issued the following carefully-worded statement:
“I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”
Such a purposefully-vague statement was meant to communicate a wait-and-see approach: yes, we are “deeply concerned,” but what’s done is done and we must now work toward the reestablishment of “democratic norms.” The implication is clear: fascistic coup leaders are quite capable of leading a transition back toward the very same democracy they attacked, and the United States is still hoping to avoid Zelaya’s return.
Some commentators were understandably perplexed when the text of a conference call with unnamed “Senior State Department Officials” was released later Sunday, claiming that the United States recognizes only Zelaya as the legitimate leader of Honduras, while implying that the State Department would be calling for his return via an OAS resolution. But the sharp disconnect between this statement and Obama’s vagaries would only deepen when Secretary of State Clinton stepped into the fray, contradicting claims by both the president and the unnamed senior officials by insisting that the U.S. is not currently classifying events in Honduras as a coup and is not yet demanding Zelaya’s return, but only a vague return to democratic normalcy.
This, of course was another hedge, allowing the State Department leeway both to negotiate with and carry on business as usual with the coup regime were it to remain and to pressure Zelaya for a conditional return. As to the former, the U.S. seems unwilling to take the risk of cutting direct aid to Honduras, a legal requirement if a “coup” is declared. The latter is arguably more important: the State Department under Clinton most certainly did not support Zelaya’s efforts to radically challenge entrenched elites through a constitutional reform, and will likely pressure him to return humbled and defanged, with no such transformative aspirations.
John Negroponte, for one, sees things this way, arguing that Clinton “wants to preserve some leverage to try and get Zelaya to back down from his insistence on a referendum.” And when it comes to containing and undermining Central American leftists, few know the playbook by heart like Negroponte, who as U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the Contra wars personally oversaw both death squads and the drug trade. Indeed, against all the left-liberal defenders of the Obama administration, it was probably Mara Liason who was closest to the truth when, speaking as one of three panelists on Fox News (all of whom, incidentally, support the coup), argued that:
“I think they are perfectly happy with the outcome… Now, I think it’s the correct public diplomacy and policy to say, of course we’re for the democratically elected president and we don’t like coups in Latin America, but when all the dust settles, they will be perfectly happy to work with this new guy. They are not working to get Zelaya back into power… This is the outcome the United States would have preferred, this is not the method they would want to publicly condone.”
This is the iron fist with a velvet glove: while it may feel softer, it’s as “interventionist” as ever.
But all this aside, what is truly shocking is that the government is being taken at its word in the first place. Here, the White House and State Department functions as a stand-in for the U.S. state as a whole, obscuring an entire history of underhanded interventionism, especially from the CIA. Few have sought more insistently to reveal this dark underside of U.S. interventionism in Latin America than Eva Golinger, whose legal efforts to demand the release of government documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed the true extent of the Bush administration’s role in the 2002 coup against Chávez (published in The Chávez Code). Golinger, who has been liveblogging the coup as it has progressed, describes a situation in which it would be utterly implausible to assume the United States government was not at least passively involved:
“The United States maintains a military base in Soto Cano, Honduras, that houses approximately 500 soldiers and special forces. The U.S. military group in Honduras is one of the largest in U.S. Embassies in the region. The leaders of the coup today are graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas, a training camp for dictators and repressive forces in Latin America…The US Military Group in Honduras trains around 300 Honduran soldiers every year, provides more than $500,000 annually to the Honduran Armed Forces and additionally provides $1.4 million for a military education and exchange program for around 300 more Honduran soldiers every year.”
As Greg Grandin described the situation on Democracy Now!: “The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government… if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it’s Honduras… So if the U.S. is opposed to this coup going forward, it won’t go forward.” To which we could add Jeremy Scahill’s response: “Obama and the US military could likely have halted this coup with a simple series of phone calls,” or, we might add, by threatening to pull funding (which now, even after the coup, they seem unwilling to do). When we consider the leverage the U.S. enjoys in Honduras, claims by the Obama administration that they attempted to prevent the coup border on the absurd. Even more absurd, however, are efforts to defend the continued funding of a coup regime as “progress.”
Giordano’s “Fact” Fetish
Here, unfortunately, the frequently admirable Al Giordano of Narco News falls deeply into contradiction. For some inexplicable reason, Giordano has in recent weeks adopted as his modus operandi the flimsiest of pop psychology, first diagnosing those expressing any hesitancy whatsoever about the Iranian rebellion as suffering a profound case of Cold War nostalgia, before then transposing this same exact argument onto those critical of the Obama administration’s response to Zelaya’s ouster. Setting his sights on Golinger in particular, who he accuses of “screeching” about the U.S. bogeyman, “not operating with a full deck of cards,” and “crying wolf” to fool the masses (an accusation which is sharply at odds with his description of aloof leftists who have lost their Cold War coordinates and simply can’t figure things out), Giordano concludes with astounding self-seriousness: “In this hour, those that adhere strictly to the documented facts are those that are showing character worth trusting, today and into the future.”
But Giordano’s contradictory rhetoric of “documented facts” would have prevented him from accurately understanding the Venezuelan coup of 2002 (since the “facts” were very much contested), and especially the U.S. role. Such things are not advertised, and required the painstaking legal work of Golinger herself to reveal. Were it not for Golinger’s departure from the “documented facts” parroted by press and government alike, we would never have known what happened in April 2002. As Golinger herself puts it: much like today in Honduras, “during the April 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela, the State Department also claimed it knew of the coup and tried to ‘stop’ it. Later, in my investigations, it was discovered through documents from State and CIA declassified under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that CIA, State and other US agencies, funded, supported, advised and armed the coup leaders.”
When in 2002 we insisted that the CIA was involved, would Giordano have accused us of “crying wolf”? When we questioned the established facts and sought to painstakingly establish our own, would he have sat us on the couch to psychoanalyze our “Cold War nostalgia”? But of course, Giordano did not follow his own advice in 2002. If we are to understand what happens, we need to approach the “documented facts” from a more critical (dare I say, dialectical?) perspective. We need to draw on our historical understanding, on our grasp of the forces in play, and insistently create our own facts and truths. Otherwise, we’ll always be one step behind the enemy, and unwittingly attacking our comrades.
As it stands, the coup against Zelaya seems to be running out of steam. Zelaya has announced he will return to Honduras after the OAS ultimatum expires in 72 hours, and flanked by heads of state and OAS head José Miguel Insulza no less, while the coup leaders insist that he will be arrested on sight. Social movements are mobilized, and some army battalions are refusing to accept the coup government. Unless they are prepared to take the low road of outright repression, it seems likely that the coup leaders will need to crawl back into their hole and wait for the next manufactured crisis.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley. He is currently completing a book entitled We Created Him: A People’s History of the Bolivarian Revolution, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.