Liberals who have idealized Obama don’t want to believe that their President is capable of bullish behavior towards Latin America. It was Bush, they say, who epitomized arrogant U.S.-style imperialism and not the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Recent events in Central America however force us to look at the Obama administration in a sobering new light. While it’s unclear whether Obama had advance warning of an imminent military coup d’etat in Honduras the White House has not emerged from the Zelaya affair unsullied.
In December, 2008, even before his inauguration, Obama received an irate letter from Honduran president Manuel Zelaya demanding an end to arrogant and interventionist U.S. ambassadors in Tegucigalpa. Just eight months earlier American ambassador Hugo Llorens had taken on the government by making inflammatory remarks. During a press conference the diplomat declared that Zelaya’s move to rewrite the constitution was “a Honduran matter and it’s a delicate matter to comment on as a foreign diplomat.” But then, contradicting himself and inserting himself into the volatile political milieu, Llorens remarked that “one can’t violate the constitution to create a constitution, because if you don’t have a constitution the law of the jungle reigns.”
If Obama was serious about restoring U.S. moral credibility world-wide he might have cleaned house by removing Bush appointees such as Llorens. An émigré from Castro’s Cuba, Llorens worked as an Assistant Treasurer at Chase Manhattan Bank before entering the Foreign Service. As Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Policy and Summit Coordination in the State Department during Clinton-time, he played an important role in spearheading the corporately-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA. But it was chiefly during the Bush years that Llorens distinguished himself, serving as the Director of Andean Affairs at the National Security Council. At the NSC, Llorens was the most important advisor to Bush and Condoleezza Rice on matters pertaining to Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
While Zelaya’s move to rewrite the Honduran constitution antagonized Llorens it also inflamed the local business elite and no doubt the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Perhaps these groups feared a Honduran repeat of the South American “Pink Tide”: across the region leftist leaders from Hugo Chávez to Rafael Correa have mobilized civil society in an effort to rewrite their respective nations’ constitutions.
Chávez’s 1999 constitution provides for some of the most comprehensive human rights provisions of any constitution in the world while also including special protection for women, indigenous peoples and the environment. The constitution moreover allows for broad citizen participation in national life. The preamble states that one of the Constitution’s goals is to establish a participatory democracy achieved through elected representatives, popular votes by referendum and, perhaps most importantly, popular mobilization. In Venezuela, it was Chávez’s constitution which helped to solidify his alliance with traditionally marginalized sectors of the population.
In Ecuador, traditional political parties and wealthy elites labeled Correa “dictatorial” after the president called for the drafting of a new constitution. In the end however a large plurality of voters approved the new 2008 constitution which provides for free universal health care, a universal right to water and prohibition of its privatization and the redistribution of large unused landholdings. Even more dramatically, the constitution declares that Ecuador is a “pacifist state” and outlaws foreign military bases on Ecuadoran soil.
As I explain in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008), there’s been a potent alliance as of late between leftist Latin leaders on the one hand and dynamic social movements on the other. In Ecuador, the main indigenous federation supported the new constitution as did organized labor. Indeed, Correa’s move to draft a new constitution could help to establish tighter links between the president and progressive social forces as per Chávez’s Venezuela.
In the media, the Honduran imbroglio has been depicted as a struggle over presidential power and term limits. But while any new constitution might have extended presidential term limits, such a reform could have also led to new progressive amendments to the law and further radicalization on the ground. In recent years Honduras has seen the emergence of a vibrant social and political scene including labor, Garifuna (Afro-Honduran people) and Indians. If Zelaya had been successful at pushing through his constitutional reform he would have been able to mobilize such groups.
What is the connection between U.S. interests and constitutional reform? If you had any doubt about Washington’s true intentions in Honduras consider the following AP Report for July 8 about diplomatic negotiations between the coup regime and ousted president Zelaya: “Clinton would not discuss specifics of the mediation process, which she said would begin soon, but a senior U.S. official said one option being considered would be to forge a compromise under which Zelaya would be allowed to return and serve out his remaining six months in office with limited powers [italics added]. Zelaya, in return, would pledge to drop his aspirations for a constitutional change.”
It’s the State Department then under Hillary Clinton, allied in spirit to figures from the old Bush establishment, which is seeking to cut off constitutional reform in Honduras — reform which could lead to popular mobilization as we’ve seen in Ecuador and Venezuela. Obama meanwhile has condemned the coup but his failure to rein in either Llorens or Clinton suggests that he too believes that Zelaya’s proposal for a constitutional reform is dangerous and needs to be halted.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) Follow his blog at senorchichero.blogspot.com