“Why haven’t there been attempted coups in Washington DC? Because there’s no
US Embassy there.”
(Joke told by Chilean journalist to President Obama during President
Michelle Bachelet’s White House visit.)
In 1954, conservative Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to overthrow Guatemala’s government, a coup modeled on a 1953 “regime change” in Iran. In 1964-65, liberal Lyndon Johnson authorized coup d’etats in Brazil and the Dominican Republic. When Dominicans revolted, Johnson sent in troops.
In mid September 1970, conservative National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon concluded Chileans had elected the wrong government; so they decided to alter Chilean destiny by replacing Dr. Salvador Allende’s democratic government with 17 years of military fascism, 1973-90.
In the post-Cold War world, such flummery became laughable. Washington could direct policy toward law and human rights or continue collaborating with military thugs. This apparent dilemma got finessed with a blueprint to perpetuate Latin American oligarchs and satisfy US corporations and banks linked to local elites.
In 2002, the US government tested the new plan. US-backed military officers kidnapped Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But unforeseen opposition arose inside the Venezuelan military; masses of Venezuelans took to the streets. The coup failed.
Washington continued ranting against the “undemocratic” Chavez without mentioning his five successive victories – since 1998 — in internationally supervised elections. Chavez’ government directed its energy toward meeting basic needs, despite middle and upper class opposition.
In 2004, in test two, the State Department “to protect” Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, helped his kidnappers. Following the Venezuela model, the Haitian plotters fabricated a “resignation letter.”
In June, the third coup test began when military thugs kidnapped President Manuel Zelaya. Then, civilian plotters penned a fake letter of resignation. The legal “reason”: the Honduran Supreme Court ordered Zelaya’s arrest for violating the Constitution. The State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report had already characterized that Court as issuing “politicized rulings” and contributing “to corruption in public and private institutions.” (U.S. Department of State, 2008 Human Rights Report: Honduras. February 25, 2009.)
Initially, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton feigned concern about what looked like a coup. She couldn’t quite call it a coup. After all, she cooed, Zelaya – whom she still recognized as President — might have violated the Constitution. No US official or mainstream reporter questioned the “logic” of the Honduran Supreme Court’s postdated ruling that attempting an open and non-binding consultation with the people violated supreme law. In fact, Article 80 of Honduras’ constitution specifies that “Toda persona o asociación de personas tiene el derecho de presentar peticiones a las autoridades ya sea por motivos de interés particular o general y de obtener pronta respuesta en el plazo legal.”
Coup d’etat “interim President” Roberto Micheletti also raged. How dare Zelaya consult the people about changing the document they had little voice in passing! In 1985, however, Micheletti led just such a constitutional change to re-elect then President Roberto Suazo.
Re-election becomes constitutional when aspiring Latin American candidates serve local ruling class and Washington interests. Otherwise, Constitutions stand as sacred, no matter what they actually say about participatory democracy.
Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Connie Mack (R-FL) and other Republicans indignantly defended the kidnapping of Zelaya as “protecting the Constitution and democracy.” They cited the Honduran Constitution, but did not refer to any clause allowing military goons to kidnap the elected President in pajamas at dawn, and fly him to Costa Rica in a military plane.
The mind-numbing discussion of “legally authorized behavior” has omitted reference to conditions in Honduras. In 2006, the United Nations Development Program described Honduras as suffering “profound social inequalities, with very high levels of poverty, and with an insufficient economic growth where the population had a relative dissatisfaction with the results of democracy.” The Report claimed 15% of rural Hondurans have a 40 years or less life expectancy and 20.4% of the adult population remain illiterate. The UNDP concluded that “the time for change is now. ” (p. 5, 21).
A 2003 report showed the richest 10 percent still netted 50 times more than the poorest 10th. 86.3% of the Honduran rural population lived in poverty; 71.3% of urban dwellers qualified as poverty-stricken. 67.2% of the children under the age of 5 were malnourished. (J. MacDonald, Expresión de la pobreza en la ciudad, Reunión Grupo de Expertos sobre Pobreza Urbana en America Latina y el Caribe, 27-28 de Enero 2003, p 4-5,)
In 2006, Manuel Zelaya won the presidency. He made the UNDP Report a central part of his agenda for change. His social program, not an ambiguous Constitutional interpretation, became the root of his “issue” with the governing oligarchy — a dozen families who control economics and social, cultural and political institutions. They also dominate the media. A 2008 State Department Human Rights Report acknowledged: “A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and
family ties owned most of the country’s news media. Powerful magnates strongly influenced the news agenda and thereby elections and political decisions.” (U.S. Department of State, 2008 Human Rights Report: Honduras. February 25, 2009.)
Until Zelaya tried to bring real democracy into the governing equation, Honduras’ elite with US banking and corporate backing had found a seemingly perfect recipe: people vote but don’t change anything. Congress and Courts belong to the educated (rich and powerful) who also control the military in cooperation with the US government. Washington provided aid; the School of the Americas trains Honduran officers in proper conduct — torturing enemies and making coups. “Since the 1980s, the Honduran army breathes through the noses of its US advisers.” (ALAI AMLATINA, July 10, 2009)
For Zelaya, the UNDP Report coincided with a brutal fact. Switzerland and Honduras each have 7 million people. Swiss yearly average income is $53 thousand; Hondurans $2K. This upper class President saw an obligation to meet peoples’ needs. Uttering such a subversive thought provoked panic among the rich in Tegucigalpa and the powerful of Washington. They reverted to a historical pattern.
In the 1980s, the CIA and US military used Honduras to attack Nicaragua’s leftist government. The CIA had Honduran officers selling drugs — to support the surrogate Contras, which Congress forbade. In 1988, Rev. Joe Eldridge, the husband of Maria Otero, Obama’s Undersecretary of State for Democracy, wrote about this drug link; then the Honduran military issued death threats against the family. The Honduran army also repressed internal opposition. The local elite supplied officers with perks and status, but Central American armies have spent little time defending their country and much time attacking their citizens.
The Honduran invented a “reason” to oust Zelaya: his unconstitutional intent to consult the people in a non-binding vote. Yet, the Constitution allows for referenda and plebiscites. Washington representatives now claim they advised against a coup. But, reasoned the oligarchs and officers, encouraged by some well-known anti-Castro Cuban Americans, how could Washington abandon its friends and clients? So, they kidnapped Zelaya, and flew him to Costa Rica under a justification thinner than the most undernourished model.
One hundred and ninety two countries rejected this equivalent of a political “Brooklyn Bridge for sale.” The coup’s defenders, Canada’s conservative government, the US mass media, the Honduran Catholic and Protestant hierarchy and right wing anti-Castroites of Miami, approved of previous Latin American coups, in the name of democracy, anti-communism, or whatever. This time the coup makers were “rescuing Honduras from the claws of Chavism.”
The drama descended toward farce, however, when Zelaya’s abductors ditched him in Costa Rica. President Oscar Arias received him – and the snatchers. No high official or mainstream reporter has suggested Arias aided and abetted a kidnapping and coup. Shouldn’t he have arrested the kidnappers, impounded their plane and demanded the illegitimate thugs in Tegucigalpa surrender?
Instead, collaborator Arias became mediator Arias. Twenty years ago, Arias refused to allow US bases in Costa Rica for its illicit war against Nicaragua. Today, he stars in the good cop/bad cop show. His one act of “disobedience” won him a Nobel Prize. Since then, he has shown loyalty to Washington’s economic consensus, meaning free trade and corporate well being.
After Arias served as President (1986-1990), he changed the constitution in order to run for a second term (2006-2010). In June, another US ally, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe changed his Constitution to allow for his third re-election. Neither Washington nor the mass media objected. Anti-Castro Miami moguls hailed this “democratic” move.
Double standard? No. Arias and Uribe followed US dictates: don’t befriend Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro or any serious “change” talker. Zelaya disobedience – to his own class and to Washington – got him kidnapped.
In Washington, the response was “new elections.” US Presidents hail democratic elections — when they benefit the United States. When elected governments help the poor and reduce US interests, however, Washington officials plot coups, insist on term limits and enforcement of Constitutions they have not read.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose films are on dvd (roundworldproductions@gmailcom).
Nelson Valdés is Emeritus Professor, Sociology, University of New Mexico.