The Man Who Wasn’t There

It’s a dangerous precedent for the people of Latin America when President Barack Obama sides with coup-mongering oligarchs, as he did in recognizing the tainted presidential elections in Honduras. But it’s an even more dangerous precedent for the world, because it shows how easily he caves in to right-wing extremists in Washington.

If Reagan was Teflon, and George W. Bush was rocks, Obama is cardboard. People who need help can’t lean on him; conservatives roll right over him.

The character flaw illustrated in the microcosm of Honduras is flowering into the macrocosm of Afghanistan as Obama pours troops into a right-wing delusion of “victory” there.

Obama’s instincts after the June 28 coup in Honduras were a welcome break from a long history of U.S. support for dictators in the hemisphere. The day after the coup, he said, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President [Manuel] Zelaya remains the president of Honduras.” The administration later said it wouldn’t recognize the results of the Nov. 29 election unless Zelaya was first restored to power.

The United Nations and the Organization of American States took the same stance: no Zelaya, no elections. The global consensus held that coup leaders cannot hold a fair election.

This junta had cracked down on freedom of speech in the five months after seizing power. Roberto Micheletti and his gang had arrested hundreds of protesters and killed perhaps more than a dozen. Most media outlets are owned by six families entrenched in the oligarchy, but Micheletti closed some independent ones (Canal 36, Radio Globo and El Libertador) and stole their studio equipment. The head of the electoral tribunal threatened to jail anyone calling for a boycott. On the night before the election, soldiers shot a 32-year-old driver at a checkpoint in Tegucigalpa, injuring several bystanders as well, in an act condemned by Amnesty International.

Suddenly this fall, Obama shifted. The administration began hailing the elections as the first step toward restoring democracy.

What happened? According to Jim DeMint, conservative firebrand senator from South Carolina, Obama caved. DeMint is one of the domino-minded Republicans who seem to live in fear of the spread of Chavez’s social programs. Zelaya had begun helping the poor, such as raising the minimum wage 60 percent and offering discounted energy. DeMint sees that and thinks Stalin.

After the coup, DeMint went to Honduras to declare Micheletti the rightful president. With the two main presidential candidates part of the business elite, Micheletti and DeMint knew that if they held on till Nov. 29, they’d win. Micheletti could not have survived without U.S. support. He got it.

To protest Obama’s apparent support of Zelaya at the time, DeMint held up two State Department nominees. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to recognize the election results with or without the reinstatement of Zelaya, DeMint withdrew his hold on the nominees. This is a deal reported by DeMint himself and not disputed by Clinton.

“They have left us in the middle of the river,” Zelaya said from his hideaway inside the Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital, where he has been living since sneaking back into the country in September. “The two U.S. parties negotiated behind our back and left our house a mess in order to fix their own.”

Coup supporter and wealthy landowner Porfirio Lobo is said to have won a majority of the vote, yet no election monitors were sent by the UN, OAS, or the Carter Center. The 300 international observers were invited by coup leaders and included the reactionary anti-Castro set. U.S. mainstream media regurgitate the junta claim that 60 percent of people voted, yet we have no way to know without independent observers. Anti-coup groups say the figure is closer to 35 percent.

Obama has managed to divide the Americas in only his first year in office. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez called the Honduran elections “almost a sham,” since they were held “within the framework of the most absolute democratic illegality.” Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva said, “If this state of affairs is allowed to remain, democracy will be at serious risk in Latin and Central America.”

The June coup followed a vote by the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice that Zelaya’s rule was finished after he tried to hold a non-binding referendum on whether to revise the constitution. But the U.S. State Department’s own website says that the Honduran judiciary is “subject to corruption and political influence.” A 2008 mission of the International Commission of Jurists and the Due Process of Law Foundation found that the Supreme Court has little public trust because of political influence over the selection of justices. Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs said the Honduran court is “one of the most corrupt institutions in Latin America.”

Zelaya had touched a nerve in his nation’s business oligarchy because he wanted to reform the constitution to better reflect the interests of the majority. Changing a constitution sounds radical in the United States, where one charter has guided us for 234 years. Honduras, on the other hand, has drafted a new constitution every decade or two over the past two centuries. The current document was drafted under the military regime that stepped down in 1982, and this is the longest the country has gone without a new constitution. An October poll by Greenberg found that 54 percent of Hondurans want a constitutional assembly to resolve the crisis.

The specter of constitutional reform leaves the privileged few chomping at the bit. The supreme court’s spokesman, attorney Danilo Eyzaguirre, sounds bloodthirsty. He said a U.S.-brokered deal that rejected amnesty for Zelaya “condemned him to the gallows.” It “put a noose around his neck” and “sent him to the slaughterhouse,” he said, running out of murderous imagery.

But perhaps most haunting of all in this mess is the man in the White House. He showed that while he has better instincts for democracy than his predecessor, the results are the same because he doesn’t act on them. What good is a quarterback who can find the open receiver if he can’t pass the ball?

BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: