Does US Lukewarm Response Bolster Honduran Coup?

The military coup that overthrew Honduras's elected president,
Manuel Zelaya, brought unanimous international condemnation. But some
country's responses have been more reluctant than others, and
Washington's ambivalence has begun to raise suspicions about what the
US government is really trying to accomplish in this situation.

The first statement from the White House
in response to the coup was weak and non-committal. It did not denounce
the coup but rather called upon "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter".

contrasted with statements from other presidents in the hemisphere,
such as Lula da Silva of Brazil and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina,
who denounced the coup and called for the re-instatement of Zelaya. The
EU issued a similar, less ambiguous and more immediate response.

Later in the day, as the response of other nations became clear, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton
issued a stronger statement that condemned the coup - without calling
it a coup. But it still didn't say anything about Zelaya returning to
the presidency.

The Organisation of American States, the Rio Group (most of Latin America) and the UN general assembly have all called for the "immediate and unconditional return" of Zelaya.

strong stances from the south brought statements from anonymous state
department officials that were more supportive of Zelaya's return. And
by Monday afternoon President Barack Obama finally said: "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras."

But at a press conference later that day, Clinton was asked whether "restoring the constitutional order" in Honduras meant returning Zelaya himself. She would not say yes.

such reluctance to call openly for the immediate and unconditional
return of an elected president, as the rest of the hemisphere and the
UN has done? One obvious possibility is that Washington does not share
these goals.

The coup leaders have no international support, but
they could still succeed by running out the clock - Zelaya has less
than six months left in his term. Will the Obama administration
support sanctions against the coup government in order to prevent this?
The neighbouring governments of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador
have already fired a warning shot by announcing a 48-hour cut-off of trade.

contrast, one reason for Clinton's reluctance to call the coup a coup
is because the US Foreign Assistance Act prohibits funds going to
governments where the head of state has been deposed by a military coup.

is also a key word here: the Obama administration may want to extract
concessions from Zelaya as part of a deal for his return to office. But
this is not how democracy works. If Zelaya wants to negotiate a
settlement with his political opponents after he returns, that is
another story. But nobody has the right to extract political concession
from him in exile, over the barrel of a gun.

There is no excuse
for this coup. A constitutional crisis came to a head when Zelaya
ordered the military to distribute materials for a non-binding
referendum to be held last Sunday. The referendum asked citizens to
vote on whether they were in favour of including a proposal for a
constituent assembly, to redraft the constitution, on the November
ballot. The head of the military, General Romeo Vasquez, refused to
carry out the president's orders. The president, as commander-in-chief
of the military, then fired Vasquez, whereupon the defence minister
resigned. The supreme court subsequently ruled that the president's
firing of Vasquez was illegal, and the majority of the Congress has
gone against Zelaya.

Supporters of the coup argue that the
president violated the law by attempting to go ahead with the
referendum after the supreme court ruled against it. This is a legal
question. It may be true, or it may be that the supreme court had no
legal basis for its ruling. But it is irrelevant to the what has
happened. The military is not the arbiter of a constitutional dispute
between the various branches of government.

This is especially
true in this case, in that the proposed referendum was a non-binding
and merely consultative plebiscite. It would not have changed any law
nor affected the structure of power. It was merely a poll of the

Therefore, the military cannot claim that it acted to
prevent any irreparable harm. This is a military coup carried out for
political purposes.

There are other issues where our government
has been oddly silent. Reports of political repression, the closing of
TV and radio stations, the detention of journalists, detention and
physical abuse of diplomats and what the Committee to Protect
Journalists has called a "media blackout" have yet to draw a serious
rebuke from Washington. By controlling information and repressing
dissent, the de facto Honduran government is also setting the stage for
unfair elections in November.

Many press reports have contrasted
the Obama administration's rejection of the Honduran coup with the Bush
administration's initial support for the 2002 military coup that
briefly overthrew President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But actually there are more similarities than differences between the US response to these two events.

a day, the Bush administration reversed its official position on the
Venezuelan coup, because the rest of the hemisphere had announced that
it would not recognise the coup government. Similarly, in this case,
the Obama administration is following the rest of the hemisphere,
trying not to be the odd man out but at the same time not really
sharing their commitment to democracy.

It was not until some months after the Venezuelan coup that the state department admitted that it had given financial and other support "to individuals and organisations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government."

the Honduran coup, the Obama administration claims that it tried to
discourage the Honduran military from taking this action. It would be
interesting to know what these discussions were like. Did
administration officials say, "You know that we will have to say that
we are against such a move if you do it, because everyone else will?"
Or was it more like, "Don't do it, because we will do everything in our
power to reverse any such coup"? The administration's actions since the
coup indicate something more like the former, if not worse.

battle between Zelaya and his opponents pits a reform president who is
supported by labour unions and social organisations against a
mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite who is accustomed to
choosing not only the supreme court and the Congress, but also the
president. It is a recurrent story in Latin America, and the US has
almost always sided with the elites.

In this case, Washington has
a very close relationship with the Honduran military, which goes back
decades. During the 1980s, the US used bases in Honduras to train and
arm the Contras, Nicaraguan paramilitaries who became known for their
atrocities in their war against the Sandinista government in
neighbouring Nicaragua.

The hemisphere has changed
substantially since the Venezuelan coup in April of 2002, with 11 more
left governments having been elected. A whole set of norms,
institutions and power relations between south and north in the
hemisphere have been altered. The Obama administration today faces
neighbours that are much more united and much less willing to
compromise on fundamental questions of democracy.

So Clinton will
probably not have that much room to manoeuvre. Still, the
administration's ambivalence will be noticed in Honduras and can very
likely encourage the de facto government there to try and hang on to
power. That could be very damaging.

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