The Other 9/11 Returns to Haunt Latin America

It was inevitable that the people at the top would fight to preserve their privileges

The ghost of the other, deadlier 9/11 has returned to stalk Latin
America. On Sunday morning, a battalion of soldiers rammed their way
into the Presidential Palace in Honduras. They surrounded the bed where
the democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya, was sleeping, and
jabbed their machine guns to his chest. They ordered him to get up and
marched him on to a military plane. They dumped him in his pyjamas on a
landing strip in Costa Rica and told him never to return to the country
that freely chose him as their head of state.

Back home, the generals locked down the phone networks, the internet and
international TV channels, and announced their people were in charge now.
Only sweet, empty music plays on the radio. Government ministers have been
arrested and beaten. If you leave your home after 9pm, the population have
been told, you risk being shot. Tanks and tear gas are ranged against the
protesters who have thronged on to the streets.

For the people of Latin America, this is a replay of their September 11. On
that day in Chile in 1973, Salvador Allende - a peaceful democratic
socialist who was steadily redistributing wealth to the poor majority - was
bombed from office and forced to commit suicide. He was replaced by a
self-described "fascist", General Augusto Pinochet, who went on to "disappear"
tens of thousands of innocent people. The coup was plotted in Washington DC,
by Henry Kissinger.

The official excuse for killing Chilean democracy was that Allende was a "communist".
He was not. In fact, he was killed because he was threatening the interests
of US and Chilean mega-corporations by shifting the country's wealth and
land from them to its own people. When Salvador Allende's widow died last
week, she seemed like a symbol from another age - and then, a few days
later, the coup came back.

Honduras is a small country in Central America with only seven million
inhabitants, but it has embarked on a programme of growing democracy of its
own. In 2005, Zelaya ran promising to help the country's poor majority - and
he kept his word. He increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent, saying
sweatshops were no longer acceptable and "the rich must pay their share".

The tiny elite at the top - who own 45 per cent of the country's wealth - are
horrified. They are used to having Honduras run by them, for them.

But this wave of redistributing wealth to the population is washing over Latin
America. In the barrios and favelas, I have seen how shanty towns made out
of mud and rusted tin now have doctors and teachers and subsidised
supermarkets for the first time, because they elected leaders who have
turned the spigot of oil money in their direction. In Venezuela, for
example, the poorest half of the country has seen its incomes soar by 130
per cent after inflation since they chose Hugo Chavez as their President,
according to studies cited by the Nobel Prize-winning US economist Joseph
Stiglitz. Infant mortality has plummeted.

No wonder so many Latin American countries are inspired by this example: the
notion that Chavez has to "bribe" or "brainwash" people
like Zelaya is bizarre.

It was always inevitable that the people at the top would fight back to
preserve their unearned privilege. In 2002, the Venezuelan oligarchy
conspired with the Bush administration in the kidnapping of Hugo Chavez. It
was only a massive democratic uprising of the people that forced his return.
Now they have tried the same in Honduras.

Yet the military-business nexus have invented a propaganda-excuse that is
being eagerly repeated by dupes across the Western world. The generals claim
they have toppled the democratically elected leader and arrested his
ministers to save democracy.

Here's how it happened. Honduras has a constitution that was drawn up in 1982,
by the oligarchy, under supervision from the outgoing military dictatorship.
It states that the President can only serve only one term, while the
military remains permanent and "independent" - in order to ensure
they remain the real power in the land.

Zelaya believed this was a block on democracy, and proposed a referendum to
see if the people wanted to elect a constituent assembly to draw up a new
constitution. It could curtail the power of the military, and perhaps allow
the President to run for re-election. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that
it is unconstitutional to hold a binding referendum within a year of a
presidential election. So Zelaya proposed holding a non-binding referendum
instead, just to gauge public opinion. This was perfectly legal. The
military - terrified of the verdict of the people - then marched in with
their guns.

But there has been progress since the days of 1973, or even 2002. The coups
against Allende and Chavez were eagerly backed by the CIA and White House.
But this time, Barack Obama has said: "We believe the coup was not
legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras." He
called the coup "a terrible precedent".

His reaction hasn't been perfect: unlike France and Spain, he hasn't withdrawn
the US Ambassador yet. He supports the International Monetary Fund and World
Bank, which are vast brakes on Latin American democracy, and he bad-mouths
Chavez while arming the genuinely abusive Colombian government. But it is a
vast improvement on Bush and McCain, who would have been mistily chorusing "We
are all Honduran Generals now".

The ugliest face of the Latin American oligarchy is now standing alone against
the world, showing its contempt for democracy and for its own people. They
are fighting to preserve the old continent where all the wealth goes to them
at the end of a machine gun. I have seen the price for this: I have lived in
the rubbish dumps of the continent, filled with dark-skinned scavenging
children, while a few miles away there are suburbs that look like Beverly

This weekend, Zelaya will return to the country that elected him, flanked by
the presidents of Argentina and the Organisation of American States, to take
his rightful place. Whether he succeeds or fails will tell us if the
children of the rubbish dumps have reason to hope - and whether the smoke
from the deadliest 9/11 has finally cleared.

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