The military coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras took a new turn when he attempted to return home on Sunday. The military closed the airport and blocked runways to prevent his plane from landing. They also shot several protesters, killing at least one and injuring others. The violence and the enormous crowd -- estimated in the tens of thousands and reported as the largest since the coup on 28 June -- put additional pressure on the Obama administration to seek a resolution to the crisis. On Tuesday, secretary of state Hillary Clinton met Zelaya for the first time.
In many ways this is similar to the 2002 coup in Venezuela, which was supported by the US. After it became clear that no government other than the US would recognise the coup government there, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets to demand the return of their elected president, the military switched sides and brought Hugo Chávez back to the presidential palace.
In Honduras, we have the entire world refusing to recognise the coup government, and equally large demonstrations (in a country of only seven million people, with the military preventing movement for many of them) demanding Zelaya's return. The problem in Honduras is that the military -- unlike Venezuela's -- is experienced in organised repression, including selective assassinations carried out during the 1980s, when the country was known as a military base for US operations in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Honduran military is also much closer to the US military and state department, more closely allied with the country's oligarchy and more ideologically committed to the cause of keeping the elected president out of power. Colonel Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, a Honduran army lawyer who admitted that the military broke the law when it kidnapped Zelaya, told the Miami Herald: "It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That's impossible." Inestroza, like the coup leader and army chief General Romeo Vasquez, was trained at Washington's infamous School of the Americas (now renamed Whinsec).
This puts a heavy burden on the people of Honduras, who have been risking their lives, confronting the army's bullets, beatings and arbitrary arrests and detentions. The US media has reported on this repressiononly minimally, with the major print media sometimes failing even to mention the censorship there. But the Honduran pro-democracy movement has in the last few days managed to change the course of events. It is likely that Clinton's decision to finally meet with Zelaya was the result of the large and growing protests, and Washington's fear that such resistance could reach the point at which it would topple the coup government.
The Obama administration's behaviour over the last eight days suggests that if not for this threat from below, the administration would have been content to let the coup government remain for the rest of Zelaya's term. This was made clear again on Monday, at a press briefing held by the state department spokesman Ian Kelly. Under prodding from a reporter, Kelly became the first on-the-record state department official to say that the US government supported the return of Zelaya. This was eight days after the coup, and after the United Nations general assembly, the Organisation of American States, the Rio Group and many individual governments had all called for the "immediate and unconditional" return of Zelaya -- something that Washington still does not talk about.
Meanwhile, on the far right, there has been a pushback against worldwide support for Zelaya and an attempt to paint him as the aggressor in Honduras, or at least equally as bad as the people who carried out the coup. Unfortunately much of the major media's reporting has aided this effort by reporting such statements as "Critics feared he intended to extend his rule past January, when he would have been required to step down."
In fact, there was no way for Zelaya to "extend his rule" even if the referendum had been held and passed, and even if he had then gone on to win a binding referendum on the November ballot. The 28 June referendum was nothing more than a non-binding poll of the electorate, asking whether the voters wanted to place a binding referendum on the November ballot to approve a redrafting of the country's constitution. If it had passed, and if the November referendum had been held (which was not very likely) and also passed, the same ballot would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped down in January. So, the belief that Zelaya was fighting to extend his term in office has no factual basis. The most that could be said is that if a new constitution were eventually approved, Zelaya might have been able to run for a second term at some future date.
Another major rightwing theme in the media and public perception of the Honduran situation is that this is a battle against Chávez (and some collection of "anti-US" leftist allies: Nicaragua, Cuba, take your pick). This is a common subterfuge that has surfaced in most of the Latin American elections of the last few years. In Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua and El Salvador, for example, the conservative candidates all acted as if they were running against Chávez -- the first two with success, and the second pair losing. It is true that under Zelaya Honduras joined Alba, a grouping of countries that was started by Venezuela as an alternative to "free trade" agreements with the US. But Zelaya is nowhere near as close to Chávez as any number of other Latin American presidents, including those of Brazil and Argentina. So it is not clear why this is relevant, unless the argument is that only bigger countries or those located further south have the right to have a co-operative relationship with Venezuela.
Clinton has just announced that she has arranged for the Costa Rican president Oscar Arias to serve as a mediator between the coup government and Zelaya. According to Clinton, both parties have accepted this arrangement. This is a good move for the state department, as it will make it easier for it to maintain a more "neutral" position -- as opposed to the rest of the hemisphere, which has taken the side of the deposed president and the Honduran pro-democracy movement. "I don't want to prejudge what the parties themselves will agree to," said Clinton in response to a question as to whether Zelaya should be restored to his position.
It is difficult to see how this mediation will succeed, so long as the coup government knows that it can sit out the rest of Zelaya's term. The only thing that can remove it from office, in conjunction with massive protests, is real economic sanctions of the kind that Honduras's neighbours (Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala) imposed for 48 hours after the coup. These countries account for about a third of Honduras's trade, but they would need economic aid from other countries to carry the burden of a trade cut-off for a longer time. It would be a great thing if other countries would step forward to support such sanctions and to cut off their own trade and capital flows with Honduras as well.
So it is up to the rest of the world to help Honduras; it is clear that Hondurans won't be getting any help from the US. The rest of the world will have to scream bloody murder about the violence and repression there, too, because Washington will not make much of an issue about it.