At dawn, on 28 June 2009, soldiers invaded the home of the Honduran president, Mel Zelaya, and flew him to Costa Rica. It was a frightening throwback to the days when military men, backed by a local oligarchy and often the United States, could overturn the results of democratic elections.
It would also turn out to be a pivotal moment for relations between the United States and Latin America – especially South America, where a new generation of left-of-center governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela were all hoping for a new relationship with Washington following Barack Obama's election. The new American president, a former community organizer, had come to Trinidad just a few months earlier and shook hands with President Chávez of Venezuela, and actually listened to his southern neighbors. He was more like us, they thought – former trade unionists, two women, an indigenous leader, a progressive Catholic bishop, political outsiders for the most part.
But it was not to be. The first signal came when, on the day of the coup, the White House did not condemn it, merely calling on "all social and political actors" to respect democracy. The White House later joined other countries in condemning the coup, but there was a noticeable difference: while the OAS, the UN, and other international organizations called for the "immediate and unconditional" reinstatement of President Zelaya, no US official would ever utter those words over the next five months.
Nor would US officials join human rights organizations from throughout the hemisphere and the world in condemning the violence and repression of the Honduran dictatorship. Its security forces raided and shut down independent radio and TV stations, and beat and arrested thousands of peaceful demonstrators. There were reports of torture and some opposition activists were killed in circumstances that implicated the government. Since this took place during the official campaign period for the fall elections, it made free elections impossible. The Obama administration's silence was deafening.
President Zelaya traveled to Washington six times during his exile, but President Obama refused to meet with him. Meanwhile, Washington blocked the Organization of American States from taking stronger actions against the Honduran dictatorship.
The US then supported elections under the dictatorship. The OAS and European Union refused to send observers. The vast majority of the hemisphere, including Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, were vehemently opposed to the elections. The Rio Group, which includes all of Latin America, signed a statement saying Zelaya's immediate restitution to the presidency was "indispensable" to the recognition of elections. Even the rightwing governments of Panama and Colombia, and Peru – Washington's closest allies in the region – felt obliged to sign on to the statement.
This created a rift that remains today: US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has recently been campaigning for recognition of the Honduran government, but has so far found few takers. In South America, it is only Peru and Colombia that recognize the Lobo government – the official position of UNASUR is still non-recognition.
When Spain invited Pepe Lobo to Madrid for the EU-Latin America and Caribbean Summit in May, Ecuador, representing UNASUUR as chair at that time, protested; so did other countries including Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela. Lobo was forced to cancel his visit.
Washington's campaign to legitimize the government that was elected under a dictatorship accelerated with the inauguration of Lobo in January. A few days after the inauguration Hillary Clinton announced that the Honduran "crisis" had been "managed to a successful conclusion" and this "was done without violence". Two days later Clinton announced that the US was restoring all assistance to Honduras despite a letter sent to her the day before by Democratic members of Congress asking her to "send a strong unambiguous message that the human rights situation in Honduras will be a critical component of upcoming decisions regarding the further normalizations of relations, as well as the resumption of financial assistance".
The repression in Honduras has continued and perhaps worsened since the November election, with dozens of opposition activists and nine journalists murdered. On 24 June, 27 members of the US Congress, including some of the Democratic leadership, wrote a letter to US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton: "Members of social movements who oppose or criticize the government have been victims of violence and subject to ongoing intimidation ... Violations of human rights and democratic order persist in Honduras on [President Lobo's] watch."
There is impunity for those who carried out the coup and the repression, and the government has established a "Truth Commission" that appears set to sweep all these crimes under the rug. The general who headed the armed forces during the coup was put in charge of the state telecommunications company. He then stated that he would use his new position for intelligence gathering.
Presidents like Lula da Silva of Brazil, and Michele Bachelet – who was president of Chile when South America had to fight with Washington over Honduras – take the threat of military coups seriously. They both did prison time under military dictatorships. Most of the hemisphere feels the same way. It's about time that the United States join them, and support the rights of Hondurans who are fighting for democracy, instead of fighting to legitimize a repressive regime.