It was three years ago this week that the Honduran military launched an assault on the home of President Mel Zelaya, kidnapped him, and flew him out of the country. The Obama administration, according to its own conversations with the press, knew about the coup in advance. But the first statement from the White House – unlike those from the rest of the world – did not condemn the coup.
That sent a message to the Honduran dictatorship, and to the diplomatic community: the US government supported this coup and would do what it could to make sure it succeeded. And that is exactly what ensued. Unlike Washington and its few remaining rightwing allies in the hemisphere, most of Latin America saw the coup as a threat to democracy in the region and, indeed, to their own governments.
"It would be enough for someone to stage a civilian coup, backed by the armed forces, or simply a civilian one and later justify it by convoking elections," Argentine President Cristina Fernández told South American leaders. "And then democratic guarantees would truly be fiction."
For that reason, South America refused to recognize the Honduran "elections" held six months later under the dictatorship. But Washington wanted the coup regime legitimized. The Obama administration blocked the Organization of American States (OAS) from taking action to restore democracy before "elections" were held.
"We have intelligence reports that say that after Zelaya, I'm next," said President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, after the Honduran coup. This turned out to be correct: in September of 2010, a rebellion by police held Correa hostage in a hospital until he was freed, after a prolonged shootout between the police and loyal troops of the armed forces. It was another attempted coup against a social-democratic president in Latin America.
Last week, Cristina Fernández' warning against a "civilian coup" proved prescient in Paraguay. The country's left president, Fernando Lugo, was ousted by the Congress in an "impeachment trial" in which he was given less than 24 hours notice and two hours to defend himself. All 12 foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations, including Brazil and Argentina, travelled to Paraguay on Thursday to tell the rightwing opposition that this clear violation of due process was also a violation of UNASUR's democracy clause. Brazil's president Dilma Rouseff suggested that the coup government should be kicked out of UNASUR and MERCOSUR, the southern cone regional trading bloc.
But the Paraguayan right, which had one-party rule for 61 years until Lugo's election, was determined to return to their ignominious past. And they knew that they had one ally in the hemisphere they could count on.
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"As a general matter, we haven't called this a coup because the processes were followed," said US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on 26 June. And, as if to remind the world of Washington's strategy with the Honduran coup, she added:
"You know that they're supposed to have elections in 2013, which need to go forward. So I think we will refrain from further comment until we see how we come out of the OAS meeting."
Of course, she knew that the OAS meeting would not resolve anything, because the US and its allies can kill anything there – as they did earlier this week. The conclusion is obvious: any rightwing faction, military or civilian, that can overthrow a democratically elected, left-of-center government, will get support from the United States government. Since the US government is the richest and most powerful country in the hemisphere and the world, this counts for a lot.
Meanwhile, Honduras since the 2009 coup has turned into a nightmare, with the highest homicide rate in the world. Political repression is among the worst in the hemisphere: journalists, opposition activists, campesinos fighting for land reform, and LGBT activists have been murdered with impunity. This week, 84 members of the US Congress sent a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging US action against murders of LGBT activists and community members in Honduras. In March, 94 member of Congress asked her "to suspend US assistance to the Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces".
The Obama administration has so far ignored these pleas from Congress, and the international media has given them scant attention. Ironically, this is not so much because Honduras is unimportant, but because it is important: the US has a military base there and would like to keep the country as its property.
But the hemisphere and the world have changed. The US has lost most of its influence in the vast majority of the Americas over the past decade. It is only a matter of time before even poor countries like Honduras and Paraguay gain their rights to democracy and self-determination.