Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Death Squads ‘ Coup for Democracy ’ in Honduras : The Facts on Zelaya, the military, the US, ALBA and PPA

The military coup against the elected President of Honduras should be given the same coverage as election rigging and killings of demonstrators in Iran. The Honduran military has already killed two people and wounded dozens by firing on pro-Zelaya demonstrators (1). Opposition supporters are beaten and arrested, just as in Iran (2).

Zelaya’s 'crime' was to attempt to hold a referendum to change the constitution so that elected Presidents could stand for election a second time, as the constitution of Honduras bans Presidents from standing for a second five year term in office and gives congress, not the President, the power to hold constitution -al referenda (3). Zelaya’s defenders point out that he was carrying out an unoffic- ial referendum on whether a new constitutional assembly should be elected to decide whether the same candidate could be President for more than one term and that he would have stepped down at the end of his term anyway, as the assembly’s conclusions would have come long after the next Presidential election. Newspaper editors who asked readers for their opinions on whether there should be a referendum were threat -ened with jail by the Supreme Court (4).

The current 1982 constitution of Honduras, which Zelaya was accused of violating, was written in a period when the ‘democratically elected’ US backed government employed CIA trained military death squads to kill its critics and terrify people into not voting for the opposition.Then US ambassador John Negroponte and the CIA used Honduras as a base to training and arm the contra terrorists who tortured and murdered unarmed Nicaraguan men, women and children to overthrow the elected Sandinista government (5) - (8).

Under Zelaya there were still some killings of trade unionists, environmentalists and journalists critical of his government, but the military may well have been behind many of them as their death squad murders have never entirely ended. Zelaya was overthrown not for being ‘a dictator’ but because his government spent money on helping the poor majority in his country. Trade unionists and the poor majority in Honduras have demonstrated against the coup from the beginning (9) – (13).

However the Zelayas are major land- owners and in the 1970s President Zelaya’s father, then the provincial army command -er, was found by an investigating commission to have been involved in a series of murders of campaigners for land reform including two Fransciscan priests, an American, Father Michael Jerome Cypher, and a Colombian, Ivan Betancourt (14), (15).

There is no hard evidence that President Zelaya himself has been involvement in political murders, though there have been some cases that require further investigation. In 2007 a radio presenter whose station had routinely criticised Zelaya and his government was shot dead. Whether Zelaya was involved or not and whether the killing was political is not certain, though other journalists at the station received death threats by telephone warning “If you carry on pissing us off we will bury you like this.” (16) Journalists involved in exposing corruption in government and politics have also been killed, (17). Again these cases require investigation, but there is no proven link between President Zelaya or his govern -ment and these killings – and such killings did not begin under Zelaya – the military death squads existed long before him and much of the military is hostile to him. Elected as a conservative from the same ‘Liberal Party’ backed by the US and the military in the 1980s, Zelaya became a relatively left wing reformer in office, leading his own party to turn on him, but making him popular with the poor and trade unions, who are also common victims of death squads. He increased the minimum wage, which was popular with the majority of Hondurans, 50% of whom earned less than 2 dollars a day in 2007 and who die of poverty related malnutrition and illnesses as much as from death squad bullets, but not so popular with wealthy landowners and employers (18), (19), (20).

Whether Zelaya has moved to the left out of principle or in order to benefit from an alliance with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who has been generous in aiding allies with Venezuelan oil revenues, is uncertain. Some analysts such as Alvaro Vargas Llosa see Zelaya’s move to the left as opportunism aiming at a Venezuelan funded dictatorship. It’s worth noting though that Mr Losa’s Center for Global Prosperity is extremely fond of free trade and is a part of the ‘Independent Institute’ which is funded partly by large donations from US based multinational companies including Phillip Morris and Exxon. It’s hard to see such an organisation as being capable of unbiased analyses on whether Honduras should have a government which joins a US centred free trade area or not (21) – (25).

A military coup is not likely to benefit the people of Honduras in terms of democratic rights or social and economic ones. Zelaya has brought Honduras into ALBA – the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of the Americas. ALBA is an alternative to the US’s project – the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which the Bush administration hoped would extend NAFTA to cover the whole of the Americas. While the FTAA has largely been dropped under Obama the agenda of a US led political and economic grouping in the Americas has continued through promotion of the Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas group (PPA). ALBA remains an alternative and rival to any US-led grouping and some have questioned whether the Obama administration is as opposed to the coup against Zelaya as it should be. While the Obama administration have said that the coup is illegal and that Zelaya remains the only legitimate President of Honduras there has also been some vagueness. Unlike the ALBA governments the US has not recalled its ambassador from Honduras or refused to recognise the new government. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, when asked at a press conference if the US commitment to a return to democratic and constitutional practices in Honduras meant the restoration of Zelaya to office, gave no clear answer. It’s possible that the Obama administration’s attitude to Zelaya is ambiguous, or alternatively that it’s attempting to avoid handing ammunition to right wingers (including some Democrats) in the US congress who consider Chavez and Zelaya to be ‘dictators’ and enemies of the US or who want to revive the Free Trade Area of the Americas. It may even be, as Hugo Chavez has suggested, that Obama opposed the coup but other elements in the US government, military and intelligence agencies backed it (26) – (30).

However Honduras’ military remains heavily US armed, funded and trained (there are even 300 US troops permanently based in the country) and it seems likely that if the Obama administration really wanted to restore democracy in Honduras it would only need to suspend all military aid and arms sales until Zelaya was restored to power (31). Many of the officers involved in the coup were trained at the notorious US School of the Americas in the 1980s and 1990s, including the main leader of the coup, General Romeo Vásquez Velasquez (32) –(34). Latin American History professor Greg Grandin says that “The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government. Honduras, as a whole, if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it’s Honduras....Its economy is wholly based on trade, foreign aid and remittances. So if the US is opposed to this coup going forward, it won’t go forward. Zelaya will return.” (35)

The new government, placed in power by military coup, which is supposedly defending democracy has as it’s first acts not only having demonstrators beaten and shot dead but also introducing censorship and suspended the basic right not to be jailed without charge and fair trial. In fact more than half a dozen articles of the 1982 constitution have been suspended by a government claiming to be defending that constitution. (36) – (37). Far from ‘representing civil society’ the new government has ordered the arrest of the leaders of the the Popular Bloc Coordinating Committee, Via Campesina and the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) – a native Indian movement. The police have also killed César Ham Peña, a member of the Honduran congress who organised Zelaya’s referendum, claiming that he resisted arrest using a pistol (38).

The coup leaders in the military and congress say that this coup is not like the coups of the past; this time they are defending their democracy against a would be Chavez style dictatorship. Yet it’s exactly like the coups of the past, from Chile to Honduras, in which the coup leaders also claimed to be preventing Communist dictatorship and were also actually overthrowing democratically elected governments. Chavez and Zelaya are elected democrats, just like Allende, who was also accused by Pinochet of being a Communist dictator for having economic policies focused on helping the majority in his own country rather than just the wealthiest and American based multinationals.

If the military is allowed to get off with installing a new government at gunpoint Honduras will be governed by death squad again.

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2009


(1) = Guardian 06 Jul 2009 ‘Honduras coup leaders block ousted president's return’,

(2) = Human Rights Watch 02 Jul 2009 ‘Honduras: OAS Should Press for Rights Protections’,

(3) = Guardian 29 Jun 2009 ‘Protesters demand return of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya’,

(4) = IFEX 30 Jun 2009 ‘Court threatens to fine and imprison editor’,

(5) = New York Times 19 Jan 1988 ‘In Human Rights Court, Honduras Is First to Face Death Squad Trial’,
http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/19/world/in-human-rights-court-honduras-is-first-to-face-death-squad-trial.html?scp=1&sq=In%20Human%20Rights%20Court,%20Honduras%20Is%20First%20to%20Face%20Death%20Squad%20Trial%20&st=cse and http://www.pierretristam.com/Bobst/library/wf-141.htm (reports that some Honduran military death squad units CIA trained and on death squad murders of civilians

(6) = Times 10 Jan 2005 ‘El Salvador-style 'death squads' to be deployed by US against Iraq militants’,
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article410491.ece (covers John Negroponte being US ambassador to Honduras in 1980s, use of death squads by US backed govts in Americas in 1980s, training of Contras in Honduras)

(7) = Amnesty International World Report 2009 – Honduras, http://report2009.amnesty.org/en/regions/americas/honduras

(8) = Schroeder, Michael J. ‘ “To Induce a sense of terror” : Caudillo Politics and Political Violence’ in Campbell, Bruce B. & Brenner, Arthur D.(eds) (2000) ‘Death Squads in Global Perspective : Murder with Deniability’, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2002, Chapter 2

(9) = IFEX 19 Oct 2007 ‘Journalist murdered following threats, government harassment of critical radio station’,

(10) = Amnesty International 25 Sep 2008 ‘Honduras: Open letter to the President of Honduras about human rights defenders’,

(11) = IFEX 02 Apr 2009 ‘Journalist Rafael Munguía Ortiz murdered in San Pedro Sula’,

(12) = See (1) and Guardian 29 Jun 2009 ‘Protesters demand return of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya’,

(13) = See (7) above

(14) = Time Magazine 18 Aug 1975 ‘Blood and Land’,

(15) = Jennifer Harbury (2006) ‘Truth, Torture and the American Way’, Beacon Press, 2006, page 48

(16) = See (9) above

(17) = See (11) above

(18) = Counterpunch 29 Jun 2009 ‘Obama's Real Message to Latin America? :
The Coup in Honduras’, http://www.counterpunch.org/kozloff06292009.html

(19) = UNDP Human Development Report 2007/2008 – Country Report Honduras,

(20) = Guardian 29 Jun 2009 ‘Protesters demand return of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya’,

(21) = Washington Post 01 Jul 2009 ‘Honduras's Coup Is President Zelaya's Fault’, by Alvaro Vargos Llosa,

(22) = The Independent Institute ‘Alvaro Vargas Llosa , Senior Fellow , Center for Global Prosperity’, http://www.independent.org/aboutus/person_detail.asp?id=494

(23) = Wikipedia, ‘Independent Institute – Funding’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_Institute#Funding

(24) = The Independent Institute ‘Center on Global Prosperity’, http://www.independent.org/research/cogp/

(25) = Exxon Secrets.org , ‘Fact Sheet- Independent Institute’,

(26) = Counterpunch 29 Jun 2009 ‘Obama's Real Message to Latin America? :
The Coup in Honduras’, http://www.counterpunch.org/kozloff06292009.html

(27) = BBC News 29 Jun 2009 ‘Obama says Honduras coup illegal’,

(28) = US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton & Miami Herald 01 Jun 2009 ‘New Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas’,

(29) = America.gov 05 Jun 2009 ‘This Week from Washington June 5 :Podcast on Obama’s speech in Cairo, Clinton’s remarks on Western Hemisphere’,

(30) = AP 07 Jul 2009 ‘Zelaya supporters escalate their fight in Honduras’,

(31) = Huffington Post ‘Coup! U.S. Military Support for Honduras’, by Frida Berrigan, senior program associate at the Arms and Security Project of the New America Foundation and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frida-berrigan/coup-us-military-support_b_222655.html , (contains links to many sources including Reuters and the Federation of American Scientists on US military aid and arms sales to Honduras)

(32) = National Catholic Reporter 29 Jun 2009 ‘Honduran coup leader a two-time SOA graduate’,

(33) = Washington Post 21 Sep 1996 ‘U.S. Instructed Latins On Executions, Torture; Manuals Used 1982-91, Pentagon Reveals’, Washington post archive link and reproduced in full at http://www.soaw.org/newswire_detail.php?id=851

(34) = School of the Americas Watch, http://www.soaw.org/index.php

(35) = Democracy Now 29 Jun 2009 ‘Coup in Honduras: Military Ousts President Manuel Zelaya, Supporters Defy Curfew and Take to the Streets’,

(36) = IFEX 29 Jun 2009 ‘Journalists and media attacked, threatened in wake of coup d'état’,

(37) = Guardian 02 Jul 2009 ‘Honduran coup leaders curb civil liberties to tamp down Zelaya support’,

(38) = Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York 01 Jul 2009 , ‘Weekly News Update on the Americas : WNU #995 supplement: Resistance Grows in Honduras’,

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2009

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