Honduras: Bad faith down in The Gulch

In Spanish, the word honduras means depth. The example often used is meterse en honduras – to go beyond one’s depth. It comes from the adjective hondo – deep or low.

I’ve often wondered what the Spanish conquistador or priest was thinking when he decided circa 1500 to call the place The Depths– or with some liberties, The Gulch.

When I was in Honduras, I recall the capital Tegucigalpa as a series of hills and deep gulches, with the hillsides noted for poor communities of thousands of slapped-together shanties. The Tegucigalpa airport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world; it’s a bit like dropping down and circling inside a teacup before landing.

So maybe that old Spaniard was onto something. If Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” maybe Honduras is the gulch where they just get mired in muck.

This seems to be the case with the would-be progressive Obama administration vis-à-vis the June 28, 2009 coup that blatantly overthrew elected President Manuel Zelaya and was immediately followed by a violent campaign of repression against progressive elements in the dirt-poor Central American nation.

Hondurans take to the street after the June coupHondurans take to the street after the June coup

In April, President Obama spoke with President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, known affectionately as “Pepe.” Lobo was elected November 29 in the repressive post-coup climate. Obama raised the issue of human rights, and Lobo assured him he would address it. Obama, then, commended Lobo on his leadership.

The lead in Honduras policy is Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton, who has a long political connection with Lanny Davis, the attorney hired by coup leaders to sell the coup in the United States. Davis was White House Counsel in the Clinton administration.

In March, Clinton made a tour of Latin America. When she got to Brazil — the lead nation in opposition to the coup and whose Tegucigalpa embassy Zelaya was holed up in for months — she seemed more concerned about getting Brazil to join the US hard line on Iran than she seemed concerned about Latin Americans or, in particular, Hondurans. The reason for her trip was to lobby for Latin American nations to drop their opposition and support the post-coup Lobo regime.

When she actually got to Tegucigalpa, she congratulated Lobo for “taking the important and necessary steps” that justify normalizing relations with his post-coup government. Earlier, nine US congress members had sent Clinton a letter specifically asking her to hold out re-establishing full relations with the Lobo government until she could get some assurances in the area of human rights.

She ignored that letter, publicly praised the new government and returned all US aid without any provisos or warnings, including all the military aid cut off after the illegal coup.

Pepe says ‘Hi’

Meanwhile, 47 members of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), the broad and diverse opposition movement formed immediately after the coup, have been murdered. At this count seven journalists – or one of their children — have been killed. An FNRP activist and a friend were gunned down by masked men just this Sunday after a teachers’ demonstration.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Organization of American States, UNESCO – all have sent teams to Honduras and all have condemned the atrocious human rights record following the June 28 coup and still going on. Many of the murders remind people of the 1980s when paramilitary death squads terrorized Hondurans.

In one case, a young FNRP woman had earlier reported being gang raped by men in the police after being arrested at an anti-coup demonstration. Her story was reported in the newspapers. She was then snatched a second time along with some male friends; the men were tortured while she was, again, raped repeatedly by men who included her earlier rapist, who said to her, “Pepe says ‘Hi.’”

He was referring to President “Pepe” Lobo, the guy who had assured President Obama and Ms. Clinton he was on the case.

No one is accusing Mr. Lobo of sending out psychopathic rapists. No. But what many are accusing him and his friends in Washington of is calculated blindness in the service of their power interests. The tragic fact is there are so many poor people in a place like Honduras that they have become an inconvenience for the wealthy and powerful – in both Tegucigalpa and Washington.

As the rape story suggests, while all the high-roller PR and the willful ignoring of the matter goes on in the corridors of power – and our media are guilty of this — very violent people are operating as low-level proxies, sort of like psychopathic antibodies, terrorizing the poor to keep them away from power.

When you distill it all down, power was what the wealthy lumber magnate Manuel Zelaya in his somewhat inept manner was trying to shift toward the vast population of poor in Honduras.

As Latin America has shifted leftward over the past decade, the US has tried to hold on to its historic legacy as the bully to the north. The right turned back the left in Chile recently with the election of billionaire Sebastian Pinera as President, and militarists in the US are hoping the right takes power in Brazil in the October 3rd election.

But there were high hopes for the right in Uruguay. Instead, Uruguayans recently voted in their own Pepe for President — Jose “El Pepe” Mujica, a colorful, former Tupamaro guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison for killing a cop.

The fact is, from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, Latin Americans have decided they’ve had about enough of US bullying, which has done nothing as much as devastate their economies. They are ready to go it alone.

In February, in order to bypass the OAS and US veto power in that organization, 32 nations established a new organization called the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. It includes Cuba, which was expelled from the OAS in 1962, and the US and Canada are excluded. Right wing Mexican President Felipe Calderon was instrumental in its creation, and the upcoming meeting will be in Caracas, Venezuela.

“They really don’t get it at all.” Mark Wiesbrot, co-director of the Center For Economic and Policy Research, said about the current US position vis-à-vis Latin America, of which its Honduras policy sits center stage emanating a stink.

Things only get worse

Ross Douthat, a center-right columnist in the New York Times, recently did an interesting piece in which he decried the dynamic these days where the response to a crisis only seems to consolidate the power that led to the crisis in the first place — thus leading to “a concentration of power in the hands of the same elite that presided over the disasters in the first place.”

This sums up US policy in Latin America very nicely.

Consider Mexico, a nation, thanks to our 30-year Drug War, currently coming apart thanks to police corruption and truly baroque levels of gang violence. Oh yeh, the military and police assault on the production and distribution of drugs is working real well — so let’s just escalate and ratchet up the violence some more. Whatever you do, don’t consider shifting the approach to humanly address drug demand in the United States.

Then, there’s Colombia, the militarized US garrison state perched at the top of South America.

Last year the US lost Manta, its drug airbase in Ecuador, when it refused to agree to Ecuadoran President Rafael Correo’s terms. Correo put it this way: “We can negotiate with the US about a base in Manta if they let us put a military base in Miami.” The US declined the deal.

So all the US military land-based eggs will now be in Colombia, which has negotiated a contract for up to seven US bases with a max of 800 US soldiers in country at any one time. The US has subsidized the Colombian military to the tune of billions.

Next door, the man the US most loves to hate, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, says this deal makes the likelihood of war greater. Obama says that’s nonsense.

“There have been those in the region who have been trying to play this up as part of a traditional anti-Yankee rhetoric. This is not accurate,” Obama said. “We have had a security agreement with Colombia for many years now. We have updated that agreement. We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia.”

Given the history of Colombia as a militarized US garrison state, its history of violence from the right and the drift to the left across Latin America, Obama’s remarks are disingenuous at best. Who does he think he’s kidding saying, “We have no intent in establishing a US military base in Colombia?” They may not be the size of Fort Bragg, but they aren’t rest and relaxation resorts either.

Colombia is now commercially exporting militarized violence in the form of trained security units. For example, in the rural north coastal region of Honduras, following the coup, agriculture combines there hired Colombian mercenary gunmen to terrorize an organized peasant movement.

“Our chance to re-found our country”

The FNRP resistance movement has begun a petition calling for a constituent assembly to forge a new constitution. It hopes to get more than one million signatures by June 28, the anniversary of the coup, on which date it has scheduled its own assembly to begin the constitutional process.

President Zelaya wanted to start the process to rewrite the constitution, which is what got him in trouble with wealthy businessmen and the military. The notion he was trying to arrange for a second term was pure fiction.

The current constitution was written in 1982 under the oversight of US Ambassador John Negroponte during the Reagan Contra War period. It is a Rube Goldberg document of 378 articles with as many loopholes as alpine-lace Swiss cheese. It strongly favors the interests of the oligarchy.

The Constitution does stress one term Presidencies, which some argue is to prevent any challenge to the real power in Honduras, the military, the institution that carried out the coup and that the Obama administration pointedly chose not to criticize.

Coup leader General Romeo Vasquez, now CEO of HondutelCoup leader General Romeo Vasquez, now CEO of Hondutel

Article Two of the Constitution opens with this: “Sovereignty belongs to the people, from which emanates all the powers of the State to be exercised through representation.”

In this spirit, Juan Barahona, coordinator of the resistance, said, “We will prepare ourselves to participate in the next electoral process unified … with the goal of taking power.” The FNRP, which pursues a determined non-violent approach, says it plans to form itself into a political party and run a presidential candidate in the next election.

Thanks to huge job losses, extraordinary police and military expenses and other economic slowdowns due to the coup, Honduras declared bankruptcy in February. This is ironic, since the progressive policies of Manuel Zelaya were apparently giving the economy a boost.

According to a study by the Center For Economic and Policy Research, the nation’s GDP increased an average of seven percent in Zelaya’s first two years in office, and the rate of Hondurans living in poverty dropped from 66 to 61 percent. Some experts say this slight leveling of the economy frightened the entrenched oligarchy and led to the coup.

Logic and history suggest this could be the case.

The problem with a small, entrenched oligarchic class is that by hoarding everything for itself it eventually stymies consumer power. If too many people are dirt poor and don’t have jobs, they can’t buy things produced by business. The economy stagnates.

Zelaya wanted to open things up and allow some re-distribution to set off a cycle where more of the poor are able to open small businesses that begin to grow so they are, then, able to hire other poor people – and so forth – in the process creating jobs and more consumer power.

“There is no more effective way to reduce poverty than for a poor person to obtain a steady and honest job,” says Osvaldo Hurtado, a former president of Ecuador.

On top of that, to change the constitution from one that is opaque and represses the population to one that is clear and empowers the population can only further enliven the economic juices.

Jamie Rodriquez, president of the country’s largest teachers union, says, a new constitution “is our chance to re-found our country.”

The muck in The Gulch

I was deported from Honduras in June 1984 when I was part of a small delegation of US unionists interested in hearing stories of the repression going on then under the reign of Ambassador John Negroponte, the Contra War Field Marshall, and his colleague Honduran General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez. The notorious Battalion 3-16, an Argentine trained death squad that worked with our CIA, operated with impunity.

We got an earful, and the next morning we were arrested and deported.

Earlier this month, CNN reported that none other than Otto Reich spent a few days in Tegucigalpa and visited President Lobo. Reich told CNN that the Lobo administration was all about reconciliation and ending the divisions resulting from the coup. “Any allegations of violations of human rights have to be taken very seriously,” he said.

What makes this so revolting is that Cuban-born Otto Reich has been working behind the scenes to encourage human rights abuses for years, beginning in the Reagan administration when he created the Office Of Public Diplomacy (OPD), which parlayed CIA intelligence (and disinformation) into propaganda against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

In 1987, an investigation by the Comptroller General determined that the OPD engaged in “prohibited, covert propaganda activities, beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities.”

His name and reputation was so clouded that George W. Bush had to appoint him Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in a recess appointment. He was in that role during the 2002 Venezuela coup that failed.

“Although Reich has denied there was any US role in the brief coup d’etat against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in April 2002, the veteran diplomat reportedly met regularly at the White House with alleged coup plotter Pedro Carmona,” says Nikolas Kozloff, author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.

From 1986 to 1989, Reich was US Ambassador to Venezuela, and Carmona was the man designated President of Venezuela by the coup. The US did not criticize the coup until all Latin America condemned it and it failed.

Reich’s work as a private citizen during the Honduran coup seems to have been to relentlessly direct black propaganda against Zelaya, his family and elements of his regime, accusing them of all sorts of corruption in both the Miami and Honduran press. At one point, a furious Zelaya said on Honduran TV he was going to sue Reich in Miami for slander. Before he could do that he was overthrown by the military.

“There’s no smoking gun here proving US involvement in the coup, but taken together, these stories smell to high hell and should warrant further investigation,” says Kozloff.

In March, General Romeo Vasquez, the general who commanded the coup, left the military and was appointed to head Hondutel, the lucrative Honduran telephone corporation that was at the center of charges spread by Reich involving Zelaya’s nephew Marcelo Chimini, who had a high position in Hondutel and is now in prison.

In an interesting footnote, during all these charges, four prosecutors held a hunger strike on the ground floor of the National Congress to call attention to the many real cases of corruption that had been deep-sixed over the years for political reasons.

Now, General Vasquez, the man who had Zelaya arrested and violently removed from office, runs the cherry Hondutel. As a major, General Vasquez was indicted and convicted as part of an auto theft ring.

There’s also US Ambassador Hugo Llorens, like Reich, a Cuban. For some reason, he is still in Tegucigalpa. A Bush appointee, there are too many clues suggesting he knew of the coup and supported it. For starters, he made a number of public statements spreading many of the coup fictions that were repeated over and over, and reports have him at meetings with business and military people involved in the coup in the days leading up to it.

Plausible deniability, of course, is an art.

Investigate and clean out the muck

President Obama needs to replace Hugo Llorens and cut US connections with underhanded operators like Otto Reich. He also should remove any US-based obstructions to a Constituent Assembly and encourage the process of rewriting the constitution. Our Congress should have hearings on what knowledge and involvement there was in the coup in the ranks of our State Department and in our military and intelligence bureaucracy.

A current Lobo government “Truth Commission” is a farce. Its mandate does not cover the post-coup human rights violations, which are the problem. The Obama administration should not play the whitewash game and should use the power of the United States Of America to lean on the Honduran government and its military to stop the use of paramilitary violence to repress the democratic process.

Like past coups, the slick Honduran coup was intended to crush a reform movement and replace it with a repressive regime. That’s exactly what happened in 1954 in Guatemala in a famous coup the US directly managed. That coup, of course, was crude compared to today’s more nuanced coups.

So far, the 2009 Honduran coup has succeeded magnificently, thanks in no small part to the aid and comfort it has received, and is still receiving, from the Obama administration.