Honduras and Washington: A Few Contradictions

On Tuesday, July 28, the U. S. government announced that it had revoked the visas of four leading members of the government installed by the June 28 Honduran coup. More than a month after the Honduran military awoke President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him packing to Costa Rica, it appears that Washington is finally beginning to put its foot down—lightly.

August 3, 2009

On Tuesday, July 28, the U. S. government announced that it had revoked the visas of four leading members of the government installed by the June 28 Honduran coup. More than a month after the Honduran military awoke President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him packing to Costa Rica, it appears that Washington is finally beginning to put its foot down—lightly.

The Obama administration had responded quickly with harsh statements against the coup, but over most of the last month, it has carried out few active measures to pressure the coup plotters to step down. U.S.-backed negotiations, in fact, have been criticized in some quarters for helping to legitimize the coup-installed regime.

Not one country in the world—including the United States—has recognized the de facto Honduran government of Roberto Micheletti that swore itself in the same day it deposed Zelaya in June. But the United States has dragged its feet behind Latin America and Europe and refused to pull its ambassador or to cut off all aid to the coup-installed government.

In fact, Washington has yet to officially classify the Honduran coup as a “coup d’etat,” which, by U.S. law, would forbid any U.S. aid to the de facto government. $16.5 million in aid for military assistance programs has already been suspended, but $180 million dollars in U.S. aid is still flowing—although the State Department says it is under evaluation.

A week and a half ago, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Zelaya’s decision to attempt to return to his country from the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, “reckless.” "We have consistently urged all parties to avoid any provocative action that could lead to violence," she said. A group composed of eight organizations and two dozen U.S. academics focused on Latin America quickly responded .

“Given that neither Clinton nor President Obama, nor any U.S. official, has even once criticized the Honduran dictatorship for the violence and political repression of the last four weeks, Clinton's pointing the finger at Zelaya is especially threatening to the human rights of Hondurans,” the group said in a press release.

The group pointed to the “shootings, beatings, arrests and detentions of journalists, closing of radio and TV stations, and other repression” which has been documented by a half-dozen international human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. In mid July, the Committee of Family Members of Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) published a report detailing over a thousand human rights abuses committed by the coup regime.

Yet representatives of the Micheletti government have been free to visit the United States, and General Romeo Vasquez Velásquez—head of the Honduran Armed Forces—had planned to speak in Miami last weekend. Clinton spoke briefly with Micheletti over the phone in late July and communication has been open between the Micheletti government and the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.

The White House says these conversations have been aimed at pressuring the Micheletti government to negotiate. According to the July 21 Los Angeles Times, Washington has been putting the pressure on. Clinton has said that she was “tough” in her call to Micheletti, and U.S. personnel in Honduras have been threatening consequences if Zelaya is not returned to power.

Finally, on Tuesday, July 28, Washington announced that it had cut the visas of four Hondurans working with the Micheletti regime, and that others were being evaluated. But the visa cuts were Washington’s only concrete active measures against the de facto government since it cut off the $16.5 million in military aid on Wednesday, July 8. It has now been reported that the visa cuts only pertain to their diplomatic visas— not their tourist visas—meaning the four Hondurans and their families could still travel freely to and from the United States.

Indeed, the coup plotters have some powerful friends in Washington. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Micheletti has embarked on a public relations offensive, with his supporters hiring high-profile lawyers with strong Washington connections” to lobby against sanctions. Among them are Clinton adviser Bennett Ratcliff, and Lanny J. Davis, who was a personal lawyer for President Clinton and who campaigned for Hilary Clinton. On Friday, July 10, Davis testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Micheletti de facto government.

Davis is not paid directly by the Micheletti government. He’s working for the Honduran chapter of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce (CEAL). “My main contacts are Camilo Atala and Jorge Canahuati. I'm proud to represent businessmen who are committed to the rule of law," Davis told Roberto Lovato of the American Prospect two weeks ago. Both Atala and Canahuati represent vested business interests in Honduras.

Atala is CEO of Banco Ficohsa, which according to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation , is “the third-largest bank in terms of loan portfolio and deposits” in Honduras. Canahuati is the majority owner of two of Honduras’ largest newspapers, La Prensa and El Heraldo, both of which have supported the coup. He also happens to be on the Executive Committee of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), and head of the IAPA’s International Affairs Committee. The IAPA is an organization of newspaper tycoons, publishers and editors, which, among other things, immediately recognized both the Honduran coup and the 2002 Venezuelan coup.

In its response to the ongoing Honduran coup, the organization has criticized the censorship and loss of press freedoms, and cited “complaints from news media and journalists that they are still restricted, intimidated and attacked while they attempt to report.” The organization has not, however, blamed the de facto Micheletti government for perpetrating these acts, and when it has pointed the finger, it was at “a mob” and a “People’s Commando.”

Despite their discourse in the name of “free press,” members of the organization have a long history of supporting Latin American dictatorships and U.S. interventions.

Interestingly, the IAPA secretary is Elizabeth Ballantine, the director of the McClatchy Company since March 1998. McClatchy is the third-largest newspaper company in the United States, owning 30 papers in 29 markets, including the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald in Florida. The Washington Post is also represented. Diana Daniels was Vice President of the Washington Post Company from 1988-2006, during which time she also served a few years as IAPA President. Deputy Managing Editor of the paper, Milton Coleman, is currently serving as IAPA Treasurer.

Along with many U.S. papers, the Post has painted Zelaya as a Hugo Chávez-backed caudillo, attempting to overtake the powers of the Honduran government. The Post quickly echoed the talking points of the coup plotters that Zelaya was ripped from office because he was attempting an unconstitutional referendum to extend his term in office. In fact, the Honduran President was actually planning a non-binding referendum that according to the Spanish news agency, EFE , asked the Honduran people if “during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?"

According to a legal memorandum prepared by Micheletti supporters on June 29 and available on the website of the conservative Virginia-based think tank, Americans for Limited Government, the Honduran Supreme Court had found the referendum “illegal”, because the Honduran Constitution explicitly states that certain Constitutional articles cannot be reformed; such as those that “refer to the type of government, the national territory, the presidential term and the prohibition of serving again as President of the Republic.” The Supreme Court thus inferred that since a Constituent Assembly may have attempted to reform these articles, it was unconstitutional. Therefore, they said, a referendum on the possibility of holding a Constituent Assembly was also unconstitutional.

This, of course, did not have to be the case. A reform of the Constitution could have taken place without affecting those articles. The United States knows it. According to an AP report on July 28, one of the four diplomatic visas revoked this week belonged to the “Supreme Court magistrate who ordered the arrest of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the president of Honduras' Congress.”

The position of de facto Micheletti regime is even more ironic when we remember that in October 1985, Micheletti himself had been one of a dozen Honduran congressional representatives to back a piece of legislation calling for a Constituent Assembly in order to extend the term of then-Honduran President, Roberto Suazo Córdoba. According to a July 9 article in the Salvadoran El Faro, the representatives were looking to suspend certain articles of the Honduran Constitution. “The same [articles] that now serve the Honduran authorities to justify Zelaya’s dismissal.”

Meanwhile, Nike, Adidas, Gap and Knights Apparel, who all manufacture clothing in Honduran factories, wrote to Clinton to call for the "restoration of democracy in Honduras." Honduran military has now thrown its support behind a possible negotiated solution in which Zelaya would return, albeit with limited powers. And Micheletti has hinted that he may be willing to back the San Jose accords, which would allow for Zelaya’s return.

These pronouncements could help produce a settlement. But the roots of the problem remain. As COFADEH director, Bertha Oliva, told a delegation of U.S. activists to Honduras the week after the coup, "This is a coup not only to Honduras, but to all of Latin America." It was a coup against Latin America’s leftward shift; against the possibility of a Constituent Assembly that might redistribute the scant resources in this tiny country of eight million people, where more than half the population is under the poverty line.


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