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Obama and Honduras: Si, Se Puede?

It has been said before that the real test as to whether President Obama’s foreign policy is going to be meaningfully different from past U.S. policies — not just George W. Bush’s — is in his relations with Latin America. Until last week many would have argued that the test primarily referred to U.S.-Cuba relations, or even relations between the U.S. and Venezuela. The line in the sand has, sadly, shifted since the coup in Honduras. As Roberto Lovato notes in a recent piece, Latin America is “watching Honduras and President Obama, who has still not heeded calls to suspend military aid to Honduras.” If this is change we can believe in, it has to begin here and now in Honduras.

Our allies at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) rightly point out that Latin America is taking the lead in dragging a reluctant United States into supporting democracy in Honduras. In, what is clearly, an unprecedented move not only for the region but perhaps the world, the heads of state of various Latin American countries, including Argentina, Ecuador, and Paraguay as well as the UN General Assembly President and the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States declared their intention to accompany President Manuel Zelaya back to Honduras. As Christina Fernandez-Kirchner, the president of Argentina noted in El Salvador where she and her colleagues met with Zelaya after his plane was not allowed to land, “We’re not just defending Honduras. We’re defending ourselves.”   Below is some useful background information on the coup in Honduras from CEPR that you’d be hard-pressed to find in the U.S. mainstream media, which for the most part seems insistent on pushing the line that the coup was largely a result of a power grab by Zelaya who allegedly wants to run for a second term. Meanwhile, here is an update from the ground through a report by our allies COPINH (Honduras) and Global Exchange (U.S.) on what happened when President Zelaya attempted to return.   Background on the Coup in Honduras and the U.S. Response   There was no justification for the coup. President Manuel Zelaya’s proposed survey, to have been conducted on June 28, would have been a non-binding polling of the public to gauge support for including a proposal for a constituent assembly, to redraft the constitution, on the November ballot. Here is a translation of the actual question: “Do you agree that, 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?”   The head of the military, General Romeo Vasquez refused to carry out the President’s orders to assist with conducting the survey. The president, as commander-in-chief of the military, then fired Vasquez, whereupon the Defense Minister resigned. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the president’s firing of Vasquez was illegal, and the majority of the Congress went against President Zelaya.   Zelaya’s proposed referendum would not have allowed for his re-election, as media reports have claimed: Honduras currently does not allow reelection of the president. Zelaya was not running for reelection in November, nor would he have been able to. Therefore, Zelaya’s successor was, and is, to be elected in November, and will be inaugurated next year. Prior to the planned June 28 survey, Zelaya had stated that he did not desire reelection.   Even if the Honduran electorate decided first in the June 28 non-binding survey, and then formally, in the November elections, to convene a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution, there is only a slim possibility that Zelaya would be able to be reelected before his term expires. The constituent assembly – assuming its creation had been approved during November elections – would have to be convened and then draft the new constitution and decide on including a provision on reelection – all of which are far from certain – before it would even be possible for Zelaya or any other president to be reelected, in the future.   Zelaya also recently stated again, in front of the United Nations General Assembly, that he does not desire reelection nor an extension of his term in office.   Zelaya must be restored to the presidency immediately and without conditions. If the coup regime is allowed to keep the constitutional government out of office for the remainder of Zelaya’s term, then the coup will have succeeded in overturning the will of the electorate. This could encourage a return to military coups in the Western Hemisphere, and a move away from democratic order and the rule of law. In addition, the elections scheduled for November could be cast into doubt if the current coup regime remains in power for any length of time, since the coup authorities are repressing both media and civic organizations vital for the functioning of a healthy democracy.   Since the coup, there has been almost unanimous condemnation:   1. Almost every international organization has called for Zelaya to be reinstated as the elected president of Honduras, including: the UN General Assembly, OAS, the EU, Caricom, and Mercosur. As well, many countries have made specific statements calling for his reinstatement, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Spain. Latin American countries and all European Union member states have also withdrawn their ambassadors.   2. Many countries and institutions are suspending aid and/or trade with the coup regime in Honduras. This includes the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank as well as the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua which announced a 48 hour halt in overland trade.   3. Many human rights organizations have denounced the violations of human rights of the coup government, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.   4. Many freedom of press organizations have condemned the violations of the freedom of press under the coup regime, including Reports Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Inter-American Press Association.   5. Trade union organizations have denounced the coup and called for the immediate restoration of Zelaya as president without conditions, including the AFL-CIO, the International Trade Union Confederation, and Workers Uniting.   The U.S. needs to respond as strongly as Latin America: Although the United States has signed on to unanimous OAS and UN declarations calling for the reinstatement of President Zelaya, to date, neither President Obama nor Secretary Clinton have called for his reinstatement, as has been noted in the Associated Press and elsewhere.   When pressed on whether the United States would suspend aid as is required by U.S. law when a coup is carried out, Secretary Clinton stated “Much of our assistance is conditioned on the integrity of the democratic system. But if we were able to get to a status quo that returned to the rule of law and constitutional order within a relatively short period of time, I think that would be a good outcome.”   As the New York Times has noted, “The United States, which provides millions of dollars in aid to Honduras, is the only country in the region that has not withdrawn its ambassador from Honduras.”   The U.S. neglects to officially acknowledge that a coup has been carried out: Secretary Clinton stated on June 30 that “We are withholding any formal legal determination,” on whether or not a coup had transpired, since an official recognition of a coup would trigger a suspension of U.S. aid to Honduras.   The United States is supposed to suspend aid to the coup regime, as is required by U.S. law under the Foreign Assistance Act, Sec. 508.36:   “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by decree or military coup: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such country if the President determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office.”   The coup regime suspends civil liberties, violently cracks down: There are media reports of deaths, dozens of injuries, and disappearances in the wake of the coup regime’s crackdown. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has stated its concern for over 30 people missing or detained following the coup. The IACHR also expressed concern over the persecution of civil society leaders whose homes had been surrounded and fired on by military forces.   Police violently dispersed thousands of people who gathered in Tegucigalpa on Monday to protest the illegal military coup, using tear gas and guns. Civil society leaders including trade union leaders, heads of organizations of small farmers and the rural poor, indigenous leaders, opposition politicians, and others are reporting persecution by the coup regime and are in hiding.   A Catholic priest also went into hiding after he, along with hundreds of people in the rural Olancho province, were attacked by the military on Monday. “The soldiers were shooting in all directions and beating people,” the priest, Father Jose Andres Tamayo, said. “I was grabbed and pulled into a house, where I hid under a bed. The soldiers entered but didn’t search under the bed because there was an old man in the bed above me. I lay there and listened to the cries of the people and the gunshots of the soldiers.”   The regime enacted a decree on Wednesday suspending civil liberties and allowing police and military to enter homes and detain people for more than 24 hours.   The regime has shut down television and radio stations, and arrested and assaulted journalists as part of a media blackout. The IACHR notes  “Alan McDonald, a cartoonist, was allegedly arbitrarily detained along with his 17-month-old daughter when a group of soldiers allegedly raided his house and destroyed his cartoons.”   Human rights activists claim the Honduran military is forcibly recruiting young men into its ranks.