Honduras: will coup d’etat stand?

One day after Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and deported by the army, thousands of protesters continue to mass at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa—in an increasingly tense stand-off with hundreds of camouflage-clad soldiers carrying riot shields and automatic weapons. The New York Times reports June 29 that the protesters—many wearing masks and carrying wooden or metal sticks—yelled taunts at the soldiers across the fences ringing the compound and braced for an attack. Shots were heard in the Honduran capital late Sunday the 28th, after de facto President Roberto Micheletti imposed a nationwide 48-hour curfew—which protesters continue to defy. AFP reported Monday evening that police and army troops outside the presidential palace were using tear gas to scatter protesters, who fought back with rocks and bottles. More shots were heard, although no casualties have yet been reported.

Back to the future?
The New York Times in its initial reportage June 28 called Zelaya’s ouster “the first military coup in Central America since the end of the cold war.” And indeed there is an ugly stench of deja vu here.

SOA Watch informs us that Gen. Romeo Vasquez, the head of the armed forces who led the coup, was trained at the notorious School of the Americas (SOA) at least twice—in 1976 and 1984.

Facing South, again citing SOA Watch, reminds us:

According to SOA Watch, the U.S. Army school has a particularly checkered record in Honduras, with over 50 graduates who have been intimately involved in human rights abuses. In 1975, SOA Graduate General Juan Melgar Castro became the military dictator of Honduras. From 1980-1982 the dictatorial Honduran regime was headed by yet another SOA graduate, Policarpo Paz Garcia, who intensified repression and murder by Battalion 3-16, one of the most feared death squads in all of Latin America (founded by Honduran SOA graduates with the help of Argentine SOA graduates).

It was also in 1982 that the constitution Zelaya is accused of violating was drawn up by the military regime in preparation for the (largely cosmetic) “return to democracy.” The US ambassador to Honduras at the time was John Negroponte.

Kristin Bricker of NarcoNews also points out:

The head of the Air Force, Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, studied in the School of the Americas in 1996. The Air Force has been a central protagonist in the Honduran crisis. When the military refused to distribute the ballot boxes for the opinion poll, the ballot boxes were stored on an Air Force base until citizens accompanied by Zelaya rescued them.

It was also the Air Force that transported Zelaya to Costa Rica after he was rousted from his bed by hundreds of army troops in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

US involvement?
The signs of US support for the new coup, however, are equivocal. The New York Times wrote June 28:

As the crisis escalated, American officials began in the last few days to talk with Honduran government and military officials in an effort to head off a possible coup. A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the military broke off those discussions on Sunday.

Despite this, a June 28 commentary in VenezuelAnalysis by Eva Golinger calls the Honduran affair “Obama’s First Coup d’Etat.” The piece’s most convincing evidence comes in an appended update:

UPDATE 3: 12:18pm – Dan Restrepo, Presidential Advisor to President Obama for Latin American Affairs, is currently on CNN en Español. He has just stated that Obama’s government is communicating with the coup forces in Honduras, trying to “feel out” the situation. He also responded to the reporter’s question regarding whether Washington would recognize a government in Honduras other than President Zelaya’s elected government, by saying that the Obama Administration “is waiting to see how things play out” and so long as democratic norms are respected, will work with all sectors. This is a confirmation practically of support for the coup leaders. Restrepo also inferred that other countries are interfering in Honduras’ international affairs, obviously referring to Venezuela and other ALBA nations who have condemned the coup with firm statements earlier this morning.

On the other hand, an AFP June 29 portrayed a White House forthrightly opposed to the coup:

President Barack Obama said Monday the United States believes that ousted leader Manuel Zelaya “remains the president of Honduras” and the coup in his country was a throwback to a “dark past.”

Obama addressed the political crisis in Honduras following talks with Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe and warned the coup was a backward step after two decades of “enormous” political progress” for the Western Hemisphere.

“President Zelaya was democratically elected. He had not yet completed his term,” Obama told reporters. “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there. It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections.”

Obama said that the region had made “enormous strides” on democratic reform over past decades, and the Honduran situation ran counter to the prevailing trend.

“We don’t want to go back to a dark past, the United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies,” Obama said.

The president said he believed that both Republicans and Democrats now believed Washington should always stand on the side of democracies “even if the results don’t always mean the leaders of those countries are favorable towards the United States.”

But the report added a caveat:

Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs meanwhile declined to speculate on the kind of leverage that the United States could bring to bear on the crisis, and would not say whether the president would withdraw the US ambassador to Honduras.

Another AFP story that day added:

“Our immediate priority is to restore full democratic and constitutional order in that country,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday, urging all sides to hold talks.

Yet that same day a Washington Post story was headlined “Clinton: U.S. Not Declaring Events in Honduras a ‘Coup'”:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said today the U.S. government is refraining from formally declaring the ouster of Honduras’s president a “coup,” which would trigger a cutoff of millions of dollars in aid to the Central American country…

“We are withholding any formal legal determination,” Clinton told reporters at a State Department briefing. She acknowledged, however, that it certainly looked like a coup when soldiers snatched a pajama-clad Zelaya and whisked him off to Costa Rica.

Later in the day, President Obama said the U.S. government believed the takeover was “not legal” and that Zelaya remained the country’s leader.

SOA Watch is calling for pressure on the State Department:

While the European Union and several Latin American governments just came out in support of President Zelaya and spoke out against the coup, a statement that was just issued by Barack Obama fell short of calling for the reinstatement of Zelaya as the legitimate president.

Call the State Department and the White House
Demand that they call for the immediate reinstatement of Honduran President Zelaya.

State Department: 202-647-4000 or 1-800-877-8339
White House: Comments: 202-456-1111, Switchboard: 202-456-1414

World response
Latin American leaders—including Zelaya—gathered in Nicaragua June 29 to draft a response to the Honduran crisis, while the UN General Assembly met in emergency session in New York. The governments of Latin America’s anti-imperialist bloc—Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba—announced they are withdrawing their ambassadors from Honduras, and urged the world’s government not to recognize the new regime.

Russia and Canada joined a growing list of nations to condemn the coup, while the European Commission called an urgent meeting with Central American ambassadors to consider the future of trade talks. (Reuters, AFP, op cit)

Saber-rattling with Venezuela
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said the international community should teach the de facto Honduran government “a lesson.” Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, while also strongly supporting Zelaya, said regional leaders are determined to avoid “bloodshed.”

In Honduras, Micheletti brushed off the threats and condemnation, saying he “had come to the presidency not by a coup d’etat but by a completely legal process as set out in our laws.” He also warned Chávez that his country is ready to “go to war” if there is interference by “this gentleman.” (AFP, June 29, op cit)

See our last post on Honduras.