Does The US Really Like Democracy?


The electoral fraud in Iran was bad enough. Certainly, the Western media gave it no shortage of coverage. The human rights violations of countries not allied to the US is usually subjected to closer scrutiny than human rights violations by its allies and client states. In the midst of it, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an uncharacteristic article, noting that Iran was far more democratic than, for example, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Whereas elements of America’s right have been complaining that Obama has not been vocal enough in criticising Iranian repression, they were largely silent at his recent praise for the "wisdom and graciousness" of the Saudi King.

Some may think I’m overly cynical. The Western media doesn’t take its marching orders from the White House, it cares because an "electoral coup" in Iran is a major human rights violation, and is happening right now.

Okay, well history has furnished us with a paired study. Right now, the Honduran military carried out a military coup. According to elected president Manuel Zelaya, the army attacked his palace and forced him onto a plane, which took him to Costa Rica.

The military coup in Honduras is a far more serious strike against democracy than electoral fraud in theocratic Iran. What sort of reaction can we expect from the US Government, and what sort of reaction should we hope for?

Firstly, we should understand the forces involved. Zelaya was planning to hold a referendum on the issue of constitutional reform. His critics suggest this was to enable his re-election in 2010. According to Reuters, he denies he was seeking a second term. CNN Correspondent Karl Penhaul reported something which has gone unreported in much mainstream coverage of the coup: that the referendum on constitutional reform was to push through a variety of "leftist reforms". Penhaul says that Zelaya thought, given the rapid installation of a new government, that the coup was planned by both the military and "powerful political and economic elites".

There are other issues that would have alarmed these elites. The New York Times reported that Zelaya was a "leftist aligned with President Hugo Chavez". The New York Times does not like mentioning the increased regional cooperation in Central and Latin America, particularly the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. This includes, in addition to Honduras and Venezuela, seven other countries, including Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

What do these countries have in common? They have leftist governments, and have turned away from US hegemony towards a system more independent of the US, based on mutual support. They are desperately poor, and with the exception of Cuba, have tremendous wealth inequalities. Reuters notes that Honduras is "one of the poorest countries in Latin America", with "massive unemployment" and "lacklustre economic growth" this year.

Can we find other clues to understanding the current crisis in the corporate media? Returning to the New York Times, we are told that this is the "first military coup in Central America since the end of the Cold War". Reuters, less censoriously, notes that Chavez "accused" Washington of backing the attempted coup against him in 2002, and mentions the US role in former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return to power in 1994.

In fact, the US did support the coup against Chavez. We have only limited information about its role, but we do know that the CIA was aware that a coup was going to occur. Put aside any role it could have played in prevention, and the question as to whether it offered support for the planners of the coup. We know that after the coup took place, they lied in defence of the coup, saying it wasn’t one, and attempted to rally regional governments in recognition of the new government installed by coup.

Haiti is a more shocking case. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power in 1994, like Reuters reports, but only on condition that he implement a variety of right-wing IMF-approved economic programs. This is not what he was elected for. Although he needed US support to return to Haiti, he had been overthrown by thugs supported by the US. In the case of the paramilitary terrorist organisation FRAPH, they were founded by someone on the CIA payroll, and launched with US weapons.

After winning another landslide election in 2000, Aristide was again overthrown in 2004, again preventing him from enacting leftist social reforms. In that case, Aristide — not unlike Zelaya today — claims that he was kidnapped by American forces, who flew him to the Central African Republic. Between the two coups, thousands of Haitians were slaughtered by a military and paramilitary supported by the US. US officials were still maintaining Aristide’s removal was for the best a year later, ridiculing the "obsessive" "will to power" of a man who thought his election should grant him the right to be president.

These two coups against democratically elected governments were supported by the Bush administration. They continue a long and sordid history, including the overthrow of elected governments in Chile, Brazil, Guatemala and elsewhere. It used to be claimed that this was because of the Cold War, even when the governments overthrown were not communist, but socialist or social democratic. Typically, the US has acted in support of tiny "political and economic elites" in Latin America, to prevent social change, despite the desperate poverty and inequality of much of their populations. In Honduras, Reuters reported that those "upset" by Zelaya’s reforms and connections with Chavez are "the army and the traditionally conservative rich elite".

The response by the UN has been to condemn the coup, and call for Zelaya’s reinstatement. In what is a promising symptom of increased Latin American independence, their governments have, individually and through the Organisation of American States, condemned the coup and called for the reinstatement of Zelaya. This includes the more right wing governments in Colombia and Costa Rica.

The US, however, has been more cautious. Obama and Clinton both commented on the coup, without using the word "coup", or insisting on the reinstatement of Zelaya. Instead, they both, slightly differently, call for the issue to be resolved "peacefully", and "through dialogue". Anonymous Obama officials said that the US backs OAS efforts to condemn the coup and demand Zelaya’s reinstatement.

However, it is worth noting that Obama himself has not done so. This is despite the obvious fact of US leverage over the Honduran military and opposition.

This is another part of the puzzle which can almost be pieced together from the mainstream media. The Guardian notes that Honduras was a "staunch ally in the 1980s" when "Washington helped Central American governments fight left-wing guerillas". More accurately, Honduras, which has previously suffered under military regimes, was used by Washington as a base for terrorism by the Contras and in assistance of state terrorism in the region.

US closeness to the Honduran military continues. According to Eva Golinger, "The US Military Group in Honduras trains around 300 Honduran soldiers every year, provides more than $500,000 annually to the Honduran Armed Forces and additionally provides $1.4 million for a military education and exchange program for around 300 more Honduran soldiers every year."

She also writes that the US gives $50 million to opposition groups. Furthermore, the "leaders of the coup today", such as Romeo Vasquez, "are graduates of the US School of the Americas", which has a particularly odious history in Latin America. This is significant: the military is largely trained by the US, and the economy is "highly dependent on the US economy". A coup in Honduras is only possible with at least tacit US support and acceptance.

Given all this, there are troubling signs. Golinger reported that Obama’s advisor on Latin American Affairs, Dan Restrepo, told CNN that Obama was trying to "feel out" the situation, and was "waiting to see how things play out". This could well mean that if the coup is judged to be successful — unlike the quickly reversed one in Venezuela — Obama could accept it. This may be difficult because of the international mobilisation against it. However, that is not to say that it can’t happen.

More troubling in my view is yet another clue in the New York Times. The tacit admission in the following is incredible: "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." (Italics added.)

That is to say, the anonymous official claims that they saw the coup coming. If this is the case, it seems likely they did not use the full weight of their influence to deter such an event, nor do they seem to have informed Zelaya of this seemingly significant information.

This is no insignificant matter: the fate of Latin America may depend on it. If the US has had no hand in the coup, and acts to undo it, it would mark an important rejection of Latin America’s dark years of hideous military coups and juntas, death squads and state terrorism. If the US offers support for the coup regime, it will send a dark and horrible warning to everyone in the region. It will become a demonstration of the fate to await others who dare seek social change.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.