The Wrong Kind Of Affront To Democracy


Remember when Greg Sheridan was weeping about people in the Western media ignoring the plight of the Iranians, and their struggle for democracy? That this conspiracy of silence showed who didn’t really care about human rights?

Well, there is a vast silence across our media. Unlike the sympathetic coverage that blanketed Western media for the Iranians, the Hondurans have won few mentions. Although news of the coup in Honduras has been reported by the Australian print media, there have been no op-eds published calling for the restoration of Zelaya — and certainly no impassioned displays that compare to the response to events in Iran.

This is not because the story itself is uninteresting or unexciting. In terms of human interest, it should be about as interesting as Iran, if not more so. In Iran, it is not even clear whether the majority of protestors were struggling for a liberal democracy, or more mild reforms.

In the case of Honduras, the overthrow of democracy has been both stark and blatant. Manuel Zelaya, the elected president, was abducted at gunpoint from his palace. He was forced onto a plane, and sent to Costa Rica. Governments all over the world denounced the coup and demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement. There is nothing ambiguous here. Hondurans have one legitimate government: the one they elected.

The United Nations General Assembly has demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement. The Organisation of American States (OAS) has demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement. The OAS even unanimously agreed to expel Honduras in early July, with a vote of 33 to 0.

When Zelaya said he was going to return to Honduras, the coup-makers replied that they would arrest him if he returned. In an unbelievable display of internationalism, Zelaya was to be accompanied on his return home. The Secretary-General of the UN General Assembly, the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay planned to fly into Honduras with Zelaya in what would have been an unprecedented act of internationalist civil rights action.

When the coup-makers, panicking, responded by closing down the airports and blocking the runways, the Honduran people took to the streets. Some estimate a protest of 10,000, others in excess of 100,000. The Hondurans marched on the airport, struggling for their own elected president to return to the country he governs. A photographer for the Times reported that the Honduran military, "completely unprovoked", opened fire on the demonstrators. Many were injured, and at least one person was shot dead. Zelaya was not able to return to Honduras.

It’s thrilling stuff, isn’t it? Newsworthy, even. Yet no one seems to care. The coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times, for example, routinely strays into sympathy for the coup regime.

Why is this so? The issues aren’t complicated at all.

It is alleged that Zelaya was seeking to change the constitution and get re-elected. It should be emphasised, however, that seeking a second term in office is not tantamount to dictatorship. Furthermore, the proposed referendum was to decide whether an assembly for drawing up a new constitution should be elected or not. Voters were asked the following 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?" Finally, the proposed referendum was non-binding.

If the referendum had been held, the outcome might have influenced the November presidential elections with a new ballot. Zelaya himself would obviously not benefit, as he was unable to run for the November elections and his desire not to run is on record. So while a future Honduran president might contemplate a second term, Zelaya was not so inclined. The referendum is a spurious pretext for the military to abduct a sitting president at gunpoint, a point of view shared by dozens of leading experts on Latin America.

A less official allegation against Zelaya — popular as it may be on Fox News — is that he is in cahoots with Hugo Chavez. Relying more on innuendo than fact or reason, names like Jose Ortega of Nicaragua, Raul Castro of Cuba and Evo Morales of Bolivia are summoned to concoct a fanciful dictatorial conspiracy. There is even less to this line of smear than the former charges. Castro is a dictator, the others are not. And even if they were dictators that would bear very little on the current situation. If our concern is democracy there are no grounds for the military to abduct the president at gunpoint.

The fear of Chavez, Ortega and Morales — as well as Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Fernando Lugo of Uruguay — has another source. As I have noted elsewhere, even CNN engages in class analysis to explain events in Honduras: the "powerful economic and political elites" opposed Zelaya. And they also oppose the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the leftist governments in the region which threaten their hold on wealth and power. Typically, these elites have maintained close relations with the US which spent the second half of the 20th century instigating and supporting coups against Latin American governments.

Oddly, CNN’s story is not so different from Zelaya’s version: "Honduras is controlled by a group of 10 families that control the entire economy." This "reactionary group" opposed his attempts to help the poor, because Zelaya does not "believe in military elites or economic elites".

Even allowing for the possibility that Zelaya might be exaggerating his beneficence to the poor, the New York Times, giving space to Zelaya’s critics, tells an astonishingly different story. They accuse him of "blatant populism". An example of this appalling tendency, as noticed by a real estate developer interviewed for the article, was "increasing the minimum wage by more than 50 per cent". In one of the poorest and unequal countries in the region, such an action was plainly criminal.

Indeed, such allegedly populist actions go some way to explaining why Washington quietly backed the coup.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Philip Crowley, was asked whether the coup had created a rift between Chavez and Zelaya, and whether this pleased Washington. Crowley replied, "[if]we were choosing a model government and a model leader for countries of the region to follow, that the current leadership in Venezuela  would not be a particular model. If that is the lesson that President Zelaya has learned from this episode, that would be a good lesson." Washington, in fact, has taught a stern lesson to everyone in Latin America about what may happen to leftist governments.

A major reason why we in the West should care about the coup in Honduras is because we can actually do something about it. The de facto Honduran coup government is vulnerable. If the US Government formally recognised that a coup took place, they would have to cut off aid. This is vital to what the Washington Post recognises as America’s "enormous clout" over Honduras.

Indeed, a US official has recognised that it would be very hard for a country "like Honduras to maintain this kind of position in the face of overwhelming rejection by the world, and especially by the region and its major trading partners". Yet the US continues to provide millions of dollars in aid to Honduras, and is the only country in the region that has not withdrawn its ambassador from Honduras. On 20 July, the US Government confirmed that they had not legally ruled this a coup d’etat. They will not do so without an increase in international pressure.

Behind the scenes, there have been other signs of US complicity with the coup. The New York Times reported that the OAS had "shifted" from boycotting talks with Roberto Micheletti, the acting President of Honduras, to opening "direct channels of communication" because the Obama Administration had wanted to get the talks happening "sooner rather than later". The implication is that Obama pressured the OAS to talk to the coup government.

The New York Times also reported on the talks that the US had organised between the coup government and Zelaya. They were to be mediated by Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias. Hillary Clinton was reportedly not keen to "prejudge" the talks by calling for Zelaya’s return. It would be "fair to let the parties themselves, with President Arias’s assistance, sort out all of these issues", she said.

Why? Arias plainly has no ability to compel Micheletti to surrender, and is asked to mediate between the two parties, rather than take sides. Arias’s proposal, it turns out, aims to satisfy both Zelaya and the coup government, with an offer of a unity government. This means rewarding those who planned the kidnap of the President. Zelaya’s delegation accepted the proposal in principle. The coup government rejected it — presumably because they think they can do better.

Whether or not this is the case depends on continued pressure from the international community. We can let the military of Honduras, in collusion with the US, teach Zelaya that independent, leftist governments will not be tolerated in Latin America. Or we can struggle towards a different conclusion for Honduras and the rest of the region.

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.