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A historical irony has placed little Honduras at the eye of the volcano in both the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the Group of 20 (G-20) meeting in Pittsburgh this week – even though United States corporate media would rather focus on Libyan Muammar Gaddafi and the tribulations of his traveling tent. 
As much as the 2008 financial crisis exposed the economic fallacy of US-propelled neo-liberalism, the June 28 oligarch-directed military coup in Honduras has exposed the fallacy of the Barack Obama administration’s pledge to uphold democratic values around the world. Stolen elections in Afghanistan? We don’t like it, but … Military coup in Honduras? We don’t like it, but …
What passes for official US policy at the G-20 consists of telling big exporting powers such as China, Germany and Japan to engage in an orgy of consumption (as the US used to) while vaguely promising the US will finally boost savings. Fat chance.
As for Honduras, this is now the Obama administration’s hour of truth: will it finally come clean and follow world opinion – also expressed by the UN, the European Union and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) – in condemning and isolating the coup plotters?
The stick, or deafening silence
Deposed, rightful Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has been to Washington no less than six times since the coup. Not once was he allowed to meet Obama. Then, this past Monday morning, Zelaya showed up at the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, after a spectacular run that started in Nicaragua, involved a flight to El Salvador on a plane offered by Venezuela, and a 15-hour odyssey across the border to Honduras on foot and by car, evading myriad checkpoints manned by local intelligence – which is, crucially, funded, trained and maintained by the Pentagon. Zelaya was smuggled into the Brazilian Embassy in the trunk of car.
Zelaya may have had help from Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, under the umbrella of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA). But now the strategic game-changer has been to shift the attention towards Brazil – and that means under the UNASUR.
Whether Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva knew it before hand or only at the last minute (as the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists) is irrelevant. It was not the US that called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council this week; it was Brazil.
Lula forcefully demanded the restoration of democracy in Honduras in his speech at the UN General Assembly – with strong applause from the plenary. Obama’s speech came right after Lula’s. Not a word on Honduras. Obama spoke of a “new era of engagement” or at best an “inter-connected world” – while Lula spoke about the emergence of a real multilateral world; its subtext means the hyperpower does not have the monopoly anymore, be it on the word, the stick, or deafening silence.
Obama even stressed the US “can’t fix it alone” – as if the war in Afghanistan and confrontation with Iran were global, and not only US, obsessions. (By the way: Lula met Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad face-to-face for over an hour on the sidelines of the UN assembly. He later said that as much as Brazil had the right to develop its own peaceful nuclear program, so did Iran).
By Obama’s own admission, the US can’t fix Honduras alone, but at least it could have emitted the right signals, delegitimizing the coup politically, militarily, economically and diplomatically from the beginning.
So far, the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) has engaged in a pantomime negotiated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias which calls for Zelaya’s return as president, coup plotters integrated into the government, and amnesty for everybody, including installed coup President Roberto Micheletti.
This is ludicrous. It’s as if in the (failed) George W Bush administration-supported 2002 coup against Chavez in Venezuela, the plotters would have been allowed to stay as his ministers.
Only the minimal Honduran oligarchy and the media they control support the coup. They have no social base. A communique by the National Front Against the Coup stresses that some businessmen and military who initially supported the plotters are now leaving the country. The coup plotters – emboldened by force, as if this was Latin America in the 1970s all over again – reverted to, what else, mass repression, a state of siege and tear-gassing everyone in sight.
What the majority of the people in Honduras want is their rightful president back in power and a constituent assembly, for which they are campaigning all around the country. Zelaya’s own counter-coup has been to risk his life and install a government in exile – but not in exile, inside his own country – the ultimate nightmare of any dictatorship. For the coup plotters, there are only two endgames: unleash state terrorism or get out of Dodge and beg for asylum in Panama.
The Pentagon power play
Washington’s glaring ambiguity is easily attributed to the ongoing, fierce internal war in the US. The true US supporters of the coup in Honduras are US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the State Department. But even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been forced to back down. On Monday, she finally was forced to admit “the remainder of President Zelaya’s term [is] to be respected.”
Crucially, Obama has to know how the ambiguous US stance on Honduras is a dagger pointing to his heart. It leaves his lofty promise of a new relationship between the US and Latin America in tatters. Worse still, it unveils how helpless he is facing his – in theory – subordinates at the Pentagon and the State Department, no to mention vast reactionary forces across the US for whom multilateralism means a surrender to “socialism” and to America’s enemies.
As American political activist, author and lecturer Noam Chomsky has pointed out, Central America is still traumatized by the “Reaganesque terror” of the 1980s. In a wider context in Latin America, the US used to exert control either by hardcore violence, direct or indirect, or by applying an economic stranglehold. This belongs to the past – as much as coup lovers in the Pentagon may regret it.
Coups, anyway, are far from gone. The Bush administration tried (and failed) in Venezuela in 2002; now Washington engages in subversion/propaganda via an extensive media network and National Endowment for Democracy-style support for the disgruntled local oligarchies. In Haiti, both France and the US got rid of the government and sent the president to South Africa. Honduras is a more complex case. The International Monetary Fund has just approved an enormous loan to Honduras – which will cover for the lack of direct US “assistance.”
Most of all, the US role in Honduras is a Pentagon-playing-the-New Great Game matter. The coup is intimately linked to ongoing remilitarization of Latin America – from the reactivation of the dormant Fourth Fleet to the installation of seven new military bases in Colombia. (See US’s ‘arc of instability’ just gets bigger, September 3, Asia Times Online.)
In pure Pentagonese, Honduras under Zelaya fell under the good old Cold War domino theory. The government had to go because it was linked to ALBA, which means Nicaragua and, above all, Venezuela. Chavez is playing a high stakes New Great Game – he just bought US$2 billion in weapons from Russia at a time when Moscow wants access to the Orinoco oil wealth, and he is also doing energy megadeals with China. The Pentagonese response is an array of bases in Colombia to monitor him. Now Zelaya’s move to the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa introduces an even juicier element.
Last December, Brazil struck a strategic military partnership with France – involving a multibillion-dollar purchase of submarines, helicopters and jet fighters – with full technology transfer included. Lula is privileging the French over Boeing – and obviously the US industrial-military complex is not amused. Brazil projects power independently from the US and France in South America. This is all about multilateralism in action – of the kind reactionary forces in the US simply abhor.
Brazil is a key G-20 member at the Pittsburgh summit – the largest economy in Latin America, swinging its way towards great power status, and still a key ally and trading partner of the US. Brazil may not solve the crisis in Honduras. But Lula – whom Obama immensely respects – may convince him it’s time to finally come clean, and side with the people of Honduras.
This might do wonders for Obama’s global credibility – especially now that he has seemingly backed down on his demand for a freeze on Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. (See Netanyahu and Obama: Who’s fooling who?, Asia Times Online, September 24)