by Laura Carlsen
Published on Tuesday, June 30, 2009 by America's Program
Thousands of Hondurans are now in the streets to protest the coup d'etat in their country. They have been met with tear gas, anti-riot rubber bullets, tanks firing water mixed with chemicals, and clubs. Police have moved in to break down barricades and soldiers used violence to push back protesters at the presidential residence, leaving an unknown number wounded.
If the coup leaders were desperate when they decided to forcibly depose the elected president, they are even more desperate now. Stripped of its pretense of legality by universal repudiation and faced with a popular uprising, the coup has turned to more violent means.
The scoreboard in the battle for Honduras shows the coup losing badly. It has not gained a single point in the international diplomatic arena, it has no serious legal points, and the Honduran people are mobilizing against it. As the military and coup leaders resort to brute force, they rack up even more points against them in human rights and common decency.
Only one factor brought the coup to power and only one factor has enabled it to hold on for these few days-control of the armed forces. Now even that seems to be eroding.
Cracks in Army Loyalty to the Coup?
Reports are coming in that several battalions-specifically the Fourth and Tenth-have rebelled against coup leadership. Both Zelaya and his supporters have been very conscious that within the armed forces there are fractures. Instead of insulting the army, outside the heavily guarded presidential residence many protesters chant, "Soldiers, you are part of the people."
President Zelaya has been remarkably respectful in calling on the army to "correct its actions." It is likely the coup will continue to lose its grip on the army as intensifying mobilizations force it to confront its own people.
International Community Imposes Sanctions
In the diplomatic arena, it's not that the coup is losing its grip-it never even got a foothold. The meeting of the Central American Integration System in Managua Monday became a forum for pronouncements from one after another of the major diplomatic groups in the region. Latin America is a region where diplomatic recombinations have proliferated in recent years, so the alphabet soup of solidarity statements just keeps on growing.
The Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) issued a resolution, announcing the withdrawal of its ambassadors while continuing the member countries' international cooperation programs in Honduras. The group urged other nations to do the same-a growing list including Brazil and Mexico has already followed suit.
The ALBA group cited the Honduran Constitution, which states in Art. 3:
"No one owes obedience to a government that has usurped power or to those who assume functions or public posts by the force of arms or using means or procedures that rupture or deny what the Constitution and the laws establish. The verified acts by such authorities are null. The people have the right to recur to insurrection in defense of the constitutional order."
Putting teeth behind the words has already begun. The Central American countries agreed to close off their land borders to all commerce with Honduras for the next 48 hours. The Central American Bank for Economic Integration has cut off all lending until the president is restored to power.
It also called for sanctions in multilateral organizations: "We propose that exemplary sanctions be applied in all multilateral organizations and integration groups, to contribute to bringing about the immediate restitution of the constitutional order in Honduras, and to make good on the principle of action that Jose Marti taught us when he said: 'If each one does his duty, no one can overcome us.'"
The Rio Group of Latin American and Caribbean nations also met in Managua and issued a statement condemning the coup and supporting Zelaya. Organization of American States Sec. General Jose Insulza was there too. President Zelaya received a standing ovation following his closing speech.
The U.S. government has been unambiguous in its condemnation of the coup and support of President Zelaya. President Obama stated today:
"We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there." He added, "It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backward into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections."
After years of the Bush administration, when the commitment to democracy abroad was decided more on the basis of ideological affinities than democratic practice, some sectors have trouble accepting that the U.S. government is condemning the overthrow of a president who espouses left-wing causes. Note the obstinacy of reporters at today's State Department press conference:
QUESTION: "So Ian, I'm sorry, just to confirm-so you're not calling it a coup, is that correct? Legally, you're not considering it a coup?"
MR. KELLY: "Well, I think you all saw the OAS statement last night, which called it a coup d'état, and you heard what the Secretary just said ..." (Clinton explicitly called it a coup).
This discussion and another drawn-out discussion in which reporters attempted to open up a window of doubt over support for reinstatement of Zelaya went on quite a while. Ian Kelly, the Dept. spokesperson, held fast as reporters tried to equate supposed violations of law by Zelaya with a military coup in a fantasy "everyone's-at-fault" scenario. Kelly reiterated that the coup is indeed an illegal coup and the only solution is the return of the elected president.
The "coup question" is more than semantics and has implications beyond conservative media's political agenda to justify the coup leaders. When a legal definition of coup is established, most U.S. aid to Honduras must be cut off.
Here's the relevant part of the foreign operations bill:
Sec. 7008. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to titles III through VI of this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.
So far, the Obama administration has focused on diplomatic efforts and is waiting to see how long the Honduran stand-off will last before looking to specific sanctions. The probability that the coup's days are numbered makes that a reasonable strategy for the time being.
Attack on Freedom of Expression
The military coup has also launched an all-out attack on freedom of expression in the country. Venezuela's Telesur reports that its team was detained and military personnel threatened to confiscate its video equipment if it continued to broadcast.
The ALBA declaration notes the use of censorship as a tool of the coup, "This silence was meant to impose the dictatorship by closing the government channel and cutting off electricity, seeking to hide and justify the coup before the people and the international community, and demonstrating an attitude that recalls the worst era of dictatorships that we've suffered in the 20th century in our continent."
Grassroots organizations that support President Zelaya have faced an uphill battle against the media, which alternates between scaring people about the risk to keep them out of the streets and denying the existence of those who do go out. A message from Via Campesina Honduras warns people that information is controlled by the coup to hide opposition, cut off communications on many channels, and only allow information that favors them. They have now organized to open up contact with reporters throughout the world.
An increasingly organized opposition and independent media on the scene and on the net are breaking through the information blockade. A third source is Twitter. A major player in the Iranian uprising, Twitter has become the pulse of, if not the body politic, at least some bodies of that politic.
All this means that the information black-out designed by the coup is riddled with points of light. It's still hard to get statistical information like crowd numbers or figures of killed and wounded, but Honduras is certainly not the isolated and insignificant "banana republic" it once was.
The Return of the President
Zelaya now leaves for New York City where he will speak before the General Assembly of the United Nations to further outpourings of support. In Managua, he announced that from there he will return, accompanied by Insulza, to Honduras.
In an interview with CNN a coup leader said that Zelaya "can return to Honduras-as long as he leaves his presidency behind."
The Honduran ambassador to the UN, Jorge Reina, said that although the coup leaders have asked to address the UN, "the UN does not recognize them ... They have made a serious mistake, those who think that countries can be led through coups."
"That history has passed."
For More Information
ALBA and Via Campesina Issue New Declarations Against the Honduran Coup http://americasmexico.blogspot.com/2009/06/alba-and-via-campesina-issue-new.html
Honduran Coup Moves from Failed Arguments to Repression, International Sanctions Imposed http://americasmexico.blogspot.com/2009/06/honduran-coup-moves-from-failed.html
Resolution from the OAS Diplomatically Isolates Honduran Leaders http://americasmexico.blogspot.com/2009/06/resolution-from-oas-diplomatically.html
© 2009 Center for International Policy (CIP)
Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(at)ciponline.org) is director of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) in Mexico City, where she has been an analyst and writer for two decades. She is also a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.