Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bold return by President Zelaya

Dithering US action prevents removal of the de facto regime even as president Zelaya returns bravely back to the country.

Ousted Honduras president Jose Manuel Zelaya made a dramatic return to his country on September 21st by taking refuge in the Brazilian embassy in capital Tegucigalpa after secretly travelling and defying the de facto government's ban on his entry. Zelaya was removed in a military coup and sent to exile on June 28th this year, apparently for trying to bring about a referendum on term limits coinciding with scheduled presidential elections in November 2009. Since then, despite outright condemnation and rejection of legitimacy by all Latin American nations through the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) - for most of them, coups have been a historical blight - and even by the United States, the European Union and the UN General Assembly, the coup plotters and the "interim government" led by Roberto Micheletti has brazenly refused to re-instate Zelaya.

Jose Manuel Zelaya is a leader of the Liberal Party which is considered to be a moderate party in the Honduran polity. He managed to garner sufficient support from the poor due to welfare measures such as increases in minimum wages to the tune of 60%, free primary schooling and lowered prices for transportation. The Honduran elite - the country was a military dictatorship till as late as 1982 - had perfected a system where the US trained military basically remained a paramount force meddling with the democratic institutions, helped by the fact that democratically elected presidents were given only a single term to rule. Zelaya tried to change this constitutionally and recommended a non-binding referendum for a new constituent assembly coinciding with the November elections to gauge public opinion on the term limits, after the Supreme Court refused to allow a binding referendum through a technicality. This move by Zelaya was offered as an excuse to stage the military coup and a puppet was installed after Zelaya was forced out of the country.

The Honduran economy is atypical of most Latin American countries, with a minimal oligarchy controlling and owning much of it. Zelaya's attempt to address this imbalance by following pro-poor measures, marking a shift to the left despite being elected from a conservative platform turned the oligarchy against him. The coup was initially supported by business circles as well, but international censure and halt in diplomatic ties has hurt businesses - export ones in particular - since the June 28th coup and many businessmen have left the country. The attitude of the US government toward the coup has been the most intriguing. While the Barack Obama presidency has been quick to condemn the coup and to call for Zelaya's return, the administration has been curiously ambivalent about the steps to be taken for the same. The US administration has yet to declare the coup as a "military" one, for if it did so, various levels of aid to the Honduran government would have to be cut. Sections in the US polity and administration are loath to let Honduras become closer to other leftist states in Latin America- Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). These sections prefer a far more pliant and right wing regime in Honduras, as a prop to halt the sweeping left wing consolidation in the continent and as a counterweight to the ALBA project and hence the dilly-dallying by the Obama administration when it comes to outrightly declaring the Honduran coup as a military one.

Considering that the US has for long played an agent provocateur role in many of the coups in Latin America for years now - some of the coup plotters in Honduras have a disreputable background for having played a role in others such as the attempted Venezuelan coup in 2003- the Obama administration's attitude marks some kind of a change. But as a case of old habits dying hard, the US administration refuses to walk the talk and put up palpable pressure on the de facto Micheletti regime. The US administration has taken a middle path - cutting nominal aid to the tune of a few million dollars, but retaining other significant quantities of aid, helping the de facto regime in many ways.

The bold move by Zelaya to return back - reportedly in the trunk of a car after hiking through border passes secretively - to Tegucigalpa and his refuge in the Brazilian embassy is a significant step in the process of restoring the elected president. Apparently he was helped in this endeavour by the ALBA. The presence of the recognised president in the capital is a major blow to the de facto regime's claims of legitimacy, and whose response has been to shut down independent media outlets, and throwing tear gas shells in the embassy complex, threatening to storm it besides continuing the daily repression against coup protesters. More than a 100 casualties have been reported since the coup as the military has clamped down heavily on protestors, only for the new Latin American phenomenon of new social and political movements mobilising even stronger anti-coup protests in Honduras. Zelaya's move to approach the Brazilian embassy is portentous since Brazil is seen as a major Latin American and international player without carrying a baggage of outright hostility toward the US. Lula Da Silva, the Brazilian president has also pooh-poohed the de facto regime's taunts and threats to storm the embassy.

The growing internal discord and unambiguous antipathy among the international community - barring a dithering and calculating US - suggests that there remains only two options for the de facto regime currently; either step down with the protagonists in the coup seeking asylum in some other country or to continue repression while alienating the Honduran population even further. Either ways, it would only strengthen the progressive movement in the country.

Having said that, recent reports indicate that the business elite is ruing its support for the coup, upset particularly by the losses that it has had to incur due to the cutting of diplomatic ties and aid by various nations. The business elite has thus sought a compromise which would essentially bring back Zelaya but with very many reduced powers and retention of the coup plotters in positions of power (Michelleti as a "life long Congressman" is one of the demands). Besides this, the powerful elite also wants to halt any eventuality that would shift the locus of power to the left and for Zelaya to return merely as a figurehead. Another demand by the elite asks for a "peacekeeping force" of about 3000 soldiers from conservative led nations to prevent Zelaya from hurting the status quo. This turn of events toward a figurehead leftist president back in power with the channels of power still remaining in conservative hands surely fits into the US scheme of things for Honduras and the social and political movements of the poor who are orchestrating the return of Zelaya through protests must be cautious not to let such a culmination to pass.

The attention devoted to the natural resources rich region of West Asia and the paradigm of "clash of civilisations" adopted by the erstwhile US administration gave some kind of a break for the Latin American nations in helping the leftist project in these countries. The renewed emphasis by Barack Obama to contain this project by refocussing US energies in this region can emerge as a challenge both to the ALBA as well as the fledgling social and left projects in countries such as Honduras for example. By continuing to articulate an alternate pro-poor vision, and by continuing to emphasise a transformation of the polity into more popular democracies, the social and left movements in various countries in Latin America (and even beyond) can resist conservative takeover through US help.

Portions of this piece also constitute the draft of an editorial written for the EPW

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