Obama fluffed it. That’s the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the way the military coup in Honduras has played out over the last few months. Claiming that they still regarded Manuel Zelaya, expelled on 28 June, as the legitimate president, the United States eventually got round to appearing to put pressure on the illegal regime in October. Unfortunately, their action was either so hesitant or so deliberately manipulative that Zelaya lost the best chance he had to return to power.
The ostensible justification for the coup was that Zelaya was making unconstitutional moves to run for a second term as president. However, despite the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court and most of the media maintaining this fiction, it was obvious that the real reason was his swing to the left and alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
A week after he was ousted, Zelaya tried unsuccessfully to return to Tegucigalpa in a Venezuelan plane. Then in late July he symbolically ventured a few metres across the border from Nicaragua. The military repression intensified, but so did popular protest against the coup. On 11 August, hundreds of thousands of people took part in marches converging on the two main cities. The regime appeared to tolerate this. But when the marchers split into smaller groups or went home the repression resumed. Well over 100 people are estimated to have been killed, and many hundreds more have been beaten by the police or jailed.
The regime hoped that if they could hang on till the presidential elections scheduled for late November, international acceptance of the election result would defuse the crisis. Zelaya’s clandestine arrival at the Brazilian embassy on 21 September threw them into confusion: Roberto Micheletti, the interim president, even denied Zelaya was there. A revived opposition flocked to the embassy, to be greeted by baton-wielding soldiers. The embassy was cut off, blasted by high-intensity sound and under threat of attack.
After weeks of stalemate the US at last appeared to swing into action, sending envoys to broker the so-called Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord. Signed on 30 October, it was sold to Zelaya as returning him to power in a ‘national unity’ government until his term ends in January. But it required approval by Congress, which sabotaged the deal by deciding not to meet until after the 29 November election. On 2 December they rejected the deal. With the government by then claiming a turnout of more than 60 per cent, the election was portrayed as a vindication of the coup. This was enough to sell the result to the governments of the US, Canada and Costa Rica, and newspapers such as the New York Times. It emerged later that the turnout was no higher than 50 per cent, with the popular resistance movement, who called for people to abstain, claiming it was only one third. Definitive results are still not available.
A high turnout was always unlikely in the highly militarised atmosphere. Before the poll, the army asked town councils for the names and addresses of leaders of the resistance. When news of this got out, many fled their homes until after the vote. Since the election, repression continues, with more than 4000 recorded human rights violations.
There seem to be three main outcomes of this sad affair. First, nowhere has Obama lost his shine faster than in Latin America. Despite his promise of a fresh start, he has now endorsed a regime created by a military coup. Along with the announcements of new US bases in Colombia and the failure to tackle the embargo against Cuba, it gives a strong impression of business as usual in relations between the US and the rest of the hemisphere.
Second, democratically elected leaders in Latin America – whether left-inclined or not – have good reason to fear military coups. If the views of Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet are disregarded by Washington, legitimate governments are bound to feel that they can’t rely on the US if they get on the wrong side of their own military forces.
Finally, after a brief period of trying to change its balance of power, one of the region’s smallest and poorest countries has been left to its fate. The one compensation for progressive opinion is the growth and resilience of Honduras’s popular resistance movement, which continues to argue that a country controlled by a tiny business elite, backed by the military and its powerful northern neighbour, is not a true democracy.