US and IMF Intensify Sanctions on Honduran Coup Regime


9-10-09, 9:57 am

The noose is tightening around the coup regime installed in Honduras after the military coup against President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya on June 28. Not only has the internal resistance to the coup regime remained strong and constant, but now the United States and the International Monetary Fund are threatening to cut off financial support to the coup government if Mr. Zelaya and constitutional norms are not restored.

The coup, carried out to prevent Honduras from integrating itself into the left-leaning Bolivarian Alliance for Our America (ALBA), took place on the day in which there was to be a nonbinding popular consultation to ask that the elections schedules for November 29 include, besides ballots for president, the unicameral legislature and local offices, a binding referendum calling for a constituent assembly in 2010 to rewrite the 1982 constitution. Labor unions and organizations representing farmers, women and indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities among others, had hoped that such a constitutional reform could give them a way to wrest power from the 10 wealthy families which, along with the CIA, the US military and the US and international corporations, have run this small and extremely poor Central American country as their fiefdom for more than a century. President Zelaya, in spite of coming from a wealthy landowning family, had taken the part of the workers and peasants in this and other matters, so he had to go.

The internal resistance, under the umbrella of the National Front Against the coup, has kept up protests on an almost everyday basis since June 28, in spite of vicious repression by the military and police which has resulted in the loss of a number of lives as well as injuries, disappearances and arrests of a great many others. Although supporters of the coup regime led by businessman and former Congress President Roberto Micheletti have attacked pro-Zelaya radio and TV facilities and put some equipment out of commission, the Honduran protesters have been able to continue to get the message out via texting and other electronic means, as well as word of mouth, to keep up this impressive level of mobilization, behind demands for Zelaya's return, the holding of the blocked referendum, and punishment for the coup plotters. Zelaya's wife and other members of his family have been extremely active and visible within Honduras helping to encourage resistance.

Zelaya himself has been traveling around the whole Western Hemisphere in an extremely successful effort to intensify opposition to the coup and support for his return to power. The Organization of American States immediately condemned the coup, as did the United Nations General Assembly and many individual nations and multinational organizations. More recently, the important UNASUR organization, a bloc which includes all South American countries, strongly put itself on record as not only opposing the coup but also refusing to recognize the results of the November 29 elections if they are carried out under the Micheletti coup regime.

But the United States is by far Honduras' largest trading partner, and also the source of large amounts of economic and military aid. So from the start, the attitude of the Obama administration was closely watched. Although Obama denounced the coup and called for Mr. Zelaya's restoration to power, there was a lot of suspicion on the part of the left both regionally and within Honduras when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed that Costa Rican president Oscar Arias act as a mediator. Arias is not trusted by the Latin American left because he is seen as a supporter of pro-corporate, neo-liberal policies which they are fighting against. Many, including leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and other left-led countries, feared that the Arias mediation could become a mechanism whereby Micheletti and his colleagues could stall for time until the elections, in the hope that once an elected government was in power, the rest of the world would forget about Honduras and things would return to the normal routine of exploitation of the vast majority of the 7½ million Hondurans by the 10 oligarchic families.

However, Micheletti and his team have not exhibited the talents necessary to carry off such a poker-players' strategy. First the coup foreign minister blurted out racial insults against President Obama (calling him “that little Black fellow who knows nothing” and “that little Black sugar-cane cutter”). Then Micheletti made it blatantly obvious that he was not interested in negotiating seriously via the Arias mediation process. Arias proposed a compromise plan whereby Zelaya would return to the presidency with reduced power (including giving up the idea of the referendum), there would be an amnesty for everybody on both sides of the dispute, and the control of the elections would be taken away from the executive. Zelaya immediately accepted this plan, but Micheletti has not, saying that both the return of Zelaya to power and an amnesty for him are out of the question.

In the United States, the cause of the coup regime was taken up by the same ultra-right Republican politicians and journalists (?) who are attacking Obama for everything from health care reform to his speech to the nation's schoolchildren. A craftier character, lobbyist and former Bill and Hillary Clinton advisor Lanny Davis, hired by Honduran business interests to round up public and congressional support for the coup regime, tried to make a plausible case for the legitimacy of the coup, but found himself some very exotic company, including of the whole claque of anti-Cuba extremists from South Florida, who undercut his “reasonable” message.

Within the United States, organized labor (including the AFL-CIO and SEIU), church and civil rights organizations spoke out with unusual vehemence, unity and clarity against the coup and in favor of the United States using its power and leverage, for once, to support the aspirations of the workers and farmers in Honduras. With Congressmen Bill DelaHunt, D-Mass., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., taking the lead, a Congressional resolution (H. RES 630) and a powerfully phrased letter to the president are being employed in favor of Zelaya and against the coup.

So it was a pleasant, but not a huge surprise when, after Hillary Clinton met with Zelaya in Washington last Thursday, the United States announced a series of measures that will strongly intensify the rather weak sanctions which had been previously announced.

The State Department statement still skirted one issue that had been a source of irritation, namely whether this was a military coup or not, by using the formula that the coup had involved several branches of government including the military. However, it made clear that the United States will not recognize any government elected on November 29 if the Arias proposals have not been accepted, which means that Zelaya has to be returned to power. This is an extremely important step, which explicitly recognizes the game Micheletti has been playing, of trying to run out the clock on the elections.

Furthermore, the State Department announced that the US visas of key coup people would be canceled (without yet naming names). This is potentially a powerful weapon against the Honduran elite, who, like their counterparts in other Latin American countries, have interests in the United States and sometimes live more in Miami than they do in Honduras. Now they will have to go all the way to Paris to shop!

Finally, real economic sanctions were announced. The State Department said that all non humanitarian aid is now being suspended. And importantly, this week the board of the Millennium Challenge Grant, of which Hillary Clinton is a member, will decide on a cutoff of those funds as well.

Such substantial sanctions will inevitably make life harder for poor Hondurans, but an examination of how U.S. economic aid really works would show that those who will really be squeezed will be the wealthy elites who expected to get juicy contracts via the Millennium Challenge and other sources. One such is reputed to be construction magnate Elvin Santos, the Liberal Party's candidate for the Presidency in November.

There are also reports that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was providing some of the funding for carrying out the November 29 elections.

If these funds are now cut off, it would be an even greater help in delegitimizing the electoral process and results.

The position taken by the Clinton State Department does not completely satisfy the demands of Zelaya and the Honduran left. Nothing, so far, has been said about Zelaya's demand that the United States freeze assets belonging to Micheletti and his gang in the US. Some of the details of the sanctions have yet to be elucidated, as well as the specific names of the people whose visas are to be yanked. And the resistance within Honduras says it is not going to give up the idea of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

But the State Department announcement nevertheless won praise from Zelaya and his supporters. Interviewed by Tom Haydn in the Nation magazine, Zelaya shrewdly pointed out that the coup plotters were also testing the resolve of the Obama administration to carry through promised changes on Latin American policy, and that by holding fast to the anti-coup position, Obama will strengthen his hand regionally. Within the United States, the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) characterized the State Department's step as “a very important signal to the Honduran government and Latin America that the united States will not support coup d'états [sic] in the hemisphere.”

Hard on the heels of the State Department announcement, the International Monetary Fund also announced that it was blocking authorization for the coup government to use $163 millions it had previously authorized.

The Micheletti regime is not left totally without resources. The right wing government of Canada, a country which has important mining interests in Honduras, is not on board with the full program of pressure. Private corporations and right wing political groups in the United States continue to organize material support for the coup regime. Micheletti, also, has hinted that in order to keep the coup government going he will simply squeeze the Honduran people harder. Already prices have been rising, and the BBC has reported that this has led to an increase in the amount of money being sent to their relatives by Hondurans living in the United States. And the coup regime announced this week that it is going to stop intercepting illegal drug flights which pass through Honduran airspace bound for the United States.

But for de facto president Micheletti, army commander General Romeo Vasquez Velazquez and coup supporters at home and on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, the prospects are gloomy.