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Central America Plunged Back Into Chaos

By Jim Taylor

07 July, 2009

A military coup in a Latin American nation sounds as routine as afternoon tea in England. It feels a bit different if you’ve been there.

Joan and I took a holiday in Honduras last January. I was a little nervous about going. Much of my exposure to Central America came while brutal civil wars raged in the region.

Reports from church workers and missionaries tended to blame government forces and right-wing paramilitaries who slaughtered their imagined enemies with apparent impunity.

Neither religion nor nationality offered security. Nuns were raped, priests murdered. Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in his cathedral while celebrating Mass.

But the Canadian government website stated that Honduras had been relatively stable since the 1980s, with a democratically elected and generally respected government.
So we went. And enjoyed our visit. Indeed, we were thinking of taking our daughter and grandchildren back with us next winter.

Then last Sunday morning, about 100 soldiers stormed the presidential residence, seized president Manuel Zelaya at gun point, and exiled him in his pyjamas to Costa Rica.

The lead up

The chain of events seems clear, even if the outcome remains cloudy. President Zelaya wanted to amend the Constitution, partly to allow him to run for an extra term.

The country was going to the polls on Sunday– not to extend his term, as the western media have incorrectly reported, but to decide whether to include in the November election an option “to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution.”

That’s a direct translation of the words on the ballot.

It was not, in other words, a referendum on extending Zelaya’s tenure. It asked the people whether they wanted their constitution reopened.

As in many poor countries – Pakistan is a classic example – the military is about the only functioning social infrastructure. So the military had the job of distributing ballots.

The general in charge, Romeo Vasquez, refused.
Zelaya fired Vasquez June 24.

June 28, Vasquez’ troops staged the coup.

Media reports of the coup have consistently described Zelaya as a leftist, who had formed alliances with Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales – as if that justified the Honduran army’s actions.

The background

When, oh when, will it dawn on American analysts that the threat is never from the left. Without exception, current left-leaning governments – Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile – have all been democratically elected. Some leftist governments have emerged out of revolutionary struggles – Nicaragua and Cuba, for example – but I cannot think of a single instance of a leftist regime seizing power through a military coup.

But there’s a long history of U.S. involvement in right-wing military interventions. For several decades, the leaders of every military regime were trained in counter-insurgency tactics at the School of the Americas. Augusto Pinochet was one. Romeo Vasquez was another.

The guns wielded by Zelaya’s captors were made in America. The Air Force plane that flew Zelaya to Costa Rica was purchased with dollars supplied by U.S. military aid.

“It’s impossible to imagine that the U.S. was not aware that the coup was in the works,” fumed international correspondent Jeremy Scahill. “U.S. ties to the Honduran military run far too deep…”

Whether the U.S. was truly involved is almost immaterial. Latin Americans recall U.S. backing for Brazil’s military junta in the 1960s, the Pinochet regime in Chile in the 1970s, the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the militias in El Salvador and Guatemala into the 1990s. They believe the U.S. was behind attempts to unseat Chavez in 2002, and Morales in 2008.

History suggests that U.S. policy makers prefer right-wing dictatorships to left-wing democracies. Their record contradicts their rhetoric.

The reason is greed. It’s easier to make money under a right-wing regime than under a left-leaning one. Leftist leaders are not necessarily any more ethical or any less corrupt than rightist – witness the Kremlin -- but all leftist governments believe that they have a duty is to govern for the good of their people. Rightist governments believe in the accumulation of wealth – personal and/or corporate.

It suggests that the strings of U.S. foreign policy are pulled, not by national security or altruistic principle, but by corporate profits. Whenever corporate profits are threatened, the U.S. backs a military takeover.

Growing reaction

Certainly corporate interests were threatened in Honduras. Zelaya raised the minimum wage by 60 per cent. He condemned sweatshops in the so-called free trade zones. He joined ALBA, the leftist Latin American coalition.

But this time, the coup may not achieve its goals as easily. The coup has been unanimously denounced – by the White House, by the Organization of American States, by the United Nations… Two elite battalions have said they will not obey new president Roberto Micheletti. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, burned cars, blocked highways, or went on strike. Indeed, Tegucigalpa looked a lot like Tehran, with police using tear gas, clubs, and water cannon to disperse protesters.

The coup may well provoke a renewed civil war.

I guess we’re not taking the grandchildren to Honduras this winter after all.

Please tell your friends about these columns. To send comments on this column, to subscribe, or to unsubscribe, send an e-mail with Sharp Edges in the subject line to

Copyright © 2009 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups permitted; all other rights reserved.


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