Many analysts and sectors of the mainstream media have suggested that the apparent ineffectiveness of the US government to resolve the crisis in Honduras is evidence that the influence wielded by the region’s superpower is waning. They argue that the assertiveness of Brazil in its efforts to have Honduras’ coup regime step down and re-instate the country’s democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya illustrates how the balance of power in the region has shifted. But such conclusions might well be premature. After all, given the stubbornness of the coup regime headed by Roberto Micheletti, it could be argued that it is the United States, and by extension its ally Colombia, that are getting their way in Honduras and not Brazil and its leftist allies Venezuela and Bolivia.
Many of those who suggest that the Honduran crisis is an example of Washington’s waning influence in Central American affairs, including Time Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, point to the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration to resolve the situation. There is of course an assumption that the Obama administration and Congress actually want the re-instatement of Zelaya as president. But the administration’s actions following the June 28 coup-and the rhetoric of many members of Congress-contradict this assumption. The Obama administration refused to label Zelaya’s overthrow as a military coup even though Honduran troops seized the president and forced him to leave the country. Labelling Zelaya’s ouster a military coup would have required that the Obama administration immediately cut-off all military and economic aid to Honduras. The United States did eventually cut military and economic aid to the coup regime but refused to withdraw its ambassador.
Also following the coup, Obama and his secretary of state Hilary Clinton called for a negotiated settlement to the crisis rather than the unconditional return to office of the country’s democratically-elected president as most other countries around the world were demanding. Given Zelaya’s close ties to Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez, Washington was not eager to see to Zelaya re-instated in the presidential palace. Despite carefully structured statements intended to suggest that the United States was supporting democracy, its support for negotiations and its lack of firm action clearly illustrated that the Obama administration had no intention of pressuring the coup regime to unconditionally surrender power. In August, Zelaya noted Washington’s unwillingness to defend democracy in Honduras stating that “the United States only needs to tighten its fist and the coup will last five seconds.”
Meanwhile, several Republican members of Congress have openly supported the coup regime and have worked hard to influence the Obama administration’s response to the crisis. Florida Congressman Connie Mack, the ranking Republican on the US House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, visited Honduras in July and met with Micheletti. Mack declared that Hondurans “don’t want us to stand with the ‘thugocrats’ of the Western Hemisphere like Hugo ChÃ¡vez.” In early October, four more US Republican lawmakers visited Micheletti in Honduras’ presidential palace in a show of support for the coup regime.
Washington’s close ally Colombia is the other country in the hemisphere that has been reluctant to pressure the coup regime in Honduras. In fact, the Uribe government welcomed a delegation from the coup regime and, according to members of the delegation, Colombian officials stated their support for the new Honduran government. Additionally, more than $6 billion in US military aid over the past decade has strengthened the Colombian military to the point that it is now less reliant on right-wing paramilitary death squads to carry out its dirty war. As a result, the Uribe government was able to “demobilize” many of the country’s paramilitaries in recent years because the US-backed military has assumed a more direct role in the perpetration of human rights abuses. The supposedly demobilized paramilitaries are now free to offer their services to help protect the interests of rich landowners and industrialists in other countries. This is exactly what has occurred in Honduras as more than 40 Colombian paramilitaries have been imported to protect the economic interests of the elites with what appears to be the acquiescence of the right-wing coup regime.
Meanwhile, Brazil has attempted to assert itself as a major regional player in the crisis. Brazil’s President Inacio “Lula” da Silva has openly called for the re-instatement of Zelaya, as have other South American leftist presidents such as Venezuela’s Hugo ChÃ¡vez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. When Zelaya secretly returned to Honduras on September 21 he took refuge in the Brazilian embassy in the capital Tegucigalpa. Brazilian president Lula warned the coup regime not to enter the embassy and to respect its diplomatic status, thereby allowing Zelaya to remain in Honduras.
It is the assertiveness of Brazil and the apparent inaction of the United States that has led many to point to the Honduran crisis as an example of Washington’s declining influence in Central America. But Brazil’s efforts have so far amounted to little as the Honduran coup regime has stubbornly remained in power. Therefore, given the Obama administration’s apparent lack of desire to have Zelaya unconditionally re-instated as president, the continuance of the coup regime in power suggests that it is the Obama administration that is actually achieving its political objectives in Honduras-while simultaneously portraying itself as a defender of democracy with its half-hearted condemnations of Zelaya’s ouster.
The Honduran crisis has not provided any clear evidence that US influence in Central America has decreased significantly. The nature of that influence has shifted over the years from supporting brutal military dictatorships to “democracy promotion” policies that ensured adherence by the region’s governments to the Washington Consensus and to inaction when it suits US political and economic interests, as is the case with Honduras. A more accurate measure of Washington’s influence in the region will come when an allied right-wing government is violently overthrown. The response of the United States and its ideological allies to such a crisis will more accurately inform us as to whether Washington’s inaction in Honduras is due to a waning of influence or is simply an effective strategic ploy.
Garry Leech is editor of Colombia Journal.
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This post was written by Garry Leech