Sunday the Honduran military carried out a coup ousting President Manuel Zelaya from power. Almost immediately leaders of Western Hemisphere nations condemned the actions taken in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. For example, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) clearly pointed out that the days of military coups as a mechanism of the transfer of power are over in Latin America.
President Obama said on Monday that “It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections… The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”
On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly passed by acclamation a non-binding resolution condemning the military action and demanding that Zelaya be returned to office. Political opposites from Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and Evo Morales to Barack Obama have taken the same position on the events in Honduras, although Chavez articulated the view that the United States had a role in the coup.
The New York Times, while reporting these events and the mass mobilizations in Honduras protesting the coup, was careful to point out that ousted President Zelaya after all was closely allied with Hugo Chavez and linked Honduras to the Chavez led “leftist alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.” The Times further reported that there were large scale protests in the capital of Honduras in support of the coup. And after all, they suggested, Zelaya would have had no world significance if it were not for the coup which made him famous.
Rather than framing the coup and global reaction to it as business as usual in Latin America, and business tied to the particular interests of all the parties-leftist elites, generals, the United States, street demonstrators of all sorts-the events in Central America should be seen as part of broader historical forces.
First, the Western Hemisphere has experienced hundreds of years of shifting external interference, mass murder and economic exploitation of natural resources, agricultural lands, cheap labor, and sweat shop workers. The Spanish, the British, and the United States figured most prominently in this unhappy story, referred to by Eduardo Galeano as “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.”
Second, twentieth century Central America was dramatically shaped by over thirty U.S. military incursions and occupations in Central America and the Caribbean between 1898 and the 1930s. For example, U.S. troops were sent to Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911,1912, 1919, and 1924-25.
Third, economic ruling classes in the Hemisphere and their foreign partners increasingly were forced to rely on strong military forces to crush opposition to elite rule and devastating poverty and exploitation. Particularly in Central America, the military as an institution became a material force, sometimes independent of the economic ruling class. From the early 1930s until the end of World War II military dictatorships ruled each of the five Central American countries. Later, in the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, 2/3 of the land mass and population of Latin America was ruled by brutal military dictatorship; Argentina, Brazil, Chile being the most prominent.
Fourth, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the struggle against “international communism” to Central America. He launched and supported brutal wars against the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan people and looked the other way as the Guatemalan generals engaged in genocide against the majority indigenous population of that country. Probably 400,000 Central America peoples died in these U.S. supported wars.
Honduras, heretofore a country with less violent military rule and only a modest recipient of U.S. military aid, became the military base for U.S. operations in the region; training the contra rebels fighting against the Nicaraguan government and providing training and military support operations for Salvadoran troops fighting against FMLN rebels. Honduras received more military aid from the United States in the mid-1980s, than it did during the prior thirty years. Thousands of U.S. troops, numerous air strips, and field exercises for summer National Guard troops made Honduras a U.S. armed camp.
Fifth, parallel to the war on communism in the Western Hemisphere, the Reagan administration forced on the countries of the region the neo-liberal economic policies of downsizing government, deregulation, privatization, free trade, and shifts to export-oriented production. In the 1980s, the economic consequences of these policies were referred to by Latin American scholars as “the lost decade.”
While the economies of Central American countries improved since the 1980s, they remain poor and dependent. Honduras is the poorest of the five countries in the region. Its per capital Gross Domestic Product in 2003 was $803 (the regional figure was $1,405). A little over 9 percent of its earnings come from overseas remittances. Honduran debt constitutes 66 percent of total GDP. And life expectancy is 66 years.
This brief review of some of the Latin American experience, and it has been most brutal in Central America, is part of the story of the Sunday coup.
First, we must remember that whenever the interests of foreign investors (particularly from the United States), domestic ruling classes and/or military elites were threatened by international political forces and/or domestic mobilization of workers and peasants, the military moved in to reverse the forces of history.
Second, the United States has played a direct role in such interventions and has provided military assistance and training for military officers of all Latin American militaries ever since the end of World War II. (The training facility used to be called The School of the Americas).
Third, military interventionism and covert operations have been paralleled by economic intervention through the debt system, foreign investment, trade agreements, and quotas and embargoes of goods from Latin American countries.
Fourth, the winds of change that were initiated in the 1960s in the region were first stifled and isolated, then spread in the 1980s and beyond. Most recently, countries as varied as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela have begun to step in a new direction; away from the neo-liberal economic model, away from deference to traditional great powers, and in resistance to the United States. (Honduras has begun to move in this direction as well).
Most importantly, these countries, and other countries from the Global South in Asia and Africa, have begun to construct new economic and political institutions that will transform the International economic and political system after 500 years of North Atlantic rule. The fact that 192 countries in the United Nations said no to the Honduran coup suggests that this battle goes beyond the simplistic New York Times frame that the Honduran battle is merely about competing special interests.
It may be that the Obama administration understands the new global reality, or at least realizes that the United States must figure out ways to adapt to it.
[Harry Tarq is a professor in American Studies who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]