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Election Year Venezuela: It’s Washington vs. the Chávez-Ortega Alliance

As the Venezuelan presidential election approaches in October, Washington is undoubtedly hoping that Hugo Chávez will go down to stinging electoral defeat and that the populist leader's geopolitical alliance will crumble and come to an ignominious end. Of particular concern to both the Bush and Obama administrations has been Nicaragua, a country which moved into Chávez's orbit when Daniel Ortega, a leader of the Sandinista Revolution, captured the presidency in 2006. According to secret cables recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the State Department has been furious with Ortega for conducting an independent foreign policy, and U.S. diplomats have resorted to threats and intimidation in order to head off the Venezuelan-Nicaraguan alliance.

 

American diplomats in Managua would have surely preferred to see a continuation of the Enrique Bolaños administration, which predated the Ortega regime and proved much more amenable to Washington's conservative agenda. In early 2006, prior to Ortega's election, the Nicaraguans told the U.S. ambassador that they would not back Venezuela for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and would support Guatemala for the spot instead. In fact, Nicaragua went so far as to act as a kind of ringleader against Venezuela, rounding up Central American support for Guatemala in an effort to "forestall" Chávez's rising influence.

 

As the election neared, the Bush administration became increasingly concerned about what an Ortega win might mean at the regional level. In Managua, the American ambassador complained to the Nicaraguans about "the pattern of harassment directed by the Venezuelan government" against U.S. diplomats. The Nicaraguan Foreign Minister sympathized, adding that he was worried about "Chávez's interest in Sandinista (FSLN) leader Daniel Ortega's winning the November election." In a follow up meeting, the Americans told the Bolaños government that Washington was closely monitoring Chávez, who had proposed an oil deal with the Sandinistas.

 

Washington Loses a Key Ally

 

With the re-election of Ortega in late 2006, who had previously served as president of Nicaragua at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra War of the 1980s, the Bush administration's foremost fear had come to pass. Flying down to Managua, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon met with President elect Ortega in the conference room of the FSLN Secretariat. After Ortega announced that he would seek a trade agreement with Venezuela, Shannon remarked sternly that "President Chávez knows what he has to do to improve relations. He is the author of the present confrontation."

 

If that was not clear enough, U.S. diplomats later warned the incoming Ortega administration that Washington would respect Nicaraguan sovereignty, but "if the FSLN government were, for example, to recruit hundreds of Venezuelans to man its ministries, we would be concerned." The main purpose of such advisers, noted the U.S. ambassador to his superiors, would be "to indoctrinate Nicaraguans against the United States and democracy." It would be absolutely "essential," the ambassador noted, to convey a sense of U.S "red lines" toward the Ortega regime such as the need to follow the directives of large, international financial institutions.

 

If the Americans hoped that Nicaragua would distance itself from Chávez, however, they got a shot in the arm during the Ortega inaugural in early 2007. Singing the praises of his Bolivarian "twin" Hugo Chávez, the new Nicaraguan president proclaimed the failure of so-called "neo-liberal" economics. During the ceremony, Ortega pledged to bring Nicaragua into Venezuela's ALBA alliance and end privatizations of public companies. In another jab at the Bush administration, Ortega said he would like to "revisit" certain elements of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. Both Chávez and Bolivian leader Evo Morales were at the inaugural to proclaim the "death of imperialism."

 

Divide and Conquer in Latin America

 

With the alarm bells going off, U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli invited fellow Central American ambassadors over for breakfast and a discussion. During the get together, the conservative dignitaries said they were "startled by the populist rhetoric and procession of infamous guests surrounding the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega," and were "dismayed" by Ortega's accession to agreements with Venezuela. Perhaps, they opined, Nicaragua's neighbors could help to "offset the negative influence" of Chávez.

 

Not content to stop there, Trivelli then organized yet another breakfast, this time inviting the Spanish, Mexican, Chilean, Brazilian and Colombian ambassadors to Nicaragua, respectively. All the diplomats echoed the previous chorus of concern, declaring preoccupation over Chávez's "destabilizing" influence. The over the top pro-U.S. Colombian ambassador was particularly worried, declaring hyperbolically that Chávez could cause mischief in Central America and thus "open the door to drug trafficking and the movement of terrorists."

 

Ratcheting up International Pressure

 

The atmosphere became increasingly poisonous by March, 2007 with Trivelli going into overdrive in an effort to recruit international allies against the incipient Ortega-Chávez alliance. The campaign bore fruit as both Spain and Germany joined the fray and warned Ortega not to issue "contradictory statements and actions regarding foreign affairs, press freedom, and investment." Hosting yet another breakfast, Trivelli invited the Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, Economics Minister and Presidential Advisor as well as the Spanish and German ambassadors.

 

Trivelli quickly let the Nicaraguans know who was boss, opening the breakfast "by remarking that the administration's moves to centralize government, criticize the press, scapegoat international investors, and engage pariah regimes...raise questions about the new government's commitment to maintain an open democracy and friendly relations with all."

The breakfast, Trivelli wrote, served to put the Nicaraguans on notice. The U.S. ambassador intended to issue a warning to the government's more moderate faction that "we and other embassies are monitoring investor relations closely, a message they can use to push back against party radicals urging Ortega to strengthen alliances with Venezuela." Nervously, the Nicaraguans blamed the "sensationalist press" for distorting Ortega's record, adding that all new governments go through a "period of adjustment."

 

Push and Shove over Economic Policy

 

In an effort no doubt to mark a line in the sand or "red lines," Trivelli also met with the new Minister of Finance. In light of Ortega's recent actions, including the signing of important economic deals with the likes of Chávez, what kind of economic model was Nicaragua planning to pursue, Trivelli asked? The Finance Minister responded that his country's foremost concern was maintaining macroeconomic stability and holding talks with the likes of the IMF. Trivelli seemed skeptical of such claims, noting that "U.S. investors had begun questioning what sort of economic model the new government plans to pursue."

 

From there, the discussion got somewhat frosty with the ambassador pressing the Finance Minister about the need to resolve property claims stemming from expropriations that took place in the 1980s during the height of the Sandinista Revolution. Trivelli personally handed over a list of "high profile" expropriation cases. The Minister responded defensively that Ortega had no plans to expropriate property as in the 1980s, "nor do anything that will damage the favorable investment climate that currently exists."

 

Despite such assurances, Trivelli pressed on. Would Ortega limit foreign investment in sensitive sectors such as energy and coastal property, Trivelli asked? Seeking to placate the ambassador, the Finance Minister replied that "Nicaragua is not going to shut the door on anyone (nor) obstruct investment in any sector."  Unconvinced, Trivelli prodded Nicaragua's Central Bank President about Nicaraguan economic policy in a follow up meeting. Testily, Trivelli asked the Nicaraguan how a closer relationship with Venezuela would facilitate a sensible business climate. In a game of cat and mouse, the official responded that recent economic agreements with Chávez did not represent "a reflection of a political vision for Nicaragua, but rather an acknowledgment that Nicaragua depends upon [Venezuela's] largesse...for oil."  Still skeptical, Trivelli brought up Ortega's recent statements attacking "neo-liberalism" and calls to end "dependency" on the International Monetary Fund. Ortega's desire to review privatization of the telephone and power sectors was likewise a concern, and the ambassador prodded the Central Bank President as to the particulars of ALBA economic aid for Nicaragua.

 

Game of Cat and Mouse

 

U.S. Embassy staff continued to press the Nicaraguans, hoping to identify moderate factions within the government which could help to reel in Ortega's pro-Chávez leanings. By speaking with Magda Enríquez, a high level official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Americans hoped to make their case. Within the Sandinista hierarchy, Enríquez appeared to be "aligned with the FSLN moderates, recognizes the value of positive engagement with the United States, and probably lends a voice of reason to balance the more extreme views of the Sandinista hardliners."

 

When the Americans complained that Ortega's discourse regarding the U.S. had become "increasingly belligerent and unconstructive," Enríquez nodded in agreement and promised to urge the president to dial back his rhetoric. Hoping to calm tempers at the U.S. Embassy, Enríquez added that while Ortega saw Chávez as his "friend and ally," Nicaragua did not see eye to eye with Venezuela on all issues.

 

Nicaragua's Business Community vs. Ortega and Chávez

 

Having made overtures towards other foreign powers as well as moderates within the Sandinista government, the Americans proceeded to court the Nicaraguan business sector. At an economic roundtable, Trivelli hosted heavy hitters linked to international investment such as Alberto Chamorro of the Bank of Central America, which was almost 50% owned by GE Financial and Joaquim de Magalhaes of Esso Nicaragua. Speaking with the Americans, the businessmen complained about Ortega, who in their view was intent on regaining his standing as a Latin American revolutionary by praising Chávez.

 

Venezuelan oil diplomacy surely did not go over well amongst the ambassador's guests. According to them, Venezuelan petroleum shipments to the Ortega government were arriving faster than Nicaraguan state oil company Petronic could handle them, and this in turn was creating difficulties for local fuel distributors. Even worse, Ortega had undertaken a nationalistic energy policy by seizing fuel storage tanks owned by Exxon. Overall, the guests believed that the Ortega regime saw Petronic and Venezuelan oil as a "giant ATM" from which it could withdraw cash at any time.

 

Investors grew even more jittery when the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation cancelled more than $60 million in U.S. economic assistance to Nicaragua as a result of alleged election fraud marring the November, 2008 municipal contests. As Ortega railed against the U.S., arguing that Washington was unduly interfering with Nicaragua's own sovereignty, local businessmen lamented the cutoff in aid.

 

Obama Era: Tensions Continue

 

If the Americans, however, hoped that such punitive measures would dissuade Ortega from cozying up to Venezuela, they would be sorely mistaken. Indeed, if anything the cutoff encouraged Nicaragua to look for alternative funding, and by 2008 Ortega had already received more than $1 billion from Venezuela in the form of loans, grants, and foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. Embassy, the FSLN used part of the assistance to invest in party building and propaganda. To add insult to injury, Ortega also lambasted the Bush administration, claiming that the Americans had conspired to assassinate Chávez.

WikiLeaks cables hint at the further deterioration of U.S.-Nicaraguan relations during the Obama era, and underscore Ortega's growing ties with Venezuela and ALBA members such as Cuba. Joining with his left allies in Latin America, Ortega called for the development of a new regional organization which would exclude the U.S. and resist the political influence of "the Empire." Speaking on Cuban television, Ortega criticized Obama for maintaining Bush era policies such as freezing of the Millennium Challenge Account for Nicaragua.

 

In private meanwhile, Sandinista officials told the Americans they were becoming frustrated with the Obama administration and would deepen joint projects within the ALBA alliance, thus leading the U.S. Embassy to further lose patience with Ortega and his clique, which displayed a "skewed" world view "claiming a moral right to demand more resources, without conditions, while at the same time denouncing the very countries that provide such aid."

 

The WikiLeaks cache ends in early 2010, so we don't know the inside story of U.S. diplomacy in the region during the recent past. Yet, it's no secret that the Obama administration, like the Bush White House before it, views the Latin populist left as an irritant and would like to be rid of Chávez and his allies. If the cables are any indication, American diplomats in Managua most likely continued to pursue their earlier approach of cultivating support within the Nicaraguan business elite, peeling off Sandinista moderates and drumming up conservative support in the wider region against Ortega.

 

Unfortunately for the State Department, such tactics have not yielded concrete results. Indeed, it would appear that Ortega has now consolidated his political grip on Nicaragua following the Sandinista's recent reelection to a third presidential term. Yet, 2012 will be a momentous year in the region, as Chávez too risks everything on his own reelection bid. If Chávez should go down in defeat, Nicaragua would be deprived of a key political and economic benefactor and suggest further problems for the populist left in Latin America.

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Ahmadinejad in Managua: WikiLeaks Reveals U.S. Fears of Nicaraguan-Iranian Rapprochement

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WikiLeaks: Costa Rica is a Willing U.S. Partner in Central America

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U.S. Marines to Costa Rica: What’s Behind the Story?

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Honduras and the Political Uses of the Drug War

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Joe Wilson's Immigration Hypocrisy

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Zelaya's Return: Salvaging Democracy Will be Tricky

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Honduras: Who's The Real Drug Trafficker?

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Zelaya, Negroponte, and Controversy at U.S. airbase

The mainstream media has once again dropped the ball on a key aspect of the ongoing story in Honduras: the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano, also known as Palmerola. Prior to the recent military coup d’etat President Manuel Zelaya declared that he would turn the base into a civilian airport, a move opposed by the former U.S. ambassador. What’s more Zelaya intended to carry out his project with Venezuelan financing.

For years prior to the coup the Honduran authorities had discussed the possibility of converting Palmerola into a civilian facility. Officials fretted that Toncontín, Tegucigalpa’s international airport, was too small and incapable of handling large commercial aircraft. An aging facility dating to 1948, Toncontín has a short runway and primitive navigation equipment. The facility is surrounded by hills which makes it one of the world’s more dangerous international airports.

Palmerola by contrast has the best runway in the country at 8,850 feet long and 165 feet wide. The airport was built more recently in the mid-1980s at a reported cost of $30 million and was used by the United States for supplying the Contras during America’s proxy war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as well as conducting counter-insurgency operations in El Salvador. At the height of the Contra war the U.S. had more than 5,000 soldiers stationed at Palmerola. Known as the Contras’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” the base housed Green Berets as well as CIA operatives advising the Nicaraguan rebels.

More recently there have been some 500-to-600 U.S. troops on hand at the facility which serves as a Honduran air force base as well as a flight-training center. With the exit of U.S. bases from Panama in 1999, Palmerola became one of the few usable airfields available to the U.S. on Latin American soil. The base is located approximately 30 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

In 2006 it looked as if Zelaya and the Bush administration were nearing a deal on Palmerola’s future status. In June of that year Zelaya flew to Washington to meet President Bush and the Honduran requested that Palmerola be converted into a commercial airport. Reportedly Bush said the idea was “wholly reasonable” and Zelaya declared that a four-lane highway would be constructed from Tegucigalpa to Palmerola with U.S. funding.

In exchange for the White House’s help on the Palmerola facility Zelaya offered the U.S. access to a new military installation to be located in the Mosquitia area along the Honduran coast near the Nicaraguan border. Mosquitia reportedly serves as a corridor for drugs moving south to north. The drug cartels pass through Mosquitia with their cargo en route from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

A remote area only accessible by air, sea, and river Mosquitia is full of swamp and jungle. The region is ideal for the U.S. since large numbers of troops may be housed in Mosquitia in relative obscurity. The coastal location was ideally suited for naval and air coverage consistent with the stated U.S. military strategy of confronting organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism. Romeo Vásquez, head of the Honduran Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked that the armed forces needed to exert a greater presence in Mosquitia because the area was full of “conflict and problems.”

But what kind of access would the U.S. have to Mosquitia? Honduran Defense Secretary Aristides Mejía said that Mosquitia wouldn’t necessarily be “a classic base with permanent installations, but just when needed. We intend, if President Zelaya approves, to expand joint operations [with the United States].” That statement however was apparently not to the liking of eventual coup leader and U.S. School of the Americas graduate Vásquez who had already traveled to Washington to discuss future plans for Mosquitia. Contradicting his own colleague, Vásquez said the idea was “to establish a permanent military base of ours in the zone” which would house aircraft and fuel supply systems. The United States, Vásquez added, would help to construct air strips on site.

Events on the ground meanwhile would soon force the Hondurans to take a more assertive approach towards air safety. In May, 2008 a terrible crash occurred at Toncontín airport when a TACA Airbus A320 slid off the runway on its second landing attempt. After mowing down trees and smashing through a metal fence, the airplane’s fuselage was broken into three parts near the airstrip. Three people were killed in the crash and 65 were injured.

In the wake of the tragedy Honduran officials were forced at long last to block planes from landing at the notoriously dangerous Toncontín. All large jets, officials said, would be temporarily transferred to Palmerola. Touring the U.S. airbase himself Zelaya remarked that the authorities would create a new civilian facility at Palmerola within sixty days. Bush had already agreed to let Honduras construct a civilian airport at Palmerola, Zelaya said. “There are witnesses,” the President added.


But constructing a new airport had grown more politically complicated. Honduran-U.S. relations had deteriorated considerably since Zelaya’s 2006 meeting with Bush and Zelaya had started to cultivate ties to Venezuela while simultaneously criticizing the American-led war on drugs.

Bush’s own U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford said that while he would welcome the traffic at Palmerola past agreements should be honored. The base was used mostly for drug surveillance planes and Ford remarked that “The president can order the use of Palmerola when he wants, but certain accords and protocols must be followed.” “It is important to point out that Toncontín is certified by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” Ford added, hoping to allay long-time concerns about the airport’s safety. What’s more, the diplomat declared, there were some airlines that would not see Palmerola as an “attractive” landing destination. Ford would not elaborate or explain what his remarks were supposed to mean.

Throwing fuel on the fire Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, said that Honduras could not transform Palmerola into a civilian airport “from one day to the next.” In Tegucigalpa, Negroponte met with Zelaya to discuss Palmerola. Speaking later on Honduran radio the U.S. diplomat said that before Zelaya could embark on his plans for Palmerola the airport would have to receive international certification for new incoming flights. According to Spanish news agency EFE Negroponte also took advantage of his Tegucigalpa trip to sit down and meet with the President of the Honduran Parliament and future coup leader Roberto Micheletti [the news account however did not state what the two discussed].

Needless to say Negroponte’s visit to Honduras was widely repudiated by progressive and human rights activists who labeled Negroponte “an assassin” and accused him of being responsible for forced disappearances during the diplomat’s tenure as ambassador (1981-1985). Moreover, Ford and Negroponte’s condescending attitude irked organized labor, indigenous groups and peasants who demanded that Honduras reclaim its national sovereignty over Palmerola. “It’s necessary to recover Palmerola because it’s unacceptable that the best airstrip in Central America continues to be in the hands of the U.S. military,” said Carlos Reyes, leader of the Popular Bloc which included various politically progressive organizations. “The Cold War has ended and there are no pretexts to continue with the military presence in the region,” he added. The activist remarked that the government should not contemplate swapping Mosquitia for Palmerola either as this would be an affront to Honduran pride.

Over the next year Zelaya sought to convert Palmerola into a civilian airport but plans languished when the government was unable to attract international investors. Finally in 2009 Zelaya announced that the Honduran armed forces would undertake construction. To pay for the new project the President would rely on funding from ALBA [in English, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas] and Petrocaribe, two reciprocal trading agreements pushed by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.

Predictably the Honduran right leapt on Zelaya for using Venezuelan funds. Amílcar Bulnes, President of the Honduran Business Association [known by its Spanish acronym COHEP] said that Petrocaribe funds should not be used for the airport but rather for other, unspecified needs.

A couple weeks after Zelaya announced that the armed forces would proceed with construction at Palmerola the military rebelled. Led by Romeo Vásquez, the army overthrew Zelaya and deported him out of the country. In the wake of the coup U.S. peace activists visited Palmerola and were surprised to find that the base was busy and helicopters were flying all around. When activists asked American officials if anything had changed in terms of the U.S.-Honduran relationship they were told “no, nothing.”

The Honduran elite and the hard right U.S. foreign policy establishment had many reasons to despise Manuel Zelaya as I’ve discussed in previous articles. The controversy over the Palmerola airbase however certainly gave them more ammunition.

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Obama's Big Stick Diplomacy in Honduras

Liberals who have idealized Obama don’t want to believe that their President is capable of bullish behavior towards Latin America. It was Bush, they say, who epitomized arrogant U.S.-style imperialism and not the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Recent events in Central America however force us to look at the Obama administration in a sobering new light. While it’s unclear whether Obama had advance warning of an imminent military coup d’etat in Honduras the White House has not emerged from the Zelaya affair unsullied.

In December, 2008, even before his inauguration, Obama received an irate letter from Honduran president Manuel Zelaya demanding an end to arrogant and interventionist U.S. ambassadors in Tegucigalpa. Just eight months earlier American ambassador Hugo Llorens had taken on the government by making inflammatory remarks. During a press conference the diplomat declared that Zelaya’s move to rewrite the constitution was “a Honduran matter and it’s a delicate matter to comment on as a foreign diplomat.” But then, contradicting himself and inserting himself into the volatile political milieu, Llorens remarked that “one can’t violate the constitution to create a constitution, because if you don’t have a constitution the law of the jungle reigns.”

If Obama was serious about restoring U.S. moral credibility world-wide he might have cleaned house by removing Bush appointees such as Llorens. An émigré from Castro’s Cuba, Llorens worked as an Assistant Treasurer at Chase Manhattan Bank before entering the Foreign Service. As Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Policy and Summit Coordination in the State Department during Clinton-time, he played an important role in spearheading the corporately-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA. But it was chiefly during the Bush years that Llorens distinguished himself, serving as the Director of Andean Affairs at the National Security Council. At the NSC, Llorens was the most important advisor to Bush and Condoleezza Rice on matters pertaining to Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

While Zelaya’s move to rewrite the Honduran constitution antagonized Llorens it also inflamed the local business elite and no doubt the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Perhaps these groups feared a Honduran repeat of the South American “Pink Tide”: across the region leftist leaders from Hugo Chávez to Rafael Correa have mobilized civil society in an effort to rewrite their respective nations’ constitutions.

Chávez’s 1999 constitution provides for some of the most comprehensive human rights provisions of any constitution in the world while also including special protection for women, indigenous peoples and the environment. The constitution moreover allows for broad citizen participation in national life. The preamble states that one of the Constitution’s goals is to establish a participatory democracy achieved through elected representatives, popular votes by referendum and, perhaps most importantly, popular mobilization. In Venezuela, it was Chávez’s constitution which helped to solidify his alliance with traditionally marginalized sectors of the population.

In Ecuador, traditional political parties and wealthy elites labeled Correa “dictatorial” after the president called for the drafting of a new constitution. In the end however a large plurality of voters approved the new 2008 constitution which provides for free universal health care, a universal right to water and prohibition of its privatization and the redistribution of large unused landholdings. Even more dramatically, the constitution declares that Ecuador is a “pacifist state” and outlaws foreign military bases on Ecuadoran soil.

As I explain in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008), there’s been a potent alliance as of late between leftist Latin leaders on the one hand and dynamic social movements on the other. In Ecuador, the main indigenous federation supported the new constitution as did organized labor. Indeed, Correa’s move to draft a new constitution could help to establish tighter links between the president and progressive social forces as per Chávez’s Venezuela.

In the media, the Honduran imbroglio has been depicted as a struggle over presidential power and term limits. But while any new constitution might have extended presidential term limits, such a reform could have also led to new progressive amendments to the law and further radicalization on the ground. In recent years Honduras has seen the emergence of a vibrant social and political scene including labor, Garifuna (Afro-Honduran people) and Indians. If Zelaya had been successful at pushing through his constitutional reform he would have been able to mobilize such groups.

What is the connection between U.S. interests and constitutional reform? If you had any doubt about Washington’s true intentions in Honduras consider the following AP Report for July 8 about diplomatic negotiations between the coup regime and ousted president Zelaya: “Clinton would not discuss specifics of the mediation process, which she said would begin soon, but a senior U.S. official said one option being considered would be to forge a compromise under which Zelaya would be allowed to return and serve out his remaining six months in office with limited powers [italics added]. Zelaya, in return, would pledge to drop his aspirations for a constitutional change.”

It’s the State Department then under Hillary Clinton, allied in spirit to figures from the old Bush establishment, which is seeking to cut off constitutional reform in Honduras — reform which could lead to popular mobilization as we’ve seen in Ecuador and Venezuela. Obama meanwhile has condemned the coup but his failure to rein in either Llorens or Clinton suggests that he too believes that Zelaya’s proposal for a constitutional reform is dangerous and needs to be halted.

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