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Honduras Coup, Chavez and the U.S.

Could the diplomatic thaw between Venezuela and the United States be coming to an abrupt end? At the recent Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Barack Obama shook Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s hand and declared that he would pursue a less arrogant foreign policy towards Latin America. Building on that good will, Venezuela and the United States agreed to restore their ambassadors late last week. The diplomatic overtures provided a stark contrast to the miserable state of relations during the Bush years: just nine months ago Venezuela expelled the U.S. envoy in a diplomatic tussle. At the time, Chávez said he kicked the U.S. ambassador out to demonstrate solidarity with left ally Bolivia, which had also expelled a top American diplomat after accusing him of blatant political interference in the Andean nation’s internal affairs.

Whatever goodwill existed last week however could now be undone by turbulent political events in Honduras. Following a military coup d’etat in the small Central American nation on Sunday, Chávez accused the U.S. of helping to orchestrate the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. “Behind these soldiers are the Honduran bourgeois, the rich who converted Honduras into a Banana Republic, into a political and military base for North American imperialism,” Chávez said. The Venezuelan leader urged the Honduran military to return Zelaya to power and even threatened military action against the coup regime if Venezuela’s ambassador was killed or local troops entered the Venezuelan Embassy. Reportedly, Honduran soldiers beat the ambassador and left him on the side of a road in the course of the military coup. Tensions have ratcheted up to such an extent that Chávez has now placed his armed forces on alert.

To be sure, Chávez has a certain taste for hyperbole and has not provided any proof that the U.S. could be behind the coup in Honduras. On the surface at least it seems unlikely that Obama would endorse an interventionist U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Over the past few months the U.S. President has gone to great lengths to “re-brand” America in the eyes of the world as a reasonable power engaged in respectful diplomacy as opposed to reckless unilateralism. If it were ever proven that Obama sanctioned the overthrow of a democratically elected government this could completely undermine the U.S. President’s carefully crafted image and lead many to conclude that he is just as cynical as his predecessor.

Officially the military removed Zelaya from power because the Honduran President had abused his authority. On Sunday Zelaya hoped to hold a constitutional referendum which could have allowed him to run for reelection for another four year term, a move which Honduras’ Supreme Court and Congress declared illegal. But while the controversy over Zelaya’s constitutional referendum certainly provided the lightning rod for military intervention, it’s no secret that the President was at odds politically with the Honduran elite for the past few years and had become one of Washington’s fiercest critics in the region.

The Rise of Zelaya

Zelaya, who sports a thick black mustache, cowboy boots and large white Stetson hat, was elected in late 2005. At first blush he hardly seemed the type of politician to rock the boat. A landowner from a wealthy landowning family engaged in the lumber industry, Zelaya headed the Liberal Party, one of the two dominant political parties in Honduras. The President supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement which eliminated trade barriers with the United States.

Despite these initial conservative leanings, Zelaya began to criticize powerful, vested interests in the country such as the media and owners of maquiladora sweatshops which produced goods for export in industrial free zones. Gradually he started to adopt some socially progressive policies. For example, Zelaya instituted a 60% minimum wage increase which angered the wealthy business community. The hike in the minimum wage, Zelaya declared, would “force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair.” “This is a government of great social transformations, committed to the poor,” he added. Trade unions celebrated the decision, not surprising given that Honduras is the third poorest country in the hemisphere and 70% of its people live in poverty. When private business associations announced that they would challenge the government’s wage decree in Honduras’ Supreme Court, Zelaya’s Labor Minister called the critics “greedy exploiters.”

In another somewhat jarring move that must have raised eyebrows in Washington, Zelaya declared during a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean anti-drug officials that drug consumption should be legalized to halt violence related to smuggling. In recent years Honduras has been plagued by drug trafficking and so-called maras or street gangs which carry out gruesome beheadings, rapes and eye gouging. “Instead of pursuing drug traffickers, societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand,” Zelaya said. Rodolfo Zelaya, the head of a Honduran congressional commission on drug trafficking, rejected Zelaya’s comments. He told participants at the meeting that he was “confused and stunned by what the Honduran leader said.”

Zelaya and ALBA

Not content to stop there, Zelaya started to conduct an increasingly more independent foreign policy. In late 2007 he traveled to Cuba, the first official trip by a Honduran president to the Communist island in 46 years. There, Zelaya met with Raul Castro to discuss bilateral relations and other topics of mutual interest. But what really led Zelaya towards a political collision course with the Honduran elite was his decision to join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), an alliance of leftist Latin American and Caribbean nations headed by Chávez. The regional trade group including Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Dominica seeks to counteract corporately-friendly U.S-backed free trade schemes. Since its founding in 2004, ALBA countries have promoted joint factories and banks, an emergency food fund, and exchanges of cheap Venezuelan oil for food, housing, and educational investment.

In an emphatic departure from previous Honduran leaders who had been staunch allies of the U.S., Zelaya stated “Honduras and the Honduran people do not have to ask permission of any imperialism to join the ALBA.” Speaking in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa before a crowd of 50,000 unionists, women’s groups, farmers and indigenous peoples, Chávez remarked that Venezuela would guarantee cheap oil to Honduras for “at least 100 years.” By signing onto ALBA, Zelaya was able to secure access to credit lines, energy and food benefits. As an act of good faith, Chávez agreed to forgive Honduran debt to Venezuela amounting to $30 million.

Infuriating the local elite, Chávez declared that Hondurans who opposed ALBA were “sellouts.” “I did not come here to meddle in internal affairs,” he continued, “but…I cannot explain how a Honduran could be against Honduras joining the ALBA, the path of development, the path of integration.” Hardly content to stop there, Chávez lambasted the Honduran press which he labeled pitiyanquis (little Yanqui imitators) and “abject hand-lickers of the Yanquis.” For his part, Zelaya said “we need no one’s permission to sign this commitment. Today we are taking a step towards becoming a government of the center-left, and if anyone dislikes this, well just remove the word ‘center’ and keep the second one.”

It wasn’t long before private business started to bitterly attack Zelaya for moving Honduras into Chávez’s orbit. By joining ALBA, business representatives argued, the President was endangering free enterprise and the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Former President Ricardo Maduro even claimed that the United States might retaliate against Honduras by deporting Honduran migrants from the United States. “Don't bite the hand that feeds you,” Maduro warned, alluding to Washington. Zelaya was piqued by the criticisms. “When I met with (U.S. President) George W. Bush,” he said, “no one called me an anti-imperialist and the business community applauded me. Now that I am meeting with the impoverished peoples of the world, they criticize me.”

Zelaya’s Letter to Obama

In September, 2008 Zelaya further strained U.S. relations by delaying accreditation of the new U.S. ambassador out of solidarity with Bolivia and Venezuela which had just gone through diplomatic dust ups with Washington. “We are not breaking relations with the United States,” Zelaya said. “We only are (doing this) in solidarity with [Bolivian President] Morales, who has denounced the meddling of the United States in Bolivia's internal affairs.” Defending his decision, Zelaya said small nations needed to stick together. “The world powers must treat us fairly and with respect,” he stated.

In November, Zelaya hailed Obama’s election in the U.S. as “a hope for the world,” but just two months later tensions began to emerge. In an audacious letter sent personally to Obama, Zelaya accused the U.S. of “interventionism” and called on the new administration in Washington to respect the principle of non-interference in the political affairs of other nations. According to Spanish news agency EFE which saw a copy of the note, Zelaya told Obama that it wasn’t his intention to tell the U.S. President what he should or should not do.

He then however went on to do precisely that. First of all, Zelaya brought up the issue of U.S. visas and urged Obama to “revise the procedure by which visas are cancelled or denied to citizens of different parts of the world as a means of pressure against those people who hold different beliefs or ideologies which pose no threat to the U.S.”

As if that was not impudent enough, Zelaya then moved on to drug trafficking: “The legitimate struggle against drug trafficking…should not be used as an excuse to carry out interventionist policies in other countries.” The struggle against drug smuggling, Zelaya wrote, “should not be divorced from a vigorous policy of controlling distribution and consumer demand in all countries, as well as money laundering which operates through financial circuits and which involve networks within developed countries.”

Zelaya also argued “for the urgent necessity” of revising and transforming the structure of the United Nations and “to solve the Venezuela and Bolivia problems” through dialogue which “yields better fruit than confrontation.” The Cuban embargo, meanwhile, “was a useless instrument” and “a means of unjust pressure and violation of human rights.”

Run Up to June Coup

It’s unclear what Obama might have made of the audacious letter sent from the leader of a small Central American nation. It does seem however that Zelaya became somewhat disenchanted with the new administration in Washington. Just three months ago, the Honduran leader declined to attend a meeting of the System for Central American Integration (known by its Spanish acronym SICA) which would bring Central American Presidents together with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in San José, Costa Rica.

Both Zelaya and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua boycotted the meeting as they viewed it as a diplomatic affront. Nicaragua currently holds the presidency of SICA, and so the proper course of action should have been for Biden to have Ortega hold the meeting. Sandinista economist and former Nicaraguan Minister of Foreign Trade Alejandro Martínez Cuenca declared that the United States had missed a vital opportunity to encourage a new era of relations with Central America by “prioritizing personal relations with [Costa Rican President] Arias over respect for Central America's institutional order.”

Could all of the contentious diplomatic back and forth between Tegucigalpa and Washington have turned the Obama administration against Zelaya? In the days ahead there will surely be a lot of attention and scrutiny paid to the role of Romeo Vasquez, a General who led the military coup against Zelaya. Vasquez is a graduate of the notorious U.S. School of the Americas, an institution which trained the Latin American military in torture.

Are we to believe that the United States had no role in coordinating with Vasquez and the coup plotters? The U.S. has had longstanding military ties to the Honduran armed forces, particularly during the Contra War in Nicaragua during the 1980s. The White House however has rejected claims that the U.S. played a role. The New York Times has reported that the Obama administration knew that a coup was imminent and tried to persuade the military to back down. The paper writes that it was the Honduran military which broke off discussions with American officials. Obama himself has taken the high road, remarking “I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms [and] the rule of law…Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

Even if the Obama administration did not play an underhanded role in this affair, the Honduran coup highlights growing geo-political tensions in the region. In recent years, Chávez has sought to extend his influence to smaller Central American and Caribbean nations. The Venezuelan leader shows no intention of backing down over the Honduran coup, remarking that ALBA nations “will not recognize any [Honduran] government that isn't Zelaya’s.”

Chávez then derided Honduras’ interim president, Roberto Micheletti. “Mr. Roberto Micheletti will either wind up in prison or he'll need to go into exile… If they swear him in we'll overthrow him, mark my words. Thugetti--as I'm going to refer to him from now on--you better pack your bags, because you're either going to jail or you're going into exile. We're not going to forgive your error, you're going to get swept out of there. We're not going to let it happen, we're going to make life impossible for you. President Manuel Zelaya needs to retake his position as president.”

With tensions running high, heads of ALBA nations have vowed to meet in Managua to discuss the coup in Honduras. Zelaya, who was exiled to Costa Rica from Honduras, plans to fly to Nicaragua to speak with his colleagues. With such political unity amongst ALBA nations, Obama will have to decide what the U.S. posture ought to be towards the incipient "Pink Tide" sweeping across Central America, a region which Washington traditionally viewed as its own “backyard.”

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Iran Election: The Latin America Factor

As Iran heads into a hotly contested presidential election on June 12th, a most unlikely issue stands to exert a political impact upon the race: Latin America. What’s that you say, Latin America? How could a region which is so geographically, culturally, and politically removed from Iran have any bearing on the upcoming election in the Islamic republic? On the surface at least such a connection might seem far-fetched or bizarre yet on a certain level it’s not too surprising that the Iranian political debate has come to center around foreign affairs.

In an effort to undermine Washington, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has befriended Third World countries which are resisting U.S. political hegemony. In particular Iran has carried out an aggressive foreign policy effort in Latin America, a region which has seen the emergence of so-called leftist “Pink Tide” regimes in recent years.

Iran is divided into two political camps which have divergent views about foreign policy. On the one hand conservatives allied to Ahmadinejad would like Iran to continue its bellicose approach towards Washington; reformists meanwhile urge a more moderate and cautious posture. The reformists are pinning their hopes on former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi who seems to have the greatest chance of staging an upset against Ahmadinejad.

Slamming his opponent in a televised speech, Mousavi said “Instead of investing in Iran’s neighboring countries, the government has focused on Latin American states. The President has obviously failed to get his priorities right.” Apparently pining away for antiquity and the lost days of Darius and Xerxes, Mousavi lamented the fact that Iran had ignored its own backyard of the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East in favor of Latin America. “We have neglected civilizations in which Iran has played a role,” he said. “We have forgotten cities we lost in wars between Iran and Russia and cling to countries such as Venezuela and Uruguay,” Mousavi thundered. Iran should have invested in neighboring countries instead of “pouring money” into Latin America, the reformer exclaimed.

The comments seemed to hit a nerve. Afraid that he might lose support amongst his cherished nationalist base, the Iranian President lashed back at Mousavi. “One of these gentlemen [rival candidates] still cannot understand world affairs and this is why he asks us why we have focused on Latin America,” Ahmadinejad declared, his comments oozing condescension. “When the Western countries were trying to isolate Iran, we went to the U.S. backyard and I even delivered my strongest anti-U.S. speech in Nicaragua,” he added.

It’s fascinating that top Iranian statesmen are arguing about Latin America — in a presidential election cycle no less. Yet both candidates are unbelievably — I would argue even woefully — wrong in their approaches towards Latin America. The point is not that Iran is inherently mistaken in reaching out to Latin America but that its diplomacy is cynical and has nothing to do with promoting a shared political and social belief system.

To be sure Ahmadinejad has made plenty of trips to Latin America over the past couple of years and has used the junkets to publicize his supposedly anti-imperialist credentials. In Bolivia, Ahmadinejad promised $1 billion to help develop the Andean nation’s oil and gas sector. Making skillful use of its petrodollars, Iran has also entered into various economic agreements with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Ahmadinejad has made particular efforts to cultivate political and diplomatic support from Venezuela, a fellow OPEC member. Today Iran and Venezuela are putting together a joint tractor production plant and President Chávez plans to promote the sale of Iranian designed “anti-imperialist cars” for local consumption. Ahmadinejad meanwhile has opened a trade office — in Quito of all places. Iran’s push into Latin America forms part of what Ahmadinejad calls his “counter lasso” of the U.S. The moves have alarmed the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has called Iran’s inroads into Latin America “disturbing.”

Despite his speechifying against the U.S., Ahmadinejad’s Latin American diplomacy has little to do with advancing progressive social and political ideals. For the Iranian leader it’s all about getting diplomatic support from the likes of Venezuela and Brazil for Iran’s nuclear energy program. In this sense Ahmadinejad is square and politically narrow minded. Latin America is the one region of the world where the left has made significant gains in recent years, yet Ahmadinejad has little interest in such developments.

If he truly sought to promote Iranian-Latin American solidarity, Ahmadinejad might have fought for women’s and labor rights. As I discuss in considerable detail in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008), both groups have advanced exponentially in a political and social sense in countries ranging from Argentina to Venezuela to Brazil.

Unfortunately however Ahmadinejad has led his country in the opposite direction from Latin America. In Iran, the President’s “morality police” stop, beat and arrest young girls for simply walking with their boyfriends in public. When hundreds of women and men marched to commemorate International Women’s Day, police and plainclothes agents charged and attacked the crowd. The security forces then dumped cans of garbage on the heads of women who were seated in a public park and beat protesters with batons for good measure.

When bus drivers in Tehran went on strike to protest working conditions, Ahmadinejad’s security forces attacked and arrested laborers. Bravely, the workers refused to end their strike. That’s when state thugs targeted the workers’ wives and children. Busting into the home of one of the strike leaders, the authorities kicked and beat the man’s wife. In response, labor unions in 18 world capitals took part in protests outside Iranian embassies.

You might have thought that Mousavi would have attacked Ahmadinejad’s hollow “anti-imperialist” politics in advance of the Iranian presidential election. Mousavi himself has stated that he would review discriminatory laws against women if he won the election. Speaking to female supporters in Tehran, he added that he would disband the morality police which enforce strict standards of Islamic dress on the streets.

Mousavi might have praised South American nations for advancing women’s rights. He could have held up Latin countries as a beacon of progress and a model worth aspiring to. Instead he suggested that Iran scrap its Latin American foreign policy in favor of Central Asian diplomacy. Presumably, Mousavi would prefer warm ties with the likes of Uzbekistan, a human rights hellhole where battered women can’t count on any protection from the authorities.

These are the kinds of friends Mousavi would like to cultivate? If so, then this candidate doesn’t offer much of a bold or “reformist” agenda when it comes to charting his country’s future foreign policy.

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When it Comes to the Military, Uruguay Supersedes Obama

As Obama dithers on changing the backwards and retrograde “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy dealing with gays in the military, South America has zoomed past the United States in new landmark legislation. Just weeks ago Uruguay, a tiny nation of some 3.5 million sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, lifted a ban on homosexuals joining the armed forces. Historically, homosexuality was defined as a mental illness under Uruguayan law and as such gays were considered unsuitable to serve in the military.

Uruguay’s turnaround is all the more remarkable in light of the South American country’s recent history and the brutal role of the military. During the 1950s Uruguay was gripped with economic stagnation, inflation, and political corruption. As labor unrest mounted, Uruguayan society saw the rise of an urban Marxist guerrilla movement known as the Tupamaros. During the 60s, rebels carried out a number of spectacular actions including kidnappings and jailbreaks of fellow imprisoned insurgents. Seeing themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, the Tupamaros robbed banks and distributed the money to the poor.

Long before Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the Nixon administration responded to political chaos in Uruguay by training the South American country’s police in interrogation and torture techniques. Dan Mitrione, a former policeman from Richmond, Indiana and an FBI agent, was sent to Uruguay in 1969 as an advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Development. In Uruguay, Mitrione was affiliated with the Uruguayan police’s Office of Public Safety and instructed his students in how to torture using electrical implements. Mitrione is reported to have said, “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise moment, for the desire effect.”

As tensions with the Tupamaros escalated the rebels kidnapped Mitrione and tried to use him as a bargaining chip, demanding the release of a large number of prisoners in exchange for the FBI man’s life. When the government refused the Tupamaros murdered Mitrione. The dramatic story was later immortalized by radical director Costa Gavras in his film State of Siege. In the movie, Yves Montand played the role of Philip Michael Santore, modeled after Mitrione.

In the midst of anti-Communist hysteria and its fight against the Tupamaros, the Uruguayan military became intoxicated by its own power and in 1973 took over the government in a coup. Uruguay soon had the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest percentage of political prisoners to the general population [Uruguay would not return to democratic rule until 1985 when jailed Tupamaros received amnesty and got out of jail]. Needless to say, the military was deeply conservative and threatened by gays. The armed forces banned anyone with “open sexual deviations” from attending military academies. In a number of highly publicized cases, the military dishonorably discharged officers for homosexual practices.

Though Uruguay is a rather conservative society, the country has not been immune from social and political changes sweeping through the rest of South America. In 2004, voters elected socialist Tabaré Vazquez of the left Broad Front coalition to the presidency. Three years later, Vazquez made history by signing a congressional bill granting civil unions to same-sex couples who had been living together for at least five years. Under the new law, gay couples were provided with similar rights to those enjoyed by married couples on matters like inheritance, pensions and child custody. The ruling made Uruguay the first Latin American country to legalize civil unions for gays and lesbians.

Though some retired Uruguayan military officers have warned that reversing the ban on gays joining the military will undermine morale and discipline, in general protest has been muted. Perhaps that’s not too surprising when you consider how much political and social attitudes have shifted within the Southern Cone’s military establishment, a point I discuss at considerable length in my new book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008).

When he first came into office, Obama pledged to end “don’t ask don’t tell.” Polls show that many U.S. soldiers are comfortable with the idea of lifting the ban on gays serving in the ranks. Recently however Obama has backpedaled: the White House’s civil rights Web site has watered down the strong language it had used to signal its desire to scrap “don’t ask don’t tell.” When West Point graduate Dan Choi, an Iraq veteran and Arab linguist, was discharged from the military for disclosing that he was gay, the U.S. President failed to utter even a whisper of protest.

If Uruguay, a country which up until fairly recently was run by a repressive, macho and paternalistic military can institute landmark legislation dealing with gays in the military then what is Obama’s problem?

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