When the Honduran military overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya two weeks ago there might have been a sigh of relief in the corporate board rooms of Chiquita banana. Earlier this year the Cincinnati-based fruit company joined Dole in criticizing the government in Tegucigalpa which had raised the minimum wage by 60%. Chiquita complained that the new regulations would cut into company profits, requiring the firm to spend more on costs than in Costa Rica: 20 cents more to produce a crate of pineapple and ten cents more to produce a crate of bananas to be exact. In all, Chiquita fretted that it would lose millions under Zelaya’s labor reforms since the company produced around 8 million crates of pineapple and 22 million crates of bananas per year.
When the minimum wage decree came down Chiquita sought help and appealed to the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP. Like Chiquita, COHEP was unhappy about Zelaya’s minimum wage measure. Amílcar Bulnes, the group’s president, argued that if the government went forward with the minimum wage increase employers would be forced to let workers go, thus increasing unemployment in the country. The most important business organization in Honduras, COHEP groups 60 trade associations and chambers of commerce representing every sector of the Honduran economy. According to its own Web site, COHEP is the political and technical arm of the Honduran private sector, supports trade agreements and provides “critical support for the democratic system.”
The international community should not impose economic sanctions against the coup regime in Tegucigalpa, COHEP argues, because this would worsen Honduras’ social problems. In its new role as the mouthpiece for Honduras’ poor, COHEP declares that Honduras has already suffered from earthquakes, torrential rains and the global financial crisis. Before punishing the coup regime with punitive measures, COHEP argues, the United Nations and the Organization of American States should send observer teams to Honduras to investigate how sanctions might affect 70% of Hondurans who live in poverty. Bulnes meanwhile has voiced his support for the coup regime of Roberto Micheletti and argues that the political conditions in Honduras are not propitious for Zelaya’s return from exile.
Chiquita: From Arbenz to Bananagate
It’s not surprising that Chiquita would seek out and ally itself to socially and politically backward forces in Honduras. Colsiba, the coordinating body of banana plantation workers in Latin America, says the fruit company has failed to supply its workers with necessary protective gear and has dragged its feet when it comes to signing collective labor agreements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.
Colsiba compares the infernal labor conditions on Chiquita plantations to concentration camps. It’s an inflammatory comparison yet may contain a degree of truth. Women working on Chiquita’s plantations in Central America work from 6:30 a.m. until 7 at night, their hands burning up inside rubber gloves. Some workers are as young as 14. Central American banana workers have sought damages against Chiquita for exposing them in the field to DBCP, a dangerous pesticide which causes sterility, cancer and birth defects in children.
Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit Company and United Brands, has had a long and sordid political history in Central America. Led by Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray, United Fruit got into the banana business at the turn of the twentieth century. Zemurray once remarked famously, “In Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of parliament.” By the 1920s United Fruit controlled 650,000 acres of the best land in Honduras, almost one quarter of all the arable land in the country. What’s more, the company controlled important roads and railways.
In Honduras the fruit companies spread their influence into every area of life including politics and the military. For such tactics they acquired the name los pulpos (the octopuses, from the way they spread their tentacles). Those who did not play ball with the corporations were frequently found face down on the plantations. In 1904 humorist O. Henry coined the term “Banana Republic” to refer to the notorious United Fruit Company and its actions in Honduras.
In Guatemala, United Fruit supported the CIA-backed 1954 military coup against President Jacobo Arbenz, a reformer who had carried out a land reform package. Arbenz’ overthrow led to more than thirty years of unrest and civil war in Guatemala. Later in 1961, United Fruit lent its ships to CIA-backed Cuban exiles who sought to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs.
In 1972, United Fruit (now renamed United Brands) propelled Honduran General Oswaldo López Arellano to power. The dictator was forced to step down later however after the infamous “Bananagate” scandal which involved United Brands bribes to Arellano. A federal grand jury accused United Brands of bribing Arellano with $1.25 million, with the carrot of another $1.25 million later if the military man agreed to reduce fruit export taxes. During Bananagate, United Brands’ President fell from a New York City skyscraper in an apparent suicide.
Go-Go Clinton Years and Colombia
In Colombia United Fruit also set up shop and during its operations in the South American country developed a no less checkered profile. In 1928, 3,000 workers went on strike against the company to demand better pay and working conditions. At first the company refused to negotiate but later gave in on some minor points, declaring the other demands “illegal” or “impossible.” When the strikers refused to disperse the military fired on the banana workers, killing scores.
You might think that Chiquita would have reconsidered its labor policies after that but in the late 1990s the company began to ally itself with insidious forces, specifically right wing paramilitaries. Chiquita paid off the men to the tune of more than a million dollars. In its own defense, the company declared that it was merely paying protection money to the paramilitaries.
In 2007, Chiquita paid $25 million to settle a Justice Department investigation into the payments. Chiquita was the first company in U.S. history to be convicted of financial dealings with a designated terrorist organization.
In a lawsuit launched against Chiquita victims of the paramilitary violence claimed the firm abetted atrocities including terrorism, war crimes and crimes against humanity. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said that Chiquita’s relationship with the paramilitaries “was about acquiring every aspect of banana distribution and sale through a reign of terror.”
Back in Washington, D.C. Charles Lindner, Chiquita’s CEO, was busy courting the White House. Lindner had been a big donor to the GOP but switched sides and began to lavish cash on the Democrats and Bill Clinton. Clinton repaid Linder by becoming a key military backer of the government of Andrés Pastrana which presided over the proliferation of right wing death squads. At the time the U.S. was pursuing its corporately-friendly free trade agenda in Latin America, a strategy carried out by Clinton’s old boyhood friend Thomas “Mack” McLarty. At the White House, McLarty served as Chief of Staff and Special Envoy to Latin America. He’s an intriguing figure who I’ll come back to in a moment.
The Holder-Chiquita Connection
Given Chiquita’s underhanded record in Central America and Colombia it’s not a surprise that the company later sought to ally itself with COHEP in Honduras. In addition to lobbying business associations in Honduras however Chiquita also cultivated relationships with high powered law firms in Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Chiquita has paid out $70,000 in lobbying fees to Covington and Burling over the past three years.
Covington is a powerful law firm which advises multinational corporations. Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, a co-chair of the Obama campaign and former Deputy Attorney General under Bill Clinton was up until recently a partner at the firm. At Covington, Holder defended Chiquita as lead counsel in its case with the Justice Department. From his perch at the elegant new Covington headquarters located near the New York Times building in Manhattan, Holder prepped Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita’s CEO, for an interview with 60 Minutes dealing with Colombian death squads.
Holder had the fruit company plead guilty to one count of “engaging in transactions with a specially designated global terrorist organization.” But the lawyer, who was taking in a hefty salary at Covington to the tune of more than $2 million, brokered a sweetheart deal in which Chiquita only paid a $25 million fine over five years. Outrageously however, not one of the six company officials who approved the payments received any jail time.
The Curious Case of Covington
Look a little deeper and you’ll find that not only does Covington represent Chiquita but also serves as a kind of nexus for the political right intent on pushing a hawkish foreign policy in Latin America. Covington has pursued an important strategic alliance with Kissinger (of Chile, 1973 fame) and McLarty Associates (yes, the same Mack McLarty from Clinton-time), a well known international consulting and strategic advisory firm.
From 1974 to 1981 John Bolton served as an associate at Covington. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under George Bush, Bolton was a fierce critic of leftists in Latin America such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Furthermore, just recently John Negroponte became Covington’s Vice Chairman. Negroponte is a former Deputy Secretary of State, Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Representative to the United Nations.
As U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985, Negroponte played a significant role in assisting the U.S.-backed Contra rebels intent on overthrowing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Human rights groups have criticized Negroponte for ignoring human rights abuses committed by Honduran death squads which were funded and partially trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, when Negroponte served as ambassador his building in Tegucigalpa became one of the largest nerve centers of the CIA in Latin America with a tenfold increase in personnel.
While there’s no evidence linking Chiquita to the recent coup in Honduras, there’s enough of a confluence of suspicious characters and political heavyweights here to warrant further investigation. From COHEP to Covington to Holder to Negroponte to McLarty, Chiquita has sought out friends in high places, friends who had no love for the progressive labor policies of the Zelaya regime in Tegucigalpa.
When the Honduran military overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya two weeks ago there might have been a sigh of relief in the corporate board rooms of Chiquita banana. Earlier this year the Cincinnati-based fruit company joined Dole in criticizing the government in Tegucigalpa which had raised the minimum wage by 60%. Chiquita complained that the new regulations would cut into company profits, requiring the firm to spend more on costs than in Costa Rica: 20 cents more to produce a crate of pineapple and ten cents more to produce a crate of bananas to be exact. In all, Chiquita fretted that it would lose millions under Zelaya’s labor reforms since the company produced around 8 million crates of pineapple and 22 million crates of bananas per year.
Behind the recent pressure campaign against the Zelaya regime in Honduras lurks a shadowy world of right wing foundations, lobbying groups, and anti-Chávez figures. This tangled web of Washington, D.C. interests includes the Arcadia Foundation, a mysterious figure named Robert Carmona Borjas, and former State Department official Otto Reich. What do all these organizations and characters have in common? In one way or another, they are all tied back to Senator John McCain (R-AZ).
According to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Venezuelan lawyer Robert-Carmona Borjas helped to draft some of the infamous anti-constitutional "Carmona decrees" after Hugo Chávez was overthrown in the April 2002 military coup. After Chávez was returned to power, Carmona Borjas fled to the United States where he found his calling as a leading anti-Chávez figure and, more recently, as a fierce critic of the Zelaya regime in Honduras.
In 2004, Carmona-Borjas was listed as part time faculty at the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at George Washington University; as recently as November 2008, set up a class entitled "Political Management in Latin America" offered through the Graduate School of Political Management. According to the GW Hatchet, the local student paper, the class had a roster of right-wing, free-trade boosting speakers including Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich, Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan politician, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutiérrez, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
According to the Hatchet, the class sought to "analyze Latin American governments that have failed social policies, which have led to anti-system political movements." "Many Latin American countries have forged ties with re-emerging powers and countries in pursuit of nuclear capability," Carmona-Borjas said, "ties that can endanger the interests of the United States in the region."
But it was not part time teaching in D.C. that distinguished Carmona Borjas as a political player. No, it was the Venezuelan's work as Vice President of the mysterious anti-corruption and watchdog outfit known as Arcadia Foundation that really set him apart. From his perch at Arcadia, Carmona-Borjas launched anti-corruption attacks against Honduras and the Zelaya regime. In particular, he conducted a massive public relations campaign against Hondutel, the state telecommunications company in Honduras. In article after article published in the Central American media, Borjas-Carmona accused Hondutel of corruption.
The Right-Wing Telecom Connection
The Venezuelan right winger was joined in his criticisms by Otto Reich, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, State Department official under Bush, and foreign policy adviser for McCain's 2008 campaign. Reich was linked to figures in the 2002 coup against Chávez and has worked as a corporate lobbyist for firms such as telecom giant AT&T. His firm, Otto Reich Associates, advises U.S. corporations in Latin America and promotes the American free trade agenda by fighting privatization.
I speculated before that Reich and Carmona-Borjas might have known of each other, and the George Washington University connection is now proof of that. What seems to have united both Reich and Carmona-Borjas was their interest in the telecommunications issue. That's not too surprising in light of the history. Indeed, for McCain and his right-wing ilk the telecom industry has been a central political focus. McCain has had important historic ties to big corporations such as AT&T, MCI, and Qualcomm. In return for their financial contributions, McCain, who partly oversees the telecommunication industry in the Senate, has acted to protect and look out for the political and economic interests of the telecoms on Capitol Hill.
To get a sense of the sheer scope of McCain's incestuous relationship with the telecoms, one need only log on to the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 1998 electoral cycle, AT&T gave $34,000 to McCain. In the 2000 cycle, the telecom giant provided $69,000; in 2002 $61,000; in 2004 $39,000; in 2006 $29,000; and in 2008 $187,000. Over the course of his career, AT&T has been McCain's second largest corporate backer.
What's more, AT&T has donated handsomely to McCain's International Republican Institute (IRI). McCain chairs this group and though he seldom talks about it, he has gotten much of his foreign policy experience working with the operation that is funded by the U.S. government and private money. The IRI, which receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, claims to promote democracy worldwide. In 2006, AT&T gave the IRI $200,000. AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris declined to elaborate on why the international telecommunications provider wrote a big check. "AT&T contributes to a variety of charitable organizations," he said flippantly.
IRI and Telecom Agenda in Latin America
The IRI has fought against regimes in Latin America that resist privatization of the telecom industry. In Venezuela, where the government nationalized the telecom firm CANTV, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups that were opposed to the regime. Starting in 1998, the year Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to produce anti-Chávez media campaigns, including newspaper, television, and radio ads.
Additionally, when politicians, union and civil society leaders went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month before the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez's recall.
Like Hugo Chávez, Honduran President Zelaya was known to be as a fierce critic of telecommunications privatization. In this sense, he was at odds with the current coup president Roberto Micheletti as well as right-wing interests in the U.S. such as McCain's IRI, Arcadia, and Otto Reich Associates that push for the free trade agenda and privatization.
The Curious Case of Cormac
For evidence of further U.S. corporate and right-wing ties to the Honduran imbroglio, one need look no farther than PR Newswire for last Monday, July 6. In an article headlined "Honduran Congressional, Business Leaders to Hold Washington, D.C., Press Conference," we learn that a delegation sought "several days of meetings with United States policymakers to clarify any misunderstandings about Honduras' constitutional process and to discuss next steps to ensure the preservation of the country's democratic institutions."
Founded in March 2001, the Cormac Group is a "strategic consulting and lobbying firm" advocating "open and fair markets." Cormac works in the telecommunications sector and seeks to construct "a barrier-free regulatory structure that enhances competition." Cormac's Founding Partner John Timmons was a fundraiser for McCain and former Senate aide and has represented AT&T. Another partner at Cormac, Jonathan Slade, "has developed a well-known reputation from helping American and foreign companies impact the U.S. foreign policy process, particularly related to Latin America."
Hard Right and Not Obama
What seems to have united all these right-wing groups and figures -- from Arcadia to Otto Reich -- was their allegiance to free markets and privatization of the telecom industry. It was these entities allied to the hard right and McCain that played the most prominent role in the pressure campaign against Zelaya -- not the Obama Administration.
As the Republican Party implodes the public is becoming aware of a secretive Christian society known as the Family or the Fellowship. The group was founded in 1935 in opposition to FDR’s New Deal and its adherents subscribe to a far right Christian fundamentalist and free market ideology. A minister named Abraham Vereide founded the Family after having a vision in which God visited him in the person of the head of the United States Steel Corporation (no, I’m not making this up). The Family has a connection to house on C Street in Washington, D.C., known simply as C Street. Officially registered as a church, the building serves as a meeting place and residence for conservative politicians.
Few members of the fellowship talk about the group’s mission. The organization organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast which is attended by the president, members of Congress, and diplomats from around the world. Earlier this year Obama presented his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the event. According to Jeff Sharlet who wrote a book about the group the Family’s philosophy is based on “a sort of trickle-down fundamentalism,” which believes that the wealthy and powerful, if they “can get their hearts right with God … will dispense blessings to those underneath them.” True believers in market orthodoxy, Family members think that God’s will operates directly through Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”
The Family’s current leader Doug Coe is secretive but enjoys considerable political influence as a spiritual adviser. When South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, himself a visitor and a kind of honorary alumni at C Street, compared his political difficulties involving his affair with an Argentine woman to those of biblical King David the South Carolina politician was falling back on a central figure in Family theology. You could “almost hear Doug Coe’s voice” coming out of Sanford, Sharlet remarks.
C Street’s stately red brick, $1.1 million building is subsidized by secretive religious organizations and is located a mere stone’s throw away from the Capitol. Lawmakers who live there include Reps. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. The lawmakers, all Christians, live in private rooms upstairs and pay an incredibly low rent — a paltry $600 — to live at C Street.
Tenants dine together once a week to talk about religion in their daily lives. Richard Carver, a member of the Fellowship’s board of directors who served as assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration, says “Our goal is singular—and that is to hope that we can assist them in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs.” Senator DeMint, a Presbyterian who moved into C Street less than a year ago, says that members are wont to share a verse or a thought in Bible Study “but mostly it’s more of an accountability group to talk about things that are going on in our lives, and how we’re dealing with them.”
It’s not uncommon for C Street residents to invite fellow congressmen to the lodging for spiritual bonding. Sanford for example turned to C Street for answers and support as his marriage crumbled apart. Now Sanford is joined in his troubles by another C Street member, John Ensign, who had a sexual relationship with a staffer. The Ensign affair has threatened to take down yet another C Street member, Tom Coburn. In February, 2008 Coburn and Ensign’s former mistress’ husband confronted Ensign and urged him to end the affair. Reportedly, Ensign paid the woman more than $25,000 in severance when she stopped working for him in 2008.
Now comes word that that Ensign’s parents paid his mistress and her family almost $100,000 “out of concern for the well being of longtime family friends during a difficult time.” The severance payment could lead to campaign finance or ethics issues for Ensign. But the scandal is also damaging for Coburn who is said to have encouraged Ensign to compensate the couple and to help them relocate. Coburn has denied any knowledge of the payments.
Coburn, who is a physician, will not comment on the advice he provided Ensign saying his position as a doctor and ordained deacon required that he keep all information private. “I’m not going to go into that — that’s privileged communications,” the Oklahoma Senator said. “I’m never going to talk about that with anybody. I never will, not to a court of law, not to an ethics committee, not to anybody — because that is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody.”
Projection of U.S. Power Abroad
When they’re not philandering and violating their own professed Christian morality, C Street members push for the projection of U.S. power abroad. As Obama went to Port of Spain, Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas in April it was Ensign who criticized the President for shaking Hugo Chávez’s hand. “I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chávez,” he said. Ensign, a big booster of corporate-style free trade, voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA in 2005. He also supports the coup government in Honduras and signed a letter to Secretary of State Clinton calling on the Obama administration to revoke its support for deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
Coburn, who is an obstetrician, has advocated the death penalty for any of his peers who carry out abortions. In the foreign policy realm he has stuck to a moralistic credo. He criticized a USAID program for example which sought to teach commercial sex workers in Central America about condom use to prevent HIV AIDS. An irate Coburn wrote President Bush to demand that the United States cease financing the preventative program, run by the non-profit Population Services International (PSI). Apparently the note had the desired effect and shortly after Coburn made his appeal PSI received word that USAID was cutting off money for the program. When not working to defeat sexual education in Central America Coburn supports free markets in the region, voting like his colleague Ensign to support CAFTA. He also supports the coup regime in Tegucigalpa.
C Street’s real free trade messiah is South Carolina native son Jim DeMint who just chastised the White House for supporting Zelaya, thereby carrying out what he called “a slap in the face to the people” of Honduras. Hondurans “have struggled too long to have their hard-won democracy stolen from them by a Chávez-style dictator,” he remarked. The South Carolinian, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went even further and attacked the Organization of American States for “trampling” over the hopes and dreams of a “free and democratic people.” It’s hardly surprising that Demint would come out for the military takeover in Honduras given that he’s been a long time booster of Central American free trade. In this sense, he shares the ideological views of newly installed Honduran President Roberto Micheletti, a former businessman and conservative politician who has supported CAFTA. Demint has long been on the other side of the fence from the likes of Zelaya and Chávez. First elected to the House in 1998, he has been an eager promoter of far right wing economic orthodoxy like privatizing social security and abolishing the federal minimum wage.
Zach Wamp is another free trade zealot at C Street. Like his fellow Christian members, he supported CAFTA. At the time Wamp conceded that America’s trade policies were unpopular but defended his vote remarking that the trade agreement was beneficial to his native Tennessee. In the never ending race to the bottom, Wamp said that “if we ever want to compete with China, we must build alliances in our region with countries – like these CAFTA partners – so we can preserve American jobs and not lose any more manufacturing jobs to China or the Pacific Rim.” The southerner then went on to explain his other reasons for supporting the trade agreement. “During this critical time in American history,” he declared, “we are facing multiple national security implications for U.S. leadership and the Western hemisphere. The influences of communism and dictatorships are on the rise to our South.”
Warming to his theme, Wamp continued “in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez rules with an ‘iron fist’ and stands ready to team up with his mentor, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, to expand their influence in these Central American countries. Countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador impacted by CAFTA must see the United States as a partner – not the adversary – so this region can be stable and secure.” Raising the alarm bell, Wamp continued “instability in Central America might also jeopardize U.S. border security. Should the Communists succeed in spreading their philosophies and regimes throughout Central America, even more illegal aliens will want to flee their countries and cross our southern border.”
Wamp has also signed on as a co-sponsor to legislation which condemns former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya for carrying out unconstitutional moves. The resolution chastises Zelaya for forging close ties with Chávez and Cuban rulers Fidel and Raul Castro and for joining the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), an anti-free trade initiative including Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.
In their own personal lives, C Street members have made a mockery of the group’s Christian teachings. Yet when it comes to the far more important and consequential issue of foreign policy these Republicans have stuck to their guns. From Chávez to Zelaya to free trade in Central America they have been consistent in seeking to overturn progressive reform and working to maintain U.S. imperial hegemony.
What political and social forces are at the heart of Sunday’s coup in Honduras? Let’s start by looking at the role of Roberto Micheletti, the man Hugo Chávez loves to hate. The former head of the National Congress, Micheletti declared himself Honduras’ new President on Sunday. He replaces President Manuel Zelaya, a politician who had been moving towards more politically and economically progressive positions in recent years. A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, Micheletti studied business administration in the United States and worked as the CEO of Honduras’ state telecommunications company Hondutel in the late 1990s. While he was CEO of the firm Micheletti sought to privatize the firm.
As a believer in so-called “neo-liberal reform,” Micheletti found himself at odds with the Zelaya regime which came to power in early 2006. After he left Hondutel, Micheletti sponsored legislation in Congress which would have cut Hondutel’s rates. Zelaya and Hondutel condemned Micheletti’s provisions, arguing that they would further erode the company’s revenues. For years, long distance profits had provided a lucrative source of income for the government. Over time Hondutel had been subjected to deregulation and had lost its absolute monopoly on long distance calls, fixed lines and telex service. As part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA, Honduras was obliged to reform its telecommunications law which would allow Hondutel to attract private business partners. Observers believed that telecom reform would represent the first step towards outright privatization. Zelaya was one of the most fervent opponents of telecom reform, declaring that it would benefit the private sector and gradually weaken Hondutel’s control of long distance service.
Micheletti formed part of the influential business elite which had grown increasingly disenchanted with the government’s progressive drift. In Honduras, powerful businessmen are the main contributors to political campaigns. They are so powerful and linked to the political system that it can be said that they handpick presidents and dictate the news agenda in the media. Speaking to Inter Press Service, one Zelaya presidential adviser remarked that the country’s economic groups were “insatiable, they make one request after another…in a meeting with President Manuel Zelaya, they told him that in the 1980s, the most important political decisions were put to consultation in the military barracks, but that now they were here, the businesspeople and the media.” In the meeting the businessmen reportedly sought to put Zelaya in his place, remarking “You are only temporary, while we are permanent. We want to be consulted about decisions, we want contracts and to participate in the public tenders, we want to express our opinions on some appointments of public officials, and we want official advertising contracts.”
Apparently Zelaya was not intimidated and instituted a 60% minimum wage increase which angered the wealthy business community. 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.” One organization that was particularly critical of Zelaya’s measure was the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP. Amílcar Bulnes, COHEP’s President, argued that if the government went forward with the minimum wage increase employers would be forced to let workers go, thus increasing unemployment in the country. The most important business organization in Honduras, COHEP groups 60 trade associations and chambers of commerce representing every sector of the Honduran economy. According to its own Web site, COHEP is the political and technical arm of the Honduran private sector, supports trade agreements and provides “critical support for the democratic system.”
Such democratic pledges have been exposed as farce in light of COHEP’s reaction to the coup against Zelaya. The international community should not impose economic sanctions against the coup regime in Tegucigalpa, COHEP argues, because this would worsen Honduras’ social problems. In its new role as the mouthpiece for Honduras’ poor, COHEP declares that Honduras has already suffered from earthquakes, torrential rains and the global financial crisis. Before punishing the coup regime with punitive measures, COHEP argues, the United Nations and the Organization of American States should send observer teams to Honduras to investigate how sanctions might affect 70% of Hondurans who live in poverty. Bulnes meanwhile has voiced his support for Micheletti and argues that the political conditions in Honduras are not propitious for Zelaya’s return from exile.
Micheletti and the business elite receive support from the U.S.-trained military, without which they would not have been able to force Zelaya out of power. Two generals, Romeo Vasquez and Javier Suazo played a key role in the coup. Both had studied at the infamous U.S. School of the Americas which provided instructions in how to torture political dissidents.
There are uncanny parallels between the Honduran overthrow of Zelaya and the Venezuelan coup. In 2002, another Vasquez, Efraín, played a key role in opposing the government of Hugo Chávez. Like his Honduran counterparts, Efraín Vasquez also graduated from the School of the Americas. As army commander in chief, he reportedly met with Otto Reich of the State Department in advance of the U.S.-sponsored coup. On April 11, 2002 amidst opposition protests Vasquez was the only high military official to call for Chávez’s resignation. As I point out in my first book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006), Vasquez halted deployment of troops to protect Chávez in the presidential palace. The following day, Vasquez negotiated Chávez’s ouster and worked to disarm and dismantle citizen groups allied to the regime.
As in Honduras, the military was allied to the globalizing business elite. Dictator for a day Pedro Carmona, who briefly overthrew Chávez in 2002, was a prominent member of Fedecámeras, a business association similar to COHEP in Honduras. In Caracas, Fedecámeras gave voice to the globalizing elite which was fearful of Chávez’s social and economic policies. Carmona, who worked as an executive in the petrochemical industry, was openly critical of Chávez’s moves to exert greater control over the state oil company.
Today it is the U.S.-trained military and the corporate globalizing elite which are most actively seeking the demise of progressive reform in Latin America. Time and again, it is these two key constituencies, acting in tandem, which have sought to overthrow governments.
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown in a military coup on Sunday, is irate about U.S. interventionism in his country. That’s not too surprising in light of the history. For years, successive U.S. diplomats in Tegucigalpa have cultivated close ties with right wing elements in Honduras while seeking to head off progressive change. If Zelaya is ever reinstated as President, the U.S. will have to work hard to erase Hondurans’ bitter memory of belligerent American ambassadors.
Consider for a moment the case of John Negroponte, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. Negroponte worked in his post at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. At the time, Honduras served as a vital base for the Contra rebel army. Negroponte played a significant role in assisting the Contras, though human rights groups criticized him for ignoring human rights abuses committed by Honduran death squads which were funded and partially trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, when Negroponte served as ambassador his building in Tegucigalpa became one of the largest nerve centers of the CIA in Latin America with a tenfold increase in personnel.
The authorities built an airbase at El Aguacate for the Contras, which was reportedly used as a detention facility where torture occurred. The area also served as a burial ground for 185 dissidents whose remains were only uncovered in 2001. Jack Binns, Negroponte’s predecessor in Tegucigalpa and a Carter appointee, maintains that when he handed over power to Negroponte he gave the newcomer a full briefing about human rights abuses committed by the military. Negroponte denies having any knowledge about such occurrences.
But wait, there’s more: Negroponte also participated in a secret and possibly illegal quid pro quo in which the Reagan Administration bribed Honduran authorities with economic and military assistance in exchange for support for the contra rebels. Efraín Díaz, a former Honduran Congressman, remarked of Negroponte and other U.S. officials, “Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed.” As a result of its cooperation with the U.S. war on Nicaragua, Honduras was rewarded with tens of millions of dollars in American military aid. If Negroponte had actually reported to Congress that the Honduran armed forces were involved in human rights abuses, the aid would have been jeopardized.
By the time Manuel Zelaya was elected President in Honduras in late 2005 Central America had finally emerged from its war torn past and was seeking to forge a new and more peaceful future. But Charles Ford, the Bush-appointed ambassador in Tegucigalpa, seemed determined to continue in the footsteps of Negroponte by pursuing a belligerent foreign policy. Just a mere eight days after Zelaya was inaugurated, Ford asked the Honduran President to provide asylum to Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile linked to several terrorist attacks against the Castro government.
A former CIA agent, Posada’s crimes included the masterminding of a bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976 that resulted in the deaths of all 73 passengers onboard, amongst other brutal attacks. In 2003 Posada was arrested in Panama in possession of a large quantity of C-4 explosives. He intended to use them to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro who was in Panama to attend a diplomatic summit. Posada later escaped and fled to the United States.
Zelaya indignantly refused Ford’s request. “I told him [Ford] that it was impossible to grant a visa and political asylum to Posada Carriles because he was accused of terrorist crimes and they (the United States) defend this kind of terrorism; they defend it and I am sure of that,” Zelaya remarked. Speaking with journalists later, the President wondered, “Could it be the case that any Honduran is not aware that the U.S. Embassy here has always interfered with coup d’etats, promoting invasions in Latin America…and wars?” Throwing diplomatic caution by the wayside, the irate Zelaya continued “Were we note victims of the Cold War during the 1980s, when attacks were launched on Nicaragua from Honduran soil…and Honduras was lent out as a base from which to conduct war-like actions?”
Ford, a big booster of the U.S. free trade agreement with Honduras, apparently did not approve of such remarks nor did he warm to Zelaya after the Honduran cultivated a diplomatic alliance with leftist Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Just as he was about to leave Tegucigalpa after serving out his three year stint, Ford said that a large portion of remittances sent by U.S.-based Hondurans back to their home country were the product of illicit drug trafficking. Incensed, Zelaya charged that the U.S. was the “chief cause” of drug smuggling in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ford was being “belligerent,” Zelaya affirmed, simply because Honduras had pursued diplomatic relations with Venezuela.
As payback for Ford’s diplomatic insolence, Zelaya delayed accreditation of the new U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens out of solidarity with Bolivia and Venezuela which had just recently 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. To top it all off, Zelaya sent a letter to newly-elected President Obama in December. In it, the Honduran President urged Obama not to pursue “interventionist practices.” “Ambassadors should…avoid inappropriate public pronouncements…Meddling opinions are damaging and set the political climate on edge,” Zelaya wrote.
Llorens, who was formerly Director of National Security for Andean Affairs at the National Security Agency, doesn’t seem to share his predecessor’s penchant for diplomatic gaffes. Still, there’s nothing fundamentally novel to his approach to foreign policy in the region. A booster of the drug war and free trade, he offers up the same old and tired proscriptions of his earlier colleagues. If Zelaya is restored to power, Obama should make a clean break with the past and appoint a new ambassador. The new President has said he would like the U.S. to relate to Latin America as an equal partner and not simply impose its own will and dictates. Now is his chance to demonstrate that good will.
President Obama has decried it. The Organization of American States and countries throughout Latin America have condemned it. The European Union has protested loudly. The majority of world leaders have raised their voices in opposition, confirmed by a resolution just passed in the United Nations General Assembly. And yet, one prominent legislator on Capitol Hill has leapt to the defense of the new coup regime which took power in Honduras on Sunday. That politician is Republican South Carolina Senator Jim Demint.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was deposed by the military just as he was seeking a non-binding referendum which the Honduran Congress and courts pronounced illegal. Zelaya’s move was seen as an effort to alter the constitution so he could seek a second term. Honduras’ Supreme Court said Zelaya’s referendum violated the constitution, a decision which the military has used as a justification for overthrowing the government. The White House however is not buying these justifications, saying that it’s the military which has behaved unconstitutionally. “Concerns or doubts about the wisdom of his [Zelaya’s] actions relating to his proposed non-binding referendum are independent of the unconstitutional act taken against him,” an administration official stated.
If you’re still having some doubts about whether what happened in Honduras constituted a coup, consider the following: the military invaded Zelaya’s home, kidnapped the President and forced him to leave the country. The military then installed an unelected President without due process or adherence to the Honduran Constitution. On Wednesday Honduras’ new government, spearheaded by former head of Congress Roberto Micheletti, established a nighttime curfew, suspended personal liberties and freedom of assembly, declared the right to detain suspects for more than 24 hours, and restricted freedom of movement both inside Honduras as well as in and out of the country. Thousands have protested the new government in Tegucigalpa and union leaders have announced a national strike.
Audaciously taking on Obama, Demint chastised the White House for what he called “a slap in the face to the people” of Honduras. “The people of Honduras have struggled too long to have their hard-won democracy stolen from them by a Chávez-style dictator,” Demint remarked. The South Carolinian, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went even further, attacking the Organization of American States for “trampling” over the hopes and dreams of a “free and democratic people.”
It’s hardly surprising that Demint would come out for the military takeover in Honduras given that he’s been a long time booster of Central American free trade. In this sense, he shares the ideological views of newly installed Honduran President Roberto Micheletti, a former businessman and conservative politician who has supported the trade initiative. In recent years Micheletti had criticized Zelaya for moving Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, known by its Spanish acronym ALBA, a socially progressive trade pact backed by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela seeking to counteract U.S-style corporate free trade. The regional trade group includes Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Dominica. Since its founding in 2004, ALBA has promoted joint factories and banks, an emergency food fund, and exchanges of cheap Venezuelan oil for food, housing, and educational investment.
Demint has long been on the other side of the fence from the likes of Zelaya and Chávez. First elected to the House in 1998, he has been an eager promoter of far right wing economic orthodoxy like privatizing social security and abolishing the federal minimum wage. His small town, rural Piedmont district was traditionally dominated by non-union textile mills but more recently had been transformed by the arrival of foreign manufacturing investment which was lured to the area through cheap labor.
In 2003, Demint opted to run for Senate when Democrat Fritz Hollings retired. Placing a big political bet, he vocally supported the Central American free trade agreement which had been opposed by South Carolina textile executives. One of five Republican contenders in the Senatorial primary, Demint sought to establish his credentials as a true believer in free trade, a somewhat risky proposition predicated on the notion that the textile industry was washed up and new economic players tied to free trade would now be calling the shots statewide.
The Central American free trade agreement, Demint argued, would create manufacturing jobs in South Carolina while helping to expand overseas markets for some of South Carolina’s new economic players like BMW. But Lloyd Wood of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition said that the agreement would throw thousands of South Carolinians out of work. In an editorial entitled “Demint’s World More Like Fantasy Island,” South Carolina’s largest newspaper The State slammed the Senate hopeful: “Unfair trade agreements like NAFTA have cost South Carolina tens of thousands of jobs. Now the new Central American Free Trade Agreement threatens to do even more damage.”
In the Republican primary, Demint came out in second place and faced former Governor David Beasley in a runoff. “This campaign is going to be all about jobs and unfair trade,” said Beasley, a born again opponent of wide open international trade. Originally a free trade booster himself, Beasley was voted out of office in 1998. After that, thousands of South Carolinians also lost their jobs in a recession.
In a television ad, Beasley featured a middle aged man who had been laid off after the worker’s manufacturing company moved jobs overseas. Demint for his part refused to back down from his free trade advocacy, winning applause from the likes of the right wing Cato Institute and Club for Growth. Demint beat Beasley handily after capitalizing on the former governor’s negative image.
In the general election, Demint faced off against Democrat and State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum who also took a more protectionist stand on trade. The textile industry donated $100,000 to Tenenbaum’s campaign and an industry lobbying group put up billboards across the state reading “Lost Your Job to `Free Trade’ and Offshoring Yet? Register. Vote.” In the end however the state’s strong support for Bush in the election helped to push Demint over the top. Heading to the Senate, Demint later voted for the Central American Free Trade agreement in 2005, helping to secure passage of the initiative.
Over the past five years Demint has promoted his globalizing agenda, the same agenda shared by the likes of Roberto Micheletti and the Honduran elite which has just taken power in Tegucigalpa. In the days ahead it will be interesting to see whether his fellow Republican compatriots, also believers in free trade, will be so brazen as to come out for a government which brutally represses its people.
Read or listen to the mainstream media these days and you get the impression that Sunday’s coup in Honduras was all about a simple disagreement over the constitutionality of presidential term limits. But as the coup unfolds it’s becoming clear that the authorities want something more: the restoration of Honduras’s conservative political order and an end to President Manuel Zelaya’s independent foreign policy which had reached out to leftist countries like Cuba and Venezuela.
As part of their effort to consolidate power officials have moved quickly to restrain the free flow of information, in particular by cracking down on progressive leaning media. Only TV stations sympathetic to the newly installed coup regime have been left alone while others have been shut down. The climate of repression is similar to what we have seen elsewhere in Latin America in recent years. Specifically, there are eerie parallels to the April, 2002 coup in Venezuela when the briefly installed right wing government imposed a media blackout to further its own political ends.
Perhaps somewhat tellingly, the Honduran army cut off local broadcasts of the Telesur news network which is sponsored by leftist governments including Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina and Cuba. Adriana Sivori, Telesur’s correspondent in Tegucigalpa, was in her hotel room speaking on the telephone to her network when ten soldiers arrived with rifles drawn. The men unplugged Telesur’s editing equipment in an effort to halt the network’s coverage of protests in support of ousted President Manuel Zelaya.
When a soldier lightly slapped Sivori’s hand so she would hang up, the journalist grew alarmed. “They’re taking us prisoner at gunpoint,” she remarked. Sivori along with producer María José Díaz and cameraman Larry Sánchez were taken to an immigration office in a military caravan. There, the authorities beat them and demanded to see their Honduran visas. Shortly later, the journalists were released. However, the authorities have warned Telesur journalists to cease transmitting images in support of Zelaya or face further detention.
What is so important about Telesur in particular? In my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) I devote considerable attention to the rise of the new station, itself a product of South America’s stormy political battles and contested media landscape. First launched in 2005, Telesur represents Venezuela’s effort to counteract the power of the right wing media establishment which played a role in the short-lived April coup of 2002 against the Chávez government. Seen as South Ameica’s answer to Al Jazeera and CNN, the station has been spearheaded by Andrés Izarra, up until recently the station’s president. A rising star in the Chávez administration, Izarra got his start as a journalist at NBC and CNN. Disgusted by right wing media coverage of the 2002 coup, he started to work for Telesur.
Since its launch, Telesur has given CNN en Español a run for its money and now has slick production values. Station Director Aram Aharonian says the news industry has gone through a dumbing down since the Gulf War. Journalism, Aharonian remarked to me during our interview in Caracas, had become instantaneous but also devoid of any investigation, analysis or debate. Telesur, by contrast, was “rescuing” journalistic ethics by providing context and opinions about goings-on. While you can expect to see more critical coverage of the Iraq War on Telesur than most mainstream U.S. media outlets, Aharonian says Telesur is independent and doesn’t have any particular political axe to grind.
Such assurances aside, the conservative establishment views Telesur as a threat. When the station announced a content-sharing agreement with Al Jazeera in 2006, Connie Mack, a right-wing Republican congressman from Florida, remarked that the decision was designed to create a “global television network for terrorists.” In light of Sivori’s recent detention, one may surmise that the Honduran coup regime agrees with Mack’s hysterical views.
In Latin America, media has become a crucial fault line in the battle between the pro-U.S. elite and the incipient left “Pink Tide” which has been sweeping into power. In Honduras, the coup regime has not only gone after Telesur but also Channel 8, the official broadcaster of the Zelaya government. The moves prompted Venezuela’s official Bolivarian News Agency as well as Cuba’s Granma newspaper to issue formal letters of protest. Meanwhile a climate of fear and intimidation reigns throughout the capital, with networks providing scant coverage of political protest. Soldiers are reportedly guarding local television and radio stations.
In recent years Zelaya had been embroiled in a war with the conservative private media in the country. Now that the President is gone, these outlets have rallied in defense of the coup regime. Honduras’ two leading radio networks, Radio América and Radio HRN, have urged Hondurans to resume their normal routine and not to protest. Even as hundreds of protesters rallied at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa to demand Zelaya’s reinstatement, radio and TV stations made little reference to the demonstrations. Instead of reporting on political goings-on, the Honduran media outlets played tropical music or aired soap operas and cooking shows.
It’s reminiscent of the April, 2002 coup against Chávez when conservative media station Venevisión refused to cover pro-Chávez demonstrations and preempted its normal news coverage with a day-long marathon of American films such as Lorenzo’s Oil, Nell, and Pretty Woman. Venevisión, which substituted nonstop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda for its regular programming in the days leading up to the coup, was owned by billionaire media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, himself a leading figure in the Chávez opposition who reportedly bankrolled the opposition’s takeover of government.
In Venezuela, conservative coup leaders misjudged the popular mood. Amidst street protests, Chávez was reinstated in two days. In the wake of the coup Venevisión began to moderate its strident tone and the Venezuelan President went on the political offensive by spurring the creation of Telesur as well as other media outlets. If you flip the TV dial today you can still watch rabidly anti-Chávez stations like Globovisión, though the playing field has been leveled considerably. In addition to Telesur Venezuelans can also watch Venezolana de Televisión, a government channel, as well as state sponsored Vive which provides discussion on Venezuelan culture and politics. Chávez has his own TV talk show, Aló, Presidente, and there are dozens of pro-government papers including a tabloid called VEA.
The antagonistic media environment in Venezuela is echoed in other left-leaning countries in South America. Indeed, the newly elected Pink Tide regimes have taken on the private media with a vengeance: in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has proposed that the constitution disallow bankers from financing media outlets. According to him, Ecuadoran television is controlled by powerful interests and the Association of Television Channels is nothing more than a “bankers club.” In Bolivia, indigenous President Evo Morales launched a weekly radio show called The People Are News. The show airs for two hours each week on the Patria Nueva (New Fatherland) state network.
If Zelaya returns to power in Honduras, which seems likely, then we could see the government take on the power of private TV, radio and the like more significantly, perhaps by emphasizing more state media. It will be merely the latest chapter in the ongoing information war between the conservative, globalizing elite and more left-leaning leaders who are coming to power throughout the region.
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.”
In light of the Salvadoran right's fear-mongering campaign in advance of the Central American nation's Sunday presidential election, which has sought to portray leftist candidate Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) as a kind of dangerous foreign agent of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, perhaps it's instructive to consider the political history of the past four years.
Bolivia, Presidential Election of 2005: Chávez and "Terrorists"
During the country's presidential election, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism or MAS campaigned on a progressive platform stressing resource nationalism. His opponent, conservative Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga of the PODEMOS or We Can party (no relationship to Barack Obama) claimed that Morales had ties to drug smugglers, terrorism, Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Quiroga, who pledged to pursue free trade policies, went down to ignominious defeat and got trounced by Morales, 54% to 28%.
Peru and Presidential Election of June, 2006: "Flagrant and Persistent" Meddling
After meeting with Chávez and Morales, the leftist Ollanta Humala, a former officer in the Peruvian army, declared himself part of "a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted." Adopting a nationalist platform, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru's hydrocarbons industry and said he strongly opposed the free trade agreement that his country had signed with Washington.
When Chávez injected himself into the presidential contest by saying that Humala was the voice of the downtrodden and conservative Lourdes Flores was "the candidate of Peru's oligarchy," the Peruvian government briefly withdrew its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. During a runoff vote Flores was eliminated, thus leaving Humala and Peru's former President Alan García of the APRA Party or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance to face off against one another.
García finished second in that vote trailing Humala. During his first presidency García had espoused some progressive positions but now he referred to Chávez and Morales as spoiled children and "historical losers" when they criticized Peru's free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency was marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a "thief" and a "crook."
"I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru," Chávez declared. "To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!" the Venezuelan leader added. Chávez's comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country's internal affairs.
García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When the APRA man painted Humala as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive. When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53% to 47%. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. "Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty," García said. "They have defeated the efforts by Mr Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no," García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that "the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez's candidate."
Mexico and Presidential Election of July, 2006: López Obrador Is a "Danger"
Even though Chávez was not a candidate in the Mexican election which followed one month after Peru's contest, he was certainly a political specter. The election pitted leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD or Party of the Democratic Revolution against two conservative candidates, Roberto Madrazo of the PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party and Felipe Calderón of the PAN or National Action Party. In early polling López Obrador, a populist mayor of Mexico City who had instituted socialist-style handout programs and who had spoken of his desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, had a clear lead over both candidates.
Trailing in public opinion surveys, Madrazo sought to take down his leftist challenger by linking him to Chávez. "There are clear similarities between Chávez and López Obrador," Madrazo said. "I see authoritarianism in them both." The PRI candidate added that López Obrador and Chávez did not respect the rule of law and that foreign investors would avoid Mexico if the PRD candidate ever came to power. Madrazo declared, "I foresee the capital flight that happened in Venezuela with Chávez's government that I don't want to happen here." Going even further, Madrazo accused López Obrador of being in contact with Chávez aides and charged that the Venezuelan leader was trying to influence the election.
Pro-business candidate Calderón joined in the pummeling. In his TV ads, he linked Obrador to Hugo Chávez and claimed that the PRD candidate was "a danger to Mexico." "Hugo Chávez is not running for president of Mexico," remarked the Washington Post. "But some days it's been hard to tell. The Venezuelan president's face has been all over Mexican television at critical stages in this country's bitter mudfest of a presidential race." A little known political activist group put Chávez on TV, surrounded by machine guns and soldiers, and accompanied by an ominous voice-over which intoned: "In Mexico, you don't have to die to define your future -- you only have to vote!"
The Federal Electoral Commission ruled that Calderón's ads TV ads violated its rules and ordered him to withdraw them but only after the scare-mongering message had set in and Calderón had shot up in the polls. Encouraged by the successful result of Calderón's dirty campaign, the candidate's aides claimed that the Venezuelan Bolivarian circles -- small community groups supported by the Chávez government – were secretly working on behalf of López Obrador.
The leftist candidate of the PRD was known for his combative political style. Bizarrely however, López Obrador barely responded to the fear mongering campaign against him. Weeks passed until he finally disavowed a relationship with Chávez. Cowed by the right wing attacks, one presidential aide finally remarked "It's absurd. Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn't know Chávez, nor have they ever spoken."
The election itself was plagued with irregularities. When Calderón claimed victory, López Obrador cried fraud and called for street protests. The Electoral Tribunal ultimately ruled that Calderon had won the election by a very narrow margin and rejected Obrador's allegations.
Ecuador Presidential Election of October, 2006: "Colonel Correa"
The next setback for Chávez came in Ecuador, where the Venezuelan leader's would-be protégé, Rafael Correa, came in second against Álvaro Noboa in the first round of the country's presidential election. Correa, a leftist economics professor who criticized U.S.-style free trade, denied that Chávez had funded his campaign and the Venezuelan leader, chastened by his defeats in Mexico and Peru, was uncharacteristically quiet about the Ecuador election. However, it was no secret that the two had a personal rapport. Correa in fact visited Chávez's home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chávez's parents.
As the presidential campaign heated up, Noboa, a banana magnate, sought to label Correa as a Chávez puppet. In an allusion to Chávez's former military background, Noboa called his adversary "Colonel Correa." Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade Noboa even declared, "the Chávez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery."
If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas. Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chávez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush's friendship with the bin Laden family. "They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo," Correa explained. "The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me."
Chávez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chávez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence. The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the "applause" of the United States. Chávez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential runoff, in which Correa came in second.
In his own inflammatory broadside, Chávez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right." In Ecuador, Chávez said, "there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn't pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round." The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chávez's meddling.
In the end however, Noba's fulminations came to nothing: the Banana King came in second to Correa, losing 43% to 56% for Correa.
Nicaragua Presidential Election of November, 2006: Chávez's "Lieutenant" in Central America
In 2005, when Nicaraguan Sandinista leader traveled to Venezuela for a meeting with Chávez, the friendship between the two began to bear fruit. During the meeting at Miraflores, the presidential palace, Ortega remarked that Latin American unity was necessary to confront globalization. Ortega later alarmed Washington by remarking that if he won the election he would make sure that Nicaragua would join ALBA, Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas. Chávez's trading plan, which is designed to sideline traditional corporate interests and Bush's Free Trade Agreement of The Americas (FTAA), is based on barter agreements between Latin American countries. Ortega later added that he opposed U.S.-backed trade deals such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. "Central America's trading future lies not with the U.S. but with Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina," he said.
Such statements put Ortega at odds with the likes of U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick. "CAFTA is the opportunity of a lifetime," Zoellick remarked in an address given at the Heritage Foundation. "If we retreat into isolationism, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and others like them, leftist autocrats will advance."
As per Peru, the Nicaraguan right sought to link its Sandinista opposition to Chávez in an effort to instill fear in voters. Presidential candidate Jose Rizo remarked that Chávez and Ortega were "a threat to regional and hemispheric stability," and claimed that the Venezuelan leader was financing Ortega's campaign [both Venezuela and Ortega denied the accusation]. "Ortega will become Chávez's lieutenant in Central America and the Caribbean in the same way that he represented the extinct and failed Soviet Bloc," Rizo added.
In the end however, Rizo's red-baiting was unsuccessful: the veteran Sandinista leader edged out his opponent by 10 points to win the election.
El Salvador: Chávez and His "Totalitarian" Projects
To listen to the Salvadoran right in advance of Sunday's presidential election, you'd think Mauricio Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, his opponent Rodrigo Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. "There's a saying that 'Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,'" Ávila remarked. "And that's going to happen with them," he added. "No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela."
Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes's disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.
Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread "totalitarian projects" and wanted to "stick their noses" in anti-democratic practices. It was "no secret" Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received "its ideological nourishment from Havana" and its economic nourishment "from some other place." In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared "I am sure that there's some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador."
Latin American Right: Running On Empty
From Bolivia to Peru to Mexico to Ecuador to Nicaragua and now El Salvador, a clear pattern has emerged. The Latin American right knows that while it was in power, inequality and poverty increased and people hardly benefited economically from the extraction of natural resources. This put rightist politicians in a bind, since campaigning on U.S. - style economic policies and free trade was never going to be popular amongst electorates throughout the wider region.
In this sense, the Latin American right is in a similar dilemma to the Republicans in 2008. Like discredited John McCain, who represented the past and did not have any progressive economic ideas, today's conservatives in Latin America are running on empty and hence their desperate moves to insert Chávez into the political equation. Sometimes, as in Peru and Mexico, the right's strategy has succeeded whereas in other countries the tactic has failed. Arguably, Chávez's inflammatory rhetoric may have backfired in certain cases and wound up hurting progressive candidates.
Ironically, despite the right's claims, Chávez is hardly promoting revolution. Like other Latin American populists, Chávez has pushed economic redistribution but only up to a certain point. What's more, Venezuela is probably not in the position right now to advance an ambitious geopolitical agenda due to the fall in world oil prices. That hasn't stopped the right however from going negative and to claim that left candidates are intimately associated with Venezuela. For Latin American conservatives, it's probably the only card they have left.
Facing a serious electoral debacle in advance of Sunday’s presidential election, and recognizing that it cannot win the election based on practical ideas, the right-wing ARENA (or Nationalist Republican Alliance) party has launched an ugly campaign to link leftist FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) candidate Mauricio Funes with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
There are many similarities between ARENA’s position and the Republican Party prior to the November, 2008 election. Like the GOP, ARENA has now been entrenched in power for a long time. To many Salvadorans, ARENA seems like a colossal dinosaur mired in the past. Founded by right wing death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to be one of the instigators of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, ARENA is still fervently anti-Communist. ARENA, whose colors are red, white and blue, models itself on the U.S. Republican party but is even more explicitly nationalist. The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”
While such heated rhetoric may have appealed to some in the midst of the country’s bloody civil war between the right and left in the 1980s, ARENA now looks increasingly bereft. Salvadorans want practical solutions to the country’s intractable social problems and are hardly in the mood for more of the same anachronistic Cold War rhetoric.
Even if ARENA were to run a novel and innovative campaign however, the party would still face a huge uphill battle. ARENA has been in power now for twenty years. During this time the small Central American nation has descended into violent lawlessness with robbery and homicide rates flying off the charts. ARENA candidate Rodrigo Ávila, the country’s former head of national police, has pledged to combat violent crime. Only Funes however has said he would purge elements of the police force linked to organized crime.
Adding to Ávila’s worries, ARENA has mismanaged the economy. In recent years, the party has eagerly followed Washington’s dictates by privatizing social services and public utilities. The outgoing administration of Antonio Saca signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, but the deal has not led to social harmony. The country is still plagued by extreme inequality while 37 per cent of Salvadorans live in poverty and can’t pay high food prices. This fuels the crime wave which has proven so worrying to poor Salvadorans.
Funes is hardly what one might call a fire breathing leftist. A former media commentator, he seeks to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic political party. At rallies, he doesn’t sing the party’s anthem or wear its traditional red colors, preferring to campaign in a crisp white guayabera shirt. It’s a symbolic move designed to contrast himself with many in the party who still wear fatigues and brandish pictures of Che Guevara and Soviet flags at campaign rallies.
Meanwhile he has bent over backwards to placate the U.S. and has met with State Department officials as well as members of Congress, reassuring them that he is no radical. In addition, Funes has declared that El Salvador should not scrap use of the dollar by returning to its previous currency, the colón. Funes says that “dollarization” and the adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2006 have had negative effects such as inflation and unfavorable competition for small-scale farmers but that it is too late to scrap these policies.
To listen to the Salvadoran right you’d think Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “There’s a saying that ‘Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,’” Ávila remarked. “And that’s going to happen with them,” he added. “No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela.”
Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes’s disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.
Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread “totalitarian projects” and wanted to “stick their noses” in anti-democratic practices. It was “no secret” Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received “its ideological nourishment from Havana” and its economic nourishment “from some other place.” In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared “I am sure that there’s some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador.”
As evidence of the supposed Chávez-FMLN conspiracy, ARENA points to Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA). The plan, initiated by Chávez several years ago, seeks to counteract corporately driven free trade schemes backed by Washington and to promote barter trade and solidarity amongst left wing Latin American countries. Chávez himself has been a rather bombastic critic of CAFTA, remarking that ARENA was “making deals with the devil, the devil himself.”
As a party, the FMLN has historically opposed CAFTA and U.S.-backed free trade while approving of Chávez’s barter schemes. El Salvador does not produce oil, and in 2006 FMLN mayors set up a joint venture energy company with Venezuela called ENEPASA. The initiative is designed to provide less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers. The oil is sold by gas stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.
When FMLN mayors signed the agreement in Caracas, Chávez suggested that money the Salvadoran municipalities saved on energy could be used to subsidize public transport and food prices. Under the terms of the agreement, cities pay 60 per cent of their fuel bill within 90 days. The rest may be paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products or in cash over a 25-year period.
While it’s certainly true that Venezuela has increased its diplomatic and political visibility in El Salvador over the last few years, ARENA’s claims about Chávez’s insidious designs are uproarious. Since the inception of the ENEPASA deal, Venezuela has only sent modest amounts of diesel to El Salvador. Moreover, it’s not clear whether Venezuela can continue to sell discounted oil to the FMLN. In years past, Chávez has been able to increase his geopolitical standing throughout the region by providing cheap oil to poor and impoverished nations. But now, with world oil prices falling, Venezuela may be forced to curtail its ALBA program.
As an issue, Venezuela is a red herring in Sunday’s Salvadoran election. But that hasn’t stopped ARENA from launching a full frontal assault on Funes for having alleged political ties to another foreign power. It’s a sign of political desperation from a party bereft of any coherent ideas about how to solve El Salvador’s enduring social and economic problems.