Why U.S. Policy in Honduras Needs a Re-Set
Although neither candidate mentioned Honduras in the last presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney has cited the Obama administration’s reaction to the coup in Honduras as an example marking Barack Obama's failure in Latin American policy.
He is not alone in criticizing the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 coup in Honduras. For reasons starkly different than Romney's, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Howard Berman, wrote in a recent letter to Secretary Clinton: “U.S. policy in Honduras needs a re-set.” The current policies overlook the human rights crisis that has erupted in Honduras over the past few years. Out of concern for the alarming rate of human rights abuses and repression, almost 100 members of Congress have called for a suspension of U.S. military aid.
The example of Honduras can say a lot about the presidential candidates’ positions on Latin America. Historically the United States has intervened heavily in Honduras. The former "banana republic" played a key role in Reagan’s Cold War-driven mission to crush revolutionary movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s by providing a haven for U.S.-funded military operations. More recently it was brought to the international radar when the Honduran military ousted democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009.
So, what do the two major party candidates have to say about the Honduran coup d’état and human rights crisis?
The Obama administration provided a lukewarm response to the 2009 coup. While Obama condemned the coup and called it illegal, the State Department avoided using the term “military coup” in order to maintain greater control over its funding to Honduras. As negotiations about Zelaya’s return to Honduras dragged out, the U.S. government stated it would recognize elections even if Zelaya were not returned beforehand-- which is exactly what it did.
The 2009 elections in Honduras were heavily boycotted by civil society, and well-respected election observation bodies like the E.U. and the Carter Center refused to participate. In the weeks leading up to the elections, the coup regime cracked down of freedom of speech and assembly. Resistance members were detained and beaten by security forces. While the overwhelming majority of Latin American countries rejected the elections, the U.S. immediately recognized them as free and fair, and reinstated military and police aid soon after the inauguration of Porfirio Lobo Sosa.
Obama was left with a difficult legacy from the Bush years. He attempted to step back from the military interventions and “nation-building” under the Bush era. Obama promised that his foreign policy would re-focus on diplomacy and working within the international community.
However, in the aftermath of the Honduran coup, the ambivalent U.S. response diverged greatly from other countries in the hemisphere that were calling for Zelaya’s unconditional return and a rejection of the dubious elections. Leaders from other countries that make up the Organization of American States were critical of the U.S.’ position.
In response to criticism that the administration didn’t take a strong enough stance in Honduras, Obama responded:
“The same critics who say that the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say that we're always intervening and the Yankees need to get out of Latin America. You can't have it both ways.”
Rhetorically, the U.S. did take a step back. In practice, the U.S. has intervened. Three years later, Honduras is becoming the newest epicenter for the War on Drugs. The U.S. has focused its attention on training and equipping the Honduran police and military, as narco-trafficking has been somewhat pushed from Colombia and Mexico into Central America. In addition, the U.S. has plans to increase military bases in Honduras. The Pentagon increased its contract spending in Honduras to $53.8 million in Fiscal Year 2011, up by 71% from the previous year.
For Hondurans involved in the opposition movement against the coup and post-coup governments, the increased presence of military and police does not make them feel safer. In the words of a member of a Garífuna community that has seen increased military and police presence: “It actually creates fear. It is destroying our communities.” Many indigenous and Afro-indigenous communities as well as small farmers are in the midst of land disputes with large landowners that supported the military coup. They witness collaboration between state forces and private security guards to harass, repress and even murder community members in disputed territories.
From the millions given in security assistance and construction of military bases, to the presence of embedded U.S. officials in Honduran agencies, the U.S. has clearly taken a position.
While Obama’s administration has failed to get Honduras policy right, Romney would bring us even further backwards. Romney’s position on Latin America is full of Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine discourse that also borders on invoking Cold War-era warnings of socialism creeping in from our Latin American neighbors.
Romney’s campaign states:
“[Obama] has allowed the march of authoritarianism to go unchecked. In some cases, he has actually encouraged it, as when he publicly backed former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya—a Hugo Chavez ally—despite Zelaya’s unconstitutional attempt to extend his term as president in defiance of the Honduran Supreme Court and legislature.”
Romney’s characterization of the coup misrepresents the facts. Leading up to the coup, Zelaya was promoting a non-binding referendum asking Hondurans whether they wanted include a ballot measure in the upcoming elections that would allow them to vote for an assembly to reform the constitution. The spin perpetuated in U.S. media painted Zelaya in a similar way that Romney has- that he was trying to stay in power indefinitely, thereby insinuating or stating that that warranted the illegal coup. In reality, if Zelaya were hoping to change the constitution so that he could have had another term as president, he was many steps removed. After the coup, the resistance movement collected 1,250,000 signatures in support of a national constitutional assembly.
If Zelaya were authoritarian, as Romney believes, what does that make the U.S.-trained military generals who kidnapped Zelaya from his home and wrecked havoc on civilian protests? What does that make the Lobo administration, which took power under highly-contested elections and has done little to change the pattern of repression?
Romney’s response to Obama’s policies grossly misses the mark and does not discuss the realities of Obama’s policies in Honduras. If Honduras is an example of how Obama and Romney approach Latin American policy, one thing is clear: no matter who wins the elections on November 6th, the U.S. needs to drastically change its course. The War on Drugs and militarization in Latin America is a human rights disaster throughout the region.Join the voices calling for change now! Click here to send a letter to your Senator and Representative asking them to support real change in Honduras policy that promotes human rights and an end to the militarized approach to the War on Drugs.