Iron Fist, Velvet Glove: Obama and Honduras
By Richard Collie
Back in April, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, U.S. President Barack Obama was handed a copy of Eduardo Galleano's alternative history of the Americas: ``The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.''
The book vividly details the history of exploitation and meddling in Latin American affairs, firstly by the early European colonists, and eventually by the United States.
Indeed, it could be argued that no region or continent has suffered more than Latin America at the hands of U.S. imperialism over the years.
Just since World War II, the School of the Americas (SOA), founded in Panama but now based in Fort Benning, Ga., under the new guise of ``Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation'' (WHINSEC) has its grubby finger prints all over a long list of political assassinations, coups and human rights abuses in the region.
From its role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende and support for the dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile; through the training of the Contras death squads in Nicaragua; and more recently to the Bush administration's support of the failed attempt to dislodge Hugo Chavez in 2002.
The rise of the new left in Latin America is thanks in no small part to the painful memory of these events and a desire to carve out a new, different future free of foreign political manipulation. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the man who handed Obama the book in question at the summit in Trinidad, is a key proponent of this movement.
Who knows if Obama actually took the time to read the book, though judging be his current rhetoric, we can suspect that he did not.
When pressed recently by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet about the CIA's role in the establishment of the 17-year Pinochet regime, Obama responded that although he acknowledged that the U.S. had ``made mistakes,'' he was ``interested in going forward, not looking backward.''
He added ``I think that what is important is looking at what our policies are today, and what my administration intends to do in cooperating with the region.''
Obama is a new President, so he can still be afforded the luxury of making such vague and insubstantial remarks. However, he must have known that there would come a time when he would no longer be able to hide behind empty rhetoric and misty talk of the future.
Sooner or later, something was going to test the metal of his bold, new era.
So lo and behold, Mel Zelaya, the elected leader of Honduras, was awoken in the middle of the night by armed guards and bundled onto a plane to Costa Rica on June 28.
The coup was confirmed soon after when Congress leader, Roberto Micchelleti, was sworn in as the new President. Micchelleti is a political opponent of Zelaya and key member of the Honduran business oligarchy who had reportedly welcomed Zelaya into office with the words ``you're temporary, but we're permanent.''
Zelaya himself describes the people who carried out the coup as ``a very voracious elite, an elite which wants only to keep this country isolated, in an extreme level of poverty. It doesn't care about the people, it's not sensitive to them.''
So how has Obama responded to the blatant coup d'etat of a democratically elected government in his own back yard?
His response has been less than decisive at best. Hugo Chavez has accused the President of ``wiggling'' around the crisis. At first, Obama simply urged both parties to ``respect democratic norms, the rule of law.''
It was almost two weeks before the U.S. agreed to cut off $16.5million in direct military aid. Moreover, his Secretary of State Hilary Clinton proceeded to indirectly legitimize the illegal coup government by virtually treating the perpetrators as equals during the negotiations at U.S. sponsored talks in Costa Rica, overseen by Costa Rican leader Oscar Arias.
She dares not utter the dreaded C-O-U-P word. If she did, she would be required by U.S. law to cut off all further funding to the people who were behind it and impose sanctions.
Thus, by her omission of the one word that could make a difference amongst all the empty rhetoric coming out of Washington, she is denying Mel Zelaya the one word that carries any real significance.
Ironically, some far-right figures in the Republican Party, like Connie Mac, have criticized the Obama White House for siding too strongly with Zelaya's leftist government. Unlike the Democrat administration, their colors are nailed firmly to the mast in this case.
If only the new White House could show similar gusto in their support of Zelaya's administration. If Obama really wants to rebuild bridges in Latin America and regain the people's trust, he should back the man who has recently advocated the kind of equality Obama has so often preached about in the past.
Zelaya, although originally from a business background himself, has promoted progressive policies that include raising the minimum wage by 60 percent; giving out free school meals; decreasing the price of public transport; providing pensions for the elderly; and making scholarships available to students.
These are examples of the reason that Obama should be wholeheartedly backing change in Central America, not a return to the old-guard institutions that have helped to make Honduras the third poorest country in the Northern hemisphere.
Yet weeks into the saga, Zelaya is still out of office, while the people who brand him a criminal for daring to utter the word ``constitutional change,'' remain in power.
When you consider that the U.S. probably has the political, economic and military clout to put an end to the coup in a matter of hours rather than days, it makes you wonder why they still haven't done so.
As Nikolas Kozloff remarked, ``this is the iron fist with a velvet glove: while it may feel softer. It's as interventionist as ever.''
Richard Collie is a writer and activist based in Seoul. He writes for a Web site (www.venceremosonline.org) that covers international issues, including, from time to time, Korean issues. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.