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June 28, 2009

Smells Like Pulitzer Spirit

By: Bernard Chazelle

The Times has an informative piece on Honduras.

From the byline alone, you know this is going to be good: Elizabeth Malkin, in Mexico City, with reporting by Simon Romero from Caracas. Which makes perfect sense since, as we all know, Mexico City and Caracas are the two major cities in Honduras. (Too bad they had no reporter in Bangkok. I hope the Pulitzer committee doesn't notice.)

The Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the army on Sunday after pressing ahead with plans for a referendum ...

A referendum? OK, but for what?

... a referendum that opponents said could lay the groundwork for his eventual re-election

Ok, so we ask his opponents what the referendum is about. How about asking a more neutral observer? Like?

Mr. Zelaya pressed ahead with plans for a nonbinding referendum that opponents said would open the way for him to rewrite the constitution to run for re-election despite a one-term limit.

Yes, I think we got that point. Opponents of the referendum really don't like that referendum. But what's the referendum about? I'll go out on a limb and, on the basis of what our crack reporters have told us, I'll take a wild guess: "Can I, el Caudillo Zelaya, run for president again and again and again? Yes or no?"

Let's check with Dr Wikipedia to see how well I'm doing:

Incumbent President Manuel Zelaya wanted to hold a non-binding referendum on whether to convene congress to modify the constitution.

Hmm... me very confused.

It's non-binding, meaning that it has no enforcement power.

It's not a referendum to change the constitution.

It's a referendum to convene a constitutional assembly to modify the constitution.

Further investigation shows that right now a president is only allowed a single term of 4 years, which of course works great for the opponents of reform. (Note: term limits are not necessarily a bad idea, but which country in the world has a single 4-year term limit?)

After the armed forces commander, Romeo Vazquez, said that the military would not participate in the referendum, Mr. Zelaya fired him. But the Supreme Court declared the firing illegal.

Nice! If Obama wants to fire Paetreus, he'd better be nice to Scalia. But I really enjoyed this line: "the military would not participate in the referendum." I am sure Jon could write an entire SNL skit just out of that one line.

The Times goes on to quote our own president:

“I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic charter,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

Nice little jab at Chavez while failing to condemn the coup. "Let's all be good boys and girls..." Neat. Barack-Hillary will play their good-cop/bad-cop routine, which proves to me that the Honduran military got the go-ahead from the CIA. Or, rather, let me clarify this statement. There's no way this would have happened if the US had said no. And if anyone doubts there's bad blood between Honduras and the US, one has to go back only 9 months for Honduras' decision to delay the accreditation of the US ambassador in solidarity with Bolivia.

To quote our hero Augusto Pinochet, "Sometimes democracy must be bathed in blood." Now that we've had our "democracy" moment, is the bloodbath next?

Perhaps our NYT correspondent in Tahiti can tell us.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at June 28, 2009 06:13 PM

Prof Chazelle, something strange is going on. I posted a longer comment in your previous post where there is a discussion of Honduras but my comment went to the moderator and has not been posted yet. Below is the link to an article from El Pais which is translated.

And in that article, there is a link to an interview with the president "before" the coup took place. The interview is very interesting and informative and one of the questions asked was as follows....

Q. What role has the U.S. played in the attempted coup?
A. Well, let's be fair. Here I was all ready to give a blow if the U.S. Embassy would have approved, had given the coup. But the U.S. Embassy did not approve of the coup. And look what I'm going to say now whether I'm sitting here at the Presidential House, talking to you, it is thanks to United States.

It happened in spite of that and I am STUMPED!

And as regards reporting from Mexico City and Caracas, the distance is shorter than a guy who was reporting Iraq war from his office at Wasington Times pretending to be in the field!!! Wonder if HE won the Pulitzer!!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 28, 2009 07:53 PM

I wonder if Ole Deathsquad Negroponte has got some South American Vacation Time built up? Are those Vampire Bat Wings I hear, flapping south?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 28, 2009 08:14 PM

I wonder if we'll get any neocon bile / WaPo op-eds about bombing Honduras?

Posted by: Cloud at June 28, 2009 08:15 PM

Google News top 3 headlines:
Honduran military ousts president ahead of vote -
Washington Post
Honduras Coffee Producers Say They Are 'Very Concerned' On Coup - Wall Street Journal
Military Ousts Honduran President; US Condemns Coup - ABC News

Gotta love the WSJ's priorities.

What baffles me is the Honduran Supreme Court ruling - is there no mechanism in the Honduran Constitution for changing the Honduran Constitution? Or can you just not do it with t a vote?

I guess I could do some research...

Posted by: RobWeaver at June 28, 2009 08:39 PM

Note also this amusing use of anonymous officials:

U.S. officials said they continue to regard ousted Manuel Zelaya as the legitimate president of Honduras and are working with other countries in the region to restore him to power peacefully.

Obama administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in a conference call today with reporters, said they expect the Organization of American States to issue a resolution condemning the coup...

Officially you get vague platitudes.

Posted by: RobWeaver at June 28, 2009 08:51 PM

Rupa Shah's point, backed with evidence, deserves to be taken seriously: the Obama administration has taken a very different tack with the governments of Central America than the previous admin (which was the one in power nine months ago during the incident Bernard alluded to).

Sec. Clinton denounced the coup in no uncertain terms in the early afternoon, followed up by a completely unambiguous statement by the U.S. ambassador to Honduras (after the charade in which the Congress accepted a patently fake "resignation" from Zelaya and "elected" Micheletti): "The United States recognizes only Zelaya as the legitimate president of Honduras."

In the State Dept. press backgrounder linked in the post, the two officials couldn't make it any plainer that they expect an early step-down by the military and usurping pols. Also, rather than big-footing in the usual U.S. way, they are working with the other countries in the OAS rather than trying to use the OAS as their mouthpiece. The U.S. made its position clear early enough in the process to encourage confidence on the part of other countries in the hemisphere, yet in a restrained enough way to avoid undercutting the effect of unanimous regional opposition to Zelaya's forced removal.

This is the week that Venezuela and the U.S. restored ambassadors to each other. In context, given Chavez' open reference to military intervention (provoked primarily by the V. ambassador being taken prisoner and, apparently, roughed up before being released), the U.S. statements urging against outside interference are fairly, well, diplomatic.

Needing to contend with the long and almost unbroken history, which runs right into current-fiscal-year USAID funding of golpista NGOs like "Grupo Paz y Democracia" (whose spokesperson characterized the events as not a coup but a democratic transition), this administration did the right thing and did it promptly.

The State Department backgrounding officials also demonstrate a much calmer and more accurate grasp of the status and significance of the intended referendum than the NY Times "reporters" who wrote the hyperventilating article -- and notice that they weren't the Times' reporters on the State Dept. call, either, so the blame for the slant goes to the editors. Not that supposedly neutral-to-progressive places like the Council of Hemispheric Affairs did any better.

It's not easy to get me to praise the Obama administration, but their behavior and statements today deserve it. The crabbed and churlish view is understandable, but it just doesn't happen to be right in this case.

Posted by: Nell at June 29, 2009 04:54 AM

Kudos Nell on a well written and insightful piece. Given recent history and the considerable gulf between what the Obama administration says and what it does, however, I'm going to side with the author on this one.

Posted by: Scott B at June 29, 2009 09:52 AM

@Rob Weaver: The Honduran constitution has no provisions for changes by popular vote, including the formation of a constitutional assembly. Anything has to be done by the legislature. Which is conveeeeniently right-wing and not inclined to do much improving of the document.

The existing constitution dates from 1982, when the Reagan administration virtually took over Honduras as a giant base (from which to support attacks on Nicaragua and the rebel-'held' parts of El Salvador).

Posted by: Nell at June 29, 2009 10:27 AM

Zelaya refused to meet with Biden a few weeks ago. I guess he was too busy.

The allusion to a previous coup is a bit of a smoking gun, no? Why is everyone misreading that bit?

Of course, Obama had to "condemn" the coup (too "over the top") or at least "show deep concern" but a chastened, defanged Zelaya returned to power would be the best of all worlds for the US (we defend democracy but anyone who plays footsy with ALBA may be kidnapped in his pajamas against Obama's will).

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at June 29, 2009 12:55 PM

If Zelaya goes back, I wager, there'll be a "smoking gun" alright with attendant bullet waiting for him to turn his back. After all, "OUR DEAR Henry Kissenger" STILL lives and that's the way Henry and AT&T roll.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 29, 2009 01:52 PM

I thought, Cheney making the rounds and John Bolton breathing fire every few weeks with his Op-Eds, emboldened the rogue elements in the CIA and must have had a hand in it. And yes, it is the guy trained by School of Americas who carried out the coup. Very good article below also supports Prof Chazelle's argument. Does one ever really know what our govt agencies do till twenty years later??!!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 29, 2009 02:05 PM

And President Rafael Correa of Ecuador had better be on his guard! He at least knows how the economy works and "questioning the value of a hemispheric free trade agreement and putting oil and mining companies on notice that they will have to turn over much more of their earnings to Ecuador" or asking to demolish IMF and the World Bank may not sit too well with some!!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 29, 2009 02:26 PM

All right, I give. It's a kabuki coup, prearranged by Obama and Clinton as a sort o bonding exercise with Chavez -- a way to put the icing on the cake of the newly restored diplomatic relations.

The State Dept. briefing I referred to isn't actually linked in the post or anyone's comment, so here it is.

Posted by: Nell at June 29, 2009 03:20 PM

Nell: We all respect your expertise on this topic but I am not sure that to dismiss commenters with snide putdowns (crabbed, churlish, kabuki, cynics) is wise.

I think we all agree that Obama's statements are a refreshing change from Bush. But are we all supposed to cheer every time Obama does not behave like the horse's ass that Bush was? Anyway, if that's the full extent of your comment, we agree.

But I see on your blog you call yourself surprised by Obama's refusal to back the coup. Really? Did you imagine for a second that Obama would openly support a bunch of thugs kidnapping a democratically elected president in his pajamas at night and whisking him away to a foreign country? Hmm, not exactly Obama's style. Even if he acquiesced to it, he'd never let us know. So where is the surprise? His diplomatic stand was entirely predictable.

Now the question is, Does that say anything about newfound US tolerance for the Bolivarian movement or Zelaya's ambitions? If you think it does, please make the case.

In particular, you say:

>> [the churlish view] just doesn't happen to be right in this case

Strong statement. What's your evidence?

So let's summarize.

FACT: A leftish guy is overthrown in Central America and all US-related interests are aligned against him.

THESIS: The US tried hard to stop the coup!

Maybe it's true but I say that's a hell of a thesis. It's not cynicism to be skeptical. It's common sense and Occam's razor. So look I am quite willing to hear it why I should forget about 50 years of US policy in the region but you're not going to make your case on State backgrounders. I know the attitude at State (don't ask). Call it friendly hegemony. "We hate coups but people will have to vote the right way." That Zelaya dude is becoming too big for his boots. But it all must be subtle, subtle, subtle. (In the very Obama sense of "We don't torture, we only do rendition.")

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at June 29, 2009 07:27 PM

I dunno, I find myself sorta leaning to Nell's position. That DoS statement isn't nearly as contentless as Obama's earlier mouthings. Perhaps the Honduran ruling class has grown so comfortable with US support they assumed a not-really-constitutional military-facilitated regime change wouldn't be a problem and so went ahead without asking. Or maybe it was an April Glaspie situation. Or it's simply a testament to just how much influence America has lost in Latin America, even with their usual clients.

One can conceive of purely realpolitik motives - particularly given the current international situation - for Obama wishing to avoid the US being seen to be up to its usual tricks in Central America. And what would the US really gain by kicking out Zelaya a few months from an election that'll probably just vote in another moderate lefty anyway?

I take your point about chastening, though, Bernard. Cf. Aristide.

Posted by: RobWeaver at June 29, 2009 09:06 PM

Guns4oil=Honduras=business as usual. Realpolitik!!!

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 29, 2009 11:59 PM

Bernard, I claim no special expertise on the subject at all. I've just been reading around the net like anyone else interested in the subject.

I've edited my blog reference to left cynicism about the U.S. role in these events by calling it 'understandable cynicism', because it is. It couldn't be otherwise, given the history.

Nevertheless, 'crabbed' and 'churlish' were not meant as snide putdowns -- they accurately describe the position of finding it difficult to impossible to see or acknowledge something positive when it's happening.

And I don't dismiss at all your point that the Obama administration's joining with the other governments in the region to oppose the coup increases the U.S. government's leverage with every government in Latin America.

And that doesn't rule out the possibility that U.S. operatives could have been just a wee bit more forceful in communicating to the coup plotters that they should not expect the usual U.S. response.

In particular, Hugo Llorens, the ambassador to Honduras, whose statement of administration policy Sunday afternoon (not recognizing any president but Zelaya) I considered one of the more important signposts of a genuinely productive U.S. approach, is a man whose hands are far from clean. Global Exchange is calling for his replacement. My default position, wWithout knowing any of the details on which that's based, is to agree with Medea Benjamin, who does have special expertise, in the form of long-standing relationships with popular movement members (several of whom were attacked in the weeks before the coup). GlobalEx is organizing an emergency delegation to Honduras now, by the way, if anyone's interested.

I'm not under any illusions that the State Department under Clinton and Obama has thrown aside a commitment to U.S. hegemony; they're just sane enough to see that this is an opportunity to maintain it through regional cooperation rather than rote, reactionary open backing for the coup-makers.

Posted by: Nell at June 30, 2009 02:12 PM

Nell: WE R PAYING both sides and playing both sides. Haven't ya noticed, WE do that to EVERYBODY. As long as U&I gas up to go to work, there IS NO change of policy, ship or national, direction.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 30, 2009 02:26 PM

I'm not sure we disagree very much, Bernard. But it was hard to tell from your original post that "we all agree that Obama's statements are a refreshing change from Bush", and that's what I was responding to.

And yes, I was genuinely surprised. I thought the Obama administration might noodle around waiting to see what everyone else's reaction was. I expected more like yesterday's linguistic backing and filling from Sec. Clinton on whether the U.S. government is going to call it a coup (while it joins in unanimous OAS and UN resolutions that do so and while Pres. Obama says it's illegal).

"Are we all supposed to cheer..." Nope. I freely admit that I cheered because Central and Latin American politics are closer to my heart than some other issues, and because I've been cheer-deprived (because of how far Obama has sunk below my already low expectations on other issues that I care about like detention, torture, civil liberties, and secrecy).

Posted by: Nell at June 30, 2009 02:34 PM

This morning I watched Washington Journal on C-SPAN with Amassador Robert White ( he was very good ). What intrigued me was his mentioning that Sec Clinton will ask for the return of President Zelaya but he will be asked to agree to a deal where he will have to give up the idea of having a referendum to change the constitution so he can not seek a second term!!

An interesting article from CIP

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 30, 2009 03:22 PM

Nell: Yes, it's hard to think that we disagree on the fundamentals.

Well except perhaps on accusing me of cynicism.

To be cynical is a moral position. To be skeptical is a rational position.

I am a skeptic. I am not a cynic. May not sound like a big difference. But, to me, it is.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at June 30, 2009 04:41 PM

Did anyone hear that Zalaya's own congress supported the coup?

Posted by: Jenny at June 30, 2009 07:40 PM

@Jenny: Yes. The two major parties in Honduras, Liberal and National, are just two wings of a narrow elite. (Not so different from here.) Zelaya, elected on Liberal Party ticket, and huge landowner himself, moved significantly leftward during his presidency, began to build alliances with left party Unidad Democracia.

The Supreme Court, most of the Congress, the big private media, and the military high command all represent the elite, whatever their nominal party affiliation. The constitution dates from 1982, when a military dictatorship on its way out from holding overt power wrote it up to limit popular participation in government and make it easy for the country to be run as a giant proxy military base for the U.S., which was waging a sprawling region-wide war against popular movements in Central America.

Anyone interested in lasting reform is going to have a hard time governing in the face of the institutional barriers. Constitutional reform has got to happen.

The U.S. media's idiotic fixation that this is all or only about a second term for Zelaya is parallel to its horse-race fixation that blinds them to substance of most U.S. policy issues.

(example: health care. They couldn't give less of a shvt about the fact that 40 million Americans have no health coverage whatsoever; they literally can't even imagine what that's about, and are completely bored by the actual policy debate. All they care about and can grasp is: Who's winning, Democrats or Republicans?)

So, back to Honduras: "his own" Congress is not a particularly meaningful way of putting it. Micheletti and the rest of them have a lot of gall to screech about rule of law and obedience to the Constitution when they send in the generals instead of impeaching Zelaya (which the Constitution does in fact provide for, if they're so threatened and outraged by a non-binding straw poll).

Posted by: Nell at June 30, 2009 08:37 PM

Sec Clinton will ask for the return of President Zelaya but he will be asked to agree to a deal where he will have to give up the idea of having a referendum to change the constitution so he can not seek a second term

Very like Aristide.

Not entirely sure what point there is in making Zelaya agree to not "having a referendum to change the constitution" when the Honduran constitution can only be changed by congressional vote. Apparently the US shares the Honduran congress' disdain for even merely illustrating the popular will.

Posted by: RobWeaver at June 30, 2009 08:40 PM

And Robert White is a tool, even if he's on the most liberal end of the collection of tools who opine on Central America.

He's reinforcing the idea that Constitutional reform is all or only about allowing for more than one term for President. And, even if it were just about that (which it's not) -- as Bernard said in the original post: how many places on earth limit an elected president to one four-year term? Hell, Virginia is I think one of the few U.S. states where a governor can't succeed him/herself.)

Posted by: Nell at June 30, 2009 08:51 PM

So Zelaya was going to put the referendum to a vote anyway?
A bit more info about the ordea from a Brazil aquaintence:

"Presidente Zelaya intended to make a referendum for approval of his own second reelection. What happened is that the congress made the referendum illegal, not the reelection. The terms of the law they passes forbids referenda from being made up to 180 days before general elections. Thing is, they passed this law one week ago -- which is surprisingly fast and convenient, and all the actions following were extremely quick. It's not that absurd to think that this is merely the execution of a plan being made since much earlier -- just as much as Zelaya was eager insisting on the referendum to happen, expelling military officers from their cargo and such, the opposition is eager in doing anything within their (questionably) legal reach in order to take down the current leaders. It's always a problem when you take sides in this discussion, since Latin America is filled with really, really fucked up politicians, international corporations, crazed militia and so on. Nothing is simple here."

Posted by: Jenny at June 30, 2009 09:04 PM

Stan Goff has laid out a "script for destabilization" based on US actions in Haiti and Venezuela, that I found very helpful in trying to understand what's happening in Honduras.

Posted by: Bruce F at June 30, 2009 11:34 PM

There's this article too:

Posted by: Jenny at July 1, 2009 04:33 AM

well, i have to say i'm not in agreement with these conclusions, but i like your viewpoint. this subject has too many variables and false info in the market that i do not know what to believe. i guess it's a matter of being informed. buy acai

Posted by: exerrophy at July 1, 2009 08:31 AM

For someone who is not as knowledgeable as other commenters about Honduran history, the following article was very informative.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 1, 2009 08:57 AM

Why does Honduras have an army?

Is there a more pathetic person in the world than the leader of a Central American army? A position more imbued with tragedy and farce?

Posted by: rapier at July 3, 2009 02:49 PM