By Chris Shortsleeve
As the crisis in Honduras escalates, as the coup regime enters its fourth month of political power, evicting OAS representatives, barricading the Brazilian embassy, and instituting martial law, it is worth revisiting a question that has not been sufficiently and systematically discussed in left publications – namely, why the seemingly confused policy towards Honduras by the Obama administration? Why the vacillation between rhetorical condemnation of the Honduran coup on the one hand, and the complete absence of meaningful political pressure on the coup regime itself on the other? Furthermore, where does Honduras fit in the future of US imperialism – what does Obama’s response to this coup perhaps indicate for the future of US policy in Latin America?
With a political, military, and economic embeddedness that almost mirrors places like Pakistan and Iraq, Honduras is essentially a US client state. The Honduran economy and political elite are completely dependent on the United States, as 70% of all Honduran exports end up in the U.S., 40% of all capital investments originate in the US, and the entire Honduran military is funded and trained by U.S. aid. Thus, contrary to Obama’s recent press conference statement that “there is no magic button” to the Honduran political situation, there actually is: the US has merely to cut off the $100 million in aid it gives to Honduras each year, and the coup regime would be untenable literally in a matter of weeks.
This obvious hypocrisy gave rise to certain theories on the left this summer that perhaps the US was behind the Honduran coup. After all, why would Obama and Hillary Clinton back Zelaya, a left-center president who has been knick-named “little Chavez” throughout the region, when the coup regime so clearly represents a conservative restoration of unchecked US financial power in the region, a staging ground, perhaps, for a whole new era of neoliberal policies throughout Latin America? Why, if under Micheletti, Honduras could become for Latin America what Iraq has failed to become for the Middle East – the poster-child of the Project for a New American Century – has the Obama administration publicly condemned such a golden opportunity for the long term hegemony of American imperialism throughout Latin America?
It’s important to keep in mind that the US is towing a very sophisticated and nuanced line towards this “crisis,” and that their opposition to the coup is not unequivocal. Obama and Hillary Clinton have said they are “concerned”, that the only legitimate Honduran leader they recognize is Zelaya, that “the democratic process needs to be respected,” and that (in contrast to the Bush administration’s careful sophistry during the 2004 Haiti coup) this was indeed a “coup.” The US has revoked the diplomatic and tourist visas of 17 members of Micheletti’s government (including Micheletti’s), they successfully pressured Micheletti to reverse his dramatic martial law decree on Monday, and they sponsored several talks with Zelaya and OAS representatives in Washington this past summer. However, these are far from substantial moves for a nation-state that, in addition to being the most powerful country on earth, is the direct life-line for the entire Honduran military, economy, and political establishment. The economic sanctions the US has imposed have been weak (unlike those they have imposed on Cuba for 47 years and are threatening to impose on Iran in the coming weeks), they have not cut off their annual $100 million of aid to the Honduran government, they have not seriously sought a timetable for OAS negotiations, and they haven’t even formally demanded that Micheletti step down. Furthermore, as the Honduran crisis has radically escalated in recent weeks, Obama and Clinton have themselves been personally silent, leaving the official statements to lower-level OAS ambassadors and State Department officials who have been making vague, literary, celebrity tabloid comments that are completely devoid of political content, let alone any US policy pronouncements (“It’s time for the de facto regime to put down the shovel” – P.J. Crowley; “[Zelaya] should stop acting as though he were starring in an old movie” – W. Lewis Amselem). Why the vacillation between high-minded “democratic process” rhetoric and a complete lack of meaningful diplomatic pressure? And why the eerie silence from Washington right in the heat of recent escalations?
The answer to the first question lies with Hugo Chavez. Chavez and the Bolivarian Alliance represent a competing hegemonic pole to the dominance of US neoliberal policies across Latin America. This much is known. But through their Honduras position, the Obama administration is piloting a new foreign policy strategy that is largely based on JFK’s Alliance for Progress. In total contrast to the failed Cold War neo-con strategy of openly supporting assassinations, coups, and right-wing military governments, Obama is pursuing a policy of behind-the-scenes militarization and authoritarianization in Latin American (Plan Columbia, Plan Mexico, tacit support for the Micheletti government, etc.) while publicly positioning himself as a new face of diplomatic negotiation and “the democratic process.” Just like JFK and Lyndon Johnson tried to isolate Che and the socialist foco movement through the Alliance for Progress, Obama is trying to isolate the Bolivarian Alliance by forging a new Latin American political consensus based on development, diplomacy, and democracy, albeit within certain highly controlled parliamentary and neoliberal constraints. This doesn’t mean the militarization of Latin America won’t continue – it’s actually accelerating, as the new Congressional budget for Plan Mexico has exceeded that of Plan Columbia, and has totally thrown out the meager ‘human rights’ conditions written into Plan Columbia – it just means that Obama’s Latin American strategy, with respect to Honduras, is to give rhetorical support to “the democratic process” while quietly preserving the class interests of the Honduran business elite and the political and economic interests of US empire in the region. There is no question that the Obama administration is more comfortable with the political character of the Micheletti government; the public and formalistic tribute to “the democratic process” has only to be made, a lame OAS negotiation followed by a lamer (and undemocratic) “transitional government” needs only to be established, and Obama can walk away from Honduras knowing that 1.) the parliamentary process was publicly upheld, and 2.) the class interests of the Honduran business elite (and by extension, the long-term stability of US imperialism in Honduras) have been preserved.
But then why the silence from Obama and Hillary in recent weeks? Why have they seemingly retreated, at least publicly, from pursuing this new Latin American political consensus based on development, diplomacy, and democracy?
The answer to this question lies in the failed history of the Alliance for Progress itself. The imperial expansion of representative democracy has always relied on the existence of stable, robust, and pro-imperial national bourgeoisies, supported by stable political institutions and in possession of sufficient amounts of capital and national resources. But without this stable middle class, who can hold down this ambitious national project? JFK ran into this problem many times in Latin America, perhaps most completely in the Dominican Republic. In 1961, the CIA helped assassinate Trujillo, paving the way for national elections. But when the nationalist Juan Bosch won these elections, the conservative oligarchy and the military overthrew him. The US intervened against the coup, eventually leading to a transitional civilian government. However, when a popular working-class and peasant movement broke out against the coup, the US invaded to crush the insurrection, fearing another Cuba. In other words, the project of democratization and modernization from above failed because of the objective role of U.S. imperialism – structurally allied with the most reactionary forces in a given society, this imperialism, when forced to chose between democratic social movements from below and oligarchic commercial interests from above, always sides with the later, resulting in authoritarianism.
There are significant echoes today of the Dominican experience in the current Honduran situation. If Obama wants to navigate a third way between Left nationalism and Chavismo on the one hand, and the naked rule of the oligarchs on the other, then what social forces can cohere and institutionalize this policy in Honduras? In a socially polarized and impoverished society like Honduras, can the US really rely on a small and unstable middle class to govern within the narrow confines of liberal “good governance”? Of course not. The only social forces that can check the power of the oligarchs in Honduras are the peasantry and working classes, but US imperialism cannot support or allow such forces to cohere and institutionalize because their interests directly conflict with those of US imperialism. Thus, although there is a wing in the State Department that sincerely believes in their theories of a renewed Alliance for Progress, ultimately, when tested by reality, these theories just become rhetoric. So, as the Honduran crisis escalates and the Obama administration continues to demonstrate its wavering commitment to meaningful democracy, it appears as if once again, the struggle for democracy falls to social movements from within and solidarity from without.
One thought on “Navigating the Honduras Coup: Barack Obama and the New Alliance for Progress”
This was a really interesting post. Although I do not know that much about Honduras, and Latin America in general, this post definitely got me thinking about how Obama is orienting himself towards Latin America and what this says about his foreign policy.
I think how the Obama administration is relating to what is happening is Honduras is indicative of how Obama really continues in the same vein of foreign policy as his predecessors- his number one priority in foreign policy is protecting US business and imperial interests. No matter the rhetoric he uses or how nice he tries to make it sound, Obama is protecting US imperial interests and protecting any hegemonic influence the US still has in Latin America. You asked the question “ why the seemingly confused policy towards Honduras by the Obama administration?” My question is: is it really a confused policy. The key word you use is “seemingly”. Obama is trying to use the rhetoric of the Alliance for Progress- democracy, development, and diplomacy… blah blah blah- to continue to push this image of the US as the end-all-be-all of what democracy can and should mean. Therefore he makes vague comments on how democracy must be protected in Honduras- whatever that means according to him because he certainly hasn’t been any more specific than that. The reality is his silence in the past few weeks and his refusal to actually take any action against the coup regime speaks volumes about how he is orienting towards Honduras, Latin America, and exactly what interests he is protecting, which certainly does not include the interests of everyday people in Honduras.
One question that came to mind when I was reading your post was ‘ why bother’. Why does Obama and his admin even bother talking about how democracy needs to be preserved or that they only really recognise Zelaya when clearly their actions demonstrate a foreign policy so different? Why can’t Obama just come out and say he supports the coup? After all, the US has backed innumerable coups and assassination all over Latin America, all in the name of protecting its interests. One of reasons I thought of is that the world today is very different than when it was in the 70s and 80s, especially the 80s. At the end of the 80s and the early 90s the US emerged as the only world superpower. Its military might alone made it incredibly difficult to challenge US power and influence, especially as the USSR was crumbling and could no longer compete with the US for power and influence. However, although the US continues to be an incredibly strong influence and its military power is still number one, the US government and what it tries to represent has lost some of its shine. Two unending, unjust wars later as well as the rise of other powers with competing business and imperial interests such as China, the EU and the Bolivarian Alliance makes it more difficult for Obama to act alone. So he needs to at least have the appearance of supporting democracy in Honduras by saying he is “concerned” about what is going on, which is why he makes the vague empty statements about respecting democracy. The reality is that Obama and his administration don’t care about respecting the democratic process in Honduras. If they did, as you say, they would very concretely cut off all the aid the US gives to Honduras. Truth is Micheletti and the coup regime’s politics and policies are more aligned with US imperial interests than Zelaya’s. This is why Obama will not cut off aid. He just needs to talk about it a few times to look like he’s actually concerned about it. But after a while he’ll just shut up, like he has, and US business will go on as usual. Like you say, democracy, meaningful democracy, will only come from below.