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Central America: One Coup, Three Summits and the United States

The Obama administration has fallen far short of its stated desire to begin a new era in US-Central American relations.

In April 2009, newly inaugurated US President Obama told the fifth “Summit of the Americas” that a new era in US/Latin American relations was at hand. He called for hemispheric relationships “based on mutual respect and equality,” and stated that we are “committed to combating [economic] inequality and creating prosperity from the bottom up…. Today, too many people in the Americas live in fear. We must not tolerate violence and insecurity, no matter where it comes from,” Obama said, adding that, “We know that true security only comes with liberty and justice.” In response to a press question about US actions in Bolivia, the president was emphatic: “I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere.” Many Latin Americans found hope in President Obama’s election and in these words.

Just two months later, the president’s declaration of a new era was put to the test. In Honduras, a military coup exiled the country’s elected president José Manuel Zelaya and installed coup plotter Roberto Micheletti Baín as “temporary president.” President Obama immediately denounced these moves, saying, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there,” and spoke of not wanting “to go back to a dark past.” Nevertheless, the United States soon began to hedge on its condemnation, and a few months later, recognized the government and president chosen in a highly dubious election managed by the coup regime itself. After that point, our government strongly supported the return of Honduras to “normalcy” in its international relations.

Obama attended two more “Summits of the Americas” as US president. The sixth one was held in Colombia during April of 2012, and the long-frozen US policy toward Cuba was attacked from many sides. The presiding host, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, declared that Cuba’s exclusion from the summit was an “anachronism that keeps us anchored to a Cold War era we came out of various decades ago.” The United States, however, seemed determined to keep that anachronism in place, insisting that the government of Cuba (but not that of Honduras) had not been “democratically elected.” As a result, the summit produced no final declaration, a number of nations threatened to boycott the next summit if Cuba was not invited, and the future of the whole process seemed in doubt.

At the seventh summit held in Panama City in April 2015 Cuba was present, invited by the host and despite its previous statements, the United States now had no objection. US/Cuba diplomatic relations would soon be restored and further moves toward normalization were on the way. Plenty of problems for hemispheric relations remained, but Cuban policy had been the worst one, the immovable object standing in the way of progress. And the best part was soon to come: the March 2016 “baseball summit” in Havana, where the Cuban national team played the Tampa Bay Rays, with presidents Obama and Raul Castro sitting side by side to watch. That was a moment to celebrate, when the dawn of a new era seemed possible.

Before the Honduran crisis of June 2009, the last Central American coup had taken place in El Salvador on October 15, 1979, when that nation’s corrupt and repressive military ruler was replaced by a junta promising to bring fundamental reforms. The United States officially welcomed, rather than denounced, that changeover. But as in 2009, the reality of US policy quickly became more complicated and less principled than those early pronouncements suggested. The US supported the military over the democratic sectors, the reform movement failed and the nation suffered 11 years of brutal and disastrous civil war. It’s important to compare the actual history of Washington’s involvement to its rhetoric and a glance at the earlier history provides necessary perspective.

Honduras, 2009

Thirty years after the Salvadoran coup, the United States had a chance to find the right response to another coup. In April 2009, President Obama had spoken of a new era in US/Latin American relations, and very soon that declaration became a call for action. On June 28, 2009, some 100 Honduran soldiers surrounded the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa and captured President Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya. The president was taken at gunpoint to a military airbase and flown to the capital of Costa Rica, where he was left at the airport, still dressed in his pajamas. The National Assembly then installed its own leader, Roberto Micheletti, a top organizer of the coup, as the nation’s de facto acting president.

The international reaction to the coup was highly negative. It was condemned by the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization of American States. Every country in the EU and in this hemisphere — except the United States ­— withdrew its ambassador from Honduras. President Obama promptly denounced it as “not legal” and implied that president Manuel Zelaya must be restored to office. But very soon, the United States’ position became far less clear. One important indication was the US State Department’s refusal to use the term “military coup,” which would have required cutting off military aid. This refusal came despite a report from the US Embassy in Honduras that a military coup, without any legal justification, was exactly what had happened. The role of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was particularly duplicitous, as she recounts in her recent memoir Hard Choices; while the United States gave lip service to the nearly universal demand that President Zelaya should return to his position, Secretary Clinton was campaigning behind the scenes to make sure that that did not happen. A few months later, the United States completed its about-face and recognized the government and president chosen in a highly dubious election managed by the coup regime itself. The US reputation in Latin America, notably improved after President Obama’s April speech, fell sharply.

Subsequently, Washington called for the return of Honduras to “normalcy” in its international relations, and pushed for that nation’s readmission to the Organization of American States, which had suspended its membership after the coup. The US also maintained its close ties to the Honduran military. In the years since, conditions in Honduras have declined steeply: corruption and human rights abuses have mushroomed, drug trafficking has prospered and the nation has experienced the world’s highest homicide rate. In 2014, these problems were manifested by an unprecedented wave of very young refugees who arrived at the US/Mexican border seeking asylum, driven by intolerable levels of violence and poverty. In March 2016, the murder of Honduran human rights and environmental defender Berta Cáceres highlighted an ongoing human rights disaster and brought calls from Congress for reassessing US policy, especially its military and police aid.

Why were the Honduran military and elite so eager to remove President Zelaya, even though his term in office would have ended in a few months? Very broadly, although Mel Zelaya was himself a wealthy landowner, he was promoting New Deal-like policies favoring the poorest citizens of the country. He canceled certain mining concessions, raised the minimum wage, and took other steps threatening the projects and profits of some of the wealthiest Hondurans and benefiting some of the impoverished majority. Zelaya planned to hold a popular vote on whether to convene a convention to rewrite Honduras’s highly flawed constitution; this was apparently the last straw for the country’s powerful elite. But why then did the United States, always claiming to support democracy, quickly come to terms with the military coup against him? Although the picture is still incomplete, there are indications: some US business interests felt threatened by Zelaya’s reforms, his administration was developing closer relations with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, and the US military seems to have feared the weakening of its Honduran alliance and loss of its bases in the country. For the majority of Hondurans, the coup and its aftermath ended their hopes for change.

“The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights,” said President Obama in June 2009. He was talking about the repression of domestic protests in Iran. But a few days later in Honduras, respect for those rights disappeared, and the United States did very little to stand with the Honduran people who supported their deposed president.

In both El Salvador (1979) and Honduras (2009), a liberal US president failed to decisively back the democratic forces in a nation facing critical internal conflict. Worse, in both cases, the United States gave aid and comfort to anti-democratic elements. The similarity between the US acceptance of the Honduran coup and the Carter administration’s failure in El Salvador (hugely compounded during the Reagan years) was all too evident, and a different approach toward the region remained an unfulfilled promise.

The United States and the Isthmus

The early decades of the 20th century saw many US military interventions and occupations in the region. To cite just one example, in 1903, US troops landed in Honduras for the first of what would be six interventions in 20 years. The United States showed no hesitation in enforcing American economic interests and imposing its version of order in what it considered its backyard.

Gen. Smedley Butler was an iconic leader and hero of the US Marine Corps; he received the Medal of Honor twice. Butler personally led many of those US operations in Central America. After retiring from the Corps, he did some drastic rethinking:

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half-a-dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

The correctness of Gen. Butler’s bitter assessment of his military service can be debated, but not the reality of the many US military interventions in the Caribbean region. They remain part of the legacy of US/Central American relations.

Soon after 1930, there was a change. The “Good Neighbor Policy” is usually identified with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, although the term had also been used by his predecessors. In practice, during the Roosevelt years, it meant the end of direct US military interventions in the region. Influence and pressure continued by other means, principally economic and diplomatic, and US interests did not noticeably suffer.

Nor did the United States pay much attention to democracy in relating to its Central American neighbors. A famous story, whether or not it is literally true, illustrates this attitude. In May 1939 Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza DeBayle made an extravagant visit to Washington and to the New York World’s Fair. On the eve of the visit, President Roosevelt is alleged to have had this exchange:

“Somoza?” the president asks his secretary of state, Cordell Hull. “Isn’t that fellow supposed to be a son of a bitch?” To which Hull replies, “Yes, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

In other versions, Roosevelt made the statement himself. Whoever said it, that statement was accurate; the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, lasting from 1936 until his assassination in 1956, was the direct result of the long US military intervention (1912-33) in Nicaragua and the creation of the National Guard with Somoza as its head. After the patriarch’s death, his two sons governed in turn until a popular uprising in 1979 — not a coup! — ended the Somoza dynasty forever.

During World War II, it was natural for the United States to maintain close relations with Central America’s militaries and to supply substantial quantities of US arms. Those weapons never saw action against German or Japanese forces, but some of them eventually found use in interregional conflicts, such as the brief “soccer war” of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras. Their most important function, however, has been to help governments in the region maintain control over their own citizens.

After 1945, the Cold War replaced the hot one as the major US security concern. The enemies in this hemisphere were now perceived to be not invading armies, but popular movements and leftist political parties, whose members (with few exceptions) were local people protesting miserable conditions of life. In general, the United States continued its wartime alliance with military institutions and governments of the right. The “good neighbor policy” was evidently no longer in effect since the US intervened directly with its own armed forces in several cases: Dominican Republic (1965); Grenada (1983); Panama (1989). Usually, however, covert subversion (Guatemala in 1954) and the use of proxy forces (Cuba in 1961; Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s; Haiti repeatedly; and others) were preferred. If being a “good neighbor” meant at least nonintervention, that policy was a thing of the past.

In the later years of the century, US presidents used differing slogans to characterize their approaches to Central America. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy introduced the “Alliance for Progress” as his trademark in the region; the Alliance consisted of sometimes helpful economic and trade policies coupled with “security” assistance aimed at preventing leftist parties or movements from gaining power. “Not allowing another Cuba” became the basic principle of US policy, justifying subversion and terrorism against popular movements and left-leaning governments throughout the hemisphere. After Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War occupied US attention and the economic side of the Alliance dwindled — but the support for right-wing, anti-communist governments and parties continued unabated during the Johnson and Nixon years.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Those last two coups were, in a sense, opposites: one intended to promote reforms and the other to stop them, but the US reactions to them were disturbingly similar. Both coups took place with liberal Democratic presidents in the White House, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Both men advocated respect for human rights and democracy, and asserted that United States policy supported those ideals. In both cases, the initial US reaction expressed by the president was consistent with that claim.

In El Salvador, the US welcomed the end of an illegitimate, repressive military regime and the prospect of major reforms favoring the majority of the people; while 30 years later, President Obama condemned the violent ouster of the elected president of Honduras and called for restoration of the “legal order.” In both cases, the United States seemed at first to take steps in support of those declarations. But this country did not speak or act consistently. Both times, parts of the administration and sectors of the military and intelligence institutions, plus influential members of Congress, preferred the old or the conservative order and worked successfully to undermine the initial statements from the US government. In both cases, the principled response was quickly compromised, in practice if not in rhetoric.

“When I came to my first Summit of the Americas six years ago, I promised to begin a new chapter of engagement in this region” Obama recalled at the most recent summit in Panama, failing to mention that the US embrace of the 2009 Honduran coup a few months later had made that promise look hollow. And now, he insisted in 2015, “the United States will not be imprisoned by the past.” Could that be true? Continuing close US ties with corrupt and undemocratic Honduras casts a dark shadow.

Other US disagreements with Latin America, such as the “war on drugs,” remain and the Obama administration inexplicably created a new problem by its Executive Order of March 9, 2015. That order absurdly declared that the troubled situation in Venezuela created “an extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and imposed sanctions against some of the country’s leaders. Nevertheless, the new relationship between the US and Cuba, so long overdue, does offer hope for progress in our region.

“In keeping with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, we continue to stand up strongly for democracy and human rights,” President Obama said. A nice idea. If and when this country’s policies actually match such declarations, the United States may at last become a “good neighbor.”

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