If anyone was worried that the Obama administration would represent a break with the past, the President’s recent actions in Latin America should assuage any lingering concerns. As Obama was preparing to announce an escalation of American commitments in Afghanistan, he was also preparing, more quietly and furtively, to recognize Sunday’s elections in Honduras, which took place under a military coup government, as well as to expand the US military presence in Colombia to seven military bases, under the pretext of enlarging the limitless “war on drugs.” Latin America has long been the testing ground for US policies that found more forceful expression elsewhere—”empire’s workshop,” Greg Grandin has called it. From the 1901 Platt Amendment, which legitimated US indirect control over Cuba, to the proxy wars in Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, the essential character of the US was seen most clearly in the countries just to the south. The events of the last few months reveal no fundamental change.
In nearly every respect, the coup in Honduras was an almost parodic recreation of the old, bad times of military dictatorships in the 60s and 70s, when coups swept nearly every country in Latin America. The story inevitably involved a president who threatened to undermine bourgeois (and thereby US) interests, however modestly, and thus signed away his life and liberty. Deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who in his administration’s early stages might have seemed yet another empty elite candidate from his country’s Liberal Party, moved slightly left under the pressure of social movements, raising the minimum wage and publicly speaking about badly needed agrarian reforms in his desperately poor country (the third poorest in the Western hemisphere, after Haiti and Nicaragua). Popular desire for more inclusion in the political process led to a non-binding “encuesta,” or poll, regarding the formation of a Constituent Assembly to reform the constitution, which, due to its inconsistencies and enshrinement of the old, wealthy landowning class, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias has called “the worst constitution in the world.”
Zelaya’s moves towards greater reforms threatened the country’s long-entrenched power elite. His modest fraternizing with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who provided subsidized oil to the country, suggested a hidden hand in the reforms (in fact, the result of national-popular, rather than foreign, pressure). When the coup came, the only surprise was that the US did not have a direct hand in supporting it. The indirect hand, however, like God in his universe, was everywhere visible. Two of the coup leaders, Gen. Romeo Vasquez and Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, were trained in the US’s infamous “School of the Americas”; the Honduran National Business Council (COHEP) secured a lobbyist, the indefatigable Lanny Davis, who seems to prove that opinions grow in virulence the more they are bought and paid for; and Rep. Connie Mack of Florida, with forty-six house Republicans, many of whom saw the coup in Honduras as the first victory against Chavez’s “socialism for the 21st century,” introduced a bill to condemn Zelaya. Coup-supporters charged Zelaya with trying to amend the constitution in order to extend his term. That this flew in the face of evidence to the contrary—any constitutional assembly would convene after Zelaya’s term had ended—only cemented the perception that constitutional questions were not the coup leaders’ primary motivations.
Obama and the State Department publicly and fiercely condemned the coup, in a manner one would not have expected from the coup-loving Bush administration (which supported the 2002 coup against Chavez, and the 2004 coup against Aristide in Haiti). This difference, however, was merely rhetorical. Privately—characteristically—Obama began to cave to Republican pressures. His actions quickly began to reveal that he had discarded anything resembling principle in favor of vacuous bipartisanship (the kind in which only one party gains). First, the administration did not officially recognize the coup as a “military coup” (though it had been brought to completion by military officers), which would have resulted in an automatic cut off of all aid to the country. Second, after the administration negotiated an accord that demanded a power-sharing government and called for the Honduran Congress to vote on Zelaya’s restitution, it failed to lodge a protest when coup leader Roberto Micheletti went ahead and formed a government without Zelaya. Finally, the Obama administration dropped its weak-kneed rhetorical stance when the assistant secretary for Latin American affairs, Thomas Shannon, indicated that the administration would recognize elections in Honduras, with or without Zelaya’s restitution. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), one of the Senate’s most conservative members and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, revealed that he had extracted the change by agreeing to lift his block on two State Department appointments. In the event, the elections commanded what may turn out to be only a 38% turnout, not the incredible 61.3% that Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal has been reporting. A peaceful protest of 500 people was broken up by tear-gas and water cannon, and a conservative businessman, Porfirio Lobo, handily won. In recognizing the compromised elections, the US is joined in its regressive stance only by right-wing governments in Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia and Israel, who collectively legitimate a military government which has led to the deaths of hundreds and the arbitrary detention of thousands.
Structural necessities of US power, rather than the liberal idealism and desire for change that Obama would like to parlay as his government’s raison d’etre, have determined the course of events. Nothing makes this clearer than the agreement Obama has negotiated with Alvaro Uribe’s administration in Colombia to expand the US military presence to seven new bases. Since 2002, under the auspices of “Plan Colombia,” the US has been giving $75 million to support the ever-more foolhardy “war on drugs.” Coca cultivation has actually increased in Colombia since the plan’s inception, and the murder of civilians and trade unionists by the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies continues apace. The new base policy, however, represents a more unconstrained version of previous American efforts. Whereas Plan Colombia was subject to congressional debate and Colombian law, any US military operations conducted from new bases would be entirely free from both. Their reach would be limitless: The new bases, according to recently released military documents, will offer “an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America…a critical sub region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.” Obama has long criticized Colombia’s dismal human rights record; his actions indicate that a perpetuation of military control over the US’s closest sphere of influence, rather than a new commitment to human dignity, represent his most immediate concerns.
When Obama, following the Bush administration, suspended a preferential trade agreement with Bolivia over that country’s supposed failures in drug policy, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales harshly criticized the President for “slanders, lies, and false accusations.” For the typical virulence of his rhetoric, Morales was reprimanded in his own country. He should not have been. He only spoke the truth to an administration that is increasingly evincing a scant regard for it. Anyone who believed that an Obama government would provide an opening for a weary Latin American left can rest assured: no such opening is forthcoming. As Obama seeks the maintenance of a puppet-democracy in Afghanistan, he has lost a true democracy on his watch, and he has inflamed border tensions in Latin America with his unthinking military policy. In his misguided quest for bipartisanship—for gains in his own policies that are, at best, modest—he may steadily be conceding an entire continent and the democratic aspirations of millions.