The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, December 4, 2009

¡Muerta Honduras!

Think of It as the Chiquita Corporation with an Army

Now that the Honduran Congress has overwhelmingly voted against reinstating former President Manuel Zelaya, even for a token two months prior to the inauguration of President-elect Porfirio Lobo, I think everyone in this country can now heave a collective sigh of national relief. Isn’t it nice not to have to pretend anymore that tiny, scrappy Honduras is a democracy?

In this country, right-wing hawks cried, “¡Viva Honduras! ” under the presumption they were courageously part of “a win for all people who yearn for liberty” by supporting the legal position of an usurping Honduran interim government and opposing the legal position of nearly every other government on the planet. Now we may change that cry to a more appropriate “¡Muerta Honduras! ” Yes, democracy is dead in Honduras – which means everything there is back to normal.

Honduras can return to being controlled by the elite affluent who own and run its few agriculture and textile industries. Foreign powers once controlled these plantations and factories. A few smart Hondurans saw the benefits of living like their former colonial oppressors and seized control after the country gained its independence.

The elite were also smart enough to realize that, living in the Western Hemisphere, the United States represented the big tub of Oleo from which to butter their bread. Hence, the image they tired to present the world was that of a constitutional democracy.

It was not always an easy row to hoe – the army overthrew Presidents in 1956, 1963 and 1972, prior to this year’s court ordered coup. The one thing that remained constant in Honduras, however, was control by a few rich and powerful families over the military, Supreme Court, Congress and the President.

Unfortunately, Manuel Zelaya, himself a product of the land-owning class, got idealistic after the elite placed him in office. Then he made the fatal and admittedly stupid mistake of allying himself with left-wing Venezuelan despot Hugo Chávez.

His subsequent demonization and removal from power represented “a last ditch effort by Honduras’ entrenched economic and political interests to stave off the advance of the new left governments that have taken hold in Latin America over the past decade,” according to Roger Burbach, Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas. Burbach goes on to describe those interests as “a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite.”

It did not help his case that Zelaya, whatever his intentions, is such an obvious political absurdity. With his white cowboy hat, boots, big moustache, and frequent histrionic pronouncements, he comes across like the abandoned love child of Emiliano Zapata and Eva Perón.

Indeed, Zelaya is such a joke that I refuse to believe the Honduran elite ever considered him a threat personally. Even if they had, we now know the army was only too happy to deport him or possibly even put a bullet in his brain, if ordered to do so. Instead, what the elite probably feared was the constitutional convention Zelaya was promoting – the one thing that could have swept away the established status quo in a fit of populist fervor.

Conventional wisdom maintains Zelaya wanted to re-write the constitution so that he could serve more than one term as President. I suspect this is probably true but the method he chose to do so was a public referendum to convene a convention. Those opposed to this idea chose to shoot at his home and deport him. Which side sounds most inconsistent with a free democratic society and the rule of law?

Yet some U.S. pundits stubbornly continue to insist the truth is just the opposite, with Zelaya the powerful, dangerous tyrant and the Honduran elite simple but courageous freedom fighters attempting to defend their constitution. Leading the pack in this effort is Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal. After months of pouting and huffing over how mean the Obama Administration was being toward Honduras, O’Grady’s column following Lobo’s election was a rhetorical orgasm spewed upon the page.

Some point to Obama’s decision to recognize Honduran elections – a decision not joined by many other governments – as realization he was wrong to oppose Zelaya’s ouster. I would argue he is following the same consistent policy that led him to recognize elections in Iran and Afghanistan earlier this year. It is one thing to oppose election fraud in which illegal activity has caused a different outcome than the people’s will. It is another matter when the election itself is a sham and the outcome predetermined.

Despite the pretense of elections, everyone knows a small group of Islamic theocrats holds the real power in Iran. In Afghanistan, power flows through a series of warlords. In Honduras, hereditary business owners are in control. Honduras is capitalistic but their markets are not free nor their government democratic. Think of it as something like the Chiquita Corporation with an army.

The election of Lobo was a sure thing. No more trusting Liberal Party candidates – even if, despite its name, that organization is right-center moderate with few policy differences from the Conservative Party. The elites decreed one of their most trusted own would be holding the reins close for some time to come.

The exact turnout figures are disputed but Honduran election workers reported that voting was lightest in the poorer neighborhoods Zelaya once championed and heaviest in affluent neighborhoods. The prevailing mood in the country leading up to Election Day was not jubilation but resignation and a desire by everyone – from the affluent, to small business owners, to common factory and field workers – to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. They went to the polls and voted the way they knew their bosses wanted them to vote.

While desire by the elites to maintain control forced the Honduran government to thumb its nose at international pressure, their resistance was not without cost. Withholding of non-humanitarian aid and other funds by the OAS and various foreign powers eroded an already stagnant Honduran economy almost to the breaking point.

For those worried that the United States has abandoned the freedom-loving people of Honduras, the gravy train will undoubtedly start rolling again. Honduras sends more than sixty percent of its exports to America, the U.S. may re-start more than $40 million a year in direct aid, and over one million Hondurans living and working in the United States send money to their families back home. Okay, maybe think of Honduras as more like AIG with an army.

In many ways, we are better off acknowledging Honduras as a sham. Although the second most populous Central American country after Guatemala, Honduras is one of Latin America’s poorest, thanks to its entrenched social and economic partitions. Seventy percent of its 7.7 million inhabitants live at or below the poverty level. One and half million subsist on $1 per day. Honduras suffers high levels of violence from youth street gangs and drug traffickers.

Let’s face it; they would have been one big embarrassment in the democracy column.

Of course, they will still be an ally. To paraphrase David Broder in today’s Washington Post, “Corrupt and inefficient as they may be, they are less of a threat than [a proxy Chávez government] would be. And so we must prop them up.” Broder was actually talking about Hamid Karzai versus the Taliban in Afghanistan but the principle remains constant for Honduras.

And – admit it – isn’t it kind of a relief to finally admit that even though they represent strategic interests for us in their respective regions, the governments in charge of these two countries are not especially like us and don’t especially like us? So goodbye, pretense of Honduran democracy – you were . . . cute . . . while you lasted.

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