Honduras: Simmering Crisis

Porfirio Lobo and Hillary Clinton
US Embassy Guatemala
/ Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Little good and lots of bad has transpired in Honduras since the night in June 2009 that an Army-backed coup d’état, orchestrated by the economic elites, ousted President Mel Zelaya and installed Roberto Micheletti as the de facto ruler.  Almost four years later, Honduras remains one of the places in the Americas where democracy is at permanent risk – where drug trafficking, corruption, impunity, private armies and feudal caudillos thrive in a climate of spiraling violence.  Honduras today is the most violent country in the Americas and last year was among the top three in the numbers of assassinated journalists.  Honduras also remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo lacked credibility from the moment he donned the presidential sash in January 2010 – the candidate who, by almost all accounts, would have lost the election had not the coup reversed that fate, clamped down on opposition media, and suspended many civil rights.  While Washington worked hard to gain OAS recognition of his government, Lobo offered no guarantees – to either Hondurans or foreigners – that he would reverse the ongoing activities of the Army and rapacious economic elites to undermine democratic institutions.

  • Timid attempts to show independence, such as a projected police reform, languished due to lack of political will and financial support.
  • Honduras’s doors opened ever wider to organized crime and corruption.  According to U.S. agencies, roughly 60 percent of the cocaine passing through Central America on its way to U.S. markets in 2011 went through Honduras.  (The Obama Administration funded a militarized drug interdiction program that sputtered after Honduran civilians were killed.)
  • Politically motivated murders by sicarios – reminiscent of 1980s death squads – skyrocketed.  Investigations were few, and prosecutions were nonexistent.
  • By the end of last year, Lobo was pointing fingers at his old allies in the Army, the elites, and even his own party, accusing them of trying to destabilize his government. He failed to pass constitutional reforms that he claimed would protect democracy.  General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the military commander during the coup, announced that he was running for president.
  • Honduras is facing one of the worst fiscal crises of its history – a significant landmark for the perennially mismanaged country.

In Washington none of this seems to raise red flags.  On the contrary, the ideological bent of statements from both the executive and legislative branches suggests satisfaction with the state of affairs in Honduras – and willingness to keep the crisis there unsolved.  Hillary Clinton´s State Department was, to say the least, shy when addressing the deteriorating situation of the Central American country.  In January, at Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that what happened in Honduras in 2009 wasn’t a coup went unchallenged – despite the overwhelming consensus otherwise throughout our hemisphere.  The first sign offered by Kerry as Secretary of State, however, gives room to expect at least a modest change in the narrative: on March 4th, the State Department gave one of eight International Women of Courage Awards to Julieta Castellanos, a respected human rights advocate and critic of corruption and impunity in Honduras.  This hint of a less ideological and a more strategic and humanistic approach to the unsolved Honduran question is welcome.

How Real is Anti-Americanism in Latin America?

Photo: WideAngleWandering | Flickr | Creative Commons

American University professor Max Friedman’s new book* offers a refreshingly original account of the sources of “anti-Americanism” in international affairs, with direct implications for U.S.-Latin America policy.  For Friedman, anti-Americanism is defined as a tendency – often ideological – to hate or resent the United States, driven primarily by cultural conflict or a rejection of democracy.  While not denying the existence of anti-Americanism, Friedman’s well-researched argument demonstrates that anti-Americanism is also a self-serving “myth” that U.S. policy makers repeat to each other, and to the U.S. public, in their unilateral pursuit of policy goals.  As the alter ego of American exceptionalism, it is too often a story we tell ourselves about the rest of the world, increasingly to our own detriment.

For Latin America, Friedman emphasizes the U.S. tendency during the Cold War to interpret regional governments as either “pro” or “anti-American,” maintaining a counterproductive “North-South perceptual divide.”  For example, Washington badly mischaracterized Guatemalan governments in 1954 and again in 1963 as communist puppets, despite significant support for the United States, which facilitated two U.S.-backed coups.  The installation of a dictatorship and subversion of democracy led to worldwide condemnation, the alienation of Latin American countries otherwise favorable toward the United States, and accusations of U.S. hypocrisy.  Even today, when the Obama Administration’s Latin America policy appears on auto-pilot, alarmists write about “the axis of anti-Americanism” in the region.  This theme is fueled by Washington’s isolation over its Cuba embargo and counternarcotics approach, its failure to deal effectively with the coup in Honduras in 2009, and its continued emphasis on free-trade zones with decidedly lukewarm governments pursuing other opportunities.

The United States has been slow to realize that its role in the region is diminishing, and Washington policy makers have not appreciated the varying economic, political, and security interests of the different countries in the region and the interplay among them.  These intraregional interests reflect motives or objectives not simply attributable to the U.S.-Latin American relationship.  But too often, as Friedman makes clear, the U.S. has dismissed Latin American concerns as latter day anti-Americanism, a manifestation of pathological hatred, irrationality, jealousy, resentment, illegitimate slander, pride, fear, inferiority, political immaturity, ideological intransigence, or an anti-modern hostility to free society.  And, as Friedman says, this “myth of anti-Americanism” promotes analytic failures and mistaken interpretations about regional conditions; it limits access to useful information from regional counterparts; equates criticism with hostility, and highlights an unwillingness to treat Latin American governments as independent actors; while it justifies faith in the superiority of U.S. thinking. As the U.S. seeks new footing in the region, none of this ultimately serves the national interest.

* Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations
by Max Paul Friedman
Cambridge University Press
ISBN-10: 0521683424
ISBN-13: 978-0521683425

Honduras: What is U.S. policy?

The sustained surge in crime and violence in Honduras – including more than 60 politically motivated murders in the past year – is raising doubts about the viability of the government and its institutions.  The term “failed state” is often abused, but there’s no doubt that Honduras falls short of the rhetoric about its stability and democracy that the Obama Administration recited when arguing for the country’s readmission to the OAS after the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya.  Indeed, the coup set the country on a downward spiral from being a weak democracy to one struggling for basic credibility.  The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate – 91.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011.

Undersecretary of State María Otero has spent time and energy trying to establish a policy toward Honduras.  During a visit to Tegucigalpa last month, she signed an agreement with Foreign Minister Corrales that “sets the stage for results-oriented action towards our shared objective of a safe Honduras that respects the rule of law and human rights,” and she announced that the United States would provide an additional $1.8 million in aid to help counter gang activity in Honduras.  Despite her efforts, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa have failed to go beyond ready-made programs and put in place a framework for a comprehensive policy.  Programs are not policy.  The Administration appears reluctant to admit that its Honduras policy, which has failed, needs an overhaul.

Multimillion-dollar programs will not succeed until they take into account that the Honduran “partners” upon which they depend are themselves at the core of the problem.  Three years after the coup, the Obama Administration still fails to see that its allies in the struggle against transnational and local gangs, as well as its efforts to build judicial institutions, are the same people who mocked the rule of law, overthrew the previous president, and re-politicized the military and police to serve their own purposes.  (The reasons for Washington’s unwillingness to help fund a “Commission for Security Reform” approved by the Honduran Congress are unclear, but this may be a factor.)  There are strong suspicions in many sectors of Honduran society that members of the country’s political-economic elite are the sponsors of the sicarios (hired gunmen) who have killed dozens of citizens whose offense was to demand an end to government impunity.  Given the challenge that the growing popularity of the country’s new political party, LIBRE, poses to traditional powerbrokers, informed observers expect violence to increase in the run-up to elections next year.  Absent public explanation of U.S. policy, it is fair to ask why Washington hasn’t seen these patterns – obvious to Hondurans – and why it hasn’t offered sustained support from the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement to investigate the assassinations and trace them back to the power bosses.  It is also fair to ask Assistant Secretary of State Brownfield and others who espouse the militarized approach to dealing with organized crime how this strategy, which has failed elsewhere, will succeed in Honduras.  Why hasn’t the Obama Administration supported the sort of U.N.-sanctioned investigative capacity that has proven effective with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala?  Why has Washington not even pushed for meaningful implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released last year?  If Washington wants to make its rhetoric about Honduras into reality, it needs to do more than just to funnel funds into programs run by questionable partners.

U.S.-Honduras Counternarcotics Cooperation Stumbles

DEA Helicopter | by Andrew W. Sieber (Drewski2112) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Four months after the launch of Operación Anvil, a joint U.S.-Honduran counternarcotics effort, cooperation has stumbled.  Early in September, the United States suspended the sharing of intelligence – publicly characterized as mostly based on radar tracks – after the Honduran Air Force in July shot down two civilian aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs.  Citing the incident as a breach of a bilateral agreement that prohibits firing on civilian aircraft, State Department officials said they are reviewing procedures regarding cooperation.

The shootdowns were not the first controversial incident to raise doubts about the cooperation.  In May, a U.S.-Honduras counternarcotics operation in northeastern Honduras, during which at least one small boat was strafed, left four people dead and at least five injured.  While the raid targeted suspected drug traffickers in the vicinity, various reports have suggested that the victims were innocent locals or, at most, were spotters for traffickers.  Rather than undertake its own investigation, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras reportedly has deferred to a preliminary investigation by the Honduran authorities that showed no wrongdoing in the incident.  American and Honduran officials insist no American fired a weapon during the raid, but details of how the Honduran forces they were advising carried out the operation remain elusive.

The U.S. approach to counternarcotics in Honduras – like that in Colombia and Mexico – emphasizes military-style operations driven by U.S. intelligence tips.  In addition to sharing intelligence, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. entities provide training, equipment and on-site operational guidance to Honduran security units.  While the jury is out on whether this strategy has been worth the cost in human lives (60,000 in Mexico) and dollars (more than $7 billion in U.S. aid alone in Colombia), the case has not been made that it will work in a country plagued by weak institutions and corruption like Honduras.  Holding Honduran officials accountable and creating the vetted units upon which these military-style operations depend will be difficult in a small, desperately poor country in which the narco-dollar buys much more than U.S. aid channeled through officials in whom few have any confidence.  Efforts to create vetted units capable of operating securely (and without abuses of authority) have failed in the past because of unseen and unsolved links between the state officials and the narcos.  The Honduran people – still suffering from political violence born of the coup of June 2009 – have legitimate fear of a massive surge in drug violence.   The U.S. government, ever optimistic about the renewal of cooperation, has asked that Honduras put in place remedial measures to prevent future incidents.  President Lobo of Honduras has since replaced his Air Force commander, but the question remains whether Tegucigalpa can – and should – become a cornerstone of U.S. antidrug strategies.

Mercosur, Unasur Holding Firm on Democracy in Paraguay

Photo by Christian Van Der Henst S. via Flickr , http://www.flickr.com/photos/cvander/5215442086/

As Paraguay marked the one-month anniversary of the summary removal of President Lugo from office, the distance between South America and the rest of the hemisphere on how to deal with the “constitutional coup” remains great and is perhaps growing.  OAS Secretary General Insulza announced last week that the regional organization’s Permanent Council decided to take no further action, except to send a “support mission” to Asunción.  The Obama Administration’s inaction further indicates that the United States is prepared to allow things to stand unchallenged and even unexamined.

Mercosur, Unasur, Spain and, more predictably, ALBA have all been tougher.  Mercosur last week announced that the new Paraguayan government, led by President Federico Franco, is still barred from participating in the organization’s activities, although the government to be elected in April 2013 will be welcome.  Unasur made clear that Paraguay’s participation will be suspended “until democratic order is reestablished.”  ALBA countries have minced no words in condemning Lugo’s ouster.  Spanish Foreign Minister García-Margallo suggested publicly last week that Paraguay’s participation in the Ibero-American Summit in November may not be appropriate.

This division among hemispheric players is reminiscent of the tensions following the coup that removed democratically elected President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago.  Whereas the United States quickly softened its stance on the value of isolating the golpista government of Roberto Micheletti in 2009 and later became Tegucigalpa’s most ardent advocate for speedy readmission to the OAS – while Brazil and most South Americans remained committed to seeking a more democratic outcome – Washington is now showing patience with the right-wing factions that ousted Lugo.  Mercosur’s formula for welcoming the government to be elected next year helps avoid the sort of crisis for the incoming leadership that hindered Honduran President Lobo’s efforts to push back against his country’s golpistas, who to this day are undermining his administration.

 

El Salvador’s “Constitutional Crisis”

Photo by: rosaamarilla via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/amccy/3395160591/

A months-long political feud over the Supreme Court in El Salvador has blossomed into what observers are calling a constitutional crisis.  The first shot was fired in April when legislators from the FMLN engineered a “legislative decree” to replace five court Magistrates, the outgoing Assembly’s second shot at choosing justices during its three-year term.  The court’s Constitutional Chamber in June declared the decree unconstitutional – because each Legislature gets to vote only once for Magistrates.  At the same time, the Chamber invalidated a similar move by the opposition ARENA party affecting Magistrates chosen in 2006.

The theater came to a head this month when two feuding Supreme Courts met in different wings of the same building and claimed legitimacy – one with five members elected in 2009 and the other with the 10 invalidated members.  The rightwing ARENA party and its allies in Washington are claiming the crisis represents a shift against democracy by the FMLN.  Two Cuban-American members of the U.S. Senate have called on the Obama Administration to impose sanctions – principally suspending negotiations on a second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if the crisis is not ended quickly and in the manner they wish.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called for prompt resolution, and the U.S. Ambassador in San Salvador and the State Department have expressed “concern.”  A Washington Post editorial this week lambasted the FMLN for shifting toward Chávez-style authoritarianism and President Funes for failing to stop it.

This episode reflects maneuvering within the FMLN – fueled by frustration that President Funes’s soft line toward ARENA has only weakened the party’s influence – and poor judgment among activists on where and how to pick the fight.  The legislators rushed the decree because they anticipated correctly that they were about to lose control of the Assembly in elections several weeks later.  The crisis falls into a much more ominous pattern, however, in that – like the coups in Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012) – the right wing and its coreligionists in Washington exploit events to challenge the democratic credentials of a democratically elected reformist government to rationalize weakening it, while the Obama Administration responds timidly.  ARENA is again demonstrating its superior lobbying skills in Washington, which have already severely disadvantaged President Funes on issues such as relations between his security cabinet and its U.S. counterparts – resulting in a serious erosion of his own influence over security issues.  If the current political impasse is not resolved to the satisfaction of U.S. conservatives, Washington’s threats – ironically directed against the Administration’s “best friend” in Central America – will likely continue and relations will be strained, further persuading hardliners around Funes that moderation pays no dividends.

Paraguay Coup: Setback to Democracy Even if Technically Constitutional

 

Photo by: Juan Alberto Pérez Doldán, via http://www.flickr.com/photos/38384810@N02/3531158719/

President Fernando Lugo, struggling to consolidate power since taking office in 2008 in Paraguay’s first meaningful transfer of power in 60 years, was removed from office on Friday by the same elites who had resisted him all along.  In a series of lightning actions, the Senate convened an impeachment process – giving him only two hours to prepare a defense – and voted him out of office.  Opposition leaders cited the government’s mishandling of a squatter protest earlier this month, resulting in 17 dead, but they had been undermining him from day one of his administration.  By Friday afternoon, Lugo accepted his removal and left the Presidential residence.  His vice president, Federico Franco, was sworn in and subsequently declared, “The country is calm. … Activity is normal and there is no protest.”

International reaction was slow at first, as the region focused on an environmental summit in Brazil.  But Brazil, Argentina and the ALBA nations condemned Lugo’s ouster and threatened sanctions.  President Dilma Rousseff urged immediate suspension of Paraguay in Mercosur and UNASUR, and Brasilia and others have withdrawn their ambassadors.  The U.S. State Department expressed “concern” at first and then urged “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles.”  The OAS held an extraordinary session of the Permanent Council and sent a fact-finding mission to Asunción.

As President Lugo said, the action was as much against “Paraguay’s history, its democracy” as it was against him.  Like the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago, the action was intended to stop a popular president and influence elections scheduled in coming months, but Zelaya was removed and exiled by the military, and the Congressional documents sanctioning it were fabricated after the fact.  The events in Paraguay pose an important challenge to the democracy clauses of the various regional charters (Mercosur, UNASUR, OAS) as well as the leadership of the region’s biggest democracies, including Brazil and United States.  At this early point, the Paraguayan elites probably judge that they can weather the storm because the U.S. and Brazil – with the diplomatic tensions about the Honduran coup, elections and reaccession to the OAS still fresh – have few options for restoring Lugo to presidency.  Insofar as entrenched elites sense that Washington will react mildly to the removal of democratically elected presidents they can cast as “leftist,” coups like those that have taken place in Honduras and Paraguay will continue.