Latin America: Business as Usual in Washington

Tony O’Sullivan wrote this article for the Birmingham Socialist Bulletin

Over the last few years Latin America has taken great strides forward. A succession of governments have been elected on a platform of re-distributing wealth and raising living standards by using the continents resources for the benefit of the majority. But these are relatively recent developments. For years the will of the people of the region was thwarted by coups and right- wing military dictatorships. Death squads, destabilisation and political violence were common. Unfortunately over the last months we have had a reminder of the dangers that are still present for progressives in Latin America.

On June 28th 2009 the democratically elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was ousted by a military backed coup. Troops burst into the home of the president and under arms expelled him from the country by forcing him to board a plane to Costa Rica. In a replay of tactics used in Venezuala in 2002 when an attempt was made to overthrow Chavez and again in Haiti when the progressive Aristide was ousted, the coup leaders announced that Zelaya had resigned. The coup was the work of a handful of families associated with multi-national companies who dominate the Honduran economy and want to maintain their privileges. The day that Zelaya was removed he was about to hold a non-binding consultation on whether to elect an assembly that would re-write the constitution in order that it would reflect majority wishes.

Elected on a centre right Liberal Party ticket Zelaya, a cattle rancher, was born into wealth and power but during his term as president he took a left turn, raising the minimum wage by 60%. He began to embrace other left leaning governments in Latin America and was about to sign a deal with Hugo Chavez which would allow Honduras $800m of fuel at discount prices and cut into the profits of petrol distributors and oil importers. The US transnational Chiquito, fruit growers who once were known as The United Fruit Company and owned half of pre-revolutionary Cuba, were particularly unhappy about the Zelaya minimum wage increase. US multi nationals run maquiladora plants (enterprise zones) with appalling conditions in which clothing is produced. The industrial regime enforces long hours at abysmally low wages with discipline regulated by daily production targets that are achievable only at the cost of acute fatigue and industrial sickness. The companies are of course extremely hostile to unionization. Trade unionists together with gay and lesbian groups who have been increasingly visible in their support for social progress have become the target for coup sponsored attacks and intimidation. Peasant farmers especially those involved in contested land takeovers have also suffered recent increases in violence and repression from police and landowners. It is not necessary to look too far before we see the complicity of the US and the Catholic Church written all over this coup.

Early in his administration Obama could be seen shaking hands with Hugo Chavez and announcing to all the Latin American countries that “There is no junior partner or senior partner in our relations, there is simply engagement based on mutual respect, common interests and shared values.” Here was an opportunity for Obama to prove his progressive credentials and bring the full power of the US to restore democracy to Honduras. The rhetoric continued with the US initial condemnation of the coup, but the wording was careful. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not want to call it a coup because then the Foreign Assistance Act would have kicked in obliging Obama to withdraw military support and recall his ambassador. They talked condemnation but gave material support. The explicit support of the church in Honduras for the military coup prevented the holding of a referendum organised by the legitimate constitutional government and served to keep the coup in power. The Honduran military leaders were trained at the notorious “School of the Americas” in Georgia US; the “torture school” where the US government trains military personnel from Latin American countries. All the tuition is conducted in Spanish. Graduates have included some of the worst human rights abusers in Latin American history and the school is synonymous with torture and impunity. At least eleven of the continent’s dictators esteem the school as their Alma Mater.

To put a gloss of legality over the usurpation of legitimate authority an election was held on Nov 29th 2009 from which Zelaya was excluded. Zelaya’s supporters and the broad left Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations were suppressed by security forces that beat, tear-gassed and arrested hundreds. The election took place under conditions of military curfew, with rights to free speech and assembly suspended and campaigning virtually non-existent. Despite this, as with the attempted coup in Venezuela, the highest ranking Honduran Catholics immediately sided with the coup leaders and the Vatican was the first to recognise the new government after the fake election.

The US made statements supporting the poll as “meeting international standards”. Washington is sending the message that you can overthrow a democratic government and get away with it. Not surprisingly a pro-coup candidate, businessman Senor Lobo was elected as president.

This is an extreme right wing Catholic oppressive regime expressing Taliban -like religious attitudes. The coup leader Micheletti and his oligarch supporters appeared on national TV praying for a renewed Honduras. Linking hands and dressed in expensive suits they looked as bogus as only the extremely wealthy can when pretending humility. “In Jesus’ name,” they announced, “we have been given the authority to punish demons. We throw them out. We know that the evil spirits that have threatened Honduras are going to leave in Jesus’ name. They are going to leave!”

We can only assume that these evil spirits are the same ones that prompt citizens to demand a living wage .The same evil spirits that allow gays and lesbians to walk about when of course they should be dead. Or are they those wicked spirits with plans to dilute some of the oligarch’s fabulous wealth by sharing it with the 90% of Hondurans who live below the poverty line or the 60% existing below the misery line? Either way with the help of a police force trained by Uncle Sam in the arts of brutality, murder, illegal detention and rape the new government is making some progress as the body count of trade unionists, gays and social activists mount up. Thanks Jesus.

Media coverage has described the resistance as a pro- Zelaya movement and the conflict as a battle over which politician will lead the country, a depiction that has been embraced by the coup government. But the truth is that this coup is an attempt to reverse the gains in human rights that Honduras has made since the 1980’s and against the popular project to create a more just and participatory society. This wasn’t a fight between Zelaya and Micheletti but between rich and poor.

Meanwhile Obama has appointed ex President Bill Clinton as his special envoy in earthquake-torn Haiti. Bill comes particularly well qualified for this role, since when he was himself top of the heap in Washington he did a marvellous job of destabilizing the progressive Aristide government and forcing its leader into exile. He and his successor George W Bush did exceptionally well by clearing the way for US neo-liberalism, terrorising Aristide’s remaining allies and barring his political party Fanmi Laualas , the most popular in the country, from running for office. Rest assured you won’t find many union organisers within the sweatshops the US has planned for Haiti. As Clinton recently stated to business leaders “your political risk in Haiti is lower than it has been in my lifetime” I guess he means that this is a great time for trans-national American companies to exploit the Haiti earthquake disaster in that vicious and predatory way that Naomi Kline exposes in her book “The Shock Doctrine”. Climb aboard boys, we’ll clean up again! Good ol’ Bill.

In October 2009 , Columbia one of the few surviving pro-US states signed an agreement with the US which allows American forces access to seven Columbian military bases for ten years . Ostensibly to combat drug trafficking, the plan effectively gives the US a launching pad for an armed offensive against whichever country it regards as its foe in Latin America. The US will spend $46m upgrading the Columbian installation “to do surveillance activities outside of Columbia and throughout the continent”. My goodness these drug guys must be supermen if it takes all this military hardware to monitor them. I wish I knew what narcotic they’re on. Not surprisingly nearly ever Latin American country has protested against such an enormous US military presence on the continent. Cuba has initiated extensive war games involving over one million citizens, the largest since 2004 and Raul Castro has stated “The current political-military situation has made these strategic exercises a necessity of the first order”. After only one year in office Obama has managed to alienate almost the entire Latin continent, by staging a military invasion, supporting a coup d’etat and installing a menacing military facility in the heart of the continent resulting in a Latin America-wide arms race.

In the US where he talked so much about community leadership the Department of Agriculture has revealed that 50 million Americans including one quarter of all children struggled to get enough to eat in the US in 2008. Seventeen million children in that country went to bed hungry. At the same time just a year after the “economic meltdown” another government report said that Wall St profits are set to exceed the profit records set three years ago. There is no sign of a publicly funded FDR style New Deal job creation scheme to replace the jobs lost in the shrinking manufacture sector.

Because these countries in Latin America are doing unacceptable things, instigating land reforms, bringing in minimum wage laws and initiating public education programmes, they are being threatened. US leaders will not tolerate any government attempting an alternative system outside the global system of US transnational finance. What the ruling interests are doing in Latin America they are also doing back home. The president is reassuring the establishment that his rhetoric will never be a reality. Obama? Fool’s gold.


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