Betraying the Honduran People

Betraying the Honduran People

The crisis in Honduras reaches another landmark this weekend, with the country's presidential elections scheduled for Sunday. Far from providing a solution to the impasse, these elections will serve only to deepen the country's political turmoil. The United States has performed a volta-face in choosing to now acknowledge Sunday's result, and stands almost alone internationally in supporting the outcome of the election.

With anti-coup candidates withdrawing from the elections in protest, and large sections of the international community - including Argentina and Brazil - already refusing to recognise the results, it is clear that there will be no simple solution, and no chance of a democratically acceptable result.

The prospects for free and fair elections are bleak, given the track record of the de facto regime since seizing power. The country has suffered violent repression since president Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from office on 28 June by the military, under the orders of the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress.

Zelaya has taken refuge in the Brazilian embassy since covertly returning to Honduras on 21 September. There, he and his aides, along with some supporters, journalists and embassy staff who remain in the embassy, have been subjected to a barrage of sound from a high-powered sound system by the coup authorities, as well as food restrictions, and deliberate power and water cuts.

Amnesty International has condemned the illegal regime's use of force to punish opposition protesters. Frequent clashes between demonstrators and police have left several dead. In addition, the coup leaders have passed a new law curtailing freedom of the press, using it to shut down two pro-Zelaya networks.

A power-sharing deal agreed by the government of Roberto Micheletti and the deposed president made earlier this month collapsed when the Supreme Court delayed a decision on Zelaya's restitution until after the date of the election.

Zelaya had moved Honduras towards the left, forging relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other left-wing leaders, and had joined Alba, the Latin American trade organisation whose members include Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba. He had angered many in congress and the Supreme Court, as well as some in his own party, by implementing a series of redistributive policies. Since entering office in 2006, he has increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent, introduced subsidies to small farmers, cut bank interest rates and made great reductions in poverty levels. These measures are welcomed by many in a country where around half live below the poverty line.

Coup leaders have used Zelaya's proposals for constitutional reform as a pretext to depose the president, arguing that the president sought to illegally extend his term in office. Two things are evident. Firstly, the poll was a legal, non-binding canvass of public opinion, and second, any changes in the constitution would not take effect until some time after the elections, when Zelaya would no longer be in office.

The non-binding poll proposed by Zelaya for the 28 June sought the views of voters on whether they supported a referendum, set for the same day as the presidential elections, on the introduction of a National Constitutional Assembly to reform the constitution. The proposed areas of constitutional reform remain unclear, but included proportional representation and legal title to communal and ancestral land.

The Honduran constitution gives ample provision for a case in which the president acts beyond his authority, and these processes were clearly not followed.

Sinister characters from Honduras's troubled past have returned to haunt the politics of the recent crisis. Billy Joya was a leader of the notorious Battalion 3-16 group, responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering suspected Leftists in the 1980's. He is now acting as an adviser to Micheletti. Meanwhile, Hilary Clinton, who has taken a much more conservative stance than that of her president on the crisis in Honduras, has as her adviser John Negroponte. He was US ambassador to Honduras during the early 1980's, and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses by the Honduran military as US military aid massively increased to support the clandestine operation to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

The events unfolding in Honduras set a dangerous precedent in Latin America, and threaten the hard-won democratic progress made across the continent in recent years. Whilst Obama's hands are tied by domestic affairs and conflict elsewhere, the spectre of US support for right-wing Latin American military coups is making its ominous reappearance.

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