As we awake to the nightmare of the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Congressional liberals face an immediate test on the Latin American front. Two fanatically right-wing Congress members from South Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, now control the Foreign Affairs Committee and the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, respectively, and Honduras is at the top of their agenda. They are already aggressively challenging the Obama administration on what they regard as its softness toward Honduras’s deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected leader who was ousted in a June 28, 2009, military coup. They are also attacking the administration’s initial reluctance to give the coup regime its unqualified support.
Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are well aware that Honduras matters immensely as a vulnerable testing ground for expanded US domination of the hemisphere. That’s why the presidents of almost every country in Latin America closed ranks immediately to condemn the coup, aware that they could easily be the next domino to fall; and why Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and many other countries continue to oppose Honduras’s readmission to the Organization of American States (OAS).
As we brace ourselves for the Florida Congress members’ attacks on Obama, it’s important to be clear how dangerous Obama’s policies on Honduras have been. Thanks to a WikiLeaked cable, we know that Hugo Llorens, US ambassador to Honduras, informed the State Department in July 2009 that "there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup." Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton avoided using the phrase "military coup," chastised Zelaya when he tried to return to his own country and eschewed a full condemnation of post-coup de facto President Roberto Micheletti, treating him as Zelaya’s equal during negotiations.
Llorens’s leaked cable further calls into question the Obama administration’s eager embrace of current President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo in a bogus November 2009 election, which was managed by the coup perpetrators and boycotted by most of the opposition and international observers. Since the coup, the United States has constructed two new military bases in Honduras (in Gracias a Dios and on the island of Guanaja), ramped up police training and, most recently, on December 27, announced that drones will be operating out of the joint US/Honduras air force base at Palmerola.
Meanwhile, the coup government continues its vicious repression of the opposition. On September 15, Honduran Independence Day, police and the military invaded an opposition radio station, tear-gassed it, and then tear-gassed and clubbed a peaceful demonstration. On November 15, paramilitaries allegedly working for Miguel Facussé, a wealthy oligarch and key backer of the coup, assassinated five more campesino activists in the Aguán Valley, which remains under military occupation. On January 8, Juan Ramón Chinchilla, a journalist and prominent representative from the Aguán Valley to the national resistance front, was kidnapped and tortured by paramilitary forces. He escaped after two days, but not José Luis Sanabria, a teacher active in the resistance, who was kidnapped on December 30 in Florida, Copán, and found dead two days later. All this continues with near impunity. As Eduardo David Ardón wrote recently in the Honduran daily El Tiempo, "State terrorism has a green light to exercise every kind of violence and commit crimes of every sort across the spectrum, without being judged or investigated."
The State Department, though, desperately wants to legitimize Lobo’s government internationally, especially through its readmission to the OAS. It very much wants to revive the corrupt two-party system in Honduras so that the country can simulate a democratic electoral process. The giant elephant in the room, though, is Zelaya, the deposed president still in exile in the Dominican Republic and still the grand symbol of resistance to the coup, uniting the broad movement for social justice that has risen up since. The Honduran right wants his hide, in jail; the United States wants him back in Honduras, freed of the trumped-up charges against him. Lobo is afraid, however—quite rightly—that Zelaya’s cult of personality is so immense that the minute he steps into the country, Lobo’s ability to govern, already marginal, will evaporate.
Now Representatives Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are riding in to raise the stakes, with Honduras at the top of their long ultra-right to-do list in Latin America, rolling back the wave of left and left-center governments that came to power democratically in the past fifteen years. (Ros-Lehtinen has openly called for Fidel Castro’s assassination.) Both visited Honduras after the coup to demonstrate their support for the Micheletti dictatorship. On January 5, in one of her first acts as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ros-Lehtinen wrote Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and said that she was "gravely concerned" about reports that the United States was pressuring the government of Honduras to drop charges against Zelaya, and demanded that US officials cease interfering in Honduran judicial processes.
Mack, meanwhile, has indicated that he wants to hold new hearings on Honduras. He, too, wants to push the dialogue back to cast Zelaya as the criminal. "What happened in Honduras was not a coup," he insists. "To this day we’re still punishing Honduras for doing what we would hope all countries in Latin America would do." In response to the leaked cable from Llorens stating that it definitely was a coup, Mack has called for the ambassador’s resignation and promised to investigate him.
The shady figure behind much of the pro-coup spin in Washington is lobbyist Lanny Davis, Hillary Clinton’s longtime confidant. Davis was recently forced to resign from representing Laurent Gbagbo, the vicious strongman currently terrorizing the Ivory Coast—fueling "growing criticism that Mr. Davis has become a kind of front man for the dark side," as the New York Times put it nicely. Quickly after the Honduran coup, Davis went to work for an elite group of its backers, selling the coup in the United States. Now he has signed a contract with Lobo promising a "rapid response" to US media criticisms of the regime.
Congressional liberals, then, face an immediate and daunting challenge regarding Honduras. They are under tremendous pressure to close ranks behind Obama against the resurgent GOP, on this and many other fronts. Will they help the White House pacify Ros-Lehtinen and Mack by softening their line on Lobo? Or will they assert themselves and call for an end to US support for his repressive regime? On October 19, twenty-nine Congress members joined Representative Sam Farr in signing a letter to Clinton demanding that the United States stop all aid to Honduras and stop pressuring the OAS to readmit the country. Will their numbers continue to grow, and will any Democratic senators speak out on ongoing human rights abuses in Honduras?
On the ground, the resistance is alive and well despite terrifying and relentless repression. But in order for the Honduran people to rebuild their country from below, with their own broad vision of social justice, they desperately need progressives in the United States to back them, and to take on repressive policies in Latin America—whether they’re Obama’s version or the even scarier agenda of the right.