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Hillary's Choice: The Undermining of Honduran Democracy

By       Message William Stone     Permalink
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As Hillary Clinton runs for President of the United States, she proudly boasts about her four years as Secretary of State as one of her most significant achievements qualifying her for the Presidency. Due to the controversial nature of those years as head of the US State Department, that experience warrants careful scrutiny. One of Clinton's first challenges as Secretary of State took place in Honduras, in June of 2009. Her actions there, advocating regime change, set a dangerous precedent for the remainder of her tenure.

Clinton supported the Honduran military coup of June 28, 2009, which removed President Manuel Zelaya, who was democratically elected, five short months prior to the completion of his four-year term. The impact of that coup and its aftermath came to the forefront of my thinking due to the news of the recent assassination of Berta Caceres, a courageous Honduran indigenous-rights leader and ecological activist, on March 3, 2016. Because of Caceres' worldwide reputation, the news of her tragic death spread rapidly. Her demise underscored the senseless violence that has become the Honduran way of life ever since the 2009 coup.

Until today, Honduras has experienced non-stop repression and unrest. In fact, the country now holds the dubious distinction of being designated as the murder capital of the world. Ironically, it was Caceres herself who singled out Hillary Clinton's role in the Honduran coup in a 2014 interview in Buenos Aires. Reporting on this interview in The Nation (March 16, 2016), Greg Grandin, author, historian and history professor at New York University, noted that "pressure" from Washington caused the new government to pass "terrorist and intelligence laws that criminalize(d) political protest."

As New York Times' columnist David Brooks points out in a March 11, 2016, article in La Jornada, a national Mexico newspaper, p.20, entitled "Hillary Clinton es responsible, en parte, del asesinato de Berta Caceres: expertos" (Hillary Clinton Is Responsible, in Part, for the Assassination of Berta Caceres: Experts), following the coup, a repressive offensive was unleashed against social movements and popular interests, including Berta Caceres' organization COPINH, Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indigenas de Honduras (The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras).

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Caceres' assassination brought back a flood of memories of my own experience in Honduras. At the time of the coup, I was one of many who was outraged at what had happened there, in particular, the purported role that the US played in the coup under Clinton's State Department leadership. When I received an invitation to join a delegation to Honduras as an observer, I immediately accepted.

The invitation came from the Quixote Center based in College Park, Maryland. It was originally founded in 1976 as a multi-issue grassroots organization striving for social justice throughout the world. It had worked extensively in Nicaragua and Haiti and raised US$100 million in humanitarian aid for the Zapatistas in Mexico.

Our delegation, consisting of 11 activists from the United States plus myself (a dual American/Mexican citizen living in Oaxaca, Mexico), arrived in the capital city of Tegucigalpa in early August of 2009, a little over a month after the coup had taken place. It was the Quixote Center's hope that our visibility would help to diminish human-rights violations. It made sure that the eight days that we spent in Honduras were packed with visits with a variety of individuals and groups, all of whom had been deeply affected by the military coup. We also made a compulsory courtesy visit to the US Embassy.

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As we had feared, our visits confirmed that the only way that the military coup could have possibly happened was with tacit US approval, most likely with Hillary Clinton's endorsement. That approval was all the more probable due to the existence of Soto Cano, a US military base in Honduras. Unless the coup organizers had been given the green light to proceed by the Obama administration, they would never have risked a US military reprisal from that base.

Manuel (Mel) Zelaya, a member of a wealthy Honduran cattle ranching and lumber family, had been democratically elected president in 2005. Although Zelaya initially followed a conservative agenda in line with previous Honduran presidents, his priorities slowly changed. He began to show genuine concern for the poor majority in his country, which led to the implementation of a 60% increase in the Honduran minimum wage. Zelaya also began to forge a commercial relationship with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. In addition, Zelaya made a well-publicized visit to Cuba. Under his leadership, Honduras joined the Latin American alliance called ALBA, Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America). He also publicly expressed his wish to convert the US military base at Soto Cano into an international airport.

Finally, Zelaya proposed a consultation with the Honduran people to find out if they were in favor of redrafting the Honduran constitution, which was heavily biased toward the wealthy upper classes. He proposed doing this democratically by holding a referendum on June 28th (fatefully, the very day that he was deposed as president) to ask the Honduran people if they were in favor of including a separate ballot referendum about redrafting the constitution as part of the presidential-election process on Novmber 29th.

It was this latter proposal that created the most controversy and vocal opposition. Despite Zelaya's persistent denials, this referendum was interpreted by his opponents as a means for him to run for reelection and remain in power, a possibility that the current constitution clearly prohibited. Zelaya pointed out the fallacy of that argument, since the decision to hold a constitutional convention would be determined at the same time that his successor would be elected. But, it was to no avail. The opposition loudly proclaimed its disapproval via the media outlets it largely controlled. So, the referendum never took place. The June 28th military coup happened instead.

On the morning of that fateful day, armed soldiers invaded the President's living quarters and rushed him to the Tegucigalpa airport in his pajamas, where he was whisked off to involuntary exile in Costa Rica. On the way, his plane landed at the Soto Cono US Air Base, another indication of US involvement. Although Zelaya's many supporters reacted forcefully, any and all opposition was rapidly stifled. The police and the military silenced all dissent. It was to such an oppressive environment that our delegation arrived in Tegucigalpa roughly one month after Zelaya had been overthrown. With military and police everywhere, we felt an uneasiness and tension in the air as if Honduras were a nation under siege.

As we attended meetings, met with dissidents and traveled throughout the country, we were impressed with and amazed by the resilience of the Honduran people despite the oppression. Everyone with whom we met was against the coup and for the restoration of democracy, which meant the return of Manuel Zelaya. Our meetings included the powerful beverage union (STYBIS) Sindicatro de Trabajadores de la Indusria de la Bebida y Similares (The Union of Beverage and Similar Industrial Workers) and its dynamic leader Carlos Reyes. We also met with Bertha Oliva, the committed Director of COFADEH Comite de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras).

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Most of us concluded that our meeting with the US Ambassador Hugo Llorens, was a waste of time. Although he claimed that the US government hoped for the restoration of Zelaya ("He's a personal friend of mine") his words rang hollow. After all, Llorens had been the principal advisor to President George W. Bush on issues relating to Venezuela in 2002 when the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was undertaken. Llorens had also spoken out publicly against Zelaya's proposed referendum.

For me, the most memorable meeting was the one held at a prison where we met with inmate David Murillo Sanchez. He is a minister and the father of 11 children. Accompanied by his wife and one of his daughters, we spoke to him through the bars of his tiny cell. He had been jailed for protesting the senseless killing of his son Obed Murillo, shot down at a peaceful pro-Zelaya demonstration (10,000 strong) at the Tegucigalpa airport on July 5, 2009, when Zelaya attempted (unsuccessfully) to return to Honduras by plane. The plane was unable to land since the airfield was blocked by soldiers and military vehicles. When the police tried to break up the demonstration, 12 protestors were injured and two people were killed, one of whom was Obed Murillo.

All that Obed's father had done other than to oppose the coup was to protest his son's murder at the appropriate government office, which apparently was sufficient justification for his incarceration by the interim government. Despite what had happened to him personally, Reverend Murillo remained positive and optimistic. He was convinced that Zelaya would be restored as President and that he would soon be released. I found his upbeat comments quite moving under such adverse circumstances.

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I am a retired activist living in Oaxaca, Mexico. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I became a Mexican citizen in 2008. Before retiring, I directed a study abroad program for US university students in both Mexico and Chile. I am both (more...)
 

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