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August 4, 2009

The Crisis in Honduras and the Bolivarian Dynamic

By Emile Schepers
8-03-09, 10:05 am

Pro-democracy protesters have faced down pro-coup military forces daily in Honduras since the June 28th coup.

The June 28 coup d’etat in the Central American nation of Honduras, in which left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by a right-wing military, political and judicial conspiracy backed by the most reactionary political networks in the United States, was aimed not only at Zelaya personally, but at a much larger international phenomenon which I will call the “Bolivarian dynamic.”

The “Bolivarian” part evokes the memory of the liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar. The “dynamic” part describes the fact that the growth of a self-described Bolivarian tendency hemisphere-wide is the main dynamic of the international class struggle throughout South and Central America today. And a very “dynamic” dynamic it is indeed.

Simon Bolivar tried to create a horizontally integrated Spanish-speaking South America with maximum unity among South American peoples and nations, and thus able to resist the vertical pressure exercised on the region by major foreign powers, including the United States and the European countries. He died in 1830 without having been able to realize that goal, among his last words being “he who serves the revolution plows in the sea” (“el que sirve a una revolución ara en el mar”). But his dream of a powerful, united and independent Latin America did not die with him. It was echoed in the aspirations of many others, including Francisco Morazan, the founder of Honduras; Jose Martí, the hero of Cuban independence, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and others. It was already central to the thinking and strategizing of the wider left in Latin America, before Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez popularized the “Bolivarian” name.

Morazan, Marti and Che all met heroes’ deaths in the course of trying to make the Bolivarian ideal of Latin American unity and independence a reality. When Morazan was shot by a firing squad in Costa Rica in 1842, because of his efforts to unite the Central American countries into one, his last words were “posterity will do us justice” (“La posteridad nos hará justicia”). And indeed, in the last decade, a new political dynamic has arisen, which promises to accomplish what they, in their brief but brilliant lives, could not.

What is the Bolivarian dynamic?

The Bolivarian dynamic consists of a number of interlocking class-struggle processes:

• Increasingly sophisticated and successful mass mobilizations against both imperialism and ruling oligarchies, and involving peasants, workers, indigenous people, students, slum dwellers, students and other sectors. These mobilizations differ in their specific composition from one country to another, with indigenous people being a major component in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and other combinations in other countries.

• The coming to power (and staying in power) on the basis of these mobilizations of left-wing governments which more or less explicitly define themselves as socialist, or moving in a socialist direction. Such are the governments headed by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (elected 1998), Rafael Correa in Ecuador (elected 2006) and Evo Morales in Bolivia (elected 2006), plus the government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (elected 2006), which has some specific characteristics. Newly elected governments in Paraguay (elected 2008) and El Salvador (elected 2009) may eventually move in a “Bolivarian” direction. Manuel Zelaya in Honduras was elected as the candidate of the rather conservative Liberal Party in 2005, but developed a progressive program that grew more explicit as the high cost of oil began crushing his country, and he saw that only Venezuela via Petrocaribe was willing to sell him oil on reasonable terms. He received the support of the “Bolivarian” unions and mass organizations of his country once he began to introduce progressive reforms, and he was working closely with such mobilizations in Honduras at the time he was overthrown on June 28. These “Bolivarian” mobilizations have been occurring even where the government is still right wing, for example in Peru where large scale mobilizations, with an especially large mobilization of Amazonian indigenous people, challenging the right-wing regime of APRA’s Alan García. In some countries this mass mobilization process is less strong, for example, Mexico and Guatemala.

• The agreement between left-wing governments in power and the mobilized mass forces to re-found the national state, through constitutional conventions which give much more scope to direct public input into decision making at all levels, and with a conscious effort to open up possibilities of socialist advances while marginalizing traditional elites of landowners, bankers, businessmen and the old-style Latin American military brass. Of course, the elites fight back tooth and nail, but so far the combination of left-wing presidents and mobilized masses is winning in most countries.

• An anti-imperialist stance by both governments and mobilized social bases, which has as its purpose the separation of the “Bolivarian” countries, separately and as a group, from the imperialist world order headed by the United States and the other wealthy countries, and the construction of a new system in the Americas in which horizontal integration and solidarity among countries replaces domination by international monopoly capital and US military, political and ideological hegemony. An important part of this anti-imperialist stance has been to stand by socialist Cuba in word and deed.

• A rejection of the “Washington Consensus” of corporate dominated trade and neo-liberal macroeconomic policies. Neoliberalism involves a commitment to free trade (actually not free, but rigged in favor of wealthier countries and big corporations), privatization of the economy (so as to give foreign corporate investors more fields of activity from which to extract profits), austerity in public services and repression to force people to accept this program. Under the Washington Consensus, development loans and credits from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as foreign aid directly from the United States and some other wealthy countries are only available if the neo-liberal package is agreed to. Further, under the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), poorer countries are forced to accept disadvantageous trade deals, which often oblige them to change their labor, environmental and other laws so as to favor wealthy foreign corporate investors. These are the things that both the masses and the governments in the Bolivarian countries reject.

• The creation of new international bodies and relationships to enable the Bolivarian countries to replace the sources of trade and aid lost by defecting from the Washington Consensus system, and to help each other with development without onerous strings attached. The umbrella body for this new system of cooperation and solidarity is ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance (formerly Alternative) for the People of Our America, at this writing including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and several of the smaller English speaking Caribbean countries: Antigua, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. ALBA started off with an agreement in 2004 between Cuba and Venezuela in which Venezuela provided Cuba with low priced oil in exchange for Cuban aid in developing Venezuela’s health care and school systems. Since then it has grown to the point that it has basically defeated US efforts to build the Free Trade Area of the Americas into a hemispheric trading bloc based on “Washington Consensus” principles and domination by US corporate interests. Under the general rubric of ALBA come projects like Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s system of providing oil on good credit terms to ALBA members and others; Bancosur, a regional bank to provide development loans and credits without the onerous neoliberal conditions attached to aid from the IMF and International Fund; and the SUCRE, a projected common currency for the Latin American countries. So far, ALBA and Petrocaribe are going full blast, Bancosur is in its start-up phase of getting contributions of capital from the member countries, and the SUCRE is still on the drawing boards.

• Openness to include in these new international institutions countries that are not led by leftists or formally part of ALBA, even beyond the Latin American Area. Colombia, headed by a right-wing government, has asked to participate in Bancosur as it develops, and there have been contacts between the ALBA group and some African countries.

Not all of the countries in Latin America with left-wing governments are part of the Bolivarian process, but all are relating to it in some aspects of its functioning, e.g. in defending socialist Cuba against US pressure and aggression.

The Nature of the leftist governments and the attitude of the Latin American left

Of ALBA governments, only Cuba’s has a strongly Marxist-Leninist pedigree. While communist and workers parties in the other ALBA countries are largely supportive of these governments and especially of the mass mobilizations that brought them to power and keep them in power, the political backgrounds of leaders such as Chávez, Morales, Correa and Zelaya are rather an eclectic mix of nationalism, populism, social democracy and revolutionary socialism. They are a work in process both ideologically and practically, with lots of internal divisions and contradictions, but with anti-imperialism as a common thread. In those countries that are not part of ALBA but with progressive leaderships, the traditional communist and socialist left tends to unite with the “Bolivarian” forces and social democratic governments (sometimes working in official coalition with these governments, sometimes not) for a common progressive, pro-working class agenda, or to mount opposition to right wing governments such as those of Peru, Colombia and Mexico.

The political stability of the ALBA countries

None of the major ALBA governments have been in power more than a decade or so, except Cuba. Most of them have come to power within the last three or four years, and they were often elected with small vote margins. Neither their internal enemies (the traditional landowning, banking and business oligarchies, the higher military command and right-wing elements of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to name the most important) nor imperialism have given up on ousting the left wing governments by fair means or foul. It is entirely possible that these governments be defeated in upcoming elections. It is also possible that they become destabilized by internal sedition on the part of local reactionaries, leading to future coups d’etat. Some of the non Bolivarian countries with moderately left-wing or social democratic governments are also threatened with electoral defeat in the near future (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay). Guatemala, which has a moderately left of center president, Alvaro Colom, is currently undergoing a scary destabilization effort, and it is not impossible that this could culminate in yet another military coup d’etat.

In 2002 there was an abortive coup against president Chávez of Venezuela, which was strongly abetted by the Bush administration. Last year, there was a major effort by extreme right wingers to detach some of the wealthiest provinces of Bolivia from the Bolivian state; this effort was deflected by deft maneuvering by president Morales but the danger is by no means over. Last year and this, there have been movements based in Colombia to destabilize and discredit the Bolivarian governments of Venezuela and Ecuador. The strategy in this case is for the Colombian government to use information it supposedly obtained from a computer taken from a dead leader of the FARC (Armed Forces of the Colombian Revolution) to make claims about alleged relationships between the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan government and that revolutionary organization. The United States, kicked out of the Manta Air Force Base in Ecuador, has just announced it is setting up several new military bases in Colombia. This series of events has created so much friction between Ecuador and Venezuela on the one side, and Colombia on the other, that President Chávez has broken off diplomatic relations with Colombia.

The Honduran coup and the survival of the ALBA dynamic

President Zelaya, by linking his own government to the Bolivarian dynamic in Honduras, and by making commitments and policy changes that conform with that tendency, terrified and angered his local oligarchs and their imperialist backers. Although he was overthrown supposedly for “violating the constitution” by pushing forward with a plan for a non-binding referendum, this was a pretext. In reality, Zelaya had done a number of things that made his wealthy reactionary opponents feel that they had their backs to the wall. He had increased the minimum wage by 60 percent, greatly angering transnational investors such as Chiquita Banana (the descendant company of the United Fruit Company which dominated Honduras and so many other countries in the region for many years) and other local and international corporations. He had defended labor rights, for example, for workers in Honduran mines, many of which are owned by Canadian corporations. He had promised to open investigations into the disappearance and deaths of thousands of people who had been repressed by US allied governments during the 1980s, even though many active service, high ranking officers in his army were very likely implicated in those atrocities. He wanted to take over the US owned Soto Cano air force base and make it into a new civilian airport for Honduras, the one near Tegucigalpa being inadequate for huge modern passenger jets. He joined ALBA, and denounced capitalism and imperialism. He denounced the Bush administration for having tried to get him to allow the US to use Honduras in its old role as a center for imperialist subversion against Venezuela and Cuba. So locally, the military hierarchy, the landowners, the big exploitative businesspeople, the traditional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and right-wing Evangelical Protestant Pastors wanted him out.

Although the June 28 date – the date the referendum was to take place – was important, there were other dates that the coup planners had in mind. The most important was November 29, the coming presidential and congressional elections. Although Zelaya could not run for election under the 1982 constitution, there was the possibility that the left, including Cesar Ham, the presidential candidate of the left wing, pro-Zelaya and pro-Bolivarian Party of Democratic Unification, could make advances in that election. Also, what the non-binding referendum actually asked was whether there should be a ballot item on November 29 asking for a constitutional convention in 2010. The reactionaries rightly surmised that this was a method to move the Honduran constitution in a “Bolivarian” direction, with much enhanced direct mass participation in government and greatly strengthened guarantees for the working class, farmers, minority groups and the poor.

This is what the coup planners were afraid of. The business about Zelaya being controlled by Chávez of Venezuela and secretly wanting to run for a second term served as the cover story.

The overthrow of Zelaya by an old fashioned barracks coup d’etat rang alarm bells throughout Latin American, but especially in the ALBA countries. They quickly concluded that if the coup government, under former Congress president and businessman Roberto Micheletti, was allowed to get away with the coup, it would encourage similar reactionary forces in every Latin American country to try the same stunt. Many people on the left all over Latin America, and not just in the ALBA countries, still have pictures on their walls of friends and relatives murdered by military dictators backed by the CIA. Many left-wing commentators in Latin America and beyond have stated with good reason that the Honduras coup was aimed against ALBA and the whole Bolivarian tendency. Hence there was an immediate rejection of the coup that included all the radical left-wing governments, but not only them. Social Democratic governments in Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere were just as quick to denounce the coup. Even the right-wing governments of Colombia and Mexico got on board with their denunciations, and the Organization of American States (OAS) often seen as a tool of US imperialism by the Latin American left, strongly denounced the coup as did the United Nations General Assembly, other international bodies and most governments around the world.

Role and attitude of the United States government

The experience of Latin American nations in these situations is summed up by the old joke:

Question: Why has there never been a coup d’etat in Washington DC?
Answer: Because there is no US embassy there.

The role of the United States in any number of such events, starting back at the beginning of the 20th century and ending with the second overthrow of president Aristide of Haiti in 2004, is well documented and so consistent that many people in the region simply assumed that the Obama administration had at least abetted, and perhaps actually organized, the June 28 coup. This was seen as proving that at least in his policy toward Latin America Obama is no better than Bush or his predecessors.

The personnel list of US officials involved with Honduras, which includes a number of holdovers from the Bush administration such as US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon, was another cause of suspicion. The role of Lanny Davis, a former advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, who has now surfaced as the chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill for the coup regime headed by Micheletti, is seen as another piece of evidence. Hillary Clinton herself is, by association with her husband, seen as having a reactionary orientation to Latin America. The Clinton State Department and the Obama White House have made some steps toward better relations with the Latin American countries, but have also made sharp criticisms of the Venezuelan and Cuban leadership, of such a nature as to echo the usual right-wing canards, in somewhat milder language.

Adding to the suspicion was the fact that the first response to the coup by the US State Department was so bland that it was hard to understand whether it was criticizing the coup regime, Zelaya or both. One State Department spokesperson said that Zelaya’s overthrow should be a lesson to him for choosing Chávez as a role model. And the State Department has so far refused to officially use the word “coup” to describe Zelaya’s overthrow, ostensibly because this would require a complete cutoff of US aid.

But, speaking in Moscow, President Obama himself made a much stronger statement against the coup, and US officials insist that they are working for and end to the coup and the restoration of Zelaya to the presidency.

The mediation of the situation by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, who is not trusted by the left in Latin America, raised more suspicions. It was seen by many, including former Cuban president Fidel Castro and president Chávez of Venezuela, as a ploy by the United States to break up the united front against the coup and to undercut the strong position taken by the OAS and the individual governments. These critics felt that if the United States would have completely cut off all aid to Honduras, the coup would have failed quickly; that by introducing the element of the Arias mediation without at the same time cutting off the aid, Obama and Clinton were trying to give the coup government time to consolidate itself in power at worst, or to pressure Zelaya to move away from the ALBA and the Bolivarian dynamic at best.

But close examination of the behavior of the various US actors seems to paint a more nuanced and complex picture.

In the first place, people like Lanny Davis are mercenaries. Their having worked for the Clintons in the past does not tell us much of anything; they will work for anyone with deep enough pockets. Secondly, although we agree that the Obama administration needs to do much more to back down the coup government and get Zelaya back to the presidency, we can also see the spectacle of the whole of the ultra-right in US politics ferociously attacking Obama for having stated that he was opposed to the coup and is for Zelaya’s return to the presidency. So Obama’s worst enemies are energetically supporting the coup, as part of their general reactionary assault on Obama administration policies.

Whatever the roles of people like Lanny Davis, Ambassador Llorens and Assistant Secretary Shannon, there is absolutely no doubt that support for the coup is being organized on Capitol Hill by far right Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was defeated by Obama in the 2008 elections. McCain is the chairman of the International Republican Institute, one of the US entities most tightly tied to the coup through its long history of meddling in Honduran affairs and its proven links to coup supporters. Also involved in fighting in favor of the coup is Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who, with Republican colleagues, is working to block or at least delay some Obama administration foreign policy appointments, including that of Arturo Valenzuela to replace Tom Shannon in the Western Hemisphere post, as a protest against Obama’s stated support for Zelaya’s presidency.

While liberal Democrat Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., has organized a resolution in the House of Representatives (H. Res. 630) denouncing the coup and calling for the Obama administration to work energetically for Zelaya’s restoration, the Republican right has introduced a rival resolution (H. Res. 619) applauding the coup and demanding that Micheletti be recognized as the legitimate president of Honduras.

Many of the old Reagan-Bush-Bush crowd are busy around the Honduras issue, doing all they can to support the coup and keep the Micheletti crowd in power. These include powerful figures like John Negroponte (US ambassador to Honduras when dissidents were being massacred with US connivance in the 1980s). Roger Noriega and Otto Reich. These people no doubt have networks among military, business, press and other institutions in the United States, and they have their fingerprints all over the thing. But it is extremely doubtful that President Obama somehow got together with his worst enemies in US politics to cook up a coup that does not serve his electoral political interests and that undercuts his message to the outside world.

Reactionaries in press and pulpit in the United States are damning the Obama administration for supporting Zelaya. Meanwhile, important sectors on the left, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, USW, Workers Uniting and other labor and people’s organizations are denouncing the coup and calling for the Obama administration to exert maximum pressure to restore Zelaya and defend the rights of Honduran workers.

Obama never identified himself as an anti-imperialist, and his government has been critical of the ALBA countries. He would probably prefer to have people like Presidents Lula of Brazil or Bachelet of Chile to work with in Latin American affairs, rather than Raul Castro or Hugo Chávez. But this does not mean that Obama is “just the same” as Bush in his Latin American policies. That is a very simplistic reading of events.

All this does not mean that we should be satisfied with the steps the Obama administration has taken so far. The canceling of diplomatic passports for Micheletti and some if his colleagues is a good gesture, but needs to be followed up by real economic sanctions targeted at the people involved in the coup, as Zelaya has requested. They must not be allowed to use Miami or the US banking system as a mechanism for keeping their reactionary and illegal system in power; their accounts must all be frozen immediately. And rather than criticizing Zelaya for being “reckless” for his trip to the border, the US government should be removing all US military personnel from Honduras (where we have reports that they are still coordinating with the Honduran military), while Honduran officers should be ousted from the School of the Americas in Fort Benning Georgia (which of course should itself be shut down).

In the long run

President Obama likes to use the phrase “teachable moment” to describe traumatic events that force everybody to rethink their old assumptions. Crises like the one in Honduras can be a “teachable moment” for the Obama administration and the United States.

The world has changed, and even if some of the Bolivarian governments lose power, the grassroots dynamic that brought them to power will continue to advance and triumph. As long as this dynamic continues, Bolivarianism will continue to radically reshape the relationship between the United States and Latin America. The dream of Bolivar, Morazan, Martí and Che of unity and solidarity among the peoples of Latin America will continue to undermine the dynamics of imperialism, neo-liberalism and US hegemony.

Obama may be just enough of a realist to understand that one must adapt oneself to what can not be changed. There are forces within and without the United States which will force this country to develop trade and diplomatic relationships with neighboring nations and peoples that are characterized by equality, non-interference and social justice.

And these changes will be of inestimable value to the US working class also.

–Emile Schepers chairs the international department of the Communist Party USA

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