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Thursday, 24th April 2014

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Honduras: has Obama sided with Chávez?

Has Obama sided with Chávez? That’s certainly the view of the leader of Honduran coup regime Roberto Micheletti, whose spokesman angrily denounced the 30 million dollar cut in US aid announced on Thursday.

Micheletti's spokesman added that Obama's decision “condemned the people that struggle against Marxist expansion in Central America”.

In the rest of Latin America the tougher US stance was welcomed, in particular the proposals to revoke the visas of members and supporters of the regime and the indication that the USA will not recognise the outcome of scheduled elections in November.

Yet despite coming under pressure from senior members of his own party, Obama has so far resisted calls to formally declare that the June 28 overthrow of President Zelaya was military coup.  Were he to do so, the US government would by law be required to make permanent its cuts in aid and suspension of visas.

However, a formal declaration would require ratification by Congress, and some analysts have suggested that Obama is desperate to avoid playing into the hands of right wing Republican lawmakers who are busy echoing the claims of the coup leaders that he has allied himself with Venezuela’s socialist president.

Whilst this may in part account for Obama’s reluctance to issue a declaration, others in his administration- most notably Secretary of State Hilary Clinton- are opposed in principle.

Clinton’s role since the coup has been opaque. She chairs the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, which had continued to fund the regime until Thursday’s announcement prohibited all direct aid. In July, she denounced President Zelaya’s attempt to return to Honduras as “reckless”.  And her confidant Lanny Davis, who was chief fundraiser for her presidential campaign, has since been hired as a public relations spokesman for the coup regime.

By not declaring the ousting of Zelaya a military coup, the US has left its options open. Retaining the power to turn the aid taps on and off at any time of its choosing leaves Hilary Clinton's State Department wielding significant leverage over the nature and outcome of any negotiations between the elected president and the regime.

Inside Honduras, a growing resistance movement has emerged, uniting trade unions, social movements and the black and indigenous populations. They are intent on pressing ahead with plans to convoke a constituent assembly which would redraft the constitution and shift power away from the wealthy elites towards the impoverished working class and poor farmers.

The Resistance fears that Clinton wishes to impose a solution that would see a symbolic return of Zelaya to office, but with real power left in the hands of the army and other institutions controlled by the elites. Their suspicions are almost certainly justified.

Following the announcement of the US aid cuts, the Washington Post lambasted the coup leaders for refusing to sign up to the Costa Rican mediation plan which involves Zelaya’s return to office in exchange for him agreeing to share power and abandoning constitutional reform.

 “Honduras's de facto government -- and its supporters in Washington -- are playing into the hands of the Latin American left”, the influential newspaper lamented in an editorial; arguing that the mediation proposal should be supported because:

“...the president [Zelaya] would have to form a unity government under international supervision, he would have to abandon his attempt to hold an illegal referendum on changing the Honduran constitution, and he would have to leave office when his term ends in January.

“This outcome would be a victory for the Hondurans who supported Mr. Zelaya's ouster because they feared he was attempting to mimic Mr. Chávez's dismantling of Venezuela's democracy. Mr. Chávez would lose his Honduran puppet by means he could not contest: A new president would be chosen in an internationally monitored election this fall.”

Leaving aside the various distortions contained in this excerpt, it is clear that the Washington Post views the Costa Rican plan as a way of halting the “red tide” of left governments that have swept to power across Latin America in recent years. And if the US, with its hands on the aid taps, can oversee both the interpretation and implementation of the plan, so much the better. 

Meanwhile, the very dispensable coup leader Roberto Micheletti remains ensconced in the presidential palace that ten weeks ago was the home of the elected president. As he peers out over the perimeter fence, now wrapped in barbed wire and patrolled by armed soldiers, he must be feeling a bitter sense of betrayal. No wonder then that his spokesman, on being informed of the USA’s decision to cut aid and revoke visas, lashed out at Obama in such a vitriolic way. 

And whilst the decision to cut direct US aid has undoubtedly shaken the coup leaders, the big money - 164 million dollars of aid already allocated to Honduras – is sitting in an International Monetary Fund bank account. After stalling for time, the IMF has now indicated that it will deny the coup regime access to these funds. If the IMF makes good on this promise, the impact on the Honduran economy will be devastating; further undermining support for the coup and likely to fuel new waves of strike action.

Faced with mounting unrest and economic isolation, it is doubtful that the coup leaders will be able to maintain the already shaky unity of the four key pillars of the regime; the military, the political elite, the private media, and the business community.

Their last roll of the dice will be an attempt to legitimise the coup by holding elections in November. But this gamble is unlikely to pay off. The Resistance has announced a boycott of any poll conducted under conditions of violent oppression and censorship, and the US has declared that “at this moment” it would not recognise the outcome of the elections.

The days of this regime are numbered. And when it ends, so too will the curious convergence of interests between the Latin American left and the current US administration. Henceforth, the struggle will be about whose vision for Honduras and the rest of the continent will prevail.