Honduras Crackdown, Global Outcry

By Eli Clifton

Censorship in Honduras.  Photo: Giorgio Trucchi - Rel-UITA
Censorship in Honduras. Photo: Giorgio Trucchi - Rel-UITA

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 29  (IPS)  – Honduras’s de facto government under the leadership of Roberto Micheletti is coming under increasing international pressure to restore civil liberties, reopen closed television stations, and negotiate a solution to the coup crisis that was brought to a head by the clandestine return of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who has been taking refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa for the past week.

On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Micheletti to halt the crackdown and stop threatening Brazil’s embassy.

“I am deeply concerned about developments in Honduras. A state of emergency has increased tensions,” he said at a news conference in New York. “I once again appeal for the safety of President Zelaya. I urge all political actors to seriously commit to dialogue and regional mediation efforts.”

Micheletti has taken a hard-line since Zelaya’s surprise return to the country last Tuesday, demanding the Brazilians either give Zelaya political asylum or turn him over to Honduran authorities.

Radio Globo and Channel 36 TV were shut down by the military and police.  Photo: Giorgio Trucchi - Rel-UITA
Radio Globo and Channel 36 TV were shut down by the military and police. Photo: Giorgio Trucchi - Rel-UITA

The de facto government has fed tensions by cutting off water and electricity to the Brazilian embassy, dispersing crowds of Zelaya supporters with teargas and rubber bullets, and closing media outlets supporting Zelaya.

On Monday, the coup government said it would reverse parts of its crackdown on media outlets and civil liberties after even coup supporters in the Honduran Congress voiced concerns about the heavy-handed measures, which also prompted international outcry.
“The freedoms inherent in the suspended rights are inalienable and cannot be limited or restricted without seriously damaging the democratic rights of the Honduran people,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said late on Monday.

Firmness of Obama’s Position Questioned

The Obama administration has received criticism for not pushing harder for Micheletti to stand down and voicing concern that Zelaya’s secret return to Honduras may have been “foolish”. Washington has not made moves to initiate any additional economic sanctions against the de facto government.

Earlier this month, the State Department halted bilateral economic aid, including 11 million dollars from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the last instalment of a five-year, 215-million-dollar grant initiated by the administration of President George W. Bush.

At the same time, the State Department hinted that it would not recognize elections to be held this fall unless Zelaya was restored to office.

Zelaya and Micheletti have been at loggerheads since the Jun. 28 coup d’etat in which Zelaya was removed from his home by the military at gunpoint and put on a plane for Costa Rica, after he tried to organize a non-binding referendum asking voters if they wanted to rewrite the constitution – an initiative that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Zelaya has contended that any negotiated agreement would have to permit him to serve out his presidential term which ends in January, but Micheletti appears set on holding on to power until the upcoming elections at the end of November.

The U.S. State Department, under the leadership of Hillary Clinton, has had to walk a fine line between supporting democracy in Honduras while not implicitly endorsing the policies or politics of Zelaya, whose ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have been a point of difficulty in recent U.S.-Honduran relations.

Republican opponents of the White House’s condemnations of the arrest and deportation of Zelaya have claimed that the coup was constitutional, preserved democracy, and, perhaps most importantly, curtailed Venezuelan influence in the region.

Bush Holdover Shows Leanings

The difficulty in explaining the difference between the U.S.’ endorsement of Zelaya’s legitimacy as president but Washington’s dislike of some of his policies became more obvious at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Washington on Monday where the interim OAS ambassador from the U.S., Lew Amselem – a Bush administration holdover – denounced Zelaya.

“Zelaya’s return to Honduras is irresponsible and foolish and it doesn’t serve the interest of the people nor those who seek the restoration of democratic order in Honduras,” he was reported as saying.

“Everything will be better if all parties refrain from provoking and inciting violence,” he added.

State of seige in Honduras.  Photo: Giorgio Trucchi - Rel-UITA
State of seige in Honduras. Photo: Giorgio Trucchi - Rel-UITA

Pro-coup media in Honduras picked up on the outburst and interpreted it as an endorsement of the de facto government and a condemnation of Zelaya’s decision to return to Honduras.

“What’s unfortunate about the U.S. actions is that the U.S. has gone on record as saying that under current conditions they can’t recognize the elections,” Vicki Gass, senior associate for rights and development at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told IPS. “Then Amselem makes statements that only serve to support the de facto regime.”

The State Department was forced to respond to accusations that the U.S. had changed its policy in Honduras, rushing out the statement reiterating the Obama administration’s commitment to democracy there and condemning Micheletti’s crackdown on civil liberties and threats against the Brazilian embassy.

“The U.S. recognized that Amselem’s statements were not helpful for helping to bring the coup government to the negotiating table and had to issue this statement again calling for negotiations,” said Gass.

At a State Department briefing Tuesday, spokesperson Philip Crowley had to answer questions about Ameslem’s comments at the OAS meeting.

“We have said throughout this process that all sides need to act constructively, avoid the kind of provocative statements or actions that would precipitate violence and inhibit the resolution of this situation,” he said.

Amselem’s continued involvement in U.S.-Latin American policy strikes many as a dark joke considering his reported involvement in one of Guatemala’s most notorious human rights cases – the case of Ursuline nun Dianna Ortiz, who was kidnapped and tortured there in 1989.

Amselem got more than a passing mention in Ortiz’s memoir: “…After a U.S. doctor had counted 111 cigarette burns on my back alone, the story changed.  In January 1990, the Guatemalan defense minister publicly announced that I was a lesbian and had staged my abduction to cover up a tryst.”

“The minister of the interior echoed this statement and then said he had heard it first from the U.S. embassy.  According to a congressional aide, the political affairs officer at the U.S. embassy, Lew Amselem, was indeed spreading the same rumor,” Ortiz wrote.

“In the presence of Ambassador Thomas Stroock, this same human rights officer told a delegation of religious men and women concerned about my case that he was ‘tired of these lesbian nuns coming down to Guatemala.’  The story would undergo other permutations. According to the Guatemalan press, the ambassador came up with another version: he told the Guatemalan defense minister that I was not abducted and tortured but simply ‘had problems with [my] nerves.'”