By Guthrie Gray
HAVANA TIMES, Sept 2 (IPS) – Speaking at the Elliot School of International Affairs in Washington D.C., the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, encouraged the Barack Obama administration to take a harder line against the de facto government that was set up after the military forced him from the country in June.
“I think [the United States] cannot put its prestige on the line and submit to a small group of people that are pro-coup and do not accept the opinion of the international community,” Zelaya said Wednesday. “This is a first snatching of democracy during the Obama administration.”
Ahead of his meeting Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Zelaya said that he wanted the State Department to denounce violations of human rights that he believes have been perpetrated by the de facto government in an effort to suppress popular support for his return.
“The armed forces were corrupted by the elite,” Zelaya said, calling his June forced removal from office a coup d’etat and an attack on Honduran democracy by a wealthy elite that opposed his social and economic reforms.
He also said that he wanted the Obama administration to formally recognize his overthrow as a coup d’etat.
The State Department has not referred to the overthrow as a military coup because this would disqualify Honduras, the third poorest country in Latin America where 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, from receiving 135 million dollars in aid from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
Over a month ago, the U.S. suspended millions in aid for defense and anti-drug operations, and withdrew visas from several officials in the de facto government, but stopped short of withdrawing all aid.
Reluctant Obama Administration
While the U.S. has condemned the coup, the Obama administration has been reluctant to embrace Zelaya’s cause of returning as president, and, in an Aug. 4 letter to Senator Richard Lugar clarifying the U.S. stance on Honduras; it appeared that the Obama administration was distancing itself from Zelaya.
More recently, however, the State Department seems to be stepping up pressure on the de facto government, expanding its suspension of visas in Tegucigalpa to include all non-emergency, non-immigrant visas.
Last week, Reuters reported that staff at the State Department had recommended to Clinton that the overthrow be deemed a military coup and that bilateral aid be suspended.
Clinton’s visit with Zelaya scheduled for tomorrow is further indication that the Obama administration is taking a harder line against the de facto government.
Some right-wing commentators decry what they see as interventionism. On Aug. 31, Mary Anastasia O’Grady writing in the Wall Street Journal compared the U.S. role in negotiations to that of a “neighborhood thug”, and complained that the Obama administration was helping Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to spread his influence in the region.
“For Mr. Chavez, Mr. Zelaya’s return to power is crucial,” O’Grady wrote. “The Venezuelan is actively spreading his Marxist gospel around the region, and Mr. Zelaya was his man in Tegucigalpa.”
On Tuesday, however, Chavez himself expressed doubts that Zelaya will be able to return to office before his term runs out in January.
According to Vicki Gass, an expert on Honduras at the Washington Office on Latin America, the strategy of the de facto government is to have elections that are massive, free, and transparent. If they can pull that off, they’re hoping the international community will say, ‘It’s a new day.’
The de facto government has scheduled elections in November, but the Organization of American States (OAS) has already said that it will not recognize a government elected under the de facto government.
While right-wing commentators argue that Zelaya’s removal was legal and a defense of democracy in Honduras, many human rights observers have become increasingly critical of the actions taken by the government to quiet dissent.
Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have reported violence against demonstrators opposed to the coup as well as media intimidation. Zelaya himself claims that since June, 1,500 people have been detained for political reasons, and that his supporters have been beaten, raped, and murdered.
Zelaya also noted the recent appointment of Billy Joya, a former death squad leader, as a security advisor as a setback for human rights.
On June 28, the military seized Zelaya at his home and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica.
Zelaya’s opponents say he was removed from office because of his attempts to conduct a poll to determine whether there was support to modify the constitution. His opponents in the de facto government allege that the poll was an illegal attempt modify the constitution in an effort extend presidential term limits.
Zelaya dismisses these accusations saying that the “poll was non-binding, and it was a democratic exercise,” and that his opponents are “seeking to legalize the coup.”