Sunday, August 9, 2009

OAS Disinvited

Most of my Honduran correspondents, especially outside the 2 major cities, say that life is pretty normal except for higher fuel prices and long lines at gas stations. But, of course, most people don't own cars and subsistence farmers aren't terribly affected, often living without electricity and running water anyway, so their energy needs are nil and they work only to feed their families. They depend more on rain than on Zelaya's return.

On my blog yesterday, I posted a statement (in English) from a woman representing business interests, saying that life in Honduras is basically normal now and it's a good time for outsiders to invest. (I doubt many are doing so.) Also, apparently the minimum wage was not doubled, as I had been told, but only raised by 60%, still a substantial amount that benefited Peace Corps volunteers as well as others. Still, raising it from about $6 to $9.60 a day, as mentioned in the NYTimes article below was not a guarantee. I know of many workers not getting $6 per day before and children under the legal working age, of which there are many in the labor force, certainly are not being paid the minimum wage. Who is going to enforce it? Apart from public employees, only workers for big companies in major cities are getting it, I suspect. American clothing manufacturers are probably complying, as they are almost the only foreign companies regularly paying taxes.

Obama obviously is trying to walk a middle line in Honduras--his preferred strategy in everything--not trying too hard to force Zelaya back and not being too heavy-handed as the US super-power, rather letting regional forces try to work things out. The OAS, after jumping in quickly with both feet to condemn the "coup," was planning to make a visit this week, acting a little less aggressive than when Insulza and company tried to land a plane carrying Zelaya at the Teguc airport. But now Micheletti is saying that the OAS delegation can come, but without Insulza, their chief (see below). So Zelaya and Chavez, who have vehemently denounced US intervention before in Latin America, are pleading, "Obama, do something!" Obama is politely ignoring them.

It's quite legitimate for the US to steer a middle path above the fray and let those affected fight it out. The US and Obama have enough other problems to confront. I kind of agree with Obama, let’s not get involved, because the US will be the bad guy either way we go (and is also the bad guy for not taking a firm side). Hopefully, come January, whether or not Zelaya returns, this matter will be basically over and done with. It's interesting that Pepe Lobo, whom Zelaya barely defeated in the last election, thanks to the financial and strategic help of American financier Allen Andersson (who is sorry now), is now running again. It's a classic Banana Republic saga. I just hope it all ends without too much bloodshed and hardship.

Of course, strikes by teachers, nurses, and other public employees are routine in Honduras, not helpful to the economy, health care, or the education of the young, but they happened often when I was in the Peace Corps and sometimes lasted for months, so the current strikes in support of Zelaya are nothing new. And it’s quite true, as the Times article points out, that as many people were killed at a recent soccer game as at all the demonstrations over the last few weeks. The daily death toll in Honduras from murders, accidents, and preventable illness, especially among babies, far surpasses the one or two deaths of demonstrators over a month and half. The security forces are to be commended for restraint, in my view. Because of the relatively high birth rate—though it is falling—the population still continues to grow despite the frequent loss of life. (Read my book for more details.)

Many thanks, as always, to my faithful readers for continually adding to this blog, most via my personal e-mail rather than on the website itself. I’ve learned a lot, and my readers too, from our exchanges. One reader has responded in detail to my last post, although, regarding her speculation about international loan funds, supposedly those funds have all been suspended. Here are her comments: I googled Billy Joya. For sure he's a bad guy and, well aware of his deserved unpopularity, he keeps a low profile. It would appear, however, that despite very convincing evidence of association with Batallion 3-16, the death squad of former days, he hasn't been far from the centers of power of Honduras in the 21st century. Wikipedia points out that he was a senior adviser to Alvaro Romano, another death squad member who happens to have been Zelaya's security minister, a post that would allow ample scope for torture, disappearings, and other inappropriate means to dubious ends. Of course we don't know that Romano did anything improper, but with that piece of the puzzle in place, Micheletti's move to get Zelaya physically out of the country seems only prudent. And now Joya is part of the Micheletti apparat…In any event, at least some members of the Batallion 3-16 hierarchy seem to retain power in Honduras. So it's a question of whether the politicians who accommodate them do so out of ideological agreement or out of fear -- and which reason applies to which politician.

As always, your other readers raise interesting points. For example, with important sources of funding drying up right and left, where is Micheletti getting the money to keep things going? Or, who in the world is granting credit to this small country that was impoverished before the crisis started? Israel is an astute guess. I'd be surprised if direct support is coming from the U.S., although there may be some jawboning/arm-twisting going on in the IMF or the World Bank, likely creditors of Honduras. Obama made a big a point of telling Netanyahu that the U.S. would no longer say one thing in public and quietly pursue another policy. Perhaps, however, his highly regarded flexibility in acknowledgment of new realities has led him to modify this idealistic but probably unsustainable exercise in anti-realpolitik.

According to another reader: If Obama aspires to have credibility and to be respected in the international scene, he must take decisive action to hasten Zelaya's return to power. The Honduran de facto government is brazenly prevaricating and trying to run out the clock and if he allows it, he is going to look like a fool or a hypocrite in the eyes of the international community. If he is sincerely in favor of Zelaya's return, he must take urgent and decisive action to make the coup leaders capitulate or he runs the risk of never being believed again in Latin America.

Something funny is going on; this situation has dragged on for too long! The proper policy if Obama is against leftist influence in Honduras might be to hasten Zelaya's return to power with his hands tied by the Arias mediation agreements and then to back his opponents financially in the coming presidential election campaign with secret funds. But not to do anything now or to make only lukewarm moves is to back a stupid, counterproductive oligarchical strategy that is only resulting in increasing Zelaya's popularity and future political clout and to lose Obama’s political prestige throughout Latin America.

Reporters Freddy Cuevas and Ginger Thompson seem to making names for themselves with this controversy. Both are apparently stationed in Honduras--in Teguc, it would seem.

Honduras prohibits visit of OAS crisis negotiators
Associated Press
Sunday, August 9, 2009 11:24 AM

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Honduras' interim government announced Sunday that it was canceling a visit by foreign delegates aimed at resolving the country's political crisis because it could not accept the participation of a regional official who insists on reinstating the ousted president. Interim President Roberto Micheletti is willing to reschedule the delegation's visit, previously planned for Tuesday - as long as Organization of American States chief Jose Miguel Insulza is excluded, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Washington-based OAS, a long-established hemispheric body promoting democracy, development and legal cooperation in the Americas, on Friday named the delegation comprising foreign ministers from Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The group's mission was to try to persuade Micheletti to negotiate with international mediators seeking to return President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup on June 28.

But in addition to insisting that he accompany the delegation, Insulza failed to include foreign ministers who might be open to "reconsidering our position," the statement said, which "has made it impossible to hold the visit" now. From the beginning, Insulza and the OAS as a whole have harshly condemned the coup and said that any solution to the crisis must include Zelaya's restoration to office. The organization later voted to suspend Honduras from its ranks. The interim government, however, had already said it would quit the organization rather than meet its demands.

The United States, which also condemned the coup, enlisted Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias, now Costa Rica's president, to broker a solution. Those talks fell apart when Micheletti again refused to reinstate Zelaya. The foreign delegation scheduled to arrive Tuesday was to represent a "continuation of Oscar Arias' work," Insulza said last week.

Micheletti's government "is completely willing to consider a new date for the mission of foreign ministers ... excluding Mr. Insulza, who could be replaced by other OAS officials," the Foreign Ministry's statement said. The statement referred to what it called Insulza's "lack of objectivity, impartiality, and professionalism ... which has resulted in serious damage to democracy, to Honduras" and to the OAS. Neither Insulza nor the OAS immediately commented.
Despite the suspension of millions of dollars of U.S. aid and the threat of more sanctions, interim leaders have made clear they expect to hold out until the Nov. 29 elections. Coup backers hope the election will calm international demands to restore Zelaya, whose term ends Jan. 27.

Soldiers arrested Zelaya and flew him into exile in Costa Rica after he ignored a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum asking Hondurans if they wanted a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. Zelaya is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election. Opponents say his real motive for the referendum was to abolish term limits so he could run again. Zelay denies that was his intention.

Micheletti, the courts and the military generals all insist no coup occurred because Zelaya was arrested on orders of the Supreme Court and replaced by an act of Congress. The interim government acknowledges that sending Zelaya into exile wasn't legal, though it says that was necessary for his security and to prevent unrest. But it says everything else it did was according to the Honduran constitution.

August 9, 2009
President’s Ouster Highlights a Divide in Honduras

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — One woman started a kind of kaffeeklatsch with her high-powered friends that grew into the driving force behind a movement that toppled the Honduran president. The other preferred to stay out of politics until the president’s ouster compelled her to protest. Armida Villela de López Contreras, a lawyer and former vice president, has become one of the most visible critics of the ousted Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya. And Hedme Castro is one of the thousands of teachers who have banded together to demand Mr. Zelaya’s return.
Between them is a yawning political and socioeconomic divide that still threatens the stability of what was once one of the United States’ principal staging grounds in Latin America during the cold war. And what they have to say about how this country’s political crisis began — and about the sacrifices they are willing to make to defend their views — leaves little hope that it will end any time soon.

To Ms. López Contreras, a prominent member of this country’s small upper class, Mr. Zelaya was ousted because his blossoming leftist alliance with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela had become a threat to Honduran democracy. She is a founding member of a coalition representing some of the most powerful business and political forces in the country. And she says the coalition members are willing to do, or spend, whatever it takes to keep their country afloat in the face of mounting economic pressure resulting from the rest of the world’s condemnation of the coup. “Zelaya was suffocating all other powers of government,” Ms. López Contreras said. “Now that he’s gone we are breathing the air of freedom. This is a conquest we are not willing to surrender.”

To Ms. Castro, who lives a solidly working-class existence, Mr. Zelaya was ousted because people like Ms. López Contreras felt threatened by his efforts to lift up the poor — most notably with a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage to about $9.60 a day from about $6 a day. An estimated 60 percent of Hondurans live in poverty. Last week, Mr. Zelaya’s supporters, led by an estimated 50,000 teachers, tried to put more pressure on the de facto government by keeping schools closed, staging days of demonstrations and blocking traffic along highways around the country’s two major cities. “I don’t think I have ever seen a president like him,” Ms. Castro said of Mr. Zelaya. “Maybe he made mistakes, but he always erred on the side of the poor. That is why they will fight to the end for him.”

While political leaders on both sides have played to the most passionate emotions of their constituencies, everyday life has taken on a surreal tinge here. The de facto government contends that life in the country has returned to normal. But public schools remain closed, troops have been deployed to protect most government offices, clashes between the police and protesters erupt most days, and reports of attacks against the press and government opposition leaders have begun to increase. Most of the news media, both in print and over the airwaves, offer a steady drumbeat of vague accusations of corruption, drug trafficking and insurrection against Mr. Zelaya and his cabinet.

On the other extreme, graffiti portrays the leader of the de facto government, Roberto Micheletti, as “Pinocheletti,” a reference to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. Human rights groups accuse the coup-installed government of using “death squad” strategies against its opponents. So far, however, only two people have been killed in the weeks of political strife since the coup; as many people died in unrelated clashes at a soccer game, underscoring the high level of violence in the country.

More than a month after Mr. Zelaya’s ouster, diplomatic efforts to end the political crisis are stalled in off-again-on-again talks that have been mediated by President Óscar Arias of Costa Rica. Political observers said that rather than negotiating in good faith, Mr. Micheletti was using those talks as a way to run out the clock until the presidential election scheduled for November. The latest stalling tactic, they said, came two weeks ago when Mr. Micheletti asked Mr. Arias to send a new international envoy to meet with representatives from different sectors of Honduran civil society. In response to that request, the Organization of American States will send a delegation of foreign ministers to meet with the de facto government on Tuesday.

Those same political observers were critical of Mr. Zelaya, who they charge is playing with political fire, whipping up his supporters with incendiary political stunts along the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. “The problem with the Arias proposal is that neither side really sees it as a solution,” said Victor Meza, who served as Mr. Zelaya’s interior minister. Mr. Meza noted that Mr. Micheletti saw Mr. Arias’s idea of creating a temporary power-sharing government as a way to prolong his power, while Mr. Zelaya was increasingly viewing the compromise as a trap.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, the divide wreaking havoc in this country is embodied by people like Ms. López Contreras, 61, and Ms. Castro, 50. As educated, professional leaders of their communities who came of age at the height of this country’s transition from military to civilian rule, it would seem that they would have a lot in common. In fact, like so many other Hondurans, some of their views still seem frozen in those times. They stand squarely, and somewhat contemptuously, on opposite sides as far as Mr. Zelaya is concerned. Ms. López Contreras speaks with deep conviction when she argues in support of the coup, saying that Mr. Zelaya, whom she described as afflicted with megalomania, had planned to use his powers and popularity to dissolve the other branches of government and to rewrite the Constitution in order to extend his presidency.

Her activism against Mr. Zelaya began in earnest in June, after he refused to obey a court order that prohibited him from holding a referendum to ask voters whether they would support rewriting the Constitution. Gripe sessions with small groups of friends, she said, turned into the formation of a political action committee that led protests of tens of thousands people who marched on Congress, the Supreme Court and military installations to demand that authorities stand against the executive branch’s attempts to override their authority.Their marches, with participants dressed all in white as a symbol of peace and transparency, brought together groups that had previously been adversaries, including the Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches, chambers of commerce and several labor unions, and both of the country’s main political parties. “The poor have always protested, and the rich always speak their minds, but the middle class never protested until now,” Ms. López Contreras said of the demonstrations. “It was as if Honduras woke up.”

The day Mr. Zelaya was ousted, Ms. Castro said, she experienced her own awakening. The principal of an elementary school with about 800 students, she said she was not a supporter of Mr. Zelaya. And before the coup against him, she was not a big supporter of the teachers’ union, which she said was plagued with corruption. But she said that the president’s ouster was an attack on her own freedom. And so she has closed her school and attended every union march and meeting to demand that he be returned to power. “This is not about President Zelaya,” Ms. Castro said. “This is about my country. Many people gave their lives so that we could have a democracy. And we cannot let a group of elites take that away.”

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