Honduras Crisis Stirs Passions At Canning House

On Friday 24th July, a panel discussion about recent developments in Honduras was held at Canning House, the Hispanic / Brazilian Cultural Centre in Belgrave Square, London. It took place just hours before the deposed Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, crossed the border from Nicaragua and symbolically ( albeit temporarily) set foot again on his national territory – an action subsequently described by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as “reckless”. The meeting was chaired by the Anglo-Central American Society’s Richard Lavers, formerly UK Ambassador to both Guatemala and Ecuador. In his opening remarks, he commented that the coup represented a “throw-back” to an era that everyone assumed had passed and that it had been provoked in part  by Zelaya’s decision to move Honduras into “Venezuela’s orbit”. The four principal speakers were Jon Farmer of Latin American Newsletters,  Justine Thody of the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dr Francisco Panizza (Uruguay) from the London School Of Economics and Katherine Ronderos (Colombia) representing the Central America Women’s Network. Among the audience of more than 70 people were the Costa Rican and Salvadoran Ambassadors to the UK  plus diplomatic staff from the embassies of Guatemala,Brazil and the Dominican Republic.

The first to the microphone, Jon Farmer, provided a summary of the events which had preceded Zelaya’s arrest on 28th June 2009. At the beginning of his mandate in January 2006, the President had been happy with the ‘status quo’, but then decided his country could benefit from Hugo Chavez’s  ‘petro -dollar foreign policy’. He then introduced a programme of agrarian reform, which inevitably was not well received by the 1% of the population who own 80% of the land. It was , however, his proposal to hold a referendum on extending presidential terms that the coup leaders have declared was the main reason for his removal. In their view, Zelaya intended (like Chavez) to remain in office indefinitely. As Farmer pointed out, the suspicion that the President might do something contrary to the 1982 Constitution did not provide sufficient justification for his overthrow.

Justine Thody looked at the likely political and social consequences of what had occurred , not just for Honduras but the whole of Latin America. Zelaya had been pushed to the left by the bleak condition of his country’s finances and the scarce resources available for investing in health and education. In an economic context, the timing of the coup “couldn’t have been worse”. The World Bank was now considering  suspension of $270 million in aid and the US likewise for another $43 million  due by September 2009. These amounts are, however, “paltry” compared to (for example) the $1/2 billion that Chavez has given to Nicaragua. Donors are anyway “impotent” when circumstances like these arise.  Despite the best efforts of the OAS (Organization Of American States), the situation in Honduras “has exposed the crisis of leadership in Latin America”.  Although the countries in the region are “homogenous”,  they have not been able to forge unity. Integration hasn’t prospered. Mexican President Raul Calderon would have been an appropriate figure to play a big role in resolving the crisis, but he has his own problems.  Zelaya couldn’t have been expected to “invent a democratic tradition” within such a short period,  yet what happened to him was a warning to any of his counterparts attempting to change their country’s constitution . President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, who took over from a hegemonic party that had held power for decades, has mooted the possibility (quickly quashed) of  extending his presidential term.  The ex- guerrillas now in power in Nicaragua are displaying scant respect for their institutions by cynically sharing out political posts with right-wing interests. This does not promote a government based on meritocracy. In an ironic twist to the story, Chavez is “at the forefront of those demanding US intervention in Honduras”. Obama prefers, though, for the moment to stand  back , mindful of the USA’s “unhappy history” in the region. Besides, “he  hasn’t yet formulated a policy towards Latin America”.  Chavez should not be demonised , but with Venezuela’s economy on the rocks he’ll have to decide where (or not) to offer his support. He’ll want something in return.

Dr Panizza estimated that since the democratisation process began in Latin America, 15 Presidents have been unable to complete their constitutional mandates. In many cases, they didn’t have parliamentary majorities so resorted to ruling by decree which in turn provoked popular protests demanding their resignation. Zelaya was not deposed because he was pursuing neo-liberal policies. Precisely the opposite. He was elected on one platform then implemented an entirely different one. Dr Panizza noted the absence so far of massive street demonstrations in Honduras either for or against the coup – unlike Venezuela in 2002.  Obama should do everything in his power – short of intervention – to re-instate Zelaya, even though  his opponents in Congress would then criticize him for assisting ‘chavismo’ in Central America.  At least this time the US would be on the side of the angels and democracy instead of dictatorships as in the past.

Some of the audience were clearly incensed by what has unfolded in Honduras: “The military”, fumed one, ” claim they are upholding the constitutional order. The US Government is giving them breathing space while they see what happens. The State Department initially avoided describing it as a coup”.  Costa Rica’s Ambassador, Pilar Saborio de Rocafort – whose President Oscar Arias has put forward a 7-point plan to facilitate Zelaya’s return – was adamant that: “This is a Central American problem. Regional hegemonic powers should keep their hands out”.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on July 27th, 2009 by Colin D Gordon

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