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Honduras: A Twenty-first Century Coup?

By Aviva Chomsky(*)

We’ve heard a lot of talk about the coup in Honduras is a “twenty-first century coup,” with the implication that things are different now from the way they were in the twentieth century. Especially, people seem to think that things are different now that Obama is president of the United States.

Obviously, this coup did take place in the twenty-first century. But we should look closely at what has changed, and what remains the same, between the coups of the twentieth century and the current coup in Honduras. Let’s begin by looking at two of the main actors in the coups of the twentieth century: the United Fruit Company and the U.S. military.

The United Fruit Company came to Central America at the end of the nineteenth century, and soon became so powerful there that Central Americans began to call it “el pulpo” or “the octopus” because its tentacles were everywhere. In 1904 the U.S. author O. Henry coined the phrase “banana republic” after visiting Honduras, because of the power the fruit company held there. “Banana republic” has continued to be used to describe countries that are controlled by foreign investors and the export economy, with weak governments that have to bend to the will of foreign capital. The militaries generally play an outsized role in the “banana republics,” and themselves enforce the will of foreign companies—including overthrowing governments that foreign companies are not happy with.

During the first decades of the twentieth century Central America was victim to the “banana wars”—repeated U.S. interventions, mostly to defend the interests of the banana companies there. The companies’ control was imposed in various ways, not always through war. Samuel Zemurray, the head of the Standard Fruit Company, famously explained that “In Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of Parliament.” Standard was later absorbed into United Fruit. By the 1920s, United owned 650,000 acres of land in Honduras—1/4 of the arable land in the country.

United Fruit played an important role in convincing the United States to overthrow the democratically elected reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, leading to 40 years of genocide in that country. In 1961, United Fruit lent its ships to the United States to support the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In 1970 the president of Honduras, General Oswaldo López Arellano, was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had accepted a $1.25 million dollar bribe from the United Fruit Company. By then a member of Parliament cost a little bit more than a mule, apparently—but the United Fruit Company was still buying them.

$1.25 million dollars seems to be a special figure for United Fruit. That’s also the amount that they paid to the Colombian paramilitaries in the 1990s, as the paramilitaries took over the Colombian banana region and killed hundreds of union workers and activists on the Company plantations. The UFCO admitted to making these payments, which violated U.S. laws, and paid the federal government at $25 million dollar fine.

What were the goals of all of these United Fruit Company maneuverings and coups? There’s a lot of consistency over the twentieth century. As a major landowner and employer in Central America, the Company was concerned about wages, about labor unions, about taxation policies, and about regulation of foreign capital. The Company wanted low wages, no unions, low or no taxes, and little or no regulation. Any time a government tried to raise wages, allow or promote unions and other forms of popular organizing, enact land reform, and tax and regulate foreign companies—in other words, any time a government tried to represent the interests of the people of Central America—the Company tried to buy it off, and, if that was not possible, to overthrow it.

Next let’s look at the role of the U.S. military in Central America in the twentieth century. The United States invaded Central America, either using U.S. troops or through proxies, regularly throughout the century. Scarcely a decade passed without more than one U.S. intervention in what U.S. policymakers came to consider their “back yard.” U.S. General Smedley Butler, who participated in many of these interventions in the first decades of the century, later wrote:

“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. 1 helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."

In addition to direct invasion, the U.S. began setting up armies, training them to follow U.S. wishes, and placing them in power. Anastasio Somoza, whose family ruled Nicaragua from 1933 to 1979, was a prime example of this tactic. During its long occupation of Nicaragua between 1912 and 1933, the United States created and trained a National Guard, and left its commander, Somoza, in charge of the country when U.S. troops withdrew.

Probably the best-known coup carried out under U.S. auspices was the one in Guatemala in 1954. But U.S. involvement continued and even grew through the end of the century, with the Contra War against Nicaragua and the heavy support for military governments in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras during the 1980s. U.S. fingerprints are also all over the coup that overthrew Haitian President Aristide in 1991.

A new actor, after World War II, was the U.S. Army School of the Americas, initially established in Panama and later moved to Ft. Benning, Georgia. The School was aimed at training Latin American soldiers. SOA graduates have been heavily overrepresented among those carrying out the right-wing military coups of the second half of the twentieth century, in forming and collaborating with death squads, and with carrying out human rights violations.

In Honduras, two SOA graduates carried out military coups: General Juan Melgar Castro, in 1975, and Gen. Policarpo Paz García, in 1980. Paz García also became notorious in Honduras for forming the B 3-16 death squads that terrorized the population in the 1980s.

There was a lot of consistency over the course of the century as to what kinds of actions by a Central American government would provoke a U.S. invasion, or a U.S.-backed coup. The United States overthrew governments that raised wages, that asserted sovereignty over foreign multinationals, and that allowed or supported popular mobilization. If Gabriel García Márquez were to write a story about Mel Zelaya’s actions in doing all of these things in Honduras in the twenty-first century, he could well title it a “Chronicle of a Coup Foretold.”


So, has the role of the United State changed at all, in the twenty-first century, and with the presidency of Obama? Let’s look at some of the people Obama has chosen to represent his policies in Central America, and, especially, their relationship with twentieth century U.S. interventionist polices, with the United Fruit Company, and with the coup.

Let’s begin with the two military figures who led this coup, Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, head of the Honduran Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Luis Javier Prince Suazo, the Commander of the Honduran Air Force. Guess where they were both trained? You got it, at the U.S. Army School of the Americas.

Then we have Hillary Clinton, who Obama chose as Secretary of State. Her husband Bill Clinton’s administration was responsible for Latin American policies like NAFTA, like the militarization of the border, the drug wars, and the U.S. role in the coup in Haiti.

One of Hillary Clinton’s chief advisors now is John Negroponte, who was Ambassador to Honduras under President Ronald Reagan from 1981-1985—and was one of the main designers of the Contra War, and turning Honduras into what was then called “the U.S.S. Honduras” because the whole country served as a military base for carrying out that war.

Then we have the current U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens. He was President Bush’s National Security Advisor on Venezuela during the 2002 coup attempt there, which the Bush Administration embarrassingly cheered on.

And we have Eric Holder, Obama’s Attorney General. Before joining the Obama administration, he worked as a lobbyist for—the United Fruit Company! In fact, he was the lawyer who defended the UFCO when it was charged with making the payments to the Colombian paramilitaries.

Finally, there’s lawyer-lobbyist Lanny Davis. He was Bill Clinton’s legal counsel, and then went to work on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Now, he’s been hired by the Business Council of Latin America—representing the main business sectors in Honduras—to lobby Congress and U.S. public opinion in favor of the coup.

We should acknowledge one difference in Honduras in the twenty-first century. It is no longer really a “banana republic” because there has been a huge growth in the maquiladora industry there in the past decades. The maquiladoras produce textiles and garments for export, mostly to the United States, and most of them are foreign-owned.

It’s no mystery who was behind the current coup in Honduras: the Honduran oligarchy, the banking sector, and the agricultural and maquiladora sectors. They are openly claiming their support. They are the sectors that have always been the U.S. allies in Latin America, and they still are.

So what has the result of 100 years of U.S. interventions and U.S.-imposed governments, with their ties to foreign investors, been for Honduras? The country is overwhelmingly based on an export economy, and 2/3 of its exports go to the United States. Now those exports are divided between textiles and garments, coffee, and bananas. Meanwhile, 62% of the country’s population lives in poverty—it’s one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Zelaya had the temerity to attempt to implement policies that challenged U.S. economic interests in Honduras: raising the minimum wage, seeking to diversify the country’s economic relations by joining the ALBA, and fostering popular mobilization. It’s no surprise that the historic enemies of these kinds of social changes joined together to overthrow him.

Why, then, is the Obama administration supporting negotiations aimed at the return of Zelaya? This is really no surprise either. In fact, it looks a lot like what happened in Haiti in the 1990s. The United States doesn’t care what individual leads Honduras—the U.S. government is concerned about what kinds of policies the Honduran government carries out. If it can arrange to bring Zelaya back but prevent him from putting his policies into practice, so much the better. Just as Aristide was allowed to return to Haiti in 1994 under conditions that allowed him essentially no sovereignty for his last months in office, the accord negotiated in Costa Rica with Oscar Arias allows Zelaya to return as a mere figurehead, with no political autonomy. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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(*) The first event of the Committee in Solidarity with the Honduran Resistance took place on July 24 at Salem State College, with the participation of Prof. Aviva Chomsky, the Consul General of Venezuela, Omar Sierra, and reporters Simon Rios and Rene Funes. The local reporters spent a week in Honduras interviewing people active in the resistance to the dictatorship.