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The Obama administration deserves praise for its response to the coup in Honduras. It sends a hopeful signal that Washington’s traditional support for such undemocratic power grabs has ended.
Masked soldiers stormed the Honduran presidential palace in the early morning hours of June 28 and violently seized President Manuel Zelaya. Still in his pajamas, the president was forced at gunpoint onto a plane and flown to Costa Rica.
President Obama condemned the coup, saying: “I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections.”
In past decades, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have tolerated — and in some cases supported — violent coups against democratically elected governments in Latin America. In 2002, when a similar coup was hatched in Venezuela, the Bush administration initially welcomed the short-lived illegitimate government.
Obama’s stance is a welcome change and marks a positive step toward mending the open wounds left by past U.S. policies in Honduras and other Latin American countries. But the Obama team still has some housecleaning to do.
Some of the generals behind the putsch are graduates of the infamous U.S. Army training academy for Latin American militaries, formerly called the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Ga. With at least 11 dictators among its alumni, former Rep. Joseph Kennedy famously claimed the training academy has produced “more dictators than any other school in the history of the world.”
The military coup thwarted Zelaya’s move to introduce a voters’ referendum on whether to rewrite the country’s constitution. The military brass is partial to the current constitution because it was drafted in the early 1980s under the military dictatorship of Gen. Policarpo Paz García, another graduate of the School of the Americas.
After the passage of the constitution in 1982, the military cemented its dominion over Honduran political affairs. The generals kept a tight rein on the population through a military death squad unit known as “Battalion 316,” which was trained by the CIA and killed hundreds of Hondurans. (Former members of this battalion also took part in the recent coup.)
In the early 1980s, CIA station chiefs and the U.S. Embassy led by then-Ambassador John Negroponte called the shots in Honduras. (Negroponte went on to hold various senior posts in the George W. Bush administration, including director of national intelligence.) The country became the staging ground for the Reagan administration’s covert wars against rebels in El Salvador and the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Deep U.S. involvement endures to this day. Honduras maintains a large U.S. military base that is one of the Pentagon’s last remaining footholds in Latin America, while the Honduran military still receives millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars. This same military has brutally repressed massive street demonstrations clamoring for the return of the country’s democratically elected leader.
The funding bill for this assistance plainly states that U.S. military aid will be cut for “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
The White House should swiftly follow through on this stipulation. Obama should also continue to work with Latin American leaders and with multilateral bodies such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States for Zelaya’s return.
To do anything less would be to sneer at democracy. And the United States has done that long enough in Latin America.