US must act to end Honduras dictatorship

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Zelaya planeBy Colin Burgon MP

When a military junta ousted President Zelaya in Honduras on 28 June, the political ramifications spread well beyond that nation’s borders. At stake is the right of the people of Latin America to advance social justice and equality by electing progressive governments. Against this, a small minority is seeking to return the continent to its dark past of dictatorships in order to defend its privileges.

Latin America is, today, an important reference point for those seeking to build social progress. Historically, it was the laboratory for testing the neo-liberal model – imposed at the barrel of a gun in Chile and many other countries. But it also became the first continent to rise up against this doctrine. Advances in democracy and social justice define the continents development over the past decade. Both are now threatened by the coup.

Along with Presidents Chávez, Morales, Lula and others, President Zelaya was part of this progressive shift. As Business Week explained:

“Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Two-thirds of its 7.8 million citizens live below the poverty line…The country has one of Latin America’s most unequal distributions of wealth: the poorest 10% of the population receives just 1.2% of the country’s wealth, while the richest 10% collect 42%.”

Zelaya had begun to challenge this. He raised the minimum wage by 60%, and, as one supporter explained on a protest for his return, Zelaya’s government “gave out free school lunches, provided milk for the babies and pensions for the elderly, distributed energy-saving lightbulbs, decreased the price of public transportation, made more scholarships available for students.” He had forged alliances with the progressive governments in the continent.

These are the reasons Zelaya was deemed dangerous by the business and political elite in Honduras. As one of the coup’s military officials remarked to the Miami Herald: “It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That’s impossible.”

Honduras’ military has a long record of political intervention and repression including death squads during the 1980s. It was well known as a military base for US operations in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Honduras’ military also has strong links with the U.S. military’s School of the Americas – infamous for training tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers and described by Congressman Joseph Kennedy as having produced “more dictators than any other school in the history of the world.” The recent coup in Honduras was carried out by two graduates of this school, General Vasquez, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Honduran military and General Suazo, head of the Air Force.

Inspiringly, Hondurans in their hundreds of thousands have rallied in defence of their elected President with protests, strikes and blockades. This is despite the killing of protesters, the assassination of political activists, the arrest of 1300 people, curfews, and widespread media censorship. Videos posted on the internet show this brave resistance in the face of enormous brutality.

The Honduran junta has been rightly met with near total isolation – rejected by the UN General Assembly, Organisation of American States and the EU amongst others. However this opposition has so far been ineffectual as a means to restoring the elected Zelaya government.

Stronger action is needed and the country with most leverage to remove the military junta is the US. Whilst the US Administration has called for the elected Zelaya government to be re-instated, its inaction in other respects is serving to keep the coup government in power. The US Ambassador is still in post – whereas European nations have withdrawn theirs. The US is still providing aid to Honduras contrary to its own laws and it continues to offer tariff exemptions on trade as part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. This is significant as the US is Honduras’ chief trade partner.

The history of the US in Latin America has been to subvert democracy and progress. There were hopes of real change with the election of Obama. If the US is to break with its past, President Obama needs end all military, financial and political support to the Honduras government until the elected Zelaya government is restored.

Colin Burgon is the Chair of the Labour Friends of Venezuela group of MPs.

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