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Honduras: U.S. must condemn coup
September-October 2009

In its first real crisis in Latin America, the Obama administration has disappointed many who hoped the U.S. would take a much stronger public stand against the coup in Honduras. While his rhetoric at the Summit of the Americas in April indicated improved relations with governments and people in this hemisphere, President Obama’s reaction so far to the overthrow of an elected government has not been visible or strong enough, leading many to doubt the U.S. commitment to restoring the elected President Manuel Zelaya.

In the early morning of June 28, members of the Honduran military entered the Presidential Palace, woke President Zelaya and forcibly escorted him, still in his pajamas, to a plane that took him to Costa Rica via a Honduran airbase, Soto Cano, also known as Palmerola, where hundreds of U.S. soldiers are stationed. President Zelaya had proposed a non-binding poll to gauge the interest of the Honduran people in a binding referendum, to take place during the November elections, to establish a constituent assembly to write a new Constitution.

The poll was declared illegal by the Supreme Court, many members of Congress and Zelaya’s own attorney general. Supporters of the coup claim that Zelaya wanted to use the referendum to extend his term as president, which is illegal under the Honduran Constitution. Article 239 states that a president who even proposes changing the presidential term limits immediately loses his political position for at least 10 years.

Yet Zelaya’s proposal would not have extended his administration. November’s election would  choose the person to replace him, as the presidency is limited to one four-year term. Even if the proposed referendum for a constituent assembly had passed, it would take many months to create it and for the assembly to write a new constitution. This hypothetical future constitution would have to be ratified by the people and may or may not extend the term limits for presidents. So the accusation that Zelaya was trying to extend his term is not true, yet this myth continues to be used by the coup regime to legitimize itself.

The coup was a reaction to the more significant changes that a new constitution might bring:  Proposed amendments would likely lead to more participation from women and minorities as well as change the terms of mining permits. The constitution could also affect the use of Honduran bases by the U.S. military. (Honduras is the only Central American country to allow such use of its bases.) The Garifuna, an indigenous people in Honduras, were especially hopeful that the new constitution would declare the country to be “multicultural and pluri-ethnic.”

Although his critics allege Zelaya had a desire to hold onto power, one of his proposed constitutional changes was a midterm vote of confidence for elected officials, including the president.

Despite its claim to democracy and legitimacy, during the last two months the coup regime has terrorized the Honduran people. In the days after Zelaya’s expulsion, curfews were enforced and media outlets were shut down. Media outlets critical of the regime continue to be harassed through illegal detentions, destruction of equipment, as well as violent attacks and death threats.

Numerous international human rights delegations have documented abuses by the military and police including severe beatings and illegal detentions of thousands of nonviolent protestors and innocent bystanders; sexual assault, including rape; illegal detentions of members of the media; and forced recruitment of young men. At least four protestors have been killed in large protests and a number of civil society leaders have been killed near their homes in assassinations that remind many of the violence of the 1980s.

While international reaction to the coup has been strong and swift, the U.S., arguably the country with the most influence on Honduras, has reacted timidly. Immediately following the coup, neighboring countries closed their borders and halted trade with Honduras for a few days. All other countries except Japan have withdrawn their ambassadors, and even the World Bank stopped its funding in the country. Yet the U.S. still maintains its ambassador in the country and, despite U.S. law, has not cut all its aid.

So far, the U.S. has suspended $35 million in military assistance and other programs to Honduras and has revoked the diplomatic visas of four of the coup leaders. But the administration could take a number of other measures to pressure the coup regime to step down. It should roundly denounce the violence being perpetrated by the coup regime; suspend all U.S. aid; cancel diplomatic, tourist and business visas of coup leaders; freeze the U.S. bank accounts of those leaders; recall U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens; and stop training Honduran soldiers at the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of Americas. These measures could likely force the coup leaders to step down.

The bulk of U.S. money to Honduras comes from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which has yet to suspend or halt its aid. However, in the past two years the MCC reacted quickly in stopping funds in similar situations in Mauritania and Madagasgar. In both cases, the MCC suspended its aid to those countries within three days of the military coups and terminated agreements with those countries within two months. More recently, after alleged fraud in municipal elections in Nicaragua last November, the MCC, which is chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suspended its aid 15 days later. This inconsistency in treatment of countries is difficult to justify.

A religious delegation visiting Honduras August 18-25 expressed how they saw the coup affecting the Catholic Church. “One of our deepest preoccupations … is about the profound divisions in and animosity surrounding the vibrant Honduran Catholic community, when the rich resources of our faith tradition should be guiding the nation toward a just resolution to this intolerable situation.” Soon after the coup, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga and all the Catholic bishops released a letter that did not condemn the coup and was interpreted by many as supporting the same.

Since that letter many priests and some bishops have spoken out against the coup regime and participated in protests against it. The cardinal has remained silent on the issue and many Hondurans are angry that he does not speak out against the repression. The Catholic hierarchy could be playing an important mediating role in the situation, but instead it sits in silence allowing its dated statements to be used to justify the coup regime.

It is clear that the coup regime is simply digging in its heels to stay in power until the November elections. Yet the Union of South American nations (UNASUR) and others have stated their clear rejection of any election held without President Zelaya first being restored to power. A standoff is in the making and is only likely to be stopped by action from the U.S.
As long as the U.S. remains apparently neutral in the situation, the coup regime will be able to hang on to power. It is essential that the U.S. show a firm rejection of this coup, not only to because it is the legal and just response for Honduras, but also to serve notice to other countries in the hemisphere that potentially could endure similar issues.

Faith in action:

Call the State Department (202-647-4000) and U.S. Ambassador Llorens in Tegucigalpa (011-504-236-9320 ext. # 4268) asking them to take some of the steps listed above to help remove the coup regime and reinstate President Zelaya.

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