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2009

SIDING WITH THE GENERALS - THE INDEPENDENT ON HONDURAS

Iran's June 12 presidential elections have been widely criticised, both domestically and abroad, as lacking credibility. During the popular protests that followed, some 30 people were killed by government forces with hundreds more arrested. These events have been subject to intense and continuous US-UK media scrutiny.

Also in June, a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected government of Honduras. President Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped and deported to Costa Rica on June 28. Initial clashes between troops loyal to the coup plotters and Zelaya supporters left at least one person dead and 30 injured. On July 30, as many as 150 people were arrested, with dozens injured, when soldiers and police attacked demonstrators with tear gas, water cannon, clubs and gunfire. One of the wounded, a 38-year-old teacher, was left fighting for his life after being shot in the head. Journalists reporting from the scene were also attacked. (Bill Van Auken, 'Honduran coup regime launches brutal crackdown,' August 1, 2009, World Socialist Web Site; www.wsws.org/articles /2009/aug2009/hond-a01.shtml)

Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, describes how the Honduran people have been "risking their lives, confronting the army's bullets, beatings, and arbitrary arrests and detentions". And yet the US media has reported this repression "only minimally, with the major print media sometimes failing even to mention the censorship there". (Weisbrot, 'Hondurans Resist Coup, Will Need Help From Other Countries,' ZNet, July 9, 2009; www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21924)

Our own media database search (August 3) of national UK press editorials mentioning the word 'Iran' over the previous five weeks delivered 26 results. A search for editorials containing the word 'Honduras' delivered 2 results. In fact there has been a single leading article on the Honduran crisis (in the Independent on June 30 - see below). Over the same period, a search for UK national press articles mentioning 'Iran' gave 848 results; for 'Honduras' 96 results. This is not hard science, but it does indicate comparative levels of UK media coverage of the two issues.

Weisbrot notes that the Honduran coup is "a recurrent story" in Latin America, pitting "a reform president who is supported by labor unions and social organizations against a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite who is accustomed to choosing not only the Supreme Court and the Congress, but also the president". (Weisbrot, 'Does the US back the Honduran coup?' The Guardian, July 1, 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/jul/01/honduras-zelaya-coup-obama)

Mainstream outlets claim the coup marks a worrying return to earlier regional trends. A July 23 BBC "Q&A" on Honduras commented:

"Coups and political upheaval were common in Central America for much of the 20th Century, and until the mid-1980s the military dominated political life in Honduras. Mr Zelaya's removal is the first in the region since 1993..." ('Q&A: Crisis in Honduras,' BBC website, July 23, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/ hi/americas/8124154.stm)

This is false. In April 2002, a US-backed military coup briefly ousted Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez until mass protests returned him to power. A Guardian article that month reported that the "US 'gave the nod' to Venezuelan coup." Several weeks prior to the coup attempt, US government officials had met the business leaders who assumed power after Chávez was arrested. General Rincon, the Venezuelan army's chief of staff, had visited the Pentagon the previous December and met senior officials. (Julian Borger and Alex Bellos, 'US "gave the nod" to Venezuelan coup,' The Guardian, April 17, 2002;
www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/17/usa.venezuela)

A 2004 military coup forced Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to flee to Central Africa. Aristide told the Associated Press that he was forced to leave Haiti by US military forces. (Eliott C. McLaughlin, Associated Press, March 1, 2004) Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University, wrote:

"Haiti, again, is ablaze... Almost nobody, however, understands that today's chaos was made in Washington - deliberately, cynically, and steadfastly." (Sachs, 'Fanning the flames of political chaos in Haiti,' The Nation, February 28, 2004; http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0301-10.htm)

The BBC Q&A noted: "The role of the US is key, as it is Honduras's biggest trading partner."

Curiously, the article failed to mention that the US has its only Central American military base in Honduras. In fact the Honduran military is armed, trained and advised by Washington in a relationship that is deep and enduring. The two generals who led the coup were both trained at the US School of the Americas (SOA) based in Georgia (SOA is now known as The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC). Commander-in-chief Romeo Vasquez, head of the Honduran military, received training at SOA between 1976 and 1984. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, head of the air force, studied there in 1996. Colonel Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, a Honduran army lawyer who also trained at SOA, has admitted the illegality of the military's kidnapping of Zelaya. He told the Miami Herald: "It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That's impossible." (Weisbrot, ZNet, July 9, op. cit)

Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, described SOA last month as "this school of assassins, this school of coups, this school with so much blood on its hands". ('Generals Who Led Honduras Military Coup Trained at the School of the Americas,' Democracy Now!, July 1, 2009; http://www.democracynow.org/2009/7/ 1/generals_who_led_honduras_military_coup)

Weisbrot notes that Washington's response to the Honduran coup is guided by conflicting interests: "powerful lobbyists such as Lanny Davis and Bennett Ratcliff, who are close to [Hillary] Clinton and are leading the coup government's strategy; the Republican right, including members of Congress who openly support the coup; and new cold warriors of both parties in the Congress, the state department and White House who see Zelaya as a threat because of his co-operation with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and other left governments." (Weisbrot, 'U.S.- Brokered Mediation Has Failed - It's Time for Latin America to Take Charge,' ZNet, August 1, 2009; http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22185)

This explains Washington's ambiguous reaction. The Obama administration's first statement did not criticise the coup, and the state department continues to refuse to describe it as a coup. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly refused to say that 'restoring the democratic order' in Honduras requires the return of Zelaya. It took three weeks for the White House to threaten to cut off aid.

Roger Burbach, Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas, writes:

"U.S. efforts to restore Zelaya have been quite tepid compared to other countries. While many ambassadors have been withdrawn, the US head diplomat Hugo Llorens, appointed by George W. Bush, remains in place. There are reports that he may have even given the green light to the coup plotters, or at least did nothing to stop them. And while the World Bank has suspended assistance, the State Department merely warns that $180 million in US economic aid may be in jeopardy. Most importantly the United States refuses to freeze the bank accounts and cancel the visas of the coup leaders, measures that Zelaya and other Latin American governments have urged Washington to do." (Burbach, 'Obama and Hillary Nix Change in Honduras,' ZNet, July 27, 2009;
http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22136)

Recently, US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley, commented:

"We certainly think that if we were choosing a model government and a model leader for countries of the region to follow, that the current leadership in Venezuela would not be a particular model. If that is the lesson that President Zelaya has learned from this episode, that would be a good lesson." (James Suggett, 'Honduras Coup,' ZNet, July 28, 2009; http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22149)

The Independent - Doing Democracy A Service

In their June 30 leading article, the Independent's editors, led by pro-Iraq war editor Roger Alton (formerly editor of the Observer), opened with this extraordinary paragraph:

"The ousting of the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the country's military at the weekend has been condemned by many members of the international community as an affront to democracy. But despite a natural distaste for any military coup, it is possible that the army might have actually done Honduran democracy a service." (Leading article, 'Guns and democracy,' The Independent, June 30, 2009; http://www.independent.co.uk/ opinion/leading-articles/leading- article-guns-and-democracy-1724479.html)

By contrast, many experienced observers have warned that the coup represents an extreme threat to prospects for democracy in Honduras and the region. The Independent explained its reasoning:

"President Zelaya was planning a referendum to give him power to alter the constitution. But the proposed alterations were perilously vague, with opponents accusing Mr Zelaya of wanting to scrap the four-year presidential term limit. The country's courts and congress had called the vote illegal.

"This is an increasingly familiar turn of events in emerging democracies: an elected leader, facing the end of his time in office, decides that the country cannot do without him and resorts to dubious measures to retain power. The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez, won a referendum in February altering his country's constitution and abolishing term limits. He now talks about ruling beyond 2030."

On the same day, in the same newspaper, Heather Berkman, a Latin America associate at the global political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote:

"Manuel Zelaya has taken a few unexpected turns to the left during his tenure as President of Honduras, deviating from its political norms. This time, it looks like he may have gone too far... Mr Zelaya can be blamed for staging a coup that, in turn, provoked a counter-coup." (Berkman, 'Zelaya pushed,' The Independent, June 30, 2009; http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/ commentators/heather-berkman- zelaya-pushed-1724469.html)

Recall that these articles appeared in the Independent, widely considered to be at the left of the mainstream media spectrum.

Weisbrot argues that in fact there was no way for Zelaya to extend his rule even if the referendum had been held and passed:

"The June 28 referendum was nothing more than a non-binding poll of the electorate, asking whether the voters wanted to place a binding referendum on the November ballot to approve a redrafting of the country's constitution. If it had passed, and if the November referendum had been held (which was not very likely) and also passed, the same ballot would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped down in January. So, the belief that Zelaya was fighting to extend his term in office has no factual basis - although most people who follow this story in the press seem to believe it. The most that could be said is that if a new constitution were eventually approved, Zelaya might have been able to run for a second term at some future date." (Weisbrot, 'Hondurans Resist Coup, Will Need Help From Other Countries,' ZNet, July 9, 2009; http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21924)

Nikolas Kozloff, journalist and author of 'Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left,' traces the deeper sources of opposition to the Honduran president. Around 2007-2008, the initially conservative Zelaya began to embrace "the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas." Kozloff explains:

"It's Chávez's answer to the US-imposed free trade agreements in the region. And Zelaya had come out in support of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. And so, this set him at odds with the United States, and there was a history of friction between the US and Zelaya leading up to the coup." ('What's Behind the Honduras Coup? Tracing Zelaya's Trajectory,' Democracy Now!, July 1, 2009; http://www.democracynow.org/2009/7/1/ whats_behind_the_honduras_coup_tracing)

As the Independent editorial makes clear, the mainstream offers a different version of events. Kozloff comments:

"I think if you were just reading the reports in the mainstream media, you might get the impression that this coup is just about term limits in Honduras and it's just a conflict over whether Zelaya will be able to extend his constitutional mandate of one four-year term."

The BBC, for example, reported: "Zelaya was sent into exile on 28 June amid a power struggle over his plans for constitutional change." ('Q&A: Crisis in Honduras,' op. cit)

The Times wrote: "His opponents say that he wanted to overturn term limits and extend his power like leftist regional allies such as President Chávez of Venezuela..." (Hannah Strange, 'Deposed President "can never return",' The Times, July 3, 2009)

Kozloff comments: "And my point is that there is an ideological component to this coup... the first salvo against the Honduran elite was his moves to raise the minimum wage by 60 percent... I mean, this is a country where you have these maquiladora assembly plants, and the Honduran elite were, to say the least, displeased by the moves."

In a rare exception to his newspaper's wretched performance, Johann Hari wrote in the Independent of how Zelaya had "increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent, saying sweatshops were no longer acceptable and 'the rich must pay their share'.

"The tiny elite at the top - who own 45 per cent of the country's wealth - are horrified. They are used to having Honduras run by them, for them." (Hari, 'The other 9/11 returns to haunt Latin America,' The Independent, July 3, 2009; http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators /johann-hari/johann-hari-a- coup-latin-america-didnt-need-1729429.html)

As Hari noted: "It was always inevitable that the people at the top would fight back to preserve their unearned privilege."

Prior to the coup, US multinational Chiquita expressed its concern at Zelaya's minimum wage decrees, which they said would reduce profits and increase export costs. Chiquita appealed to the Honduran Business Association, which was also opposed to Zelaya's minimum wage policy. Kozloff told the website Democracy Now!: "what I find really interesting is that Chiquita is allied to a Washington law firm called Covington, which advises multinational corporations. And who is the vice chairman of Covington? None other than John Negroponte...". ('From Arbenz to Zelaya: Chiquita in Latin America,' Democracy Now!, July 21, 2009; http://www.democracynow.org/2009/7 /21/from_arbenz_to_zelaya_chiquita_in)

Negroponte was US ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, when he played a key role in coordinating US terror attacks on Nicaragua by means of "the Contras", a mercinary army. Negroponte is complicit in massive human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military.

Throughout the twentieth century, Chiquita, then known as United Fruit Company, was associated with "some of the most backward, retrograde political and economic forces in Central America and indeed outside of Central America in such countries as Colombia", Kozloff notes. In 1954, United Fruit played a leading role in the US-backed coup that ousted Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically-elected leader of Guatemala.

Kozloff reports that the current US Attorney General, Eric Holder, was Deputy Attorney General under Bill Clinton. Holder defended Chiquita and its actions in Colombia when Chiquita was allied to right-wing paramilitary death squads in the 1990s and was found guilty of paying off paramilitaries. Holder was Chiquita's lead counsel.

We searched national UK newspapers (August 3) for articles containing the words 'Honduras' and (separately) 'Chiquita', 'John Negroponte' and 'Eric Holder' since June 28 - all searches produced zero results.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Independent
Email: r.alton@independent.co.uk

Congratulate Johann Hari on his excellent article in the Independent
Email: J.Hari@Independent.co.uk

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