Zelaya’s Problem

June 29, 2009

Manuel Zelaya, ousted

Manuel Zelaya, ousted

Try a Google news search for “Honduras” and “Exxon” and you won’t find any English language articles, but you should.

As you’ll all know, the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, has been evicted from office by the country’s military. Zelaya, a middle of the road nationalist, had sought to stage a referendum on constitutional change. One element may have been to allow the president to stand more than once for office, but the central goal was to achieve the election of a constitutional assembly where, along with many other matters, term limits could then be debated.

Somehow the media is fixated on the term limits thing, but Zelaya really wanted to appeal to the Honduran majority – it’s poor, exlcuded majority – over the heads of the landowning oligarchy.

But Zelaya’s problems went deeper than that. His claims that a coup was aborted just last week at the orders of the U.S. embassy may have been premature. There are certainly reasons why Washingto may mistrust him.

Aside from Zelaya’s closeness to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his ALBA project (an economic scheme linking Latin American nations together to compete with U.S. free trade agreements), he also alienated Big Oil when, in 2007, he ordered the seizure of oil terminals belonging to Chevron and Exxon Mobil. At the time, Honduras was grappling with soaring oil prices, and Zelaya sought to use the storage capacity of the majors to ease shortages amongst the population. Not an unreasonable request – particularly as Zelaya claimed that the companies had failed to provide storage facilities on time, while an earlier contract had given the government the ability to temporarily use those facilities if necessary.

Regardless of that, the U.S. responded firmly. As Reuters reported, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Charles Ford, said that “the country’s temporary seizure of foreign-owned oil storage terminals showed a lack of respect and could affect investor confidence in the Central American country.”

Zelaya backed down, fearing the consequences of pressing for outright nationalization, but his prickly relations with Ford did not abate. In August 2008, he told the press that the ambassador had proposed that Honduras grant U.S.-trained terrorist Luis Posada Carriles asylum while he “attacked the embassy of the United States which he accused of being promoter of Coup d’états, invasions and nation rises from Central America.”

Ford was replaced in late 2008 by Hugo Llorens, the current ambassador (and a man who Zelaya accused last week of planning a coup, which he thought had been aborted). Llorens spent time during the Bush administration as “Director of Andean Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC)” and was also “the principal advisor to the President and National Security Advisor on issues pertaining to Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.” Llorens was, therefore, advising the NSC on Venezuela during 2002 – when Hugo Chavez suffered an attempted coup organized by the U.S. – and 2003 when a lengthy “strike” in the oil sector crippled the nation’s economy. Chavez blamed the U.S. for that too, and not without cause.

In the 1990s, Llorens “served as Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Policy and Summit Coordination in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs” where – despite the debilitatingly long job title – he “played an important role in the launch of the historic Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations in 1998.” That would be the FTAA that has since been abandoned due to popular opposition across Latin America.

In other words, Llorens seems quite capable of being the point man for regime change in Tegucigalpa.

As for Ford, he is now also the Business Engagement Advisor to the United States Southern Command which, wiki reminds us, “is responsible for providing contingency planning, operations, and security cooperation for Central and South America, the Caribbean (except U.S. commonwealths, territories, and possessions), Cuba, the Bahamas, their territorial waters, and for the force protection of U.S. military resources at these locations.”

Honduras hosts a key element of SOUTHCOM, in the form of JTF-Bravo which operates out of the Soto Air Force Base.In the 1980s, JTF-Bravo played a key role in coordinating anti-Sandinista “contras” who raided across the Nicaraguan border, murdering and raping at will.

These days, its “primary mission is to support and conduct joint, combined and interagency operations in the Joint Operations Area, to enhance regional cooperative security initiatives and to support democratic development.” And JTF-Bravo supports democracy in the traditional American way, by beefing up Latin American militaries. As its website states, the task force helps by “Supporting Latin American armed forces as they develop appropriate force structures and doctrine, and demonstrate support for human rights and subordination to civilian authority.”

Speaking in February 2009, the U.S.’ most senior military official, Michael Mullen, said that America “need[ed] to pay more attention to our neighbors and the security issues and the economic issues that are associated with not just Mexico, but with [all of] Latin America.”

Mullen, SOUTHCOM commander Navy Admiral James Stavridis and SOUTHCOM’s Army Command Sgt Michael Balch, spoke about their strategy of co-opting a “professional NCO class” within Latin American militaries. As Balch put it, professional NCOs had been viewed with suspicion by Latin American states in the past, but “If you want to have a strong military, you have to have a strong noncommissioned officer corps.”

He then exposed the endgame for such a strategy, stating that “The noncommissioned officer corps doesn’t take power from the officer corps. It complements the officer corps so you can accomplish things together” while “No country within Latin America demonstrates that complement as convincingly as Colombia.”

Colombia has been a human rights pariah for decades owing to state sponsored paramilitary action which has resulted in the western hemisphere’s worst refugee crisis and endemic drug smuggling (while it has also prolonged the insurgency of groups like FARC).

But Colombia has been training NCOs from across Latin America, including those from Honduras, despite its awful record. Balch is unconcerned. In fact, he is enthusiastic about death squads, forced evictions, assasinations, rape and arbitrary detention – on the Colombian “model.”

As he says “Colombia is the finest example of a nation helping itself. They have really helped themselves, and they are in a better way than they have been in many, many years. They are on the verge of success.”

Let’s hope the coup against Manuel Zelaya isn’t an example of such “success” being effectively transmitted to other nations.

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