Democracy Hangs by a Thread in Honduras

Article excerpt

The right-wing coup d'etat is faltering, but its supporters have powerful friends in Washington. Hugh O'Shaughnessy reports

The international group of right-wingers who staged the coup d'etat against the democratic government of Honduras on 28 June are watching their plot fast unravel. There is stiffening international opposition to their protege, Roberto Micheletti, who, in his capacity as President of Congress, ordered President Manuel Zelaya to be expelled from the country by plane in his pyjamas.

Mr Zelaya gave negotiators meeting in Costa Rica until midnight yesterday to restore him to office, threatening to secretly return to Honduras and attempt to retake power on his own if no agreement is reached. At a news conference at the Honduran embassy in Nicaragua, he said: "I am going back to Honduras, but I am not going to give you the date, hour or place, or say if I'm going to enter through land, air or sea." But indications last night suggested the interim government would call his bluff.

As the Acting President's support shrinks at home, the plotters are lobbying to have Mr Micheletti shored up from abroad by means of a declaration of legitimacy from the US Congress. That scheme is not prospering. Enrique Ortez Colindres, the supremely undiplomatic octogenarian appointed foreign minister by Mr Micheletti, has had to resign, but not before he called Barack Obama "a negrito who knows nothing about anything", on Honduran television.

For some of the plotters it is their second attempt to overthrow an elected reformist government in Latin America: the group includes prominent figures involved in the 2002 ousting of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who was kidnapped for 48 hours and sent to a Caribbean island before being restored to office after widespread popular protest.

The temporary toppling of Mr Chavez was welcomed by the Bush administration, the Blair government and the International Monetary Fund. This weekend, the US seems destined for a replay of 2002's Operation Chaotic Coup. Amid a stream of contradictory messages it is clear that last month's putsch against Mr Zelaya was brewed up in Washington by a group of extreme conservatives from Venezuela, Honduras and the US. They appear to have hidden their plans from the White House, but hoped eventually to bounce President Obama into backing them and supporting the "interim president". They are making much of Mr Zelaya's alliance with Mr Chavez, whose sense of nationalism challenges US hegemony.

Financial backing for the coup is identified by some as coming from the pharmaceutical industry, which fears Mr Zelaya's plans to produce generic drugs and distribute them cheaply to the impoverished majority in Honduras, who lack all but the most primitive health facilities. Others point to big companies in the telecommunications industry opposed to Hondutel, Honduras's state- owned provider. Parallels are being made with ITT, the US telecommunications company that offered the Nixon government funds for the successful overthrow of President Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973.

A key figure is Robert Carmona-Borjas, a Venezuelan active against Mr Chavez in 2002, who later fled to the US. He runs the Washington-based Arcadia, which calls itself "an innovative 'next generation' anti-corruption organisation". Its website carries three video clips alleging, without evidence, that Mr Zelaya, his associates and Hondutel are deeply corrupt. Behind Arcadia are the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), the well-funded overseas arm of the Republican Party. Currently active among the Uighurs of western China, the NED has this year funnelled $1.2m (740,000) for "political activity" in Honduras.

The focus of attention in the campaign against Mr Zelaya is now on the office of Senator John McCain, the defeated US presidential candidate, who is chairman of the IRI, takes an interest in telecoms affairs in the US Congress and has benefited handsomely from campaign contributions from US telecoms companies - which are said to have funded the abortive 2002 coup against Mr Chavez. …