Now that President Zelaya has returned to Honduras, the coup government -- after first denying that he was there -- has unleashed a wave of repression to prevent people from gathering support for their elected president. This is how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the first phase of this new repression last night in a press conference:
"I think that the government imposed a curfew, we just learned, to try to get people off the streets so that there couldn't be unforeseen developments."
But the developments that this dictatorship is trying to repress are very much foreseen. A completely peaceful crowd of thousands surrounded the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, where Zelaya has taken refuge, to greet their president. The military then used the curfew as an excuse to tear-gas, beat, and arrest the crowd until there was nothing left. There are reports of scores wounded and three dead. The dictatorship has cut off electricity and water to the embassy, and cut electricity to what little is left of the independent media, as well as some neighborhoods. This is how the dictatorship has been operating. It has a very brutal but simple strategy.
The strategy goes like this: they control the national media, which has been deployed to convince about 30-40 percent of the population that their elected President is an agent of a foreign government and seeks to turn the country into a socialist prison. However, that still leaves the majority who have managed to find access to other information.
The strategy for dealing with them has been to try to render them powerless: through thousands of arrests, beatings, and even some selective killings. This has been documented, reported, and denounced by major human rights organizations throughout the world: Amnesty International, the Center for Justice and International Law, Human Rights Watch, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and others.
One important actor, the only major country to maintain an ambassador in Honduras throughout the dictatorship, has maintained a deafening silence about this repression: that is the United States government. The Obama administration has not uttered one word about the massive human rights violations in Honduras. This silence by itself tells you all that you need to know about what this administration has really been trying to accomplish in the 87 days since the Honduran military squelched democracy. The Obama team understands exactly how the coup government is maintaining its grip on power through violence and repression. And President Obama, along with his Secretary of State, has shown no intention to undermine this strategy.
In fact, President Zelaya has been to Washington six times since he was overthrown, but not once did he get a meeting with President Obama. Why is that? Most likely because Obama does not want to send the "wrong" signal to the dictatorship, i.e. that the lip service that he has paid to Zelaya's restoration should be taken seriously.
These signals are important because the Honduran dictatorship is digging in its heels on the bet that they don't have to take any pressure from Washington seriously. They have billions of dollars of assets in the United States, which could be frozen or seized. But the dictatorship, for now, trusts that the Obama team is not going to do anything to hurt their allies.
The head of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Human Rights Commission, Luz Mejias, had a different view of the dictatorship's curfew from that of Hillary Clinton. She called it "a clear violation of human rights and legal norms" and said that those who ordered these measures should be charged under international criminal law.
What possible excuse can the military have for breaking up this peaceful gathering, or can Ms. Clinton have for supporting the army's violence? There was no way that this crowd was a threat to the Brazilian embassy - quite the contrary, if anything it was protecting the embassy. That is one reason why the military attacked the crowd.
On August 11, sixteen members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to President Obama urging him to "publicly denounce the use of violence and repression of peaceful protestors, the murder of peaceful political organizers and all forms of censorship and intimidation directed at media outlets."
They are still waiting for an answer.
Some might recall what happened to President Bill Clinton when his administration sent mixed signals to the dictatorship in Haiti in 1994. President Clinton had called for the dictator Raul Cedras to step down, so that the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide could be restored. But Cedras was convinced -- partly because of contradictory statements from administration officials like Brian Latell of the CIA -- that Clinton was not serious. Even after Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, and then Senator Sam Nunn were sent to Haiti to try to persuade Cedras to leave before a promised U.S. invasion -- the dictator still did not believe it. In September of 1994 President Clinton sent 20,000 troops to topple the dictatorship and restore the elected president (who ironically was overthrown again in 2004, in a U.S.-instigated coup).
By now, the coup government in Honduras has even less reason than the 1994 Haitian dictatorship to believe that the Obama team will do anything serious to remove them from power.
What a horrible, ugly message the Obama administration is sending to the democracies of Latin America, and to people that aspire to democracy everywhere.
This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited on September 23, 2009.