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Obama’s new style in Latin America

Latin American style in Honduras. (Photo: Rights Action)

Latin American style in Honduras. (Photo: Rights Action)

This past weekend in Buenos Aires, an American acquaintance presented me with page 9 of Saturday’s Buenos Aires Herald, the English-language daily, such that I might join the ranks of those who understood the approach of the US government to the current crisis in Honduras. Page 9 consisted of two Reuters articles, one on top of the other, with the essence of the US approach excerpted in a quote in orange print at the center of the top article: “This is part of Obama’s new style of doing things in Latin America.” How well my acquaintance had read the rest of the article was called into question by his reference to Costa Rican President Óscar Arias as Óscar Asturias.

The top article, entitled “US treads softly as region weighs in,”  begins:

Latin America was for decades seen as the United States’ ‘back yard’—a theatre where it imposed its will often at the barrel of a gun.

But since Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was snatched from his home in his pajamas and spirited out of the country by the military on June 28, Washington has played an uncharacteristically low-key role.”

It apparently does not occur to Reuters that there is no need for gun barrels when the US is content for Zelaya to remain in his pajamas and out of the country, or that covert support for right-wing Latin American death squads might also have been described as low-key.

Pejorative interpretations of low-key roles are averted by the announcement that US President Barack Obama “immediately condemned the [Honduran] coup as illegal,” despite the fact that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continued to mull over whether the military coup was really either a coup or military in nature. Also averted are references to the Clintons’ ties to advisers of the coup government and to Obama’s failure to apply terms like “outrageous” to violence directed against civilian protestors outside of Iran.

The article quotes Julia Sweig, Latin America analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying: “This is the first time that I can remember when the immediate response of Washington was to defer to others to get things done right here in the hemisphere.” It is presumably easier to defer to others when the “others” in question is the Organization of American States (OAS) and when your goal is in fact not to get anything done, although the OAS has recently augmented its list of democratic achievements by lifting Cuba’s banishment from the organization against Cuban will.

As for talks brokered by Arias between Zelaya and Honduras’ “interim” president Roberto Micheletti, we are informed that the US is staying “firmly in the background”—vocabulary that could be applied to a number of situations, such as US training of the Honduran coup generals in Fort Benning, Georgia, or the positioning of former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon during the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982.

Reuters is apparently skeptical of Obama’s condemnation of the coup anyway, and explains that “Zelaya is demanding immediate reinstatement, while Micheletti says the army lawfully removed him because he violated the Constitution by seeking to lift limits on presidential terms.” Not explained is that Zelaya’s “seeking” consisted of a nonbinding referendum on the possibility of future amendments to the constitution; additional reluctance to adequately present both sides of the issue can be observed in a June 18 Reuters article entitled “Thousands mourn Iranians killed in protests,” in which the flow of the article is interrupted by the following: “(Editors’ note: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.)” The editors neglect to balance their note with the stipulation that “the Iranians say these restrictions are legitimate.”

The Reuters article on Honduras continues in the tradition of imbalance by asserting that “[t]he last Democrat in the White House, former President Bill Clinton, sent troops to put ousted Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide back in power in 1994,” without specifying that former Republican governments had frozen development aid to Haiti during Aristide’s subsequent presidential term—a low-key maneuver obligingly legitimated by the OAS—or addressing Aristide’s claims that he was kidnapped to Africa by the US and France in 2004.

Óscar Arias had confirmed that conservative Republicans in the US preferred Aristide’s departure to prospects of Haitian democracy and had responded negatively to Haitian rebel leader Guy Philippe’s March 2004 announcement that the country was in his hands, an announcement backed up by his supporters’ claims that they had executed opponents and by the fact that Philippe had received US military training in Ecuador. Arias’ negative response is recorded in Paul Farmer’s April 2004 article in the London Review of Books: “Nothing could more clearly prove why Haiti does not need an army than the boasting of… Philippe last week in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian army was abolished nine years ago during a period of democratic transition, precisely to prevent the country from falling back into the hands of military men.” Arias’ failure thus far to draw parallels between countries starting with H may be an effect of the fact that the current non-Republican State Department is still debating the definition of the word “military.”

The US has also still failed to freeze the bank accounts of Honduran coup instigators, which would presumably be more complicated than freezing drinking water loans to Haiti and would jeopardize American entrenchment “firmly in the background.” While not involving gun barrels, such economic maneuvers are nonetheless incompatible with antidemocratic objectives; the implication that the perceived inaction that characterizes “Obama’s new style” is somehow more benign than previous presidential styles is meanwhile offset by the fact that US government contact with Honduran coup plotters up until the day before the coup cannot be characterized as inactive.

The Reuters article featured on the bottom half of page 9 in Saturday’s Buenos Aires Herald, entitled “Chávez ramps up anti-US rhetoric, Washington largely praised in LatAm,”  reviews how Obama’s new style is “viewed as a welcome departure in a region that Washington has long sought to dominate, notably by backing repeated right-wing military coups.” Once again, the only notable departure in this case is due to sudden diplomatic confusion over the meaning of “military coup.”

Starting at the bottom of the first column of the article, we receive the analysis of Daniel Hellinger of Missouri’s Webster University, who declares: “If Zelaya returns, I suppose that it is a win for [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, but the US will also claim that it has acted in support of democracy.” The unintended repercussions of Zelaya’s hypothetical return are followed by a section entitled “Will there be blood?”, which fails to note that there has already been blood and informs us that “[d] espite the newly heated rhetoric, most observers still expect some kind of negotiated solution in Honduras, such as an early election in which neither Zelaya nor interim President Roberto Micheletti could run.”

The potential sacrifice of Micheletti may at least help resolve the US State Department’s lexical quandary, in that an “interim coup” could be presented as more congruent with Obama’s new style in Latin America.



  1. Jay Vos says:

    This is brilliant. I’ve been troubled by the US media stories on what’s happened in Honduras. Am I correct in thinking that if the US calls it a coup, then it cannot send military aid to the country? (Isn’t that US law?)

  2. synaptique says:

    Brazilian authorities finally stated at the last OAS meeting that “Zelaya has to come back without any condition. Our position is that, if any coup gouvernment can take the power, and if negociations end on a coalition, it would be a tremendous incentive for [other] coups.” From: O Globo

    • Monica Alves says:

      That is the only sane position from a South American point of view… We’ve had it with ‘military coups’.

      And this is a coupo all right! The US may take whatever view it chooses… a coup is a coup.

      As a brazilian living in Brazil I haven’t heard ANY praise of the US relating to this situation or any other (thank GOD, the GOD, or whomever you’d wish to thank…)

      We just want the US OUT of our affairs…. I mean if we had a FAMINE here we’d pass up their help… and THIS is the real climate in Latin/South America as regards interference in our politics…. just stay there in the nice ‘civilized’ North…. let us get on with our business…

  3. “(Editors’ note: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.)” The editors neglect to balance their note with the stipulation that “the Iranians say these restrictions are legitimate.

    WTF is that supposed to mean?

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