Now that Manuel 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 US secretary of state Hillary Clinton described the first phase of this new repression Monday 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 neighbourhoods.
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% of the population that their elected president is an agent of a foreign government who 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 organisations throughout the world: Amnesty International, the Centre 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: the US government. The Obama administration has not uttered one word about the massive human rights violations in Honduras.
This silence by itself tells you all you need to know about what this administration has really been trying to accomplish in the nearly three months 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 Barack Obama, along with his secretary of state, has shown no intention of undermining this strategy.
In fact, Zelaya has been to Washington six times since he was overthrown, but not once did he get a meeting with Obama. Why is that? Most likely because Obama does not want to send the "wrong" signal to the dictatorship, ie 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 US, 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.
Luz Mejias, the head of the Organisation of American States’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission, 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 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 11 August, 16 members of the US Congress sent a letter to Obama urging him to "publicly denounce the use of violence and repression of peaceful protesters, the murder of peaceful political organisers and all forms of censorship and intimidation directed at media outlets." They are still waiting for an answer.
Some might recall what happened to Bill Clinton when his administration sent mixed signals to the dictatorship in Haiti in 1994. 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 US invasion, the dictator still did not believe it. In September 1994, Clinton sent 20,000 troops to topple the dictatorship and restore the elected president (who ironically was overthrown again in 2004, in a US-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 it from power.
What a horrible, ugly message the Obama administration is sending to the democracies of Latin America, and to people who aspire to democracy everywhere.
Published in The Guardian