Honduras, Washington and Latin America: Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Good Neighbor

Clinton and Zelaya

If we assume that the Obama administration is following all previous recent administrations’ policy of genocide, brute force, terror, authoritarian rule and other forms of inhumane repression, we ignore the evidence that we are in a new, more complex and indeed more dangerous moment for the Bolivarian project of Latin American unity. To understand our moment we need to look back three-fourths of a century, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his "Good Neighbor" policy.

In the wake of the Honduras coup, speculation about whether or not the U.S. was masterminding the plot is running wild. Brushing off denials of involvement and claims that U.S. officials had tried to dissuade the plotters from plans to overthrow President Manuel Zelaya, progressive writers have almost unanimously accused the Obama administration of complicity in the coup. Respected analysts like Jeremy Scahill, George Ciccariello-Maher and Alexander Cockburn argue that the U.S. must have been involved at some level, with Scahill arguing the U.S. "could have prevented the coup with a simple phone call."

And in Latin America the bitter riddle still rings true: Why are there no coups in Washington DC? Because it doesn’t have a U.S. embassy! Last week, for instance a friend in Caracas said during an on-line chat that he was convinced Obama himself had given the command to the Generals to overthrow Zelaya. We countered that our Chief Executive may be playing a more wily and sinister strategy than that.

Certainly the past 50-plus years of U.S.-Latin American relations make that statement seem naïve. The Bush Administration’s fingerprints on the Venezuelan coup of 2002 and its involvement in the Haitian coup of 2004 through the IRI (International Republican Institute) would provide enough circumstantial evidence to bring an indictment of the U.S. before any international court of law – if it hadn’t likely already paid off the judges, that is.

However, if we assume that the Obama administration is following all previous recent administrations’ policy of genocide, brute force, terror, authoritarian rule and other forms of inhumane repression, we ignore the evidence that we are in a new, more complex and indeed more dangerous moment for the Bolivarian project of Latin American unity. To understand our moment we need to look back three-fourths of a century, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his "Good Neighbor" policy.

FDR came to power in a time remarkably like our own. The Republicans had just tanked the economy and voters looked to a liberal to ease the pain. North Americans of that moment had disinterestedly observed as the U.S. military spent the first third of the century invading and occupying Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Haiti, Cuba, Panama and the Dominican Republic. After years of battling "insurgents" (or "bandits" as they were often then called), Washington was forced to consider a new course under the new liberal administration.

"In the early 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised that henceforth the United States would be a ‘good neighbor,’ that it would recognize the absolute sovereignty of individual nations, renounce its right to engage in unilateral interventions and make concessions to economic nationalists," Greg Grandin writes in "Empire’s Workshop." Grandin goes on to describe what to an anti-imperialist could be called a chilling result: "Rather than weaken U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere, this newfound moderation in fact institutionalized Washington’s authority, drawing Latin American republics tighter into its political, economic and cultural orbit through a series of multilateral treaties and regional organizations."

From one Roosevelt to the next a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy occurred: The first one (Teddy) used the "Big Stick," but Franklin traded it for "a goose’s quill" knowing more "great is the hand that holds dominion over/ man by a scribbled name." FDR’s "Good Neighbor" policy toward Latin America was a frank recognition that dozens of military interventions in the region, in addition to being costly for a country slipping into a depression, had been entirely ineffective.

Roosevelt picked up the idea for the "Good Neighbor" policy from his Republican predecessor and was backed in his efforts by none other than Nelson Rockefeller, who argued that "if the United States is to maintain its security and its political and economic hemispheric position it must take economic measures at once to secure economic prosperity in Central and South America and to establish this prosperity in the frame of hemisphere economic cooperation and dependence." (Grandin) In other words, opening markets and making trade agreements with Latin America was crucial for the salvation of capitalism in recession and for the maintenance of "dependence."

Under the "Good Neighbor" policy, Latin America supplied raw materials for the emerging industrial empire to the north which "not only set the U.S. on the road to economic recovery but fortified a block of corporations that provided key support for the New Deal reforms and served as the engine of America’s remarkable postwar boom," Grandin wrote.

Latin America, on the other hand, was drawn more deeply into a colonial dependence on the United States for the health of its own economies in a relation wherein it provided raw materials but was deprived of the means of development. Most political thinkers, especially in Latin America, saw the "Good Neighbor" policy as "a new strategy of domination" in which "the principal form of imperialist domination on the continent would have, starting at the moment his policy was declared, an essentially economic character." ("Historia de Nicaragua," 2002, UNAN, Nicaragua).

Nicaragua put the "Good Neighbor" policy to its first test. A bad economy, international pressure against a brutal occupation, and fierce resistance from the patriotic forces led by A.C. Sandino had forced the U.S. to withdraw its occupation forces. But the departure of the U.S. Marines opened the door for Anastacio Somoza, head of the U.S.-trained Nicaraguan National Guard. On February 20, 1934 Somoza had Sandino murdered and quickly took control of the country.

As is now the case in Honduras, the U.S. role in the murder of Sandino and the coup that instituted the Somoza dictatorship was unclear. Although then-U.S. ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane had lunch with Somoza a few hours before the murder, the Nicaraguan was certainly ruthless and power-hungry enough to have organized the killing and the coup on his own. At the very least, however, the "Good Neighbor" acquiesced and FDR’s reported comment on Somoza said it all: "He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch."

Fast forward to another Democratic president who comes to power in the U.S. to save the Empire from a burst economic bubble, and decides to revamp relations with Latin America. Obama calls his updated "Good Neighbor" policy "A New Partnership for the Americas." He previewed it while campaigning in Miami’s Cuban-American community last year.

Playing to that audience, Obama lashed out at "demagogues like Hugo Chavez" who, he said, "have stepped into this vacuum" of the Bush "distraction" from Latin America as a result of the Iraq war. Obama went on to flay Chavez for "his predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy that…offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past." The future U.S. president ended with the recognition that "the United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that this stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua."

To repair this alienation, Obama offered programs pegged to FDR’s "Four Freedoms." He suggested that together the U.S. and its southern neighbors could work towards freedom from fear, as partners in fighting drug trafficking, gangs and terrorism; towards freedom from want, as they addressed poverty, hunger and global warming, and towards political freedom and democracy.

After taking office, Obama announced major relaxations of the bans on travel and remittances to Cuba. At the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, he carried on the appeal to regional unity. He talked of the U.S. intention to foster "engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values." He shook hands with Chavez, and Venezuela and the U.S. agreed to restore their ambassadors.

As in so many arenas, though, Obama’s message on Latin America gets clouded by mixed signals. The veteran plotters of the 1980s contra wars–John Negroponte, Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and their ilk–have no place in his administration. But Obama’s ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, held the Andean desk at the National Security Council during the failed 2002 coup against Chavez, and Jeffrey Davidow, the president’s advisor for the Summit of the Americas, served as ambassador to Chile during the coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973.

Though the administration recently announced it would not ask Congress to approve the Free Trade Agreement with Panama until it developed a "new framework," the president very publicly withdrew his opposition to the trade pact with Colombia during the Summit of the Americas.

In Latin America, Obama faces much more complex and rapidly evolving regional political and economic alliances than did his immediate predecessors. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) took its first stand in defense of Bolivia last September; the Organization of American States has spoken with one voice for Zelaya; MERCOSUR and ALBA are weaving economic ties.

These new political realities also provide an opportunity for the U.S. to regain a measure of control over the region. By contrast with conservatives and neo-cons(ervatives), liberal and neo-liberal imperialists prefer trade treaties to "armed treaties," that is, military force. While Bush preferred leveling Iraq with bombs, Bill Clinton managed to level Mexico with NAFTA. Franklin Roosevelt, with his fast-track authority, negotiated trade treaties with fifteen Latin American countries between 1934 and 1942. Obama could use trade deals to widen the divisions emerging in the region–perhaps fortifying "the U.S. free-trade partnerships and links to Brazil and Chile, knowingly sacrificing a sphere of influence in the hope of establishing ring-fences around the most radical governments," as Ivan Briscoe suggested in the "Foro Europa-America Latina."

Fissures and new poles of power are emerging in opposition to what Professor Napoleon Saltos of the Central University of Quito calls the "Bolivarian Coordinate." This ideological-political-economic axis is only one possibility. Saltos also points out the possibility of the emergence of a "sub-imperialist" Brazil in competition with the neoliberal U.S.-European imperial axis. (See this article).

Regional divisions and tensions surfaced dramatically during the September 2008 disturbances in Bolivia. On one hand, the fledgling UNASUR’s resolution of the conflict between the regions loyal to President Evo Morales and those of the Media Luna demonstrated South America’s new independence.

But while the world’s attention was focused on Bolivia’s crisis, another struggle was taking place behind the scenes at the UNASUR meeting in Santiago, Chile. Just days before that gathering, Hugo Chavez verbally attacked Bolivian Defense Minister Luis Trigo, accusing him of not doing enough to defend President Morales. Chavez went on to say that "if something happens to Evo… I won’t just sit here with my arms crossed."

Many Bolivians took umbrage at this statement and viewed it as inappropriate meddling in their country’s internal affairs. As one friend in Bolivia said privately over a cup of coffee, "I guess Chavez doesn’t remember what happened to the last ‘gaucho’ (cowboy) who tried to save Bolivia," comparing Chavez to Che.

At the UNASUR meeting, Chavez agitated for sharp statements against U.S. interference in Bolivia, while the "pragmatic" group led by Brazil and Chile preferred to address only Bolivia’s immediate, internal issue. The meeting was held in private, but Chilean Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley told Bolivia’s daily La Razon that "he feared a failure of the extraordinary summit of the Union of South American Nations due to the demands of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to condemn the United States in the final declaration." (La Razon, Sept. 17, 2008) "There are different perspectives… I want to say that we don’t share his position and we believe that the problems of the region have to be solved in the region. I don’t like making others responsible," Foxley said.

It was no secret who came out on top at the end of the summit: The "pragmatists" won, with Lula da Silva clearly in charge as the representative of the economic powerhouse of the region. This wasn’t the first time Chavez, a brilliant strategist, sabotaged his own efforts with his lack of diplomacy. He left the summit having not only lost a bid to make a statement against U.S. imperialism, but also having alienated many Bolivians by his harsh criticism of their officials.

While the countries of Latin America continue to welcome Venezuela’s generous aid and subsidized energy, in a context of reduced tension where an ignorant, unpopular, proto-fascist North American president turns his throne over to a charismatic, intelligent leader of African descent, Chavez’s attempts to maintain the polarization between empire and its unofficial colonies so as to push the agenda of Latin American unity forward is in danger of losing steam.

None of this could possibly be lost on Obama. He must know that the U.S. has galvanized opposition in Latin America every time it has undertaken the sort of violent undermining of local autonomy now being carried out in Honduras. He has everything to lose and nothing to gain from this coup in Honduras, especially when he can manage to keep any upstart junior president in line by manipulating trade treaties and cutting deals guaranteed to maintain Latin America in subservience, in short, to divide and conquer.

Yes, it’s obvious that the U.S. hopes the coup can neutralize Zelaya. Of course Hillary will mince words and use linguistic tricks to avoid the use of the word "coup" to exploit the situation to the max. It’s also clear that Obama will continue to defend the Empire: A tiger that has withdrawn its claws remains a tiger. But if anti-imperialists continue in the simplistic, black-and-white Manichean thinking of the last 50 years, we’ll miss the specific dangers–and opportunities–of the moment.

Here we recall the words of Bertolt Brecht: "There are many ways to kill. You can stick a knife in a person’s belly, take away her bread, not heal him from a disease, stick her in a bad apartment, work him to death, drive her to suicide, send him off to war, etc. Only a few of these things are forbidden in our country."

By far, the murder by stabbing–or military coup–attracts more attention. That’s why the brazen golpe in Honduras has raised so much speculation about who was holding the knife. The treaty that will ensure that a nation like Honduras starves or remains on its knees tends to attract far less attention.

While it’s crucial that the coup plotters be brought to justice (even if that includes U.S. citizens) and that Manuel Zelaya return to his rightful place as president of Honduras, activists need to pay even closer attention to the silent murder by economic strangulation and/or free trade agreements. We need to ensure, for instance, that Clinton not be allowed to "cut a deal" to have Zelaya returned under "conditions" (as her husband did with Aristide in 1994). We need to lobby for fair trade agreements and not free trade agreements. We need, finally, to support movements in Latin America working toward unity against empire. Zelaya’s return to Honduras, without conditions, will be only one step in our struggle.

Clifton Ross is the writer/director of "Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out" (www.pmpress.org) and more recently "Translations from Silence" (www.freedomvoices.org). Marcy Rein is a freelance writer and editor and longtime participant/observer in various social movements.