O Canada: What Are You Doing in Honduras?

Source: VUE Weekly  – From Week of July 23, 2009, Issue #718

Yves Engler / blackbook.foreignpolicy.ca

Three weeks ago the Honduran military forcibly removed elected President Manuel Zelaya and dumped him in Costa Rica. The coup government then shut down numerous media outlets, imposed a curfew and killed at least a handful of demonstrators.

Despite the threat of military violence, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans have marched, gone on strike and blocked highways in an attempt to reverse the coup, and almost every country and major institution in the world has condemned the coup. But the Canadian government seems to support it.

Foreign Affairs remained silent in the hours after Zelaya was kidnapped by the military. Eight hours after Zelaya’s ouster a Foreign Affairs spokesperson told the Mexican Notimex news agency that Canada had "no comment" regarding the coup. It was not until late in the evening, after basically every country in the hemisphere denounced the coup, that Ottawa finally did so.

Canada, reported Notimex, was the only country in the hemisphere that did not explicitly call for Zelaya’s return to power. Unlike the World Bank and European Union, Ottawa has not announced plans to suspend aid to Honduras, which is the largest recipient of Canadian assistance in Central America. Nor has Ottawa mentioned whether it will exclude the Honduran military from its Military Training Assistance Program.

At a special Organization of American States (OAS) meeting a week after the coup, Canada’s minister for the Americas, Peter Kent, called for Zelaya to delay his planned return to the country claiming the "time is not right." On July 19, after the coup government refused to consider the return of Zelaya as proposed by mediator Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, Kent again called on the elected president not to reenter his country, saying, "A return to Honduras prior to a negotiated resolution is strongly discouraged."

Kent also has yet to denounce the coup government for killing peaceful protesters and arresting thousands, but he did respond on Sunday to Zelaya’s recent comment that Hondurans had the right to "insurrection" against an illegitimate government by saying, "We call on all parties to condemn any and all incitement to violence in this ongoing crisis."

This was just Kent’s most recent attack against Zelaya. At the special OAS meeting two weeks ago Kent said "there has to be an appreciation of the events that led up to the coup," blaming Zelaya for clashes with the army, Supreme Court and Congress. Before the coup Kent criticized Zelaya’s plan for a non-binding public poll on whether to hold consultations to reopen the constitution. "We have concerns with the government of Honduras," he said in early June. "There are elections coming up this year and we are watching very carefully the behaviour of the government and what seems to be an attempt to amend the constitution to allow consecutive presidencies."

This is parroting the US (and Honduran) neo-conservative argument that an elected president can be made illegitimate if he consults with the population as to whether or not it wishes to change the constitution. If this were to stand, then Hondurans would forever be captive to a constitution written by a right-wing, military-backed government.

Ottawa’s hostility is likely motivated by particular corporate interests and Zelaya’s support for the social transformation taking place across Latin America.

From 1996 – 2006 Canadian companies were the world’s second-biggest investors in Honduras, trailing only US corporations in levels of foreign investment. Zelaya’s move earlier this year to raise the minimum wage by 60 percent could not have gone down well with many of these corporations, including the world’s biggest blank T-shirt maker, Montréal-based Gildan, which employs thousands of Hondurans.

Likewise, announcing that no new mining concessions would be granted during his term could not have made Zelaya popular with Canada’s powerful mining sector, which has some 1300 properties in Latin America. An interesting note in this regard is that Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc., which runs a controversial open pit, cyanide-leeching gold mine in the country, provided buses to the capital, Tegucigalpa, and cash to former employees who rallied in support of the coup, according to the human rights organization Rights Action.

More broadly, the Harper government opposes Zelaya’s gravitation toward the countries leading the push toward a more united Latin America. A year ago Honduras joined the Venezuelan-led ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas, which is a fast-growing response to North American domination of the region. Canadian corporations, with more than $100 billion invested per year in Latin America, cannot be pleased.

Since touring South America two years ago, Harper has worked to stunt the region’s growing rejection of capitalism and dependence on the United States. In March Harper referred to the far-right Colombian government as a valuable "ally" in a hemisphere full of "real serious enemies and opponents." And after answering questions regarding Venezuela in April he said, "I don’t take any of these rogue states lightly."

The recent announcement that Canada would shift "aid" from Africa to Latin America is part of an attempt to slow the region’s transformation. The region’s most pro-capitalist governments, in Colombia and Peru, will benefit from this increased aid as will regional civil society groups whose views most closely align to Ottawa’s.

Supporting the coup in Honduras is a continuation of this policy; an attempt by Ottawa to block Latin America’s leftward shift. V

Yves Engler is the author of the recently released The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and other books.