Ignoring Honduras at Our Peril

It was Monday, September 21, 2009, in the evening. I had to be in class the next morning at 8:30 and was about to turn off the television news in mid-stream and head up to bed when my ears pricked up on hearing that the so-called de facto government in Honduras was calling on the Brazilian government to hand over Manuel Zelaya to them.  (Manuel Zelaya, as all news junkies know, is the constitutionally elected president of Honduras who in late June received a midnight visit from members of the Honduran armed forces and was then put on a plane to neighbouring Costa Rica.)

But I was confused.  I knew that Zelaya had recently travelled to Mexico City and to various other Latin American capitals but I hadn't heard that he was in Brazil!  And now the coup leaders wanted the Brazilians to send Zelaya to Honduras?  What kind of madness was this?  Did the coup leaders in Tegucigalpa really think that there was the slightest chance that the Brazilians would allow Zelaya to be extradited to Honduras? 

No, wait a minute, it seemed that Zelaya was in a Brazilian embassy. Key word: embassy. That meant Zelaya couldn't be in Brazil and must be somewhere else. But where?  In Tegucigalpa?!  Yes, I was pretty sure I had heard the word "Tegucigalpa"!  Now wait a minute, I asked myself, what is going on?  In spite of all the distractions of beginning-of-term, I had been making a bit of an effort to keep abreast of news from Honduras but had had no inkling that Zelaya was about to show up back in his own country again (after an earlier visit to an area of Honduras on the border with Nicaragua). 

My attention had been aroused and my plan to get to bed early was cancelled.

But the news item was short and the announcer was already describing another, unrelated piece of more local news.  I flipped to two or three other channels, but if they had been talking about Honduras I had missed it. I went to the computer and tried the channel 24 Horas from Madrid, Spain, on the Internet. What would they have to say about events in Honduras? Not much, as it turned out, although a lot more than on Canadian channels, since the big news for the news professionals in Madrid that evening was the massive peace concert put on in Havana, Cuba, by the Columbian singer Juanes, the biggest concert, apparently, in Cuban history.  Coverage of this event, on what was already Tuesday morning, September 22, in Madrid, went on and on and on. A lot of different people had a lot to say about it.  Still, finally, we were treated to a good minute and fourteen seconds of coverage concerning the Honduran crisis – including a clip of Hugo Chavez talking on what looked like a satellite phone and giving his version of how Zelaya had managed to get back into Honduras by crossing rivers and climbing mountains, etc., and a clip of the coup leader Micheletti claiming that the whole event was just media propaganda and terrorism. This at least was better than just the talking head of the Radio-Canada news host telling us that the Micheletti folk wanted the Brazilians to hand Zelaya over to them. 

The headline on the home page of the 24-hour news channel, France24, by 11:00 p.m. Atlantic time on Monday night was to the effect that a curfew had been decreed in Tegucigalpa upon the announcement of the return of Zelaya, described as the "président déchu" – the word "déchu" suggesting strongly that he had been overthrown and was no longer president.

Next, I went to www.cnn.com. The headline on CNN's home page was "Toddler swept away as floods kill 5, officials say" – having nothing to do with international events. There was nothing at all about Honduras, not even under "Other news" and "World".

This was somewhat surprising, since one of the ways I had been able to keep up with Honduras-related events during the weeks when Honduras dropped into a "black hole" on CBC and Radio-Canada was by watching the morning news program "Al Día" on CNN en Español which is available in Canada as part of the programming on Telelatino, via one of the Canadian direct-to-home satellite services (with the appropriate subscription). Unlike other television news available to me via satellite or cable, CNN en Español faithfully included every day for weeks and weeks as one of its headline news items the latest developments concerning Zelaya, the coup leaders, the Organization of American States, the continuing resistance movement in Honduras, restrictions on the media imposed by the coup leaders, etc. I would wince a bit at the phrase "presidente destituido" which was uniformly used either alone or in the designation "el presidente destituido Manuel Zelaya" – a description which does not necessarily suggest the illegality of the means used to prevent Zelaya from continuing to exercise his presidential powers. (I personally prefer the turn of phrase used on public affairs programming from Telesur – where Zelaya is uniformly referred to as Honduras' constitutional president ("el presidente constitucional de Honduras").  Telesur, by the way, is a 24/24 international news channel – Venezuela's answer to CNN. 

This being said, during the evening of Monday, September 21, 2009, there was not a single occurrence of the word "Honduras" on the home page of CNN en Español (www.cnn.com/espanol).  Even on Thursday, September 24, as I write these lines, the word "Honduras" is absent from the home page of CNN en Español.  And, by some coincidence, the number of minutes devoted on Tuesday morning to developments in Honduras on the program "Al Día" was considerably reduced – at least so it seemed to me – in spite of the fact that one might normally have expected increased coverage in view of Zelaya's surprising return to the capital city of the country from which he had been banished by a coup.  It also seems to, although perhaps my visual memory is betraying me here, that CNN en Español has cut back on its images of the demonstrations of support for Zelaya and of the violence used by Honduran police and armed forces to discourage them. I also do not at this moment recall that there has been much on CNN concerning the takeover of television stations, etc., by armed personnel sent by the coup leaders.

Still, contrary to what happened on Canadian public television in either English or French, Honduras remained in the headlines of television news on CNN en Español during almost the entire period from well before the June 28 putsch until the day on which these lines are being written, during the fourth week of September.  This may be because of the rather intense interest among users of the Spanish language for news of this sort and because CNN is present on the airwaves in various Latin American capitals like Buenos Aires and Mexico City, where news broadcasts would quickly start losing their audience to other networks if it were noticed that important news was being regularly left out of news programs.  The effect of competition on CNN en Español is perhaps amplified by the increasing presence in the same markets of Telesur, already mentioned above, Venezuela's answer to CNN, which most certainly does not neglect news stories like the events in Honduras.

One may think that the relatively better coverage by Telesur of events in Honduras, as compared to coverage by other media organizations, can be explained by the sympathy which the current Venezuelan president obviously has for leaders like Zelaya. But if we look at the website of the Spanish-language newspaper with one of the largest circulations in the world (for its paper edition), namely the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, which is definitely the property of private corporate interests and in no way beholden to any leftist government, we discover that considerably more attention has been paid to Honduras by Clarín in Argentina than by, say, the Toronto Globe and Mail in Canada, by a factor of 3 to 19, using a semi-objective index which I have devised and will explain briefly below.  If the comparison is made with the Mexico City daily La Jornada, the discrepancy becomes even more flagrant, with a factor of 3 to 174!  If my index corresponds to anything objective, this means that there was, over a thirty-one day period ending on September 13, roughly 60 times more coverage of Zelaya-related news in La Jornada than in the Globe and Mail. Using the same index, there was roughly 70 times more coverage in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera than in the Globe and Mail. One of La Tercera's competitors, El Mercurio, however, comes in at a bit less than only 12 times more coverage than the Globe and Mail. (By some coincidence, El Mercurio has an embarrassing record of subservient support for the dictatorship during the years when Chile was ruled by the Pinochet regime.)

Readers will have to take these statistics on faith until I find time to publish a more detailed discussion. The upshot seems to be that producers and consumers of news in countries like Argentina, Chile and Mexico are much more concerned about the events in Honduras than producers and consumers of news in Canada, the US and France, although certain alternative media in these countries like mondialisation.ca alternatives.ca and zmag.org show a much higher rate of interest than commercial or state media.

Similarly, in their speeches on the occasion of the 64th United Nations General Assembly in New York, the heads of state of countries like Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Brazil, to mention only those I had the time to listen in on, were very emphatic in expressing their concern about the events in Tegucigalpa. President Barack Obama seems to have forgotten to mention Honduras in his address to the Assembly. But President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva of Brazil was very emphatic in calling for the immediate reinstatement of the legally elected president of Honduras and for insuring respect for the inviolability of the Brazilian Embassy. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, for her part, included in her speech a piece of news that I was unaware of, namely that electricity has been cut off in the Argentinian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, not just in the Brazilian Embassy, and – as she quipped – it's not because the Argentinians haven't been paying their power bill!  She also mentioned that stores and schools are closed in Tegucigalpa and that the only traffic in the streets is composed of military and anti-riot vehicles.  (This is an interesting way to get news – from speeches by heads of state speaking at the United Nations!) It could also be mentioned that all major Honduran airports remain closed, perhaps with a view to preventing a visit bySecretary General José Miguel Insulza of the Organization of American States who was mandated on September 21 to seek a solution to the conflict,  President Fernández also had a few historical reminders for her audience: the only other occasions she knows of where embassies were harassed and besieged for giving refuge to certain persons occurred in her own country of Argentina and the neighbouring country of Chile under the dictatorships, respectively, of Videla and Pinochet.  

And here we come to one of the reasons for the rather high concern for the events in Honduras among Latin Americans and the rather low concern expressed by mainline media organizations in North America (north of the Rio Grande) and Europe.  It's because Latin Americans who are at all acquainted with their recent history have a very fresh memory of what happened when democratic processes in their respective countries were interfered with by the military.  Governments brought in by coups and revolts of the armed forces in Latin America have a nasty reputation for kidnapping, torturing and killing people, or just causing them to "disappear".  The military dictatorship in Argentina, for example, probably kidnapped and killed over ten thousand of its own citizens, many of whom were stripped, drugged and dropped out of airplanes flying over the Atlantic, in what were later termed "los vuelos de la muerte" – death flights (1976-83).  An article in today's edition of the  Madrid daily El Mundo gives a lower figure of of 4,500, but this is still 50% more than the fatalities of September 11, 2001, in New York. The same military government also got Argentina into a war with the United Kingdom, of all things, over some small offshore islands variously known as the Malouines, the Malvinas or the Falkland Islands, depending on one's take on the last few centuries of history.  The nastiness of the Chilean dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet is also well remembered and was also the result of a military revolt against the legal government.  The 1982 coup d'état in Guatemala, to give another example, was followed by a period during which a stupendous number, in the order of 100,000 or 200,000, rural people were killed, mostly by the military. These were the years when a small reduction in the annual death toll from massacres in Guatemala won praise for what was termed improvements in the human rights record of the government among those who wanted to obtain permission from the US Congress in order to resume selling arms and providing aid to the perpetrators.

Back in the 1980s, however, most North Americans, especially those with only normal, average exposure to their mainline news media, would not have been particularly aware of the horrors of the Argentinian, Chilean and Guatemalan dictatorships, to mention only these three.  Popular culture is, moreover, largely dominated by a number of stereotypes expressed by terms like "banana republics" and the idea that Latin Americans are somehow incapable of making democratic institutions work properly.  In popular culture, it is often forgotten that the "banana" in "banana republic" refers not to the tropical context of those republics but to deleterious interference in the political process by US companies involved in the business of producing, buying and selling bananas.  As a result, it is truly a ho-hum matter when we hear on the news or read in the newspaper that there has been yet another coup d'état in one of those "infant" or "developing" democracies down there in the tropics.

But these sorts of things can happen in "our" countries as well – and they often have!  Think of how the elected President Louis Napoléon of the Second French Republic magically transformed himself on December 2, 1851, with the help of a few thousand soldiers, into Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire.  As in the case of other coups d'état, the government which was overthrown had been guilty of a number of progressive measures which had turned a bit sour. In 1848, the Second Republic, for example, had affirmed the right to work, abolished the death penalty, adopted universal adult (male only, alas) suffrage and abolished slavery (again) – reference www.1851.fr/lieux/alignan.htm (in French – accessed 2009-09-24).

Which brings me to another aspect of the "silence" which has been maintained by the media on events in Honduras. It would appear from my modest efforts to investigate these matters that the alarm generated in certain quarters by the presidency of Manuel Zelaya had to do with a number of factors not often mentioned by the mainstream media. Some of the latter suggest that he wanted to organize a referendum in order to change the constitution with a view to being able to run again for the position of president (as President Àlvaro Uribe of Columbia is doing).  The truth about the referendum which was proposed is somewhat different, although disputes about it did lead to Zelaya's attempt to fire the head of the Honduran armed forces and his minister of defence. Even more alarming, to some, was the approval of an increase in the Honduran minimum wage – in a country where the wealth of a certain elite is heavily depended on sweatshop-type labour producing subcontracted goods for companies based in North America (including Gildan of Canada).  Another cause for alarm among the elite, apparently, was the appointment of Patricia Rodas to the cabinet. She is currently Minister of Foreign Affairs ("Canciller") of the Honduran Republic – but currently "in exile".

For the 31-day period covered by my Google searches for "Zelaya" and "coup OR golpe", Patricia Rodas is not mentioned at all in any of the Canadian sources that I looked at, with the exception of one occurrence in alternatives.ca. A search limited to the domain .ca yielded only five hits. By contrast, El Païs, La Jornada, Clarín, El Mercurio, La Tercera and Zmag yielded, respectively, 5, 5, 3, 2, 3 and 2 hits respectively, giving a percentage of more than 0.0% for El Mercurio (0.2% – a surprise) and Zmag (1.3%).  Patricia Rodas is thus not all that well known in the wide, wide world. But if one were to ask Roberto Micheletti, sometimes referred to as "interim president" of Honduras, what he thinks of Patricia Rodas, the answer would in all likelihood be very emotional…

Driving elected and duly appointed officials to the border at gunpoint is not a proper way to effect regime change.  Former President George W. Bush of the United States, by all accounts, committed a large number of "high crimes and misdemeanours" which would have justified the use of the procedures laid out in the U.S. Constitution in order to remove him from office, a legal process termed "impeachment".  Manuel Zelaya, for his part, was not deprived of the reins of power by a proper constitutional legal process, at least not as far as I can determine.  (I confess not to have read the Honduran constitution – which I may end up doing.)  It is probably accurate to say that Zelaya was the victim of a conspiracy among some important people, followed by a kidnapping which occurred in the middle of the night. I cannot verify to what extent everything Zelaya may have done as president was perfectly legal and squeaky-clean, but the comparison with the Bush regime in the United States is edifying. I am not aware that Zelaya lied to the Honduran Congress, that he got his country into a war on false pretences, that he instituted illegal detentions or the practice of torture, that he spied on Honduran citizens or any of those things.  His alleged wrong-doings seem more to have to do with wanting to organize a referendum and raising the minimum wage.  Returning to the comparison with the end of the Bush regime in the United States, it is certainly the case that the total amount of harm done by that government increased with every day it remained in office. Nonetheless, in spite of all the harm done by Bush and Cheney, it would have been extremely harmful for American democracy and the welfare of the entire planet if a group of senators and uniformed commandos had decided to wake them up in the middle of the night and drive them at gunpoint to the Canadian or Mexican border.  That some important Hondurans took it into their heads to do something similar is extremely unfortunate, and ought not to pass unnoticed by our media and our governments.  The Canadian government, for one, is discouragingly lukewarm in denouncing the (hopefully temporary) overthrow of proper democratic process in Hondurans and in not calling clearly for the restitution of the Honduran president. It is ironic that today, Thursday, September 24th, corresponds to the arrest, in Barcelona, of Julio Alberto Poch, a former lieutenant in the Argentinian Airforce, one of the pilots who were involved in the "death flights" ordered by a dictatorship which arrived in power by methods similar to those of the Micheletti gang.

On the other hand, we may draw some encouragement from the fact that Canada's Globe and Mail published an editorial (a couple of days before Zelaya's surprise return to Tegucigalpa) to the effect that there must be no return to the age of coups d'état and military dictatorships. To which we can only add, "Amen."


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