Last Sunday, the Honduran military junta issued a decree suspending civil rights, banning unauthorized assembly and giving the police unlimited powers of arrest. At the same time, coup leader Roberto Micheletti threatened military action against the Brazilian embassy, where elected president Manuel Zelaya has taken refuge.
In 1982, during a decades-long, US-backed reign of terror in which millions of Latin Americans were murdered, tortured and “disappeared,” a brutal right-wing regime imposed a constitution on Honduras that, according to reformers, favours the rights of foreign corporations over local citizens. In 2009, Hondurans set out to rewrite that constitution.
Under Zelaya’s leadership, the Honduran people were moving toward a constitutional referendum that may have created a citizens’ assembly to work toward a reformed constitution. On June 28, President Zelaya was driven from the country by opponents of the referendum. He secretly returned this month, under Brazil’s protection.
While the Organization of American States was swift to condemn the junta, Canada’s reaction was slow and tepid.
Several days after Zelaya was whisked from the country in the dead of night, Minister of State for the Americas Peter Kent declared Canada’s opposition to the coup, but called on all parties to “show restraint and to seek a peaceful resolution.”
What does this mean? In what way and to what extent should an elected government “show restraint” when hijacked by a military coup? How can democracy be peacefully resolved with fascism? When a neighbouring state and significant trading partner is the subject of an illegal coup, why does Canada’s response come from a junior cabinet minister? Why does the prime minister not wholeheartedly condemn the junta?
White House reaction to the coup has been stronger than Canada’s, but still falls short of what might reasonably be expected: a demand for an immediate return to democracy backed by diplomatic pressure, the threat of sanctions, and a gentle rattling of the American saber. Why do these two powerful nations, who will send troops halfway round the world to protect what is laughably called democracy in Afghanistan, all but ignore a fascist junta in their own backyard?
A piece of the answer lies in Honduras’s Sirian Valley, where sits the San Martin gold mine, property of Canadian mining giant Goldcorp. The mine has been the subject of protests, blockades and court action for its abuse of water resources in this agricultural region. It has inspired - and ignored - a local referendum banning mining in the area. Zelaya’s proposed reforms would include protection for farmers’ land and water rights, as well as a national minimum wage.
San Martin is only one example of the conflict between the interests of powerful Canadian and American corporations and those of the Honduran people. Zelaya was dumped from power because his democratic reforms represented a threat to billions of dollars in profits.
The Micheletti “provisional government” has many of the earmarks of an 80s-style, Reagan-backed military junta. Police brutally repress protests, shut down media outlets that support democracy, suppress unions and farmers’ rights groups, and haul journalists and opponents of the regime off to secret service prisons.
Particularly sinister is the appointment of Billy Fernando Joya Amendola, the notorious “Billy Joya” to the post of security chief. During the 1980s, Joya was a member of Battalion 3/16, a CIA-trained military death squad responsible for numerous cases of murder, illegal detention and torture.
The Honduran people have resisted the coup, and with Zelaya back in the country, cracks are beginning to show in the military/political/corporate alliance. Politicians who support the junta have voiced opposition to the latest round of suspended civil rights, and a group of influential businessmen has offered Zelaya an olive branch, in the way of a “compromise solution.”
The proposed compromise would bring Zelaya back to the appearance of power, while the presence of foreign troops from right-wing enclaves like Peru and Canada would protect corporate interests. Zelaya is said to be “encouraged” by the fact the business elite is willing to negotiate.
Circumstances have changed since 1973, when Augusto Pinochet’s troops assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende in a CIA-backed coup. The past months in Honduras have been bloody, with at least 10 assassinations reported so far, and hundreds of arbitrary arrests, but they don’t yet begin to compare with Pinochet’s bloodbath.
Still, the forces at work are much the same. The poor demand a decent life; the rich demand the right to get richer. Democratically elected governments are deposed by fascist bullies. Foreign interests mouth support for democracy but give their real support to fascism, or at best, to a compromise between fascism and democracy.
Canada’s tacit support for the suppression of democracy in Honduras is unconscionable. To send troops to “keep the peace” between a democratically elected government and a military coup would be criminal - though hardly unprecedented, as witness Haiti.
It should sound unlikely that a democracy like Canada would offer to send troops on such a mission, but sadly it doesn’t.
Ask Stephen Harper how far he’s willing to go to support Canadian corporate interests abroad, and don’t be surprised if the answer is, “Just watch me.”
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.