CENTRAL AMERICA: Shades of Coups Past - And Yet to Come?

By Raúl Gutiérrez,, July 17, 2009

SAN SALVADOR, Jul 17 (IPS) - If the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti remains in power in Honduras, the Central American right may be encouraged to stage further coups against the fragile democracies that have emerged in the region over the last two decades, analysts warn.

The forces of democracy and the international community must continue to exert pressure to reestablish the constitutional order and enable ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, whose term ends in January, to return to office, experts from different countries in the region told IPS.

Ernesto Rivas Gallont, former Salvadoran ambassador in Washington from 1981 to 1989, says the Honduran civic-military coup will have profound implications for several Central American countries if Micheletti's grip on power is consolidated.

"If those who perpetrated the coup prevail in Honduras, there is no doubt that it will embolden the Central American right," the former diplomat told IPS.

"It's hard to admit, but (Fidel) Castro and (Hugo) Chávez are right" to fear that if the coup-mongers consolidate their power, "a series of coups d'état could be unleashed against governments in the region," Rivas Gallont wrote in his blog, referring to statements by the former Cuban president and the Venezuelan president in early July.

"It is only too obvious that the coup has exacerbated differences between left and right, and not just in Honduras," he said.

Zelaya was taken at gunpoint from his house in his pajamas by about 200 troops in the early hours of Jun. 28 and put on an air force plane to Costa Rica. The coup d'état was engineered by the Honduran military, the leadership of the two traditional political parties, and big business.

The ousting of the president came after weeks of political arm-wrestling over the Zelaya administration's plans to hold a non-binding popular vote on constitutional reform on that very day. But analysts say Zelaya was overthrown because of some of his social policies, and his alignment with more radical leftwing governments in Latin America.

The "survey," as Zelaya called it, which could not be legally held because plebiscites and referendums are banned in an election year, would have asked people whether they were in favour or against creating a constituent assembly to amend the country's constitution. Had the "Yes" vote won, assembly delegates would have been elected in the Nov. 29 presidential, parliamentary and local elections.

Pro-coup sectors say Zelaya wanted constitutional reform in order to seek reelection, prohibited by the Honduran constitution, in order to stay in power. The ousted president says that was never his intention, nor was it mentioned in the survey question.

Micheletti, who led the political movement for the military overthrow of the democratic government as former president of Congress, says he will not bow to international pressure. Today he is the interim president of a government that has not been recognised by a single country and has been universally condemned.

The United Nations, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the European Union, the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), among others, have all condemned the coup in Honduras and vigorously demanded Zelaya's reinstatement as the constitutional president.

In contrast, and in spite of these strong pronouncements, only "the Central American right has justified the coup, using Chávez as a pretext," IPS sources said.

For instance, they said, rightwing sectors in El Salvador have recently been supplanted in government after decades in power by the formerly-guerrilla leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). "They may be tempted to carry out actions similar to what happened in Honduras, of the kind that have marked our history," they warned.

The rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which governed El Salvador from 1989 up to June this year, and is now in opposition, deplored Zelaya's "exile" but did not condemn the coup.

"It is also true that President Zelaya committed serious constitutional violations that led other state bodies" to remove him from office, says a paid ad by ARENA published in the Salvadoran media in early July.

The ad also urges Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes to "refrain" from interfering in the Honduran crisis, arguing that "it could affect relations between the two countries."

The Funes administration issued an immediate condemnation of the coup, and two days later at a SICA meeting in Managua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua agreed to close their borders with Honduras for 48 hours Jul. 1-2, as a way of exerting pressure on the de facto Micheletti government.

SICA is made up of all the Central American countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The Dominican Republic is an associate member.

Funes also hosted Presidents Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Zelaya, as well as U.N. General Assembly president Miguel d'Escoto and OAS Secretary-General Miguel Insulza, who waited in San Salvador in solidarity with Zelaya during his failed Jul. 4 attempt to return to Honduras.

Some members of the business community, political leaders and columnists for conservative Salvadoran media outlets have said Funes should learn from what has happened in Honduras, and not attempt to introduce constitutional reforms like Zelaya's.

Salvadoran analyst Leonel Gómez agreed with Rivas Gallont that events in Honduras could lead to more coups against democracies in the region.

"The danger here is that it might motivate other forces to perpetrate other coups d'état like the one in Honduras," said Gómez, who has participated in investigations of corruption and the supply of funds to dictatorships in the region with U.S. Democratic lawmakers Patrick Leahy and the late Joe Moakley.

The expert said that some Guatemalan military officers "would be delighted to receive orders to do the same thing" as their Honduran colleagues.

Centre-left Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom publicly denied that a military coup was being plotted in his country, after Chávez warned of the danger of an overthrow attempt. But Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú said vested economic interests in Guatemala could be planning to undermine the rule of law.

Recalling that in the past U.S. governments have "written dark chapters in the history of Central America" through their support for military dictatorships and coups d'état, Gómez urged the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to "act with greater firmness and in accordance with its principles."

The day after Zelaya was deposed, Obama said "the coup was not legal" and that Zelaya "remains the democratically elected president" of Honduras.

With the exception of Costa Rica, the countries of Central America were governed by military regimes during most of the 20th century. In most cases these regimes were imposed by powerful economic interests in collusion with conservative politicians and with assistance or direct intervention by the United States.

In the 1980s and 1990s civil wars broke out between leftwing guerrillas and the armed forces.

According to historians, Costa Rica escaped the general trend largely because of the abolition of the army, announced by then president José Figueres (1948-1949, 1953-1958, 1970-1974) on Dec. 1, 1948. The measure came into force in 1949, in spite of an attempted military coup to prevent it.

Meanwhile in Honduras pro-Zelaya protesters are blocking highways, the curfew has been reimposed, and talks in Costa Rica between Micheletti's and Zelaya's envoys, mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, are in a deadlock.

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