When is a Coup Not a “Coup”?

Today, Hondurans head to the polls for the first real elections since an illegal 2009 coup that ousted the democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya after he began strengthening ties with Hugo Chavez’s ALBA alliance. This is a momentous event for the country, which is racked by drug trade-related violence, underemployment and a generally weak culture of democracy.

According to the LA Times, the leading candidates include the wife of the deposed president, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya of the Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) party, and the general who helped orchestrate the coup, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party, who is now the “all-powerful head of Congress.”

Regardless of who wins, said analyst Leticia Salomon of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the [system of power-sharing between the Liberal and National Parties that has dominated Honduran politics for decades] will be shattered. And even if Castro doesn’t win the presidency, her party is expected to do well enough to put dozens of supporters in Congress.

Most Hondurans, however, have little faith that the election will be fair, Salomon said.

“The whole system is prepared for fraud,” she said, noting that Hernandez’s National Party dominates the electoral board and the court system that would be the venue for any appeal.

Truthout reported  allegations of vote-buying, voter intimidation, and assassinations of journalists. According to Helena Roux of Reporters Without Borders, Honduras is the most dangerous country for journalists in Latin America.

More than 30 journalists have been killed since the 2008 coup.  A Rights Action Report has documented the assassination of 18 members of the Libre Party in this election cycle, and aligned journalists have not escaped the violence.

The major media outlets have launched an all-out campaign against presidential candidate Xiomara, labeling her a communist and criminalizing members of indigenous and campesino organizations such as the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH.)

Despite this sad state of affairs, Honduras has been and remains a long-time US ally in the region, first as a partner in fighting communist and leftist governments and guerrilla forces during the 1980s, and today as a partner in the drug war.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “the United States became the single loudest voice legitimating a November 2009 election that was held in a context so problematic and laden with violence that respected election observers from the United Nations, Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center refused to monitor or support the elections.” US security assistance to Honduras has continued (estimated at $8.5 million in FY2011 and $8.2 million in FY2012) despite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, a US law stipulating that such assistance cannot be provided to governments established by coups.

The US record of ignoring its own law when it comes to coups is basically as old as the law itself. The Economist published a “non-exhaustive rundown” of some of the many instances of US continuing assistance after obvious coups back in July. While the article generally tries to rationalize the decisions to continue providing aid in contravention of the FAA, it doesn’t tackle the larger issue that I have highlighted in reference to the latest example of this kind of hypocrisy in Egypt.

Whatever you think about Lobo, Hernandez or Sisi or the geopolitical strategic merits of (dis)continuing aid to Honduras and Egypt, the point is that the nakedly self-interested decisions the US continues to make on the foreign policy front only serve to undermine the US’s credibility as a “city on a hill.” In other words, we’re setting an example that we probably wouldn’t want others to follow.

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