Monday, December 07, 2009

Cut and paste thoughts on Honduras after the election

After The New Centrist (happily back to regular blogging) and Flesh is Grass posted about Honduras from different perspectives, I made some comments that I have linked to in a previous post. The New Centrist took the time to respond to my comments in an update to a second post. I am pasting here my reply to his response, although I think they stand alone, and I have tidied up some typos and added a couple of hyperlinks. Flesh is Grass has also subsequently written another post, which I liked.

I agree that the removal of Zelaya was not a coup d’etat in the classic sense. There were significant differences between the de facto government and earlier right-wing military dictatorships on the continent, although many leftist observers rushed very quickly to impose the same descriptive frame. My instincts, having been formed in the period of Contragate, the American-backed dictatorship in El Salvador, and so on, were similar, but I held them in check, and tried to find out more about the Honduras situation before taking a view. I still cannot claim any specialist knowledge about Honduras, and still do not know which sources to trust, and everything I say here (and in previous comments) should be read as heaviliy caveated.
Nonetheless, it seems to me very clear that the Honduran constitution, like many Latin American constitutions, is a contradictory document, with lots of vague terminology and lots of scope for latitude, in dire need of reform. There is also no doubt that the changes to the constitution which Zelaya proposed might have spelled a drift towards the sort of electoral authoritarianism which we see in Venezuela. On the other hand, what was actually proposed was simply a constituent assembley, and any changes it might have legislated would have occured after Zelaya’s term was over. The present constitution has been amended some two dozen times, most of these in the last decade of democratic rule, so it is not in itself problematic to seek to further reform the constitution.

The removal of Zelaya had elements which were in line with the existing constitution and elements which contradicted it. For example, his forcible expatriation was straightforwardly unconstitutional. The subsequent suspension of constitutional rights for 45 days by the de facto government was technically constitutional, but both unnecessary and against the spirit of democracy.

A formalistic or legalistic interpretation of what counts as democracy or as constutional is, in my view, inadequate. It is inadequate for two reasons. First, the importance of interlocking forms of power and privilege – the role of oligarchy – in Honduras (as in elsewhere in Central America) undermine the integrity of the interpretations of law made by key state actors: the military, judiciary, legislature and media are in the hands of a tiny number of interrelated families. Second, it is perfectly possible to constrain genuine democracy while following the formal rule of law. The many “democratatorships” across the world, from Belorussia to Iran to Venezuela, make that clear. While the problem of Latin America in the 20th century was naked military dictatorship, its problem in the 21st is electoral authoritarianism.
There seems to be an absence of decent news reportage from Honduras. There is a severe lack of international observers. The decision of the OAS and Spain not to send observers because it would have granted legitimacy to the election was a very foolish move. I have put a certain amount of faith in NarcoNews and WW4 Report, although I recognise them as partisan. Amnesty has reported a number of the abuses that these sites mention, altho I know some people see Amnesty as partisan too. See e.g. http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=18535

For some of the more extreme claims I made, google Roger Iván Bados or Ramón García. I am not claiming that the de facto government directly assassinated these men, but as you know the oligarchy has not just the military and police at its disposal but also paramilitary and organised crime forces.
The lack of decent news makes knowing the turnout problematic – but so does the utter lack of transparency from those in power, who have still, I believe, not released a detailed breakdown of polling station results. When this sort of fudge comes from the Iranian authorities we are suspicious, and we should be here too.

Here are some of the accounts of turnout:
the nonprofit group that the TSE [Honduras' Supreme Electoral Tribunal] contracted to do exit polls, Fundación Hagamos Democracia (FHD), also disagreed with the official turnout projection of 61.3%. The FHD’s projection for turnout was about 47.6%, significantly lower than the 2005 turnout. At the Nov. 29 press conference, TSE magistrate Ortez Sequeira noted that the FHD’s exit polls were close to the TSE’s projections—except on the question of turnout. Skeptics also noted TSE president Saúl Escobar’s admission at the press conference that the electoral results were being delayed because of a technical problem in verifying the digitalized data. (El Tiempo, Nov. 30; Honduras Coup 2009 blog, Nov. 30) http://www.ww4report.com/node/8026
Election officials in Honduras on Friday revised down the participation rate in controversial weekend elections from more than 60 percent to 49 percent. http://www.france24.com/en/node/4940819
An independent group of observers estimated that the turnout number was 48 percent. “Because of a lack of serious election observation, it’s difficult to know exactly what the exact numbers are,” Daniel Altschuler, an independent political analyst in Honduras told CNN. However, a CNN calculation based on official figures provided by Supreme Electoral Tribunal spokesman Roberto Reyes Pineda shows that the actual voter turnout is 56.6 percent. http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/12/05/honduras.election.turnout/index.html

Therefore, it seems that the Frente Nacional’s claims for large-scale abstention have turned out to be false, but the rulers’ claims for increased turnout and therefore secure legitimacy for the results is also false. (The Frente Nacional claim something like 60% turnout in 2005, which appears to be false, as most sources put it at around half, i.e. similar to this election.)

18 comments:

fleshisgrass said...

Illuminating.

I know what you mean about having to hold your instincts in check - in my case it was overwhelmingly negative feelings about Chavez and his associates. Also agree that it was absolutely senseless of the international community to withdraw official election observers. I wonder what will become of the fourth ballot box on constitutional reform now. Zelaya's stated aims seemed wholly good, but the fact that he collaborated with Chavez over his opinion poll rather than his own government was populist and not even democratic in form and triggered a sequence of upheavals.

Very sad episode all round.

TNC said...

Thanks for the link, Bob. As you know I responded to your previous comments at my blog. Here are just a few quick replies to what you added here:

Regarding the imperfections of the Honduran constitution, I, like you, am not an expert on Honduras and my legal expertise is next to nil. However, it is my understanding that it is a major improvement over what was in effect before it was implemented.

If the changes desired by Zelaya were so minor, why did he face so much opposition, including from those in his own party and even those in his administration? As you note:

“The present constitution has been amended some two dozen times, most of these in the last decade of democratic rule, so it is not in itself problematic to seek to further reform the constitution.”

What matters is the content of the reform. Why were these reforms so roundly opposed by so many? Why did Zelaya have to resort to having the Venezuelan government fly in the ballots? Doesn’t that seem a bit strange? Can you understand why some (or even most) Hondurans would be concerned about that? Or do you think it was a small minority--the elite--who opposed these reforms? As you know, this is the standard Leftist perspective.

You write:

“[H]is forcible expatriation was straightforwardly unconstitutional.”

Was it? I think it was the wrong thing to do—he should have been taken to court and publicly tried for treason—but I do not know the specifics of Honduran law to know whether this was unconstitutional or not. From what I’ve read he was given the option of being held in detention or leaving the country. I have read arguments from both sides. You know which ones I find more convincing. Perhaps this is just my own political bias.

“The subsequent suspension of constitutional rights for 45 days by the de facto government was technically constitutional, but both unnecessary and against the spirit of democracy.”

The political situation in Honduras was incredibly tense before Zelaya was removed from office and that tension only increased after. A few days before Zelaya was removed, he led a group that broke into an air force installation to steal election materials (http://pensieve.aeortiz.com/2009/06/25/mel-zelaya-seizes-ballots-for-referendum/) that were housed there according to the order of the Supreme Court. These were the ballots that had been flown in from Venezuela.

And don’t forget that Hugo Chavez claimed he and other leftist government would do “whatever it takes” to defend Zelaya (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124607117649864407.html and http://www.latribuna.hn/web2.0/?p=12449) I doubt anyone in the military was afraid of an outright invasion from Venezuela but I suspect they did not discount Chavez and his allies would attempt all manner of disruptions, including acts of violence to destabilize the country.

TNC said...

Re: turnout

All of these numbers are a good deal higher than the 35% you mentioned in the comments at my blog.

The lowest number, 47.6% is higher than the number who participated in the election that placed Zelaya in power (46%).

These numbers (low 40s) are comparable to elections in the U.S. 2008 was an exception (56.8%) but here are some results for the past decade:

2008 56.8%
2006 37.1%
2004 55.3%
2002 37.0%
2000 51.3%
1998 36.4%

bob said...

The Chavista support for Zelaya, Zelaya's close association with Chavez, and the support for Zelaya in the UK from the likes of Rory Carroll: all of these are counts against the coup, which made me turn a sympathetic ear to TNC and others who supported the coup government, despite my residual leftist pro-Zelaya instincts. At the same time, the content of Zelaya's reforms, as FiG says, seemed to me overwhelmingly positive.

It seems to me that it was his social reforms, and not his constitutional reforms, that really disturbed the Honduran elite. And I think that there is evidence that a large proportion of Hondurans were for these reforms and against his removal.

“[H]is forcible expatriation was straightforwardly unconstitutional.”
I stand by this. Here's the relevant bit of Constitution:
"ARTICULO 102.- Ningún hondureño podrá ser expatriado ni entregado por las autoridades a un Estado extranjero."
http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Honduras/hond05.html

On the suspension of constitutional rights. Yes, the situation was tense. Yes, there was the spectre of Chavez. But I still think that the repression was way out of proportion, on which we will have to disagree. I also think that the extra-state violence, the assassinations and dissappearances, have to be taken alongside it.

Finally, on the turnout. The low figure I gave was my memory of the Frente Nacionale's claim; they claimed just after the election 65-70% abstention, and Zelaya claimed over 60%. The fact that they claimed such a low figure weekens their credibility in my eyes. However, the fact the de facto government quoted 60+% so quickly weakens their credibility too.

Anonymous said...

The coup regime conducted the election. The coup regime counted the votes. And the coup regime has been caught lying about the turnout. The rest is fluff.

They first claimed a 63% turnout, but now admit a figure of 49% (which will in due course probably be downgraded to around 47%). They also admit that 7% of votes cast were spoiled or blank, which brings the participation rate down to around 42% to 43%.

So on the coup regime's own figures, almost 60% of the population refused to participate in this election...

...despite the killings, the torture, the beatings, the rapes, the mass arrests, the threats by employers to sack workers who didn't vote, the bribes openly offered by the business association, the attacks on independent journalists, the armed raids and closure of anti-coup media.

This election was self-evidently neither free nor fair.

"We have a list of all those on the left", said the coup regime's chief of police, just days before the election. "We removed the head [President Zelaya] and we know everyone from A to Z".

It's really not very difficult to understand. The regime conducted a blatantly unfree and unfair election, and then fabricated the turnout figures in order to confer legitimacy on the result.

The United States knows all this but chooses to look the other way - literally in the case of two election observers from the NDI who were present when the army and police were caught on film brutally attacking a peaceful demonstration on election day.

Calvin Tucker

TNC said...

Calvin, you make a lot of assertions, but provide no evidence.

Here is what CNN had to say on Dec. 6:

http://tinyurl.com/y9uwska

"CNN analysis based on official figures shows that a majority of eligible voters cast ballots in the race. The exact number -- 56.6 percent..."

Even someone who claims, "it's an abomination that Sunday's presidential vote came without consequence for the country's coup-makers," admits:

http://tinyurl.com/y9aac8g

"Despite the relative dearth of foreign observers present to see the vote, it seems clear that Hondurans turned up in decent numbers, that the election was largely devoid of violence, and that it more or less met international standards."

So if you want to be taken seriously provide some evidence from *reputable* sources. "The Guardian" doesn't count so don't bother linking back to your own articles.

bob said...

One of Calvin's assertions was the turnout. AFP reported on 4 December that the "Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) posted figures of 49 percent participation after two thirds of votes were counted", a significant revision from its original claim (see France24 link in the main post). This news seems to have gone completely unreported by the BBC, CNN and other major news outlets. I think the TSE has until the end of the calender year to post final figures. Why is this taking so long? Should we not be suspicious of the technical problems the TSE claim have dogged their count? When Iranian officials make such claims, we are suspicious, and should be here too.

this Miami Herald report (and the Miami Herald has been broadly anti-Zelaya) gives the most balanced and useful concise account of the allegations of murder and disappearances that I have seen.

Anonymous said...

49% is the latest turnout figure announced by the coup regime, minus 7% spoiled or blank ballots.

The previous week they claimed 63%.

So what is the real figure? Who knows? The dictatorship can't seem to make its mind up and as they count the votes, everyone else is left to rely on guesswork.

What is pretty obvious is that a free and fair election is impossible when only one side is able to hold rallies, campaign, and put their points across in the media.

Human rights organisations, both inside and outside the country, have documented at least 27 murders and assassinations, 4,000 arrests, 600 beatings, numerous cases of rape and torture, and threats against anyone who called for a boycott of the poll.

The head of the business federation offered "cash discounts" to anyone who voted, whilst trade unions reported that their members were threatened with the sack if they couldn't prove they voted by showing an inked finger to their employer. This is the likely explanation for the large number of blank and spolied ballots cast.

The week before the election the chief of police boasted that he had a compiled a blacklist of "all those of the left". "We removed the head [Zelaya] and we know everyone from A to Z".

On the day of the election, peaceful protests were attacked and broken up by the army and police, and over a dozen anti-coup activists were rounded up by the regime. Others had their homes raided.

The anti-coup media has been subjected to army raids and closure, their broadcast equipment removed by soldiers or destroyed with acid, their signal cut. In one case journalists leapt from third floor windows to escape the regime's gunmen.

I personally experienced the repression when reporting from inside Honduras after the coup. In one instance I was pinned down on the open road by hooded gunmen in police uniforms, soldiers, snipers, and a military jet. I managed to leave by car under curfew, but the protesters remained trapped without food, water or shelter for three days. The following morning, the multilated corpse of a 23 year old protester was dumped at the scene. His body showed signs of torture.

Several people I interviewed during my visit were later arrested, beaten and hospitalised, including a 28 year old women and a 17 year old student. Rafael Alegria, the head of the rural workers organisation Via Campesina, was victim of an attempted assassination. During curfew, gunmen sprayed his office with bullets - I had interviewed him there precisely three weeks before.

All these abuses and killings are documented in print, photgraphs and video by Amnesty International and other human rights group.

If you wish to see links, this piece of mine contains almost twenty. Or if you have the time, do some basic research yourself.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/26/honduras-democracy-election-us

Calvin Tucker

Transpontine said...

Wake up and smell the tanks on the lawn. Just been reading the history of the coup in Chile '73. Similar arguments were made against Allende, but whatever his faults it was the military, not Popular Unity, that tortured and killed thousands of opponents. Likewise whatever Zelaya's faults it is the military and its allies that are using armed force against opponents (thankfully on a much smaller scale than in Chile). It is important to criticise the Chavezs of this world, but once you start looking to the military as the lesser evil you've lost it - it is still quite conceivable in my view that a worsening of the social crisis in Latin America could see a return to 70s style military repression.

TNC said...

"If you wish to see links, this piece of mine contains almost twenty."

I don't take anything written in the Guardian seriously. Perhaps at one time it was a reputable paper but those times have long since passed.

Transportine, the role of the military in Chile in 1973 and Honduras in 2009 is very different. In the former case, democracy was abolished and Chile was subjected to military rule. In the latter case, the military responded to the demands and control of the legislative and judicial branches of government. I'm not sure why you would equate these very different contexts.

Transpontine said...

I agree that Chile and Honduras are very different, but anyone with any knowledge of Centra/South American history can only shudder at the thought of the army returning to the stage as a political force in any context. I think it's important when (correctly) criticising current forms of authoritarian rule not to make the mistake of imagining that any alternative is better - even a military one. Military power is inherently authoritarian, and indeed is fundamentally based on the power to extinguish life. There has probably never been a military coup that hasn't claimed some higher consitutional mandate for its actions, as did the Chilean military when they murdered the clearly democratically elected president.

Anonymous said...

TNC suggests that the coup was the outcome of a constitutional process.

"the military responded to the demands and control of the legislative and judicial branches of government"

What really happened is that after masked soldiers had kidnapped the president and flown him to Costa Rica, Congress was presented with a comical resignation letter supposedly written by Zelaya, which then quickly rubber stamped the coup.

I spoke with one deputy who described to me how she and other anti-coup lawmakers were physically prevented by armed soldiers from entering the debating chamber and voting.

With the resignation letter soon exposed as a crude forgery, the coup regime came up with a new story. Zelaya, they said was removed by an order from the Supreme Court.

By the court's own admission it met in secret and failed to inform the accused of the charges or permit him a defence, i.e. there was a complete lack of due process.

Further, nowhere in the constitution does it allow for the elected president to be seized by hooded gunmen and expelled from the country. And nowhere does it permit the military to install a brutal dictatorship and murder, torture and rape people.

As for the claim that Zelaya was trying to extend his one-term only presidency, this is mere propaganda.

Zelaya had proposed holding a referendum on redrafting the constitution on the same day as a new president was elected. It was therefore logically impossible for Zelaya to have remained in office, regardless of the result.

The Honduran oligarchy certainly wished to halt Zelaya's economic reforms such as the increases in the minimum wage, free school meals etc. But the principal reason for the coup was to stop the population voting to set up a constituent assembly to draft a new democratic constitution for Honduras.

The events of the past few weeks and months has shown how important that demand is.

Calvin Tucker

bob said...

TNC - on the Guardian in particular and sources in general. The Guardian published Comrade Tucker's piece in CiF and not in the news section, so there is a different standard applied. His piece links to a number of sources, of different statuses. No claim is made without a source. The issue therefore is the reliability of each source. For example, COFADEH is heavily cited (not by Calvin but) for their documentation of state and extra-state terror in Honduras. I have not seen anyone deny their reliability as a source. If they are a reliable source, then CT's characterisation of the situation in Honduras as "murder, torture and rape" is correct.

I have criticisms of The Guardian, and especially of its CiF website. But I think it is somewhat OTT to say "I don't take anything written in the Guardian seriously". As a provider of news (as opposed to comment) I do not think there are really any serious questions about it. It may focus on some topics and ignore others but I don't think it tells lies.

TNC said...

Transportine writes:

"[A]nyone with any knowledge of Centra/South American history can only shudder at the thought of the army returning to the stage as a political force in any context."

Well, as someone with some knowledge of Latin American history I happen to disagree with you. When the military acts under the command of the legislative and judicial branches, this represents a major break with the tradition of caudillismo in the region.

"There has probably never been a military coup that hasn't claimed some higher consitutional mandate for its actions, as did the Chilean military when they murdered the clearly democratically elected president."

It isn't just about a "higher constitutional mandate" but about who commands the military. Is the military acting in what it perceives to be its own interest--thereby subverting democracy--or is it acting according to the demands of the institutions of a democratic government? That's a huge difference there.

BTW, Allende killed himself:

http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/17/world/leftist-journal-concludes-allende-killed-himself.html

Bob writes:

"But I think it is somewhat OTT to say "I don't take anything written in the Guardian seriously". As a provider of news (as opposed to comment) I do not think there are really any serious questions about it."

Some people don't take anything stated by Fox News seriously either b/c they do not consider it a reputable source. I think the same of "The Guardian". It's a shame as it used to be a decent paper.

The links to CNN and Foreign Policy in the comment above were provided to show even those who can not remotely be considered friends of the interim government agree with the position I am taking. Whereas the sources linked in Tucker's piece are totally in the tank for Zelaya (Narco News, 21st Century Socialism, etc. etc. etc.).

Transpontine said...

Maybe Allende did kill himself, thought that hardly lets the military off the hook when they were staging an armed assault, including air attacks, on the presidential palace at the time. What is beyond dispute is that many others were tortured and murdered.

If the situation in Honduras was simply that a head of state had broken the law, wouldn't the normal course of events be for the police to arrest him? When Clinton was impeached would it have been expected for masked soldiers to bundle him out of the country? I just don't buy the line that the military on Honduras were engagad in normal democratic politics (accepting that such an 'ideal type' may not actually exist.

TNC said...

Transportine writes:

"Maybe Allende did kill himself, thought that hardly lets the military off the hook when they were staging an armed assault, including air attacks, on the presidential palace at the time. What is beyond dispute is that many others were tortured and murdered."

Totally agree with you. My main criticism was your comparison of the situation in Honduras to the situation in Chile and I pointed out the circumstances are very different. In one case (Chile) you have the military seizing power and operating against the demands of the elected government and in the other (Honduras) you have the military acting according to the demands of the legislative and judicial branches of government, not seizing power.

"If the situation in Honduras was simply that a head of state had broken the law, wouldn't the normal course of events be for the police to arrest him?"

According to what I have read, they gave him two options:

1) Go to jail
2) Leave the country

He chose option #2. As I mention in my blog post that Bob so kindly linked to, I think it would have been preferable for Zelaya to have been locked up and tried publicly for treason.

Anonymous said...

you have the military acting according to the demands of the legislative and judicial branches of government, not seizing power ~ TNC

Repeating yourself whilst refusing to engage with the facts that disprove your argument makes this debate almost pointless.

1. Congress met after the masked soldiers had seized the elected president and expelled him from the country.

2. Members of congress who opposed the coup were physically prevented by armed soldiers from participating in the debate and voting.

3. The coup leaders forged a resignation letter from President Zelaya, and Congress voted to accept this forgery.

4. When the forgery was exposed, the Supreme Court claimed the military were acting on their orders.

5. On the court's own admission it met in secret and failed to inform the accused of the charges or permit him a defence, i.e. there was a complete lack of due process.

6. Anti-coup media has been closed down, harrassed, raided, shot at. Their broadcast equipment has been confiscated or destroyed with acid. Journalists live in fear of their lives. In one case radio presenters leapt from third floor windows to escape the soldiers.

7. There have been day and night time curfews, 4,000 arrests, 600 beatings, torture, rape, and with this weeks fresh killings at least 33 assassinations. The latest killings include the leader of the Lesbian and Gay community who ignored threats from the regime's hooded gunmen to leave the country, and a transgender youth who was castrated and decapitated.

8. The elected president remains imprisoned in the Brazilian embassy.

9. The coup regime conducted a blatantly unfree and unfair election, and then lied about the turnout figure to confer legitimacy on the result.

10. Citizens were bribed to vote with cash discounts, and threatened with the sack if they didn't show an inked finger to prove they had voted.

11. The chief of police boasted a week before the election that he had compiled a blacklist of "all those on the left".

12. It's a coup. Obviously.

Calvin Tucker

Anonymous said...

My Guardian Cif piece was based on fully sourced and checkable facts.

It contained links from the following:-

1. Guardian news reports

2. The World Food Programme

3. Human rights organisations, including COFEDEH and Amnesty International

4. CNN

5. The OAS

6. The US State Department

7. Wikipedia

8. The South Atlatic news agency, Mercopress

9. Narconews

10. 21st Century Socialism

As you can see, the only non-mainstream websites linked to were Narconews and my own website 21st Century Socialism.

In the case of Narconews, the link was to a transcript of a speech by Barack Obama - the political bias of the media outlet is therefore irrelevant.

In the case of 21st Century Socialism, there were two links.

The first was a short report on the cash discounts being offered to voters - and included an in-context quote from Adolfo Facusse, a key figure in the coup regime and head of the business federation: "Those with a painted finger will have an automatic discount on any purchases made anywhere in the country"
http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/honduras_bosses_offer_to_pay_people_to_vote_01910.html
Unless TNC is questioning the fact of the cash discounts being offered (a difficult task given that I merely reported what Facusse said), it's hard to see what he is complaining about.

The second was my eyewitness report of the day I was pinned down on the open road by hooded gunmen, soldiers, police, snipers and a military jet - which including photos and an excerpt from the two hour long live audio recording I made at the scene. [WARNING: graphic photo of a deceased torture victim}
http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/honduras_the_hooded_face_of_dictatorship_01870.html

It would have been odd for me to report from inside Honduras and then not refer to my own experiences in a comment piece. Unless TNC is suggesting that I staged an elaborate hoax, I fail to see his point. Further, the events I reported are confirmed by several other sources (incl Mexican TV), audio recordings and photographic evidence. My report is also consistent with those of human rights organisations.

TNC has an utterly bizarre disregard for the facts which demolish his case.

He cites CNN's report that the election turnout was 56.6%, which according to CNN itself was based on the official figures given at the time.

And then he completely ignores the fact that the coup regime itself later admitted that turnout was less than 50%.

Calvin Tucker