What Are the Real Threats to Democracy in the Americas?  A Honduran Constitutional Convention and the New Cold War of the U.S.A.

On March 10, the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing to chart the course of their agenda in the Western Hemisphere over the coming year.

On March 12-15, the National Popular Resistance Front in Honduras (FNRP) held a national meeting to pave the way for a Honduran Constitutional Convention, even in the wake of last June’s military coup and constant killings of FNRP activists.

What does a meeting in Washington, of men who influence or control the strongest military and covert operations network in the world, have to do with a meeting of a non-violent social justice movement made up of campesinos, indigenous and impoverished peoples who have throughout the history of their nation been denied their fundamental democratic right to have a voice in the policies of their nation?  Everything.

The Cast of Characters on the Hill in Washington

In a House of Representatives hearing room, a crowd of about two hundred people, mostly congressional staffers with a scattering of Latin American ambassadors, press, lobbyists, and NGO observers gathered to watch as three, and at times four, congressmen voiced their opinions and listened to the testimony of the new Deputy Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Valenzuela, and three “independent experts” including former State Department official and “consultant” Otto Reich.

What emerged was a disturbing portrait of the foreign policy agenda that the pundits of big business are selling to US policy makers and the press.

Their new “Axis of Evil” consists of a growing partnership between Iran and the Venezuela-Ecuador-Nicaragua alliance, which is “gaining influence” on other nations in the U.S.’s “Front Yard” (they carefully avoided saying “backyard”), even with key regional partners like Brazil.

Honduras plays a big role in this drama as the “brave little nation” that “stood up to Chavez” by pulling their elected president out of bed at gunpoint and sending him into exile.

The problem with this narrative is that it completely distorts reality in order to advance the interests of transnational corporations.

Déjà vu?  Yes, you have been there before.  They are trying to relive the “cold war” in Latin America, the good old days when the so-called National Security Doctrine provided the cover necessary to topple governments, and torture and massacre anyone who attempted to defend their fundamental rights when those rights got in the way of economic interests.  In Central America alone it cost about 400,000 lives in the 1970s and 80s.

This is not to say that every congressperson on the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives buys this argument or is advancing it, but the complete absence of a voice to clearly contradict this very dangerous narrative is frightening.

Constitutional Changes in Latin America

The ludicrous argument advanced in favor of militarily tossing Honduras’ elected president onto an airstrip in Costa Rica is that the army was “defending the constitution.”

The line being spun in Washington, repeated in the March 10 hearing, is that the drafting of new constitutions in the region is part of a trend (or “Cuban-backed conspiracy,” depending who is speaking) in which “populist” governments get themselves elected then “take down democracy from within” by rewriting constitutions to allow themselves to be reelected.

Yes, constitutions are being rewritten in Latin America, as they have been constantly through history.  Constitutional law in Latin America is just not the same as in the United States, just as the charters of nations in Europe are different.

In Latin America, constitutional law is an evolving body of law that reflects the changing political context, at times progressive, promoting a growing body of human rights and democratic principles, and at times restrictive, limiting rights and debilitating democratic governance.  Honduras has had sixteen constitutions, El Salvador fifteen, and Guatemala ten.

This year the Dominican Republic adopted a new constitution, last year Bolivia did, and the year before Ecuador.  Venezuela’s new constitution was adopted in 1999.  These are the countries which have been breaking with transnational business, re-nationalizing resources that over the past decades had been privatized, and in the process straining relations with the United States and Canada.

Though much focus has been placed on presidential term limits, changes to term limit restrictions are not what has differentiated the newest constitutions.  Term limit changes have occurred in the region through amendments to the constitutions, like the 2007 amendment in Venezuela and 2005 amendment in Colombia.

What does distinguish this new generation of constitutions is a strong focus on defending social and economic rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, collective rights, promoting national control over natural resources and strategic industries and services.

Massive Demand for a New Constitution in Honduras

The Honduran National Popular Resistance Front is a massive and mobilized movement.  It has representatives from almost every village, town, and neighborhood in Honduras and has sustained massive protests, at times of around 500,000 people, since the June 28, 2009 coup.  Their demand is a truly representative Constitutional Convention.

The proposal for the drafting of a new constitution in Honduras was not new; it had appeared in previous administrations.  Zelaya had no intention of extending his presidency.

The proposal was to hold a national survey in the form of a balloting process asking if Hondurans wanted a chance to vote, in a non-binding poll during the November 27, 2009 presidential elections, voicing their opinion on whether it would be a good idea to host a constitutional convention.  Then, if the new congress had decided to call a constitutional convention, Zelaya would already have turned over the presidency to the newly elected president.

What scared the established power structures in Honduras, and the Washington pundits who represent their interests, was not changes to term limits; it was the fact that the call for the new constitution was coming from a massive, broad alliance of social movements, and that their demands were centered around the need for a constitution that would protect Honduran national assets, natural resources, telephone and electric systems, against privatization, and possibly even facilitate nationalization of concessions already granted, for instance mining concessions that are destroying the lives of communities surrounding mines.

But it appears that not even a military coup, and not even massive violent repression that has claimed anywhere from a couple dozen victims to a couple hundred victims, depending on the source, is able to stop the Honduran people from demanding a new constitution, a new charter for their nation.

March 12 through 15, hundreds of representatives of organizations of indigenous peoples, campesinos, academics, unionists, feminists, artists, lawyers, gathered in La Esperanza, Honduras, bringing their own blankets and food, to create proposals for a Constitutional Convention that will take into account the demands of the population.

This proposal is not a communist or Islamic ploy.  It does not come from hatred of the United States.  It is the natural, logical fruit of decades of work to build up real forces for democracy, organizations of people who are interested in defending their own fundamental human rights.

The Honduran people have seen that the constitutional framework that was put in place by a U.S.-backed, military-dominated government in 1981 is not sufficient to guarantee those rights.

From the “Cold War” to the “War on Terrorism”

Now that there is no cold war, it just is not good PR to declare an open war on indigenous and campesino communities.  So the spin doctors have focused on demonizing the figure of Hugo Chavez and the “danger” that his leadership in the region presents.

In Wednesday’s March 10 hearing, the demand to have Venezuela added to the list of nations that support terrorism was often repeated and Assistant Secretary Velenzuela was questioned about Chavez’s ties to “terrorist” organizations, in addition to the FARC.

It might seem logical that a neighboring nation be interested in facilitating an end to the decades-long conflict in Colombia, and that Chavez’s efforts to help facilitate the release of those held by the FARC might seem like progress in that direction.  Instead, the efforts have been met with anger and accusations of support for the FARC, mostly stemming from supposed information contained in a computer captured during the Colombian military’s illegal raid into Ecuadoran territory.

Given the Colombian military’s history of disinformation (an example — the “false positives” — kidnapping and killing youth, then carrying their bodies across the country to present them as combat casualties of the FARC), it is hard to understand how anyone can possibly lend credence to this kind of evidence, unless they have a very concrete interest at stake.

Valenzuela alluded to information he couldn’t share in “open session,” but Otto Reich pointed out recent press reports linking Venezuela with support for ETA in Spain.

The following day, March 12, the Commander of the U.S. Southern Command testified before the U.S. Senate that he had not seen any verifiable connections between the Venezuelan government and ETA.

Another possibility was discussed in an October 2009 joint hearing of three International Relations subcommittees on the growing influence of Iran, and the Hezbollah, in Latin America.  Granted the U.S. history with Iran and Iraq is complicated, to put it politely, and this isn’t the first time it is becoming entangled with Latin America (Iran Contra Affair), and yes these are serious issues, but the actors and interests involved have a long history of lying to the public for their own purposes; this is worth its own article.

From Genocide to Emerging Markets

What has changed from the “cold war” to the “war on terrorism,” slightly, is not the cast of characters, there are only a few new faces, but the sectors at stake.  While the economic interests that cloaked themselves in the cold war ideology tended to be principally about controlling land and agricultural production (and of course the governments) and even oil, they have moved on to set their sights on consolidating control of energy, mining, and telecommunications, industries that during the cold war were largely owned by the State and strategically important to maintain the repressive military regimes.

In Central America, in the late 1980s, the same powers behind the military regimes that so brutally destroyed democracies and violently crushed the social organizations that must flourish in any authentic democracy (unions, churches, student movements, indigenous movements) also set up the skeletal structures that could officially be categorized as “democracies” (new constitutions, elections, civilian governments).

In the 1990s and 2000s, under the new “democratic” orders, communities struggled to piece themselves back together.  They worked incredibly hard to found and build a new generation of social organizations from the ground up; and human rights organizations and a few judges and prosecuting attorneys with incredible courage confronted the death squad networks, which, still active, were transforming (or unveiling) themselves into organized crime.

At the same time, the backers of those military regimes, who also controlled the “democratization” process, went to work securing their interests.  First on the agenda was land.  A wave of legislation across the region destroyed legal mechanisms that secured the possibility of collectively owned land; its impact resonated loudest in Mexico where the change of article 27 of the Constitution, which destroyed the Ejido system, was an important factor in the Zapatista movement.

In Honduras, that same international land agenda hit hard.  In 1992, changes to Honduras’ agrarian reform legislation made it possible for land acquired through the agrarian reform program to then be resold.  This allowed the powerful Honduran businessman, Miguel Facusse, to become one of the largest landowners in Central America through the use of paramilitary violence to intimidate cooperatives into selling and to acquire land for the purpose of reselling it to him.

The Telecom, Energy, and Mining Tsunami

In the mid 1990s the wave of privatization of energy, mining, and telecommunications sectors hit.  Laws rewritten by advisers from the Inter- American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, with direct participation by mining and energy companies, allowed billions and billions of dollars worth of assets of Latin American nations to be sold off.

Free trade initiatives were, and are (a Panama-Colombia free trade agreement was universally lauded in the March 10th hearing), promoted to guarantee the security of transnational investment — obligating governments to pay massive indemnity for lost property and “future profits” should they decide to reverse the privatizations, or “expropriate.”

Somehow the Honduran national telecommunications and energy sectors managed to fend off much of the privatization feeding frenzy, but as a saying goes, their wealth proved to be their curse, and their enticing national assets drew the attention of corporate interests.

Enter Otto Reich, and his colleagues.

Who Is Otto Reich?

Let’s check the program, or the Otto Reich Associates web site.  After working in USAID from 1981 to 1983, he went on to work for the State Department until his post as US Ambassador to Venezuela ended in 1989.  From 1989 to 2001 he went into the private sector “advising clients on international government relations, market access and strategic planning.”

In 2001 President Bush named him Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, the post which he held during the failed April 11, 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.  Later in 2002, he became special Envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, reporting to Condoleezza Rice in the National Security Council.

He left government service in June 2004, shortly after the February 2004 coup, backed by the U.S., France, and Canada, ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Since June 2004, he returned to his work as a consultant to multinational corporations, but doing what?  He advises corporations on developing defensive political strategy to “reduce expropriation exposure,” identifying and securing foreign investment and privatization opportunities in Latin America, and provides “non-litigious resolution involving commercial and investment disputes for major US corporations which had exhausted the judicial process.”

So how does he do this?  His web site is full of photos of himself with Bush administration officials and John McCain.  It is influence he is selling.

His name constantly surfaced in reports surrounding the coup in Honduras, especially related to a “corruption” scandal in the state-owned telephone company Hondutel, a scandal that has provided political cover for coup.  He was reported to make frequent trips and regularly consult with key figures around the coup.  And let’s face it, there was a marked rise in the incidence of presidents being forced into airplanes during his last stint in the State Department.

Who are his clients?  Past clients include AT&T, Verizon, Mobil Oil, Lockheed Martin, among others.  But his page notes that he will not disclose current clients.

These “experts” that testify in Congress, and, well, probably the Congress members themselves, should wear racecar driver-style jumpsuits that clue us in to their sponsors.

Denouncing Corruption?

Otto Reich’s name first came up in association with the Honduran coup because of an association he maintains with a non-profit foundation in Washington, DC, the Arcadia Foundation, which according to a Mexican newspaper report, later picked up by Honduran press in 2007, released an enigmatic report with accusations of corruption against Zelaya administration Hondutel executives.  Though former Hondutel executives are now being imprisoned, the Honduran judicial system has been so clearly corrupt during and after the coup that the possibility of fair trails seems remote.

Last week, Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, the Honduran General who materially and intellectually authored the June 28, 2009 coup (and who, over a decade ago, was jailed for participation in an organized crime network for auto theft), was named head of the national telephone company Hondutel; some of Otto Reich former (and current?) clients might have a better chance at buying up the company.

A refreshing highlight of the hearing was the guest performance of Rep. Dan Burton (of the Helms-Burton Act), who stopped by to throw in a pitch for helping 14 U.S. businesses which had been “de facto expropriated” in Honduras recover their money, like, as he pointed out, he had been able to do for companies that had invested in Nicaragua.  The only company he bothered to name was a cement company that — previous to Zelaya’s election in 2005 — was forced out of the Honduran market.

At least Burton’s agenda is out in the open.  A race car jumpsuit is in order for him not only for his current corporate “clients,” but also because he was involved in a 1995 scandal in which he was accused of demanding a $5,000 contribution from a lobbyist for the government of Pakistan, and threatening the lobbyist to make sure none of his friends or colleagues would meet with him if he didn’t come up with the money.

The most vocal fan of the Honduran coup was Minority Chair Connie Mack of South Florida.  His district alone gives some clues to where his backing comes from.

Threats to Democracy in the United States?

Ok, so which is a greater threat to democracy in the United States and the Americas: indigenous communities, thousands of miles from the U.S., attempting, for the first time in recent history, to charter the course for their nation; or American lobbyists and public servants willing to distort reality to serve the interests of the highest bidder, even if that means dragging the U.S. into conflicts that in no way benefit its citizens?

PS — Come out on March 20th to ANSWER Coalition marches to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Annie Bird is a co-director of Rights Action.

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