Blase Bonpane Speaks on Honduras Coup
Details U.S.’s Long Line of Abuses Against Latin America
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Not everyone who’s invited to give a lecture begins it by singing a song. But that’s what Blase Bonpane did at the start of his talk on the recent military coup in Honduras and U.S. relations towards Latin America in general at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest September 8. Bonpane, a former Maryknoll missionary and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and California State University, Northridge, currently directs a grass-roots organization called the Office of the Americas — its name a pun on the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, at which the U.S. trains leaders of Latin American militaries in repression, torture and subverting democracy. (After a decades-long campaign by activists, including Bonpane, demanding the closure of the School of the Americas, the U.S. government changed its name to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.)
The song Bonpane sang was “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” an old folk hymn in which the “strangest dream” is that the leaders of all the nations in the world gathered together and signed a treaty “to put the end to war.” He said he first heard the song in 1965, at a demonstration outside the White House calling for an end to the Viet Nam war — at a time when that was a highly radical and dangerous position. He’s been a peace activist ever since, specializing in Central and South America ever since the government of Guatemala expelled him in 1967 for attempting to organize the peasants to challenge the authority of big landowners and the country’s establishment in general.
Once the singing stopped, Bonpane reviewed the U.S. history of intervention in Honduras, and Latin America in general. “In 1903 the U.S. Marines invaded Honduras to protect business interests,” he noted. “In 19067 a Nicaraguan president named Zelaya [the same name as the Honduran president recently deposed by his country’s military] tried to bring in Japanese interests to put a canal across his country [to compete with the U.S.-owned Panama Canal] and we overthrew him and invaded Honduras to use it as a staging ground. In 1912 the U.S. invaded Honduras again and put a mercenary leader in charge of the Honduran military. In 1919 we intervened to affect the results of an election, and in 1924-25 we did it again.”
More recently, Bonpane said, the Reagan administration used Honduras as a training center and base camp for the Right-wing contra rebels against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua (as the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had trained the anti-Castro Bay of Pigs fighters in Honduras over 20 years before). The contras, Bonpane said, were ordered “not to attack the Nicaraguan military, but to attack schools and hospitals. In the 1980’s the U.S. spent $2 billion to support the contras, much of it from under-the-table arms sales to Iran, and moved 75,000 troops into Honduras. We are still there today. All Honduran military officers above the rank of captain are trained at the School of the Americas.”
Bonpane said he could identify with deposed Honduran president Miguel Zelaya because he too had an experience with the Honduran military that showed its unveiled contempt for the country’s civilian government. It happened in the mid-1980’s, when he was leading a march across Central America to protest U.S. support for the contras. “The Honduran foreign minister gave us permission to cross into Honduras,” Bonpane recalled. “But the military officers stopped us at the border, and when I told them the foreign minister had given us permission to cross and showed them the foreign minister’s letter, the officers said, ‘We don’t give a damn what the foreign minister says. We’re the military!’”
And, Bonpane added, we shouldn’t think that the U.S. president is any more secure in his office, or has any more real power over the U.S. military, than his counterparts in Latin America. He said that when John F. Kennedy became president and found out about the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, “he was somewhat shocked … to get the information that things were being done that he didn’t know about. He said he was going to break the CIA into a thousand pieces — and he didn’t live very long after that.” More recently, he said that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez — the leader the U.S. currently considers the fount of everything evil in Central and South America — met President Obama at the Organization of American States (OAS) summit in Trinidad-Tobago, “Chávez’s last question to Obama was, ‘Are you a prisoner?’”
Chávez ought to know. He himself was the victim of an attempted coup in 2002 by Venezuelan military officers, opposition politicians and corporate leaders anxious to get rid of him and restore Venezuela’s traditional elites to power. Like Zelaya, Chávez was forced to fly out of the country — only he returned two days later after his palace guard, backed by mass public demonstrations against the coup, pushed back the rest of the Venezuelan military and got him back in the country. The 2002 coup against Chávez was immediately supported by the U.S. — the Bush administration recognized the coup government, something no other country in the world did — and though Obama’s reaction to the Honduras coup has been more uncertain and vacillating, he’s sure that the coup couldn’t have happened without assurances of U.S. support.
Once upon a time, the U.S. could count on the OAS — which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. — to be its puppet. In 1962, at the insistence of the U.S., the OAS expelled Cuba from membership — a decision reversed only last June, on the motion of Honduran president Zelaya three months before he was thrown out of office. (Cuba chose not to rejoin.) When Zelaya was overthrown, Bonpane said, “The OAS made a unanimous motion to condemn the coup.” Then the vacillation began; instead of demanding that the Honduran military and the rump president they had installed, congressional leader Roberto Micheletti, give up power and allow Zelaya’s return immediately, the U.S. asked Costa Rican president Roberto Arias to “mediate” the situation. According to Bonpane, asking Arias to “mediate” the Honduran coup is like asking someone to “mediate” between the person whose car has just been stolen and the thief.
Bonpane pointed out that Obama was even reluctant to call the coup in Honduras a coup. The reason, he explained, is that U.S. law requires that U.S. financial aid be cut off immediately to any country where a coup has replaced a democratically elected government. “There were two military coups last year in countries receiving money from us; Madagascar and Mauritania,” Bonpane said. “In both cases, the U.S. cut off the money within days.” In Honduras, by contrast, the U.S. pulled its $32 million per year in aid only after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had authorized over $160 million in immediate credits for Honduras — and that, too, he argued, is something that, given the IMF’s dependence on U.S. administration and funding, also couldn’t have happened without the U.S. government’s O.K.
According to Bonpane, the U.S.’s consistent unwillingness to support Latin American democracies against military coups stems from two factors: this country’s belief that it is above international law, and the extent to which the military has taken over. “We’ve gone from a president we thought was stupid to one we thought was smart — and the same policies continue,” he said. He also noted that the open repression being practiced by the military in Colombia against not only guerrilla groups and drug cartels but union leaders and nonviolent activists, called “Plan Colombia” and imposed and financed by the U.S., is being upheld as a model for what the U.S. military should be doing to “win” the war in Afghanistan.
“I think there’s a certain psychosis when you’re dealing with power,” Bonpane said. “Power doesn’t use logic; it believes in its own divine right. Imperialism says we do what we want. Every country in Latin America where we slaughtered people has chosen the other way” — a reference to the electoral victories of Leftist parties in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. He added that Zelaya was overthrown by his military just when he was about to seek an increase in the Honduran minimum wage.
“The U.S. policy on Latin America has been the same since the Monroe Doctrine,” Bonpane said. “But there is a change now on Honduras. Many delegations are going to Honduras, and what we at the Office of Americas have done is try to turn things over. We started the delegations in the 1980’s, and Noam Chomsky said it was an innovation: we invited people to see a war in progress. It had an impact. It didn’t keep 400,000 Nicaraguans from being slaughtered, but the Sandinistas are back in power today.” Bonpane also ridiculed the notion that the coup in Honduras has been “bloodless.” “People are getting killed,” he said. “It is a dictatorship. Zelaya has to be let back in to serve the last two months of his term, but the coup has to be denounced and the Honduran people are entitled to have a new election in November without the military in control.”
According to Bonpane, the reason the coup against Zelaya took place now, with only a few months left to go in his term, was that he had taken Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a multi-country organization formed by Hugo Chávez and his government in Venezuela and including the Leftist governments in Bolivia and Ecuador as well as Cuba. “The amazing thing about ALBA is that there is no one ideology,” Bonpane said. “They all have a different perspective, but they are all people-focused. In Latin America you usually had oligarchies. That changed due to direct action by the people. When Bechtel went into Bolivia at the invitation of the former government and tried to privatize Bolivia’s water, they threw Bechtel out and said water is a human right.”
What most frightens America about ALBA, Bonpane argued, is that it not only gives Latin American countries an option to avoid allying themselves with the U.S. and letting the U.S. train their militaries, it also plans to start its own multi-country regional bank and give its member countries access to credit that isn’t controlled by the U.S. and American-based multinational banks. This would break the hold the U.S. has had over Latin American economies through the IMF and the World Bank, and allow Latin America a greater share of the income from its natural resources like oil and copper — which Leftist governments like Chávez’s in Venezuela and Evo Morales’s in Bolivia can then use to help lift ordinary people out of poverty.
But what impresses Bonpane about the grass-roots movements that have helped put the ALBA presidents in power is not only their successes in Latin America but the example they provide for U.S. activists. “I was in Riobamba, Ecuador not long ago, and the Qichua people were meeting there and took over,” he said. “The archbishop got up to speak, and within one minute an indigenous speaker got up and turned him out. They have thrown out three presidents in 10 years. They’re giving us an example of participatory and economic democracy.”
Indeed, Bonpane argued that participatory democracy is the wave of the future — and the representative republic we’re used to merely a veiled way to keep an oligarchy in power. “Representative democracy was designed by people who could read to keep power over people who couldn’t,” he said. “In Los Angeles today, there are a handful of billionaires and a lot of people working three jobs to make ends meet. Honduras wouldn’t have had a coup if the leaders of corporations like United Fruit hadn’t approved. They have influence 500 times that of ordinary people, and now the U.S. Supreme Court is about to give corporations even more freedom of speech and more freedom to control political candidates. We have to watch to make sure they don’t turn over the whole government to the corporate sector.”
Bonpane also spoke about a subject all too many American progressives ignore: the sweeping influence of Right-wing talk radio and the way it’s become an instrument not only to fight any remotely progressive policies but to mobilize millions of Americans to defend the corporations’ interest against their own. “The Rush Limbaughs don’t say one word without the approval of their sponsors,” Bonpane said. “Until we understand that, we won’t realize that the racist cruelty of talk radio is the voice of the corporate world, and they’ve brought that into a sadomasochistic world view that poses as religion.”
Bonpane’s criticism seems to echo a recent essay by Henry A. Giroux at http://www.truthout.org/090209R?n
. Called “Living in a Culture of Cruelty: Democracy as Spectacle,” Giroux’s article argues that not only political talk radio but entertainment media as well have come together to sell the American people a “tough” world view that supports “overt racism, hostility towards immigrants and utter disdain, coupled with the threat of mob violence, toward any political figure supportive of the social contract and the welfare state.”
“A mean-spirited society doesn’t have a future,” Bonpane said, citing some of the same statistics Giroux did in his article — including the fact that the U.S., with six percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and at least half of our prison population is there for nonviolent drug offenses. He noted that Colombia, hailed in the U.S. media as the Latin American country that has been spared the Leftist trend of the rest of the region, has become a mirror image of our bitterness and hatred — and now we’re trying to market “Plan Colombia” as a way to suppress insurgencies in the rest of the world and “win” the war in Afghanistan. Bonpane also said the assurances of Obama’s generals that with additional troops they can “win” the Afghan war are all too chillingly parallel to the assurances that America’s commander in Viet Nam, William Westmoreland, gave President Johnson that with more troops he could “win” that war as well.