In the midst of a particularly busy and nail-biting election season, 30 congressional Democrats have taken time to focus on an issue that isn’t on anyone’s campaign agenda:  the appalling state of democracy and human rights in Honduras. 

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Oct. 19, California representative Sam Farr and 29 of his House colleagues urged the Obama Administration to reverse its current policy towards Honduran president Porfirio Lobo, elected in a controversial vote held under the de facto regime that took power after a coup in June of 2009.

The letter describes a few of the recent killings of opposition activists and journalists –largely unreported in the U.S. media – that are part of the latest wave of politically motivated attacks that have taken place since last year’s coup.  Citing a “distinct pattern of political violence” in Honduras, the letter calls for the suspension of U.S. aid to Honduras, particularly police and military aid, until the Lobo government “distances itself from individuals involved in the June 28, 2009, military coup and adequately addresses the ongoing human and political rights violations.”

In addition, the 30 representatives – who include notable human rights advocate Jim McGovern, Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee, and Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Raul Grijalva and Lynn Woolsey – ask the administration to “refrain from supporting the immediate re-entry of Honduras in the Organization of American States.”

Both of the letter’s central demands clash with the policy set forth by the administration earlier this year.  After having suspended various forms of assistance to Honduras in the wake of the 2009 coup, Clinton announced in early March that all aid would be resumed because the newly inaugurated Lobo government had “taken important and necessary steps that deserve the recognition and the normalization of relations.” Similarly, the administration has been actively pressing for the lifting of the suspension of Honduras’ membership in the Organization of American States (OAS), a sanction unanimously agreed to by the members of the hemispheric body on the day of the coup.

For the letter’s 30 co-signers, it simply doesn’t make sense to renew aid to Honduras or push for its return to the OAS – which would entail the normalization of its relations with nearly the entire hemisphere.  Targeted killings of opposition activists continue with impunity, and key players in last year’s coup occupy strategic government positions – as in the case of the army official who executed the coup, General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, who now heads the state telecom company Hondutel. 

Once aid is restored and Honduras is allowed to return to the OAS there exists little incentive for the Lobo government to carry out the deep reforms that are needed to guarantee the protection of basic human rights and full restoration of democracy.

This isn’t the first time President Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress have voiced their dismay over the administration’s handling of the political and human rights crisis in Honduras that followed last year’s military coup. 

On several occasions over the last 14 months, progressive members of the House have politely expressed their frustration with the government’s policy towards Honduras, and on each occasion the administration has either ignored their pleas or attempted to gloss over the constant killings, beatings and kidnappings of members of the National Resistance Front.

In early August of 2009, 16 House Democrats, frustrated with the administration’s refusal to take strong action to counter the Honduras coup, asked the State Department “to fully acknowledge that a military coup had taken place,” suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Honduras and freeze the bank accounts and deny visas to the individuals involved in the coup. 

The administration never officially acknowledged that a military coup had transpired in Honduras, a measure that would have entailed the termination of all non-humanitarian aid to the country (only some forms of aid were ultimately cut).  The U.S. government only got around to terminating the visas of some prominent coup officials in mid September and refused to freeze the U.S.-based assets of coup officials despite the pleas of President Zelaya’s government in exile.  These sluggish half-measures stood in stark contrast with the U.S. government’s decisive response to recent coups in other countries, including the 2009 coup in Madagascar and 2008 coup in Mauritania.

On Nov. 25, 2009, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) sent a letter to President Obama expressing his alarm at the news that the administration was considering recognizing the results of the presidential and legislative elections being held under the coup regime.  He noted in his letter that “the period leading up to these elections has been marred by violent repression, the suspension of basic civil liberties and frequent violations of freedom of speech” and that most of the governments of the hemisphere – including Brazil and Argentina – “have signaled that they will not recognize the outcome of elections held in such unfair and undemocratic conditions.”  He urged the administration to join the majority of Latin American countries in refusing to recognize the outcome of the upcoming “electoral farce.” 

The Obama Administration, feeling the pressure of ultra-right-wing Senate Republicans intent on blocking presidential nominations over Honduras policy, turned its shoulder on Latin America and unilaterally deemed the elections “free and fair” almost immediately after polls closed.

In early March of this year, nine members of Congress – including Democratic Deputy Whip Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers of Michigan – wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton citing concern over the lack of investigation and prosecution of “kidnappings, beatings and assassinations of political activists.”  Aware that a meeting between the Secretary of State and President Lobo was scheduled for the following day, they asked Clinton to send a “strong unambiguous message that the human rights situation in Honduras will be a critical component of upcoming decisions regarding the further normalization of relations, as well as the resumption of financial assistance.” 

Rather than heeding this advice, Clinton announced the full normalization of relations with the Honduran government and the decision to restore all aid.  In her public remarks she made no reference to the attacks on activists taking place; instead she announced that “the Honduras crisis has been managed to a successful conclusion… it was done without violence, and I think that our policy in the vast majority of countries is either given high marks or great respect.”

On June 24 another letter was sent to Clinton – this time signed by 27 House representatives – stating that “political violence continues to wrack Honduras” and “violations of human rights and democratic order persist” under the watch of President Lobo.  In an attempt to bring some element of nuance to the State Department’s policy of enthusiastic support of Lobo, the representatives asked that Clinton send Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, to Honduras “to make a prompt assessment” regarding the human rights situation.  “Without an early and accurate report,” the letter said, “we would be reluctant to see U.S. support for Honduras continue without significant restrictions.” 

In response to the letter, Clinton sent her Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Maria Otero, to make enquiries regarding the state of human rights.  No formal assessment, however, was ever presented to the 27 legislators and in her remarks to the press Otero said that “there was still much to do” in the area of human rights, while at the same time calling for the speedy return of Honduras to the OAS.

Which brings us to the latest letter of Oct. 19, which – in reaction to the clear failure of the Lobo government to address the political violence taking place – makes demands that are strongly at odds with the administration’s current policy of unconditional support of the Lobo government.  When, the following day, State Department spokesperson Philip J. Crowley was asked about the letter he acknowledged that “there have been incidents where activists have been killed, intimidated, jailed, both going back to the previous government[1] and recently.” However, Crowley was quick to dismiss the letter’s main asks.  He rejected, first of all, the idea that “progress on human rights” should be a “precondition for the return of Honduras to the OAS.”

Crowley also announced that the State Department had no intention of suspending any aid to Honduras. 

According to Crowley, “our assistance is actually directly connected to improving [Honduras’] ability to meet the needs of its people and also improving its human rights record at the same time.”  He offered no evidence to back up this assertion, and the reality on the ground provides no real signs of any improvement in the situation.  Despite a great deal of impressive window dressing on the part of the Lobo government – for instance, the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a “Ministry for Human Rights” – politically-motivated attacks against activists and independent journalists continue unabated and no serious investigations of these attacks have been carried out.

It seems that, though the current policies of the administration have clearly not been working for the people of Honduras, the administration remains inflexible and unwilling to even consider any alternative approaches to the crisis in Honduras.

Progressives in Congress are not the only ones calling for a change in the administration’s Honduras policy. On Oct. 13, Honduras’ human rights organizations echoed one of the key demands of the Congressional letter while they were in Washington, D.C. to receive the prestigious Letelier-Moffitt International Human Rights Award.  At the award ceremony, Honduras’ most prominent human rights activist, Bertha Oliva, gave an electrifying speech in which she called on all those present to “unite and demand that the United States stop financing the police and military forces in our country,” which she considered in large part responsible for the ongoing political violence.

Meanwhile, most Latin American governments still disagree profoundly with the U.S. on the issue of Honduras’ return to the OAS.  In fact, many governments – including key U.S. allies such as Brazil and Argentina – refuse to recognize the Lobo government, due to the fact that it is the product of elections held in undemocratic conditions under a coup government.  They are also concerned with the dangerous precedent set by the Honduras coup and the fact that its success has greatly increased the probability of new attempts to destabilize progressive governments throughout the region, as occurred in Ecuador in late September.

For many Latin Americans, the U.S.’ softness towards the Honduras coup raises suspicions that, like his predecessor in the White House, President Obama is willing to live with certain anti-democratic phenomena so long as they coincide with perceived U.S. interests (in this case the “rolling back” of progressive governments that don’t support Washington’s regional agenda).  Whether or not this is the case, the administration officials guiding foreign policy should begin to ask themselves whether it is truly wise to continue providing unconditional support to a government that has failed to wash its hands of a military coup and has taken no serious measures to address constant attacks against activists and the media.  While it may be easy to ignore the pleas of progressive members of Congress and Honduras’ human rights activists, it may prove to be much more difficult to repair the lasting damage done to the U.S.’ image and credibility in the region as a promoter of democracy and human rights.

October 22, 2010

[1] Presumably, Crowley is referring here to the coup regime of Roberto Micheletti, which took power after the military coup d’Etat of June 28, 2009.