Friday, September 18, 2009

Honduras: Are We On The Wrong Side?

A month ago I went to a retirement party for a friend and got into a conversation with someone who is intimately connected with Honduras, whose family is still there. Naturally, with Honduras being in the news I had to ask if he could explain what was happening there.

It was a clean and concise summary. Essentially, the properly elected president did not wish to follow the country's own Constitution. The military deposed him not because it was striving for power, but because of the president's unconstitutional behavior. Unfortunately, multinational organizations like the U.N. and O.A.S. want him reinstated.

I just finished watching the film Black Hawk Down, which shows the consequences of a military incursion in Somalia in 1993 in which 19 soldiers and 1000 Somali citizens lost their lives. The film shows the action which took place, but the book details the backdrop. The Somalia situation was this. The country was a wrecked mess run by gangs. The most powerful had been top dog for quite some time, but he was hated and ruthless. The one good thing he did was to unify all the rival gangs in their common hatred of him. They banded together and ousted him.

But this ousted gang leader, who had diplomatic ties to the U.N., persuaded the U.S. to intervene and help him regain his "rightful place." It was a disastrous, ill-conceived response. I highly recommend this book.
Based on my understanding of the situation, we are very possibly doing an instant replay. On Sept 4 it was announced that the U.S. cut off aid to Honduras, which is already one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. Two letters that I have received from Honduras indicate that the people are in dire straits.

Here's a brief summary of the background on this story.

One of the most amazing features of the United States has been its example of the peaceful transition of power. Right from the start our history has been a role model that is worth noting and quite a contrast to most of history. George Washington, who was nearly godlike in stature, stepped down voluntarily from the equivalent of a throne, the U.S. presidency. Keep in mind there were no term limits in those days.

When our second president John Adams handed power over to Thomas Jefferson, this was the first time in history that power was given voluntarily to an opposing party. These two were adversaries. Adams and Jefferson both lived by the principle of Rex Lex, that is, Law is King. There is something higher than the men and women who run the country.

That tradition has followed us to the present time where ideologically contrary presidents have handed over the baton, or sword, or whatever symbol you'd like to call it, without resorting to guns, hand grenades, etc. If the disrespect shown on the floor of congress last week (Mr. Bush was booed in 2005 on one occasion in a similar vein) is the worst of what we do, well, we're probably not doing too badly.

As for Honduras... Based on a lifetime of reading and certain anecdotal observations from friends and acquaintances over the years, my guess is that there is a divergence of opinion on the matter within the State Department itself, or the Pentagon and the executive branch. Let's pray our leaders make wise decisions and exercise care as they evaluate courses of action.


Anonymous said...

Ed, what you heard is correct. The administration inexcusably got it completely wrong here (and I have to laugh when I think that those are the same people that used to arrogantly criticize some of the awkward policies of the previous one). The basic philosophical mistake they make is to ignore that a democracy that isn't framed by a republican constitution is nothing more than a dictatorship of the majority, which sooner or later degenerates into a dictatorship of a minority. Examples of elected dictators abound in history (they tend to be the nastiest ones), and it's intellectually painful to hear anyone defending that these proto-dictators should have the right to remain just because they have been elected by a majority or because of some plebiscite. To make it short, a true constitutional republican democracy exists if and only if mandates are limited and the right to kick politicians out of their posts is guaranteed. Anything else is a dictatorship, and that's what the administration sided with this time. A truly shameful moment for the US foreign policy, which have surely empowered all kinds of crooks south the border.

Besides that, under a realpolitik perspective, I have a hard time understanding how they could have sided with people that define themselves as enemies of Americans and everything US. I'm sure that they've had some really good and loud laughing at our cost this time.

LEWagner said...

Let's see -- how how many Americans and how many Honduran people have been killed in Honduras because of this administration's "inexusably and completely wrong" policy of cutting aid to a government they feel is illegitimate?
Compare that with the 4344 (so far) Americans, plus how many 10's of thousands of Iraqis who died because of the previous administration's "awkward" policies, (a "Shock and Awe" multi-billion dollar preemptive ATTACK on a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction) -- and you're LAUGHING about it.
Sorry, but I don't think it's funny in the least. Laugh away, though, I guess. I'm the only one who seems to be offended.
And sorry, Ed, but just because you know someone who has a family in Honduras, doesn't necessarily make his "clean and concise summary" of what's going on there the last word.
Question: Do you both agree that the US should be spending much more on non-military foreign aid to poor countries than it currently does? Or only in Honduras?

Ed Newman said...

My point is that we have a U.S. tradition of often getting it wrong. Neither party has a monopoly on this matter. I am sure it is very challenging sorting through all the issues to make a determination. Occasionally, administrations can over-simplify and use a grid that paints everything black and white.... as did Carter with his "human rights" grid. For some the grid is related to a stance toward Israel and others it was communism. For some the key criteria is having a democratically elected president, though in the 50's the CIA helped oust a democratically elected president because he was purportedly leaning communist. (The reality there was he was holding the capitalist banana growers' feet to the fire and trying to help his people.) So my point is that we (America) often get it wrong, not that Obama is unique if mistaken here.

As for non-military foreign aid, I do not know what the numbers are off the cuff so I have no answer there. I do believe we have been mistaken to arm everyone to the teeth (the extreme quantities of military foreign aid)... I have not been reading much on this in recent years. I only know that the quantity of military aid we provided in the 80's was quite eye-opening back when I was paying attention to the numbers.

I agree that because I know someone it does not mean much on one level. It is anecdotal evidence of limited value. Hence I did not post anything about this till I did further research. I would compare this to the situation in Laos. I happen to know a first hand witness to certain things there (not all that goes on) and the first hand accounts help bring perspective that I might not necessarily find elsewhere. Those perspectives can help me investigate further.

LEWagner said...

Very good, Ed. You go ahead and investigate further.
See if you can figure out if cutting off military aid dollars to a country (Honduras) is somehow more laughable than spending billions of military dollars to use heavy-duty and high-tech military weapons to invade a country (Iraq) and kill off a large percentage of the second country's population, and cripple even a larger percent. Laugh away, and pretend away, that you just CAN'T figure how to figure which is worse.
You're just still investigating, and don't really rightly know how to put 2 and 2 together, but you're still investigating further.

Anonymous said...

Despite all the awkwardness of the Iraq invasion, people tend to forget that at least the Iraqis got rid of a tyrant.
Ed, you brought in an excellent example, so here are some memories from my childhood in Brazil. My father was a man of the center-left. As a lawyer and an Army Reserve Officer, and despite the risks for his career in the government, he volunteered a few times to defend, always with success, members of the communist party that were imprisonned by the military. When Carter was elected, he thought it was a great day for the world. He changed his mind immediately when Carter started treating Latin American condescendingly, as spoiled brats, so typical of the Democrats. I remember him writing to "Time Magazine" and saying: "who this Jimmy Carter thinks he is? Did he ever live under a dictatorship? Did he ever have to put his job on the line for having fought one? Is he so stupid he cannot understand that his 'human rights policy' will only strengthen the dictators?" His letter to Time Magazine was never published.
Obviously, we know from history that my father was right and also that Carter was one of the worst presidents we've ever had.
One thing few people know in the US is that Carter was partially responsible for accelerating the introduction of nuclear power in Latin America. The Brazilian military was not so stupid as he thought, and gave it back to him by signing a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Germans, which were very happy to do it. Despite all the American protestations, everybody knew that the Carter government had no fangs, so the Brazilian-German agreement was an unrequited success for Brazil. I remember attending the many government supported science fairs where Americans were subtly presented as the enemies and the Germans as the friends.
Based on how bad it started, it looks like it'll happen all over again this time.

Anonymous said...

Regarding my last comment, I need to be more precise: Carter didn't help to introduce nuclear energy in Latin America (the Brazilian-German agreement was signed in 1975). What he did was to strengthen the determination of Brazilians to pursue nuclear technology. The program increasingly became a matter of political exploitation by the military, especially as a public response to Carter's policies, which, it should be said, were nothing more than shortsighted appeasement to the ideological preferences and modus operandi of his supporters in the US.
The program was thwarted in the end (even if never totally eliminated), but knowing Brazil as I know, better results would have been achieved if the entire deal would have been negotiated "under the diplomatic table" instead of being aggravated by Carter's counterproductive and inflamatory "human rights policy".

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for your insights from outside our borders.

Anonymous said...

Carter policies failed because the notion of human rights cannot be disentangled from moral values. Here's one of the common arguments that were effectively used against Carter in Brazil: "how can the president of a country that supports criminal death penalty have the audacity to be preachy about human rights?" Carter public image was the one of a hypocrite.
His policies gave rise to a new hobby in Brazil: to find out moral failures of *any* American, which would immediately become a reason for mockery of anything US. A priest was caught with a minor in Boston? That's Carter's country. A Hollywood movie depicting extreme violence by the police? That's Carter's country.
People used to say on the streets that Carter should look at his own bellybutton before denouncing other country's human right failures.
I've lived though many American presidents while in Brazil. Even though Reagan was seen by most as an warmonger bully, and was hated by the leftist press, nobody questioned his will to get things done. He was feared by some for his mighty determination, and at the political level he was respected, always welcomed when he would extend a hand.
He also did something that always works with countries like Brazil: he solemnly ignored the Brazilians. It was painful. To the point of, during a dinner in Brasilia, having raised the glass to the "People of Bolivia." The left jumped on it as an example of how ignorant he was. I wonder if it was foretelling of his disease, or, who knows, if it was one of those calculated moves that can be pulled off only by political masters like Reagan. Or maybe he was just lucky, doing something right even when doing something wrong.
One way or another, the policy of ignoring Brazilians was good for American interests: the image of the US in Brazil improved substantially during the eighties, and business relations improved too, as a result of better economic policies, which ended up mattering much more than all political speeches.

Anonymous said...

I'm ashamed to report that just yesterday Brazil added to the Honduras problem by acting dishoronably as nothing else than a puppet of Caracas:
Exactly as I forecasted: this administration's foreign policies would empower the crooks south of the border. Oh well...

Ed Newman said...

Interesting. It's high drama for sure in Honduras.