Gen. Romeo Vasquez, who runs the armed forces in the Central American nation of Honduras and is apparently at the center of yesterday's coup that deposed the nation's democratically elected president Jose Manuel Zelaya, comes from a rich tradition that has long produced a string of military dictatorships in the region, a tradition that is unfortunately born in the USA. Vasquez is reportedly the latest Latin American coup leader trained at the U.S. military's School of the Americas:
Vasquez, however, refused to step down, bolstered by support in Congress and a Supreme Court ruling that reinstated him. Vasquez remains in control of the armed forces.
Vasquez, along with other military leaders, graduated from the United States' infamous School of the Americas (SOA). According to a School of the Americas Watch database compiled from information obtained from the US government, Vasquez studied in the SOA at least twice: once in 1976 and again in 1984.
The head of the Air Force, Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, studied in the School of the Americas in 1996. The Air Force has been a central protagonist in the Honduran crisis.
Indeed, there was a time when there would be little question that the United States would have supported -- tacitly if not overtly -- a coup like the one being led by Vasquez, aimed at toppling a left-leaning government in a region where the U.S. has vast influence. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, the U.S. was alleged to have supported and even trained right-wing death squads in Honduras, which was seen as a key base for fighting the leftist Sandanistas in Nicaragua:
[John] Negroponte’s confirmation to the United Nations post was delayed a half-year mostly because of criticism of his record as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. In Honduras, he played a prominent role in assisting the Contras in Nicaragua in their war with the left-wing Sandinista government.
Human rights groups alleged that Negroponte acquiesced in human rights abuses by Honduran death squads funded and partly trained by the CIA. Negroponte testified during the hearings for the U.N. post that he did not believe death squads were operating in Honduras.
But that was then. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. appears to be activly engaged in seeking the return of Zelaya to power, despite his political leanings and his ties with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, America's bete noire in the region:
By Sunday night, officials in Washington said they had spoken with Mr. Zelaya and were working for his return to power in Honduras, despite relations with Mr. Zelaya that had recently turned colder because of the inclusion of Honduras in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, a leftist political alliance led by Venezuela.
The effort to engage Mr. Zelaya differed from Washington’s initial response to Venezuela’s brief coup in April 2002, when the Bush administration blamed Mr. Chávez for his own downfall and denied knowing about the planning of the coup, despite the revelation later that the Central Intelligence Agency knew developments about the plot in Caracas on the eve of its execution.
Historically, the policy of the United States has been to foster democracy -- except when democracy leads to rulers that we can't do business with. Obama's new direction here carries a certain amount of risk but also a great deal of potential reward in the region, if he can make U.S. policy seem a bit less hypocritical. It will be interesting to see how the American politicians who decided that democracy was the reason that we're in Iraq -- after there were no weapons of mass destruction -- will judge Obama on this move in a part of the workl that's a lot closer to home.