Golpistas vs. Reason at the Interamerican Dialogue

I spoke to one of my mentors the other day, a person who more than anyone else has taught me the dangers of corporate and legal control over democracy. When I brought up my anger at the coup, they asked me, "but didn't Zelaya violate the constitution?" What this teaches me is

  1. I am not writing effectively enough [caveat- I mean this in relation to the general understanding; this particular person has not been reading my blog]
  2. It has become desperately necessary for me to develop a simple point-counterpoint to the absurd propaganda being put out by the coup lobbyists. Stay tuned for that (and I'll ask for your help)

I'd be lying if I didn't say it also made me very sad. But if Honduran environmentalist/democracy hero singer Guillermo Anderson can become a bottled water spokesperson and coup apologist, I shouldn't be surprised when lines get crossed. After hearing me out, my own hero of course came around, but the presumption of guilt was a shock.

After my first meeting of the day Wednesday, I biked down to the Interamerican Dialogue for an 8:30am symposium I'd found out about from R. the previous evening. I had to show my ID and sign in, and then got in a packed elevator of people all going to the same event. Packed elevator spilled out to packed room, but I managed to find a seat up front.

The delegation members--Dip. Elvia Argentina Valle, Lic. Armando Sarmiento, and Lic. Abencio Fernández--came in a few minutes after 8:30, with Michael Shifter. "Michael Shifter. Curious." I wrote to myself, starting to realize the connections in the smarmy world of policy in DC. Shifter, head of the IAD, was one of the "experts" at the congressional hearing who did not deserve the moniker. His comments were dangerously "fair and balanced" (a la Fox news), favoring the coup. Go ahead, look at them. On this day, however, he did not say anything to insult the intelligence of the crowd, which for the most part could claim vastly more expertise than he. He did speak in near-native Spanish, which certainly impressed, stating radically "we all hope it can be resolved in a peaceful manner." He also made a point of recognizing the Honduran ambassador to the U.S., Eduardo Enrique Reina, a close Zelaya ally and the replacement of Flores Bermudez, the previous ambassador.

[I'm trying a new experiment, where I don't write every single observation down. Given that I'm filing up almost a notebook a day, my ordinary fieldnote style has been detracting from things like, e.g., sleep. And from doing more fieldwork.]

Dip. Argentina Valle spoke of her admiration for the person Micheletti had been prior to the coup, including a story of how he had been the one to turn his gun against the leaders of a previous coup, in defense of Honduran democracy. She said that no matter what one thought of carrying out a poll, it was no justification for carrying out a coup. If we allow this to stand, she noted, we will be allowing the return to a dark era [época perdida]. We believe, she said, that the armed forces are necessary, but that they should be separate from and subject to the constitutional government.

Armando Sarmiento, ex-director of the Honduran IRS, said that he hadn't been convinced of the need for Zelaya's poll. He agreed the constitution needed major revisions, but felt that the half million signatures gathered by the Honduran public sufficiently demonstrated the demand for it. He noted that in any case, it was up to the Congress to decide whether to allow the citizens to vote on whether a constituent assembly would be convened, and under what conditions that could take place. He noted that any changes that may have resulted from the convening of such an assembly [in the unlikely case that the Congress were to permit it] could not take effect until approximately 2014.

Evidence debunking the "series of myths" he said had been created around this issue included the speech that Zelaya gave a month or so before the coup, in which he stated in no uncertain terms that his term would end on January 27th, 2010 (as scheduled).

As had been mentioned at the press conference the previous day, he pointed out that 25 legislators did not participate in the coup and were not invited to the special Sunday session of Congress in which Micheletti was appointed. In the video of the vote to elect Micheletti president, one can see people who are not even authorized as alternates, and who possibly have no connection to the Congress, casting ballots in the names of the excluded lawmakers. As have others, he spoke of the "efecto domino and stated that "no Latin American president could feel safe if the international community [i.e., U.S.] does not more strongly condemn" what is going on in Honduras.

Abencio Fernández Pineda, speaking again today, listed the assassinations, forced disappearances (which he pointed out had not been happening since the 80s--I'd qualify this to say that the tactics have remained, but have been used in the interim to very different ends). He noted that all the public institutions have been militarized, including the public ministry itself, charged with protecting the public.

Hondurans, he said, are living in a state of exception [Agamben ringing in my ears] in which constitutional guarantees are suspended, referred to as the "state of siege"/curfew, which has never been formally legally announced as is required by law, but rather has been disseminated through the coup-owned radio stations.

He noted that seven thousand teachers have gone on strike to protest the coup.

"We know that freedom of expression is a sacred value here in the United States." Radio Globo and Channel 36 have been under extreme pressure from the de facto regime, legislators have been threatened [and some have been attacked by military forces in their own homes].

He noted that legitimate human rights organizations are seen as the enemy "because we are telling the truth. I am not here to defend Zelaya," he said, "but simply to defend the human rights of the people."

Each of them said much more than I could scribble down in their allotted five minutes. Following their statements, Shifter asked each one a question: to Argentina Valle: "We haven't all had the pleasure of being in Honduras [sarcasm?]. You speak of a divided country—how do you see the state of the country, how has it changed since June 28th? Is it divided 50-50?
to Sarmiento: Wouldn't sanctions by the U.S. punish the entire country?
to Fernández Pineda: Do you think the human rights information is getting out of Honduras? What is the level of understanding outside the country?

Argentina Valle spoke quickly and I got snippets, but it had to do with the history of the hostility between big private business and Zelaya. Something about the hoy no circula policy (a measure to save gas & prevent pollution, although she only mentioned the former), then something about the Comisión Patriótica and Juliette Handal [my apologies, but being fieldnotes, these are as much notes to myself to further investigate as they are to y'all--I hope you can gloss over these parts], and about a national fuel program in which private industry (DIPPSA), not the government was the investor. So there was this clause in their contract with the gummint that if the latter needed to use their tanks (in an emergency), that they must allow them access, but when the government tried to exercise that right the courts did not permit it. The government was doing the right thing, and following the law, but the private business sector never permitted that to happen.
She then mentioned that the statute had been carried over from Flores and Maduro; Zelaya only complied with it [here I need more detail--was she still talking about the contract, or about other legal agreements/laws? It's important to stress as clearly as possible in all instances how Zelaya's actions were actually a continuation of previous policies and not those of a lone madman, something made clear from the hundreds of thousands of people supporting his return too, but when the coup "president" and his cronies have done the same things for which they ousted the real pres, it's pretty clear this not about principle but class war.]

She noted that Callejas made it easier for peasants to sell their lands, which she opposes [since it puts pressure on them to do so and creates a class of landless peasants]; Zelaya was trying to reform this [I think?]. There were a lot of initatives that Zelaya supported that we approved of. Peasants, teachers unions are all out in the streets. There are also the white shirts. We want the return of constitutional order, and the acceptance of Arias's 7 points for the return of constitutional order.

[note: in this consistent demand of Argentina Valle, it was clear that she had different demands from other members of the delegation, who wanted much more than a return to "order"]

When she finished, Shifter gave the word to Sarmiento, joking, "Dr. Sarmiento, in spite of your white shirt..." getting some chuckles.
Sarmiento, who spoke so damn fast which was frustrating because every word was brilliant, started out by saying "Zelaya does not necessarily share the broader agenda of the United States, but this is not about individuals." He noted that what the de facto has been doing is trying to buy time, because with time the citizens are going to want to return to normalcy [and thus stop protesting] and the international community will lose interest.

Honduras is becoming North Korea, he said, we're getting close. When people laughed (and he did too), he backtracked and said not really, but...

Abencio mentioned that it had been CIPRODEH that had hosted Rigoberta Menchu [it's the battle of the Nobel Peace Prize winners! Like Fidel said, why don't we just give Hillary the prize?].

The coup leaders say every day that there aren't deaths, there aren't disappearances, [etc.]- the distortion is not just a media problem; it's a problem that affects the human rights of the population. And I want to clarify: Human rights violations are not subject to amnesty.

The floor opened, and here's where the most interesting stuff comes in. Unfortunately I am late and can't finish this right now, so I will continue later. please stay tuned.

Covington Negroponte


Some comments on the art of rhetoric

Thanks for your translations, which I ran across first on Machetera.

I have some advice on communicating ideas in contexts like the Honduras crisis.

1. Consider accepting your interlocutor's premise and comparing it to fact. For example, if your mentor asks, "But didn't Zelaya violate the Constitution?" answer it in one of these ways: (a) "if that were so, what is the accepted way to remove a president from office?" or (b) "then why has every nation on earth rejected the means by which he was removed from office?" or (c) "if Zelaya is guilty of a crime, why have coup leaders refused to arrest him three times (at the time of the coup, when Zelaya wanted to land, and today when he crossed into Honduras?")
2. Don't get derailed into side issues. For example, the answer to "the accepted way to remove a president from office" seems to be that the Honduran Constitution does not provide a procedure for impeachment. The president has to be arrested, but by police, not military officials, and tried in a civilian court. One could probably have a graduate seminar on the side issues. But the central issue is very simple: *due process*, which is required under all circumstances under international law. Because Zelaya was never able to answer his accusers, it was impossible to judge (formally) whether he had or had not violated the Constitution.
3. If it's not possible to hold the conversation even on the basic level of accepting the opponent's premise, keep the response extremely simple. The one-word answer to "did Zelaya violate the constitution?" is "No."
4. Never apologize. Saying "I am not here to defend Zelaya" is wrong. It gives opponents a means to deflect your argument. If we are there to defend the principle of due process, then we are there to defend Zelaya, who was denied it. If someone wants to talk about Zelaya's "socialism," then they have to show that the Supreme Court authorized his arrest on that basis.

Here are my basic talking points:
1. The removal of Zelaya was illegal, no matter what justification is given for it, because there was no due process, especially no opportunity for Zelaya to formally answer his accusers.
2. The former Secretary of Defense resigned rather than participate in the coup, and has stated that it was illegal. The top lawyer of the military has conceded that crimes were committed in the course of expelling Zelaya.
3. If Zelaya is guilty of crimes, why have the coup leaders failed to arrest him and try him when he was in their power?
4. To demonstrate that Zelaya was attempting to change the constitution, one must establish some reasonable means of instrumentality (i.e., that there was a connection between his actions and a result which would break a law). The law in question is the constitutional provision preventing a president from holding office more than once. Zelaya was trying to hold a poll this summer on whether to hold a referendum in November on whether to have a Constitutional Convention. Certainly having a poll cannot be considered an attempt to change the Constitution. The referendum would have created a Constitutional Convention, but who would have selected the delegates? (answer: that was unspecified). What would the delegates have selected as constitutional provisions to alter? (answer: no one knows). In short, what connection is there between the referendum and the extension of Zelaya's time in office? (answer: unknown). So: what was the rush to remove Zelaya? Why not wait until there is clear evidence of the intent to extend time in office? (answer: because there's as little connection between the referendum and the coup as between the referendum and extension of Zelaya's time in office).
5. No nation on earth has recognized the coup. If there's some justification for their actions, why doesn't any nation accept it?
6. It is claimed that Zelaya's popularity was low, just ca. 30%. (a) George Bush was president under those conditions for almost four years, (b) the figure is from early in the year. As of a couple months ago, his popularity had risen to ca. 46%. And if Zelaya was so unpopular, why has the coup had to suspend the constitution, jail over a thousand people, and deploy the army to maintain order?

Again, accepting the interlocutor's premise and adopting their viewpoint sometimes makes for some extremely powerful counterarguments.

Thanks for your work. Watching Zelaya cross into Honduras today gave me the same sense of the presence of history as attending a speech by Martin Luther King many years ago. This was a remarkable moment.

--Charles of MercuryRising