The Many Shades of Interventionism

Obama’s support of Honduran democracy appears to amount to so much lip service.

By David Schmidt

President Obama recently commented that those who question his administration’s mixed messages regarding the coup d’état in Honduras are “the same people who say that we’re always intervening in Latin America … you can’t have it both ways.”

He appears to have missed the point: the president’s curiously tepid criticism of the dictatorship is, itself, an expression of his foreign policy toward the Americas.

While President Obama has publicly denounced Micheletti’s coup, his administration has made several suspicious capitulations toward the illegitimate regime. Deposed President Zelaya has been urged by Washington to accept the “San Jose Accords”, which almost fully embody the demands of the coup leaders. (The Accords would rob Zelaya’s administration of much of its authority, making the remainder of his term largely symbolic, while granting amnesty to the thugs who ousted the Honduran president.) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has been oddly reticent to criticize the de facto regime’s curfew and suppression of civil liberties, merely suggesting that they occurred “so that there couldn’t be unforeseen developments.” Add to this the fact that, of all major Western nations, the US alone has kept its ambassador in the country, and Obama’s support of Honduran democracy appears to amount to so much lip service.

US intervention is a notorious shape-shifter, taking on myriad forms that go beyond active aggression. When I traveled to the Caribbean nation of Grenada last year, on the 25th anniversary of the US invasion of the island, I had expected to hear tales of resentment towards the Americans. I was surprised, then, to find that much more importance was attributed to the events leading up to the invasion — themselves a significant illumination of US policy in the region.

In 1979, Maurice Bishop and the leftist New Jewel Movement overthrew the hated dictatorship of Eric Gairy. “So far, so good,” as the islanders are fond of saying — Bishop was immensely popular amongst Grenadian citizens. During his governance from 1979 to 1983, unemployment shrank from 49% to 10%, and free universal education and medical care were provided to Grenadians. A man named Joseph described some of the changes to me as we sipped rum in a roadside shack: “You see this highway, man? It was made by Bishop. What government you think built the airport you flew into?”

Since its inception, however, Bishop’s government was plagued with suspicion and paranoia. In a sort of reverse McCarthyism, Bishop saw the specter of the CIA behind every sign of opposition. The newspapers Torchlight and Grenadian Voice were shut down after criticizing the New Jewel government; Bishop accused them of being “in the back pocket” of the US. During the four years that it was in power, the government would formally interrogate one in every 35 Grenadian citizens. Several political prisoners were locked up without charge, many of them physically abused.

The paranoia of Bishop’s government was not without cause. US policy in the Caribbean and Central America had, throughout the preceding years, demonstrated a well-set pattern of destabilization and agitation in Jamaica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and other neighboring countries. Bishop was fighting an internal opposition which appeared, by every indication, to be sponsored by foreign powers.

Remarkably enough, however, there exists no conclusive evidence of the CIA having ever acted in Grenada during Bishop’s rule. In fact, the CIA had no need to be involved — they had already sowed the seeds of suspicion enough times in the past to save themselves the trouble.

The paranoia of the New Jewel Movement reached a self-destructive level in 1983, when the most devoutly Marxist-Leninist faction of the Party decided that Bishop himself was not radical enough. According to one aging Grenadian, “Some of Bishop’s ‘supporters’ — the people from his own party — turned out to be his biggest enemies.” Led by Bernard Coard, the dogmatic socialists imprisoned Bishop in his own home.

On Oct. 19, 1983, known as “Bloody Wednesday”, a crowd of 15,000 of Bishop’s supporters set the politician free, armed themselves, and holed up in Fort Rupert. Coard’s men attacked the masses, killing civilian men, women and children in the name of the “people’s revolution”, and summarily executed Maurice Bishop. The revolutionary purists immediately suppressed political dissent and put the entire nation on lock-down. “We had to stay indoors day and night,” a shopkeeper told me. “The curfew was a bad time for Grenada.”

Given the circumstances, many islanders view the subsequent American invasion as a mere footnote to the tragedy that had befallen the revolution. Some even describe the intervention in a positive light: “we were rescued from those radicals,” one schoolteacher opined. “They were willing to kill their own people!” The revolution had, in fact, collapsed on itself before the US military even got to Grenada — a century of US intervention in the region had created the necessary climate for it to do so.

I can’t help but think of the Twilight Zone episode in which hostile aliens plot to slyly foment division and infighting among humans. A more immediate metaphor exists, though, in the colonial history of Grenada itself. In the 17th century, the invading French gradually pushed the Carib natives further and further north through a process of slow encroachment, eventually cornering them near the modern-day town of Sauteurs. In 1651, the only remaining natives found themselves surrounded by the French, standing on the edge of a precipice overlooking the ocean. Not a single shot was fired — the Caribs threw themselves from the cliff, now known as “Leaper’s Hill”, into the choppy waters below.

A long-standing precedent had been set for foreign intervention: sometimes, active violence is not even necessary. If the imperial power can create the necessary conditions, the native populace will simply self-destruct. It seems to be a cruel parody of the concept of non-violent resistance: “non-violent interventionism”.

Thankfully, however, the people of modern-day Honduras are not yet at the point of collective suicide — far from it. Regardless of the shape taken by the forces which oppose them, the Honduran people have continued to put up a fight.

David Schmidt is an immigrants’ rights organizer and proponent of fair trade in San Diego, California. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2009

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