WikiLeaks and Honduras

HondurasMAPWhile many voices are currently being raised in Australia in defence of WikiLeaks, it has its critics. Luke Walladge, for example, describes Mr Assange as a ‘dangerous anarcho-Marxist with paranoid tendencies’. WikiLeaks is an ‘agenda-driven group of deceptive megalomaniacs’, and ‘the latest disclosure of information has the potential to disrupt the diplomatic processes that help humanity to avoid conflicts. How is this a good thing?’

Assange, writing in his defence, notes similarly the allegation that ‘there is nothing of importance in what WikiLeaks publishes’.

This, I think, should be used as an opportunity to stop talking about Assange, and to look at the actual content of the revelations. Have we learned anything worthwhile?

It’s a fact that all governments act with secrecy. However, democracies are based on the theory that governments implement the policies that people want. There should ideally be a small, if not non-existent, gap between what governments say in public, and what they say in private. If they dealt with the people who are supposed to be their political masters honestly, then we should know what they are thinking, the policies they are implementing, and why they behave in the manner they do. Ideally, none of the leaks should surprise us at all.

Such a scenario seems farfetched. All of us in our alleged democracies assume our governments lie to us all the time. One supposed cure for this is a fiercely independent media – the fourth estate – holding governments accountable, uncovering the hidden agendas of government and keeping their readers, the populace, well informed.

In this sense, WikiLeaks can be useful in two ways. It can help us determine how honest governments are being: it can expose the gap between what governments declare, and how they actually think and behave. And it can help us evaluate the performance of the media in revealing the honesty or otherwise of governments.

As I have written before, WikiLeaks revealed the remarkable subservience of Arab dictatorships to the US government. These dictatorships make public declarations of support for the Palestinians, while collaborating in the blockade of Gaza and calling for the US to bomb Iran. I wrote that much of this was predictable, given that I had already written along similar lines. (Those who claim WikiLeaks hasn’t revealed anything, in my view, should be required to demonstrate where they have shown similar things themselves.)

Yet there is another example, which in my view is perhaps far more important, though it has been given very little coverage. This is the military coup in Honduras.

The brief facts are these. On 28 June, the Honduran military abducted at gunpoint the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, and flew him out of the country. The UN General Assembly demanded his reinstatement, as did the Organisation of American States. In what may been the most spectacular demonstration ever of internationalism and civil disobedience, the Secretary-General of the UN General Assembly and the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay were going to fly into Honduras to accompany Zelaya in an attempt to force the coup regime to restore Zelaya’s presidency. The coup regime responded by blocking the runways and closing the airport, while somewhere between 10 000 and 100 000 Honduran protesters marched on the airport in a tragically vain attempt to restore their democracy. At least one protestor was shot dead in the process, and Zelaya and his entourage were unable to return to Honduras.

By this point, more attention turned to the US. As the Washington Post noted, the US government has ‘enormous clout’ over Honduras. However, it was ‘holding off on formally branding it a coup, which would trigger a cutoff of millions of dollars in aid’. That is to say, the US government certainly had the ability to restore democracy. It decided not to use its leverage. Its public pretence was that it could not yet determine if it was indeed a military coup.

Some public commentators didn’t believe the US government’s position was genuine. In Australia, commentary on the coup was sparse. In July last year I wrote that ‘Washington quietly backed the coup’, noting that the reason the US was refusing to label it a coup was because it would have to cut off aid to the coup regime. Such a coup was, I wrote in June, ‘only possible with at least tacit US support and acceptance.’

I argued the best way to understand the coup was as follows:

The US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Philip Crowley, was asked whether the coup had created a rift between Chavez and Zelaya, and whether this pleased Washington. Crowley replied, ‘[if] we were choosing a model government and a model leader for countries of the region to follow, that the current leadership in Venezuela would not be a particular model. If that is the lesson that President Zelaya has learned from this episode, that would be a good lesson.’ Washington, in fact, has taught a stern lesson to everyone in Latin America about what may happen to leftist governments.

What light does WikiLeaks shed on this? One of the documents leaked was from the American embassy in Honduras, analysing the coup. It said: ‘The Embassy perspective is that there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch.’

So, for what it’s worth, I was right, making New Matilda virtually the only place Australians could read the obvious truth (adding another reason its impending doom is so unfortunate).

So was Mark Weisbrot, writing in the Guardian a month after the leaked embassy report, noting that ‘the US state department has still not even determined that a military coup has taken place.’ Weisbrot repeatedly wrote about US complicity with the coup. The Nation also reported on the coup, as did the London Review of Books.

In my view, those of us who understood the US support for the military coup did not display any particular perspicacity. Anyone who knows anything about the US role in Latin America for the last 50 years wouldn’t be surprised at the story of the US supporting the overthrow of a left-wing Latin American government, even if democratic. A no less remarkable part of this story in Australia is that this military coup, and the resistance to it, took place shortly after the Green Uprising in Iran, responding to the rigged elections (I’ll note defensively that I wrote about them too).

Surely, both were outrageous. The populations in both countries displayed considerable bravery in their resistance to repression. Yet Honduras was a democracy, whereas the Green movement rallied behind a reformist candidate for president, who did not threaten the underlying theocratic apparatus of oppression, and who incidentally had his own grizzly record while Prime Minister of Iran. However, the Iranian government is opposed to the West and defies the US, whereas the coup regime overthrew a left-wing government the US didn’t like. The Australian media overwhelmingly ignored the Honduran coup, while overflowing with sympathetic op eds and coverage of the Iranian protests and repression. The major exception was ABC Unleashed, which ran an op-ed on the Honduran coup.

It was a few days after the Honduran coup that Greg Sheridan wrote a spray at the Left for abandoning the people of Iran. Andrew Bolt quoted it approvingly. Seemingly, neither noticed the coup in Honduras. So far as I know, they still haven’t.

We should celebrate WikiLeaks, and its important revelations. Yet, in my view, it is not just the failings of government that it has helped expose. Hopefully, this can be used as an opportunity to re-examine the coup in Honduras, and also to look closer at home to whether our media is properly holding governments to account.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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  1. ‘Cablegate’ has made mainstream Australian media appear as slow witted, conservative, uncreative and risk-averse as the politicians it reports on. While the rest of the world was processing the implications of the situation, Australian media was producing feeble and, frankly, beside the point stories about Julian, his identity and immediate family. They appear to still be in the process of deciding what should be said on the matter, and how to say it.

    Maybe there is simply nobody left in the office who can write in longform, maybe it’s the safe option or maybe we’re conditioned to be more interested in the person behind the story than the story. Whatever it is, it needs to change – a change that Assange, perhaps naively, thinks the WikiLeaks quest will help achieve. Until that happens, a fiercely independent media, at least a mainstream one, does indeed seem farfetched.

    Thank you for your brave reporting, Michael. Thank you also for bringing attention back to the contents of the cables, devastating though they may be.

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