Manuel Zelaya, Honduras

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In 2009 Ottawa tacitly supported the Honduran military’s removal of elected president Manuel Zelaya.

It was not until basically every country in the hemisphere denounced the coup that Ottawa finally did so and Notimex later reported that Canada was the only country in the hemisphere that did not explicitly call for Zelaya’s return to power. On a number of occasions Minister of State for the Americas Peter Kent said it was important to take into account the context in which the military overthrew Zelaya, telling the New York Times: “There is a context in which these events [the coup] happened.”

In the lead-up to his ouster the Harper government displayed a clear ambivalence towards Zelaya.  Early in June Kent criticized Zelaya, saying: “We have concerns with the government of Honduras.” The Conservatives opposed Zelaya’s plan for a binding public poll on whether to hold consultations to reopen the constitution, which had been written by a military government.

A week after the coup Zelaya tried to return to Honduras along with three Latin American heads of state. But the military blocked his plane from landing and kept over 100,000 supporters at bay. In doing so the military killed two protesters and wounded at least 30. On CTV Kent blamed Zelaya for the violence. Just before the elected president tried to fly into Tegucigalpa, Kent told the OAS the “time is not right” for a return, prompting Zelaya to respond dryly: “I could delay until January 27 [2010]” (when his term ended). Two weeks after trying to return by air Zelaya attempted to cross into Honduras by land from Nicaragua, which Kent once again criticized.

Despite the coup, Ottawa refused to exclude Honduras from its Military Training Assistance Program. Though only five Honduran troops were being trained in Canada, failing to suspend relations with a military responsible for overthrowing an elected government was highly symbolic. More significantly, Canada was the only major donor to Honduras — the largest recipient of Canadian assistance in Central America — that failed to sever any aid to the military government. The World Bank, European Union and even the US suspended some of their planned assistance to Honduras.

In response to the conflicting signals from North American leaders, the ousted Honduran foreign minister told TeleSur that Ottawa and Washington were providing “oxygen” to the military government. Patricia Rodas called on Canada and the US to suspend aid to the de facto regime. During an official visit to Mexico with Zelaya, Rodas asked Mexican president Felipe Calderon, who was about to meet Stephen Harper and Barak Obama, to lobby Ottawa and Washington on their behalf.

Five months after Zelaya was ousted the coup government held previously scheduled elections. During the campaign period the de facto government imposed martial law and censored media outlets. Dozens of candidates withdrew from local and national races and opposition presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes was hospitalized following a severe beating from security forces.

The November 2009 election was boycotted by the UN and OAS and most Hondurans abstained from the poll. Despite mandatory voting regulations, only 45 percent of those eligible cast a ballot (it may have been much lower as this was the government’s accounting). Still, Ottawa endorsed this electoral farce. “Canada congratulates the Honduran people for the relatively peaceful and orderly manner in which the country’s elections were conducted,” noted an official statement. While most countries in the region continued to shun post-coup Honduras, Ottawa immediately recognized Porfirio Lobo after he was inaugurated as Honduran president on January 27, 2010.

Among the biggest players in the small Central American country, Canadian companies had some $600-million invested in Honduras. Particular corporate interests motivated Ottawa’s hostility towards Zelaya. His move to raise the minimum wage by 60% at the start of 2009 could not have gone down well with one of the world’s biggest blank T-shirt makers. At the time of the coup Montréal based Gildan, which produced about half of its garments in the country. In 2008 Zelaya responded to grassroots pressure and announced that no newmining concessions would be granted, much to the chagrin of the Canadian mining companies that dominated Honduras’ extractive industry. The coup interrupted the final reading of a proposed mining law that called for greater community consent for mining projects as well as an end to open-pit mining and the use of cyanide in new concessions. It also raised royalty rates. Rights Action uncovered credible information that a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Goldcorp, the world’s second biggest gold producer, provided money to those who rallied in support of the coup.