Secretary Clinton Doesn’t Get the Power of Nonviolence in Honduras
By Al Giordano
(Photo: July 15, US State Department photograph.)
As thousands of Honduran citizens peacefully blockaded the central highways of their nation yesterday, bringing its commerce under a coup regime to a halt, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Washington with her Canadian and Mexican counterparts.
At a joint appearance for the press with Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, Clinton’s prepared remarks included this paragraph on Honduras:
“We discussed a range of global issues that affect us as well as closer to home; particularly the political crisis in Honduras. We reaffirmed our commitment to restore constitutional and democratic order, and underscored our support for the dialogue process that was started by President Arias. We support a peaceful, negotiated resolution and urge other countries to play a positive role in achieving that outcome, and to refrain from any actions that could lead to violence.”
Had the Secretary urged all to “refrain from acts of violence,” that would have been standard boilerplate diplo-speak. But she twisted the concept when she said, “refrain from any actions that could lead to violence.”
Secretary Clinton’s advice, if heeded, would have deterred Mohandas K. Gandhi, in 1930, from launching his Salt March. The British Viceroy in India called it “a course of action which is clearly bound to involve violation of the law and danger to the public peace.” One abridged version of the story offered this summary of what happened:
“The non-violent satyagrahis did not defend themselves against the clubs of policemen, and many were killed instantly. The world embraced the satyagrahis and their non-violence, and eventually enabled India to gain their freedom from Britain.”
Secretary Clinton’s advice, if taken, would have deterred African-American college students in Nashville (or in Jackson, Mississippi, in the photograph) from sitting down at the racially segregated lunch counters. The Nashville students did so in Woolworths, McClellan and Walgreens stores on February 27, 1960. One account summarizes what happened:
“Some were pulled from their seats and beaten and one was pushed down a flight of stairs. When police arrived, the white attackers fled and none were arrested. Police then ordered the demonstrators at all three locations to leave the stores. When the demonstrators refused to leave, they were arrested and loaded into police vehicles as onlookers applauded.”
Less than three months later, major stores in Nashville desegregated their lunch counters: one of the tangible victories for civil resistance that inspired the Civil Rights movement everywhere to push on to victory.
On the very same yesterday, Secretary Clinton’s boss, President Barack Obama spoke at the NAACP convention, an organization that participated in similar historic acts. He said, of the founders of American democracy:
“They also knew that here, in America, change would have to come from the people. It would come from people protesting lynchings, rallying against violence, all those women who decided to walk instead of taking the bus, even though they were tired after a long day of doing somebody else's laundry, looking after somebody else's children. (Applause.) It would come from men and women of every age and faith, and every race and region -- taking Greyhounds on Freedom Rides; sitting down at Greensboro lunch counters; registering voters in rural Mississippi, knowing they would be harassed, knowing they would be beaten, knowing that some of them might never return.”
Secretary Clinton’s remarks yesterday directly contradicted those of the president. Had the Freedom Riders – mentioned by Obama - heeded Clinton’s advice, they never would have boarded their bus, as it was an action that “could lead to violence”:
“Two hours before the Trailways bus was scheduled to arrive in Birmingham, difficulty began in Anniston, Alabama. When they arrived the Klan was waiting. The Klan boarded the bus, beat the blacks sitting in the front and forced them to the back of the bus. The bus then proceeded with Klan members on board to Birmingham where they were beat by more Klansmen.
“The Greyhound bus was also stopped in Anniston by an angry mob. When the bus attempted to proceed to Birmingham, the Klan slashed the tires. The bus made it just outside of Anniston and then was forced to stop. The Klan had followed and with the bus stranded, they held the door closed and threw a firebomb into the bus. The riders escaped before the bus was fully engulfed in flames.”
Had those who the President remembered for “registering voters in Mississippi” followed Secretary Clinton’s advice, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner never would have done something so violence-provoking as signing up African-American voters in a segregation state, a work of community organizing for which they were assassinated.
The President, in his remarks last night, expressly acknowledged that the participants in those historic nonviolent struggles undertook their actions even though they could lead to violence, knowing that “they would be harassed, knowing they would be beaten, knowing that some of them might never return.”
Which brings us to Honduras in the present moment.
Yesterday, the social movements of Honduras demonstrated through peaceful blockades throughout the country the same power of nonviolent action that was utilized by those the US President praised at last night’s NAACP dinner.
Even after Honduras’ coup Dictator-for-20-Days Roberto Micheletti had told reporters, on Wednesday, that the demonstrators would be carrying guns (thus justifying his imposition anew of a military curfew upon the land), the country’s pro-democracy demonstrators demonstrated the unity, planning and discipline that marks all the struggles praised by Obama, above.
Even Honduras’ police forces, at the end of a day that successfully paralyzed the country under an illegitimate regime, had to admit it, according to the EFE news agency:
"The protests have been carried out in a peaceful manner, according to the leaders and spokesmen of the police who had warned about the possibility of disturbances."
And yet because their peaceful protest “could lead to violence” – not by the demonstrators, but by the regime that feels threatened by them enough to have already arrested 1,068 dissidents in the last twenty days according to the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (Cofadeh, in its Spanish initials) – Secretary of State Clinton is doing untold damage with her public scolding that the standard to avoid is not violence itself, but “actions that could lead to violence.”
To set “actions that could lead to violence” as the standard by which actions should be judged is to spit on all the nonviolent organizers and movements mentioned by President Obama above, and also the brave pro-democracy multitudes in Honduras' civil resistance. It does so because it robs the power from the hands of the only authentic protagonists of this story – the Honduran people – and puts it in the hands of anyone that would do violence to them.
If the regime doesn’t like peaceful blockades, as it surely does not, Secretary Clinton’s statement gives it greater incentive to use violence against them because such reaction would then define the blockades as “actions that led to violence.”
It is akin to attempting to tie the hands of the plurality of Honduras citizens (according to the Gallup Poll) that want the coup regime ended.
It is aimed, especially, at Honduras’ elected but forcibly exiled President Manuel Zelaya and his vow to return to his country even under threat of imprisonment. (The regime had the opportunity to arrest him again on July 5, but had such fear of how the people would respond to such a blatant act of tyranny that it had to line up soldiers and trucks on the airstrip to prevent any plane from landing.)
Today, Friday, July 17, the peaceful blockades enter their second day. On the first day, they successfully shut down the country’s highways, east, west, north and south, and cut off the capital city and the country’s commercial centers.
As Dan Kovalic of the United Steelworkers Union in the US reported upon his recent return from Honduras with a delegation organized by School of the Americas Watch:
“Obama has made very strong statements against the coup, which frankly, I think, has made him a very popular figure amongst the social groups in Honduras who are calling for President Zelaya’s return, and with the average person in Honduras. But frankly he is seen as an enemy by the elites there who want the coup to continue. His statements have been heard down there, and he is definitely being seen as on the side of the return of President Zelaya and on the side of democracy. At the same time, there is some leeriness, given US past policy in Honduras – long-standing policy, in which we really treated Honduras as more or less a military outpost of the United States. There is some fear that other sectors of the US government and the US military may be more favorable to the coup. Also some of the statements that Hillary Clinton has made have been very vague and noncommittal in terms of whether she wants Zelaya to return or not.”
Secretary Clinton’s failure to grasp the difference between “acts of violence” and “actions that could lead to violence” put at risk all the goodwill that President Obama has garnered - unprecedented for a US president in recent decades - not just in Honduras but throughout the hemisphere of América.
And this was the worry, back in November of 2008 when Judge Abner Mikva and I and many others were responding to the initial rumors that Obama would name Clinton as Secretary of State. Back then I warned:
“And you might say that, ‘the next Secretary of State will have to follow the policies of the next president.’ In an ideal world, that would be true. But so much happens, day in, day out, in so many lands... so many daily attacks on dissidents, community organizers, and others who dare speak and act to improve their lives... that no US president could possibly micro-manage the situation and take preemptive action on each pending atrocity from the Oval Office. That's what a State Department is for: to handle the constant communications that are necessary with other governments.
“And if -- as the mass media seems to agree right now -- US President-elect Barack Obama is about to install someone as the next Secretary of State who has shown zero understanding of, much less passion and action for, human rights in Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere (except in isolated cases where the same mass media has turned a particular case into an international cause celébre), we're going to see more of the same terrible story happen over and over again.”
Well it’s happening now, in large part because Secretary Clinton apparently doesn’t understand the difference between “acts of violence” and “actions that could lead to violence.” She apparently doesn't even understand some of the words she so often uses like "smart power" and "soft power," because all who do get it today marvel at how the anti-coup citizenry of Honduras is utilizing them far more effectively than Washington right now.
Truth is, Secretary Clinton’s statement yesterday was itself one of those very actions she decried, “actions that could lead to violence,” and it suggests very strongly that she is fundamentally incapable of understanding, much less supporting, the very kinds of nonviolent action that, today, are the only alternative to civil war in Honduras, and often the only alternative to wars and repression all over the world.
The Secretary just doesn’t get it. And this is doing profound damage already to democracy in this hemisphere, including to the United States and the president's own stated goals for a new era in US-Latin America relations. While the entire hemisphere is moving forward, while Martin Luther King's "arc of the universe bends toward justice," oft quoted by President Obama, Secretary Clinton is evidently trying to bend that arc back the other way.
Update: Adding to the negative consequences of Secretary Clinton's statements are how easily they lend themselves to distortion by the pro-coup press in Honduras and elsewhere. The daily La Prensa in Tegucigalpa (yes, the same newspaper that photoshopped the blood out of the picture of assassinated youth Isis Obed Murillo last week) has just run the following headline: "Hillary Demands that Chávez Not Interfere in Honduras." Secretary Clinton made no mention of the Venezuelan president in her remarks. But they were vague enough, with enough wiggle room, to become the basis for that kind of headline from the corrupt and dishonest sector of the Honduran media. A certain ineptness is increasingly peeking through the mist at Foggy Bottom.