Thursday, March 30, 2017


Harry Targ

A Military Coup in Honduras

Sunday, June 28, 2009 the Honduran military carried out a Coup ousting duly elected President Manuel Zelaya from power. Almost immediately leaders of Western Hemisphere nations condemned the actions taken in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. For example, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) asserted that the days of military coups as a mechanism of the transfer of power were over in Latin America.

President Obama said on the following day that "it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections…. The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don't want to go back to a dark past."

On June 30, the United Nations General Assembly passed by acclamation a non-binding resolution condemning the military action and demanding that Zelaya be returned to office. Political opposites from former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, to Barack Obama took the same position on the events in Honduras, although Chavez articulated the view that the United States had a role in the Coup.

The New York Times reported on the Coup and the mass mobilizations in Honduras protesting it. The story did editorialize by pointing out that Zelaya, who was elected in 2006, was closely allied with Hugo Chavez and had linked Honduras to the Chavez led “leftist alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.” The Times further reported that there were large scale protests in the capital of Honduras in support of the Coup. And they claimed that Zelaya would have had no world significance if it were not for the Coup which made him famous.

Subsequent to the worldwide condemnations, including from the Obama administration, two elections were held ignoring the Coup, one later in 2009 and another in 2013. In other words, former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted was never allowed to return to office.

Journalist John Perry wrote three years after the Coup that Honduras had distinguished itself by its escalating violence. “…the murder rate is four times that of Mexico and it has become the world’s most dangerous country for journalists with 23 having been assassinated over the last three years.” Perry pointed out that in the Northeast of the country big landowners struggled against small farmers who sought to keep control of their land and the area has become a transit point for drug smuggling (John Perry, “Honduras--Three Years After the Coup,” June 27, 2012.) 
The Relevance of Central American History for Today

The horrific migrations of the young and their families from the Central American war zones in 2014 (and earlier) are explained by media and politicians as caused by the quest of migrants for an improved standard of living to be found in the United States, or flight from homegrown drug gangs, or loose talk from President Obama about asylum for refugees, or failures of the Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform legislation. These common narratives ignore the history of United States imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and particularly the grotesque U.S. inspired violence against the Central American peoples launched by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Also, they do not address the economic devastation in the region caused by neo-liberal economic policies imposed by the debt and trade systems. Any serious discussion of the current refugee crisis of thousands of young people fleeing poverty and violence should include the following:

First, the Western Hemisphere has experienced hundreds of years of shifting external interference, mass murder and economic exploitation of natural resources, agricultural lands, cheap labor, and sweat shop workers. The Spanish, the British, and the United States figured most prominently in this unhappy story, referred to by Eduardo Galeano as “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.”

Second, twentieth century Central America was dramatically shaped by over thirty U.S. military incursions and occupations in Central America and the Caribbean between 1898 and the 1930s. For example, U.S. troops were sent to Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, and 1924-25.

Third, economic ruling classes in the Hemisphere and their foreign partners increasingly were forced to rely on strong military forces to crush domestic opposition to elite rule and devastating poverty and exploitation. Particularly in Central America, the military as an institution became a material force, sometimes independent of the economic ruling class. From the early 1930s until the end of World War II military dictatorships ruled each of the five Central American countries. Later, in the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, 2/3 of the land mass and population of Latin America was ruled by brutal military dictatorship: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most prominent.

Fourth, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the struggle against “international communism” to Central America. He launched and supported brutal wars against the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan people and looked the other way as the Guatemalan generals engaged in genocide against the majority indigenous population of that country. An estimated 400,000 Central America peoples died in these U.S. supported wars.

Honduras, before 1980, was a country with less violent military rule and only received modest amounts of U.S. military aid. However, as a result of Reagan’s wars in Central America, Honduras became the military base for U.S. operations in the region; training the contra rebels fighting against the Nicaraguan government and providing training and military support operations for Salvadoran troops fighting against FMLN rebels. Honduras received more military aid from the United States in the mid-1980s, than it did during the prior thirty years. Thousands of U.S. troops, numerous air strips, and field exercises for summer National Guard troops made Honduras a U.S. armed camp.

Fifth, parallel to the war on communism in the Western Hemisphere, the Reagan administration forced on the countries of the region the neo-liberal economic policies of downsizing government, deregulation, privatization, free trade, and shifts to export-oriented production. In the 1980s, the economic consequences of these policies were referred to by Latin American scholars as “the lost decade.”

While the economies of Central American countries have improved since the 1980s, they remain poor and dependent. Honduras is the poorest of the five countries in the region. In 2003 its per capita Gross Domestic Product was $803 (the regional figure was $1,405). A little over 9 percent of its earnings came from overseas remittances. Honduran debt constituted 66 percent of total GDP. And life expectancy was 66 years.

This brief review of some of the Latin American experience was part of the story of the 2009 coup, the escalation of domestic violence that ensued in the country since then, and the refugee crisis today. The histories of Guatemala and El Salvador have been similar. Even though elections in El Salvador brought former guerrilla members to power, U.S. and domestic elite opposition to radical reforms in that country have stifled the fundamental changes needed to transform the lives of the people there.

The Refugees as Victims of Imperialism

In general, we first should remember that whenever the interests of foreign investors (particularly from the United States), domestic ruling classes and/or military elites were threatened by international political forces and/or domestic mobilization of workers and peasants, the military moved in to reverse the forces of history.

Second, the United States has played a direct role in such interventions and has provided military assistance and training for military officers of all Latin American militaries ever since the end of World War II. (The training facility used to be called The School of the Americas and now is officially The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).

Third, military interventionism and covert operations have been paralleled by economic intervention through the debt system, foreign investment, trade agreements, and quotas and embargoes of goods from Latin American countries.

Fourth, the winds of change that were initiated in the 1960s in the region were first stifled and isolated, then spread in the 1980s and beyond. Most recently, countries as varied as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela have begun to step in a new direction; away from the neo-liberal economic model, away from deference to traditional great powers, and in resistance to the United States. (Honduras had begun to move in this direction as well before the Coup).

Most importantly, these countries, and other countries from the Global South in Asia and Africa, have been constructing new economic and political institutions that might transform an international economic and political system based on 500 years of North Atlantic rule. The fact that 192 countries in the United Nations condemned the Honduran Coup in 2009 suggested that this battle has gone beyond the simplistic New York Times frame that the Honduran battle was merely about competing special interests.

President Obama evidenced a sense of the history of U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and the role that regional domestic economic and military elites played in Central American countries when he criticized the 2009 coup in Honduras. However, his subsequent support of those who carried out the Coup and who refused to allow the ousted President to return, signaled that he would be returning to the traditional U.S. approach to the region. And the traditional United States policy supporting the consolidation of foreign investments and domestic wealth in Central America and  profit derived from the drug wars is connected to the  pain and suffering of Central American peoples.

Of course, a serious effort to address the refugee problem today would have to include a U.S. shift to support popular forces in the region, rejection of draconian neo-liberal policies, regional  allocation of economic assistance to stimulate grassroots economic institutions with people producing for domestic consumption, and radical disarmament of Central American militaries, police, and drug gangs. It would be a tall order but a worthy one for solidarity activists in the United States and the rest of the Hemisphere to support.

Finally, in the short-term, progressives should demand that the children entering the United States be treated as refugees and provided safety and security. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream I Ever Dreamed Before. I Dreamed the World Had All Agreed to Put an End to War"

Harry Targ

I went to bed last night with a sense of impending doom as a handful of elected leaders announced plans to reduce access to health care for people who are poor and of moderate income. They already made it clear that they want to end women’s access to reproductive healthcare, programs delivering food to the elderly, and money for public institutions including schools, libraries, the arts, roads and bridges, and public transportation. And all the funds for these projects, meager though they were, will be shifted to a new generation of nuclear weapons, drones, armies, military contracts with multinational corporations and universities so that “we can win wars again.”

But I had a dream about a different kind of society that could be created not by financiers, CEOS of multinational corporations, generals, university presidents, think tank geniuses, heads of the national and local security apparatuses but by people at the grassroots.

Years ago I wrote about such a society with ideas culled from the literature on utopian thought and practice and the New Left and Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s.

Today I would deemphasize my grassroots bias and excessive fears about the possibility of creating humane national institutions. But what I think remains true about the vision below is not the details but the commitment to social and economic justice, equality of access to resources, the elimination of exploitation and oppression based on class, race, gender, or sexual preference, and a sensitivity to human compatibility with the natural environment.

The vision of a new society challenges inequality, hate, violence and war, and the view that humans are sinful creatures without the capacity for human empathy. The new social movements of 2017 offer the hope, indeed the necessity, of bringing this dream to reality. 


(original post: November 9, 2013)

We live in a world dominated by global capital, a world in which capital divides us, setting the people of each country against each other to see who can produce more cheaply by driving wages, working conditions, and environmental standards to the lowest level in order to survive in the war of all against all….The most immediate obstacle, though is the belief in TINA (There is No Alternative, HT). Without the vision of a better world, every crisis of capitalism (such as the one upon us) can bring in the end only a painful restructuring--with the pain felt by those already exploited and excluded. (Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, Monthly Review, 2006, 50).

The material below is a revision of an essay I published some time ago inspired by youthful debates many were having about what kind of society we need to create to facilitate the full flowering of humankind (“Social Science and a New Social Order,” Journal of Peace Research, 1971). As Lebowitz implies we need to return to conversations about what a better future would look like. If we fail to talk about our preferred future we will become overwhelmed with cynicism and lose the capacity to do more than react to those who want to reverse legislative gains.

Specific features of a new society

Progressive visions of a new society draw upon real and imagined communities that provide for the socio-economic and psychic needs of their members. Many of these visions include the following principles:

a)    A new society requires equal or equitable distribution of economic resources. This principle presupposes also a commitment to racial justice, gender equality, the right to love and bond with whomever one chooses, and a vision of the oneness of humankind with nature.

b)    A new society should consist of basic socio-political units that do not exceed a size whereby all people in the unit can and do interact with each other. Voluntary face-to-face contact and knowledge of the values, beliefs, and desires of other community members will increase modes of cooperation which are central to the viability of the new society.

c)    Political, social, and economic decisions should be made on the basis of voluntary participation. Those decisions that affect people’s lives will be made on the basis of their involvement.

d)     Political decision-making may entail one of or a combination of three possible  modes. Some communities might decide to make decisions on the basis of complete consensus and others might decide on the use of majority rule. Some communities might create representative bodies to make decisions for the larger community with regular rotation of leaders.

e)    Political, social, and economic units might be defined as temporary so that the  
dissolution and adjustment of these units can be carried out at any time. Communities ought to continue only so long as they fulfill the needs of their members. However, while embracing change, communities might find virtue in providing some institutional continuity over time, particularly in terms of economic wellbeing.

Assumptions of the new society

Any new society that we envision, of course, will be based upon underlying assumptions. Evaluation of each plan necessitates a critical analysis of both its central features and the explicit and implicit assumptions embedded in it. For example the proposals made above make several assumptions:

a)    A new society based upon local control and participatory democracy assumes that this control in conjunction with equal distribution of resources will decrease the level of alienation among the population and hence the incidence of social bigotry. The more humans control their own social and physical environment, the less likely they will be to project hostilities onto others. Similarly, if they have equal access to economic resources, no material justification for hostility will exist.

b)    Although it is assumed that an equitable distribution of resources, community control, and the possibility of mobility will dramatically reduce conflict between socio-political units, conflicts from a variety of causes will probably persist. However, internal and cross- community conflict will be in what may be called 'human scale' because the scope and intensity of conflict among small communities will be greatly reduced.

The 'enemy' will not be an abstraction in the new society but the real person living across one's communal borders. As political scientist Quincy Wright put it a long time ago, “the larger the group and the less accessible all its members to direct sensory contact with all the others and their activities, the less available are instinct, custom, or universal acceptance as bases of group behavior, and the more symbols and opinions about them are the stimuli and guides for behavior. In the large groups which make war in modern civilization, symbols have been responsible for initiating and guiding that particular behavior.” 'Direct sensory contact' will replace symbol manipulation by economic and political elites in the nation state.

c)    The emphasis on primary political and social control at the community level and the creation of small-scale societies necessitate the existence of some significant cross-community or cross-national units, significant for certain functions such as dispersal of funds throughout a nation or region.

Three possible superordinate units could emerge. The most likely in the near future would be the mixed centralized-decentralized system proposed by Paul Goodman whereby 'non-human' actions are carried out at the national level such as the dispersal of resources to communities, accounting operations, and other computerized actions. Intermediate units such as state governments could be eliminated, and the significant decisions affecting individuals made in their communities. Another alternative involves the creation of domestic or international regions providing the superordinate functions in conjunction with the communities. Superordinate limited political units could emerge out of transformations of regional international organizations such as the European Union or the North American Free Trade Agreement. Finally, the breakdown of the nation-state might yield a new macro-micro community interaction system. Any of these possibilities requires that superordinate functions must be clearly defined, made as automatic as possible (not subject to technocratic manipulation), and structures must be continuously evaluated.

d) Central to the new society is the assumption that society can develop a new non-work ethos, that the system of economic abundance and automation, when stripped of its false productivity, consumption, featherbedding, and the imposition of scarcities, can reduce some of what we know as laborious work. Traditional labor could be reduced although other work such as care giving is likely to increase. And given the reduction of work, human beings can find ways to use life time for sociability and pleasure as well as necessary labor. This suggests several alternative life styles, including extensive continuous education and community participation in the arts.

e)It is further assumed that the wealth and income of the world would be redistributed transforming the economic system whereby basic needs and functional comforts are made available to all. National armies, hand-picked neo-colonial elites, and foreign corporations no longer will control the direction of change in the Global South allowing members of the latter to choose their destinies independently. Further as the new societies spread from territory to territory one might hope for the emergence of economic redistribution that provides comforts for the world’s citizens. The stimulus for change could begin locally and nationally and spread throughout the world.

f) Finally, the vision of the new society assumes the possibility and, indeed, the necessity of humans regaining control of the technological world. Developed societies have experienced the growth and dominance of organizational/technological rationality, a rationality committed to organizational maintenance and expansion irrespective of the human needs of its members. The goal of a new society is ultimately to achieve individual and community rationality based upon means and ends in human scale. Specifically, a new social order presupposes that technology can be decentralized, that efficiency necessary for modern existence does not require centralized political and social control. Social organization can determine technological organization.

Strategies for change

Political activists spend much time discussing strategies for change. Scrutiny of relevant history and assessments of contemporary practice are most beneficially used by progressives to guide their efforts to bring about change within communities, nations, and the international system. It is presumed that to bring about a new society such as that discussed above, a multiplicity of strategies need to be utilized, giving credence to personality, environmental, and systemic variations--and class, race, and gender--with particular emphasis upon spontaneity, creativity, self-doubt, and constant reappraisal.

Of continued importance to change and of utility for achieving a new society is continued education—education for change which would be truly revolutionary. 

Education involves, where relevant, academic argumentation, political organization around specific issues, and personal commitments in visible ways to new value systems and life styles. Substantial change requires mass support: hence large numbers of people must be exposed to the spirit of a new society so that they see alternatives and, hopefully, choose to work for their achievement.

Along with educational value, the building of new institutions may provide the skeletal structures of a new society within the parameters of the old. With increasing tension and disarray in 21st century societies, the existence of new, more appealing alternative embryonic structures will provide the substance for new loyalties and commitments when the threshold of tensions make new institutions crucial. As Staughton Lynd has argued, radical social change in the United States occurred when people, of necessity, built new institutions at the community level and crises stimulated the development of new loyalties to these institutions. Eventually the substance of these institutions spilled over from community to community across the nation. The growth of worker cooperatives might be an example.

Finally, those seeking the achievement of a new social order should involve themselves in the ongoing political process, openly and honestly articulating the substance of principles explicit in the quest for a new society. This means the utilization of electoral politics, street heat, and left organizing to communicate with the public, to build people power, and to achieve policies that move towards a new society.

Let us fight cynicism and resume the debate about building a better future!