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Honduras: Deja Coup and the Forgotten “Autogolpe”

by | July 13th, 2009 | 11:14 am
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Adam Thomson, in the Financial Times on July 10, writes of the coup in Honduras as an echo of 1980s violence in Central America. But, in fact, the past is not as distant as much of the coverage of the coup suggests and the seemingly forgotten autogolpe, or “self coup” in Guatemala in 1993 may offer some lessons for today.

As documented in the case study in my book on economic sanctions (with Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Jeffrey J. Schott), President Jorge Serrano, with the support of the military, dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court, suspended the constitution, and arrested political opponents. In less than two weeks, however, both the president and vice president had stepped down and the Guatemalan Congress had appointed the country’s human rights commissioner as interim president until elections could be held.

While there are important differences between the situation in Guatemala then and Honduras today, there are also differences in the response of the international community. Then, the United States not only cut off economic aid within 4 days of the coup, it also threatened to revoke Guatemala’s preferential access to the US market for its exports. The Organization of American States (OAS), as it has done today, condemned the coup and announced plans to send a fact-finding mission to Guatemala; the European Community suspended aid the day after the United States, and Japan followed a few days after that.

Within days, the Guatemalan military ousted Serrano and, after some confusion, tried to install Vice President Espina. That action was met with protests in Guatemala and a renewed threat from US Secretary of State Warren Christopher that the United States would impose trade sanctions if democracy was not quickly restored. Two days later, the military and Espina gave way and Human Rights Commissioner Ramiro De Leon Carpio was appointed interim president.

The reaction to the coup in Honduras was similarly swift, but somewhat more ambivalent, with the United States suspending disbursements of a small amount of aid but not raising the possibility of trade sanctions, as also noted by Robert Naiman in today’s Huffington Post. There are reasons to be careful in the use of trade sanctions, because they can be perverted for narrow, protectionist purposes and can harm innocent civilians in the target country. But the Guatemalan case shows that just the threat of restricting exports, when made forcefully, can be a powerful tool.

Kimberly Ann Elliott, visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, which published this blog posting on From the Center on its website.

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