Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

September 22, 2009

Terror in Tegucigalpa, How right-wing plotters seized power in Honduras and what they are doing to keep it, by Enrico Tortolano, September 21, 2009

On June 28, Honduras’ elected President, Manuel Zelaya, was kidnapped by the military and forced out of the country – on the day Hondurans were supposed to vote in a non-binding referendum on changing the country’s constitution.

Since then, in events reminiscent of the bloody coup orchestrated by Augusto Pinochet in Chile 36 years ago, the Honduran military and police, under orders from coup leader Roberto Micheletti, have carried out a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters. Hundreds of trade unionists and human rights activists who support Zelaya have been arrested and tortured. Scores of protesters have been injured and an unknown number have been killed. They include Abraham Vallejo Cerrado, who was unarmed when members of the security forces shot him in the head. Those who managed to escape the bloodbath in the capital, Tegucigalpa, are being hunted down.

Despite media attempts to paint Zelaya as a radical, he is no revolutionary. A wealthy landowner representing the centre-right Liberal Party, he was elected President in 2005. However, affected by the poverty and misery that plagues his country, he implemented a number of moderate reforms designed to assist the poorest, notably a 60 per cent increase in the minimum wage.

Having started as a supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he revised his economic philosophy when he saw for himself the catastrophic damage these policies had caused. In 2008, he took Honduras into the regional alliance promoted by Venezuela, the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas.

However, it was Zelaya’s move to update the constitution – a document that favours the privileges of the ruling oligarchy – that united the disparate opposition behind a coup.

If a majority supported his proposal, as seemed likely, Zelaya had declared that a referendum would be held on the same day as the November 29 elections. Predictably, the Supreme Court, the right-wing dominated Congress and the military, which is responsible for organising elections in Honduras, all opposed the referendum which threatened their grip on power. When Zelaya refused to retreat, they overthrew him.

Supporters of the coup claim Zelaya’s main motivation was to change the constitution so he could run for a further term. Zelaya denies this. Mild as his reforms have been, the president was threatening the interests of the Honduran ruling class. The call for a constituent assembly could have raised hopes of more fundamental change.

As political theorist Ralph Miliband observed after the coup in Chile in 1973: “It is not possible to discuss social change in Latin America without bringing into account external intervention, more specifically and obviously the intervention of United States imperialism”.

Recently released documents show the 2009 coup has the fingerprints of the US all over it. Congress and the US State Department funded and advised individuals and organisations in Honduras that took part in the coup. The International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy have funded organisations that participated in the coup to the tune of more than $50 million a year in the name of “democracy promotion”. The Honduran armed forces are funded, trained and commanded by the US military.

From the first day of the coup, Washington has referred to “both parties” involved and the necessity for “dialogue” to restore constitutional order. This legitimises the coup leaders by regarding them as political equals rather than criminal violators of human rights and democratic principles.

Nevertheless, at the request of Hillary Clinton, Zelaya accepted the mediation of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. This opened negotiations between Zelaya and the new regime, but these turned out to be a time-buying scheme to sanction the latter.

As the volume of opposition voices increased, the generals panicked and declared a state of siege with thousands of troops and police patrolling the streets of Tegucigalpa. The regime has closed down independent media outlets and detained and expelled journalists from Venezuela and Telesur (the international Latin American news channel).

Yet despite the savage repression, thousands of trade unionists, indigenous people, agricultural workers and women’s organisations have responded to the FNRG’s (National Front to Resist the Coup) call for organised resistance and massed in front of the US embassy in Tegucigalpa.

Zelaya has appealed to his supporters to stay on the streets, as “it’s the only place that they have not been able to take away from us”. He told reporters: “We have started organising internal resistance for my return to the country”.

Left-wing congressman Marvin Ponce went further: “The people owe Honduras a revolution and, if the legitimate President is not reinstated, there will be a confrontation between social classes”.

Once again, a small impoverished country is the scene of an ideological conflict that threatens to engulf other nations. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for helping to resolve Central America’s civil wars in the 1990s, is right to warn about the implications for the region if the coup is successful.

In Guatemala, the ultra right-wing generals who target trade unionists and human

rights activists are desperate to stage their own coup and are likely to see a successful military takeover in Honduras as a green light.

Pablo Monsanto, a former guerrilla leader in Guatemala and a signatory to the country’s 1996 peace accords, has warned of more coups in Latin America if democracy is not restored to Honduras. “Armed rebel movements were not appropriate for the new democratic trend in the region, but are now a real fact that would have to be faced in the wake of a post-coup government that repressed its population by force.”

Barack Obama was elected on a ticket of change. However, the dark forces of conservatism – the CIA, transnational companies, international finance institutions and the corporate media – still control the main organs of power and have little intention of stopping the exploitation of Latin America.

In spite of this, after much deliberation, the US government has said it will suspend all aid and assistance to Honduras because of the coup regime’s failure to restore “democratic and constitutional rule”. Zelaya welcomed this, claiming he would return to his country as soon as he had exhausted all channels of international diplomacy. The coup leaders responded, without any trace of irony, by sending a letter to the US State Department threatening to do anything to “ensure the survival and the success of liberty and democracy in our country”.

Faced with massive social unrest and an economic stranglehold, it is doubtful whether this disparate band will be able to maintain its grip on power. The final attempt to legitimise the coup will be the elections in November. But this is almost certain to fail. The resistance intends to boycott the poll. The US has said that “at this moment” it would not recognise the outcome of the elections.

However, extreme right Republicans have sided with the new regime, made clear they will recognise the election and are lobbying tenaciously to get aid flowing again. Obama’s next course of action will determine not just the outcome in Honduras, but the future of US policies in the region.

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