The June 28 coup against Manuel Zelaya of Honduras represents a last ditch effort by Honduras’s entrenched economic and political interests to stave off the advance of the new left governments that have taken hold in Latin America over the past decade. As Zelaya proclaimed after being forcibly dumped in Costa Rica: "This is a vicious plot planned by elites. The elites only want to keep the country isolated and in extreme poverty."
Zelaya should know, since his roots are in the country’s land-owning class, having devoted most of his life to agriculture and forestry enterprises that he inherited. He ran for president as the head of the center-right Liberal Party on a fairly conservative platform, promising to be tough on crime and to cut the budget. Inaugurated in January 2006, he supported the U.S.-backed Central American Free Trade Agreement, which had been signed two years earlier, and continued the economic policies of neo-liberalism, privatizing state held enterprises.
Thousands march in Honduras in support of the ousted president, July 2009; the military has detained hundreds of protesters and shot demonstrators—photo from chiapas.indymedia.org
But about halfway into his four year term, the winds of change blowing from the south caught his imagination, particularly those coming from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. With no petroleum resources, Honduras signed a generous oil subsidy deal with Venezuela and then last year joined the emergent regional trade bloc ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas). Inspired by Venezuela, the organization—renamed this June as the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America—now has Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Dominica, and Ecuador as members. Simultaneously, Zelaya implemented domestic reform policies, significantly increasing the minimum wage of workers and teachers, while stepping up spending in health care and education.
The upshot is that a reform-minded president supported by labor unions and social organizations is now pitted against a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite accustomed to controlling the Supreme Court, Congress, and the presidency.
The Honduran elites were outraged that a member of their class would carry out even modest reforms. They began to portray Zelaya as a demagogue and demonized Hugo Chavez as trying to take over the country. When Zelaya announced that he would hold a plebiscite on June 28 to see if the country wanted to have the option in the upcoming November presidential elections to vote for convening a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution, the political establishment would have none of it. They incorrectly claimed that Zelaya was trying to stand for re-election. In fact, the possibility that a president might serve a second term could only emerge in a new constitution that would not be drafted until well after Zelaya left office in January 2010. The elites did however have reason to fear a new Magna Carta, since this is the path that Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have used to draft new constitutions to begin transforming their countries’ political, social, and economic structures.
The political establishment decided to quash the plebiscite. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and the military refused to help distribute the ballots. On June 24, Zelaya fired the head of the army, General Romeo Vasquez, and then led workers and social movement activists to seize ballots stored at an air force base for distribution. On June 28 at 6:00 AM, the day of the plebiscite, the military sent a special army unit to seize Zelaya and deport him to Costa Rica. The next day the Supreme Court levied charges of treason against Zelaya and Congress elevated its president, Roberto Micheletti, to the presidency.
The rest of the Americas, and most of the world, reacted with outrage. The Organization of American States (OAS) convened an emergency session and voted unanimously to call on the coup-makers to restore Zelaya to power. Regional organizations like the Group of Rio also denounced the coup, while the European Union and the World Bank announced that they were suspending economic assistance to Honduras. Even the more conservative governments of Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Felipe Calderon of Mexico felt compelled to denounce the coup.
What explains this virtually unanimous opposition to the coup? Most of Latin America still remembers the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s when three-quarters of the continent’s population fell under military rule. Countries like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil still bear the scars and traumas of this period, and do not want to contemplate any opening that would allow their militaries to begin interfering once again in the political sphere.
The United States is also publicly opposed to the coup, with President Obama denouncing it, saying it set a "terrible precedent" and that, "We do not want to go back to a dark past" in which coups often trumped elections. He added: "We always want to stand with democracy."
However, many observers are suspicious of how solid the U.S. stand against the coup is. Given his emphasis on multilateralism, Obama may have had little choice, knowing that his predecessor George W. Bush had roiled Latin America when he rushed to endorse the last coup attempt in the region against Chavez in 2002.
The State Department has taken a more tepid stance. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked if "restoring the constitutional order" in Honduras meant restoring Zelaya, she would not say yes. When Zelaya brought up his plans for the June referendum, U.S. officials took the position that it was unconstitutional and would inflame the political situation.
Demonstrator waits at the Toncontin Airport for President Zelaya’s return, but coup leaders denied permission for his plane to land—photo from chiapas.indymedia.org
Washington also has a very close relationship with the Honduran military, which goes back decades. During the 1980s the U.S. used bases in Honduras to train and arm the Contras, Nicaraguan paramilitaries who became known for atrocities in their war against the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. John Negroponte, who became the czar of intelligence during the Bush administration after serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, first achieved notoriety when he served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s and granted U.S. approval to death squads run by a special Honduran military unit against domestic opponents. General Romeo Vasquez is a two-time attendee (1976 and 1984) of the U.S.-based School of the Americas.
On July 1, the OAS meeting in Washington called for the immediate restoration of Zelaya. On July 4, the head of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile, along with the president of the UN General Assembly Miguel d’Escota of Nicaragua, tried to fly into Honduras with Zelaya, but were not permitted to land as the Honduran military occupied the airport.
In the weeks since then U.S. policy towards Honduras indicates that the Obama administration does not represent "change you can believe in." Rather, it is bent on imposing its will and propping up the status quo in Latin America, just as previous Administrations did.
The U.S. obsession with Venezuela is at the heart of its policy towards Zelaya. Philip Crowley, Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the State Department, stated that the coup should serve as a "lesson" for the deposed president who had signed trade and petroleum accords with Venezuela: "We certainly think that if we were choosing a model government and a model leader for countries of the region to follow, that the current leadership in Venezuela would not be a particular model. If that is the lesson that President Zelaya has learned from this episode, that would be a good lesson."
Then, in an August 5 letter to Senator Richard Lugar, the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the State Department declared that U.S. policy "is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual," meaning the Administration is no longer interested in restoring Zelaya.
While the OAS and the progressive governments of Latin America remain unwavering in their support of Zelaya, the key to his return to power now lies with the popular movement inside Honduras. Virtually every day brings reports of demonstrators in the streets of Tegucigalpa or of people marching on the capital from the countryside. Although nine known opponents of the regime have been assassinated, the demonstrators are not intimidated. "Fear is not really increasing," says Canadian activist Sandra Cuffe, who has spent the past six years working with popular movements in Honduras. "Outrage and indignation and determination and courage are. People are still out on the streets every day."
Roger Burbach is author of The Pinochet Affair and director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Berkeley, California.