How long can the Honduran crisis drag on, with President Manuel Zelaya, ousted in a military coup more than three months ago, trapped in Tegucigalpa’s Brazilian Embassy? Well, in early 1949 in Peru, Víctor Haya de la Torre–one of last century’s most important Latin American politicians–sought asylum in the Colombian Embassy in Lima, also following a military coup. There he remained for nearly six years, playing chess, baking cakes for the embassy staff’s children and writing books. Soldiers surrounded the building for the duration, with Peru’s authoritarian regime ignoring calls from the international community to end the siege, which was condemned by the Washington Post as a "canker in hemisphere relations."
So far Roberto Micheletti, installed by the coup as president, is showing the same obstinacy. Shortly after Zelaya’s surprise appearance in the Brazilian Embassy on September 21 after having entered the country unnoticed, probably from El Salvador or Nicaragua, the de facto president ordered troops to violently disperse a large crowd that had gathered around the embassy, using tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets, killing a number of protesters and wounding many. Amnesty International has documented a "sharp rise in police beatings, mass arrests of demonstrators, and intimidation of human rights defenders" since Zelaya’s return.
The government has suspended civil liberties and shut down independent sources of news, including the TV station Cholusat Sur and Radio Globo. In response to rolling protests throughout Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, security forces continue to round up demonstrators, holding some of the detained in soccer stadiums–evoking Chile in 1973, after Augusto Pinochet’s junta overthrew Salvador Allende, when security forces turned Santiago’s National Stadium into a torture chamber. The Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (COFADEH) says Hondurans are indeed being tortured, burned with cigarettes and sodomized by batons, and that some of the torturers are veterans of Battalion 316, an infamous Honduran death squad from the 1980s. Police and soldiers raided the offices of the National Agrarian Institute, capturing dozens of peasant activists who had been occupying the building. Police also fired tear gas into COFADEH’s office, which at the time was filled with about a hundred people, many of them women and children, denouncing the repression that had earlier taken place in front of the embassy. "Honduras risks spiraling into a state of lawlessness, where police and military act with no regard for human rights or the rule of law," said Susan Lee, Americas director at Amnesty International.
Back at the embassy, Honduran troops have tormented Zelaya and his accompaniers, including the Catholic priest Father Andres Tamayo, with tear gas, other chemical weapons and sonic devices that emit high-pitched and extreme-pain-inducing sounds. This high-tech assault has largely been ignored by the international media, though George W. Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, told Fox News that Zelaya’s description of this harassment indicated "delusional behavior."
Fourteen people–all opposed to the coup–have been murdered since Zelaya’s overthrow, according to a tally released early last week by COFADEH. Then on October 2 two more Zelaya supporters were executed.
Micheletti seems increasingly isolated, facing criticism from his own supporters due to his heavy-handed response. Just a few days ago, a poll revealed that a large majority of Hondurans oppose the coup and Micheletti while favoring Zelaya’s restoration. Prominent conservative businessmen, religious and military leaders, and politicians are now offering their services as mediators between Micheletti and Zelaya, an indication that support for the coup may be evaporating, though their proposals so far seem more like stalling tactics than serious attempts to open negotiation. Industrialist Adolfo Facussé, for instance, proposed making Micheletti a senator for life–similar to the honor bestowed on Pinochet when he exited the Chilean presidency–while returning Zelaya to office under conditions greatly more restricted than those laid out by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who had previously been tapped by the US State Department to arbitrate the crisis.
Confronted with growing opposition in and outside of Honduras, Micheletti has restored some civil liberties–though violence against Zelaya supporters and media censorship continues–and this week he allowed a delegation from the Organization of American States to enter the country to try to jump-start negotiations between the two sides. But after promising to engage in a "new spirit" of dialogue, Micheletti lashed out at the OAS delegates. "We are not afraid of the United States, nor of the State Department, nor of Mexico or Brazil," he said defiantly.
With his coup coalition apparently unraveling, Micheletti has doubled down on his bid to present himself as a backstop against Hugo Chávez-style populism. He told an Argentine reporter that he led the overthrow of Zelaya because the Honduran president "turned left." "He became friends," Micheletti said, "with Daniel Ortega, Chávez, Correa, Evo Morales"–that is, with the internationally recognized leaders of Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. And the day after Zelaya’s return, perhaps fancying himself a latter-day Garibaldi, Micheletti went on TV and called on Venezuelans to rise up against the "dictator" Chávez.
Whatever the outcome of Zelaya’s current situation–and let’s hope it won’t last as long as Haya de la Torre’s nearly six-year asylum–those who carried out the coup have managed to achieve what they accuse Zelaya of trying to do: they have polarized society, delegitimized political institutions, bankrupted the treasury and empowered social movements. The coalition of workers, peasants, progressive religious folk, environmentalists, students, feminists and gay and lesbian activists that has emerged to demand the restoration of democracy has so far not been able to return Zelaya to the presidency, yet it has prevented the consolidation of the coup regime.
In retrospect, it is hard to understand what Micheletti and his allies had hoped to achieve with Zelaya’s overthrow, which took place just five months before regularly scheduled presidential elections, still set for November 29. Before the coup, it was expected that a candidate from either the Liberal or National Party–both conservative–would win the vote, dousing whatever popular restlessness was unleashed by Zelaya’s turn left.
But the coup–along with Zelaya’s surprise return–has created a lose-lose situation for Honduran elites. If they yield to international pressure and negotiate Zelaya’s symbolic restoration, it would legitimize the November elections but would also embolden the left and discredit the coup plotters–that is, nearly all of Honduras’ governing class. If they force Zelaya back into exile, arrest him or keep him holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, then the popular movement that has gained momentum over the past three months will demand a constitutional convention as the only solution to re-establish legitimacy. In other words, the very issue that served as the spark of the crisis–Zelaya’s attempt to build support for a constituent assembly to reform Honduras’ notoriously undemocratic charter–may be the only way to settle it.
Even Costa Rican President Ocar Arias has suggested as much. He recently called the Honduran constitution the "worst in the entire world," an "invitation to coups." "This is something that will have to be resolved," he said, "and the best way to do this is, if we can’t have a constitutional election, is to have certain reforms so this Honduran constitution ceases to be the worst in the entire world."
Micheletti’s crackdown reveals more than his own desperation. It suggests the larger dilemma of Latin American conservatives. Over the past few years, those opposed to the region’s left turn, like Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa and his son Alvaro Vargas Llosa, have tried to represent themselves as democratic modernizers who have rejected the authoritarianism of the region’s old cold war right. This is exactly the image Micheletti’s coup hoped to project to the rest of the world–even hiring US lobbyists and public relations firms to do so.
But in Honduras, as in most of Latin America, there is no social base to create something along the lines of, say, Europe’s new conservatism. Clinging to a discredited free-market economic model, their political program is based nearly exclusively on "anti-Chavismo." And in a country as poor and economically stratified as Honduras, that means a reliance on increasing doses of violence to maintain order and a resurrection of the same revanchist sectors of the military, the Catholic and evangelical churches, and the oligarchy that powered anticommunist authoritarianism. Micheletti’s government, after all, included Enrique Ortez as foreign minister, who was barely installed in his new office when he called Barack Obama a "negrito" who didn’t "even know where Tegucigalpa was"–a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place on some of the placards on display at our own tea-party demonstrations. Given a chance to defend himself–negrito in Spanish is not necessarily a derogatory term–Ortez, who has since resigned, dug deeper: "I’ve negotiated with fags, prostitutes, commies, blacks and whites…. I’m not racially prejudiced; I like the plantation negro who is running the United States."
Honduras may very well be the "first reversal in the drive to spread ’21st Century Socialism’ in the region," as Iran/Contra veteran Otto Reich, a prominent US backer of the coup, recently wrote. Yet that reversal–if it holds–comes at the cost of revealing the lie behind the idea that there is a progressive alternative to the contemporary Latin American left.
Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, is the author, most recently, of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan). He serves on the editorial committee of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).