“Today a new political force of transformation is born!” As former president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya’s speech on June 26, 2011 reached its crescendo, hundreds of delegates from every corner of Honduras roared. After a short but heated debate that day, the 1,500-member assembly of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) approved resolutions paving the way for a new political party: Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation), or LIBRE (“FREE” in Spanish). Those supporting the resolutions wanted the party to serve as an instrument of systemic change. With it they’d win the 2013 general elections and, once in power, convene a constituyente, a constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution for Honduras.
The decision to create LIBRE came nearly two years after the June 28, 2009 coup d’état that forced Zelaya into exile and sparked a mass movement of civil resistance throughout Honduras. In the days, weeks, and months that followed the coup, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans, many entirely new to activism, took to the streets nearly every day to demand the immediate restoration of Zelaya’s presidency and democracy. Their peaceful demonstrations were met with brutal repression, and the few media outlets that relayed their demands were frequently shut down by state security forces.
The FNRP emerged out of the opposition to the coup and quickly developed into the largest social movement in Honduran history. Loosely organized into collectives at the local and regional level, the resistance includes a rainbow of movements: union activists, teachers, lawyers, artists, indigenous and Afro-indigenous villagers, small farmers, LGBT activists, and human rights defenders, with ideological tendencies ranging from the center left to the far left. United in their opposition to the coup, resistance members also oppose Honduras’s corrupt and deeply conservative political system, which is tightly controlled by the country’s wealthiest families in tandem with the leadership of the nearly indistinguishable Liberal and National parties.
Elections were not initially on the FNRP’s agenda. Many grassroots leaders felt that the movement should maintain autonomy from party politics and refrain from participating in elections widely seen as rigged. Instead, they favored broadening the resistance and intensifying peaceful mobilizations against the coup government’s most retrograde policies and in support of a constituyente. But when Zelaya began playing a more direct leadership role in the resistance after he returned from exile in May 2011, he pushed it toward electoral politics. By the time the FNRP’s June national assembly took place, the membership favored creating a new party that would compete in the 2013 presidential, legislative, and municipal elections.
In the months that followed, dissenting voices were submerged in a tidal wave of support for LIBRE. Bright red LIBRE caps, T-shirts, and banners were on display in communities all over the country. Hundreds of thousands of LIBRE supporters participated in party primaries in November 2012 and elected Xiomara Castro, wife of Zelaya and prominent resistance figure, as their presidential candidate. Major media overwhelmingly favored the National Party candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, and dozens of LIBRE candidates and activists were killed or injured in violent attacks by unidentified gunmen. Yet as the electoral campaign hit full swing, it seemed that victory was inevitable, with nearly all major pollsters putting Xiomara in the lead.
The Honduran resistance movement and LIBRE can only be understood in the context of political developments in other parts of Latin America. Over the last fifteen years, much of the region has experienced a steady chain of political eruptions as a number of left movements have come to power through the ballot box. Once in office, they have radically revised their countries’ domestic and foreign policy agendas and, in several cases, their nations’ constitutional frameworks.
In the late 1980s, as the Cold War era of U.S.-backed military dictatorships came to an end, many of the region’s traditional left parties were in disarray or had veered to the right, while conservative governments had increasingly adopted neoliberal economic “reforms” promoted and often imposed by the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These policies included the privatization of state enterprises, the deregulation of labor and financial markets, and the removal of trade barriers. The reforms failed to have the positive, “trickle-down” effects that policymakers promised and instead resulted in a dramatic decline in economic growth throughout the region and increased poverty and income inequality.
By the mid-1990s a grassroots rebellion had begun to swell throughout the region. A first eruption broke out in Chiapas in southern Mexico, where an armed indigenous “Zapatista” movement declared its autonomy from the Mexican state in dozens of communities on January 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Another upheaval took place in 1999, when a former lieutenant colonel who had led a failed military coup seven years earlier was elected president of Venezuela on a platform of opposition to neoliberalism and the country’s corrupt and deeply unpopular two-party system. Once in power, Hugo Chávez declared the country’s 1958 constitution “moribund” and organized elections for a constituent assembly.
Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” emboldened left movements throughout the region and was followed by a wave of left-wing electoral victories in neighboring countries. In Bolivia, social movements that had coalesced during the anti-neoliberal water and gas wars of the early 2000s helped bring Aymara coca grower leader Evo Morales to power in the country’s 2005 elections. Left-wing economist Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador in 2006. In Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was reelected president seventeen years after being voted out of office, while in El Salvador the former leftist guerilla group FMLN won the country’s 2009 and 2014 presidential elections. Left candidates also won decisively in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
Like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador both convened constituyentes that drafted progressive constitutions approved by voters in national referenda. Under its 2009 constitution, Bolivia became a plurinational, secular state with firm public control over natural resources and some measure of legal and political autonomy for indigenous communities. Ecuador’s constitution established the “rights of nature”—protecting fragile ecosystems—and the principle of food sovereignty: the obligation of the state to guarantee its people “self-sufficiency in healthy food.” Brazil, where former steelworker Lula da Silva ascended to the presidency in 2003, has offered a more moderate example. Though they have implemented popular anti-poverty policies, Lula and his successor Dilma Roussef haven’t sought to restructure the political system or pushed for a much greater state role in the economy.
Despite clear policy differences between the region’s left governments, there is still a tangible sense of community that unites them. Over the last decade or so, they have worked collectively to deepen Latin American integration through the creation of the new regional groups Unasur—the Union of South American Nations—and CELAC—the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations. These organizations promote a common social agenda and adopt foreign policy positions often at odds with those of the United States.
Many Latin American leaders have referred to the region’s profound political shift as a “second independence,” a movement striving to fulfill the promise of emancipation that was never truly achieved during the independence struggles of the early nineteenth century. The focus of this movement, at the rhetorical level if not always in practice, is twofold: empowering the marginalized in the face of the traditional domination of conservative elites, and promoting greater unity to better counter U.S. economic and political dominance.
Honduras has for decades experienced the worst poverty and inequality in Latin America. Neoliberal policies first implemented there in the late 1980s have had a devastating impact, particularly on small farmer (campesino) and indigenous communities. Under the direction of the IMF, the government lowered tariffs and drastically cut public sector spending. A 1992 agricultural “modernization” law led to the concentration of land in the hands of agribusiness corporations and the displacement of thousands of campesinos. By the early 2000s Honduran civil society groups were working together to oppose the continuing neoliberal agenda of the country’s National and Liberal governments.
On August 26, 2003, the growing force of Honduras’s anti-neoliberal movement became apparent when thousands of demonstrators blocked all of the major roads into Tegucigalpa to protest the latest series of neoliberal measures. The massive demonstration marked the beginning of the National Popular Resistance Coordinator (CNRP), which included unions and indigenous and campesino movements. The CNRP continued to take its demands to the street over the following years, notably through its support for teachers opposing pension cuts, and quickly became the largest left-leaning movement in Honduras. Its leaders debated at length whether to participate in the country’s 2005 general elections but decided against it.
The winner of those elections was Liberal candidate Manuel Zelaya. Though his cabinet included a few left-wingers, few expected him to adopt policies that would diverge from those of his predecessors. But a year or so after taking office, Zelaya began to make unexpected moves. To the disenchantment of Honduras’s business leaders, he significantly raised the country’s minimum wage. He opened up negotiations with teachers unions and began a process for reviewing property titles in the Bajo Aguán, a fertile region where a land conflict between small farmers and corporations has raged for two decades. On the international front, he signed the Petrocaribe regional energy agreement with Venezuela and brought Honduras into the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), a bloc of governments including Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua that openly opposed the U.S. “free trade” and neoliberal agenda in the region.
As he shifted further to the left, Zelaya began discussions with the CNRP and other social movements and agreed to support one of their most ambitious projects: a constituyente tasked with drafting a new, progressive charter to replace the rigid, conservative 1981 constitution, which was drafted during the final days of the last military dictatorship. In early 2009 Zelaya called for a cuarta urna—a fourth ballot—in that year’s November elections to allow voters to decide whether or not to convene a constituyente. When the National Party and conservative sectors of the Liberal Party prevented the proposal from advancing in the Honduran Congress, Zelaya began organizing a non-binding national poll to measure the popular support for the cuarta urna.
Zelaya’s opponents claimed that his real goal was to extend his term in office, but this charge held little water because the November elections, with or without a cuarta urna, would include a vote for a new president, and Zelaya wasn’t on the list of candidates. In reality, Honduran elites were increasingly riled by Zelaya’s leftward turn and looking for any excuse to remove him from power.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 28, 2009, the day the national poll was to take place, Zelaya was kidnapped at gunpoint by the military and put on a plane to Costa Rica. Governments throughout Latin America and the Caribbean were aghast that a blatant military coup could be carried off so easily. In contrast, the United States dragged its feet in condemning the coup and balked at other governments’ demand for Zelaya’s immediate return.
U.S. relations with Latin America’s new left-leaning governments have been rocky from the start. The George W. Bush administration supported a short-lived military coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002 and later backed coup supporters’ attempt to force Chávez out of office by shutting down Venezuela’s vital oil industry. In Bolivia, the U.S. Embassy and USAID worked to keep Evo Morales’s leftist MAS party from gaining power in the early 2000s and later supported right-wing secessionist movements opposed to Morales’s rule. In 2008 the U.S. Embassy in La Paz offered gestures of support to the Bolivian opposition at a time when it was engaged in a violent destabilization campaign condemned by every other country in South America.
U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks indicate that the State Department has for years been obsessed with countering the influence of ALBA, depicted in cables as a “dependable political tool for Chávez.” Even non-members with good relations with ALBA countries, like Brazil, have been viewed with suspicion. But the Bush administration’s opposition to Venezuela and ALBA only succeeded in fostering a deeper sense of solidarity among Latin America’s left governments. The region breathed a collective sigh of relief when Obama, shortly after taking office, promised “equal partnerships” and a “new chapter of engagement” with Latin America.
The Honduran coup was Obama’s first big regional test. The country had long served as the most dependable U.S. strategic outpost in Central America. In the 1980s it provided cover and a logistical base for the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua. Since 1983 the Soto Cano base has housed U.S. Army troops and aircraft even though the Honduran constitution prohibits a “permanent foreign presence.” Until Zelaya, U.S. interests in Honduras had been secure under the National and Liberal Party governments that together ruled the country since 1983.
“President Zelaya strikes us as a well-meaning populist, but susceptible to leftist influences,” wrote former U.S. ambassador Charles Ford in June 2006, at the beginning of Zelaya’s term. “Zelaya does not appear to grasp the larger geo-political threat posed by Chavez,” Ford added. Two years later, after Honduras had joined Petrocaribe and ALBA, the United States had all but given up on Zelaya. “With only 16 months before he leaves office, our goal is to get Zelaya through his term without causing any irreparable damage to bilateral relations . . . and to minimize further expansion of relations with Chavez,” wrote the new U.S. ambassador, Hugo Llorens, in September 2008.
On the day of the coup, the White House released an ambivalent statement that failed to acknowledge that a coup had taken place. The following day President Obama made a clearer statement: “We believe that the coup was not legal. . . .” Military assistance was partially suspended. Yet the administration was reluctant to pursue more forceful measures against the coup regime. It refused to use the term “military coup,” which, by law, would have triggered immediate suspension of all non-humanitarian aid to Honduras.
Then, at the beginning of November 2009, the U.S. government unilaterally announced that it would recognize the legitimacy of elections in Honduras later that month whether or not democracy had been restored. Shortly afterward, the Río Group—which included nearly every country in Latin America—issued a statement strongly rejecting this position, but the damage was done: the coup regime understood that the region’s dominant power would help it whitewash the coup by recognizing deeply flawed, illegitimate elections. The United States was nearly alone in endorsing the 2009 elections, which took place in a context of heavy repression and were boycotted by the FNRP.
U.S. military assistance to Honduras quickly increased under the election’s victor, National Party leader Porfirio Lobo Sosa. Indeed, in the name of the “war on drugs,” U.S. assistance to armies and police forces throughout Central America and Mexico has increased enormously since 2008. During the same period, human rights crimes perpetrated by state security forces have also risen significantly in these countries, but nowhere as dramatically as in Honduras, which has been the homicide capital of the world since 2011 and has one of the highest rates of judicial impunity.
Honduran state security forces executed the 2009 coup and carried out the violent repression that followed. Though a U.S.-sponsored “Truth Commission” identified a number of murders committed by police and military in the wake of the coup, no judicial action was taken, and the victims’ families received no compensation. After Lobo took office the repression continued in a more insidious form, with countless targeted killings and violent attacks against campesino leaders, journalists, LGBT activists (a significant resistance and LIBRE constituency), lawyers, and labor activists. Human rights groups noted the resurgence of widespread paramilitary activity for the first time since the 1980s. Over the last four years, over 100 campesino activists have been killed in the heavily militarized Bajo Aguán. Twenty-four LIBRE candidates and activists have been killed in the last two years, and many more have endured violent attacks and death threats.
Almost a hundred Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have called on the Obama administration to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Honduras while attacks on civil society activists continue with impunity. Senior Honduran security officials have denounced rampant corruption and organized crime throughout the police and military, and in some cases ended up dead. But U.S. funds have kept flowing.
On November 24, 2013, Hondurans showed up at the polls in record numbers. Reports of irregularities documented by Honduran and international civil society groups rapidly began to circulate. Poll workers were threatened; living voters were listed as dead on registries and denied access to the polls; National Party members engaged in extensive vote-buying outside voting centers. As the polls closed, both LIBRE and another new party—the Anti-Corruption Party, or PAC—reported discrepancies between original voting tally sheets and the electronic results posted on the website of Honduras’s electoral authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE).
When the TSE announced that Hernández was winning, both LIBRE and PAC immediately contested the results. But electoral monitoring missions from the Organization of American States and the European Union made little mention of the many irregularities reported by hundreds of independent electoral monitors and declared the elections “free and fair.” That same night U.S. ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske said that she “recognized and respected” the election results. On December 12 the TSE, after rejecting LIBRE and PAC demands for a recount, announced the final official election numbers: Hernández won the election with 36.9 percent of the vote. Xiomara came in second with 28.8 percent, the Liberal candidate had rallied 20.3 percent, and PAC came in fourth with 13.4 percent.
Well ahead of his January 27 inauguration, Hernández began plowing ahead with a two-pronged agenda of militarization and neoliberalism. Anticipating stalemate in the next congress, Hernández, president of the outgoing congress, worked with the National Party majority to pass over a hundred legislative measures in December and January—more laws than were passed during the previous two years combined.
Hernández’s neoliberal package included a regressive 15 percent tax increase on consumer articles, the freezing of public sector wages, the privatization of telecommunications company Hondutel, and the reduction of electricity subsidies. He also pushed forward a plan to establish “charter” or “model” cities in Honduras—development zones exempt from normal Honduran law and subject to tax and legal codes drawn up by foreign governments and corporations.
The outgoing congress also voted to enshrine Honduras’s military police in the constitution. The MP program, created in September 2013 and featured prominently in Hernández’s “law and order” campaign ads, puts thousands of soldiers on the streets. Although their alleged purpose is to crack down on gang activity, MP units have already raided the home of a prominent resistance activist, and human rights defenders and activists fear that efforts to criminalize and repress Honduras’s social movements will only grow.
Though the future may appear bleak for LIBRE and the broader resistance movement, it isn’t devoid of hope. Activists from campesino groups, teachers unions, and other grassroots organizations now belong to the second biggest political bloc in the Honduran Congress. The new government’s aggressive neoliberal agenda will doubtless make life harder for the average Honduran, but it will also reinvigorate the country’s social movements.
After two years of electoral campaigning, it is a time of reckoning and reflection within the FNRP. Should congressional activity be a priority? Or should the movement focus more on supporting campesino struggles and the defense of indigenous communities whose lands and livelihoods are threatened by multinational industrial projects?
The United States would also do well to step back and take stock of what its policies have achieved. The Lobo government, which received significant U.S. diplomatic and financial backing, oversaw a steady rise in poverty and inequality following a period of significantly improved social and economic indicators under Zelaya. Increased U.S. security assistance has coincided with a dramatic increase in violence and reports of killings and abuses involving security forces. At the regional level, the administration’s support for the Honduran coup regime further isolated the United States and fueled integration initiatives in which it plays no part.
Washington policymakers fail to see that social movements, rather than individual leaders like Zelaya, Chávez, or Morales, are the most enduring and potent force of change in Latin America today. These movements were spurred by the very economic policies that the United States has promoted in the region, and repression won’t make them go away. Whether the U.S. government likes it or not, the Honduran resistance and a multitude of similar people’s movements throughout Latin America are here to stay.
Alexander Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.