• Honduras: Anatomy of a Coup d’État

  • Leo Gabriel | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Latin America
  • Afflicted by epidemics and floods, Honduras has been, since the days of Francisco Morazán1 not only one of the poorest countries of the region, but also the hidden battlefield between conservatives and liberals. Since the beginning of the last century, political power always depended on an army at the service of United Fruit and other US companies. After the 100-day so-called “football war” (Ryszard Kapuscinski2) in 1969 over a territorial dispute with El Salvador following a decade of extreme military tensions in the 1980s when Honduras served as a backstage for the US-backed Nicaraguan “contras”, this relatively small Central American country of approximately 6 million inhabitants suddenly on June 28, 2009 became the object of headlines in the world press: Coup d’État in Honduras! 

    Very soon it became evident that this coup was not only the result of internal conflicts between President Manuel Zelaya and the president of the Honduran parliament, Roberto Micheletti, for political power and the leadership of the Liberal Party, as some journalists at first had it.It turned out that this coup opened up a complex and multidimensional political-economic-military scenario which reflects two antagonistically opposed political cultures: the one grounded in an old-fashioned 19th-century nationalism which still prevails among the ruling elites (as in many other Latin American countries); the other based on a tradition of people’s struggles which has characterised Central America for many decades, especially since the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and the revolutionary movement of the FMLN in El Salvador.

    The coup: déjà vu in a new format

    “They could have killed us easily”, remembers Xiomara Zelaya Castro, daughter of Manuel Zelaya, pointing at the bullet holes in the wall of what used to be the President’s private residence. In fact, the drama of the President’s capture and forced flight to Costa Rica was reminiscent in many ways of the events of September 11, 1973 when soldiers invaded Salvador Allende’s office at the Palacio de la Moneda in Santiago de Chile. Not a few analysts think that it was the Chief of Staff himself, General Romeo Vásquez Velázquez who finally backed away from the golpistas’3 wish to kill Zelaya. Carolina Echeverría, a parliamentarian from the southern Departamento Cabo gracias a Dios, who belonged to the inner circle of Roberto Micheletti’s political entourage up to the day of the coup, thinks that this was the reason why in a so carefully planned operation the transmission of government was handled in such a leisurely way.

    “Everything in the letter in which Zelaya supposedly resigned was wrong: the date was wrong, the signature was wrong and the authorities were not even constitutionally entitled to initiate an impeachment process, let alone issue an arrest order of the Chief of State”, she said. Asked why she would not say this in parliament during the session which divested Zelaya she replied: “I was sure that nobody would have been allowed to speak in favour of the President, so we quite simply did not show up because we did not want to legitimise this criminal act through our presence.”

    Also a European Latin-American Human Rights Mission made up of 17 international observers who came to Honduras three weeks later to investigate the multiple violations connected to the coup, came to similar conclusions:

    The mission states that the institutions did not exercise their required function, starting with the absence of mutual control of state powers, the excessive politicisation of the judicial system, the lack of any protection for the supreme executive authority whom they indicted with ambiguous penal charges like “treason against the state” … facts which would need profound changes of the state structure in order to guarantee the common interests, collective welfare and full respect of human rights and social peace.

    The roots of the coup

    It was precisely the change of the country’s power structure, the undemocratic rule of two hegemonic parties belonging, like Manuel Zelaya himself, to the traditional elites of landowners, big commercial enterprises and, more recently, to the representatives of transnational companies concentrated in the hands of a few families, which was at stake when Manuel Zelaya tried to take a first step, the so called “consulta” to engage in a process of constitutional reform. And it was this “consulta” to be realised on June, 28 which was to determine whether the people of Honduras would vote in the upcoming presidential elections with a fourth vote – beyond the vote for the president, parliament and the local authorities – for the creation of a constituent assembly.

    This was the root cause of the coup and not, as the opposition claimed Manuel Zelaya’s bid for re-election – for which it was in any case too late because the candidates of both parties had already been chosen on November 2008. However, unlike in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela (where similar consultas were carried out at the beginning of this year) the Armed Forces of Honduras, who have also become an important economic force in the country, unilaterally took the side of the political establishment which had suddenly become terrified by the prospect of losing its privileges.

    “This is not just a political conflict or a problem of “human rights” in the traditional sense of the word”, said the renowned sociologist and theologian François Houtart from the International Council of the World Social Forum, who was part of the Human Rights Mission, “this is above all a class struggle”. And Rafael Alegría, the founder and long-term general secretary of Via Campesina, the world’s largest social movement, explains:

    Zelaya comes from the conservative sector of big landowners, but had, in recent years, become involved with the ordinary people and with projects like ALBA4. He raised the minimum wage, forgave the debts of the peasants and opposed privatisations, especially of services. This sufficiently disturbed the bourgeoisie and the oligarchy that they looked for ways to topple him.

    In fact, the overwhelming majority of the “white shirts” (the supporters of Roberto Micheletti) are employees and workers in the private sector, while the teachers, university students, small farmers, the landless and the unemployed joined the many thousands who demonstrated for Zelaya’s return and are now forming the Movimiento de Resistencias contra el Golpe (Movement of the Resistances Against the Coup).

    The method of repression

    Resisting a coup d’état is not easy– especially if the people are not prepared for it. First, the golpistas tried to block any kind of non-official communication by shutting down TV stations like Channel 36, radios like Radio Progreso (run by a Jesuit) and Radio Globo. The latter was attacked several times by police forces, but somehow was able to survive due to spontaneous mobilisations in its defence; so far it has been the best Honduran source of information about the Honduran resistance. But also newspapers like the radical weekly “El Libertador” have been heavily repressed, first through direct military intervention and later through death threats against any journalist critical of the coup. “Sometimes we even recognised the voice of the Attorney General in these threats”, said Eduardo Maldonado, a Radio Globo journalist, “and we feel terribly alone – like a David against many, many Goliaths”.

    But it is not only the harassment of the media, which makes the situation so difficult. Any kind of public appearance is systematically repressed. David Murillo, a founder of the Movimento ambientalista de Olancho (MAO) and father of the young demonstrator killed by a bullet at the airport of Toncontín, on July 5 when Zelaya tried to return by plane, has been arrested – essentially because he contested the army position that the death of his son was the result of the accidental use of “rubber bullets”. Instead of investigating the crime, the police arrested David Murillo and incarcerated him in Juticalpa prison, in the Departamento of Olancho, supposedly for not having appeared before the judges after a quarrel with his neighbour in 2004.

    The coup’s perpetrators seem to have a twofold strategy: on the one hand, the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti is desperately trying to put on a civilian and civilised face by justifying and covering up any repressive act through legalistic arguments; on the other hand, it is encouraging the army, the police and the paramilitary squads to feel free to do whatever they want including the issuance of death threats, robbery and murder. It is this contradiction between the “legal” arguments of the government institutions and the logic of power in its most brutal form (for example, when the “forces of law and order” violently strike at or murder people during or after a demonstration) which makes this coup d’état different from the five others which have taken place in Honduras since 1966 and all the other military takeovers of the 20th century.

    The reasons why this is occurring at this moment of history are not easily found. Perhaps it is because the de facto government considers that otherwise it would risk an interventionist war undertaken by Nicaragua, Venezuela or even the United States, or at least the creation of a guerrilla movement which does not now exist in Honduras. Or perhaps because some foreign advisers believe a dirty “low-intensity” war is more feasible than an open one given that the whole world has condemned the coup?

    The return of the past

    There is yet another, an international, dimension to this question. This was revealed for example in the case of Pedro Magdiel Múñoz, a young activist from Tegucigalpa, who was arrested on July 24 on his way to El Paraíso, close to the Honduran boarder with Nicaragua. Pedro Magdiel was one of the many people who wanted to meet president Zelaya in order to accompany him on his way to Tegucigalpa. His body was found the next morning with fatal stab wounds and signs of torture, only a few metres distance from the crowd. According to René Andrés Pavón, president of the Committee for Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH) there are Israeli Commandos “whose mission is to prepare the armed forces and police to quell demonstrations aggressively and violently, carrying out selective crimes with the aim of creating fear and terror scenarios so as to demobilise the resistance”.

    But, as always, the Israelis do not act alone; there is a Colombian connection. Mercenaries from the paramilitary AUC are being recruited to “prepare” the November elections, something that has caused jealousy even among the rank-and-file policemen who are still waiting for their pay. Recently, the director general of the National Police, Salomón de Jesús Escoto Salinas, coordinated the training of special security units in Colombia. Escoto not only was a member of the famous Battalion 3-16 founded by Billy Joya, who in turn was responsible for the torture, disappearance and assassination of hundreds of leftist activists in the 1980s and is today the top security advisor to President Roberto Micheletti. Together with René Maradiaga, Chief of the Special Intelligence Services, Police Chief Escoto is also responsible for the massacre of hundreds of young people in La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula during President Roberto Maduro’s “zero-tolerance campaign” in 2003 and 2004.

    In other words, there is a transnational network of, in part, well-known past murderers who are acting under the cover of the legalistic appearance of the Micheletti regime. They are probably supported by figures like Otto Reich, the former Under Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs and by John Negroponte, the former president of the US’s National Security Council, who directed the “dirty war” against the Central American left in the 1980s. Negroponte visited Honduras three times in the months before the coup. From time to time CNN interviews ex-secretaries of the Bush administration in order to “counterbalance” Barack Obama’s official and firm stand, who not only has condemned the coup but also cut off all military and bilateral aid (with the exception of humanitarian aid).

    Zelaya: “peaceful resistance”

    All this leads Manuel Zelaya to the political conclusion that “despite the public condemnation of the coup by President Barack Obama the conservative groups in the US who support the coup are still dominating this nation’s monopoly of power.”

    Asked by Transform! about his strategy for confronting this powerful enemy, Manuel Zelaya said, however: “There are two ways to confront this kind of situation: a short-term one, which implies violent confrontation with a lot of victims, and a way that takes longer and spares more people. I have chosen the latter, because I have not only studied the methods of peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi, I am also applying them.”

    “Is this also the reason why you are talking to the local military commanders?” we asked him when he was making some telephone calls at the Nicaraguan boarder of Las Manos.

    “Just look around and you will see who is in power in Honduras right now. Whom do you see? Civilians or the military?” he asked and added: “That’s why I have to talk to them.”

    The situation at the border was truly strange: While thousands of people were trying to fight their way through with wooden sticks and building improvised barricades, some tried to cross the fields at night to arrive on the other side. The scenery was very reminiscent of the situation in the Sandinista revolution in 1979, except that now the people were unarmed and largely disorganised. They didn’t even have a guide who knew the territory. There are declarations by witnesses who saw dead bodies in the fields, which had disappeared by the time the Red Cross came to rescue them.

    Despite this tremendously unequal relationship between the two forces, the civil resistance at the barricades and the military at the checkpoints, several hundred people were able to get through to cheer Zelaya upon his arrival on the Nicaraguan side of the boarder. Most of them believed and still believe that the return of the legitimate president of Honduras was only a question of days or of a few weeks and that somehow the international community would come up with a solution to the conflict which has become more and more unbearable for the majority of the Honduran population as time goes on.

    The Arias Plan: a trap for the international community?

    But so far the international community, including the OAS, UN, Rio Group and even UNASUR, has not and most probably will not live up to the expectations they raised at the beginning. The key question increasingly becomes whether they will condemn and boycott the general elections of November 2009, considered by the Micheletti government as the way out of the political crisis. Curiously enough for any Latin-American observer, the US government of Barack Obama was one of the first that refused to accept the elections under present conditions. Once more, the US has taken in this case a more coherent stand than the European Union which only condemned the coup, withdrew its ambassadors, froze budget lines to the de facto Honduran government and suspended further negotiations of the Free Trade Treaty with Central America. On the other hand, neither the US nor the EU could or would prevent the International Monetary Fund from handing over some 150 million dollars to Honduras in the framework of the G-20 programme for the poorest countries of the world.

    To a great extent, the hesitation of the big players in world politics are due to the importance they are giving to the peace plan elaborated by the Costa Rican president and Nobel laureate Oscar Arias. This 12-point plan recommends the return of President Zelaya in exchange for his giving up any further steps toward a constitutional reform. In other words, the Arias Plan which has been rejected by the Micheletti regime wants Zelaya to return to Honduras like an archangel with broken wings.

    In this sense, the Arias Plan turns out to be a trap not only for President Zelaya, but also for the international community which condemned the coup. According to the latest news, Oscar Arias himself is thinking about recognising the electoral process in Honduras, which would certainly provoke a change in the position of the European Union which declared in its last meeting of the Council on September 14:

    The Council confirms its firm support of the OAS and for the mediation efforts of the President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, and calls on the actors involved, in particular the de facto government, to work on the basis of the San José Accord in order to find a rapid and peaceful negotiated solution to the current situation and for restoration of constitutional order in Honduras, particularly before the November elections …

    This means that the EU can still “hide” behind Arias who has become the pivot in the Honduran conflict and perhaps twist his arm which has proven to be as flexible as rubber in the past, without having to confront the core question: Can there be fair elections in Honduras under the present circumstances?

    The need for international solidarity

    The Honduran social movements, which in the meanwhile have come together under the umbrella of a Frente Nacional Contra el Golpe (National Front Against the Coup), have given a clear “no” to the electoral process. Originally, they were willing to support the candidacy of Carlos H. Reyes, a trade-unionist and activist of the World Social Forum, who was severely injured by the police during a peaceful demonstration. Furthermore, they also made it very clear that there is an urgent need for organising a “consulta” to prepare a constituent assembly, whether or not the EU, the US or even Zelaya accepts it.

    In this sense, the political objective of the movements goes far beyond the so-called “reestablishment of constitutional order” and the return of President Zelaya. It is directed at a social change which can only be achieved by changing the political structure of the country in the sense of establishing, for the first time in history, a truly participatory democracy in Honduras.

    This is also the reason why the Honduran Movement of Resistances is in urgent need of a different kind of support than the one the “international community” is prepared to give them. The longer the struggle of the Honduran people and peoples goes on, the deeper it grows, the more these movements need political and economic support from the different civil society networks all over the world.

    Because of its geopolitical situation and its relative weakness, Honduras has been targeted by the neocons and the extreme right, nationally and internationally – because they are aware that with the political disappearance of George W. Bush they lost one of their strongest assets. With the June 28 coup d’état Honduras filled this gap and has become the battleground in which the continent’s most reactionary forces are exercising their bloody strategy for a comeback on a global level. Let us look out to see who is next!

    Postdata: Dropping the Masks

    The already alarming takeover of the Honduran power structure by the military turned into a nightmare three months after the coup when President Zelaya suddenly showed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Just for a moment, the people of Honduras harboured the hope that Roberto Micheletti’s de facto government would accept Zelaya’s offer of an unconditional dialogue on the basis of the Arias Plan.

    But soon reality overpowered hope when the security forces not only heavily repressed the mass gathering in front of the Brazilian embassy, but pursued the demonstrators as far as their houses, causing numerous deaths and injuries. A few days after the arrival of Zelaya and his wife Xiomara, a special police unit activated two anti-terrorist combat devices right in front of the embassy: the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) or “screamer” which produces a terrifying noise causing serious ear damage and a poison gas bomb whose substances cause vomiting and bleeding from the ears and noses of the persons affected. According to an article in “La Tribuna”, which usually is not critical at all, these illegal “anti-terrorist weapons” were provided by Yehuda Leitner, an ex-officer of the Israeli army, who resides in Tegucigalpa.

    In order to justify the terrifying actions of the security forces, the Micheletti government posted a decree which suspended all constitutional guarantees for 45 days, prohibiting any demonstrations and allowing the Armed Forces of Honduras to assume those tasks of internal security reserved to the police. Furthermore, it prohibited the entry of an OAS delegation and threatened the Brazilian embassy with closing it down within ten days.

    Although the Supreme Court of Honduras, one week later and in reaction to the UN Security Council’s condemnation, is about to revise this government decree, the security forces entered the headquarters of the Honduran peasant organisation on September 30 and arrested fifty of their members.

    The last shred of legalistic cover used by the coup perpetrators after June 28 has faded away, and the murderers took off their masks despite unanimous international protests. While the repression continues there are serious comments in the Brazilian press demanding a military action by the United Nations.



    1. General Francisco Morazán (1792-1842) tried as president of Honduras, El Salvador and Costa-Rica to unify and transform Central America into a progressive nation by means of liberal reforms. However, the boldness of these changes in the context of the epoch led in 1837 to a revolution in Guatemala that culminated in the fall of the Federal Republic of Central America.
    2. Ryszard Kapuscinski was a left Polish journalist appointed in 1964 by the Polish Press Agency as its only foreign correspondent
    3. That is, the perpetrators of the coup.
    4. Alternativa Bolivariana de las Americas – Hugo Chávez’s initiative to integrate Latin America into a Common Market on the basis of a convergence of political cultures.

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