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Coup détat in Honduras
Honduras: The archetypal banana republic, it was dominated for many years by the US United Fruit Company. Very poor, the people of this country of 7.5 million people has never had the chance of real participation in their government. After military dictatorships between 1963 and 1981, a series of right-wing governments provided bases for the USA, for the contra-revolutionaries who were a key factor in destabilising the Nicaraguan Sandinista progressive government.
The same political machine kept control until now. With 50% living in poverty and 28% unemployment, many people have emigrated to the USA in recent decades and young returnees have imported the Los Angeles gang culture, creating a big crime problem. Many transnational ‘maquila’ factories have exploited the country’s cheap labour in recent times. Typically, young women are worked to the bone at sewing machines for a few years, until their tendons give out.
Manuel Zelaya: A businessman, and politician of the Liberal Party, one of the traditional political parties, he was elected President in 2005. He soon began to show signs of betraying his friends in the elite. He promoted a big increase in the minimum wage, sent a bill to the congress to give rights to domestic workers, and in general wanted to improve the lives of the people.
He joined ‘Petro-Caribe’, basically a solidarity arrangement whereby Hugo Chávez of Venezuela sells oil at a very low price to poorer countries in the region. This could only be of benefit to the country but, for the oligarchy, any co-operation with Chávez is anathema. Zelaya also joined the ALBA bloc (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) of nations designed to promote economic and other co-operation as an alternative to domination by the USA. Even more repulsive for the traditional elite.
Before the proposed vote on Sunday, 28th June, Zelaya declared he would hand over the presidency in January 2010 (after the elections in November 2009) but would hand over a country with reforms in progress. The major reform was to be the election of a Constituent Assembly, which could propose a new constitution to be voted on by the people. To begin this process, Zelaya decided to test public opinion with a non-binding consultation vote on 28th June. If favourable, a decisive vote would be held in November, at the same time that a new President and Congress would be elected. Some time later, the Constituent Assembly would be elected, and a new constitution voted on, many months later.
The main excuse, or 'justification' given for the coup, repeated endlessly in mass media from 'The Guardian' up, was that this new constitution would give Zelaya the right to run for re-election. Never mind that the time-table described makes this argument preposterous, don't let the facts spoil a good story. The 'big lie' tactic.
In Europe that argument might seem strange, given that re-election of Prime ministers or Presidents is commonplace. In Latin America, however, it is not usual, and has been given enormous importance by the right-wing media, as meaning little short of dictatorship. The bogeyman, of course, is Hugo Chávez, and the idea of popular leaders staying in power long enough to make real structural changes, leading to socialism, is the real fear of oligarchies and their imperialist backers. So 're-election', or worse, 'indefinite re-election' is shorthand for 'dangerous progressive'.
Before the coup
There were reports of movements of tanks on Wednesday 24th June, and that day the Chief of General Staff, Romeo Vásquez, said he would not obey President Zelaya’s order to move the election material for the popular consultation on Sunday. The military chief said the order was illegal, basing this on decisions of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the National Congress. The opposition to this expression of the will of the people of these bodies, dominated by the traditional elite, shows their visceral fear of real democratic participation.
Manuel Zelaya therefore dismissed the armed forces chief for disobedience. In solidarity, the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, plus the Defence Minister, also resigned. On Thursday the Supreme Court ‘ordered’ Zelaya to reinstate the military chief, although, as in many countries, the President is Commander-in-Chief. On Friday, Zelaya led a group of citizens to recover the election material from an Air Force base, and declared that the popular vote would go ahead. On Sunday morning, two hours before voting was due to start, 'the gorillas were let out of their cage' as was said in the OAS meeting.
The National Congress (as in the USA, only the legislative body, and not the Executive or government) firstly 'accepted' a supposed letter of resignation from Zelaya. Then, when informed that Zelaya had denied resigning, on CNN, they just proceeded to 'depose' him and named the President of Congress, Micheletti, as provisional President of the country.
But, unlike previous coups in Latin America, the reaction in other countries has been swift and unanimous. Condemnation has come from all sides, including the White House, emergency meetings of the Organisation of American States (OAS), and a meeting in Nicaragua that same day of the countries of Central America and of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) which now convenes 9 countries of Cental and South America and the Caribbean. The whole of Latin America has spoken. Michelle Bachelet was among the leaders condemning the coup and demanding the reinstatement of Zelaya, in her position as President of Chile and President of UNASUR, the Union of South American countries. There was a unanimous call for the unconditional reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya. Many countries have now recalled ambassadors for consultation and, more importantly economcally, the neighbouring countries (Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala) have closed borders, stopping trade.
After the coup
During the day, over 15,000 people gathered near the Presidential palace. Leaders of Trade Unions and Peasants called for resistance to the coup, and a general strike. The military response was at first limited to the use of beating, tear gas and water cannon, although some leaders were arrested including Patricia Rodas, the Foreign Minister, and the Mayor of San Pedro Sula, the second city of Honduras. Patricia Rodas, an important leader of the government, was later deported to Mexico and the Mayor of San Pedro Sula has also been deposed and a puppet of Micheletti imposed.
From early morning, women could be seen on TV defying, even pushing the soldiers taking over public buildings. Later, in one place men stood in front of tanks, 'pushing' them back. Crowds shouted to soldiers “You are of the people”. The centre of the capital, Tegucigalpa, filled with people shouting “We will not be moved”, “The people united will never be defeated” and “we want Mel” (Zelaya's nickname).
Defying repeated orders of curfew, the demonstrators have continued to build in numbers, in many parts of the country but especially in the capital Tegucigalpa, and the second city, San Pedro Sula. Although the military have stopped buses, taken people off to hit and search them. Buses have had their tyres let down. People have walked for five and ten hours to get to the capital. Every day more resistance is mobilised, and the repression is stepped up. The military have taken control of electrical plants, and poor areas have had power cuts, cuts in internet access, and all mass media are under political control of the 'golpistas' (the forces of the coup). The only good source of news is the TV channel TeleSur. The army has reportedly been press-ganging youths in rural areas, presumably to increase their numbers.
On Wednesday also the regime of Micheletti (or, as signs say in Honduras, Goriletti or Pinocheletti) suspended civil rights for 72 hours under a 'state of siege', hoping to crush demonstrations and all resistance. Repression was stepped up on Thursday but TeleSur continued to interview determined opponents of the coup, as well as showing arrests being made in the street in San Pedro Sula.
Telesur: I don't know if this can be seen in Britain (it is possible in some European countries), in Chile only one small satellite TV provider offers it. It has been invaluable, as its courageous journalists have braved intimidation to continue sending images and words from Honduras, including inteviews with many militant and determined leaders of popular organisations. TeleSur is a truly multinational station. Set up on the initiative of Hugo Chávez aiming to be an alternative to CNN, it is based in Venezuela but owned by a consortium including Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador.
On Monday, the day after the coup, an emergency general assembly of the United Nations repeated the call for Zelaya's reinstatement, and he repeated his intention of returning to Honduras on Tursday, accompanied by the President of the UN, the Nicaraguan Miguel d'Escoto, the Secretary General of the OAS, Chilean José Miguel Insulza, and the Presidents of Argentina and Ecuador, Cristina Fernández and Rafael Correa.
Wednesday brought a change: The OAS suggested the postponement of the return to Honduras until Saturday, giving the de facto authorities 72 more hours to accept Zelaya's return as President, or face suspension. Manuel Zelaya agreed.
The role of the USA
Almost certainly we will not know details of the role of the USA for years but Venezuela's embassador to the OAS said on Sunday that one Otto Reich had been talking to golpistas in Honduras. Reich is known as a right-wing extremist with a long history of interference in Latin America, from the State Department and the military, under Presidents Reagan and both Bushes. An ex-Cuban, he is obsessed with Cuba but played roles in the destabilisation of the Sandinista government in the '80s, and reportedly selecting the Venezuelan golpista generals in 2002. Now, as ambassador Chaderton said, 'we have the Third Reich'. For an article on his history, see: http://www.coha.org/2004/07/otto-reich-a-career-in-disservice/
The coup faces Obama with a political problem. He has presented himself as a supporter of demcoracy, who will listen to Latin America. With the unanimous condemnation of the coup by Latin America, he can only follow suit. According to a right-wing paper in Chile, “US diplomatic sources said that, if the restitution of Zelaya was not resolved before that day (Sunday, when Obama travels to Europe), the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, could take on international leadership of the offensive against the government of Micheletti.” It continues, saying Thomas Shannon is charged with finding a negotiated settlement, such as “allowing Zelaya to return to power but with conditions, such as not holding a referendum on reforming the constitution.”
This is a political problem for the USA. The spread of progressive governments which open up popular participation, work for economic independence and threaten to open the way for socialism, are a threat to US interests. There is a US base in Honduras, with 600 troops (confined to barracks at the moment). On the other hand, Honduras is a small country, and open support for a 'gorilla' government will threaten their efforts to win over Latin America politically. Within the Obama adminstration and secret services, there are probably those in favour of Zelaya's return and of supporting the Micheletti gorillas. Even the CNN reporting has shown uncertainty as to the tone to adopt.
The moves to postpone Zelaya's return to Honduras might also be due to hopes that the world will forget about the problem, and the golpistas will be able to repress resistance and continue in power. The issue has already disappeared from the Guardian on-line, almost so from The Independent (is it?) and the BBC has a jolly piece about the coup not being a big issue in Honduras.
For the people of Honduras and progressives in Latin America, it is obviously also a key moment. Are the brute forces of reaction to be unleashed again?
Latest, Thursday pm: J M Insulza, OAS Secretary, announces that he will go to Honduras on Friday, and not Saturday, and Manuel Zelaya says his return is being planned with people in Honduras, and leaves the timing uncertain.