Honduran coup: Same story, different stage, new reality
recent overthrow of
THE presidential residence is surrounded; the president is kidnapped and flown out of the country. The opposition says the president has resigned and a conservative pro-business leader is appointed de facto president, immediately shutting down state television and cracking down on the dissidence. Unconfirmed reports say arrest warrants have been issued for all mayors in support of the defunct government. Thousands take to the streets, but the mainstream television stations report nothing.
this is not
Anatomy of a coup
Honduran President Manuel 'Mel' Zelaya was barely elected into office
in late 2005, few could have foreseen the coming battle. Zelaya was
no radical. He was a rancher and businessman who hailed from a wealthy
family. He belonged to the traditional centre-left Honduran Liberal
Party (PL - Partido Liberal), which had held power on and off in
once in office, Zelaya slowly joined
After visiting Honduras in May, where she had the opportunity to meet President Zelaya, Lisa Sullivan, Latin America coordinator of the US human rights organisation School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), told friends that 'while most people were looking elsewhere, such as El Salvador, Honduras was the most fascinating country in Latin America at the moment'.
Zelaya told SOA Watch that he agreed to stop sending Honduran soldiers to the US-based military training school, once he had his military on his side. He was already feeling the pressure. The traditional elites - Zelaya's own party included - were not happy.
In March 2009, when Zelaya called for a 28 June non-binding consultative referendum to ask the Honduran people if the issue of a 2010 constitutional assembly should be added to the ballot of this November's upcoming elections, the elites responded. They accused Zelaya of attempting to reform the Honduran constitution in order to bolster his own re-election (Honduran law allows for only one four-year presidential term). In May, the Office of the Attorney General issued an injunction to stop the non-binding referendum on the grounds that it would be 'illegal'.
But Honduran social movements backed the president. On 10 June, thousands of teachers, students, indigenous and union members marched to the Honduran Congress in support of the referendum on the constituent assembly.
Less than two weeks later, a politically motivated Honduran Supreme Court sided with the attorney general and also ruled the referendum 'illegal'. General Romeo Vesquez Velasquez, head of the Armed Forces (and an SOA graduate), refused to distribute the ballot boxes. On 25 June, Zelaya removed the general from his post, and, accompanied by members of the country's grassroots social movements, went personally to recover the 15,000 ballot boxes.
But Defence Minister Angel Edmundo Orellana resigned in solidarity with Vesquez Velasquez and soldiers took to the streets. An emergency session of the Organisation of American States (OAS) was called to evaluate the deteriorating situation. Both Zelaya and the Civic Council of Indigenous and Grassroots Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) denounced a potentially impending coup.
Despite opposition in Congress, the Supreme Court, the two major traditional parties, the chamber of commerce and the Catholic Church, Zelaya was steadfast. Supported and encouraged by the grassroots movements, the 28 June non-binding referendum would go on.
Overnight, everything changed.
the early hours of 28 June, Zelaya was awoken at gunpoint and taken
in his pyjamas to Hern n Acosta Mejˇa Air Force Base, where he
was thrown on a plane to
COPINH wrote in a communique: 'We tell everyone that the Honduran people are carrying out large demonstrations, actions in their communities, in the municipalities; there are occupations of bridges, and a protest in front of the presidential residence, among others. From the lands of Lempira, Moraz n and Visitaci˘n Padilla, we call on the Honduran people in general to demonstrate in defence of their rights and of real and direct democracy for the people, to the fascists we say that they will NOT silence us, that this cowardly act will turn back on them, with great force.'
According to the now-clandestine Honduran community radio, Radio Es Lo De Menos, the military set up roadblocks across the country to prevent Zelaya supporters from reaching the capital. Soldiers reportedly attempted to shut down public transportation, and Micheletti installed a nighttime curfew that lasted for more than two weeks.
Zelaya bounced from
Protests continued, as did the repression. Outside of the country, Zelaya, and then a team from the de facto Micheletti government, met separately with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an attempt to resolve the stalemate. They both agreed to hold negotiations. With mediation from Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, week two of the coup turned into week three, with little progress.
13 July, Zelaya gave the 'ultimatum'. He told the de facto Micheletti
coup government that at their next meeting in
following day, at a press conference in
By 19 July, the talks had failed as the de facto Micheletti government refused to budge on the central issue of the negotiations - Zelaya's reinstatement. Fearing violence if the situation were not resolved quickly, Arias asked for an additional 72 hours to mediate, but by the middle of that week a new 12-point plan had also been rejected. Zelaya took matters into his own hands.
and activists called a two-day general strike and Zelaya moved his fight
to the Nicaraguan-Honduran border where he set up camp near the town
The future is still uncertain, but not the international response.
'I did not reach this position because of a coup. I am here because of an absolutely legal transition process,' Micheletti had said as he was sworn in as de facto president on 28 June.
Like Pedro Carmona - the head of the Venezuelan chamber of commerce, Fedecamaras, who took power when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted on 11 April 2002 - Micheletti received a round of applause as he was sworn in. Like in the case of Carmona too, the people protested outside.
But unlike the situation with Carmona, the rest of the planet didn't buy it. That is the difference. Not one country has recognised the de facto Micheletti government.
the 2002 Venezuelan coup, the
US Secretary of State Clinton declared, 'The action taken against Honduran President Mel Zelaya violates the precepts of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and thus should be condemned by all.'
The OAS, which held an emergency meeting that afternoon, issued a resolution condemning the coup and calling for the immediate reinstatement of Zelaya as president. The president of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, called the Honduran military intervention a 'criminal action'.
had such international outrage been garnered against a coup d'etat in
hand of the
international support for the Zelaya government has been unbending,
US policies towards the tiny country have become contradictory. The
deceive the world with a discourse that contradicts your actions,' Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez told US President Barack Obama on his Alo Presidente
talk show on 12 July. 'If the
the former Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel recently pointed
out, there appear to be two responses from the
Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the
Zelaya hasn't returned, leading many to speculate that there is perhaps
plenty going on behind the scenes that we do not know. It has come
out that the
strong ties between the
the 1980s, the
a result, trade restrictions on
empire is alive. Do you want proof? There's
As verified through declassified documents - easily accessible at the George Washington University's National Security Archive - over the last 50 years, the United States has played an undeniable role in intervention in nearly every country in the Western hemisphere. But US-backed Pinochet-style bloody coups are out of style. Coups these days want to appear legitimate. Clean. Democratic.
'No, I didn't resign,' Aristide told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman just two weeks after the Haitian coup plotters flew him out of the country in 2004. 'What some people call "resignation" is a "new coup d'etat" or "modern kidnapping".'
are also changing under the Obama administration. Whereas perhaps the
Bush administration would have defied international opinion to openly
back the illegitimate coup, the Obama administration is at least straddling
the line. Something that
the de facto Micheletti government isn't taking any chances. According
to the New York Times from 12 July, 'Mr Micheletti has embarked on a
public relations offensive, with his supporters hiring high-profile
lawyers with strong Washington connections' to lobby against sanctions.
Among them are
The media campaign
The PR 'offensive' doesn't end there. While the de facto Micheletti government has not been recognised, that hasn't stopped the international media from acting as though it has. On the day of the coup, CNN Online aired an interview with the conservative former Venezuelan Ambassador Diego Arria, who blamed not the military but Zelaya for 'attempting a coup against the [Honduran] constitution'.
same day, the BBC asked its English-speaking readers in
in opposition to the 28 June non-binding referendum feared Zelaya was
attempting to alter the constitution in order to eliminate term limits
and be re-elected beyond the end of his term early next year.
Nevertheless, the referendum was simply meant to test the waters for the possibility of a referendum for a constitutional assembly - a legal act under Article 5 of the 2006 Honduran 'Citizen Participation Law' which authorises public officials to perform such non-binding consultations.
The question on the ballot read: 'Do you agree that during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?'
'Today's proposed referendum was non-binding and merely consultative. Thus no one could argue that allowing it to go forward could cause irreparable harm,' said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, on the day of the coup. 'There was no excuse for the Honduran military to intervene, regardless of the constitutional issues at stake.'
Of course, the Honduran Supreme Court and the de facto Micheletti government have their excuse, built around legal loopholes and constitutional wording. Once sworn in, Micheletti piled on another 18 charges against Zelaya.
'The democratic state of law was repeatedly breached by the citizen Jos‚ Manuel Zelaya Rosales, who time and again violated the Constitution of the republic,' Micheletti said before the Honduran Congress on 1 July, without presenting any evidence.
Ironically, the Salvadoran newspaper El Faro revealed on 9 July that in October 1985, Micheletti himself had actually been one of a dozen Congressional Representatives who backed a piece of legislation calling for a constituent assembly in order to extend the term of then-Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordoba. According to El Faro, the representatives were looking to suspend certain articles of the constitution - 'the same [articles] that now serve the Honduran authorities to justify Zelaya's dismissal.'
Hondurans, especially among the elite, do believe the coup was justified,
and have continued to back the coup government, but according to a recent
As of 13 July, according to the US-based Latin America Working Group, five people had been killed (including a journalist and a trade unionist), and thousands of peaceful protestors had been repressed, of whom 180 were detained and 18 accused of sedition.
On 16 July, the Committee of Family Members of Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) published a report detailing over a thousand human rights abuses committed by the coup regime, including four political assassinations.
The same day, Micheletti reinstated the curfew and the US-based organisation, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), spoke with Honduran Dr Luther Castillo who reported that the de facto government was trying to stop strikes and demonstrations by selectively targeting leaders with a growing 'hit list' of names. Castillo said that the attacks are being carried out by the army or by 'criminals-for-hire', reminiscent of the death squads of the 1980s.
independent media outlets across the country have been shut down and
journalists arrested. Among them are the staff of the Venezuela-based
TV networks Telesur and Venezolana de Television (VTV), who had been
covering the situation in
started to chase us when we were reporting,' said Telesur correspondent
Adriana Sˇvory at a press conference on 13 July in
VTV and Telesur teams were detained on the night of 11 July without
charges. They were released with the help of the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan
embassies and left
'The members of my government have been the object of persecution, the cancellation of bank accounts, which is evidence that the regime is supporting itself through weapons,' declared Zelaya at a press conference on 13 July. 'On top of that, they have held foreign journalists hostage, they break into the homes of people who denounce the military coup.'
In a possible positive sign, on 25 July, the Honduran military threw its weight behind a settlement similar to that proposed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. This would allow Zelaya to return as president but with reduced powers, and an amnesty for the coup plotters.
But only time will tell what course the next few days or weeks will bring. Despite the international condemnation, and the tremendous political, social and economic cost to the country, it appears that the de facto Micheletti government is attempting to weather the storm.
The US-backed negotiations were heavily criticised since as a matter of principle, negotiations with coup plotters should be out of the question.
'Does this mean that in any country in the region, you can launch a coup d'etat and you'll be rewarded with negotiation?' asked German Zepeda, president of the Coalition of Honduran Banana and Agroindustrial Unions, in a New American Media commentary. That, he said, would set a bad precedent.
there were questions about the credibility of Arias to mediate a legitimate
return to power for Zelaya. Arias has close ties to
There were also fears that the illegitimate Micheletti administration would attempt to use the mediation process to buy time and demand that this November's presidential elections be held under the jurisdiction of the illegal government. The idea was condemned on 9 July by 35 leading Latin American experts in an open letter to Secretary of State Clinton.
Nevertheless, this is exactly what it appears they are trying to do: buy time to ensure that, even if they are forced to hand power back to Zelaya, a referendum on the constituent assembly cannot be carried out before the presidential elections this November. At the same time they appear to be working quickly to instil enough fear in the Honduran people to stop them from demanding such a referendum when the moment may arise.
is a coup not only to
if the coup was regional, then the response was global. The immediate
international solidarity that echoed around the planet may have changed
the face of military coups d'etat in
a few short decades ago, many of the countries in the region were ruled
by military dictatorships, and in
less than 24 hours after the Honduran coup, Zelaya was joined in
spite of the ambiguous stance of the
is the difference. It is the same story as before, told with similar
actors - some of whom even studied at the School of the
Like in Venezuela, where the people remember the way they flooded into the streets to demand the return of their president Hugo Chavez just two days after he had been taken from office, 'every April 11th has its April 13th'.
Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and
documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the recently released documentary,
Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the
For more English language news on
*Third World Resurgence No. 226, June 2009, pp 23-27