Honduran coup: Same story, different stage, new reality

The recent overthrow of Honduras' lawfully elected president by the country's military has drawn worldwide denunciation. Although the new regime which replaced him is completely isolated, the country's traditional elite which backed the coup remain defiant.

Michael Fox

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.

No, this is not Venezuela in 2002. Nor is it Haiti, 2004. It's Honduras, 2009, where roughly the same story is once again being told, but on a different stage with different actors.  That difference could mean everything.

Anatomy of a coup

When 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 Honduras for more than a century.

But once in office, Zelaya slowly joined Latin America's leftward shift. As Via Campesina put it, Zelaya began to work in 'defence of workers and campesinos [peasants]'. The president raised the minimum wage by 60%, and in August 2008 sailed Honduras into the progressive Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA - Alternativa Bolivariana por las Americas) trade bloc composed of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and others.

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.

In 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 Costa Rica. Later that day, the head of the National Congress, Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in as de facto president of Honduras. Thousands of protestors took to the streets.  Honduran labour leader Angel Alvarado called for a national strike against the coup, and the resistance quickly formed the National Front Against the Coup d'etat (Frente Nacional Contra el Golpe de Estado).

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.

Meanwhile, Zelaya bounced from Costa Rica to an emergency ALBA summit in Nicaragua, to meetings of the United Nations and then the OAS in Washington, to drum up support for his return to the country.  That was the plan, exactly one week after the coup, on 5 July, as Zelaya flew towards Honduras.  But his attempt to land at Tegucigalpa's Toncontin International Airport was thwarted, as soldiers and military vehicles blocked the runway. Zelaya was forced to land in El Salvador. Thousands of pro-Zelaya protestors had marched to the airport to accompany their president's return.  The scene became ugly as the military opened fire on protestors, wounding several and killing 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo.

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.

On 13 July, Zelaya gave the 'ultimatum'. He told the de facto Micheletti coup government that at their next meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, they should abide by the resolutions of the OAS and the UN to reinstate him. 'If not,' he said, 'then this mediation will be considered to have failed.'

The following day, at a press conference in Guatemala, Zelaya vowed to return to the country, and he called for a Honduran insurrection, saying, 'The Honduran people have the right to insurrection, which is written in article three of the Honduran Constitution, and Hondurans should value their constitutional rights. I want to tell you to not leave the streets, that is the only space that they have not taken from us.'

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.

Unions 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 of Las Manos.  On 24 July, with a round of cheers from supporters, Zelaya crossed a metal chain and took a symbolic few steps into Honduras, where he held a press conference before retreating back into Nicaragua. Twelve kilometres away, in the town of El Paraiso, the Honduran military aggressively blocked thousands of pro-Zelaya supporters from meeting with their president.  Although Zelaya wasn't touched while in Honduras on 24 July, the de facto Micheletti government has said they will arrest him if he enters the country.

The future is still uncertain, but not the international response.

International condemnation

'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.  

During the 2002 Venezuelan coup, the United States quickly recognised the de facto Carmona government. In Haiti in 2004, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said it was US officials that forced him on to a plane to the Central African Republic. But on the day of the Honduran coup, the US ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, affirmed, 'The only president the United States recognises is President Manuel Zelaya.'

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'.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua closed their borders with Honduras to trade.  Within a few days, most Latin American and European governments had pulled their ambassadors. ALBA quickly suspended Honduras from the group.  Within the week, the OAS had followed suit, marking the first time the organisation had taken such a drastic measure since Cuba was suspended in 1962.  In its first unanimous condemnation of a coup d'etat in the history of the 64-year-old organisation, all 192 countries of the UN General Assembly denounced the coup and called for Zelaya to be reinstated. Meanwhile, the European Union suspended the EU-Central America trade negotiations, and Venezuela - which sells roughly 20,000 barrels of oil a day to Honduras - stopped oil shipments to the Central American country. 

Never had such international outrage been garnered against a coup d'etat in Latin America. Never had a Latin American coup government been so isolated.  And yet, the illegal Micheletti government stubbornly refused - and still refuses - to step down.

The hand of the United States

While international support for the Zelaya government has been unbending, US policies towards the tiny country have become contradictory.  The United States has not recognised the coup government, but nor has it followed the example of Latin America and Europe to pull its ambassador and cut off all aid to Honduras. In fact, the United States has yet to officially classify the Honduran coup as a 'coup d'etat' which, by US law, would forbid any US aid to the de facto government.  Some $16.5 million in aid for military assistance programmes has already been suspended, but $180 million in US aid is still being evaluated by the State Department.

'Don't 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 US government truly doesn't support the coup, it would withdraw all of its troops from the military base at Palmerola.'

As the former Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel recently pointed out, there appear to be two responses from the US government: one coming from Obama and the White House, and the other from 'the political machinery that remains intact from the Bush administration', which is being applied through the US military advisers based in Honduras.

'The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government,'New York University Latin American history professor Greg Grandin told Democracy Now! the day after the coup. 'If any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it's Honduras. Its economy is wholly based on trade, foreign aid and remittances. So if the US is opposed to this coup going forward, it won't go forward. Zelaya will return...'

But 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 US State Department had prior knowledge of the coup, and was in contact with coup plotters in the days leading up to the coup. Six leading members of the de facto Micheletti government were trained at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).    

But strong ties between the United States and Honduras go back much further than that.  At the turn of the 20th century, Honduras was considered a 'banana republic' and practically run by the US' United Fruit and Standard Fruit and Cuyamel Fruit Companies.  At its peak in the 1920s, bananas accounted for nearly 90% of total Honduran exports. The fruit companies dictated policy. The US government and military backed them up.

In the 1980s, the US military established a large presence in Honduras, in order to battle the Communist 'red tide' the US feared was spreading across Central America. From Honduras, the US military trained and supported the Contras who were fighting against the leftist Sandinista government in neighbouring Nicaragua.  Meanwhile the CIA lent its support to the bloody Battalion 316 of the Honduran military which was responsible for the disappearance, assassination and torture of hundreds of Hondurans.  There are now rumours that the battalion may be reactivated.  Meanwhile, more than 500 US troops are still stationed at the Soto Cano (Palmerola) Air Base in Honduras, part of a military collaboration agreement between the two countries that dates back to 1954. 

Economically, the United States is still Honduras' largest trading partner today. In 2006, commerce between the two countries was over $7 billion. Honduras is the third largest apparel exporter to the US after China and Mexico. Over 150 US companies have operations in Honduras, including Cargill, Chiquita, Dole, Fruit of the Loom, Jerzees, Sara Lee and dozens more US apparel companies. 

As a result, trade restrictions on Honduras from the Obama administration aren't likely, regardless of who's in power. On 11 July, the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the US Chamber of Commerce and five other trade groups representing the US retail and textile industry wrote Obama to 'urge' him 'to do everything possible to maintain the close commercial ties and economic engagement between the United States and Honduras.'


'The empire is alive. Do you want proof? There's Honduras - the hand of the Yankee empire,' declared Venezuelan President Chavez on 17 July. 'There they are, trying to revert, not just democracy in Honduras, but later they will come for all of us that are trying to propel this process of democratic change.'

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.

Like in Venezuela in 2002, or Haiti in 2004, the Honduran coup plotters found their excuse (albeit not a very good one), held Zelaya at gunpoint and flew him out of the country. They said that Zelaya, like Chavez and Aristide before him, had resigned.

'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".'

For decades, the United States has also deployed more subtle forms of influence through the funding of opposition groups which do what the US government calls 'democracy promotion'. Funds are passed down through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) or the International Republican Institute (IRI).

Organisations in Venezuela, Haiti and Honduras have received millions.  According to the US-Venezuelan lawyer Eva Golinger, who has been following the Honduran events closely in her blog, 'Postcards from the Revolution', in Honduras, 'the Department of State has already been clear that it is not subject to suspending any aid directed toward "democracy promotion", which includes a large part of the $49 million it is investing this year in Honduras through USAID.'

Things 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 US writer Clifton Ross equates to a revival of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 'Good Neighbour' policy towards Latin America in the 1930s. 'In other words,' he writes, 'opening markets and making trade agreements with Latin America' in order to maintain the dependency of the South on the United States.

Regardless, 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 Clinton adviser Bennett Ratcliff and Lanny J Davis, who was a personal lawyer for President Clinton and who campaigned for Hillary Clinton. On 10 July, Davis testified on Capitol Hill in support of the de facto Micheletti government.

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'.

The same day, the BBC asked its English-speaking readers in Honduras if they thought the Honduran constitution should be changed. By reading many of the comments, it would also appear as though Zelaya was the criminal: 'The events that occurred today ARE NOT an attack to the Honduran democracy. There is no coup in Honduras. Finally we have peace in our country.'

Many 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.  Brazil's largest media chain, Rede Globo, echoed the fears in an article on the evening of the coup, as did most media outlets across the globe.

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?'

In 1999, Venezuela rewrote its constitution in a similar-style constituent assembly. It was passed in a nationwide referendum with more than 70% approval from the voting population, and grants new rights across society.  Ecuador and Bolivia have followed suit, holding constituent assemblies in each of their countries and passing the document with the support of the majority of the population.  Zelaya's re-election was not on the 28 June ballot.

'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.'  

The resistance

Many Hondurans, especially among the elite, do believe the coup was justified, and have continued to back the coup government, but according to a recent Gallup poll, they are in the minority. Thousands continue to protest in the streets, and more arrive to the country's capital, Tegucigalpa, each day calling for the end of the illegitimate Micheletti government.  Meanwhile, the repression has increased.

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.

Meanwhile, 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 Honduras virtually 24 hours a day since the start of the coup.   

'They started to chase us when we were reporting,' said Telesur correspondent Adriana Sˇvory at a press conference on 13 July in Nicaragua. 'They followed us to hotels, tapped our phones, the calls were cut.'

The 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 Honduras on 12 July under threat.

'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.

Meanwhile there were questions about the credibility of Arias to mediate a legitimate return to power for Zelaya. Arias has close ties to Washington, and played a questionable 'mediation' role in the resolution of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran armed conflicts in the 1980s.

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.

'This is a coup not only to Honduras, but to all of Latin America,' COFADEH director Bertha Oliva told an SOA Watch delegation when they arrived in Honduras a week after the coup. It was a coup against Latin America's leftward shift; against the possibility of a constituent assembly that might redistribute the scant resources in this tiny country of eight million people, where more than half the population live below the poverty line.

But 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 Latin America.

Only a few short decades ago, many of the countries in the region were ruled by military dictatorships, and in Central America, those that weren't, were steeped in brutal civil wars.

In less than 24 hours after the Honduran coup, Zelaya was joined in Nicaragua by the countries of the progressive ALBA alliance for an emergency presidential summit. The presidents of Ecuador, Rafael Correa; Venezuela, Hugo Chavez; Bolivia, Evo Morales; Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega and others joined together with Zelaya and demanded the Honduran president be returned to power.

In spite of the ambiguous stance of the US government, this progressive regional unity is the new face of Latin America.  And people are finding across the hemisphere that only with this international solidarity, and overwhelming repudiation against the blatant disregard for the rule of law, will actions such as this coup be isolated, overturned and hopefully never again repeated.

That is the difference. It is the same story as before, told with similar actors - some of whom even studied at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning - only this time we live in a different age, under a shifting geopolitical backdrop. On the presidential level, the coup has been denounced across the planet, and governments are standing behind Zelaya. On the local level, Honduras' Radio Es Lo De Menos has called on international activists to continue to march on Honduran embassies across the globe. There is a necessary active role for all to play. The difference could mean everything.

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'.                                                        

Michael 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 Americas <>. For more articles, reports or videos, visit his blog,

      For more English language news on Honduras, visit:, and˙ For news in Spanish, visit the clandestine Radio Es Lo De Menos,, and

*Third World Resurgence No. 226, June 2009, pp 23-27