What’s at stake in the fight against the coup?

August 24, 2009

Antiwar activist Shaun Joseph is recently returned from Honduras as part of a weeklong International Mission for Solidarity, Accompaniment and Observation. Along with Providence, R.I., City Council member Miguel Luna, he wrote a journal for SocialistWorker.org, describing the conditions they saw in the wake of a coup against the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya--and the broad resistance against the coup makers.

Here, Shaun draws on his experiences in Honduras to analyze what led to the coup against Manuel Zelaya, the factors shaping the opposition, and what the future holds for the struggle.

THE POPULAR struggle in Honduras is, first of all, a struggle to defeat the coup organized by the armed forces and the country's elite that ousted President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales.

However, the roots of the conflict touch on major changes in the economic structure of the country that took place under the neoliberal policies implemented over the last 30 years.

In 1980, 63 percent of economically active Hondurans were employed in agriculture, mostly as peasants; at the same time, only 16 percent of GDP came from manufacturing. These levels were roughly the same as in 1960. By 1999, only 13 percent of the active population was in agriculture, and 32 percent of GDP came from manufacturing.

North American imperialism penetrated into Honduras far more deeply during the neoliberal period than previously--"politically," in the first instance, using the country as a staging ground for its war on the Central American left in the 1980s; and then "economically" in the heyday of the IMF and World Bank during the 1990s.

Zelaya supporters rally outside the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa
Zelaya supporters rally outside the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa (Yamil Gonzales)

Thus, neoliberalism in Honduras produced both an expanded working class and an imperialist-oriented native oligarchy accustomed to high profits. This was accompanied by severe social dislocation, since the structural transformation of the Honduran economy was carried out under "free market principles"--that is, anarchically. A dramatic illustration of this came when Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998: 11,000 people were killed, and an additional 2 million were left homeless.

Zelaya came to power in 2006, when the crisis of neoliberalism was already evident in Latin America--as were the beginnings of an alternative center-left model, pursued most vigorously by Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.

Though a candidate of one of the two main parties of Honduras' elite, Zelaya implemented a series of important reforms, including increasing the minimum wage by 60 percent. He led Honduras into joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas, an economic alliance initiated by Venezuela; and he pushed through a Citizen Participation Law allowing the president to initiate consultative referenda. Such reforms began to grate on the oligarchy.

Hondurans like to amuse foreigners with jaw-dropping tales of their rulers' avarice. Among many such stories, they told us how the rich generally refuse to pay their electricity bills, for their homes and businesses alike--some had not paid in 10 years.

By 2007, the state electricity company ENEE was functionally bankrupt due to massive nonpayment. Zelaya initiated "Operation Scissors" to literally cut the power lines of wealthy delinquents. However, the oligarchs were able to use their base in Congress and the state bureaucracy to halt Operation Scissors, forcing ENEE to resort to large rate hikes to recover the shortfall.


THE JUNE 28 coup was undertaken by the Honduran ruling elite to arrest the process that was threatening their obscene social privilege.

The golpistas (coup-makers) claim that Zelaya was attempting to hold a referendum to allow him to run for another term. This is simply untrue. Instead, Zelaya was trying to hold a nonbinding national survey on whether the November ballot should include a referendum on whether to convoke a Constituent Assembly to consider constitutional reform. Zelaya could not have run for reelection, regardless of the results of the survey, as he has pointed out several times.

The further "legal" justifications for the coup--the post facto Supreme Court ruling, the obviously forged resignation letter--are of an equally clownish, lying character.

Because the coup represents only the interests of the wealthy, it is opposed by a majority of Hondurans, especially workers and peasants. This is obvious to anyone who walks around the country with their eyes open. The democratic anti-coup resistance--organized primarily by labor, peasant and indigenous organizations--has broad political support, stretching well into the small business and professional layers.

Having lost the passive acquiescence of the majority so essential to "peaceful" rule, the coup regime has never really been able to consolidate itself. Some two months after Zelaya's ouster, it hangs on mainly by force. In the daily mass marches through the capital, one is never far from a contingent of police or soldiers, in full riot gear, carrying huge assault rifles--and marches are frequently attacked, as we experienced during our visit.

This is in spite of the remarkably disciplined nonviolent tactics used by the mass movement. This popular nonviolence, in contrast to the thuggery of the state, has expanded the movement's support, although it raises serious questions about self-defense in the face of brutal repression.

If the coup in Honduras were merely a Honduran question, it would undoubtedly have been defeated already. But the golpistas are strongly connected to North American imperialism through powerful corporations such as Chiquita, Dole, Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, the U.S.-Canadian ANAMINH mining group, Burger King, Pepsi, Dunkin Donuts and more.

Perhaps even more importantly, the success or defeat of the coup has major implications for the development of Latin America generally: Can the trend of progressive, anti-imperialist policies be stopped here?

Thus, although the U.S. government is formally against the coup, its real policy is to temporize until the golpistas consolidate power, then push through a "compromise" that is actually a defeat for Zelaya and the laboring classes. This is why the U.S. has not cut off all aid to the coup government, nor frozen the golpistas' bank accounts, nor prevented their frequent pilgrimages to Miami.

Fortunately, the popular resistance has been able to disrupt the U.S. strategy. The golpistas are also very arrogant and stupid, and typically refuse to coordinate their moves with the Obama administration, preferring the counsel of Republicans and right-wing fanatics in Miami. Finally, there is anecdotal evidence that the police and army are becoming demoralized by being ordered to carrying out continual attacks on the population.

That said, there are no signs that the Obama administration will cut aid to the coup regime unless it faces much more pressure. The U.S. strategy of waiting things out could work if the social power of the Honduran working class isn't exercised with strike action. Although a general strike has been formally declared, it isn't actual; the mass mobilizations are economically disruptive, but more to commerce than production itself.

A general strike is a serious matter and would surely be met with vicious repression. But it would choke off the profits of the golpistas and their North American masters, and possibly strike a death blow to the coup.

The struggle in Honduras is proving what is possible when the masses shed their passivity and enter political life. All politically conscious people should help the Honduran resistance through education and solidarity action. In particular, people in the U.S. should demand that the Obama administration immediately end all aid to the coup government (including so-called "humanitarian" aid, which cannot be entrusted to the golpistas).

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