Honduras after Zelaya’s return
Former Honduras President Manuel Zelaya is back in his country more than two years after he was ousted in a coup d'etat. But the circumstances of his return represent a setback for the left, according to Todd Gordon, author of Imperialist Canada, and Jeffery R. Webber, author of From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales, in this report from Hondurus.
JUST OVER a month ago, on May 22, 2011, the Cartagena Accord was signed by the Venezuelan, Colombian and Honduran governments. The event facilitated the return of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (also a signatory to the accord), to Tegucigalpa on May 28, and the readmission of Honduras into the Organization of American States (OAS) on June 1.
A coup d'état overturned the democratically elected, center-left Zelaya administration on June 28, 2009, and temporarily installed Roberto Micheletti as president. Fraudulent elections were then held in November 2009, replacing Micheletti with the equally authoritarian Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo.
An odd array of bedfellows has offered up praise for the Cartagena and OAS developments. On the one hand, the U.S. and Canadian administrations of Barack Obama and Stephen Harper have long envisioned the reentry of Honduras into the OAS as the final step in the legitimization of the Honduran regime before the international community, following the supposed restoration of democracy in November 2009.
On the other hand, for sections of the Honduran and international left, the Cartagena Accord marks an important, if limited, advancement for democracy. The role of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in crafting the agreement is crucial to this occasionally sycophantic narrative.
The repatriation of Zelaya and the commitment from the Honduran regime to respect human rights and allow political exiles to come home is seen to be evidence of democratic progress.
The Cartagena moment
In fact, the Cartagena Accord is best understood as a blow to the Honduran resistance, one that is likely to undermine efforts to continue building a grassroots movement genuinely capable of challenging political and economic power in the country. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the accord will do anything to redress the systematic violations of human rights that have persisted since the coup. Even worse, it is likely to cast a democratic veneer over these atrocities, á la Colombia.
All evidence points to deep continuity in the realm of human rights since the signing of the accord, alongside a series of moves by the Lobo dictatorship to further consolidate the neoliberalization of the country's economy, with all of the social suffering this implies.
The Cartagena Accord includes a commitment from the Honduran government to allow an end to Zelaya's exile outside the country and to annul the legal proceedings against him. The agreement further commits the regime to adhere to the rule of law, ensure the protection of human rights, and permit popular plebiscites around political, economic and constitutional matters--one of the original catalysts for the coup d'état in 2009 was Zelaya's effort to hold a referendum on the possibility of a constituent assembly.
Finally, the Lobo regime, through the Cartagena proceedings, pledged to recognize any move by the Frente Nacional de la Resistencia Popular (National Front of Popular Resistance, FNRP, or the Frente) to transform itself into a formal political party.
Of this cocktail of basic civil and political rights, Zelaya's return was the only feature to which the government was not already formally committed, as Dana Frank has observed. Of course, in practice, the force of these legal formalities, under both the Micheletti and Lobo regimes, has been completely farcical.
Moreover, given the fact that, alongside Chávez and Zelaya, the principal interlocutors in the deal were Colombian President Manuel Santos--responsible in his former role as minister of defense for the illegal bombing of Ecuadorian territory in 2008, and deeply committed to the brutal regime of "democratic security" under the Álvaro Uribe government--and Lobo himself, the accord was inherently compromised from the outset.
"Everyone is happy that Zelaya has returned," said Bertha Cáceres, the general coordinator of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares y Indígenas de Honduras (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, COPINH), when we spoke with her in La Esperanza on June 18. Cáceres continued:
[His] right of return should have always been unconditional. He's a human being and he has the right to return to his country. However, we believe that the Cartagena Accord is in accordance with U.S. strategy. Juan Manual Santos, the president of Colombia, played a key role, alongside Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president. For us it's unacceptable that someone like Juan Manuel Santos, a recognized backer of paramilitarism in Colombia, and a violator of human rights, is talking about reconciliation and peace.
A litany of abuses
The documentation of repression of anti-coup activists by the most important human rights organization in Honduras, the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (Committee of the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras, COFADEH), demonstrates how the situation has worsened under Lobo when compared to the already terrible record of Micheletti.
Over the course of 2010, Lobo's first year in power, there were 34 targeted assassinations of Frente activists (with three more in 2011), 34 killings of peasant activists involved in land struggles, 10 politically motivated murders of journalists, and 31 slayings of members of the LGBT community, many of whom were associated with the anti-coup resistance.
Moreover, it should be noted that because COFADEH adheres to the strictest of methodologies in its numeration of abuses, its figures tend to be more conservative than other human rights organizations in the country, and by its own estimation likely underestimates the actual scale of repression.
Against this backdrop, the accord fails even to establish a mechanism for investigating or sanctioning those forces behind the coup and responsible for the subsequent repression--no mystery, of course, when we consider that all of these forces remain in control of the entire power structure of Honduras.
Despite the absence of such a mechanism--one of the original stated conditions for the readmission of Honduras into the OAS--the accord predictably secured the grounds for renewed membership status in this critical regional entity, legitimizing the Lobo dictatorship in the international sphere.
The OAS and the designs of empire
As Adrienne Pine points out, Honduras was suspended under Article 21 of the OAS Democratic Charter, because the military coup represented an "unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order."
The reality is that the key actors behind the coup continue to wield political and economic power, repression persists unabated, and the Lobo government was appointed through fraudulent elections during this "unconstitutional interruption," revealing unequivocally that by the terms of its own Democratic Charter conditions for readmission to the OAS did not exist early this June.
Yet Cartagena, signed by Zelaya and promoted by Chávez, has accomplished for Lobo that which the Honduran despot and his eager backers in the U.S. and Canada could not have managed on their own: the legitimization of the Honduran regime and its reincorporation into the international fold.
Some progressive commentators may be inclined to support, if cautiously, the Cartagena Accord due to the participation of Chávez. The operative assumption here is that the primary interests of the Venezuelan president are the advancement of the struggle in Honduras.
But given the obvious limits of the accord, and its predictable failure to genuinely improve political conditions in Honduras, this is a difficult position to sustain.
Whatever the precise reason for Chávez's support for Cartagena--including quite possibly stronger diplomatic ties to Colombia to ensure the continuity of economic relations with a major trading partner, upstaging Brazil as the major diplomatic player on the South American Left, and the accumulation of political capital in the region by orchestrating a "resolution" to the Honduran crisis when the imperial powers could not--the agreement represents another disconcerting example of the Venezuelan government prioritizing state interests over genuine international solidarity with popular struggles from below.
Cartagena follows on the heels of Chávez's wretched support for the government of Muammar el-Qadaffi in Libya and the extradition of five alleged members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to Colombia in the last two years, including a prominent journalist.
For Cáceres of COPINH, the role of Chávez in the coordination of the agreement is perhaps its most galling component. For her, "it's unacceptable that Chávez participated in this process without listening to the Honduran resistance, the resistance that is actually here in this country, because the resistance is not reducible to Mel Zelaya."
It would also be a mistake to assume Cartagena represents any kind of serious defeat for imperialism.
While Lobo's two most important imperial allies--the U.S. and Canada--were unable to successfully negotiate the readmission of Honduras into the OAS themselves, the ultimate consequences of Cartagena nevertheless strictly adhere to their longstanding objectives--that is, the consolidation of a Honduras with normalized international relations in which the rights of foreign capital stand well above those of the Honduran people, and, in the case of the U.S., the consolidation of a Honduran regime amenable to the extension and deepening of already intimate military and security ties.
There are no signs of interruption in the submission of Honduras to the geopolitical whims of Washington. Cáceres said:
We should not forget that the U.S. began to strengthen its military bases in Honduras immediately after the coup d'état in Honduras, a military presence that we've been denouncing for many years--the bases in Caratasca, La Mosquitia, Mocorón and Guanaja.
They have now established one very near Puerto Lempira, and want more bases in the Zona Lenca (which operated during the 1980s as torture camps and bases for counterinsurgency training). In addition, we have witnessed the militarization of Río Patuco and Río Plátano. Through these mechanisms, the U.S. has been positioning itself in the region, and supporting the coup regime.
In an interview on June 18 with Carlos Amaya, son of the renowned Honduran novelist, Ramón Amaya Amador, and an important grassroots activist in the Espacio Refundacional (Refoundational Space) current of the resistance, we heard a common refrain of the left of the resistance:
The Cartagena Accord opened up possibilities for resolving a critical "problem" of the resistance that the Obama administration had been seeking to solve since the initial coup--how to channel the popular mobilization into an electoral path, how to defeat the resistance in the streets, and how to stamp out the construction of popular power and direct democracy outside of parliamentary institutions.
A new democratic phase?
While the Cartagena Accord, in Articles 5 and 8, explicitly requires the Honduran state to take responsibility for the protection of human rights, little has changed on this score. Indeed, the cynicism of the Lobo regime in this regard defies the imagination.
According to Bertha Oliva of COFADEH, shortly after the accord was signed, two people were assassinated in Tegucigalpa. One of the victims, a woman, was a close friend of Zelaya's wife, and was in the Brazilian embassy with Zelaya after his first return to Honduras from exile in September 2009. This bold assassination was an unambiguous signal that even those close to Zelaya are not untouchable. Oliva told us in an interview on June 24:
Those of us who are here on the ground, who understand the reality of the human rights situation, think that the accord is a trap, or could easily become a trap. We know that before the Cartagena Accord, during the Cartagena Accord negotiations, and during the reintegration of Honduras into the OAS violations of human rights continued...The OAS is not interested in human rights. On the day of the readmission of Honduras into the OAS there were serious violations of human rights occurring.
On June 5, two weeks after Cartagena was signed, three more peasant activists in the Bajo Aguán region were assassinated near their San Esteban cooperative. The same day, security guards working for Miguel Facussé entered the National Agrarian Institute and opened fire on the peasants who had taken refuge there in the winter following a previous wave of repression.
One person was seriously injured. Facussé, a large landowner and one of the richest individuals in the country, is aiming to construct a biofuel empire, the land expropriations for which have helped to incite conflict with peasants in the north of the country.
The shooting rampage in the National Agrarian Institute was followed on June 10 by an invasion of several other peasant cooperatives in the Aguán region by police, military, and private security forces. Meanwhile, death threats against other members of the resistance who we talked to, including activists in Trujillo who are organizing against Canadian-financed mega-projects in the tourism sector, continue to be an all too common feature of community struggles in Honduras.
Impunity reigns in post-Cartagena Honduras. "We are living in a state," Oliva reminded us, "in which the security forces can torture, and nothing will happen, where they can detain people without cause, and nothing will happen." According to Oliva, "they can persecute and assassinate their political opponents and nothing will happen. They can drive into political exile whatever quantity of people they desire, and nothing will happen."
At the root of this is a sustained effort by the coupists to create a state of terror so crippling, to establish an environment in which people are so fearful that their will to struggle can be extinguished.
While the targeting of grassroots activists is the most pernicious and wide-reaching feature of post-Cartagena repression, the state's apparatus for quelling dissent has begun to extend its reach into the highest echelons of the official resistance.
In what Zelaya himself insists is a violation of Article 3 of the accord--which is supposed to guarantee "the return, safety and freedom of the former officials of the government" who were exiled--his former chief of staff, Enrique Flores, was put under house arrest by a judge on June 15, after having returned to Honduras on the same plane as Zelaya.
The charges against Flores appear to be rooted in a trumped-up corruption scandal. That the Honduran state would detain such a high-profile figure is a warning that no one who crosses the dictatorship will be protected from its punitive actions. The case of Flores is also telling because it reveals the utter confidence with which the state is willing to carry out its agenda even with ink of Cartagena barely dry.
"The Supreme Electoral Tribunal that presently exists in this country is the same one that was in place when the coup d'état occurred," Sandra Sánchez, an activist with Refoundational Space, told us in a June 26 interview. "This is the same tribunal that said nothing when the government of Zelaya, which it had earlier recognized as having been legitimately elected, was violently overthrown in a coup d'état."
And the institutional continuities of coupist power do not stop at the tribunal. According to Sánchez:
The Supreme Court in this country is the same one that remained completely silent when the coup d'état occurred, that stayed silent when the constitutional order of this country was broken. The grand majority of the deputies currently in Congress are those who argued that Zelaya should write a letter of resignation after the coup d'état had been carried out.
In this context, she suggested, who can reasonably suggest that the power dynamics have changed in any serious way that would allow for genuine participation in elections by resistance forces.
The security apparatus and a neoliberal fantasy world
As repression continues, security powers wielded by the state are being expanded, building upon the pre-Cartagena policies of the Lobo government, such as the anti-terrorist law passed in November 2010. In June 2011, Congress passed, as part of a package of 16 laws debated and approved in a single week, constitutional reforms increasing the time police can hold people without charge from 24 to 48 hours. Another constitutional amendment enables police to forcefully enter people's houses without cause.
The government is also implementing a new tax on businesses and middle-class individuals that is specifically designed as a new revenue stream for the security apparatus. The government hopes to raise 1.5 billion Lempiras annually (approximately $790,000).
Although some business leaders criticized the tax, their reticence evidently stems from having to make a contribution, not principled opposition to the extension of coercive capacities. Indeed, as a symbolic gesture in support of the agenda, the main business federation, the Consejo Hondureño de la Empresa Privada (Honduran Business Council, COHEP), recently donated 75 vehicles to the Ministry of Security.
The continuity of state and paramilitary terror is the terrain upon which the Honduran ruling class is advancing its aggressive neoliberal assault on the country's economy and natural resources. In the months leading up to Cartagena the government has privatized rivers for the construction of dam projects, and initiated plans to privatize the state-run telecommunications and electricity companies.
They have given the go ahead to tourist projects on Garífuna land on the north coast, and amended the constitution to permit the creation of "model cities"--an über-neoliberal brainchild of Stanford economist Paul Romer--which essentially amounts to business-run city states operating within the country.
With the same logic at play, Lobo has also passed the Law for the Promotion and Protection of Investment. The new law establishes a National Council for Investment with representatives from COHEP, the aim of which is to entice foreign capital in the energy, maquila and tourist sectors.
"This new law," according to Amaya, "practically returns Honduras to the distant epoch of the banana companies, in which concessions are given to private companies that provide every type of benefits to these companies, under the pretext that these corporations are going to develop the country."
The crucible of this naked capitulation to foreign capital, however, is to be found in the regime's hosting of Honduras is Open for Business, a conference that took place in May of this year. According to the government website, it, "aims at relaunching Honduras as the most attractive investment destination in Latin America."
In June, as part of this generalized trajectory, Lobo participated in the Consejo de Ministerios (Council of Ministers) in Trujillo on the north coast, a meeting that brought together political and business leaders. Canadian capitalist Randy Jorgenson was one important attendee. His massive tourist development project will be a major beneficiary of a government pledge to build a new road through Garífuna communities located both on and adjacent to the site of the project.
Meanwhile, proposals are still being discussed for a forthcoming mining law. Foreign companies, led by Chinese and Canadian capital, lie in wait for an opportunity to sink their teeth into Honduran mineral resources. In an interview on June 24 with Pedro Landa, director of the Centro Hondureño para la Promoción y Desarrollo Comunitario (Honduran Center for the Promotion of Community Development, CEHPRODEC) in Tegucigalpa, we learned that, in expectation of a favorable new law, "China has offered between 2 and 3 billion U.S. dollars of investment in mining, while Canada has offered between seven hundred million and one billion U.S. dollars of investment."
Cáceres sums up the bleak economic situation well: "They're aiming to give away this entire country." Indeed, the country has the air of a clearance sale: everything must go. In recognizing and thus legitimizing the Lobo government, the Cartagena Accord is in effect helping to consolidate this post-coup neoliberal counter-revolution.
Taming the resistance
The Cartagena Accord, the OAS legitimation of Lobo's regime and the repatriation of Zelaya have precipitated a new stage of flux in the socio-political agenda of the always heterogeneous Honduran resistance. An undeclared battle for hegemony within the Frente has been opened up between the three most coherent currents.
First, there are the so-called Liberals in Resistance who, together with affiliates of the Unión Democrática (UD) party, constitute what Amaya terms the "official" resistance. The moniker derives from their political origins, as elite renegades, only recently outcast from the oligarchic two-party system (bipartidismo) that has long seen Honduran political power traded between the Liberals and the National Party. The officialdom of the resistance is, in other words, a persecuted branch of former members of the ruling class.
Unsurprisingly, this tendency of the resistance has been the most willing to entertain participation in future elections presided over by the Lobo dictatorship, under the condition that Zelaya be able to run for the presidency from within the country.
Equally predictable has been their critical embrace of the Cartegena Accord, which they see, by and large, as a democratic advance. Zelaya, in spite of his tactical embrace of unity between all currents within the Frente, has, from the outset, been closest to this wing. He was, after all, a member of a populist fraction of the Liberal party until he was tossed out of the presidency at the hands of traditionalist Liberals in June 2009.
Second, there is Refoundational Space, an eclectic current of grassroots movements, workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, feminist organizations, LGTB activists, various political groupings of the Honduran far left, and a host of radical youth organizations. The largest formal organizations active in Refoundational Space are probably COPINH and the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (Fraternal Black Honduran Organization, OFRANEH).
This wing of the resistance is united around a commitment to building a popular movement from below, rooted in anti-capitalism and anti-oppression politics. Their most important demand has been for a refoundational, self-organized constituent assembly. They argue simultaneously that conditions do not presently exist for fair elections in Honduras, and that any recognition of the Lobo regime as the legitimate government of the country would constitute an unconscionable betrayal of the movement.
A third and oscillating force within the resistance is, like Refoundational Space, composed principally of popular classes and oppressed groups, as well as some political organizations of the Honduran far left. This current is the muddiest and most ill-defined. It stands to reason, therefore, that its commitments have shifted between the politics of the official resistance and the politics of Refoundational Space at different moments since the popular struggle against the coup began in 2009.
While it is still too early to make definitive statements, it would seem that in the lead up to the Cartagena Accord, and even more discernibly in the wake of Zelaya's return to Honduras, momentum within the resistance has moved from Refoundational Space to the official wing of the Frente.
A tale of two assemblies
For the weekend of June 17-18, we traveled four hours by bus, from Tegucigalpa to La Esperanza, to attend a gathering of Refoundational Space at COPINH's training center--essentially a community hall on farmland on the outskirts of La Esperanza. The objective of the gathering was to flesh out a common perspective of Refoundational Space for the National Assembly of Resistance to be held in the capital on June 26.
The gathering was remarkable for its revolutionary democratic character and egalitarian ethos. Multiple sessions of discussion, driven by constant participation from the floor, lasted the full two days and determined a host of resolutions for the way forward in struggle--in cursory form, yes to building anticapitalist, antiracist, anti-patriarchal popular power from below, no to participation in elections so long as the coupist power structure remains intact, and no to any recognition of the Lobo regime.
Everyone slept at the encampment on mattresses on the floor or available bunk beds, and communal meals were prepared and served. The participation of women was pronounced, from the coordinators at the front of the room, to participation from the floor.
Half of the delegates from Refoundational Space sent to the National Assembly were women. LGBT activists were a visible presence and played an important role in the gathering. Indigenous and peasant representatives from COPINH are leading players in the current, and were a clear force in the discussions over the weekend.
Garífuna representatives from OFRANEH were underrepresented at the weekend gathering--likely due to the geographical location of most Garífuna communities in the far north of the country--but were represented in the delegation elected to attend the National Assembly in Tegucigalpa.
The spirit and strategy of struggle from below so evident in the gathering of Refoundational Space had earlier won the day on a national scale during the National Assembly of the Resistance held in February, 2011.
Gilda Rivera, an activist in Feminists in Resistance, and an active member of Refoundational Space, in an interview on June 26, recalled the resolutions adopted by the resistance in the February 2011 national assembly:
The decisions of the February assembly were a focus on self-organization and the rejection of participation in elections. The basis of not participating in elections had to do with the fact that the conditions do not exist, the structures of power responsible for the coup remain in control of the entire institutional apparatus. The February assembly determined that we would not participate in elections that were part of the coupist infrastructure."
"There was a period of six months of debate leading up to that assembly," Tomás Andino, another delegate from Refoundational Space we talked to on June 26, recalled in reference to the February assembly. "And in the February assembly itself, there was a thorough and wide-ranging political debate."
In the context of extensive debate and discussion that characterized the February assembly, Refoundational Space, which only had a minority of delegates, was capable of winning over a majority to its position, against electoral participation, and for the ongoing construction of popular power from below.
In addition to the participatory atmosphere of the February proceedings, the opportunism of Zelaya himself, still in exile, played a critical part. "In the last assembly," Bertha Cáceres suggested to us in the June 18 interview, "it was very important that Zelaya was opposed to converting the Frente into an electoral party. But, obviously, at that time he was in exile. Now he's back in Honduras. So it's a more complex situation."
The dynamic of the National Assembly of the Resistance in Tegucigalpa on June 26 was distinct by all accounts from the one in February. Despite the presence of 1,500 delegates from around the country, all resolutions were adopted in under three hours, with minimal discussion from the floor.
The vast majority of speakers at the "open" mike were selected from the officialist camp. The caudillismo (big-man leadership) effect of Zelaya's presence at the front of the room was palpable. Before any discussion from the floor, he spoke at length in favor of the electoral path and the formation of a Frente Amplio (Broad Front) political party.
Discussion from the floor was then repeatedly interrupted by lengthy orations of male representatives of the official resistance on the raised platform at the front of the room, persistently reinforcing the electoral path advocated by Zelaya.
When the truncated assembly discussion was cut off, the stance of the official Resistance won a majority of the room. It was determined that the Resistance would create an electoral party to participate in the 2013 elections.
Immediately outside the assembly we caught up with Rivera and Andino, of Roundational Space. "Dissappointing," Rivera responded, when asked what she thought of the day's events, "I would say that the decisions arrived at today were a result of the manipulation of the process by the leadership of the Frente, and a disinformation campaign within the population of the Resistance.
"Sections of the leadership of the Frente have always been positioning themselves such that they will be integrated into the existing structures of power of this country. In other spaces of the Resistance, this tendency has been defeated, but today they were victorious in this assembly. The decisions made in the last National Assembly of the Resistance, in February 2011, were casually thrown into the garbage."
In terms of the process of the assembly, Rivera added, "there was total absence of patient discussion, and a serious manipulation of the process. So, beforehand we had a flood of commentary in favor of the electoral path [in the media, in the months leading up to the gathering], and little discussion in the assembly."
"I believe the assembly lacked political debate," Andino added. "There were insufficient opportunities available to challenge the official position." From Andino's perspective, "the decisions made today were made without sufficient preparation beforehand, and without adequate discussion."
What is more, "the decision to opt for forming a party to participate in the elections in 2013 is the wrong one to have made."
"In my opinion," he explained, "the coupists will be happy that the Resistance has decided on the electoral path, because this validates the existing political institutions in Honduras, and will likely lead to the continuation of the two-party system (bipartidismo) between Liberals (Partido Liberal) and the National Party (Partido Nacional).
"In the conditions that presently exist, conditions in which the regime has been strengthened and the Resistance lacks a strategy of struggle, we are left almost to the whims of the regime, to whatever decisions they make."
The Cartagena Accord, the reintegration of Honduras into the OAS, and the return of Zelaya under these circumstances have together tamed, at least temporarily, the dynamics of the Resistance, while providing a basis for the legitimation of a dictatorial regime that remains preeminently in control of every dimension of power in the country.
The same powers that were responsible for the coup d'état remain in place, and the forces that overthrew a legitimately elected government, are the forces that remain in power. The coupists have institutionalized their power. In the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, in the Supreme Court, the same figures that legitimized the coup remain in place, as do the forces in the executive and within the Armed Forces.
So are we to expect that these forces that came to power through force are going to give up that power through voting? No! All of these conditions suggest that the only strategy available to the people is to rise up, if they are to really express their will. If we simply move toward participation in elections we are going to be lost.
Thanks to Karen Spring for all her help organizing interviews. First published at The Bullet.