Where is Honduras headed?

October 6, 2009

Shaun Joseph, who was part of a solidarity delegation to Honduras following the coup, looks at the politics of proposed deal to restore President Manuel Zelaya to office.

HONDURAN COUP leader Roberto Micheletti said his regime would end a repressive state of emergency today--but only after presiding over vicious repression designed to smash the opposition ahead of elections scheduled for next month.

And while Micheletti has raised the possibility that deposed President Manuel Zelaya could return to office briefly, he told Honduran media that this could take place only after elections set for November 29. Zelaya's term expires January 27 of next year.

Micheletti's suggestion that Zelaya could become president again, but only as a lame duck, is aimed at putting a constitutional gloss on an increasingly militarized state. Even before it ordered the suspension of constitutional rights September 27, the regime's crackdown on the popular movement and the left was in full swing.

In a Washington Post column published September 22, Micheletti maintained that no coup had taken place in Honduras. Although the Honduran military kidnapped and expelled Zelaya June 28, with the connivance of U.S. military personnel based in that country, Micheletti maintained that Honduran democracy remains intact.

Protesting against the coup in Honduras
Protesting against the coup in Honduras

"Coups do not allow freedom of assembly," he wrote. "They do not guarantee freedom of the press, much less a respect for human rights. In Honduras, these freedoms remain intact and vibrant."

On the very morning these words appeared, the Honduran military was engaged in brutal violence against supporters of the legitimate president, as they gathered peacefully around the Brazilian embassy where Zelaya has taken refuge since secretly returning to the country last month. As the Honduran writer Jorge Handal said in an interview, "[T]he military and the police came with their water tanks to clear us from the streets, beating everyone up: women, children, men, anyone in the streets."

On the same day, the anti-coup Radio Globo was forced underground, and the human rights organization COFADEH was attacked with tear gas. In addition, a blanket curfew was imposed, forcing people to stay in their homes for two days.

Five days after Micheletti's declared his regard for civil liberties in the Post, he announced that he would put the country under a "state of siege" for 45 days. The declaration effectively nullified all constitutional protections.

In addition to making a mockery of the coup-makers' "legal" arguments, the state of siege also cut into the campaign period for the November 29 elections.

Although these elections are rejected by the popular resistance, boycotted by anti-coup candidates and recognized by no other country, the golpistas (coup-makers) do consider them important in their overall campaign to legitimize the coup. The state of siege, originally scheduled to end only a few weeks before the elections, renders the vote a farce, even by golpista standards.

THE STATE of siege accelerated the development of splits in the coup regime that began with Zelaya's underground return to Honduras September 21.

In the face of continued popular resistance, the National Congress, controlled by coup supporters and led by Micheletti before the coup, threatened to overturn the siege decree.

Micheletti, in turn, has backed down. In an interview with the Brazilian magazine Veja, he even said it was a "mistake" for the military to have exiled Zelaya. "I am not responsible for the decision," he said. "I was only informed of the proceedings...but they told me they did it for fear that a conflict would have been unleashed" had Zelaya gone ahead with plans for a nonbinding referendum on whether to hold a constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution.

If Micheletti is now floating the idea that Zelaya could return to office under certain highly restrictive conditions, it's because some powerful members of Honduras' wealthy oligarchy are willing to make a deal. The business magnate Adolfo Facussé, a coup supporter, offered a fresh "compromise" plan on September 29, quickly drawing the approval of the coup's top military man, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez.

The plan foresees the reinstatement of Zelaya until the end of his term in January, after which he will face unspecified "corruption" charges. The golpistas, on the other hand, would enjoy amnesty, with Micheletti being granted the post of "Congressman for life"--like Chile's late dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The agreement would be enforced by 3,000 troops from Colombia, Panama and Canada.

This plan was greeted with much celebration in the U.S. press, despite--or perhaps because of--its crass partiality to the golpistas.

The most important aspect of the Facussé-Velásquez proposal, however, is not its content, but what it indicates about the oligarchy's lack of confidence in Micheletti.

The blanket curfew of September 21-24 completely disrupted production and commerce, and therefore profits. Leading businessman Jesús Canahuati, a coup supporter, complained to Bloomberg News that the curfew cost the Honduran economy $50 million a day, and that the country had lost $200 million in investment since June 28.

The oligarchs behind the coup expected only a brief disruption of "business as usual" before they could stabilize the situation and regain international legitimacy, as happened following the 2004 coup in Haiti against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. This was also apparently the plan of the U.S. government, since Honduran capitalists are mainly front men for American and Canadian interests.

However, the rapid mobilization of the democratic resistance to coup, led by working-class and peasant organizations grouped together in the National Front Against the Coup d'État, smashed this plot of the imperialists and oligarchs.

IN THE face of unexpectedly vigorous struggle from the Honduran working classes, the policy of the Obama administration has become confused.

While condemning the takeover in international forums, the administration never formally acknowledged that a military coup had taken place. Had it done so, the U.S. would have been forced to suspend all economic aid. The U.S. also declined to pursue tough measures that would have hurt U.S. and Canadian capital, such as expelling Honduras from the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

For their part, the Republicans easily made hay of Obama's two-faced policy by declaring full-throated support for the golpistas. But while it's easy to attack the Republicans' love affair with the Micheletti regime, liberal Democrats are caught in the trap of supporting Obama's ambivalent position.

Evidence of the contradictory U.S. policy abounds. When Sen. James DeMint's (R-S.C.) tried to take an absurd--and probably illegal--taxpayer-funded jaunt to Honduras, he was blocked by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. But the Republican leadership got the trip approved through the Armed Services Committee of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Meanwhile, the executive branch of the U.S. government says one thing and does another.

The State Department condemned Honduras' state of siege, while the Pentagon disclosed it was still running joint exercises with the Honduran military. And although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Zelaya's return to Tegucigalpa "opportune to restore him to his position under appropriate circumstances," the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, Lewis Anselem, declared that Zelaya's return "absent an agreement is irresponsible and foolish."

The Honduran economy is utterly dominated by North American business, so the disposition of the U.S. government--will it support the golpistas or let them fall?--is a critical question. But the mixed messages of the Obama administration, combined with the open partisan division in Congress, have reduced U.S. influence to a surprising degree.

More broadly, Obama's handling of the coup has drained his political capital in Latin America. This is bound to create problems in other realms of Latin America policy, such as the deployment of the U.S. Navy's Fourth Fleet and a highly controversial agreement for the U.S. military to use seven Colombian bases.

What's forcing Micheletti to backpedal isn't pressure from the U.S., but the resistance of the Honduran working class. The movement is usually ignored by the mainstream U.S. press, which portrays the conflict as a dispute between the golpistas and Zelaya.

In truth, Zelaya would have certainly shared the fate of Haiti's Aristide as a permanent exile were it not for the daily mass actions organized by the National Front. Zelaya's spectacular return to country was coordinated by the Front. Having held out for nearly 100 days under terrible, repressive conditions, the resistance is not likely now--nearer than ever to victory--to accept oligarchic "compromises."

That said, the resistance may be at or near the point where it has to take decisive actions against the coup regime or risk disorienting its own base. This is a most serious and sensitive question that can, of course, only be properly answered by activists in Honduras with close links with the movement.

Certainly the spectacle of Micheletti's state of siege, compared to Zelaya's patient calls for dialogue, evokes sympathy for the deposed president. But that's insufficient to take the struggle forward. And while the demoralization of the armed forces seems to be increasing, the history of revolutions shows that armies generally switch sides only when "the die is cast"--not before.

The victory of the Honduran people's resistance would have two profound effects. First, it would defeat the first coup backed by the Obama administration, putting a major dent in U.S. imperial designs on Latin America and energizing people across the region. Second, it would recover the politics of mass working class action from the wreckage of the Central American left's experience under neoliberalism.

U.S. activists should offer all moral, political and material support for the victory of the Honduran resistance.

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