The Road to Zelaya’s Return: Money, Guns and Social Movements in Honduras
Nearly three months after being overthrown by a violent military coup, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya has returned to Honduras. "I am here in Tegucigalpa. I am here for the restoration of democracy, to call for dialogue," he told reporters. The embattled road to his return tested regional diplomacy, challenged Washington and galvanized Honduran social movements.
During a recent beach-side interview, with tropical breezes blowing along a sandy shore in the background, Honduran coup leader Roberto Michelleti told a Fox News reporter, “This is a quiet country, and a happy country.”(1) However, since Michelleti took over on June 28, Honduras been anything but quiet and content.
Michelleti’s de-facto regime has ruled the country with an iron fist while popular movements for democracy have gained steam with nearly constant strikes, road blockades and massive street protests. The coup inspired a movement that is now seeking more than just the reinstatement of Zelaya, but the transformation of the country through a new constitution. Michelleti says presidential elections in
November will proceed as planned, though few Hondurans, governments and international institutions say they will recognize the results given the violent situation in the country.
At least 11 anti-coup activists have been killed since Zelaya was ousted.(2) Following the coup, approximately 1,500 people have been jailed for political purposes, and many Zelaya supporters have been beaten.(3) Via Campesina offices have been attacked, and the Feminists of Honduras in Resistance said that there have been 19 documented cases of rape by police officers since the coup took place.(4) The newspaper El Tiempo reported that armed groups in Colombia have been recruiting demobilized paramilitaries for mercenary work in Honduras. Honduras business leaders are hiring these paramilitaries for their own private security.(5)
Though Zelaya was a relatively moderate president, his policies challenged the elite enough to inspire a right wing coup. While in office, he passed a 60% increase in minimum wage, bringing income up from around $6 a day to $9.60 a day.(6) Zelaya also gave subsidies to small farmers, cut bank interest rates and reduced poverty.(7) Salvador Zuniga, a leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) said, "One of the things that provoked the coup d'etat was that the president accepted a petition from the feminist movement regarding the day-after pill. Opus Dei mobilized, the fundamentalist evangelical churches mobilized, along with all the reactionary groups."(8)
“Maybe he made mistakes,” Honduran school teacher Hedme Castro said of Zelaya, “but he always erred on the side of the poor. That is why they will fight to the end for him.” She continued, “This is not about President Zelaya. This is about my country. Many people gave their lives so that we could have a democracy. And we cannot let a group of elites take that away.”(9)
Ignoring the relevance of the Organization of American States, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Zelaya and Michelleti to meet with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to work out a solution to the crisis. Many believe Clinton made the move to impose conditions on Zelaya’s return and kill time as the November elections neared. Zelaya has accepted Arias’ proposed solution, which entails his return to the presidency with limited powers, plus amnesty for those who have committed political crimes in the country. Micheletti rejected the Arias’ solution.(10)
While repression of anti-coup activists increases, so does the movement for democracy in Honduras. This broad coalition of activists has the support of many of the governments in the hemisphere, and has the backing of the country’s 1982 constitution, which explains, "No one owes obedience to a government which usurps power nor those who assume public functions or employment through the use of arms.... The people [of this country] have the right to recur to insurrection in defense of constitutional order."(11) This insurrection is taking place right now.
Voices of the Resistance in Honduras
Protests, strikes and road blockades have been going on in the country almost daily since Zelaya was ousted. Many of the interviews with activists participating in these protests offer insight into the relationship between Zelaya and the movement, and what might lie ahead for the country.
"This struggle is peaceful, organized, and is not getting desperate. The coup leaders are getting desperate—they haven't been able to govern a single day in tranquility and we will defeat them," said Israel Salinas, a leader of the National Front Against the Coup in Honduras and member of the Unified Confederation of Honduran Workers.(12)
Honduran women’s right activist Marielena spoke of the current reality under the Michelleti regime, "Today's not the same as the 80s because there's a popular movement that the coup leaders never imagined … What Zelaya has done is symbolize the popular discontent accumulated over the years."(13)
Bertha Cáceres, a leader of COPINH, the Front Against the Coup, and a mother of four children, spoke of the importance of the constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. It was partly this push for constitutional reform, which Zelaya backed along with broad support from the Honduran people, that led to the coup. When speaking of the assembly, Cáceres says, "For the first time we would be able to establish a precedent for the emancipation of women, to begin to break these forms of domination. The current constitution never mentions women, not once, so to establish our human rights, our reproductive, sexual, political, social, and economic rights as women would be to really confront this system of domination."(14)
Cáceres discussed the work of the women’s movement for the new constitution “to dismantle this belief that others have the right to make decisions about our bodies, to start guaranteeing that women are the owners and have autonomous rights to their bodies. It is a political act; a political proposal. … The ability to have and guarantee access to land, territories, cultures, health, education, art, dignified and decent employment for women, and many other things, are elements that we must guarantee in this process of a new constitutional assembly that leads to a real process of liberation.”(15)
Gilberto Rios, from the Front Against the Coup spoke of how the coup has galvanized a broad movement in the country. “In the past, when we called for people to protest in the streets, they came out, but not in the same numbers as what is happening now. In recent days, we have had protests that start in the morning and stay in the streets all day. At night, there are convoys of cars in major cities. It shows that the workers are participating, and the middle class is also coming out.” He also affirmed that the movement is entirely grassroots. “The leftist political parties recognize they do not control any part of the popular movement.”(16)
Leticia Salomón, the Director of Scientific Research for the National Autonomous University of Honduras said, “It doesn't matter who wins the elections in November, the next government will have to deal with this important social force if it hopes to even minimally govern the country.”(17)
World Isolates Coup Regime
At the North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico in August, President Barack Obama said "critics who say that the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say that we're always intervening and the Yankees need to get out of Latin America. You can't have it both ways."(18) But as New York University history professor and author Greg Grandin points out, all many are asking is for the US to act multilaterally with the OAS – it did the opposite by defying the OAS and appointing Arias as the mediator between Michelleti and Zelaya. In addition, through its financial support to the regime, the US has been far from taking a neutral stance.(19) Indeed, Washington has been acting unilaterally since the beginning by not refusing to follow the lead of other nations in putting more pressure on the coup government.(20)
However, US State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said on September 3rd that “At this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the [November] elections [in Honduras].”(21) Zelaya was happy to hear this news from Washington. He said the move "puts the United States in line with Latin America, because it was not said before."(22)
In addition to the US, the EU, the OAS, union leaders in Honduras and members of the Front Against the Coup say they will not recognize the election results.(23) Honduras business owners have devised their own plan to increase voting; they’ll be giving discounts to everyone who casts a ballot and then comes into their business with ink on their fingers, showing that they’ve voted.(24)
The US State Department did end up revoking the US visas of over a dozen officials in the coup government, including Michelleti.(25) But the US could go further by blocking members of the regime from using US banks.(26)
Various levels of funding to Honduras from the US and other governments and institutions have been cut since the coup took place. “On Sept. 3, the State Department announced the termination of $33 million dollars, including $11 million in Millennium Challenge Funds and approximately $22 million in State Department funds,” according to Latin American analyst Laura Carlsen. The IMF said that due to the coup, Honduras won’t have access to $150 million in assistance.(27) A spokesperson from the IMF said the institution cut off all aid to the country three days after the coup.(28)
On July 2, the US cut the following spending: $1.9 million from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and $16.5 million in military funding.(29) The Inter-American Development Bank, and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration all cut lending to the Honduran government.(30) The UN has cut off various forms of aid to Honduras.(31) In addition, the EU froze $92 million in aid and the OAS froze aid and began trade blocks against the coup government.(32)
However, “For legalistic reasons, [the US State Department] continued to fall short of calling the coup a ‘military’ coup,” explained Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy. “This means that some anti-poverty aid is being maintained, soldiers whose training was already paid for won't be sent back to Honduras, and State can flexibly restore aid once democracy returns.”(33)
“State Department officials closed the door on determining legally that a military coup took place in Honduras and requiring application of Section 7008 of the Foreign Operations law,” Carlsen explained.
“They assured reporters that all funds that could be suspended under Section 7008 have now been suspended … The State Department has admitted that $70 million in aid—over twice the amount suspended—will still flow to the coup.”(34)
The Kansas City-based Cross-Border Network went on a delegation to Honduras after the coup and reported that "We met the U.S Ambassador who agreed it was a military coup even though the State Department won't call it that, thus invoking the law requiring cut off of all remaining aid."(35)
Declaring the coup a coup, according to Grandin, “would automatically trigger certain cutoffs, financial cutoffs, it also would have to be certified by Congress. And that’s a fight that I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t want, because the Republicans, led by Connie Mack and other foreign policy conservatives, regime change conservatives, Republicans, have seized on this issue to basically try to link Obama with Hugo Chavez and the Latin American left. And they certainly don’t want to kick it into Congress, where it’ll be debated, because to call it a coup would have to be certified by Congress.”(36)
But the Obama administration needs to understand that what’s at stake is more important than winning a political fight in Washington. The future of a nation, and perhaps the entire region, hangs in the balance.
"The true significance of the coup, in one of the poorest and weakest countries in the hemisphere ... lies in the test it poses to the inter-American system," says Jorge Heine of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. "If the latter cannot succeed in restoring democracy in Honduras, it cannot do so anywhere. The message would thus be crystal clear: coup-makers can act with impunity."(37)
Washington’s Ties to the Coup
Washington has played a bloody role in Central America for years and this coup carries on that legacy while setting some new precedents. Fernando "Billy" Joya has returned to the stage in Honduras as Michelleti’s security advisor after serving in Battalion 316 in the 1980s, according to Grandin. Battalion 316 was a paramilitary unit that disappeared hundreds of people.(38) Joya was trained in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship by Chilean police, and his Battalion 316 was created by the CIA to apply the repressive techniques used against “subversives” in Argentina and Chile.(39)
In 1981, John Negroponte arrived in Honduras as the US ambassador. While there, the military budget in the country rose from $3.6 million in 1981 to $77.8 million in 1985 “when his mission was completed—having created the Contras in Nicaragua and protected the El Salvadoran dictatorship,” according to Honduras-based reporter Dick Emanuelsson.(40) Negroponte met with Michelleti before the June 28 coup on a trip made primarily to convince Zelaya not to transform a US airbase in Palmerola, Honduras into an airport for civilians.(41)
Venezuelan Robert Carmona-Borjas has also joined the coup government in Honduras. He was involved in the attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002. Carmona-Borjas’ Arcadio Foundation began a media campaign against Zelaya in 2007.(42)
Lanny Davis, a lawyer to Bill Clinton and campaign advisor to Hillary Clinton, has been lobbying in Washington for Honduran coup leaders and elites. Some of the businesses that support the coup in Honduras that Davis is representing in DC are US companies such as Russell, Fruit of the Loom and Hanes – all of which have benefited from the low wages, neoliberal policies and crackdowns on union rights in the country.(43) Davis recently testified before Congress on behalf of the coup leaders and backers, and has helped to get media on the coup’s side.(44)
The week before the coup, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly met with Honduran figures that ended up participating in the coup.(45) Days before the coup took place, John McCain and leaders from the International Republican Institute, invited future leaders of the coup to meetings in Washington.(46)
US businesses also hold a considerable amount of weight in the country: in 2006, 70% of exports from Honduras went to the US, and 52% of imports were from the US. That same year, US investments in the country totaled more than $568 million, two thirds of foreign investment.(47)
A Movement Larger Than Zelaya
Just as the coup may change the geopolitical landscape of the region, the grassroots fervor in Honduras will likely alter the country forever. And that might be Michelleti’s legacy – that in ousting a moderate president, he inspired a revolution.
When trying to break the political impasse Honduras finds itself in, Zelaya admits that much depends on the anti-coup movement of Honduras. "This movement is now very strong. It can never be destroyed," he said.(48)
The coup leaders “were wrong here, they miscalculated,” Honduran activist Bertha Cáceres of the Front Against the Coup and COPINH explained. “They said it would be two days of resistance, and they were wrong. This population has demonstrated that we are capable of … a much longer struggle.”(49)
Gilberto Rios, from the Front Against the Coup, spoke of the
similarities this coup has to others throughout the last century that still
haunt the region: “The oligarchy made the coup with an old manual, but the
people have changed and the world has changed.”(50)
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