Honduran Coup Regime in Crisis

How long can the Honduran crisis drag on, with President Manuel Zelaya,
ousted in a military coup more than three months ago, trapped in
Tegucigalpa's Brazilian Embassy? Well, in early 1949 in Peru,
Victor Haya de la Torre--one of last century's most important
Latin American politicians--sought asylum in the Colombian Embassy in
Lima, also following a military coup. There he remained for nearly six
years, playing chess, baking cakes for the embassy staff's children and
writing books.

How long can the Honduran crisis drag on, with President Manuel Zelaya,
ousted in a military coup more than three months ago, trapped in
Tegucigalpa's Brazilian Embassy? Well, in early 1949 in Peru,
Victor Haya de la Torre--one of last century's most important
Latin American politicians--sought asylum in the Colombian Embassy in
Lima, also following a military coup. There he remained for nearly six
years, playing chess, baking cakes for the embassy staff's children and
writing books. Soldiers surrounded the building for the duration, with
Peru's authoritarian regime ignoring calls from the international
community to end the siege, which was condemned by the Washington
as a "canker in hemisphere relations."

So far Roberto Micheletti, installed by the coup as president, is
showing the same obstinacy. Shortly after Zelaya's surprise appearance
in the Brazilian Embassy on September 21 after having entered the
country unnoticed, probably from El Salvador or Nicaragua, the de facto
president ordered troops to violently disperse a large crowd that had
gathered around the embassy, using tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets,
killing a number of protesters and wounding many. Amnesty International
has documented a "sharp rise in police beatings, mass arrests of demonstrators, and
intimidation of human rights defenders" since Zelaya's return.

The government has suspended civil liberties and shut down independent
sources of news, including the TV station Cholusat Sur and Radio Globo.
In response to rolling protests throughout Tegucigalpa and San Pedro
Sula, security forces continue to round up demonstrators, holding some
of the detained in soccer stadiums--evoking Chile in 1973, after Augusto
Pinochet's junta overthrew Salvador Allende, when security forces turned
Santiago's National Stadium into a torture chamber. The Comite de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras
(COFADEH) says
Hondurans are indeed being tortured, burned with
cigarettes and sodomized by batons, and that some of the torturers are
veterans of Battalion 316, an infamous Honduran death squad from the
1980s. Police and soldiers raided the offices of the National Agrarian
Institute, capturing dozens of peasant activists who had been occupying
the building. Police also fired tear gas into COFADEH's office, which
at the time was filled with about a hundred people, many of them women
and children, denouncing the repression that had earlier taken place in
front of the embassy. "Honduras risks spiraling into a state of
lawlessness, where police and military act with no regard for human
rights or the rule of law," said Susan Lee,
Americas director at Amnesty International.

Back at the embassy, Honduran troops have
tormented Zelaya and his accompaniers
, including the Catholic priest
Father Andres Tamayo, with tear gas, other chemical weapons and sonic
devices that emit high-pitched and extreme-pain-inducing sounds. This
high-tech assault has largely been ignored by the international media,
though George W. Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton,
told Fox News that Zelaya's description of this harassment indicated
"delusional behavior."

Fourteen people--all opposed to the coup--have been murdered since
Zelaya's overthrow, according to a tally released early last week by COFADEH.
Then on October 2 two more Zelaya supporters were executed.

Micheletti seems increasingly isolated, facing criticism from his own
supporters due to his heavy-handed response. Just a few days ago, a poll revealed that
a large majority of Hondurans oppose the coup and Micheletti while
favoring Zelaya's restoration. Prominent conservative businessmen,
religious and military leaders, and politicians are now offering their
services as mediators between Micheletti and Zelaya, an indication that support for the coup may
be evaporating, though their proposals so far seem more like
stalling tactics than serious attempts to open negotiation.
Industrialist Adolfo Facusse, for instance, proposed making Micheletti a senator for life--similar to the honor bestowed
on Pinochet when he exited the Chilean presidency--while returning
Zelaya to office under conditions greatly more restricted than those
laid out by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who had previously been
tapped by the US State Department to arbitrate the crisis.

Confronted with growing opposition in and outside of Honduras,
Micheletti has restored some civil liberties--though violence against
Zelaya supporters and media censorship continues--and this week he
allowed a delegation from the Organization of American States to enter
the country to try to jump-start negotiations between the two sides. But
after promising to engage in a "new spirit" of dialogue, Micheletti
lashed out at the OAS delegates. "We are not afraid of the United
States, nor of the State Department, nor of Mexico or Brazil," he said defiantly.

With his coup coalition apparently unraveling, Micheletti has doubled
down on his bid to present himself as a backstop against Hugo
Chavez-style populism. He told
an Argentine reporter
that he led the overthrow of Zelaya because
the Honduran president "turned left." "He became friends," Micheletti
said, "with Daniel Ortega, Chavez, Correa, Evo Morales"--that is,
with the internationally recognized leaders of Nicaragua, Venezuela,
Ecuador and Bolivia. And the day after Zelaya's return, perhaps
fancying himself a latter-day Garibaldi, Micheletti went on
and called on Venezuelans to rise up against the "dictator"

Whatever the outcome of Zelaya's current situation--and let's hope it
won't last as long as Haya de la Torre's nearly six-year asylum--those
who carried out the coup have managed to achieve what they accuse Zelaya
of trying to do: they have polarized society, delegitimized political
institutions, bankrupted the treasury and empowered social movements.
The coalition of workers, peasants, progressive religious folk,
environmentalists, students, feminists and gay and lesbian activists
that has emerged to demand the restoration of democracy has so far not
been able to return Zelaya to the presidency, yet it has prevented the
consolidation of the coup regime.

In retrospect, it is hard to understand what Micheletti and his allies
had hoped to achieve with Zelaya's overthrow, which took place just five
months before regularly scheduled presidential elections, still set for
November 29. Before the coup, it was expected that a candidate from
either the Liberal or National Party--both conservative--would win the
vote, dousing whatever popular restlessness was unleashed by Zelaya's
turn left.

But the coup--along with Zelaya's surprise return--has created a
lose-lose situation for Honduran elites. If they yield to international
pressure and negotiate Zelaya's symbolic restoration, it would
legitimize the November elections but would also embolden the left and
discredit the coup plotters--that is, nearly all of Honduras' governing
class. If they force Zelaya back into exile, arrest him or keep him
holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, then the popular movement that has
gained momentum over the past three months will demand a constitutional
convention as the only solution to re-establish legitimacy. In other
words, the very issue that served as the spark of the crisis--Zelaya's
attempt to build support for a constituent assembly to reform Honduras'
notoriously undemocratic charter--may be the only way to settle it.

Even Costa Rican President Ocar Arias has suggested as much. He recently
called the Honduran constitution the "worst in the entire world," an
"invitation to coups." "This is something that will have to be
resolved," he said, "and the best way to do
this is, if we can't have a constitutional election, is to have certain
reforms so this Honduran constitution ceases to be the worst in the
entire world."

Micheletti's crackdown reveals more than his own desperation. It
suggests the larger dilemma of Latin American conservatives. Over the
past few years, those opposed to the region's left turn, like Peru's
Mario Vargas Llosa and his son Alvaro Vargas Llosa, have tried to
represent themselves as democratic modernizers who have rejected the
authoritarianism of the region's old cold war right. This is exactly the
image Micheletti's coup hoped to project to the rest of the world--even
hiring US
and public
relations firms
to do so.

But in Honduras, as in most of Latin America, there is no social base to
create something along the lines of, say, Europe's new conservatism.
Clinging to a discredited free-market economic model, their political
program is based nearly exclusively on "anti-Chavismo." And in a
country as poor and economically stratified as Honduras, that means a
reliance on increasing doses of violence to maintain order and a
resurrection of the same revanchist sectors of the military, the
Catholic and evangelical churches, and the oligarchy that powered
anticommunist authoritarianism. Micheletti's government, after all,
included Enrique Ortez as foreign minister, who was barely installed in
his new office when he called Barack Obama a "negrito" who didn't
"even know where Tegucigalpa was"--a sentiment that wouldn't be out of
place on some of the placards on display at our own tea-party
demonstrations. Given a chance to defend
--negrito in Spanish is not necessarily a derogatory
term--Ortez, who has since resigned, dug deeper: "I've negotiated with
fags, prostitutes, commies, blacks and whites.... I'm not racially
prejudiced; I like the plantation negro who is running the United

Honduras may very well be the "first reversal in the drive to spread
'21st Century Socialism' in the region," as Iran/Contra veteran Otto
Reich, a prominent US backer of the coup, recently wrote. Yet that reversal--if it
holds--comes at the cost of revealing the lie behind the idea that there
is a progressive alternative to the contemporary Latin American left.

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