The Power of Nonviolent Action in Honduras

The massive nonviolent movement that put pressure on the coup government may be only the first chapter of an important and prolonged struggle for justice in one of Latin America’s poorest and most inequitable countries.

The decision by Honduran coup leader Roberto Micheletti to renege on
his October 30 agreement to allow democratically-elected president
Manuel Zelaya to return to power was a severe blow to pro-democracy
forces who have been struggling against the illegitimate regime since
it seized power four months ago. The disappointment has been compounded
by the Obama administration's apparent willingness-in a break with
Latin American leaders and much of the rest of the international
community-to recognize the forthcoming presidential elections being
held under the de facto government's repressive rule.

Still, there are reasons to hope that democracy can be restored to this Central American nation.

The primary reason the de facto government was willing to negotiate
at all was the ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign by Honduran
pro-democracy forces. The role of popular nonviolent action has not
been as massive, dramatic, or strategically sophisticated as the movements that have overthrown some other autocratic regimes in recent decades.
There were no scenes of hundreds of thousands of people filling the
streets and completely shutting down state functions, as there were in
the people power movements that brought down Marcos in the Philippines
or Milosevic in Serbia.

Nevertheless, the nonviolent struggle has been of critical importance.

The sustained nonviolent resistance movement has prevented the
provisional government, which was formed after the June 28 coup, from
establishing a sense of normalcy. What the movement has lacked in
well-organized, strategic focus, has been made up for with feisty and
determined acts of resistance that have forced the provisional
government into clumsy but ultimately futile efforts at
repression-exposing the pretense of the junta's supposed good

Sometimes a resistance movement just has to stay alive to make its
point. Day after day, thousands of Hondurans from all walks of life
have gathered in the streets of Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, demanding
the restoration of their democratically-elected government. Every day
they have been met by tear gas and truncheons. Over a dozen
pro-democracy activists were murdered, but rather than let these
assassinations frighten people into submission, the opposition turned
the martyrs' funerals into political rallies. Their persistence
gradually has torn away the outlaw regime's claims of legitimacy.
Rather than establishing themselves as a legitimate government, de
facto president Micheletti and his allied military officers have been
made to look like little more than a gang of thugs who took over an Old
West town and threw out the sheriff.

Since the return of the exiled President Zelaya to Tegucigalpa
(he successfully sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy), the
pro-democracy movement has surged. Micheletti and his henchman
initially panicked-suspending basic civil liberties, shutting down
opposition radio and television stations, and declaring a 24-hour
curfew. This disruption caused the business community's support for the
de facto government to wane; the Obama State Department, which had been
somewhat timid in pressing the junta up to that point, began to push
harder for a deal.

It has been a great credit to the pro-democracy forces that, save
for occasional small-scale rioting, the movement has largely maintained
its nonviolent discipline. It would have been easy to launch a
guerrilla war. Much of Honduras consists of farming and ranching
country where many people own guns. The neighboring countries of El
Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have experienced bloody
revolutionary struggles in recent decades. Yet, despite serious
provocations by police and soldiers loyal to the provisional
government, the movement has recognized that armed resistance would
have been utterly futile and counter-productive. Indeed, they recognize
that their greatest strength is in maintaining their commitment to nonviolence.

Those who have engaged in these courageous acts of resistance will
feel betrayed, however, if the Obama administration is indeed ready to
defy the international community by allowing Micheletti to stay in
office and to recognize the results of an election held under such
repressive conditions. The United States does have the power to force
the illegitimate regime out and to facilitate the return of the
country's democratically-elected president to power if the Obama
administration chose to use it. Indeed, there are few countries in the
world as dependent on trade with the United States as Honduras.

As for those of us in the United States, it is not enough to cheer
from the sidelines at courageous acts of nonviolent action by the
people of Honduras. We must be willing to challenge our own
government-through engaging in nonviolent direct action ourselves, if
necessary-to support democracy in Honduras.

However, even if the Obama administration refuses to take a more
responsible position and the coup is allowed to stand, the struggle
will not have been for naught.

The Honduran opposition movement consists of a hodgepodge of trade
unionists, campensinos from the countryside, Afro-Hondurans, teachers,
feminists, students, and others who, along with insisting on the right
of their elected president to return to office, are determined to build
a more just society. Prior to the coup this summer, there had never
been a national mobilization in Honduras lasting for more than a week,
much less four months. The protracted struggle against Micheletti may
have served as a vaccination: Popular forces may now have developed the
antibodies to engage in a sustained struggle for social justice,
deepening the capacity for radical change in a society that has a
rather weak tradition of social movements relative to much of the rest
of Latin America.

Regardless of who occupies the Honduran presidential palace,
there is a critical need to replace the old constitution, imposed by
the outgoing military junta in 1981, which minimizes the participation
of ordinary citizens in political decisions and effectively suppresses
popular social movements. It must be replaced by one in which members
of the country's poor majority will have more of a say in determining
their future. It was the movement for a popular, non-binding referendum
to gauge support for a Constitutional convention that prompted the coup
last June.

This struggle may be only the first chapter of an important and
prolonged struggle for justice in one of Latin America's poorest and
most inequitable countries. It is important that the people of North
America become engaged as active allies.

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