Honduras is not just another banana republic

Issue: 125
Posted: 16 December 09

Mike Gonzalez

The tone of media reports of the events in Honduras has been generally tongue in cheek, as if this were simply another episode in the ongoing tale of banana republics and their regular coups. On 29 October, for example, Sophie Nicholson reported from Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital, on the difficulties that journalists have in sleeping on hard floors.1 For some weeks journalists were locked inside the Brazilian embassy in Honduras together with President Manuel Zelaya, deposed on 28 June in a military-civilian coup. Outside the embassy demonstrators and protesters have been attacked, shot at, tear-gassed and in some cases killed by riot police and soldiers. Opponents of the new regime (the “de facto” government, as everyone now calls it) have been arrested, their bank accounts frozen, their relatives persecuted. The peasant movement, which mobilised as soon as the coup happened and has remained on a war footing ever since, has faced weapons in the capital and gunmen on the estates of the landowners who vigorously supported the coup. In Honduras’s universities student resistance has met with a similar level of repression.

This is not comic opera.

In fact it is a deeply serious and significant moment in the history of Latin America. In the first months of a post-Bush foreign policy Honduras offers two conundrums for solution. The first is how a coup of this ferocity was not only permitted by a new US administration ostensibly committed to diplomatic solutions in the region; the coup makers were actively encouraged and protected from universal criticism by Washington. The second is how it was that in a society as unequal as Honduras, and with a recent history of such oppression, its people have sustained a level of mass popular resistance unprecedented in its determination and its level of organisation.

A kidnapping

When the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was kidnapped in his pyjamas and dumped on the tarmac of an airfield in Costa Rica, the immediate response was a massive protest movement in the city and the countryside. Huge demonstrations demanding the return of Zelaya were violently suppressed, and demonstrators killed and injured. TV and radio were censored and two popular radio stations (Globo and Progreso) immediately shut down. A curfew was imposed and the government later announced it would appropriate the bank accounts of anyone involved in demonstrations, particularly the highway blockades organised by trade unions and mass organisations.

At first sight, Manuel Zelaya was not an obvious candidate for this level of mass support. A conservative and Liberal Party member, he was elected in 2005. He had put forward no radical programmes or policies at that time. His removal from power in June 2009 was the response of Honduras’s ruling class to specific recent policy changes, especially on the question of the minimum wage, and to Zelaya’s decision to hold a consultative referendum on 28 June to call a constituent assembly to change the constitution. This decision was bitterly opposed by Honduras’s ruling class, parliament, army and Supreme Court—and there were dark hints that he was trying to imitate Hugo Chávez’s recent referendum proposals on extending the number of presidential terms. That was, of course, a pretext—though Venezuela was a significant element, for Zelaya had taken Honduras into the Latin American Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA), the Latin American regional organisation set up by Chávez. As a consequence Honduras became eligible for cheap oil from Venezuela as well as loans and other benefits. Zelaya’s newly emerging enthusiasm for the Bolivarian project was never very convincing, at least for this writer; but as in the case of his equivalent in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, there was much to be gained from the relationship with a powerful and generous Venezuela, especially by small Central American and Caribbean countries with
no access to oil.

Latin America’s decade of resistance

Zelaya’s association with Chávez was certainly an important factor in explaining the coup. Yet Bush’s administration, already embroiled militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, had generally moved away from supporting direct military intervention in Latin America. This is not to say that the strategy of political control and economic domination had changed in any way—only the tactics for achieving it. US policy had centred on Colombia in particular, as the bridgehead for its military oversight of the region. Plan Colombia, drafted under Bill Clinton’s regime, was ostensibly about social and economic development—but something like 90 percent of its $1.3 billion allocation was actually spent on military operations disguised under headings like “the war on drugs” and later “the war on terror”, resources administered by an increasingly militarised Colombian state.2 In Venezuela the US has openly supported a sustained right wing assault on the Chávez government. It was clearly directly implicated in the failed coup against Chávez in April 2002 and equally in the savage bosses’ lockout of December 2002 to February 2003 which was intended to destroy Venezuela’s oil production and create an economic crisis so profound that the population would turn against the Bolivarian revolution. In fact the effect was the reverse, as the masses mobilised to challenge and eventually defeat the bosses’ strike.

In Bolivia the election of Evo Morales in 2005 marked the high point of a six-year wave of mass popular resistance. Here again, the response of Washington was to support the right wing opposition—in this case the powerful forces of the Media Luna, the six non-Andean provinces where much of Bolivia’s oil, gas and agricultural wealth lies. Under the wing of Philip Goldberg, the US ambassador (until 2008) whose particular expertise had been gained in Belgrade, where he oversaw the break-up of Yugoslavia, the political campaign for the “self-determination” of the Media Luna laid the basis for a sustained, vicious and openly racist assault on the Morales government. Even in Ecuador, where the government of Rafael Correa was elected on a progressive and independent programme (he has since closed down the US base at Manta, whose construction was legitimised by Plan Colombia), the wealthy landed interests around Guayaquil have begun to echo the demands of their Bolivian class allies. In Venezuela, the municipal and gubernatorial elections of 2008 provided a context in which similar demands began to be insistently heard in the states that bordered on Colombia.3 The strategy of fragmentation and the encouragement of internal conflict became more intense after the flat rejection in 2007 of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) proposals put forward by Bush, and Chávez’s claim that ALBA represented the only viable independent regional alternative.4

Honduras could not claim to have the same strategic, economic or political significance as Venezuela (60 percent of whose oil still goes to the US and whose anti-imperialist discourse stung the Bush regime so deeply) or Colombia (the US’s wealthy and powerful ally and its key weapon in “the war on terror”, if not its war against the drugs barons!), or Ecuador or Bolivia with their major untapped gas and oil resources. In economic terms, Honduras has not advanced very far from its dependence on and subordination to the interests of the US banana companies which led the great American short story writer O Henry to coin the term “banana republic” at the beginning of the 20th century. Its seven and half million inhabitants still depend on export agriculture, two thirds of which goes directly to the US. Some 50 percent of its people live below poverty levels. It sits at number 149 in the world for per capita income, and one third of its GDP comes from the remittances sent by Hondurans working, mostly illegally, in the US; 40 percent of its population work in agriculture (which produces just 13 percent of the national income) and 30 percent in the maquiladoras, or assembly plants, owned by multinational companies which have transferred their operations to Honduras because of its cheap labour. In the words of the CIA’s World Factbook, “Honduras, the second poorest country in Central America, has an extraordinarily unequal distribution of income and high unemployment”.5

There are specific issues that might explain the timing of the coup. Zelaya had resisted attempts to privatise Honduras’s mass media, which would have delivered its main television channels into the hands of a consortium whose leaders included John McCain, Obama’s failed Republican presidential opponent. The deeper explanation, however, goes back to the early 1980s and the war mounted by the US against the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. The Contra War was organised by the US; its “advisers” armed and trained 15,000 anti-Sandinista fighters who operated from Honduras across the long and poorly defended
frontier with Nicaragua. The war cost 50,000 Nicaraguan lives and effectively destroyed its economy, bringing down the Sandinista government in February 1990. It was a war waged with exemplary savagery. Victims of the contras were tortured before death, and many of their corpses were left to terrorise the communities from which they had come to defend the revolution. Back-up and logistical support came from the massive US base near San Pedro Sula.

The person who oversaw Honduras’s transformation into a US military base was a sinister individual called John Negroponte, ambassador to the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa for four years, during which the US military aid budget to the country rose from $4 million to $78 million annually. Negroponte would go on to distinguish himself as a high representative of imperialism at the UN and later in Baghdad before becoming national security adviser to Bush and later an adviser to current secretary of state Hillary Clinton. It should be noted that Honduras’s current constitution, which Zelaya contemplated changing, was drafted under Negroponte’s watchful eye. His right hand man, Otto Reich, is notorious in Latin America as the head of the State Department’s Latin America desk for much of the last 25 years and a ruthless cold warrior, as well as ambassador to Venezuela for several years. Like McCain, he also speaks for the interests of media corporation AT&T.

Honduras in a wider world

The 28 June coup was not entirely unexpected within Honduras. Zelaya had dismissed the army high command three days earlier, before the parliament and the Supreme Court restored them to their former posts. Business leaders, among them Micheletti who later became “de facto” president, had made their hostility very clear, as had the Supreme Court and the judiciary. They argued that the consultative referendum proposed by Zelaya was unconstitutional, a claim with no basis in fact or in the document itself.

Given Honduras’s history, and its absolute dependence on the US economically, militarily and politically, the coup would have been inconceivable without support from inside the US, including close advisers to Clinton. The coup was immediately denounced by the Organisation of American States and every Latin American president. President Obama’s response was oddly ambiguous, however, calling for a “resolution through dialogue and negotiation”. The UN even added its voice of condemnation 24 hours later. While Obama hesitated, Clinton’s response was to tacitly recognise the government installed by force as a legitimate interlocutor. Within days a delegation from the Honduran regime arrived in Washington and met with McCain and Clinton. The meeting was organised by her close associate Lanny Davis, who represents the Honduran chamber of commerce, and Venezuelan lawyer Carmona Borjas, now resident in the US, who was a key player in the attempted coup against Chávez.

Had Washington whispered, the coup makers of Tegucigalpa would have had no choice but to fall to their knees. Instead, while Zelaya waited in Costa Rica, there was a resounding silence from Obama and Clinton. The new regime acted quickly and violently against the mass protests that exploded as soon as news of Zelaya’s abduction began to spread. The National Resistance Front against the coup was formed and drew together every section of Honduran society.

Yet no decisions were taken in those first few days. The diplomatic silence was broken only four days later, when the delegation from the new “de facto” Honduran government was received with full pomp in Washington. Empty phrases abounded, but this was clearly going to be Clinton’s (and Negroponte’s and Reich’s) province and Obama was left disarmed. Much time and print has been spent wondering whether he knew the coup was coming. My sense is that he did not, but, more importantly, he had no resources to change the situation, withdraw US economic support or otherwise demonstrate his democratic credentials or his independence from the Honduras lobby.

Those who were vocally arguing the case for Honduras’s new rulers in Congress represented a continuity of policy from Bill Clinton through Bush. While Obama’s policy towards Latin America at this early stage was as yet unclear, there was no evidence that this would be a new dawn for the Americas. The discourse of hostility towards Hugo Chávez was unabated, plans were announced for the building of three new US bases in Colombia, and the thawing of relations with Cuba seemed slow and reluctant. Furthermore, there was Obama’s election campaign comment that “we seem to be losing Latin America”. Against that background, the Honduras coup and the response to it from the administration and particularly from Hillary Clinton strongly suggest that this was a pre-emptive move from a hard right Latin America lobby to hold back any softening of relations with the more radical Latin American governments. There are still troops in Haiti, for example, swollen by a Brazilian contingent, and the Colombian government’s role in the region remains as before and is being actively reinforced.

It seems clear that Washington’s strategy was to prolong matters as much as possible, and undermine Zelaya’s credibility and his popular support through interminable negotiations. Elections in November would thus take place but Zelaya would not be able to stand again. It was with this in mind that Clinton called in President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, who has considerable experience of sabotaging revolutionary movements. The Contadora process in the early 1980s functioned in that way, drawing the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua into negotiations which isolated it from the revolutionary movements of Central America and sapped its will in endless negotiations which continued even as the US fuelled $77 million of military aid to fund the contra war mounted from Honduras. Arias’s new intervention served exactly the same purpose, keeping Zelaya waiting in Costa Rica while the “de facto” government won “de facto” legitimacy in negotiations in which it was regarded, at US insistence, as a legitimate partner. Somehow, by sleight of hand, Zelaya and Micheletti had become equals in this sponsored dialogue.

The persistence of the people’s movement

No one had reckoned, however, with the absolute determination of the resistance. Despite ferocious repression, peasant organisations moved quickly to occupy lands and to block highways, before marching to the capital to join the protests. There were violent confrontations on the university campus in the capital. The teachers’ unions were active from the beginning and two of their leading members were killed at an early stage. Yet when Zelaya announced on 6 July that he was returning to Honduras there were up to 50,000 people gathered at Toncontin airport to welcome him back. His plane, needless to say, was never allowed to land. One month later only Israel had recognised Micheletti’s regime! His finance minister had declared that the economy would not be able to survive six months when the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank announced a freeze on loans. Yet what was most striking was the confidence of Micheletti and his cronies. They were cocksure and unmoved by the hostility of Latin American governments. They clearly knew that, whatever cautious criticism might be advanced in public, Washington—and the State Department in particular—would protect them.

But the mass movement of resistance had put a new piece on the board and complicated matters. The return of Zelaya under “negotiated” conditions was a real possibility at this stage—though he would be unlikely to be allowed to see out the remaining six months of his presidential term. But he might be allowed to return on condition that the proposals for a constituent assembly and constitutional reform were abandoned. Now, however, Washington (and indeed the OAS) was faced with a different problem. Zelaya’s return would inevitably be seen as a victory for the resistance movement, and the political repercussions of that could be very serious.

The coup always had to be located in the context of a Central America that seemed to be slipping out of Washington’s control. Daniel Ortega’s return to the presidency of Nicaragua could be seen as a radical shift, although Ortega’s willingness to negotiate with his Sandinismo organisation’s bitterest enemies to get himself into power, accepting Latin America’s most reactionary abortion laws as the price to be paid, suggests a different interpretation. In fact Ortega is a living caricature of the Sandinismo that overthrew the 30-year Somoza dictatorship in 1979 in the name of popular revolution. His Sandinismo is a corrupt political apparatus entirely concerned with maintaining him in power. Yet he has identified himself with Venezuela (for similar reasons to Zelaya). In El Salvador an ex guerrilla leader was recently elected to the presidency, albeit with an economic programme that seemed very close to neoliberalism. And Mexico, while currently “safe” in the hands of neoliberal Fernando Calderon, has witnessed extraordinary levels of mass mobilisation—first around the alternative candidacy of Lopez Obradors and later in the profound challenges set out by the struggles in Oaxaca.

Against that background the resistance could not be seen to win, especially if the whole Honduran process was seen as an opportunity to place the US at the centre of Latin American politics once again. The key was Zelaya himself. He returned to Honduras in early October in odd circumstances and took up residence in the Brazilian embassy. Despite threats by the regime to burn him out, and the cutting off of electricity and water supplies briefly to the embassy, Zelaya remained inside the embassy and it became increasingly clear that he was negotiating from there.

The agreement of 30 October, supervised by the former US assistant secretary of state Thomas Shannon, who was also in Honduras in the days before the coup, was in every sense a defeat for Zelaya. It allowed him back subject to a vote by the parliament and the Supreme Court, who backed and organised the coup, on whether he could legitimately return as president for the 29 November elections. He was blocked and the elections went ahead under the supervision of a committee that included right wing ex-president of Chile Ricardo Lagos and the ex secretary of labour of the US. In effect Zelaya accepted the conditions imposed by the US, including the abandonment of any plan to reform the constitution.

The election: an end or a beginning?

On 29 November Zelaya was still trapped inside the Brazilian embassy from where he issued often contradictory calls to those who for so long had defended his right to resume his presidency. But the reality was that the battle had moved on to a different terrain. Symbolically, Zelaya remained a focus for the resistance movement; but the ex-president had made too many compromises to continue to claim leadership of the protests. He had participated in the dialogues promoted by the US government, despite the obvious contempt of Micheletti and his people. As the elections drew nearer, repression intensified and the attacks on demonstrators and protesters multiplied, and it did their cause no good at all that from his enclosure in the embassy Zelaya set aside his promise to reform the constitution, only to find that his compromises carried no weight with those who had thrown him out of power.

The attitude of the United States also changed a number of times. But while what had happened in Honduras was a matter of concern to all Latin American governments, beyond the denunciations of Hugo Chávez there was little in the way of concerted action against the regime. And it is quite clear that Clinton has achieved her objectives—placing herself centrally in the political negotiations and raising her profile in Washington. It was obvious that Obama’s administration would recognise whatever new government was elected, so long as it restored the relationship with Washington that had existed before.

Voting is compulsory in Honduras—though abstention is always quite high. On this occasion, faced with an election with no external observers and polling places supervised by the army and the police, who had conducted the June coup, the National Front for Resistance called on the people to observe a voluntary curfew and remain in their homes—a poignant reference to the curfew imposed across Honduras after 28 June. An unprecedented number of Hondurans—at least 50 percent and probably close to 70 percent—answered the call. Those who voted elected Lobo, a wealthy conservative who will faithfully represent the political class and its intimate relationship with the US.

Zelaya is no longer an actor in the Honduran process. But what of the movement that sustained the flame of resistance, that now mourns its many victims who died in the course of their extraordinary struggle? The movement has vowed to continue. If Honduras has shown that imperialism’s objectives have not changed, the lesson of these months is that Honduras’s working population have become the protagonists of their own history. Their resistance has been extraordinary, heroic, and their level of organisation and coordination impressive. Those organisations will be needed in the months to come, to fight the high levels of unemployment and the inequality that the coup makers resolved to defend. The important thing now is that the National Resistance Front neither forgives nor forgets what it has learned since 28 June—that the independent organisations of the masses can take on the ruling class.


Notes

1: Available online at http://bit.ly/hondurascoup

2: See Gonzalez, 2003.

3: See Gonzalez, 2009.

4: In fact ALBA is still far from offering any kind of alternative to the pre-existing regional economic block, Mercosur, which Venezuela has also joined.

5: Ironically enough, the best source of these and other data is the CIA’s World Factbook. Available online at www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ho.html


References

Gonzalez, Mike, 2003, “Colombia”, in Farah Reza (ed), Anti-Imperialism: A Guide for the Movement (Bookmarks).

Gonzalez, Mike, 2009, “Chávez Ten Years On”, International Socialism 121 (winter 2009), www.isj.org.uk/?id=507