Showdown in ‘Tegucigolpe’
by Stephen Zunes

Hondurans resist the military coup that overthrew their democratically elected government. Photo: mimundo.org

One of democracy’s most critical struggles is now unfolding in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa (nicknamed “Tegucigolpe” for its long history of military coups, golpes de estado, in Spanish). Despite censorship and repression, popular anger over the June 28 military overthrow of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya is growing. International condemnation has been near-unanimous and the Organization of American States has suspended Honduras, the first time the hemisphere-wide body has taken so drastic an action since 1962.

The Obama administration has denounced the coup, reversing decades of US support for right-wing golpistas. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been pushing for the country’s legitimate ruler to compromise with those who have illegally exiled him from the country.

The Obama administration tried to discourage the exiled president from his attempt to return to Honduras. In pushing for mediation, Clinton argued that it would be a “better route for him to follow than attempt to return in the face of the intractable opposition of the de facto government.”

The Obama administration apparently fears that if it allows the burgeoning pro-democracy movement to take its course, it may end up with a similar outcome to what transpired in Venezuela in 2002. Following a similar coup against that country’s left-leaning president, Hugo Chávez, a popular movement soon forced right-wing elements of the military and their wealthy civilian allies to step down. Chávez returned to govern and moved the country further to the left due to immense support.

The Obama administration could help a similar movement succeed if it wanted to by imposing strict economic sanctions on Honduras. Combined with ongoing strikes and other disruptions, the economy could grind to a halt and force the illegitimate junta in Tegucigalpa to step down.

Zelaya’s Significance
Zelaya has moved his government well to the left since taking office in 2005. He raised the minimum wage, provided free school lunches for young children, pensions for the elderly and additional scholarships for students. He built new schools, subsidized public transportation and even distributed energy-saving light bulbs. He also had Honduras join with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba and three small Caribbean island states in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an economic alliance challenging the neoliberal orthodoxy that has dominated hemispheric trade in recent decades.

These moves were disturbing to the country’s wealthy economic and military elites; however, even more frightening was Zelaya’s intention to organize an assembly to replace the 1982 constitution. A non-binding referendum on whether such a constitutional assembly should take place was scheduled the day of the coup, but was cancelled when the military seized power and named Congressional Speaker Roberto Micheletti as president.

The Obama administration failed initially to denounce the coup, simply calling upon “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” Similarly, Clinton insisted that “all parties have a responsibility to address the underlying problems that led to yesterday’s events.” This places the US at odds with the Organization of American States, the Rio Group and the UN General Assembly, all of which called for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya.

It is unsure whether Clinton can be trusted to take a clear stance for democracy, given her traditionally pro-interventionist position on Latin America. In response to recent efforts by democratically elected Latin American governments to challenge the structural obstacles that have left much of their populations in poverty, she expressed alarm, saying, “We have witnessed the rollback of democratic development and economic openness in parts of Latin America.” Though no doubt aware that US policy toward leftist regimes in Latin American in previous decades had included military interventions, CIA-sponsored coups and rigged national elections, she argued that “We must return to a policy of vigorous engagement.”

The US and Honduras
The US has a history of “vigorous engagement” in Honduras, actively supporting a series of military dictatorships from 1963 through 1982 when military rule formally ended. John Negroponte, who later served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, as well as his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was the US ambassador to Honduras during this period.

During the 1980s the CIA organized, trained and equipped a special military unit known as Battalion 316. Argentine counterinsurgency experts served as advisors; they had been part of the “dirty war” in their country during the 1970s, in which more than 10,000 people were murdered. The intention was to utilize similar methods in Honduras that had been used in Argentina.

Despite Negropronte’s role in covering up human rights abuses, he had little trouble on Capitol Hill during the Bush administration. He was praised by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and by Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. This support, despite his well-documented role in human rights abuses, is indicative of how little regard the majority party in Congress cares about democracy in Central America.

The Legacy Today
Historic US support for repression in Honduras is very present in recent events. The leader of the June 28 coup, General Romeo Vásquez, graduated from the School of the Americas, a US Army training program nicknamed “School of Assassins.” The training of coup plotters at the program isn’t a bygone feature of the Cold War: General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, who played an important role in the coup as head of the Honduran Air Force, graduated as recently as 1996.

Meanwhile, US-armed and trained security forces have violently dispersed largely nonviolent demonstrators protesting across the country. The Honduran junta has tried to blame Cuba and Venezuela for the unrest. Yet the Honduran people don’t need outside agitators in order to resist. Unfortunately, backers of the rightist junta in Honduras are repeating fabricated stories of outside interference to discredit a genuine home-grown, pro-democracy movement.

US and Costa Rican-led mediation efforts may result in Zelaya’s ability to return under conditions that would preclude a constitutional assembly, any challenges to oligarchic interests, or any further efforts to promote economic justice.

How much the junta leaders are willing to compromise will depend on what occurs outside the meeting rooms. One factor would be the ability of the pro-democracy movement to organize, think strategically and maintain a nonviolent discipline.

Civil society organizations engaged in strategic nonviolent conflict have grown dramatically in recent years in Honduras, including peasant organizations, indigenous and Afro-Honduran movements, human rights monitoring groups, an anti-militarization movement, student groups and three major labor federations. A series of strikes, blockages of major highways and land seizures occurred over the past year as mobilization increased.

The level of support for democracy provided by the US will play a role in Honduras. Obama has been clear in his support for the legal process, declaring, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there. It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backward into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections.”

Still, it took the US one week to slash aid to Honduras and there have been no imminent signs of tougher sanctions. Unlike most Latin American countries, the US has not withdrawn its ambassador from Tegucigalpa. The US has a crucial influence on Honduras due to the location of an airbase 50 miles from Tegucigalpa. Therefore, the pressure pro-democracy forces in the United States can bring to bear upon our government may prove as crucial as the efforts of brave pro-democracy forces within Honduras.


Stephen is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and a Foreign Policy in Focus senior analyst. This article was condensed from the original at www.fpif.org.