Sunday, July 12, 2009
HIstory of the coup in Honduras
Honduras had a new kind of coup
The upheaval epitomizes a new kind of Latin American struggle, in
which elected leftist leaders defy the status quo and test the limits
By Tracy Wilkinson
July 12, 2009
Reporting from Tegucigalpa, Honduras — On Saturday, June 27, the order
came down: Arrest the president.
That night, Honduran military officers stopped taking calls from U.S. officials.
At sunrise Sunday, army commanders firing warning shots into the air
marched through the back door of the president's home, rousted him
from bed and took him away, still in his pajamas.
It was over in 15 minutes. But the coup that toppled President Manuel
Zelaya was a slow boil, over many months, of an increasingly arbitrary
and provocative leader, the often-exaggerated fears of a hidebound
elite and a military with divided loyalties.
That simmering crisis exploded into one of the most serious challenges
facing Latin America in a decade. In some ways, it was a throwback to
the old Latin America, when coups and men in uniform more often than
not decided who ruled. But it was also emblematic of a struggle
underway today on the continent, where a crop of leftist leaders with
authoritarian tendencies have risen to power through elections, defied
the status quo and tested the bounds of democracy.
The following account is based on interviews with numerous Hondurans
and foreigners involved in the coup or the events that led to it. Some
details are still in dispute.
When he won the presidential election in 2005 by a narrow margin,
Zelaya was something of an outsider -- gruff, not fully part of the
elite that had always governed. Even Hondurans who admire him,
however, say he became enamored of the power he thought he had.
His ticket, he soon decided, was to align himself with the emerging
bloc in the region headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an
erratic, charismatic populist who evokes passionate extremes of
admiration and hatred. Zelaya adopted Chavez's socialist rhetoric, his
bluster, even the gimmicky dress. (He started wearing a white cowboy
hat as his symbol.)
Zelaya managed to push through legislation that helped the poor and
ruffled the elite, including a huge raise in the minimum wage, in a
country where 40% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
But power was more important to him than solid ideology.
"For him, it was all about becoming a big figure," said Juan Ramon
Martinez, a historian and political analyst who had many dealings with
Zelaya. "If he had to dance the cha-cha-cha, he'd do it. If he had to
spout Marxist rhetoric, he'd do it."
Ideology might not have been important to Zelaya, but it was to his
inner circle, whose members traced their roots to Honduras' small
radical left that emerged in the 1970s. They had gone to university
together, fought against the brutal military dictatorships of the day,
suffered persecution. Eventually they went into human rights or became
lawyers, but didn't abandon their goals.
They helped coax Zelaya to the left, and last year he stepped firmly
into the Chavez camp by joining a group of Latin America's leftist
presidents formed five years ago by the Venezuelan leader and Cuba's
With the old left gaining power, the old right leapt into action, with
businessmen and the news media at their service, hitting back at
Then came an old trauma. Zelaya began speaking of changing the
constitution, and his enemies decided he was making a move to end term
limits and so he could stay in office -- much as Chavez had done in
The Honduran Constitution bars presidential reelection, a provision
born of a history replete with rulers who overstayed their welcome.
Most famously, Tiburcio Carias, a military man with close ties to the
foreign-owned fruit companies that made Honduras the original banana
republic, rewrote the constitution to stay in office from 1933 to
In March, Zelaya called for a vote June 28 to weigh support for
changing the constitution. Initially, the wording of the convocation
was innocuous enough, and momentum built behind the "consulta
popular," as it was being called. It had a lot of support among a
disaffected majority for whom Honduras' 27-year experiment in
democracy had failed to improve daily life.
On May 12, the attorney general's office ruled against holding the
vote. Zelaya ignored the order and pressed ahead with his campaign.
Congress, led by Roberto Micheletti, a transportation magnate from
Zelaya's Liberal Party, also opposed the vote. Honduras' tiny rich
class is notoriously loath to share its wealth, and members saw
Zelaya's move to tinker with the constitution as the last straw. They
organized street protests and a media blitz against the referendum.
"Never had a ruler so frightened the instruments of political and
economic power," historian Martinez said.
In mid-June, events started to veer precipitously toward disaster.
On June 12, the military high command met secretly, pointedly leaving
Zelaya out of the loop. Coup rumors that had ricocheted around the
capital for weeks grew stronger. Five days later, Zelaya's defense
minister quit, though this development would not be revealed for a
Ignoring an appeals court ruling that again declared the June 28 vote
illegal, Zelaya announced that the army would help with the election
by distributing and collecting ballot boxes.
This threw the army command into turmoil: It was being tasked to carry
out an operation that had been judged illegal.
On Thursday, June 25, troops deployed throughout the capital as
Congress met to depose Zelaya. Politicians, including Micheletti,
worked to put together the legal and constitutional cover to remove a
president who was breaking the law.
The next day, La Gaceta, the government's official register of laws,
published the decree convoking the following Sunday's vote. Zelaya's
enemies contend that the wording of the final decree had been changed
in a way that would allow hasty revision of the constitution through a
constituent assembly. Non-Honduran analysts say a series of
legislative steps would still have been required.
But logic really didn't matter at this point; the die was cast.
U.S. officials apparently underestimated how serious and how advanced
the crisis was. In the final weekend before the coup, they were
frantically telephoning Honduran contacts in an attempt to avert it.
They spoke on several occasions to commanders of the Honduran army,
with which the United States has had a long relationship.
But in the hours before the coup, U.S. officials found they could no
longer reach the officers.
A defining move
Juan Ramon Martinez likes to get up early on Sundays. Quiet time to
write and think. About dawn on June 28, he was sitting at his computer
in his home a block or two from one of President Zelaya's residences.
Suddenly he heard gunfire. He stepped gingerly out the front door to
ask the young watchman what was happening. "Golpe de estado!" the man
answered in a loud whisper. A coup. Martinez turned to see a huge
soldier in battle dress standing in the street a few feet away. "Get
back in your house!" the soldier barked.
Fifteen minutes later, it was over. An army team, under the command of
a general and two colonels, had seized Zelaya.
Up to this point, the coup plotters might have been able to justify
their actions to the international community by arguing that the
military was fulfilling a legitimate court order to arrest the
president. What happened next, however, deprived them of that luxury.
The military bundled Zelaya away to a military aircraft. Still in his
pajamas, the president was flown to Costa Rica.
Even among some who supported the removal of Zelaya, the decision to
expel him went beyond the pale, and the army's chief juridical advisor
now acknowledges that the expulsion was illegal.
"It has made Honduras look bad for an action being taken to benefit a
democratic system," said Jorge Canhuate Larash, one of the country's
most powerful businessmen.
The military has assumed responsibility for what it says was a
last-minute decision to remove Zelaya from the country, arguing that
to leave him in a prison in Honduras would have invited mobs to
attempt to break him free. But many here don't think they made the
It is not clear what kind of role the Roman Catholic Church, another
pillar of power and influence here, played before to the coup;
Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga was at the Vatican that
week. But within days he lent fervent support to the action.
Nine days after the coup and two days after Zelaya attempted
unsuccessfully to land at the airport, the cardinal was overheard on
his cellphone to the attorney general, urging him to produce drug
trafficking evidence against Zelaya. "My son," he said, "we need that
proof. It's the only thing that will help us now."
Two days later, one of Latin America's veteran negotiators, Costa
Rican President Oscar Arias, invited Zelaya and Micheletti to his home
for talks. But the ousted leader and the man who deposed him refused
to sit in the same room.
More talks were vaguely planned, Micheletti flew back to Honduras, and
Zelaya bounced around from capital to capital, in any country that
would have him.
From the Los Angeles Times
Special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report.