Monday, July 13, 2009

The story of the coup in Honduras

Showdown in 'Tegucigolpe'
Stephen Zunes
Foreign Policy in Focus
July 10, 2009

One of the hemisphere's most critical struggles for
democracy in 20 years is now unfolding in the Honduran
capital of Tegucigalpa (nicknamed "Tegucigolpe" for its
long history of military coup d'états, which are called
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.

In a reversal of many decades of U.S. support for right-
wing golpistas in Latin America, the Obama
administration has denounced the coup. However,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rather than backing
the largely nonviolent popular uprising for Zelaya's
unconditional return to power, has instead been pushing
for the country's legitimate ruler to compromise with
the very forces which illegally exiled him from the
country and have been violently suppressing his

The United States is now offering support for mediation
efforts to be led by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.
The Obama administration tried to discourage the exiled
Honduran president from his attempt this past Sunday to
return to his country and has apparently succeeded, for
the time being, in preventing him from trying again.
Clinton pressed this point on Tuesday in pushing for
mediation, arguing that it would be a "better route for
him to follow than attempt to return in the fact of the
intractable opposition of the de facto government."

Clinton also said, "Instead of another
confrontation.let's try the dialogue process." What this
ignores is that while the coup plotters have no
legitimate standing, the Honduran people have a
constitutionally guaranteed right to rebel under such
circumstances. According to Article 3 of the Honduran

No one owes obedience to a government that has usurped
power or to those who assume functions or public posts
by the force of arms or using means or procedures that
rupture or deny what the Constitution and the laws
establish. The verified acts by such authorities are
null. The people have the right to recur to insurrection
in defense of the constitutional order.

What the Obama administration apparently fears is 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. Within days, a popular movement
had forced right-wing elements of the military and their
wealthy civilian allies to step down. Chávez returned to
govern and emboldened by such a popular outpouring of
support, he moved the country further to the left.

The United States could help such a movement succeed if
it wanted to. If the Obama administration chose, the
United States could impose strict economic sanctions on
Honduras that would, combined with ongoing strikes and
other disruptions, grind the economy to a halt and force
the illegitimate junta in Tegucigalpa to step down.

Unfortunately, while there's no evidence suggesting that
the United States was responsible for the coup, there
appear to be reasons the Obama administration may not
want the coup plotters to suffer a total defeat.

Zelaya's Significance

Despite being a wealthy logger and rancher from the
centrist Liberal Party, Zelaya has moved his government
well to the left since taking office in 2005. During his
tenure, he raised the minimum wage and provided free
school lunches, milk 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.

None of these are particularly radical moves, but it was
nevertheless disturbing to the country's wealthy
economic and military elites. More frightening was that
Zelaya had sought to organize an assembly to replace the
1982 constitution written during the waning days of the
U.S.-backed military dictator Policarpo Paz. 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

Calling for such a referendum is perfectly legal under
Article 5 of the 2006 Honduran Civil Participation Act,
which allows public functionaries to perform such non-
binding public consultations regarding policy
measures.Despite claims by the rightist junta and its
supporters, Zelaya was not trying to extend his term.
That question wasn't even on the ballot. The
Constitutional Assembly would not have likely completed
its work before his term had expired anyway.

Yet the Obama administration is implying that the
country's legitimate democratic president somehow shared
responsibility for his illegal overthrow. The initial
White House response was rather tepid, initially failing
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 the day after the coup that "all parties have a
responsibility to address the underlying problems that
led to yesterday's events." When asked if her call for
"restoring the constitutional order" in Honduras meant
returning Zelaya himself, she didn't say it necessarily
would. Similarly, in a press conference on Tuesday,
State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly evaded
reporters' questions as to whether the United States
supported Zelaya's return. This places the United States
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

There are serious questions as to whether Clinton can be
trusted to make a clear stance for democracy, given her
traditionally pro-interventionist position on Latin
America. As a senator, she argued that the Bush
administration should have taken a more aggressive
stance against the rise of left-leaning governments in
the hemisphere, arguing that Bush has neglected such
developments "at our peril." 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 U.S.
policy toward leftist regimes in Latin American in
previous decades had included military interventions,
CIA-sponsored coups, military and financial support for
opposition groups, and rigged national elections, she
argued that "We must return to a policy of vigorous

The United States and Honduras

The United States certainly has a history of "vigorous
engagement" in Honduras, actively supporting a series of
military dictatorships from 1963 through the early
1980s. Though military rule formally ended by the end of
1982, the weak civilian presidents who followed in the
subsequent decade served only at the pleasure of
Honduran generals and the U.S. embassy. 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 U.S. ambassador to
Honduras during this period.

During the 1980s, thousands of U.S. forces were sent to
Honduras to train Honduran security forces as well as
train and support the rightist Nicaraguan contras, which
were engaged in a series of cross-border terrorist
attacks. The CIA organized, trained, and equipped a
special military unit known as backed Battalion 316,
bringing in Argentine counterinsurgency experts as
advisors on surveillance and interrogation. These
advisors had been part of the "dirty war" in their
country during the 1970s, in which more than 10,000
people were murdered. Honduran armed forces chief Gen.
Gustavo Alvarez Martinez personally directed the unit
with strong U.S. support, even after acknowledging to
Negroponte that he intended "to use the Argentine method
of eliminating subversives." Though Alvarez' personal
involvement in large-scale human rights abuses were
well-known to State Department and other U.S. officials,
the Reagan administration awarded him the Legion of
Merit for "encouraging the success of democratic
processes in Honduras."

Former Honduran congressman Efraín Díaz told the
Baltimore Sun, in reference to U.S. policy towards human
rights abuses in his country, "Their attitude was one of
tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its
territory more than they were concerned about innocent
people being killed." Under Negroponte, CIA officers
based in the U.S. Embassy frequently visited a secret
prison where captured dissidents were routinely
tortured. It was one of a number of facilities to which
U.S. officials had regular access that were off-limits
to civilian Honduran officials, including judges looking
for victims of kidnapping by right-wing paramilitary

Despite this history, including revelations of his role
in covering up for such human rights abuses, Negroponte
had little trouble on Capitol Hill during the Bush
administration. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), then the
ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee,
praised Negroponte for having "served bravely and with
distinction," and for bringing "a record of proven
leadership and strong management." Representative Jane
Harman (D-CA), then the ranking Democrat on the House
Intelligence Committee, praised him as "a seasoned and
skilled diplomat, who has served with distinction,"
saying he was a "smart choice" to become the first DNI.
This enthusiastic support for Negroponte among leading
congressional Democrats, despite his well-documented
role in human rights abuses while U.S. ambassador to
Honduras, is indicative of how little regard the
majority party in Congress cares about democracy in
Central America.

The Legacy Today

The legacy of U.S. support for repression in Honduras is
very much part of recent events.

The leader of the June 28 coup, Honduran General Romeo V
squez, is a graduate of the notorious School of the
Americas, a U.S. Army training program nicknamed "School
of Assassins" for the sizable number of graduates who
have engaged in coups, as well as the torture and murder
of political opponents. The training of coup plotters at
the program, since renamed the "Western Hemisphere
Institute for Security Cooperation," 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

Former members of Battalion 316 were involved in the
coup as well.

Unfortunately, while far more knowledgeable of recent
history than most recent presidents, Obama doesn't seem
willing to apologize, much less make amends, for U.S.
complicity in supporting repression in Latin America. I
am writing this article en route to Chile, where the
United States played a major role in the downfall of
another democratically elected leftist leader, Salvador
Allende, back in September of 1973. Just five days
before the coup in Honduras, Chilean president Michelle
Bachelet visited President Obama in Washington. When
asked by Chilean reporters whether he was willing to
apologize for the U.S. role in bloody 1973 coup and its
aftermath, Obama brushed off the suggestion by saying,
"I'm interested in going forward, not looking backward."

Meanwhile, U.S.-armed and trained security forces have
violently dispersed largely nonviolent demonstrators
protesting across the country, including shooting into a
crowd of demonstrators near the airport on Sunday,
killing two. Rather than acknowledge the widespread
popular opposition to their illegitimate rule, the
Honduran junta, like its authoritarian counterparts in
Iran, have instead tried to blame outsiders for the
unrest, in this case Cuba and Venezuela. Yet the
Honduran people, like the Iranians, don't need outside
agitators or foreign funding in order to resist. This
isn't about geopolitics but about democracy.
Unfortunately, backers of the rightist junta in
Honduras, like backers of the rightist regime in Iran,
are repeating fabricated stories of outside interference
to discredit a genuine home-grown pro-democracy

What may be at work in these U.S. and Costa Rican-led
mediation efforts is some kind of deal where Zelaya can
return, but under conditions that would preclude a
constitutional assembly, any challenges to oligarchic
interests, or any further efforts to promote economic
justice. Similar kinds of pre-conditions were forced
upon the deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, prior to U.S. assistance in his initial return
from exile in 1994.

How much the junta leaders are willing to compromise
will depend on what is going on outside the meeting

One factor would be the ability of the pro-democracy
movement to organize, think strategically, expand their
ranks and maintain a nonviolent discipline. Fortunately,
the rebellion thus far has been largely nonviolent,
which would be far more effective in such circumstances.

For various historical reasons, Hondurans don't have the
same kind of history of armed revolution as their
neighbors. Even during the dictatorships of the 1970s
and 1980s- while the country's immediate neighbors
Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua experienced major
armed insurrections - the armed Honduran revolutionary
movement was quite small and never had much of an

By contrast, civil society organizations engaged in
strategic nonviolent conflict have grown dramatically in
recent years, including peasant organizations,
indigenous and Afro-Honduran movements, human rights
monitoring groups, environmental groups, women's groups,
an anti-militarization movement, and student groups, as
well as three major labor federations. A series of
strikes, blockages of major highways, and land seizures
occurred over the past year as civil society became
increasingly mobilized.

The second factor which could tip the balance is how
firmly the United States comes down in support for
democracy. Obama has at times 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." Recognizing
larger implications of this stance, he added, "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

Still, it was a full week before the United States
announced it would slash aid to Honduras, and there have
been no imminent signs of tougher sanctions. Unlike most
Latin American countries, the United States has not
withdrawn its ambassador from Tegucigalpa.

The United States, which hosts a U.S. Southern Command
task force at the Soto Cano Airbase, 50 miles northwest
of Tegucigalpa, exerts enormous influence on Honduras.
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 Zunes is a professor of Politics at the
University of San Francisco and a Foreign Policy In
Focus senior analyst.


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