On early morning of Sunday June 28, approximately 100 Honduran soldiers removed President Manuel Zelaya from his home and forced him onto a plane and into exile in Costa Rica. A fake letter of resignation from Zelaya was presented and the head of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, was named the interim President. This military coup has been condemned by the United Nations General Assembly, Central American Integration System, European Union, Organization of American States, and Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) bloc.
Over the past week the Honduran Congress has suspended basic constitutional rights including freedom of association and freedom of movement through the imposition of a military curfew and checkpoints. A decree allows for warrantless arrests and detention without charge. Geoff Thale, with Foreign Policy in Focus, reports that leaders of civil-society organizations have gone into hiding. The National Commission for the Disappeared reports over 300 people have been detained. Freedom of the press has been drastically curtailed in what Reporters Without Borders has called “either closely controlled or nonexistent” coverage of events through detention of journalists as well as closure of local TV and radio stations and disruption of foreign networks such as CNN and Telesur. Government electrical blackouts and shutdown of phone services have further limited freedom of information.
Over the weekend with Zelaya’s expected return, political repression stepped up. Human Rights Watch expressed concerns over “serious abuses against demonstrators… and approval of an emergency decree suspending fundamental rights.” While military aircraft and soldiers blocked Zelaya’s landing, troops fired tear gas, water hoses, and live bullets on the crowd, resulting in at least 2 deaths including of a 17-year old boy. Police and armed forces clashed with protestors across the country, including against 100,000 public sector workers who launched a general strike. Social movements including peasant-based Via Campesina and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations are reporting increased police surveillance since their public condemnations of the coup.
Many commentators, including in the Straight here and here, have repeated the mantra of Zelaya attempting to illegally extend his term in office as the raison d'être of the political turmoil. In a world of media spin-doctors, becoming passive recipients of sound-bites rather than active analysers might lead us to the same conclusion.
In an extensive article, Alberto Vallente Thorensen notes that Zelaya intended to perform a non-binding consultation about the formation of an elected National Constituent Assembly. If approved and legislated, any re-writes by this Assembly to the 1982 Constitution, drafted in an era of military dictators and US-sponsored counter-insurgencies, would have to be approved by the Honduran people. It is speculation as to whether the Assembly would have re-drafted provisions regarding presidential terms and if so, whether the Honduran people would have voted to accept this. Such a lengthy consultative process is arguably not indicative of a power-hungry dictator; and teacher, student, indigenous, peasant, and union groups supported the referendum. Yet Congress and the military opposed Zelaya’s proposal and head of the military General Romeo Vasquez refused to distribute materials for the non-binding referendum. (Vasquez became a key leader in the coup and is a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas, aka School of the Assassins, located in Fort Benning where over 60,000 Latin American soldiers were trained in US-sponsored counterinsurgency operations).
It is also unclear whether or not the Supreme Court had a legal basis for its ruling against the referendum being held during an election year since Zelaya’s actions were invoked under the Honduran Civil Participation Act approved by the National Congress and Supreme Court of Justice in 2006. At a fundamental level, one does not have to be a Zelaya supporter to understand that this legal question on the division of powers is not one for the military to decide. Even the army’s top lawyer, Colonel Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, admitted that the overthrow was illegal and the 4th Army Battalion from the Atlántida Department has declared that it will not respect orders from the Micheletti government.
Furthermore, if the military actions had popular support, why would such brutal repression against large mobilizations of diverse sectors of Honduran society be needed?
Zelaya’s move to the left may have been pragmatic rather that a genuine ideological shift; certainly actions such as his stated desire in April to monitor cell phones are not ones that human rights defenders could condone. However, speaking out against the coup does not imply an endorsement of Zelaya. In fact the hyper-focus on Zelaya (or Chavez as Zelaya’s mentor) distracts from the broader economic, political and social forces which have been evolving in Honduras.
Though Zelaya signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2004, he was forced to speak out against the devastating effects of unfair trade policies that were increasing poverty. He led Hondura’s entrance into the leftist trade bloc ALBA and Petrocaribe to reduce dependence on the US market, instead relying on the practical necessity of discounted oil from Venezuela. Although not opposed to all mining operations, in 2006 he declared a moratorium on the granting of new mining concessions, partly in response to large demonstrations by Indigenous people, many targeting Canadian mining empires such as Goldcorp. Zelaya also legislated a 60% minimum wage increase following labour actions, and measures to nationalize energy generation plants and the telephone system.
Much like the coup against Aristide in Haiti, this coup was not carried out to preserve constitutional order or the will of the people; it was carried out to preserve the position and institutions of local land-owning, military, business, and bureaucratic elites and a global hegemonic regime that serves global capitalist and imperialist interests. From 1996-2006 Canadian companies were the second-biggest investors in Honduras and Canada is seeking a free-trade agreement with Honduras. Perhaps this is why Desjardins Securities analyst Martin Landry noted that the coup could help the garment-producing giant Gildan if it leads to a more pro-business government. And perhaps why Canada is the only country in the hemisphere that has not called for Zelaya's return. Although the US has condemned the military actions, the US is maintaining a military base in Honduras and according to historian Greg Grandin, “The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government… So if the US is really opposed to this coup going forward, it won’t go forward.”
The final outcome is unclear and if and under what circumstances Zelaya will return. Regardless, the wave of military and government repression will have significant impacts on the strength and unity of growing grassroots social mobilizations in Honduras especially leading upto the November elections. They are the ones calling for our solidarity in the restoration of their democratic processes and also in their ongoing transformative struggles for freedom from exploitative international trade, labour, and environmental polices.
Harsha Walia is a Vancouver activist, writer, and researcher. A version of this article originally appeared at Straight.com. Photo of a July 4 demonstration in Tegucigalpa by Sandra Cuffe.