If you were in Guatemala on June 28th of this year, you likely heard a rather loud bump in the night coming from our South Eastern border. That evening the Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, was rousted from his bedchambers, still in his jammies, and hustled off to Costa Rica on a one-way flight, courtesy of his no longer loyal air force. Having just been through a rather odd year in domestic politics hereabouts – a dead man accusing President Colom of murder, chaos on the streets, a skyrocketing murder rate and the quiet but audible whispers of a potential military takeover in Guatemala – you might understandably have been worried about a coup d’état taking place just a few hours’ drive from the peaceful cobblestones of Antigua.
And you should be still.
But what the hell happened – and, for that matter, what the hell is still happening down there? In general we’ve found the major media’s coverage of the events in Tegucigalpa a thin and unsatisfying gruel, flavored with a shake from the Cold War spice rack. In other words, it’s been pretty much standard operating procedure for the major Gringo news outlets.
As events surrounding the coup slip further out of control, that may begin to change – even the Old Grey Lady, Madame Sulzberger of the New York Times, can occasionally find her shame when it becomes clear that she’s providing cover for a butcher. Be that as it may, as Honduras staggers into a new election season next month, La Cuadra would like to offer an English language primer on the Honduran situation to our readers. In general our editorial voice is slurred (and our vision blurred) by a few bottles of good old-fashion lefty agitprop, but understanding the events currently underway in Honduras might just prove crucial to navigating the potentially devastating waters of our mutual political future. Only a few short decades ago coups and military juntas were de rigueur in Central America, but fell out of fashion as the mass graves were exhumed. And yet, the Honduran crisis highlights the tenuousness of the region’s democratic institutions and its resolution may well become the model for other nations in the not too distant future. That is a sobering prospect, particularly if the coup survives.
Said another way, while we generally support the leftward drift of Latin American politics over the past decade, we’d argue that even our friends on the Right would be fools not to worry about the dangers that the coming years will bring, as the global economy continues to melt, the tide of violence and the associated social ills of poverty and a narco-economy continue to rise, and the military might of potential coup plotters wait in the wings of sundry Latin American capitals. Honduras’ today could be Guatemala’s tomorrow – and if that happens, amongst other things, La Cuadra would have to pack up and move its tent further on down the road. We love it here, but our ability to publish our brand of journalism is predicated upon living in a democratic nation that respects freedom of the press. We assume that Honduras, at this point, would neither welcome nor support such bedrock freedoms.
Honduras needs to be understood in proper historical context. Like all nations between the Rio Grande and the Straits of Magellan, Honduras is now, and historically has been, a land of have-lots and have-diddlysquats. According to the United Nations Development Program, Honduras ranks number 115 out of 177 on a list of nations measured by the equality of wealth distribution. (Guatemala ranks 117.) The Institute for the Study of Labor and the World Bank estimate that nearly half of all Hondurans are “extremely poor,” with the ISL defining that as an income below what is necessary to provide a daily diet of 1200 calories per household member, and which the World Bank, defines by using the more standard measure of an income less than a dollar a day. Perennially, Haiti wins the prize for being the “most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere” but Honduras battles hard with Nicaragua and Jamaica for its place as Number 2. Forty-two percent of the Honduran population has no access to safe drinking water. Twenty-five percent are fully illiterate. Half of all agricultural workers own no land. Honduras has the highest rate of HIV infection in Central America. The Honduran Ministry of Health estimates that 75 percent of all children under the age of 5 are malnourished. Honduras’ most valuable export is its labor.
Concisely said, Honduras, for the majority of Hondurans ain’t a very jolly place. But for the wealthy few, it’s a pretty good ride. The political and economic elite of Honduras form a self-referential claque even more insular and self-protective than in Guatemala, and that’s a trick.
And upon his election, Mel Zelaya was one of them. Zelaya, of the slightly center-left Liberal party, comes from a family of wealthy landowners. In the 1980s his family was openly supportive, as were most wealthy Hondurans, of the Contras who (with the help of the United States Embassy under the direction of suspected vampire John Negroponte) were fighting a terror war against the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. Upon his election, Zelaya wasn’t expected to rock the teetering ship of state too much. In fact, according to several reports from a social gathering held just after his inauguration, Zelaya was approached by a number of the nation’s wealthiest businessmen and admonished to remember that they were the real power in the nation.
One of Zelaya’s advisors remarked to the Inter Press Service that a prominent businessman told the new president “that in the 1980s, the most important political decisions were put to consultation in the military barracks, but now [we] are here, the business people and the media.” In that meeting, another of the businessmen reportedly reminded Zelaya of his place by remarking, “You are only temporary, while we are permanent. We want to be consulted about decisions, we want contracts and to participate in the public tenders, we want to express our opinions on some appointments of public officials and we want official advertising contracts.”
It kind of reminds us of the old Bill Hicks routine when he’s wondering aloud about what happens immediately after an American president is elected:
“I have this feeling that whoever’s elected president, no matter what promises you make on the campaign trail – blah, blah, blah – when you win, you go into this smoky room with the twelve industrialist, capitalist assholes that got you there, and this little screen comes down… and it’s a shot of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before, which looks suspiciously off the grassy knoll… And then the screen come up, the lights come on, and they say to the new president, “Any questions?”
“Just what my agenda is?”
Sadly, for Honduras, this appears to be the way things actually work.
For hotly disputed reasons, President Zelaya decided not to play along. His detractors say that he’s fallen under the spell of the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, and further, they make the difficult-to-substantiate charge that, just like Chavez, Zelaya wished to install himself as “President for Life.” This reasoning fails on several fronts, the first being that Hugo Chavez hasn’t installed himself as President for Life – but we find that, with most folks who have swallered that particular Kup o’ Kool-Aid, any mention of Chavez’s name when it’s not associated with a modifier such as “socialist” or “dictator” makes their heads spin alarmingly to the Right. If you’re one of them, take a deep breath and decide if you’d wish to keep reading – but again, Hugo Chavez is NOT the President for Life of Venezuela, no matter how much that misrepresentation fits preconceived notions. He does, however, maintain the loyalty, as expressed through the ballot box, of the majority of Venezuelan citizens.
The second reason we question the Zelaya / Chavez connection as the motivating force behind the coup is a bit more inside béisbol than English language analysis normally delves, but the Honduran Congress, under the leadership, and with the support, of current coup leader and de facto President, Roberto Micheletti, voted to join the Chavez led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) in August of 2008. So it appears that, if anything, the government of the coup was for Chavez before they were against him, at least in the context of Chavez providing them with access to low interest loans and cheap fuel. This would suggest that their concerns about Zelaya had less to do with his connections to a Venezuelan comrade, and far more to do with Zelaya’s actual efforts to democratize and reform their own nation.
Of course, that’s a much harder line to push internationally when soliciting support for a government installed by coup.
But before we get to the proximate, if faulty, rationale for the coup, let’s consider a few of Zelaya’s proposed and enacted changes in Honduran life. Honduras is, much like Guatemala, drowning in the blood of the drug wars. There the gangs on the streets create the same level of violent chaos that exists here. And in Honduras, as with other Latin American nations, there is strong circumstantial evidence of connective tissue and ligature leading from those street gangs right to the heart of the governmental and military structures.
Zelaya’s history with the drug wars has been hit-and-miss. He’s offered to negotiate with the main Salvadoran gang, MS-13, or the Salvatruchas, but came away with little success. He then ordered some of the region’s most brutal police operations, which in San Pedro Sula, the industrial hub of Honduras, have been likened to “purges” with few questions asked and many scalps taken, often from the shaved heads of tattooed teenagers. At other times Zelaya has made public appeals for the legalization of drugs, figuring that at least legalization might give his nation a break from the decades’ old bloodbath in which they are geographically trapped by the realities of a southern supply and a northern demand.
Say what one will about the inconsistencies in his record, but it seems clear that Zelaya is real about a commitment to address the drug violence that disproportionately affects the poor of his nation while enriching some members of the elite. Such actions, in any of the above directions, surely piss off someone in the Honduran hierarchy in the worst way. By attempting to seriously address the narco-wars, Zelaya has made some powerful enemies.
Moreover, recognizing the plight of the poor in his nation – and arguably this first happened through the lens of the drug war – Zelaya decided to act in concrete ways. He successfully led a movement to increase the minimum wage (in the formal economy) from $6 a day to $9.60 a day. Further, he increased subsidies to small farmers and ordered cuts in bank interest rates to help reduce poverty levels. These actions rankled the bankers and the factory owners, and he managed to secure the dedicated opposition of organized Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical, by supporting the sale and distribution of the “morning after pill” (a high dose of estrogen taken after sex that can prevent the implantation of the egg to the uterine wall) in a traditionally very conservative nation.
But the nest of bees he stirred up this past summer was more fundamental than drugs or gangs or wages or women’s rights – and more dangerous by far to the entrenched powers of the Honduran elite class that he was expected to temporarily, and humbly, serve.
Zelaya has been accused, publicly and specifically, of attempting to manipulate Honduran electoral law by introducing a ballot measure that would allow him to run for more than one presidential term. That is simply untrue. Interestingly, making a public call for an extension of a president’s term is a violation of the current Honduran Constitution (Article 239, for the fact checkers) and punishable by immediate removal from any governmental position and a ten year ban from returning to political life. Despite this being the central charge of the golpistas (coup plotters), no one has ever provided evidence that Zelaya has ever so much as whispered these words to his advisors. Ironically, however, evidence has been provided (in the form of an early 1980s newspaper account) that Roberto Micheletti did advocate for the repeal of term limits during the reign of a right-wing president. Goose, gander . . . whatever.
In fact, what Zelaya did intend to do on the day of his overthrow was to champion a public consultation, the first in Honduran history, that would, in an absolutely non-binding way, poll the Honduran people to determine if they would be interested in having the Congress present a ballot initiative to the public in the next national election scheduled for November 29, 2009. This ballot initiative, if supported by the Congress and presented to the people, would have said nothing about presidential term limits, but would establish a mechanism for creating a constituent assembly to consider redrafting parts of the 1982 constitution, a constitution written amid a military dictatorship and, curiously enough, crafted specifically to impede any cession of power by the minority of wealthy elites to the huddled masses. Which, come to think of it, is what a coup d’état impedes, as well.
Now, is there potential for disruption of political realities when reconsidering a constitution? Certainly. And is it possible that the number of terms served by a sitting president could conceivably be extended. Absolutely. But it was, decidedly, not a feature of the intended June 28 poll. What Zelaya was specifically attempting to do was to sound the public about their general feelings about the possibility of Congress drafting a ballot initiative that would consider forming an elected assembly that might change the constitution in some way – and do so on the day that a new president of Honduras was elected.
Specifically, Zelaya was asking for the public to express its opinion on a “Cuarta Urna,” or Fourth Ballot Box, which could, after Congressional approval, be put to the people during the normal election in late November.
Each election cycle Honduran voters receive three ballots, the first for President and Vice President, the second for parliamentary representation and the third for municipal elections. The Cuarta Urna, had it been allowed, would have asked the Honduran people: “Do you agree with convening a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution?” Opponents of the Fourth Ballot Box have loudly argued that this was a subterranean way for Zelaya to introduce an elimination of term limits during the proceedings of the constituent assembly, and maybe that’s the case. But regardless, Zelaya would be, undeniably, out of power when any constituent assembly met as his name would appear nowhere on Ballot Box One.
Alternatively, supporters of the Cuarta Urna published a statement specifying what they desired to see develop out of a constituent assembly to reform the Honduran constitution. It is summarized below and can be read in its entirety at:
(Editor’s note: The link should be functioning in a day or so. Sorry)
The reformists in Honduras, led by Zelaya, hope to someday enact constitutional reforms that would allow for the establishment of a recall mechanism for all elected officials, including the president. They hope to draft protections to allow equitable access to the media, and controls on the accumulation of economic and political power through the manipulation and control of the flow of information. They look forward to the “rescuing of public services for the people” and placing “the human being at the center of the economy.” They argue for changes to current electoral law as pertains to legislative representation. Specifically, they want their legislators to be directly elected by their districts, rather than being selected by party bosses based upon the percentage each party received at the departmental level. Further, they hope for a separation of election days for Presidents, Representatives and Mayors. In addition there are calls for further protections of the rights of women, ethnic minorities and those of less traditional sexual orientations.
At the end of the day these are profoundly important, and entirely legitimate, issues for a nation such as Honduras to discuss, particularly as the current constitution was drafted under less than fully democratic circumstances – but Mr. Micheletti and the plotters didn’t think so, and thus, the coup.
Immediately, and resoundingly, all Latino members of the Organization of American States condemned the coup and declared the government of Roberto Micheletti to be illegitimate and irredeemable. The United States and Canada have been less forceful, to the point of being serious stumbling blocks to the advancement of democracy in the region. In its rather cryptic and convoluted condemnation of the coup, the United States has pushed for negotiations (with a government that it publicly claims to view as illegitimate) fostered by the Costa Rican president, Óscar Arias. Earlier in the summer a State Department official speaking on a condition of anonymity, suggested that a good place to start would be getting Micheletti to accept Zelaya’s return if Zelaya promised to pull back on his idea of asking Honduran citizens if they’d like to participate more fully in their democracy. The continued equivocation from Washington has left many observers in the region wondering if the Obama administration intends to break in anything but appearance from the traditional Bad Neighbor Policy employed by governments past. Vamos a ver.
For its part, the Canadian government has been even worse, not surprising considering the economic exposure Canadian mining firms have in the Honduran hills. Type Goldcorp, Honduras and “lack of informed consent” into Google and have at it.
In trying to determine where it all goes from here, there are a few points left to consider. Now that Zelaya has returned to Tegucigalpa – at the time of this writing he has successfully re-entered the country and is holed up at the Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital – what is happening to the Honduran people and the surviving shreds of their political culture?
The leading golpista, Mr. Micheletti, has recently blown his stack in a most undemocratic way. Prior to Zelaya ratcheting up the pressure on the de facto government with his presence, the coup’s intention was to slow-walk the international community (and the growing resistance movement within Honduras) all the way to the November elections, and then to declare that democracy had triumphed in the end. They were having a nearly impossible time selling that to Latino members of the OAS, but there was a reasonable chance that the US and Canada could be brought on board before the beginning of 2010. Yet, all that may now change due to an overplay of force by Micheletti.
On September 28, Micheletti placed Honduras under martial law. Within 48 hours the coup had suspended constitutional rights in their effort to “defend the constitution.” Hondurans lost the freedom of free speech, travel, protection from warrantless searches, and all public meetings currently need to be approved by the police or the military. Moreover, a specific provision was introduced into the decree to allow the forceful removal of 55 campesinos who had taken up residence in a government building that housed deeds and land records. The campesinos claimed they were there to make sure that, during the crisis, the titles to their lands would not be destroyed or passed on to larger land owners. Regardless of the hue to your glasses, one can imagine that papers are being torched and the meager holdings of some of Honduras’ most impoverished land owners are presently going up in smoke.
Micheletti’s play appears to now be the dismantling of the resistance movement to his government before rescinding the grossly undemocratic orders. He may yet succeed, though, given his near universal condemnation by the community of nations, even some of his coconspirators are second-guessing their support, and his promise to repeal the oppressive and anti-democratic orders “at a convenient moment” may come too late for his salvation. But even if the orders are temporarily rescinded, the survival of Honduran democracy is in no way assured. Micheletti has the old Jeffersonian “wolf by the ears” problem. At this point he can neither safely hold on to power, nor safely let it go. Being an over privileged and coddled man, we’re guessing he’ll opt for increasing military repression until he breaks the back of the resistance, or someone offers to get him and his money to a country with no inclination towards extradition.
But what happens to Micheletti is of far less importance than what happens to Honduran democratic institutions and notions of justice. In many ways it is remarkable that the Micheletti coup has persisted in the face of such powerful and vehement international condemnation. And its dogged survival begs new questions: What, if any, international pressure will it take to bring down this coup? Will the great community of nations allow the Micheletti government to dictate its own transition from power, and thus retroactively legitimize the coup and its methods? Will the powerful governments of North America, who are still refusing to join in full-throated condemnation of the regime, finally bring their political and economic pressure to bear? The answers to these questions specifically, and the resolution of the Honduran crisis generally, should concern anyone living in the region. The political realities are new, and as such a fresh paradigm for the confrontations between the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the military and the civilian may now be slouching towards Tegucigalpa to be born. Recent events in Honduras will certainly influence the future of the region, and that should give anyone living a few hundred miles to the northwest good reason to listen for things that go bump in the night.
To read our previously featured stories, click here.