Honduras After the Coup: Fear and Defiance
"Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo."
"They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them." This slogan was chanted by the thousands of demonstrators who defied the illegitimate de facto government imposed by the Honduran military inthe protests that erupted throughout the country immediately after the after the coup of June 28, 2009. I recently visited Honduras along with a delegation led by Rights Action, a human rights group based in Toronto and Washington, D. C. I was introduced to the role that fear plays in the political life of the country, and to the importance of the fact that so many people are ready to defy that fear.
First, some background
Honduras has long been an important platform for the United States to dominate the region. The military forces that overthrew thedemocratic government of Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 were organized and trained there. The CIA used Honduras toorganize the terroristic attacks of the "contras" against the Nicaraguans in the eighties. The Palmerola air base is used by the UnitedStates as a training base and to wage its "war on drugs."
The leadership of the Honduran army is dominated by officers who have been trained at the School of the Americas (now renamed WHINSEC) in Georgia, where they, along with the elite of many other Latin American armies, have learned methods of torture and repression to be used against their own people. The Honduran oligarchy have been subservient to US interests since the days when banana growing corporations came to dominate this original "banana republic." International mining interests and corporations running sweatshops have a free hand in exploiting the country's resources and people. Whenever their rule has been effectively challenged, death squads, acting with impunity, have eliminated labor leaders, peasant organizers, or anyone else who got in the way of the political, military, or corporate masters.
Political life has been dominated by two parties, Nationalists and Liberals. The Nationalists have traditionally had close ties to the military. The Liberals once had a tradition of struggle for progressive reforms; because of this many of them were murdered during the forties and again in the sixties. But in recent years they have taken their place as a party that can be trusted to loyally serve the powers that be. Thus it was expected that Liberal Party President Jose Manuel "Mel" Zelaya Rosales, son of a wealthy, conservative rancher, would carry on in the service of the rich and powerful.
In retrospect, some analysts believe that Zelaya had an unstated agenda of serious reform when he came into office, trying to position himself so as to be able to carry it out. Early on he attempted to get close to the army by raising their salaries. One by one he replaced key government officials and started making changes. Agrarian reform had been started back in the late 60's and 70's but was derailed; Zelaya got it going again. He improved the working conditions for teachers, raised the minimum wage by 60%, refused to renew the contract of the US military to use the Palmerola air base, lowered the price of fuel, set up processes for poor people to have ownership of their houses registered and to help them improve their housing, and impeded the process of privatizing ownership of energy and communications.
In August of 2008 Zelaya signed the papers that made Honduras a member of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance forAmerica, a trade organization including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries which was set up as a rival to the US led FTAA (Free Trade Alliance for the Americas). Then, in March of 2009, he proposed that a referendum vote be taken along with the next election in November, asking whether a constituent assembly should be convened to rewrite the nation's constitution.
These moves truly frightened the oligarchy. ALBA is an initiative that was launched by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has been leading a peaceful socialist revolution in his country for the last ten years. One of the first things that Chavez did upon taking office in 1999 was to convoke a constituent assembly to write the most progressive constitution in the world, guaranteeing the rights of all people to a decent life, including women, workers, and indigenous people, and promoting participatory democracy. In the intervening years, Bolivia and Ecuador did the same thing. The worst nightmare of the oligarchy was about to come true!
The establishment went into full court press. The congress, the supreme court, and especially the media declared such a referendum illegal, unconstitutional, and a communist inspired power grab designed to install Zelaya as dictator for life. It didn't matter that any constitutional revision would happen months or years after Zelaya was out of office, they just kept repeating the same thing: "He wants to change the constitution so he can be president for life!" Zelaya changed the plan to be a non-binding public opinion poll, but even this was more than they could tolerate. The night before the poll was to be held, soldiers blasted their way into the president's bedroom, forced him onto a plane, and dumped him in Costa Rica.
Nearly everyone was surprised at the reaction to this move. For one thing, the Organization of American States unanimously condemned the coup as a barbaric violation of democratic norms, similar to the 20th century coups in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, etc. But far more surprising was the response of the people of Honduras. The spontaneous outrage was overwhelming. Not only had the oligarchs acted illegally, not only had they deposed a president who had for once shown some sign that he might actually want to do something about the crushing poverty of the majority ofthe people, but they were trying to justify their actions with an argument that was so transparently false that people saw it as an insult to their intelligence.
Labor, human rights organization, women's rights activists, indigenous peoples, gays, campesinos, community organizers, virtually every progressive in Honduras saw this as the last straw, and they came together on the streets, determined that this shall not stand. The Resistance was born.