Countering a coup

Print edition : July 31, 2009


NO country is so isolated internationally as Honduras today. After the coup in the last week of June which temporarily ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the government installed by the military finds itself with its back to the wall. Immediately after the military staged the midnight coup, the Organisation of American States (OAS) issued an ultimatum to the rump government to reinstall the democratically elected President. A few days later, after the junta refused to do so, the OAS, in a unanimous vote, took the unprecedented step of suspending the country from the group.

Leaders of the OAS also supported Zelayas decision to return to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to reclaim his constitutional privileges. With tens of thousands of his supporters demonstrating on the streets for a day demanding his return, Zelaya tried to return on July 5. His plane, however, was not allowed to land by the Honduran air force and had to be diverted to neighbouring Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, clashes broke out between Zelayas supporters, mainly poor people, and the military. Following the authorities refusal to allow the plane carrying Zelaya to land, the situation has taken an even more serious turn. A 10-year-old boy was killed as a result of firing by the military on pro-democracy supporters, and scores of Zelaya supporters have been seriously injured. The military claims that the coup was a bloodless one. The events of July 5 have proved otherwise and could be a turning point in the confrontation between the people and the army.

Zelaya has vowed to keep on making attempts to return to the country. As the President I will go to rejoin my people, ask for peace and not for violence, and try to resolve everything in a spirit of brotherhood, Zelaya said in a message to his people. There are also signs that the junta, in the face of domestic resistance and international isolation, is having a rethink. A week after the coup, the military said that it wanted to negotiate with the OAS to resolve the crisis. There are reports that sections of the Honduran army are on the verge of revolting against the top brass who masterminded the coup.

Initially, when reports of the coup were trickling in, it was the ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) countries led by Cuba and Venezuela that took up the cudgels on Zelayas behalf. ALBA is a regional grouping that seeks to chart an independent path for Latin America and the Caribbean. Honduras had recently become a member. When Zelaya signed on to ALBA, he stated that we need no ones permission to sign this commitment. Today we are taking a step towards becoming a government of the centre-left, and if anyone dislikes this, well just remove the word centre and keep the second one.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pointed out the eerie parallels between the coup in Honduras and the attempt in Venezuela in April 2002, which had the backing of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. Chavez was briefly ousted but was reinstated following massive street protests. He has called for international investigations into possible American involvement in the coup in Honduras.

Its a brutal coup detat, one of many that happened over 10 years in Latin America. Behind these soldiers are the Honduran bourgeois, the rich who converted Honduras into a banana republic, into a political and military base for American imperialism, said Chavez. The coup took place just hours before the Honduran people were about to vote in a non-binding referendum on proposed constitutional changes.

The President had been talking about the need to change the Constitution, which was drawn up in 1982 when the country was under a military-dominated government. At the time Honduras was a key ally of the U.S. in the dirty war it was waging in Central America. John Negroponte, U.S. Ambassador to the country, was busy bankrolling right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Students, workers, peasants and indigenous groups had marched to demand that the legislature and the army back the referendum.

It is unlikely that the Honduran army would have dared to stage a coup without getting some sort of a green signal from Washington. The Honduran military is almost completely financed and trained by the U.S. The major U.S. military base in the country is less than 100 kilometres from the capital. This year, the U.S. provided $50 million as aid to the country. The Barack Obama administration has announced an increase for the coming year.

After the plane carrying ousted President Manuel Zelaya was prevented from landing in Honduras on July 5, it was diverted to Nicaragua. It then went on to El Salvador, where the President addressed a press conference at Comalapa International Airport.-AFP

Zelaya, who did not differentiate himself from the right-wing policies of his predecessors until becoming President in 2005, was elected on the ticket of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party, like the main opposition party, the National Party, represents the class interests of the wealthy minority. The elite, which has been running the country for a long time with Washingtons backing, was infuriated when Zelaya started introducing a series of progressive reforms.

Earlier in the year, he increased the minimum wages of workers from $170 to $280 a month. Factory owners responded by dismissing a large number of workers. As it is, the unemployment rate in Honduras is among the highest in the region. The poverty rate hovers around 70 per cent. Via Campesina, an umbrella international group that coordinates the activities of peasant organisations worldwide, characterised the Zelaya government as one that protected the rights of workers and peasants.

Zelaya had also proposed that the President should be allowed to contest for a second four-year term. The current Constitution allows for only one four-year term. The right-wing-dominated organs of the state and the oligarch-controlled media had tried their best through all means to thwart the non-official referendum.

Police officers in the thick of protests against the coup, outside Toncantin International Airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital, on July 5.-OSWALDO RIVAS/REUTERS

The allegation was that Zelaya was taking a leaf out of the script followed by Chavez, President Evo Morales of Bolivia and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Zelaya had repeatedly said that he was not interested in running again but wanted his successors to have that option. The Presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador had successfully got new progressive Constitutions approved by their people.

Zelaya had also angered the U.S. with his decision to make Honduras a full-fledged member of ALBA and his criticism of the U.S.-initiated Central America Free Trade Agreement for the region. In recent months, he was also very critical of Washingtons policies on drug trafficking. The legitimate struggle against drug trafficking should not be used as an excuse to carry out interventionist activities in other countries, Zelaya wrote in a letter to Obama. Before Zelaya came on the scene, Honduras was viewed as a quintessential banana republic. Things changed dramatically in the past couple of years. Today, the U.S. can no longer take Honduras for granted.

The countdown to the crisis began in earnest when the countrys Supreme Court ruled that the sacking of army chief General Romeo Velasquez by the President was illegal. The army had refused to move ballot boxes and papers necessary for the holding of the referendum. After that, the Supreme Court ruled that the holding of the non-binding referendum was itself illegal. But Zelaya stuck to his guns and decided to go ahead with the democratic exercise.

Gen. Velasquez and his fellow coup-plotter, air force chief Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, are products of the School of the Americas (SOA) a military training facility the U.S. administration set up in the 1940s to train military officers serving in the armies of pro-American governments in the region. Ten officers who trained there went on to be among the most notorious dictators in Latin America. Hundreds of officers trained there have been accused of torture and other serious human rights violations when military regimes were in power in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, El Salvador and other Latin American countries. The SOA, according to a 1996 U.S. Intelligence Oversight Board report, condoned executions of guerillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment.

Honduras, a nation of seven million people, is among the poorest countries in the region. Its economy is dependent on U.S. aid and the remittances of Honduran workers settled in the U.S.

The police and soldiers blocking the runway at the Tegucigalpa airport to prevent Zelayas plane from landing.-THOMAS BRAVO/REUTERS

Interestingly, though Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton belatedly termed the military coup illegal, there has been no official communique from the U.S. government to that effect. An official communique would have automatically meant the suspension of U.S. aid to the country. The U.S. State Department released a statement saying that there was no plan to suspend aid and other forms of assistance to the country.

Obamas remarks that it would be a terrible precedent for Latin America to move backwards into an era of military coups seem to have had no impact on the coup-makers in Tegucigalpa. Obama seems to be bending over backwards to improve the U.S. image in the region. Any overt support for the coup would only further damage Washingtons standing in the region.

In a way, the U.S. has little option but to fall in line with the rest of the international community on Honduras. The OAS, of which the U.S. is a founding member, was quick to condemn the illegal ouster of Zelaya. OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza declared that Zelayas reinstatement was a precondition for the successful resolution of the crisis. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticised the putschists and called for the reinstallation of the democratically elected government.

Just a couple of days after the military takeover, Zelaya spoke to the U.N. General Assembly about the prevailing situation in his country. In response, the General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for his immediate and unconditional return to the presidency.

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