Honduran Coup Reveals Crisis of Democracy in the United States as Well
Three weeks have passed since the military coup d'état in Honduras, yet the United States has failed to join the international community in issuing a clear denunciation of the illegal overthrow of the government of Honduras. Despite a statement by President Obama calling the coup illegal and recognizing Zelaya as the legitimate president, the US State Department refuses to classify what occurred as a coup or to take decisive steps required by law, including cutting off aid to the Micheletti government. The crisis of democracy in Honduras has unmasked a crisis in the United States as well.
In an emergency visit I made to Honduras to accompany social movement leaders, people in Honduras repeatedly told me that if the United States government were truly in favor of democracy, it would send a clear signal of denunciation and the coup would collapse in a day. The failure to do so puts the United States again on the wrong side of history, in a shocking throwback to the era of US-backed military dictatorships and brutal counterinsurgency campaigns of past decades.
(Photo: Lucas / Tom Loudon)
Today's events in Honduras occur in a context of a history of US use of Honduras as a military and intelligence stronghold in the region from which counterinsurgency wars against neighboring Central American countries were launched throughout the 1970's-1980's. During the 1980's, US Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte masterminded counterinsurgency campaigns in the region and was the virtual commander in chief of the illegal "contra" army operating in Nicaragua.
Many of us working in the region at that time witnessed atrocities carried out on the people of Central America, thanks to massive infusions of US military aid, equipment, direction and training of military leaders at the infamous School of the Americas. In Nicaragua, the contra army waged a relentless campaign of terror on the civilian population from military bases in Honduras under Negroponte's watch. By the end of the decade, US counterinsurgency campaigns in the region had left hundreds of thousands of people missing, tortured, traumatized and dead in the name of "fighting communism."
(Photo: Lucas / Tom Loudon)
It was in this context that the current Constitution of Honduras was written and ratified in 1982. The current Constitution is considered by Honduran social movement leaders to be a document created by the United States. According to them, the Honduran Constitution was written with a twofold intention: to sell all of Honduras and to dismantle the state.
For years, popular movements in Honduras have identified reform of the current Constitution as central to the struggle for social justice and poverty reduction in Honduras. However, this proposition is fiercely opposed by national elites and the United States government which, under the direction of John Negroponte, constructed the Constitution with the intent that it be inalterable.
The "opinion poll" scheduled for June 28, to measure levels of popular support for including a question on the ballot in November to propose a Constitutional Assembly, became the last straw for the oligarchy and the US government. They have for some time felt threatened by Zelaya's anti-poverty initiatives, openness to dialogue with social movements and participation in alternative economic integration efforts such as the ALBA. Despite a supposed change of administration in the United States, the influence of Negroponte and other right-wing extremists seems to be dominating the State Department and US foreign policy, especially in Latin America.
Social Movement Leaders Saw the Coup Coming
In meetings in Honduras, social movement leaders explained that they had seen the coup coming for months. Mr. Zelaya had started his presidency in a fairly normal fashion per Honduran tradition. He is from the Liberal Party, one of the two virtually indistinguishable mainline parties whose candidates always win the Honduran presidency. Robert Micheletti, the current, illegally installed president, is from the same Liberal Party, having lost the primary to Zelaya in the last elections, and was president of the Congress before the coup. Micheletti has wanted to be president for many years, but apparently a coup was the only way for him to achieve his aspiration.
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher and landowner, comes from the political class. After winning the 2005 election, he approached friends in the party to solicit their assistance in using his presidency to improve the situation for the desperately poor Honduras majority. When his ideas did not resonate with those in positions of power, he turned to other sectors of Honduran society who have been working for social justice for decades. Working together with social movements, Zelaya raised the minimum wage and began exploring how to recover state utilities which have been privatized under US-mandated structural adjustment, so called "free trade" and facilitated by the Honduran Constitution.
As Zelaya advocated for changes, he repeatedly found that the Constitution prohibited the measures he was proposing and contained no provision for reforming articles that impede implementation of social justice policies. Looking for a solution to these roadblocks led to the proposal for a non-binding poll of the Honduran people, to test the level of national interest in Constitutional reform, which triggered the coup.
Many believe that the original plan was to attempt the coup on June 25, three days before the poll was to take place. Social movement leaders were concentrated in Tegucigalpa, preparing to assist in the logistics of the voting process. The army had been deployed around the country for days, preparing for a standoff with the president.
(Photo: Lucas / Tom Loudon)
Suddenly, word came from the province of Colon that the UD party candidate for Congress, Fabio Evelio Ochoa, had suffered an assassination attempt. Armed men fired 27 bullets at Ochoa and left him for dead. Five bullets entered his body; however, he survived, thwarting the plan to kill him and divert the social movement leadership away from Tegucigalpa to Tocoa, Colon, to attend his funeral. The coup plotters would have then closed roads, preventing leaders from returning to Tegucigalpa and muting the response to the coup.
President Zelaya responded to the assassination attempt by sending a helicopter to bring Ochoa to the Social Security hospital where he could receive superior medical attention and security. Immediately after the coup, in the early morning hours of June 28, while the coup operation was in full swing, Ochoa was thrown out of the Social Security hospital.
Coup Leaders Mount Internal Crackdown
In a carefully orchestrated campaign to control information, at 5 a.m. on the day of the coup, the military entered nine radio and TV stations in Tegucigalpa to stop transmission. Radio outlets in other parts of the country were forcibly entered and closed as well. There has been a permanent, coordinated attempt to control information inside the country, and prevent news getting out as well. At least one journalist was killed in a drive-by shooting in San Pedro Sula after broadcasting information about the poll and popular resistance to the coup. At least two other journalists were detained by police, dozens have been threatened and some are in hiding. Television crews from Telesur and Venezuelan TV were captured and expelled.
Despite attempts to intimidate and repress popular protest through heavy militarization, curfews, suspension of civil rights, targeted assassinations and over 1,000 detentions, protests have been united, massive and sustained.
On Sunday, July 5, when Zelaya tried to fly back into Honduras; an estimated half a million people held the streets around the airport in what many are calling the largest protest in the history of Honduras. Troops shot and killed two young people who made their way onto the runway. Several others were wounded by bullets. It is reported that 160 high-power shell casings were found at the airport. Crowds defied the 5:30 p.m. curfew imposed as part of the state of siege, staying on the streets all day and all night. At 2 p.m. Monday, the police and military began advancing, firing tear gas and attacking the crowd. The crowd was forcibly dispersed after over 24 hours in the street.
(Photo: Lucas / Tom Loudon)
Last week, two targeted assassinations were reported; social movement leader Ramon Garcia and journalist Gabriel Fino. Arbitrary arrests and targeted assassinations are being used to intimidate social movement leaders, many of whom have suffered detention, torture and violent repression in past decades. Social movement leaders and Zelaya government officials are requesting international accompaniment to protect their personal security.
A campaign of intimidation is also being carried out in rural areas. The army arrives in communities that have staged protests against the coup, surrounding the community and threatening violence against residents. The community of Guadalupe Carney in Trujillo is considered to be in a situation of particularly high risk at this time. Two hundred soldiers have surrounded the community of 600 families named after a Jesuit priest who was disappeared in the 1983 counterinsurgency campaign. This community has mounted ongoing resistance to the coup and fears that community leaders are targeted for assassination.
COFADEH, the Committee of Families of Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, reports that in addition to the militarization of public utilities and agencies, members of the [Battalion] 3-16 death squads responsible for the disappearances of the 1980's are being placed in public positions.
Who Is Really in Charge of US Foreign Policy?
In a flagrant defiance of widespread international condemnation of the coup, including the expulsion of Honduras from the OAS, and United Nations condemnation of the coup, the illegal Micheletti government remains in power, carrying out a campaign of repression and terror directed at journalists, social movements and communities. The government of the United States stands glaringly alone in the international community, refusing to denounce the military coup, campaign of press censorship, widespread violation of human rights and intimidation of the civilian population.
Efforts by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) to mediate the conflict have been rejected by the United States in spite of the fact that OAS is the appropriate body to do so. The US has insisted on Oscar Arias of Costa Rica to mediate, confident that he will be more supportive of US positions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has apparently indicated that the United States will not support OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza for an additional term, sending a message of displeasure with the widespread condemnation of the coup which occurred under his leadership.
As the conflict enters into its third week and negotiations fail to advance, President Zelaya has indicated that he will enter the country secretly and begin governing clandestinely. On Saturday, July 18, Zelaya agreed to accept the seven-point proposal of President Arias to end the crisis. However, the coup government has rejected the first point, calling for the return of Zelaya to the presidency, and saying it needs time to consult on the other points. Faced with yet another breakdown in negotiations, Arias has asked for another 72-hour period to modify his proposal. Without additional external pressures, the coup government will continue to delay, dragging out negotiations in order to run out the clock to the next elections, expand the internal crackdown and wear down internal resistance.
Meanwhile, the social movements of Honduras have announced that they will be back on the streets this week, focusing their mobilizations initially on the National Congress. A national strike has been called for Thursday and Friday. The blackout on media coverage and lack of international observers raise concerns for levels of repression in the next few days.
(Photo: Lucas / Tom Loudon)
On Monday, July 20, the European Union announced that it will immediately suspend all aid, the equivalent of US $92 million, to Honduras due to Micheletti's refusal to accept the seven-point plan proposed by President Arias. The EU also stated that it will restrict contact at the political level, suspend member states' bilateral cooperation and consider other targeted measures.
On July 9, US Ambassador Hugo Llorens in Tegucigalpa told an emergency School of the Americas (SOA) Watch delegation that the US had suspended military aid to Honduras as of the moment that Micheletti swore himself in as president. However, three members of the delegation had stopped by the Palmerola military base where over 500 US soldiers are based and "witnessed an apparently normal buzz of activities, including helicopter flights and interchange of Honduran and US soldiers." The delegation spoke with a US official on duty at the base who told them that nothing had changed since the coup.
The US is also still training Honduran military officers at the US Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, despite the fact that the US Foreign Operations Act requires that US military aid and training be suspended in the event of a coup. Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, who led the coup against Zelaya, is a two-time SOA graduate and five other generals linked to the coup are SOA grads as well.
A consistent and clear message on the part of the United States, including: an unequivocal denunciation of the coup on the part of all sectors of the US government, recognition of Zelaya as the legitimate president of Honduras, immediate withdrawal of the US ambassador, suspension of military training and cooperation and the restriction of political contact with the illegal government of Micheletti would put an end to events in Honduras, send a message that the era of military takeovers and brute force is over, and put the United States on the side of democracy. The resolute refusal to do so, points to US complicity and tacit support for the coup and the internal crackdown being waged in Honduras and raises questions about who is really in charge of US foreign policy.