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Honduras: It’s Not About Zelaya

by David L. Wilson, MRZine

Manuel “Mel” Zelaya is a rancher and business owner who wears large cowboy hats and, in November 2005, was elected president of Honduras, an impoverished Central American country with a population of 7.5 million. On June 28 of this year the Honduran military, backed by the country’s elite, removed Zelaya from power. He instantly became a focus of attention for the US media—his statements were examined, and his appearances at the United Nations and regional meetings were dutifully covered. Most media depicted him as a major “leftist strongman” seeking to extend his term of office in the style of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

US journalists generally present world events as the actions of a few important individuals, a sort of Greek drama without the chorus. Latin American politics especially are viewed as a parade of good guys and bad guys—Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Chávez, Alvaro Uribe. Which is good and which is bad depends on your perspective.

The current Honduras coverage is no exception. Most working people in this country, pressed by the worst economic crisis of their lifetime, understandably change the channel or click on another website. If you want celebrity news, the death of Michael Jackson is far more gripping than the overthrow of Mel Zelaya.

“No Revolutionary”
But was this coup really about a leftist strongman?

“What Zelaya has done has just been little reforms,” Rafael Alegría, the leader of the local branch of the international group Vía Campesina (“Campesino Way”), explained to the Mexican daily La Jornada on June 29. “He isn’t a socialist or a revolutionary, but these reforms, which didn’t harm the oligarchy at all, have been enough for them to attack him furiously.”

The local elite and the US media insist that the non-binding referendum Zelaya wanted to hold on June 28 was a power grab. In reality Hondurans would simply have been asked whether they wanted to vote in the November general elections on a constituent assembly to rewrite the 1982 Constitution. If this actually came about, the new Constitution might well allow presidential reelection, but it’s not easy to see how any constituent assembly could finish its work in time to keep Zelaya in office after his term expires on January 27, 2010.

A more likely motive for the coup lies in the Honduran oligarchy’s fear of what would happen if the people got a chance to write their own Constitution.

Not many people in the United States are aware that over the past few decades Hondurans have created, under very adverse circumstances, a vibrant grassroots movement: campesino organizations like Vía Campesina; three labor confederations, often competing, sometimes cooperating; a strong indigenous movement; Afro-Honduran groups like the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH); human rights monitoring groups like the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH); environmental groups; community radio stations; an anti-militarization movement; women’s groups; student groups; and a nascent LGBT movement.

Early this year, Honduran teachers went on strike for back pay and held a sit-in at the education ministry. In February the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) organized a 12-day mobilization to protest the destruction of forests. In April hundreds of indigenous Chortí blocked access to the Copán archeological park, Honduras’ most important ancient Mayan site, to press demands for land.

None of these were one-time protests—they continued long-term struggles, some going back for years. And these same groups, which frequently support each other and coordinate their actions, are the ones that have confronted the coup and the subsequent repression with massive and spirited protests throughout the country.

The Chorus Takes the Stage
The growth of social movements in Honduras reflects a pattern. Everywhere you look in the hemisphere, the protagonists of the drama are increasingly “the people from below”—los de abajo, as Mariano Azuela called the subjects of his novel of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

In the first months of 2009, general strikes by virtually the whole population of the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique forced President Nicolas Sarkozy to agree to an increase in the minimum wage—and inspired workers’ struggles in European France. Starting in April, militant protests by indigenous Peruvians in the Amazon region, backed by urban unionists, shook the pro-US government of President Alan García. In June students battled United Nations troops in Haiti, the only country in the Americas more impoverished than Honduras, in support of workers’ demands for a higher minimum wage.

These struggles get little media attention here, but they have a direct bearing on los de abajo of our own country. Working people in the United States understand the effects of outsourcing industrial work to other countries, and they know about the pressure undocumented workers put on the wages of the native born. What they don’t know is how these phenomena are linked to US foreign policy.

Some 100,000 Hondurans now work in their country’s maquiladora sector, which assembles apparel and automotive parts largely for the US market. About 300,000 Hondurans live and work in the United States itself, according to the 2000 census. Hondurans don’t actually want to do backbreaking labor for minuscule pay in maquilas in San Pedro Sula, much less risk their lives crossing the border to work in the sweatshops of Los Angeles and New York. It is repression by the US-backed military and oligarchy and the hardships resulting from US-promoted economic policies and US-dominated trade deals like the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that have forced Hondurans into these jobs.

It doesn’t do US workers any good to rail against foreign countries and “illegal” immigrants. If people here are serious about defending their standard of living, they have no choice but to oppose their government’s foreign policies and to support their counterparts in countries like Honduras. Unions like United Electrical Workers (UE) and organizations like the National Labor Committee, US LEAP, Students Against Sweatshops, and the Maquila Solidarity Network are already active in this work. We need to back them—and maybe learn some lessons from Latin America about how to fight for our rights.

From WWIV Report


Just two weeks after Iran exploded into protests over contested elections, scenes of angry demonstrators clashing with security forces were repeated in the Central American republic of Honduras. The National Congress accuses President Manuel Zelaya of violating the constitution by defying a Supreme Court ruling that barred him from holding a referendum on constitutional reform. The military removed him from power and deported him from the country on June 28—the day the vote was scheduled. He has pledged to return to Honduras this week—and the new regime of de facto President Roberto Micheletti has pledged to arrest him if he does. Meanwhile, street clashes continue. Media coverage has suggested the central issue in the proposed constitutional reform was a bid by Zelaya to eliminate term limits and thereby remain in office—but a close reading reveals social justice demands of the Honduran popular movements to be far more relevant. Weekly News Update on the Americas provides the following overview of the resistance so far—and examines the truth behind the constitutional question.—World War 4 Report

Resistance on Day 2 of the Coup
Despite a 9 PM to 6 AM curfew, Hondurans protesting a June 28 military coup against President José Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales remained outside the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa the night of June 28-29. In the afternoon of June 29 heavily armed soldiers using shields dispersed most of the demonstrators in a few minutes; some youths remained and some threw stones, but they fled after the soldiers began firing in the air. Protesters a few blocks away weren’t “so peaceful,” according to a local leader. Youths there had erected barricades and were burning tires; they hurled rocks and bottles at the soldiers, who used tear gas and rubber bullets on the crowd but were forced to retreat at least three times. The military said 15 soldiers and 15 officers were injured in the Tegucigalpa confrontations, which lasted about two hours; protest organizers reported 276 injured on their side. (La Jornada, Mexico, June 30; BBC, June 29; AFP, June 30)

A student at the protests told the Mexican daily La Jornada that more people would have been out in the streets except that “the majority think President Zelaya resigned. The media have been kidnapped, and we, the people, have been too,” she added. The de facto government had taken independent radio stations off the air, along with television networks like the US-based CNN and the Venezuela-based TeleSUR. Radio América, one of the remaining local stations, didn’t report the protests—it simply advised motorists to avoid certain roads, without explaining that they were blocked by protesters. “I’m not interested in having communism here,” the student added. “I’m a student, I love peace and I’m a Christian. But I can’t be complicitous in this robbery.”

With the news blacked out nationwide and electricity interrupted in different areas, it was difficult for reporters to determine what was happening outside the capital. Grassroots organizations said protesters were marching and blocking roads in Colón and Atlántida departments. Some 10,000 campesinos were reportedly trying to get to Tegucigalpa from Olancho, Zelaya’s home region, but were stopped at military roadblocks. There were also unconfirmed reports of military battalions that were refusing to support the coup. (LJ, June 29; Milenio, Mexico, Aug. 29 from Notimex)

Labor activists driving in the middle of the day on June 29 near San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, said there were protests against the coup in every town they passed, and that that progressive forces had captured the Puente de la Democracia in the city of El Progreso and had liberated the independent station Radio Progreso. Another activist reported that 15,000 people demonstrated in San Pedro Sula and that there were protests in El Progreso and La Lima. (Personal communications to the Update)

Resistance Grows on Day 3
The French wire service AFP reported that the protests grew on June 30 as all three of the country’s labor federations joined with organizations of campesinos, youth, the unemployed, street vendors, lesbians and gays, and other sectors in an open-ended general strike that the groups said they would maintain until Zelaya was returned to power. (The teachers’ unions had started the strike on June 29). Organizers said at least 10,000 people were taking part in pro-Zelaya protests in the capital, as well as in other protests around the country; AFP put the number of demonstrators in Tegucigalpa at 2,000. A legislative deputy from the lefitist Democratic Unification of Honduras (UPH), Marvin Ponde, said thousands of anti-coup protesters trying to come to the capital by bus had been stopped at military roadblocks. They had set out from Santa Bárbara in the northwest; Danlí, Juticalpa and Catacamas in the east; and Choluteca in the south.

Violent clashes clashes were reported outside the Presidential House and in other parts of Tegucigalpa, where protesters erected barricades and battled security forces with rocks and bottles; the number of injuries was unknown. Similar actions reportedly took place in other cities.

Supporters of the de facto government held their own demonstration in the capital’s Parque Central, with an attendance of 10,000, according to organizers. (AFP, June 30; Diario Colatino, El Salvador, June 30; El Universal, Mexico, June 30)

Zelaya, the Referendum and the Social Movements
Zelaya is a business owner who was elected president in November 2005 as the candidate of the centrist Liberal Party of Honduras (PLH), which along with the National Party of Honduras (PNH) has led the coup against him. Despite his conservative background, “[t]he grassroots movement has been Zelaya’s fundamental ally and has remained firm in its rejection of the coup,” members of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) told the Brazil-based Adital grassroots news service.

“You have to understand that Honduras’ political class is extremely backwards,” Rafael Alegría, the local leader of the international group Vía Campesina (“Campesino Way”) explained to La Jornada on June 29. “What Zelaya has done has just been little reforms. He isn’t a socialist or a revolutionary, but these reforms, which didn’t harm the oligarchy at all, have been enough for them to attack him furiously.” Another reason for grassroots opposition to the coup, according to the OFRANEH members, is “a tremendous aversion to the armed forces in Honduras. Not many people forget that 20 years ago the soldiers controlled things from cement factories to food production to their own bank. For many, their return to power implies an historic step back that will have incalculable consequences for the country.” (Adital, June 29; LJ, June 29)

The military and the de facto government say the coup was necessary to keep Zelaya from holding a nonbinding referendum on June 28 about rewriting the Constitution. US media have generally repeated without qualification the claim that the referendum would clear the way for Zelaya to extend his term, which ends Jan. 27, 2010, by eliminating the 1982 Constitution’s provision that presidents can only serve one four-year term.

The referendum would in fact have simply asked voters whether the Nov. 29 general elections—for the president, three vice presidents, 128 legislative deputies and 298 municipal governments—should also include a “fourth ballot box” to elect a Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution. For Zelaya to extend his term, the Constituent Assembly would have to meet, approve a Constitution and have it ratified by the voters before the president turns over power to his successor on Jan. 27. Zelaya has denied that he would seek to stay in office past January, although he said he might try to run again in the future if the Constitution was changed to permit reelection. His government claimed that 400,000 people signed the petitions to initiate the referendum. (The Nation, New York, June 30; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, June 25; EFE, June 27) (Honduras’ total population is about 7.5 million.)

According to the Honduras correspondent of the Argentine daily Clarín, the coup supporters say that if the referendum had passed, Zelaya was going to cancel the presidential elections, extend his term, close down the Congress and seize power “in the best style of [Venezuelan president Hugo] Chávez.” “None of this [scenario] could be confirmed,” the correspondent remarked. (Clarín, June 30)

The Chicago-based People’s Weekly World reported on its website that Zelaya “had been building relationships with the [Democratic Unification of Honduras—UDH], the only left-wing party registered to participate in Honduran national elections. Most observers expected Zelaya to swing his support to Democratic Unification candidate César Ham [Peña]” in the November elections. (PWW, June 29)

The National Police told the Mexican wire service Notimex on June 28 that Ham was killed that morning when he resisted arrest. The report was false. He fled the country, saying there was an arrest order for him and Marcos Burgos, head of the government’s Permanent Commission on Contingencies (COPECO). On the evening of June 29 the two men landed at El Salvador’s Comalapa airport for a connecting flight to Nicaragua. They thanked El Salvador’s leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) and Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes for their help. (Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador, June 29)

From WWIV Report

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