Honduras - three years after the coup

On the third anniversary of the coup, the resistance movement faces formidable obstacles in attempting to recreate the space for progressive politics which began to open up under Zelaya, but which led to his downfall. 

It is three years since the coup in Honduras which forced President Manuel Zelaya from office and into temporary exile.  As well as suffering Latin America’s only military coup in the past decade, since then Honduras has gained other unfortunate distinctions.  Its murder rate is four times that of Mexico and it has become the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, with 23 having been assassinated over the last three years.  Despite the condemnation of the coup by every government in Latin America and of all political complexions, the United States reserved its criticisms, then enthusiastically endorsed Porfirio Lobo when he took office as president in January 2010 after highly questionable elections.  After well over half of Lobo’s term in office, the only grounds for optimism in Honduras are offered by the resistance movement which sprang up in response to the coup.  However, it faces formidable obstacles in attempting to recreate the space for progressive politics which began to open up under Zelaya, but which led to his downfall.

As with the coup itself, the recent history of Honduras is distinct from that of its Central American neighbours.  In the turmoil of the 1980s, progressive forces in Honduras never developed an armed struggle like those in the three neighbouring countries which led to left-of-centre governments in two of them.  While the repressive Honduran armed forces received similar US military aid to their equivalents in Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras also hosted a massive US base and the US-supported ‘Contra’ forces that attacked Nicaragua for most of the decade following its 1979 revolution (and were only disarmed when Nicaraguans elected a government acceptable to the United States in 1990). 

Economically, Honduras and its three neighbours have – for most of the period since their independence – been dominated internationally by big companies such as United Fruit (ironically rebranded in 1984 as Chiquita, which means ‘very small’).  Internally they have each been dominated by around a dozen leading families who retain a tight grip on most locally-owned big businesses.  Typically, Central American countries have these relatively small elites which identify as much with Miami as they do locally, and maintain a massive gap between rich and poor (now being steadily closed in Nicaragua).  Honduras, long-known as the quintessential ‘banana republic’, is the most marked in these respects (having, for example, the highest indicator of income inequality of the four).

When Manuel Zelaya was elected in 2006 he was thought to be a safe representative of one of the two traditional ruling parties, who would not question the status quo.  But he began to align with left-wing governments elsewhere in Latin America, especially when during the oil crisis his plea for help to George Bush was rejected and instead he was offered subsidised petroleum by Hugo Chavez.  When in 2008 he took Honduras into the regional alliance known as ALBA and led by Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba, he earned US displeasure and was quickly branded in Honduras as a communist, even by members of his own party.  An attempt to hold a ballot on setting a constitutional assembly to reform the Honduran political process became the excuse for the coup in June 2009.  Tanks surrounded his house in the early hours and he was bundled into an aircraft in his pyjamas and sent to Costa Rica.  In subsequent months he made two abortive attempts to return, then clandestinely took up residence in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa where he became a virtual prisoner. The deal in which he was freed was never properly honoured by the Honduran authorities and they were never put under any pressure to do so by the United States.

Supporters of the Lobo government and the status quo ante deny any link between these political events and Honduras’ current violence.  For example, they claim that the violence is simply gang or drug related, and argue that many of the journalists who have been murdered worked for conventional media or weren’t politically active.  However, there are two important reasons why it is wrong not to blame political developments for Honduras’ disastrous recent record.  The first is that the coup and the failure of the Honduran elite (or of its US allies) to condemn it has markedly strengthened the hands of the military and of the police.  Not only was the army the instrument of the coup, but it continues to receive US aid (justified through the war on drugs) and both the army and police enjoy a large degree of impunity for assassinations and disappearances with which the security forces are regularly associated.  Such impunity exists even for crimes against those linked with the elite.  For example, in the cases of the murder last October of the son of the Rector of Honduras’ main university and, last month, of journalist Alfredo Villatoro (a close associate of Lobo himself), the police were implicated in both. 

The second reason to blame the political establishment for Honduras’s violent record is the repression which it has unleashed against opponents of the coup and against any progressive forces, both urban and rural.  The Honduran elite is determined to hang on to the privileged position threatened by Zelaya, and are behind the use of force by the army, police and hired thugs whose task is to intimidate and where necessary eliminate their opponents.  Quite apart from the political repression, the general atmosphere of casual violence in many parts of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula (Honduras’s second city, now the most dangerous place in the world) does not much affect the elite and provides an environment which gives them greater freedom to carry out political murders.

The north east open for business

Nothing encapsulates Honduras’ problems more than recent events in the rural north-east of the country, parts of which are familiar to foreign tourists as the Bay Islands and in which there are also significant indigenous groups, notably the Garifuna and Moskitia communities.  The region from which the ‘Contra’ war was launched against nearby Nicaragua is now a transfer zone for drug traffickers: the State Department asserts (with suspicious accuracy) that 79% of cocaine smuggling flights from South America land in Honduras, mostly in this region. Furthermore, it is also the location for several violent disputes in which campesino farmers are struggling to get or hold onto land against the depredations of big landowners.

The biggest of the land disputes is in the Aguan valley, where several communities are struggling to hold on to land in the face of violent repression by the police and private security forces, ranging from the destruction of whole villages to the assassination of community leaders.  There have been more than fifty politically related deaths in this area alone.  The main landowner implicated in the violence, Miguel Facussé, was described by the New York Times as ‘the octogenarian patriarch of one of the handful of families controlling much of Honduras’ economy’.  He was also a strong supporter of the coup.  In October 2011, Wikileaks released cables from the US embassy which revealed that he had been known to them as a cocaine importer since 2004.

President Lobo’s response to the violence has been ineffectual.  It has ranged from sending in the army to trying to resolve the land disputes.  Mythical insurgents from Nicaragua or Venezuela have been blamed for inciting the peasant farmers.  Several communities are nevertheless clinging on to the land they cultivate, threatened rather than protected by the local police. 

A second part of the country’s north east, Moskitia, has seen the latest escalation of the drugs war.  In the early hours of 11 May, helicopters operated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration from a nearby US base fired on a boat which was wrongly thought to be carrying drugs.  Four people, including two pregnant women, were killed and several more injured.  This and subsequent events were investigated, not by US embassy officials or the Honduran government, but jointly by the Alliance for Global Justice and Rights Action.  Reports from their delegation make grim reading.  Far from recognising their mistake, the DEA-sponsored forces prevented people from helping the victims, violently intimidated the local community of Ahuas and did nothing to secure medical assistance for the injured – nor have they done so since.  No drug traffickers were arrested and the only positive outcome was the seizing of 400kg of cocaine, apparently being carried in a completely different boat from the one attacked.

A third element in the story of the north-east since the coup has been the government’s efforts to present Honduras as ‘open for business’ and its approval of a bizarre proposal for a 'charter city' in the region.  Charter cities  are envisaged as massive developments on ‘unused’ land, funded by international businesses which are attracted by the city’s exemption from normal national laws and its ability to institute its own legal framework, tax regime and court and police systems.  The Honduran Congress has now passed a constitutional amendment allowing such a city (known as a ‘RED’ - Region Especial de Desarrollo) to be set up.  Given that congressional support for the proposal was almost unanimous, but that the details of how it will be implemented are – to say least – sketchy, it looks like yet another move by the leading families to consolidate their power and further marginalise local people in the zone affected.  Local communities have not, of course, been consulted, nor does the constitutional amendment allow for any consultation with them on the loss of their citizens’ rights.

The audacity of hope 

If there is a positive aspect to the history of Honduras since the coup it is provided by the resistance movement which initially focussed on protesting against the illegal government and then led the largely successful boycott of the subsequent elections.  In addition to building on the progressive politics which Zelaya had begun to develop, the resistance is active in defending human rights and in campaigning in support of particular groups such as indigenous communities, teachers, university students, journalists and the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community which have all been persecuted since the coup.  It receives strong support from international solidarity organisations, for example from members of the Honduras Accompaniment Project who have themselves received death threats in the past few weeks for their work in standing alongside persecuted groups. 

The resistance is now preparing to contest the November 2013 election, having formed the LIBRE party (standing for ‘Liberty and Refoundation’) which is led by Manual Zelaya and whose presidential candidate will be Xiomara Castro.  She is Zelaya’s wife, but more significantly has emerged as a powerful and unifying political personality both in attacking the coup and in challenging the powerful elite (of which she and her husband used to be members).

The Obama administration is, of course, on the wrong side in the battle for a more progressive Honduras. If it had joined its neighbours in Latin America in effective action against the coup, the outcome might have been very different.  Despite Obama’s promise of a fresh start in Latin America after the disaster of the Bush administration’s ham-fisted engagement with the region (most markedly in a previous coup – that against Chavez in Venezuela in 2002), little has changed.  There has been mounting criticism of the militarising of Honduras in mainstream media, notably by Dana Frank in the New York Times; a letter from 94 Members of Congress to Hilary Clinton in March called for a halt to military aid; and most recently a congressional letter has been drafted which protests the deaths of LGBT activists.  Nevertheless the US administration appears either to be unaware of the repression or – more likely – willing to ignore it in the interests of US business interests and sustaining a regime that has set its face against the progressive politics being pursued in much of Latin America.  The third anniversary of the coup falls on 28 June.  If many Hondurans still retain the audacity of hope, despite all that has happened since then, it is a disgrace that they do so without the support of the Obama administration.

About the author

John Perry lives in Nicaragua and writes about Central America, but also writes on issues about housing and migration in the UK. He blogs for the London Review of Books and Public Finance.