1 October 2009 Edition
Battle for the Americas in Honduras
By Emma Clancy
THE daring return of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, deposed in a military coup on 28 June, to the capital Tegucigalpa on 21 September has galvanised the country’s resistance movement and prompted the coup leaders to unleash a fierce wave of military repression. Zelaya remains under siege in the Brazilian embassy with his family and dozens of his supporters.
The coup regime, headed by Roberto Micheletti who installed himself as “president” after organising the kidnapping at gunpoint and exile to Costa Rica of the country’s elected president, responded to Zelaya’s return by deploying the police and military against thousands of protesters, resulting in an unknown number of deaths and thousands of detentions.
On 25 September the regime, which had cut off water, electricity and food to the Brazilian Embassy, attacked the building with canisters of chemical weapons which Zelaya’s wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya reported caused those sheltering inside to “vomit blood”. Democracy Now! correspondent Andres Conteris reported from inside the embassy the regime’s use of piercing sound weapons that caused “deep, deep distress” and illness.
Addressing the UN General Assembly by a mobile phone brought to the podium by Honduras’s Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas on Monday night, President Zelaya said: “Those who still harboured any doubt that a dictatorship has been installed here can lay those doubts to rest.”
Outside the embassy the repression has been less restrained. The coup regime immediately moved to impose total curfews lasting for days at a time in order to drive Zelaya’s supporters from the streets. Live bullets have been fired into demonstrations and poor neighbourhoods, with resistance leaders reporting up to 100 deaths as a result of the violent repression.
Leaders of the National Front of Resistance Against the Coup (FNRG) told the Caracas bureau of Green Left Weekly that more than 2000 people were detained on the outskirts of the capital the day after Zelaya’s return, prompting an “intense reaction on the part of the resistance in many zones across Tegucigalpa in the barrios and colonias [poor neighbourhoods] that night”.
On Sunday 27 September, coup leader Micheletti imposed a 45-day “decree” suspending constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly and speech; ordered the two main anti-coup media stations, Radio Globo and Canal 36 TV to be raided and shut down; expelled representatives of the Organisation of American States (OAS); and gave the Brazilian government a 10-day ultimatum to remove Zelaya from its embassy or its diplomatic immunity would be suspended and the building attacked or raided.
This appeared to signal the increasingly desperate regime was about to launch a merciless military crackdown on the resistance movement; however, less than 24 hours later Micheletti backed down from this position – verbally – saying the suspension of civil rights would be “reviewed” and the situation “returned to normal” before the end of the week. He sent “a big hug” to Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, pledging not to attack the country’s embassy, and said that OAS representatives would be allowed to return to Honduras on Friday.
But the apparent public backdown – a result of the strength of the resistance, the international reaction to the announcement of the “emergency measures” and the growing unease of sections of the Honduran elite who have until now supported the coup – in no way signals a reduction in the level of the already brutal repression. Micheletti made clear that even if the measures are lifted, “that doesn’t mean the police are going back to barracks”.
The coup has survived until now for one reason: the covert support of the US, which publicly condemns the coup, calls for the reinstatement of Zelaya and has made token gestures of punishing the regime but which refuses to take meaningful action in support of democracy. The US State Department refuses to categorise the coup as a “military coup”, which would mean that Washington would be forced to cut all aid and impose sanctions, and withdraw its armed forces from the US base in Soto Cano in Honduras. Between $70-$100 million in US aid will continue to flow to the regime in the next months.
The coupmakers are relying on this covert support to continue and aim to hold out until the scheduled November 28 presidential elections which they hope to hold under these repressive conditions and provide the regime with a fig-leaf of legitimacy.
The US has publicly supported ‘Plan Arias’, a “negotiation process” that sidesteps the OAS, mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, whereby Zelaya would be restored to the presidency – forced to share power with those who overthrew him – and the scheduled poll would take place under his limited authority. But while Zelaya has agreed to these conditions, Micheletti has repeatedly rejected such a scenario.
One of moderate-left Zelaya’s “crimes” in office was to raise the minimum wage by 60 per cent, which meant an increase from about $6 a day to $9.60 a day, sparking fury among textile multinationals like Nike who operate sweatshops in the country. A rise in the minimum wage in impoverished Honduras would undoubtedly prompt calls for better wages in the rest of Central America and the Caribbean. Food giants such as Chiquita Brands International (formerly United Fruit) were similarly outraged when Zelaya provided subsidies to small farmers.
Added to this threat to corporations’ profits was Zelaya’s entrance to the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples’ of the Americas (ALBA), a fair trade bloc led by Venezuela and Cuba, which promotes Latin American integration and has become increasingly significant as a political challenge to Washington.
The spark for the coup was Zelaya’s proposal to ask the Honduran people in a referendum scheduled for 28 June, the day of the coup, if they wanted to include a question in the November poll on the election of a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution which would then be ratified through referendum.
After 94 days of mobilising against the coup, Honduras’s poor and marginalised people have developed a truly heroic resistance movement. The resistance often protests with the slogan “They fear us because we’re fearless” – and they are continuing to pay a high price for defending democracy. This is also against the country’s sweatshop mafia and the 10-15 families that own the majority of Honduras’s wealth.
While the stakes are mounting for the Honduran people, the struggle against the coup in this tiny Central American country is developing into a battle for the Americas – because if the coupmakers succeed it sends a bleak signal that the democratic, progressive advances achieved elsewhere in Latin America can be halted and reversed using military force, with the support of the US.