Honduras wavers on the brink

The events of 28 June took everyone by surprise – shooting in the night in Tegucigalpa, followed by

Sunday’s overthrow of the Honduran president, José Manuel Zelaya, has raised the spectre of a dark Latin American history of coups d’état and brutal military dictatorships. In a break with the past, however, the region is speaking in unison, condemning the new dictatorship and calling for Zelaya to be reinstated. Significantly, the US government has also joined its southern neighbours in rejecting the new dictatorship and recognising Zelaya as the only legitimate president of Honduras.

Regional bodies such as the Organisation of American States, the Rio Group, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Alba), Mercosur and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) have also called for the restoration of the constitutionally elected president. Furthermore, Zelaya has received the support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and been invited to address the UN General Assembly “as soon as possible” by its president, Miguel d’Escoto.

Zelaya plans to return to Honduras after this public appearance, accompanied by José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, and possibly other regional heads of state, with the aim of seeking reinstatement as president.

Story behind the coup

Honduras is a deeply unequal country, with the richest 10 per cent of the population taking home 43.7 per cent of the national income. In contrast, the poorest 30 per cent take just 7.4 per cent, and just under 40 per cent of the population live in poverty (defined as earning less than double the cost of the basic food basket). Only 4.7 per cent of Hondurans have access to the internet, which might go some way to explaining the background of the Honduran coup cheerleaders on English-language websites such as the BBC’s.

Since coming to power in 2006, Zelaya has gradually moved to the left, and at the time of the coup was taking steps to address Honduras’s gross levels of inequality. Predictably, these moves earned him the enmity of much of Congress, whose ties to the country’s traditional elite run deep. Zelaya also angered the elite by pursuing a leftist foreign policy, joining Alba, an alternative regional trade group composed of nine left-leaning Latin American and Caribbean countries. The arrival of Cuban doctors to provide health care to the poorest sectors of Honduran society was met with particular hostility by Zelaya’s opponents.

Honduras’s leftward turn also undoubtedly caused significant discomfort among some observers in Washington, especially at a time when much of Latin America is seeming to move beyond the reach of US political influence.

The catalyst for the assault on the presidential home by the Honduran armed forces, and the subsequent detention and expulsion of the president, was a non-binding consultative poll that had been due to take place on Sunday 28 June; it aimed to determine whether a referendum ought to be held on the convocation of a constituent assembly, alongside the presidential election ballot in November 2010 (when Zelaya’s term officially ends). In other words, the coup was sparked by a non-binding vote intended to consult Hondurans on whether or not they wanted to be asked about a constitutional reform, and not because Zelaya wished to extend his term indefinitely, as has been widely reported in the mainstream media.

This last point is one of several lies and misleading statements, issued by the new dictatorship, which have been covered amply and uncritically in the mainstream press. Another important false impression is that the coup is in fact a “constitutional transfer of power”. This requires a bizarre leap of logic if we consider the facts of the coup: the president’s home was assaulted by the military; after 15 minutes of combat the president himself was kidnapped and bundled into a military aircraft in his pyjamas, and was then flown into exile; his ministers were detained and beaten, as were the ambassadors of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

No visible backing

Honduras’s new and illegally installed “president”, Roberto Micheletti (a former leader of Congress), has declared that “80 or 90 per cent of the population support what happened today”. This is highly doubtful, given the imposition of a curfew, the ongoing street demonstrations by Zelaya supporters, road blockades in the west of the country, and the general strike called for by social organisations and the trade union movement. However, as is the norm with coups against progressive leaders in Latin America, Micheletti has received expressions of support from the country’s business sector.

It remains to be seen whether the Honduran military will be prepared to shed the blood of fellow countrymen to protect an illegal government, and with no visible international backing.

And here, as is also the norm with coups against progressive governments in Latin America, the words and actions of the US government, watched closely as ever, will be decisive. Although the Obama administration has joined Latin American governments to condemn the coup, the US’s precise role in the days running up to Zelaya’s overthrow remains unclear.

Though there is little direct evidence of US interference in the coup, the campaigning Venezuelan-American journalist and lawyer Eva Golinger has indicated certain similarities between the US-supported putsch that briefly removed Hugo Chávez from power in Venezuela in 2002, on the one hand, and the current situation in Honduras, on the other. Golinger points out that a New York Times article states that the US government was working for “several days” with the Honduran coup planners in order to “prevent” the coup. Given that Honduras is highly dependent on the US economy and the Pentagon maintains a military base in the country, equipped with approximately 500 troops and numerous air force combat planes and helicopters, it seems naive not to believe that if the US government had indeed expressed firm opposition to the coup, the putsch would never have occurred.

Regardless of the extent of US involvement in or support for the coup, Washington’s position over the next couple of days will go a long way towards determining whether its already precarious relationship with much of Latin America will deteriorate. The US has two main options: it can send a representative to accompany President Zelaya back to Honduras on Thursday, or it can threaten military, economic and political sanctions, all of which would have a great effect on the usurpers of power in Tegucigalpa.

If Barack Obama’s government wants to send a powerful message about the sincerity behind the US rhetoric on liberty, democracy and respect for the rule of law, it needs to back up its words with action and actively support the reinstatement of the legitimate president of Honduras.

Victor Figueroa-Clark is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics' IDEAS Centre

Pablo Navarrete is Red Pepper’s Latin America editor