Honduras: The Deep Roots of Resistance | 2/3 | dissentmagazine.org
Honduras: The Deep Roots of Resistance | 2-3
Honduras has for decades experienced the worst poverty and inequality in Latin America. Neoliberal policies first implemented there in the late 1980s have had a devastating impact, particularly on small farmer (campesino) and indigenous communities. Under the direction of the IMF, the government lowered tariffs and drastically cut public sector spending. A 1992 agricultural “modernization” law led to the concentration of land in the hands of agribusiness corporations and the displacement of thousands of campesinos. By the early 2000s Honduran civil society groups were working together to oppose the continuing neoliberal agenda of the country’s National and Liberal governments.
On August 26, 2003, the growing force of Honduras’s anti-neoliberal movement became apparent when thousands of demonstrators blocked all of the major roads into Tegucigalpa to protest the latest series of neoliberal measures. The massive demonstration marked the beginning of the National Popular Resistance Coordinator (CNRP), which included unions and indigenous and campesino movements. The CNRP continued to take its demands to the street over the following years, notably through its support for teachers opposing pension cuts, and quickly became the largest left-leaning movement in Honduras. Its leaders debated at length whether to participate in the country’s 2005 general elections but decided against it.
The winner of those elections was Liberal candidate Manuel Zelaya. Though his cabinet included a few left-wingers, few expected him to adopt policies that would diverge from those of his predecessors. But a year or so after taking office, Zelaya began to make unexpected moves. To the disenchantment of Honduras’s business leaders, he significantly raised the country’s minimum wage. He opened up negotiations with teachers unions and began a process for reviewing property titles in the Bajo Aguán, a fertile region where a land conflict between small farmers and corporations has raged for two decades. On the international front, he signed the Petrocaribe regional energy agreement with Venezuela and brought Honduras into the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), a bloc of governments including Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua that openly opposed the U.S. “free trade” and neoliberal agenda in the region.
As he shifted further to the left, Zelaya began discussions with the CNRP and other social movements and agreed to support one of their most ambitious projects: aconstituyente tasked with drafting a new, progressive charter to replace the rigid, conservative 1981 constitution, which was drafted during the final days of the last military dictatorship. In early 2009 Zelaya called for a cuarta urna—a fourth ballot—in that year’s November elections to allow voters to decide whether or not to convene aconstituyente. When the National Party and conservative sectors of the Liberal Party prevented the proposal from advancing in the Honduran Congress, Zelaya began organizing a non-binding national poll to measure the popular support for the cuarta urna.
Zelaya’s opponents claimed that his real goal was to extend his term in office, but this charge held little water because the November elections, with or without a cuarta urna, would include a vote for a new president, and Zelaya wasn’t on the list of candidates. In reality, Honduran elites were increasingly riled by Zelaya’s leftward turn and looking for any excuse to remove him from power.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 28, 2009, the day the national poll was to take place, Zelaya was kidnapped at gunpoint by the military and put on a plane to Costa Rica. Governments throughout Latin America and the Caribbean were aghast that a blatant military coup could be carried off so easily. In contrast, the United States dragged its feet in condemning the coup and balked at other governments’ demand for Zelaya’s immediate return.
U.S. relations with Latin America’s new left-leaning governments have been rocky from the start. The George W. Bush administration supported a short-lived military coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002 and later backed coup supporters’ attempt to force Chávez out of office by shutting down Venezuela’s vital oil industry. In Bolivia, the U.S. Embassy and USAID worked to keep Evo Morales’s leftist MAS party from gaining power in the early 2000s and later supported right-wing secessionist movements opposed to Morales’s rule. In 2008 the U.S. Embassy in La Paz offered gestures of support to the Bolivian opposition at a time when it was engaged in a violent destabilization campaign condemned by every other country in South America.
U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks indicate that the State Department has for years been obsessed with countering the influence of ALBA, depicted in cables as a “dependable political tool for Chávez.” Even non-members with good relations with ALBA countries, like Brazil, have been viewed with suspicion. But the Bush administration’s opposition to Venezuela and ALBA only succeeded in fostering a deeper sense of solidarity among Latin America’s left governments. The region breathed a collective sigh of relief when Obama, shortly after taking office, promised “equal partnerships” and a “new chapter of engagement” with Latin America.
The Honduran coup was Obama’s first big regional test. The country had long served as the most dependable U.S. strategic outpost in Central America. In the 1980s it provided cover and a logistical base for the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua. Since 1983 the Soto Cano base has housed U.S. Army troops and aircraft even though the Honduran constitution prohibits a “permanent foreign presence.” Until Zelaya, U.S. interests in Honduras had been secure under the National and Liberal Party governments that together ruled the country since 1983.
“President Zelaya strikes us as a well-meaning populist, but susceptible to leftist influences,” wrote former U.S. ambassador Charles Ford in June 2006, at the beginning of Zelaya’s term. “Zelaya does not appear to grasp the larger geo-political threat posed by Chavez,” Ford added. Two years later, after Honduras had joined Petrocaribe and ALBA, the United States had all but given up on Zelaya. “With only 16 months before he leaves office, our goal is to get Zelaya through his term without causing any irreparable damage to bilateral relations . . . and to minimize further expansion of relations with Chavez,” wrote the new U.S. ambassador, Hugo Llorens, in September 2008.
On the day of the coup, the White House released an ambivalent statement that failed to acknowledge that a coup had taken place. The following day President Obama made a clearer statement: “We believe that the coup was not legal. . . .” Military assistance was partially suspended. Yet the administration was reluctant to pursue more forceful measures against the coup regime. It refused to use the term “military coup,” which, by law, would have triggered immediate suspension of all non-humanitarian aid to Honduras.
Then, at the beginning of November 2009, the U.S. government unilaterally announced that it would recognize the legitimacy of elections in Honduras later that month whether or not democracy had been restored. Shortly afterward, the Río Group—which included nearly every country in Latin America—issued a statement strongly rejecting this position, but the damage was done: the coup regime understood that the region’s dominant power would help it whitewash the coup by recognizing deeply flawed, illegitimate elections. The United States was nearly alone in endorsing the 2009 elections, which took place in a context of heavy repression and were boycotted by the FNRP.
Over the last four years, over 100 campesino activists have been killed in the heavily militarized Bajo Aguán.
U.S. military assistance to Honduras quickly increased under the election’s victor, National Party leader Porfirio Lobo Sosa. Indeed, in the name of the “war on drugs,” U.S. assistance to armies and police forces throughout Central America and Mexico has increased enormously since 2008. During the same period, human rights crimes perpetrated by state security forces have also risen significantly in these countries, but nowhere as dramatically as in Honduras, which has been the homicide capital of the world since 2011 and has one of the highest rates of judicial impunity.
Honduran state security forces executed the 2009 coup and carried out the violent repression that followed. Though a U.S.-sponsored “Truth Commission” identified a number of murders committed by police and military in the wake of the coup, no judicial action was taken, and the victims’ families received no compensation. After Lobo took office the repression continued in a more insidious form, with countless targeted killings and violent attacks against campesino leaders, journalists, LGBT activists (a significant resistance and LIBRE constituency), lawyers, and labor activists. Human rights groups noted the resurgence of widespread paramilitary activity for the first time since the 1980s. Over the last four years, over 100 campesinoactivists have been killed in the heavily militarized Bajo Aguán. Twenty-four LIBRE candidates and activists have been killed in the last two years, and many more have endured violent attacks and death threats.
Almost a hundred Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have called on the Obama administration to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Honduras while attacks on civil society activists continue with impunity. Senior Honduran security officials have denounced rampant corruption and organized crime throughout the police and military, and in some cases ended up dead. But U.S. funds have kept flowing.
Alexander Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.