Washington's Post-Cold War Coup

— Dianne Feeley

THE PRETEXT FOR removing Honduran President Manuel Zelaya — that holding a civic consultation to replace the Constitution of 1982 was his power grab, enabling him to run for a second term — doesn’t hold water. Such a document could only have come into effect well after his term of office ended.

From the time Zelaya assumed office in 2005 on the Liberal Party ticket, his team worked to develop a number of alliances by attempting to win over the U.S. Embassy, working to ensure that his fellow party member Roberto Micheletti became the president of the Congress, negotiating to pass citizen participation and government transparency reforms and violently repressing civic demonstrations against mining interests in western Honduras.

By 2007 Zelaya signed Honduras up for incorporation into the Latin American Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA). Over the next two years he moved further away from the power sectors of the Liberal and National parties.

On June 25, after General Romeo Velásquez, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to transfer the ballot boxes to the voting stations, Zelaya dismissed him. In solidarity with their commander, the defense minister, as well as army, navy and air force commanders all handed in their resignations. That same day the Supreme Court reinstated the General. Congress declared him a “#8220;national hero” and its president Roberto Micheletti called for Zelaya‘s disqualification.

Nonetheless Zelaya continued to call for the distribution of ballot boxes for the June 28th vote; his opposition countered with a call for the military to disobey the order. On the evening of June 27 President Zelaya held a press conference, at the end of which U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens raced off, as if he were determined to avoid being interviewed.

Early June 28 the military seized, arrested and deported Zelaya. Attempting to present a united front, Liberals and Nationalists jockeyed for power. The Liberals thought that by grabbing power seven months before the presidential election they would be assured of the office while the Nationalists hoped the Liberals would be blamed and their candidate elected — exactly what happened in the election staged on November 29.

The forces that organized the June 28th military coup included members of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, the National Party and two of the three smaller parliamentary parties. The coup was “#8220;legitimated” by Congress and the Supreme Court.

Business leaders from both the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise and the National Manufacturers’ Association, already upset by Zelaya’s unilateral decision to raise the abominably low minimum wage 60% back in December 2008, supported the coup. So did the major media, with close ties to the Liberal and National parties and with their own beefs against Zelaya.

Despite the checkered actions of the Zelaya government, Hondurans saw the coup as a license to unleash a state of siege and suspend their Constitutional rights. Repeatedly they have come out into the street 5,000, 10,000, and 50,000 strong in defense of their rights and in opposition to the toppling of an elected government.

Ratifying the Coup

In preparation for the November 29th elections, the military rounded up activists and ransacked offices. Many employers threatened to fire those who showed up for work without a voter’s blackened finger, stores offered big discounts for those who could prove they voted, and in the poorest rural areas party activists offered money in exchange for votes. Yet the few independent, on-the-scenes reporters discovered that no more than 33-40% of the population cast their ballot that day.

According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal the elections were the most expensive in the country’s history. The Nationalists “#8220;won” full control of Congress; its presidential candidate, Porfirio “#8220;Pepe“#8220; Lobo beat the Liberal candidate by 18 points. On December 2, at the opening legislative session, legislators overwhelmingly opposed reinstating Zelaya for the rest of his term (111 against, 14 for). When legislators who had opposed the coup read aloud the names of women who had been raped and those who had been murdered, laughter mocked those foolish enough to demand justice.

The new Security Minister Oscar Alvarez announced the intentions of the new government: “#8220;Beginning on January 27, we are going to pull the delinquents out of their beds while they sleep.”

Washington has a history of training Honduras’ military officers and providing for the country’s military equipment. In fact at least two of the six coup plotters charged by the Honduran Supreme Court in early January are graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas.

Obama has been careful to avoid describing the June 28th coup as a military coup — because that would have triggered a cutoff of military aid. Although there were various statements about cutting off non-military aid, in fact most money allocated for 2009 remained in the pipeline.

U.S. Undersecretary for Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon oversaw the Tegucigalpa agreements, signed October 30 by the Zelaya and Micheletti commissions. Providing a mechanism for Zelaya’s reinstatement, the agreement fell apart within the week as the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court let the time run out.

Shortly afterward Washington announced it would support the upcoming November elections, pulling the rug out from under those governments attempting to isolate the coup plotters. Praising the election as “#8220;credible,” Washington then paved the way for other countries to certify the election as clean. So far Colombia, Panama, Peru and Costa Rico have.

On January 29, Porfirio “#8220;Pepe” Lobo of the Nationalist Party was inaugurated president. For Obama, as for the coup leaders, the storm has been weathered. The charges against the six coup plotters were quickly squashed — a fitting close to Washington’s first post-Cold War coup.

ATC 145, March-April 2010