In the early hours of Sunday, 28 June the residence of Manuel Zelaya, the president of Honduras, was surrounded by tanks. His supporters, anticipating a coup, formed a human shield but were quickly dispersed with tear gas. In no time at all soldiers had entered the building and disarmed the security guard. Zelaya rang the US Embassy but there was no reply from the duty officer. He didn’t have time to call again before the soldiers threatened to shoot if he didn’t give up his phone. He was taken at gunpoint to the airport, put on a plane, flown south to Costa Rica and handed over to embarrassed officials at San José International Airport.

A few days later, the army’s legal adviser, Colonel Inestroza, admitted to the Miami Herald that the military leadership had acted illegally in authorising the kidnapping, but the alternatives, he said, would have been worse. To have assassinated Zelaya would have created a martyr, and if they had put him in prison, there would have been violent protests, which would inevitably have been met with further violence. Presumably the general who directed the coup, Vásquez Velásquez, judged that letting Zelaya continue in his job was the worst option of all.

For decades, Honduras and neighbouring Nicaragua have been the poorest countries in mainland Latin America. Economically and politically, Honduras was the quintessential ‘banana republic’. The United Fruit Company and its smaller competitor Standard Fruit began to settle much of the most fertile land with vast plantations in the early years of the last century. They created the country’s infrastructure in their own interests: Tegucigalpa was now the capital city of a nation with a developed railway system, but no railway station of its own. The main purpose of the railways (and of most other investment) was to extract Honduras’s fruit resources as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Politically, too, the fruit companies – and the US governments that were looking after their interests – had a massive influence. Together they supported a military dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s, helped suppress a general strike in 1954, and in 1963 supported a military coup against the modest reformer Ramón Villeda. This led to a sequence of governments dominated by the military until the present constitution was introduced in 1982. Since then there have been eight relatively free elections, with power switching between the Liberal and National Parties, both of which continue to draw their support from the country’s elite.

After the revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, Honduras, sitting between Sandinista Nicaragua to the south-east, and war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala to the west and north, became the US government’s trusted ally. In 1981, the US ambassador in Honduras reported to Washington that he was ‘deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations’: this wasn’t the message the Reagan administration wanted to hear and he was quickly replaced by John Negroponte, a conservative hardliner.

Negroponte began to consolidate Honduras as a client state of the US and the base from which the Contra war against Nicaragua was directed. When he became ambassador, US military assistance to Honduras was four million dollars; by 1984 it had risen to $78 million. A massive military base, Soto Cano, was established at Comayagua, and from here the Contras conducted their operations across the border. Aid for development was also increased, to $200 million by 1985, making Honduras, which had a population of no more than four million, the eighth-ranked recipient of US aid.

The military in Honduras has unusually close links with the US army, even by Central American standards. Several presidents or heads of the armed forces have been graduates of the infamous School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Georgia, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation, or Whinsec. One of them was General Alvarez Martínez, the armed forces chief with whom Negroponte worked most closely and who created the death squad known as Battalion 316. According to an investigation by the Baltimore Sun, the general had warned the previous ambassador that 316 would use ‘extra-legal’ means to eliminate subversives. In 1982, embassy staff compiled substantial evidence of human rights abuses but these were never mentioned in Negroponte’s reports to Washington. Throughout the 1980s, Honduras was awarded a clean sheet in the State Department’s human rights reports, despite frequent appeals to the embassy by relatives of the disappeared; in one year – 1982 – there were more than 300 stories in the local press detailing abuses. In 1983 Alvarez was awarded the Legion of Merit by Reagan for ‘encouraging’ democracy.

Yet the following year, shortly after Negroponte denied that there was any repression in Honduras and praised Alvarez in the New York Times, the general’s methods got to be too much even for his army colleagues. They arrested him and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica. (He made an injudicious return to Tegucigalpa five years later, and was shot by five masked men who were never caught. The men allegedly belonged to a left-wing group that was unknown before the assassination and mysteriously disbanded after it.)

In 1993, the Honduran government published the results of an investigation into human rights abuses in the 1980s. The report named 184 people, mainly trade unionists and popular leaders, who were known to have disappeared, usually after being tortured. Battalion 316’s trademark was to begin torturing its victims by removing their fingernails with a bayonet; worse followed, and death was almost inevitable. One survivor who later gave an account of her treatment was Inés Murillo, a 24-year-old left-winger from a prominent family who was miraculously released after 78 days; she alleged that in captivity she was seen on several occasions by a CIA official called ‘Mr Mike’. His existence and role in her interrogation were later confirmed by a former CIA official in testimony to a Senate Select Committee in 1988.

In December 1995 Negroponte, by that time US ambassador to the Philippines, finally responded to the charges made by the Baltimore Sun. He claimed that he had struggled behind the scenes to stop abuses, but denied that they were systemic. ‘Compared to Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Honduras looked like a Jeffersonian democracy at that time,’ he told the Sun. Later, Negroponte was one of several veterans of the Contra war restored to high office by George W. Bush: he was made ambassador to Iraq in 2004. Challenged about the death squads in Honduras during his Congressional hearings, he again denied knowledge of them.

In 1990, worn down by the crippling effects of the Contra war and economic sanctions, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua was defeated by a US-backed centrist coalition. The Contra war was rapidly brought to an end, and US interest in Honduras faded; military and development aid fell back to prewar levels. By the end of the 1990s, Honduras had become one of the most indebted countries in Latin America but had little to show for the money spent. Then, in 1998, it was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which killed 7000 people and reduced the country’s economic output by 70 per cent. At a time when it needed four billion dollars to repair the damage, it was still making daily payments of 1.7 millon on its existing debt to foreign governments and banks.

The Honduran economy remains dominated by agriculture. Low wages, and the lack of any significant land reform, keep much of the country in poverty. Neither the Liberals nor the Nationalists have done much in government to reduce the massive gap between rich and poor, which is one of the widest in the world. Attempts to introduce more progressive policies have usually been blocked by the local business elite, who have assumed the role previously held by the banana companies (United is now more modestly branded ‘Chiquita’). Human rights organisations have continued to document abuses and the dominance of the military over the civilian state; some believe that Battalion 316 has been revived to control the drug gangs.

When Manuel Zelaya was elected president in January 2006 he appeared to be yet another conventional Liberal from one of the big farming families, but after taking power he made some unprecedented changes – and began to lose Liberal support. His first modest reform was to push through a citizens’ participation law allowing individuals to petition the government. He took advantage of the cancellation of foreign debt initiated by Gordon Brown at the G8 summit in 2005, but looked, too, for more economic support from the US. Like other countries in the region, Honduras depends heavily on imported petroleum, and in 2006 the economy was badly affected by high oil prices and shortages. A plea for help at a meeting with Bush that September was met with advice to trust market forces and to produce ethanol from sugar cane. So Zelaya turned instead to another regional power, Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. From 2007 onwards, Chávez began to deliver subsidised petroleum and to invest in the development projects that Zelaya wanted to promote. In 2008, Zelaya raised the minimum wage to the equivalent of $289 a month. He also made the banks reduce punitive interest charges on home loans.

Then, in July last year, Honduras joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (Alba), a regional grouping which is led by Venezuela and includes Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. With the exception of Cuba, the leaders of these countries, now known as ‘radical populists’, have replaced the Communists as the main regional threat to US interests. According to a former Pentagon official testifying to the House Armed Services Committee, the aim of the radical populists is to undermine the democratic process and curb the rights of the individual. The movement’s leaders, he said, ‘reinforce their radical positions by inflaming anti-US sentiment’.

The decision to join Alba was judged even more harshly by the conservative forces that dominated both main parties in Honduras: Zelaya, they said, was in the process of creating what would be to all intents and purposes a Communist state. The parliament, the courts and the army began to act together to frustrate the most modest change. For example, Zelaya’s plan for a ‘car-free day’ in the capital was not only opposed in parliament but declared unconstitutional by the courts. In March, he formalised a plan to hold a ‘popular consultation’ (later planned for 28 June) to establish whether, in the presidential elections due in November, there should be a ‘fourth ballot’ in which voters would be asked whether they favoured convening a special assembly to draw up a new national constitution. This was the fateful provocation.

Since the introduction of the 2006 citizens’ participation law, the government had received a large number of petitions asking for a review of the constitution. Nevertheless, a circuit court ruled that the planned consultation was illegal. This judgment itself appeared to be unconstitutional, but it gave the army the excuse it needed to refuse the president’s order to distribute the ballots. Zelaya organised the distribution without the army, and sacked the army chief for disobeying orders. The sacking was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court before it had been delivered in writing and even though the president is constitutionally the head of the armed forces. On 28 June the army struck, and by midday an extraordinary session of parliament was presented with a forged letter of resignation from Zelaya, who was by then in exile.

There were two reasons why Zelaya’s apparently modest proposal was the last straw. The ostensible reason, taken up in alarmist terms by the media, was that Zelaya, like Chávez in Venezuela, planned to change the constitution to allow himself to stand for a second term of office. Zelaya denied it, but in any event it would not have been possible, since the special assembly would not meet, even if it were voted for, until after the November elections in which Zelaya, as outgoing president, was ineligible to stand. The chances of a ‘yes’ vote either in the June consultation or (if approved) the November ‘fourth ballot’ in any case seemed remote, as the whole of the political elite and most of the media were opposed to it. The real reason why the consultative referendum was Zelaya’s undoing was that it threatened to undermine the power of the country’s elite.

Both sides have argued that the constitution supports their actions, and both have a plausible case. Zelaya argues that he was acting in accordance with Article 2, which says that all state power emanates from the sovereignty of the people, and Article 5, which says that government must derive from participative democracy. His opponents say that ‘alternativity’ in presidential office is enshrined in the constitution, which also says that breaking this rule is a treasonable offence and that those promoting it cease to be citizens. Zelaya claims that he was only planning to conduct a survey, and didn’t want to stay in office himself. Furthermore, the constitution doesn’t allow the armed forces to take power or to limit the ability of citizens to participate in political life. And even if he acted unconstitutionally, he should have been brought before the courts, not thrown out of the country in his pyjamas.

In fact, the constitution’s typically vague Latin American style – it consists of a series of declarations which are not necessarily consistent with each other – makes it plain that it is neither the root of the problem nor the source of a possible solution. A military coup has taken place because weak political institutions are dominated by an elite, of which senior army officers form a part. There are few effective checks on the power of this elite, and neither the courts nor the army are politically neutral. Normally, the president serves these prevailing interests. Zelaya introduced policies which challenged them and which – elsewhere in Latin America – have gained popular support. The crucial difference in Zelaya’s case was that, unlike in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, his policies had not yet gained approval through the electoral process. Although he had the support of many trade unions and peasant organisations, his popular base was not so strong that his opponents judged it too dangerous to topple him from power. The demonstrations that have taken place since 28 June have so far been small enough for the national media to ignore them.

Nevertheless, the plotters have made one large miscalculation. They knew that once Zelaya reached Costa Rica he would contact Chávez and Co. In fact, they had counted on this to provide further evidence of his dangerous Communist sympathies. But instead of giving him the cold shoulder, the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, who is no left-wing maverick, welcomed him and helped him to plan his response to the coup. As a result, in a remarkably short time and with unprecedented accord, continental leaders met in Managua two days later to discuss the coup. Practically every country from Mexico southwards was represented, at least ten of them by their presidents. At the meeting, they took the microphone one after the other to denounce the use of military power to remove a democratically elected head of state.

The coup plotters have also shown questionable judgment in counting on the support of the United States. The US still dominates Honduran society and its economy. Nearly half its trade is with the US; a quarter of its foreign earnings comes from remittances from Hondurans living there; most of its politicians probably feel much more at home in Miami than they would in a poor barrio in Tegucigalpa. The vast Soto Cano base still has more than 500 US troops, and the general who led the coup is yet another graduate of Whinsec. Undoubtedly, the role of the US is key to the eventual outcome.

At the time of writing, the US position hangs in the balance. The Obama administration denounced the coup, but in terms that could be interpreted favourably by both sides. It halted military aid, but not the more crucial development aid. Unlike many other countries, it did not withdraw its ambassador, who continues to discuss the coup as if both sides have legitimate arguments. Obama, who has so far shown limited interest despite his recent assertions of a changed policy towards Latin America, seems unaware of the spotlight he is under. All the regional leaders want to know if the United States really has ditched the methods it has used in the past, or whether it will continue to turn a blind eye to military intervention and oligarchic coups, as long as they serve US interests.

24 July

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