Battle against the coup makers heats up

July 8, 2009

Emmanuel Santos reports on the military coup against Honduras' democratically elected president, and the grassroots resistance that sprung up in opposition.

THE COUP makers in Honduras are intensifying their repression following a showdown last weekend when military forces stopped deposed President Manuel Zelaya from his attempt to return to the country.

But large numbers of Hondurans are defying the military's violence to show their support for Zelaya--and their determination to defend democracy.

On Sunday, soldiers and riot police blocked an airport runway to prevent a plane carrying Zelaya--who a week earlier had been rousted from bed in the early-morning hours and forced to leave the country--from landing.

Throughout the day, Zelaya's supporters--numbering over 100,000, according to estimates, made up of people from across the country--rallied at the Tegucigalpa airport in anticipation of the president's arrival. Confrontations with soldiers continued all day, turning deadly in the evening when troops used tear gas against the crowd, and then opened fire, killing at least two people and wounding many more.

The coup against Zelaya is a move by Honduras' ruling elite, headed by a landed oligarchy and the U.S.-backed military, to wrest control from a president who had begun to follow the example of left-wing political leaders in Latin America like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Among the coup plotters are graduates of the U.S. military's notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

Supporters of President Manuel Zelaya face off against Honduran soldiers at Toncontin Airport
Supporters of President Manuel Zelaya face off against Honduran soldiers at Toncontin Airport (Zuma)

The coup has been roundly denounced around the world. The Organization of American States (OAS), for example, suspended Honduras last weekend, a first for the OAS in nearly half a century. But the U.S. government's attitude has been weak, giving the coup makers room to maneuver.

The speaker of Congress, Roberto Micheletti--a wealthy landowner and one of the main leaders of the right-wing fraction within Zelaya's Liberal Party--was installed as president following Zelaya's ouster.

Micheletti and the military justified the coup on the grounds that Zelaya allegedly violated the constitution by calling for a popular referendum on amending the document and implementing a series of social reforms. The coup, they claim, merely carried out a ruling against Zelaya by the country's supreme court.

In fact, the referendum, which was to be held June 28, the day of the coup, was nonbinding, and put off the final decision on convening a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

But more importantly, the coup plotters have proven by their actions that don't have any regard for the constitution or basic civil rights.

Within the first week after the coup, Micheletti had issued more than 20 arrest warrants targeting the leaders of the popular movement. Among the many allegations of repression of the media, a military unit beat up a journalist from Telesur, the independent Latin American network, and kidnapped left-wing cartoonist Allan McDonald and his 17-month daughter.

Emiliano Rodriguez described the authoritarian character of the new interim government in an article on the Central American Socialist Party (PSOCA) Web site:

From the early hours, the interim government suspended cable transmissions of international news programs, cut off electric energy and telephone lines such as Internet networks. And at the same time, it militarized some local media outlets [such as Hondutel, the state owned TV station and Radio Progreso, the oldest community radio station in Central America] and suspended their transmission.

The purpose was to isolate the population from the political events that were developing right after the coup. The population expressed opposition to the coup peacefully after the arrest of government officials [loyal to Zelaya], leaders of the popular movement, artists and intellectuals. Nevertheless, the spurious and illegitimate government has suppressed constitutional guarantees, by declaring a curfew that has been extended to some areas in the evening.

Congress voted last week to expand the military's curfew to 6:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., as well as put strict limits on freedom of assembly, according to Democracy Now!

As for the Honduras media, the main stations are owned by the elite and helped impose a blackout on reports of the coup and the international reaction to it. For example, private TV channels aired a soccer match the day Zelaya was driven out of the country. Except for Telesur, many international news agencies took the same tack--including the U.S.-based network CNN, which gave ample airtime to the coup plotters to argue their case and spread disinformation.

BUT NEITHER these repressive measures nor the media blackout have succeeded in instilling fear in the population. The coup is galvanizing the have-nots in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere--with working-class men and women, people of Mayan ancestry, and Garifunas (descendants of runaway African slaves) joining the protests in Tegucigalpa and other cities and towns across Honduras.

The resistance began within hours of Zelaya being seized by soldiers on June 28, a Sunday. Chanting "Zelaya no se va" (Zelaya won't go) and "¡Golpistas fuera!"(Coup plotters out!), thousands of ordinary Hondurans took to the streets, with the presidential palace becoming a focal point.

By noon, supporters of Zelaya had surrounded the palace, holding a peaceful vigil. This swift turnout was possible because many people had already mobilized in large numbers from adjacent towns to vote in the referendum on changing the constitution. Among those taking part were members of left-wing organizations such as the Popular Bloc (BP) and the National Coordinator of Popular Resistance (CNRP), as well as labor unions.

According to reports, during the vigil, some protesters tried to open a dialogue with soldiers in an attempt to convince them to side with the people. This effort didn't succeed, but the vigil gave demonstrators confidence to continue with their peaceful protest the following day.

On Monday, thousands of people went back to the presidential palace to continue the vigil. But the coup government decided to try to end the popular mobilizations. Military and police dispersed the protesters with tear gas and pepper spray. Hundreds of unarmed women, men and children suffered injuries and beatings.

Video footage of the repression captured by independent journalists and ordinary people showed old people bleeding from head and nose wounds caused by gunshots and steel batons.

Manuel Guardiola, writing for the PSOCA Web site, described what happened next:

Monday's and Tuesday's resistance was violently repressed by the military...Little by little, we found out who was responsible for the constitutional rupture: among those responsible were the president of Congress [Micheletti], along with the Chamber of Deputies, with the exception of the Democratic Unification Party [a small left-wing party with representation in Congress]...

After four days of struggle and in spite of the media blackout, the resistance is growing in the entire country. There are protests in the main cities, but just like in the capital city [Tegucigalpa], we received beatings from the military and police. This is and will be a battle of resistance against the repression of the illegitimate government, since we don't have the means to confront them [the military], and at the end, we can only defend ourselves with what we have in our immediate disposal: rocks and objects found in our way.

Even after being beaten up and wounded, everything is in our favor since the morale of the struggle is on the rise. In addition to the batons, bullets, tear gas and pepper gas, we need to add the scorching sun and rain that have affected out struggle. But even so, there are more people joining in the marches and organized rallies.

THE REPORTS from Honduras show the breadth of the demonstrations. In urban and rural areas, angry crowds of unarmed civilians built barricades of burning tires, spray-painted walls and confronted the tanks and soldiers of the feared Honduran army.

Protesters, women and men alike, struck soldiers with their bare hands while shouting and cursing at them, while others laid down on the ground to block tanks. According to one report, a whole column of tanks was forced to turn around because of the courage of hundreds of people who stood in front of the vehicles while holding banners against the coup.

The military's coup brought back horrible memories of the U.S.-backed paramilitary repression that wiped out the left in the 1980s and resulted in the torture and murder of thousands of people, in Honduras and across Central America.

The U.S. government, led by Ronald Reagan, used Honduras as a staging area for its covert war against leftists, including the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Honduran military was armed to the teeth, and the CIA encouraged its most savage war crimes.

So with the June 28 coup, it was a matter of days before people in the country and the region were associating the Micheletti coup government with the worst anti-democratic Latin American regimes of the 1960s and 1970s. Those dictators were known as the "gorilas" (gorillas), and thus, demonstrations against Micheletti replaced his name with "Goriletti" and "Pinochetti"--an allusion to the Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who led a bloody 1973 military coup.

A more recent forerunner of Micheletti is Pedro Carmona, who led a short-lived dictatorship in Venezuela in 2002 after President Hugo Chávez was detained and forced out of the country in military custody. Like Carmona, Micheletti moved quickly to curb democratic freedoms and political dissent.

But Venezuela's coup was foiled when masses of Venezuelans mobilized in the capital of Caracas, forcing the plotters to cave and allow Chávez to return to Venezuela in triumph.

As for Zelaya, he didn't come to office as a radical. Known popularly as Mel, he was, until recently, a mainstream politician from the Liberal Party, one of two main parties of the elite, with close ties with the right wing. However, Zelaya represents a section of the Honduran ruling class that wants to diversify the country's trading partners and have more leverage in trade negotiations with the U.S.

In 2008, Zelaya led Honduras' entry into the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA, by its Spanish initials), the organization led by Chávez's Venezuela to promote economic and political integration of Caribbean and Latin American countries.

This infuriated the Honduran right wing because it threatened the historic relationship with the U.S. The recent election of a center-left president in El Salvador also heightened the concerns of the Honduran and Central American right. Zelaya further alienated the right with a recent promise to enact an overreaching agrarian reform and raise the minimum wage.

These popular demands were pushed onto Zelaya's agenda by the labor movement and the left. Over the years, thousands of workers, peasants, students and indigenous people have joined in popular mobilizations against neoliberal policies and the destruction of natural resources by foreign mining companies. For example, the roots of the National Coordinator of Popular Resistance lie in this resistance.

Zelaya's populist proposals have created a complicated relationship with the traditional left. All left organizations and unions support the defeat of the coup and Zelaya's return. But the proposal for a constituent assembly was more controversial--sections of the far left were critical of the proposal. The conflict played out, for example, in the Democratic Unification Party, which was formed in the early 1990s when the former Communist Party and two other organizations merged.

And now, Zelaya may face protests from those on the left who supported the constituent assembly, since he has said since the coup that he would not make this proposal when he returns to Honduras. This appears to be a concession to pressure from OAS governments in return for their calls that the coup be reversed.

FROM THE start, the U.S. and Latin American right organized a disinformation campaign to justify the coup, with the aim of preventing Zelaya's return.

In Honduras, all of the mainstream media sided with the coup. The conservative newspaper El Heraldo played a leading role, spreading rumors of a Venezuelan military intervention as well as denying the existence of the opposition movement against the coup government. The owners of El Heraldo have close ties with Micheletti and hope to gain government contracts denied them by the Zelaya administration.

Another media tycoon, Rafael Hernandez Nordarse, owner of Canal 6 (Channel 6), backed the coup and spread similar rumors about an invasion by Venezuela.

Recent revelations confirm the links between the coup plotters and extreme right-wing elements close to the U.S. government.

According to an article by Jean-Guy Allard on the left-wing Web site, Nordarse is a close associate of the right-wing Cuban exile and terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. In another article, Allard noted that another supporter of the coup was the neo-fascist organization UnoAmerica, which was implicated in a failed assassination attempt against Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Sections of the U.S. media are joining the disinformation campaign. The Wall Street Journal, for example, claimed the coup "democratic" since the military was following orders issued by the supreme court. The Journal took a similar position in the 2004 coup in Haiti that ousted the democratically elected President Jean Bertrand-Aristide.

The real fear of the right, corporate interests and the mainstream media is that since Zelaya has become an ally of Hugo Chávez, Honduras will soon join the left-wing tide in Latin America. U.S. rulers fear the further spread of Chávismo and the reforms undertaken by Chávez. The coup in Honduras represents a dangerous precedent if the right gains confidence to challenge left-leaning governments.

International condemnation of the coup has been strong. But the coup plotters won't give in easy.

Though the grassroots resistance continues, it is still disorganized. Unions have taken action in support of Zelaya, with teachers organizing strikes that paralyzed the country's schools, but proposals for a general strike against the coup have not yet been taken up. Meanwhile, the left is beginning to debate questions about how to confront the military power of U.S. imperialism and the Latin American right.

While virtually every government in the world has said it will withdraw diplomatic representatives from Honduras, the U.S. currently remains the only country that still has ties to the Micheletti regime.

The truth is that Honduras is highly dependent on the U.S. economically, and the country's military has long ties with the Pentagon and the U.S. national security apparatus. Washington could stop the coup in its tracks if it gave the word.

Supporters of democracy and justice in Latin America need to organize to put pressure on the U.S. government to cut its ties to the coup government in Honduras.

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