Honduras : Back to the bad old days ?

Does the rightwing coup in Honduras represent a return to the days of rule by violence in South America ?

mardi 30 juin 2009   |   Richard Gott
Lecture .

Article publié dans The Guardian, 29 juin 2009 :

The kidnapping by the armed forces of Honduras on Sunday of the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was a classic case of the old-fashioned Latin American coup d’etat. "It reminds us of the worst years in Latin America’s history", said Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as she lined up with all of Latin America (and most of the world, including the United States) to condemn what occurred in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, over the weekend. Latin Americans do not easily forget the final decades of the 20th century, when military coups, "dirty wars" and "the disappeared" were their region’s principal characteristic. In the 21st century, military coups are supposed to be outlawed, democracy is the order of the day and, with the exception of the US coup de main in Haiti in 2004, the rule has been obeyed.

In line with this unwritten command, the rightwing elements in the Honduran congress, supreme court and armed forces have gone out of their way to claim legitimacy for their campaign against the leftwing president. Zelaya’s proposal to hold a referendum on a proposed new constitution was judged "illegal" by congress, and the army was "invited" to intervene by the supreme court. A "letter of resignation" from the president was drafted. On this slender evidence, the hastily sworn-in president Roberto Micheletti, formerly the president of congress, bases his claim to legitimacy.

Manuel Zelaya, president since 2006, is an improbable revolutionary. A wealthy landowner with timber and cattle interests, he was the candidate of the Liberal party, one of the two traditional parties of the Honduras oligarchy that have controlled the country’s political system for most of the past century, with a sizeable input from the armed forces. Foreign journalists of a certain generation have a vivid memory of Honduras in the 1980s when the country was a military base, organised and funded by the United States, for the operations of the "contras", the paramilitary forces that invented a civil war against the Sandinista government in neighbouring Nicaragua. That is all past history now, but memories of the "dirty war" in Honduras in those years (less publicised abroad than the wars in Guatemala and El Salvador), which killed hundreds of peasant and labour leaders, are still fresh in the country. Yet few of those who voted at the elections in November 2005 imagined that Zelaya would embark on a programme of radical change. He won with only a slim majority over his rivals.

Yet one man who recognised his potential was Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, always one to search for allies in improbable places. Chávez has provided Zelaya with financial support and political advice, and enrolled him in his alliance of radical countries, the "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas", known as Alba (now with nine members). Zelaya, always dark-suited, cuts a strange figure alongside such fiery radicals as Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, not to mention Raúl Castro. Yet in his small country of 7 million people, he has sought to introduce a range of social programmes, including a minimum wage, and to mobilise the poor majority. His success has been sufficient to summon up a violent challenge from the traditional elite before it is too late.

The coup in Honduras presents a huge challenge to the authority of Chávez in Latin America. Over the past ten years he has built up a powerful alliance of countries seeking new alternatives for political, social and economic development, other than the traditional recipes of privatisation and free trade presented by Washington. Virulently opposed by most of the continent’s media, Chávez receives the grudging respect of most of the region’s governments. He cannot allow one of his Central American protégés to be destroyed by a military coup.

Chávez will have little difficulty in securing universal diplomatic condemnation of the action of the Honduran military (which bears a marked resemblance to the coup against him in Caracas in 2002), but a reversal of the coup will take place within the Central American (and Caribbean) context. Monday’s emergency meeting of the Alba leaders in Managua may produce a framework for action, but much will depend upon the behaviour of the Honduran military commanders and on the reaction of people on the streets of Tegucigalpa. Were Zelaya’s reforms sufficient to enthuse the country’s poor majority to rise up to demand the return of their president – and to further radicalise the political process – as happened to Chávez in 2002 ? Or will the strong arm of the Honduras military be sufficient to end the crisis in the old Latin American way – with violence on the streets and behind closed doors ?

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