Democracy for Honduras — restore Zelaya!

July 11, 2009

Glued to the television, myself and my partner watched the entire July 5 showdown in the Central American nation Honduras play out from Caracas.

Breaking the media blockade, the cameras of Telesur — a Latin America-wide TV channel initiated by the Venezuelan government to counteract pro-imperialist mouthpieces such as CNN — broadcast live from outside the militarised Toncontin airport where protesters had gathered to welcome back their President Manuel Zelaya.

A week earlier, on June 28, the democratically elected Zelaya had been kidnapped and exiled to Costa Rica as part of a right-wing military coup.

That same day, a non-binding consultation on whether to elect a constituent assembly to change the constitution was scheduled to be held. This same process, with many progressive changes favouring the poor incorporated into new constitutions, has occurred in recent years in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Mass resistance

In the days after the coup, anger among the Honduran people boiled over into the streets. The self-appointed dictatorship has moved to brutally crush dissent.

A wave of strikes and massive street protests — the largest in Honduras's history — have rocked the country. The people demanded the return of their president.

Spearhead by Venezuela, the countries that make up the anti-imperialist Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) bloc led a diplomatic offensive to isolate the illegitimate regime that had installed itself in an ALBA member-country.

For the Honduran elite behind the coup, joining ALBA and aligning Honduras with the revolutionary governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba had been one of Zelaya's key crimes.

ALBA involves Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Internationally, no country has recognised the illegitimate government established by the coup — although the US, despite formally condemning the coup, has not ended diplomatic or economic ties.

On July 5, the streets of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa were flooded by hundreds of thousands of people in the country's largest-ever protest.

Zelaya had announced he intended to fly back to Tegucigalpa to take back his legitimate position as president — at the head of a mass upsurge by the majority.

People from all over the country had arrived to anxiously await Zelaya's arrival, returning from a United Nations general assembly meeting that had passed a unanimous motion condemning the coup.

The coup government, head by Roberto Micheletti, said it would do what ever was necessary to stop Zelaya's return. Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez spoke on behalf of the Catholic Church in Honduras, which was supporting the coup. He ominously warned Zelaya his return could result in a "bloodbath".

Suddenly, in between scenes of some fraternisation between soldiers and protesters, and others of soldiers repressing the people, Zelaya's plane appeared on our screens.

But as cheers of victory began to ripple through the crowd, the much await victorious finale was put on pause.

In April 2002, there were historic scenes in Caracas when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez landed in a helicopter to re-take his position as legitimate president after a two-day US-backed coup against him was overturned by a civic-military uprising.

This time, the military blockaded the runway and Zelaya's plane was forced to circle above the airport, before re-routing to Nicaragua.


In the days leading up to the coup, Zelaya had denounced the fact that the "bourgeois state" was attempting to impede the non-binding referendum from going ahead.

On June 24, Zelaya led a march of thousands of protesters into military barracks where ballot boxes were stored. The military high command had come out against the consultation, deeming it unconstitutional, and refused to carry out the logistics for the poll.

Zelaya fired the head of the military, General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, for insubordination to the executive power, which in turn led to the resignation of the defence minister

These were the most visible signs of the brewing confrontation.

On one side stood supporters of Zelaya, mainly from the poorer sections of Honduras. Zelaya had been elected as a candidate for one of Honduras's major traditional parties, the Liberal Party, but in office shifted to the left — implementing a number of pro-poor measures.

Seeking to benefit from the solidarity-based trade terms offered ALBA, Zelaya became a committed ally in this anti-imperialist bloc.

Weeks before the coup, Zelaya presided the Organisation of American States meeting in Honduras that voted to overturn the 1962 exclusion of Cuba for the crime of carrying out a socialist revolution.

Zelaya said that if the summit did not move to reopen its doors to Cuba, the very existence of the OAS would be in doubt.

The most important move by Zelaya, which triggered the coup, was to promote the re-writing of the constitution via a constituent assembly — a move that opened the possibility for the poor majority to participate in creating a new constitution to replace the one a US-backed military dictatorship forced on them in 1982.

The elite feared this could unleash a process of mass democratic participation as in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. The coup was carried out with the support of the private media.

The US government saw an opportunity to strike a blow to ALBA. It admitted to knowing of coup plans before the event. It claimed to have tried to talk the coup plotters out of the action, but did nothing to alert the legitimate government, or anyone else, of what was coming.

The coup is aimed at undermining the process of Latin American integration. In response, the ALBA countries announced the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Honduras.

ALBA denounced the inaction of the US. With all of Latin America opposing the coup, the US formally fell into line, while leaving open the issue of whether it was legally a "coup" — a designation that would legally require the US to cease all financial support.

The strong stance of ALBA countries not only helped isolate the coup-plotters, but created space for the internal resistance of the Honduran oppressed to grow. This resistance was bolstered by the international support it received.

The ability of the illegitimate coup regime to repress the anti-coup movement was weakened in the face of international pressure, and the news and images broadcast by Telesur

In the absence of a strong, organised left movement, much of the initial resistance to the coup was completely spontaneous. However, within days the major trade union federations had begun to call for general strikes.

Significantly, collaboration between left forces lead to the creation of the Popular Resistance Front and then the National Front Against the Coup.

In its first statement, issued the day of the coup, the Popular Resistance Front said its aim was to create an "active and peaceful resistance with the goal of reinstalling constitutional order and the respect of human rights".

The anti-coup protests have faced violent repression. A state of siege has been implemented, suspending constitutional rights and enforcing a curfew at night. Two protesters were killed on July 5, while the total death toll is unknown. Hundreds have been injured and social movement activists arrested.

The July 5 events demonstrated that the movement is not yet strong enough to overthrow the coup regime. Decisively, there has been only sporadic evidence of sections of the military refusing to repress protesters, much less come out openly on the side of the resistance.

In Venezuela in 2002, military resistance to the coup was crucial to its defeat.

US assistance

Internationally, the regime, with no open support from any country, is attempting to gain legitimacy simply by biding time. This is assisted by US-initiated illegitimate negotiations between Zelaya and coup-plotters, unsuccessfully brokered by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. Zelaya said he would talk, but not negotiate anything less than his return as president.

Meanwhile, the ALBA nations and the domestic movements have continued their resistance.

The US government has tried its best to both maintain Obama's public position of a "new era" of US foreign policy, one that no longer backs coups against opponents, and facilitate an outcome favourable to the coup-plotters who represent US interests.

Chavez responded to the US-pushed negotiations between the coup-plotters and Honduras's legitimate president by saying that, rather than be invited to negotiations, Micheletti "should be put in jail when he arrives in [Costa Rica]".

Warning he had information that sections of the military in Guatemala, emboldened by events in Honduras, were also plotting a coup against the center-left Alvaro Colon government, Chavez added: "We will not rest until democracy returns to Honduras and the people are given the chance to decide, in a democratic manner, what path [Honduras will] take."

Meanwhile the protests continue, in what the National Front Against the Coup describes as a "peaceful and popular insurrection in the face of a de facto and tyrannical government".

The demands of the resistance are becoming more radical.

In a July 8 statement, it said any negotiations would only be accepted if they remained within the framework of returning Zelaya to finish his term, no impunity for the coup-plotters and the "continuation of the process of participatory democracy" via the creation of a constituent assembly.

The outcome of the ongoing confrontation between the supporters of the coup — the oligarchy, media, church and military — and the burgeoning mass resistance is still unclear.

As Yoel Psrez Marcano explained in a July 6 article on Venezuelan left-wing website Aporrea, the July 5 showdown was a momentary defeat, but a tactical victory as it helped create the space in which the resistance could flourish.

The question remains whether this mass resistance can be turned into a decisive force to overthrow the coup regime and restore democracy — which would represent a significant leap forward for the Latin American revolution.

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