Trampling on Honduran Democracy

By Calvin Tucker 

On Sunday, Honduras’s coup regime, with the support of the US, is staging a presidential election of a special kind. Voters will have a choice of two candidates: the coup supporter Porfirio Lobo or the coup supporter Elvin Santos. The anti-coup candidate, Carlos Reyes, has withdrawn his nomination and condemned the election as fraudulent.

Cash discounts” will be offered to anyone who can prove they voted, courtesy of the country’s coup-supporting big business federation. Trade unions and social movements calling for a boycott of the election are facing mafia-style threats, with the regime’s chief of police boasting that he has compiled a blacklist of “all those of the left”. “We removed the so-called head [the president, Manuel Zelaya], and we know everyone, from A to Z, that forms part of these groups.”

Those on the blacklist have good cause to be concerned. Since Zelaya was overthrown by the military in June, 4,000 people have been arrested, hundreds beaten and hospitalised and dozens charged with sedition. Yet more have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, “disappeared” and assassinated.

Independent media has fared little better. Anti-coup TV and radio stations have been raided by the army and forced off air; their broadcasting equipment confiscated or destroyed with acid. In one case, journalists leapt from third-floor windows to escape the soldiers.

Yet Hondurans have continued marching, striking, blocking roads – and meanwhile getting used to day and night curfews, the smell of tear gas and the grief for friends and family members murdered by the coup regime. They have been struggling, not merely to protest at the trampling of their democratic rights, but also because of the hope which Zelaya had begun to inspire.

In a country marked by malnutrition and widespread illiteracy, in which 10 families control most of the economy and the media and dominate the state apparatus, Zelaya had begun a process of economic and political empowerment for the impoverished majority. This included a doubling of the minimum wage, the introduction of free school meals and the provision of agricultural machinery for small farmers.

In line with demands from trade unions and social movements, Zelaya had proposed a referendum on constitutional reform to be held on the same day as a new president was elected. This proposal has been ludicrously misrepresented as an attempt by Zelaya to extend his term in office; a charge that is logically impossible to sustain but that, with the help of much of the international media, became the central justification for the military takeover.

In the first weeks following the coup it looked like Barack Obama’s pledge to “seek a new chapter of engagement” with Latin America might actually have some substance. Obama spoke of the “terrible precedent” that would be set if the coup was not reversed, and in July the US gave its backing to the San Jose accord, a Costa Rican-brokered compromise that would see Zelaya back in office, albeit as head of a “unity government” and with him promising to shelve the constitutional referendum.

Although this would have left much of the power in the hands of the army and other state institutions controlled by the elites – hence the reason the accord garnered US support – Zelaya took the view that it was the best deal he was going to get and signed. But the coup leaders refused, fearing that Zelaya’s return would unleash an unstoppable momentum for democratic reform. Instead they resolved to run out the clock on the Zelaya presidency by hanging on until this month’s scheduled elections, and then to bank on US recognition of the new government.

However, to the chagrin of the regime, the US administration, itself divided over whether to support or oppose the coup, announced further measures to isolate the de facto government. More aid was suspended, visas to the coup plotters were revoked, and critically Hillary Clinton’s state department declared that the US would “not be able to support” the outcome of the elections because of concerns that they would not be “free, fair and transparent”.

Following a state department visit in late October, the regime finally caved in and signed a deal which provided the mechanism for Zelaya’s return to office. But behind the scenes, Clinton was already preparing to sell out Honduran democracy.

For weeks, the hard right of the Republican party, under the leadership of Senator Jim DeMint, had been threatening to block Democrat nominees for key posts in Latin America. Clinton wanted a way out of the impasse, and DeMint, a fanatical supporter of the Honduran coup, offered her a trade-off: we will agree your nominees, he told her, if you will agree to recognise the outcome of the Honduran election, regardless of whether Zelaya is returned to the presidential palace.

Clinton, never a fan of leftwing Latin American leaders, was happy to acquiesce.

When the state department broke the news of its volte-face to a stunned international community, the coup leaders immediately understood the message. With US recognition now in the bag, they were no longer under pressure to reinstate the legitimate president. Zelaya and the head of the OAS were furious, but the San Jose deal was effectively dead, killed by the very same state department that had played such a key role in imposing it.

So Sunday’s election goes ahead with the blessing of the US, but not of the Honduran people or their president. With the rest of the world refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the outcome, the forces inside and outside the US administration that conspired to wreck Obama’s vision of a new era in regional relations still have to contend with popular opposition to the coup. In this most conservative of central American nations, a historically passive population has been galvanised into political action on an unprecedented scale. Here in Honduras, the resistance movement says with well-founded confidence, nobody surrenders.

This article first appeared on CiF

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