Three years of Resistence to the Coup in Honduras

This morning, activists gathered outside the Honduran Embassy in San Salvador to protest the third anniversary of the coup d’état that toppled the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. In the days, months, and now years since the coup, the Honduran government has violently repressed the resistance movement that opposed the coup, and other human rights activists. The protests in front of the Embassy will continue tomorrow, June 28th, the actual anniversary of the coup.

The 2009 coup’s aftershocks rippled throughout Latin American democracies and continue to influence countries such as El Salvador. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes had been in office less than a month when the Honduran Military left Zelaya on a runway in Costa Rica. Rightwing extremists in El Salvador used the coup as an opportunity to warn Funes what would happen if he and the FMLN tried to exercise their new power in an extreme manner. Many of Funes’ actions over the past three years indicate that he took their message to heart.

This article will provide an overview of what happened three years ago and the constitutional crisis that led up to the coup. It will then discuss the international community’s response and arguably oversimplified accounting of what happened. The article then provides an overview of the human rights and social justice issues that have plagued Hondurans since the coup, and concludes with a brief discussion about how the coup continues to affect Salvadoran domestic policies.

Events 3 years Ago

On Monday June 29, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that early the day before Honduran soldiers surrounded the Presidential Palace and removed then President Zelaya from his room and flew him to Costa Rica. The article quotes Zelaya’s version of the events, which he shared with reporters while still in his pajamas standing at the airport.

“I was awakened by shots, and the yells of my guards, who resisted for about 20 minutes. I came out in my pajamas, I’m still in my pajamas… when [the soldiers] came in, they pointed their guns at me and told me they would shoot if I didn’t put down my cell phone.”

A recent NPR article quotes President Zelaya recalling the coup, “[t]he shooting started around 5:20 a.m. I went downstairs and there were about 250 masked soldiers around my house. All you could see was their eyes.” Speaking about his arrival in Costa Rica, he continued, “they took off, and there I was. The democratically elected President of Honduras, standing in my pajamas in the middle of a runway in Costa Rica.”

With President Zelaya ousted, the Honduran military took to the streets in Tegucigalpa to suppress opposition to the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported that the police issued warrants for some of Zelaya’s cabinet members and other supporters, forcing them into hiding. The police and military broke up pro-Zelaya demonstrations, killing and injuring numerous people.

The Constitutional Crisis

The coup was organized by the Supreme Court and National Congress, which at the time issued a statement, “the military had acted to defend the law against those who had publicly spoken out and acted against the Constitution’s provisions.”

In the weeks and months before the coup, Honduras was embroiled in a constitutional crisis. President Zelaya had proposed that Hondurans reform their Constitution, which had been in place since 1982. President Zelaya wanted to include a referendum on the November 2009 presidential ballot to initiate the process. After getting pushback, he scheduled a non-binding referendum for June 29, 2009 to determine whether or not Hondurans wanted to have the referendum that November.

Opponents of the constitutional reforms accused President Zelaya of trying to amend the Constitution to allow him to serve a second term as President. In May 2009, Roberto Micheletti, the President of the Congress accused the President of treason pointing out that the Constitution prohibits changing constitutional term-limits by referendum pr plebiscite. The day before the coup, Al Jazeera quoted President Zelaya saying in a speech before Congress, “Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I’m a free president and nobody scares me.”

In a September 2009 interview with Time Magazine, Zelaya said the allegation that he was trying to change the presidential term limit was a “false pretext for a coup.” He explained the reason for reforming the constitution was “to better help the 70% of the population who live in poverty.”

In May 2009, the Attorney General of Honduras recommended that the judicial branch declare Zelaya’s referendum illegal, which it did. President Zelaya, however, went ahead with his plan and on May 29, 2009 ordered the military and police to provide logistical support for the referendum. The Supreme Court responded by ordering the military and police not to support Zelaya or the referendum, and they complied with the Court’s order. On June 24th President Zelaya fired the Military Joint Chief of Staff General Romeo Vasquez and the Defense Minister for their refusal to help with the referendum. The Supreme Court said the firing was illegal and ordered Zelaya to reinstate them, which he did not. The chiefs of the Honduran army, navy, and air force all resigned in protest.

According to Aljazeera, President Zelaya did not have the support of the military but labor leaders, farmers, and civic organizations agreed that the constitution needed to be reformed to improve the lives of the majority.

The referendum was scheduled for June 28th. Before the polls opened, however, the Military stormed the presidential palace, arrested Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica, and confiscated the referendum materials. The Supreme Court said the Military had executed an arrest warrant they had issued for the President for his non-compliance with the judiciary’s ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. Similarly, the National Congress passed a decree removing Zelaya from office and replacing him with Roberto Micheletti, who was the President of Congress and next in line to the Presidency. Micheletti served out the remainder of Zelaya’s presidency, which ended on January 27, 2010.

A Gallop poll taken in early July found that 46% of Hondurans opposed the coup while 41% thought it was justified.

The International Response to the Coup

The international community immediately condemned the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported, “the international reaction was swift and surprisingly united.” A Congressional Research Service report said the United States, European Union, and United Nations condemned the coup and called for Zelaya’s immediate return. “Countries throughout Latin America and Europe withdrew their ambassadors… isolating the de facto regime.” The day of the coup, the Organization of American States issued a statement condemning the coup and calling for the unconditional return of President Zelaya to his constitutional duties.

In 2011, a truth commission concluded what most had been arguing from day one – the coup was illegal. Recognizing that both President Zelaya and the Honduran Congress were responsible for the events that led up to the coup, the commission concluded that Honduras did not have clear procedures to resolve power conflicts, and that the Congress and Supreme Court had overreached their power by ordering his arrest and forcing him into exile. Even if President Zelaya had broken the law, there were other processes in place to check his power. Artile 102 of the Constitution, however, says that authorities may not expropriate any Honduran to another country. But that’s what the military did – they arrested him and dropped him off in Costa Rica, and refused him re-entry.

Though U.S. officials condemned the coup, many in the international community thought the response was insufficient. The day after the coup, The New York Times wrote on July 29, 2009,

“President Obama on Monday strongly condemned the ouster of Honduras’ president as an illegal coup that set a ‘terrible precedent’ for the region,’ as the country’s government defied international calls to return the toppled president to power and clashed with thousands of protesters.

“’We do not want to go back to a dark past,’ Mr. Obama said, in which military coups override elections. ‘We always want to stand with democracy,’ he added.”

In the days and weeks after the coup, the U.S. cut off aid to Honduras and revoked the visas of Honduran officials involved in the coup. But that hasn’t stopped many from accusing the U.S. government of supporting the coup. One Guardian editorial asked, “does the U.S. back the Honduran coup?” while calling President Obama’s statements following the coup “weak and non-committal.” The article compares Obama’s measured response to stronger statements made by Lula de Silva, then President of Brasil, and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, both of which denounced the coup and called for Zelaya’s return. The U.S. received even more criticism over the past couple of years as they helped Honduras re-enter the OAS.

Similarly, a North American Congress of Latin America (NACLA) article criticized the U.S. media for its “pro-coup bias, inaccuracies, and incomplete coverage.” The NACLA article criticized coverage for incorrectly reporting that Zelaya had been trying to reform the constitution so that he could run for a second term. They also disputed reports by the Wall Street Journal and other publications that a plurality in Honduras supported the coup, when the Gallop poll found the opposite – that 48% opposed the coup and 41% supported it. The NACLA article also alleges that the media under-reported opposition of the coup by members of the U.S. Congress, while giving Congressional support for the coup significant coverage. Finally, the article raises the important point that the U.S. media has failed to cover the human rights abuses and repression under the coup.

NACLA’s point that Zelaya was not trying to run for a second term and that the U.S. media presented a very pro-coup bias is echoed in an August 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus article. The authors summarize,

“the story most U.S. readers are getting about the coup is that Zelaya – an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – was deposed because he tried to change the constitution to keep himself in power.”

The article then says this presentation of the coup is “a massive distortion of the facts,” and that

“all Zelaya was trying to do is to put a non-binding referendum on the ballot calling for a constitutional convention, a move that trade unions, indigenous groups, and social activist organizations had long been lobbying for.”

Human Rights and Repression in Post-coup

Repression and human rights abuses against those who opposed the coup and otherwise advocate for social justice have become dramatically worse over the past three years. In July 2009 Amnesty International sent a delegation to investigate reports that the Honduran security forces were aggressively repressing those who opposed the coup. They found that an

“increasingly disproportionate and excessive use of force being used by the police and military to repress legitimate and peaceful protests across the country. Female protesters are particularly vulnerable and some women and girls taking part in the demonstrations are reportedly suffering gender-based violence and abuse at the hands of police officers. At least two protesters have died as a result of gunshot wounds.”

In August 2009, Ester Major from Amnesty International said,

“We’re seeing a deterioration in the whole respect for human rights on the whole situation in Honduras right now. People cannot count on having their rights protected if they go out on the streets. The police are sending a message, and the de facto government are sending a message to people, saying, “If you come out on the streets and peacefully demonstrate, this is what happens. We will arbitrarily detain you. We will beat you.” This is the signal they’re sending out.”

On the one-year anniversary of the coup, Gerardo Torres, who is an independent journalist and member of the National Front of Popular Resistance in Honduras, told Democracy Now “the repression is getting harder.” In May 2011, almost two years after the coup, the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras reported, “a dramatic increase in the ongoing violent repression of human rights in Honduras.”

In May 2011, Jesse Freeston produced a series of video reports that detail numerous aspects of the government repression of the growing opposition movement. The four-part video series is worth watching and can be found on the Upsidedownworld.org site. The videos detail abuses against rural populations who are advocating for access to land, attacks on teachers unions, and more.

Several people who opposed the coup were forced to flee Honduras and live in other Central American countries. They live in countries such as El Salvador where they are unable to receive refugee status, study, or get jobs.

Similarly, human rights activists report that since the coup an estimated 24 journalists have been killed.  Alfredo Villatoro, for example, was a radio reporter who as abducted and murdered in May 2012. His death came days after the assassination of journalist and gay rights campaigner Erick Martinez.

These political murders and human rights abuses are part of a general trend in Honduras since the coup. In 2009, Honduras’ murder rate was 46 per 100,000 – third highest in the world. In just two years, Honduras became the most violent country in the world, registering over 80 murders per 100,000 people. During that time, drug trafficking and organized crime have flourished, making security the number one issue. Just last month, the Honduran police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in helicopters killed four people, including two pregnant women and a 14-year girl, and injured four others when they fired upon a boat that was taking them to their rural community. The massacre is just the latest example of the violence and insecurity that has swept through Honduras over the past three years.

The Honduran Coup and El Salvador

A few weeks before the military ousted President Zelaya in Honduras, Mauricio Funes was sworn in as President of El Salvador – the first leftist administration to control the executive branch. Military leaders and conservative power brokers use the coup to warn the new administration that they would not tolerate extremist actions.

A NACLA article published in 2009 identifies several military leaders who justified the Honduran coup, arguing that the military did what it needed to do to uphold the constitution, and that similar actions would be justifiable in El Salvador. Former general Mauricio Ernesto Vargas went as far to say that if President Funes were to repeal the amnesty for military officials, he would face an uprising (Benjamín Cuélla, The Honduran Coup: View From El Salvador, NACLA Report on the Americas, p. 38-43, Nov/Dec 2009).

President Funes seems to have heeded their warning, and many of his more extreme actions have erred towards supporting more right-wing positions. And pacifying the Military seems to have been a top priority. Early in his presidency, Funes integrated the military into his security plan, allowing them to patrol “gang-controlled neighborhoods” and previously unmanned border crossings. In January 2012, President Funes went so far as to appoint former military leaders to top positions within the National Police and Ministry of Defense.

Funes even generated his own constitutional crisis last year by signing a law that would have crippled that Constitutional Court. Though the real reason for his going after the Constitutional Court remains somewhat unclear, Funes seems to have been trying to prevent the more progressive judges from striking down the amnesty law that protects former military leaders from being charged for crimes committed during the civil war.

Over the past 20 years, most Latin American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, have at least tried to maintain a democratic façade, electing presidents and congressional leaders, and functioning under a constitution. Every once in a while events like the Honduran coup, and the more recent coup in Paraguay, demonstrate how thin these facades can be. Funes seems to have understood this well. Though his efforts to keep the military busy and happy have been unpopular, it may ensure that his presidency doesn’t end on a runway in Costa Rica. 

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