Contents are personal opinions, not official Peace Corps policy.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Golpe de Estado en Honduras

On Sunday morning I woke up to a text message informing me that a coup-de-etat (golpe de estado) had occured in Honduras. Naturally, I immediately went to make coffee and watch the news... but no electricity for either. So I called up fellow Peace Corps Volunteers elsewhere in the country to get what news I could. I soon found out that power had been cut throughout the country, that generator-run televisions and radios were not recieving news broadcasts. The president was rumored to be in Costa Rica, or an airbase. In the street (there is only one) of Camasca (my town), it was more of the same. Most of my neighbors are of the Nationalist party, and opposed President Zelaya and his "Cuarto Urno" referendum. Some were talking about the coup, but mly the more partisan few were voicing their opinions. On the surface, it was an ordinary day but in the corner stores people were buying gas, food and batteries in quantity.
Power, internet and Mexican satellite-TV news came and went and over the next day and a half the we caught up on the story. Armed troops had stormed the presidential residence in the early morning on sunday, grapped a groggy Mel Zelaya at gunpoint and put him on a plane to Costa Rica in his Pajamas. They also occupied major government buildings throughout the capital. At some point, prominent supporters of the president (including several journalists and the mayor of San Pedro Sula), were also arrested without charge. The Supreme Court and Congress came out in support of the coup/ouster, a likely-falsified letter of resignation was procured, and the leader of the national congress was made interim president (elections, scheduled long before & independant of the coup, will be held this November).
This mess is the result of a fairly complicated political problem. A moustached, cigar-chomping timber & cattle magnate (with family in the narcotrafficking - excuse me, "ganancia," business), he would appear more at home on the Bush ranch in Texas than bear-hugging Hugo Chavez. Yet this same president who signed Honduras on to CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) has realigned (somewhat) towards the leftist camp by signing on to ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia et. al.). In practice, Honduras participates in both blocs: it retains lowered trade barriers, etc. to attract US investment while accepting Cuban doctors & teachers, and cheaper Venezuelan gas. Yet in the context of this foreign policy shift, President-In-Exile Zelaya (henceforth PIEZ) had been pushing to change the Honduran constitution to remove term limits and allow re-election. Many across the political spectrum fear that he will follow the personalist-populist path of Chavez and Morales, to the detriment of the democratic process. At the same time, his supporters see him as rebel against the very tightly-knit political elite (consisting of a few families that extend across the major party lines). He is popular amongst many rural laborers and urban unions, though not all (in my area, for example, the rural population is quite pro-nationalist).
The problem is, much of the constitution is not amendable. The Honduran Supreme Court (unfortunately not known as a bastion of impartial judgement, regardless of this) had declared the Cuarto Urno (the proposed referendum) unconstitutional. Both major political parties staunchly opposed it, although certain leaders from both supported PIEZ. PIEZ had scheduled the now-moot sunday poll to gague pulic support for the C.U. and possibly crate a mandate for it. He ordered the military to assist in the polling, and fired the army Chief Of Staff (second in command, after the president) when he refused to cooperate. The heads of all branches of the military resigned in protest. Then, coup. It is unclear whether the Supreme Court and Congress had officially communicated their support of the coup before it took place, but given the small & interconnected political elite this collusion is not unexpected.
One wonders if all this could have been avoided if Honduras had a legal process for amending its constitution. Written in 1982, it is a product of it's time: in that year Honduras transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, but with a military awash in US military assistance assuring the military a quiet supremacy behind the scenes (political disappearances and police intimidation actually increased after the transition). It was designed to trump exactly this kind of populism. However, there are no explicit provisions in the constitution for coup either. It is hard to justify overthrowing a democratically elected president in the name of democracy. Impeachment, or any equivalent legal measures, was not attempted: political posturing led directly to force. The constant on both sides of this crisis is wholesale trampling of the rule of law. This is a fundamental trend in Honduras that cannot be fixed by constitutional amendment; nevertheless an amendable constitution and a legal impeachment process should both be put on the table when a settlement is eventually negotiated.
World public opinion has roundly condemned the coup: at the moment, I cannot think of a single state that has recognized the interim government or its president, Roberto Michelletti. This is the first and only instance I remember in which the US and Venezuelan governments seem to be in accord over anything. PIEZ attended a much-publicized ALBA meeting in

Nicaragua immediately following the coup, with Castro, Ortega and Chavez present. Chavez swore to reinstate PIEZ, militarily if necessary. Castro expressed support for PIEZ, but was silent on the possibility of intervention: invasions in the name of democracy are not in the Cuban interest. To the North, both Obama and Clinton came out against the coup. This is a nice change: Bush implicitly approved of the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. This wait-and-see approach is a really solid approach for the United States, which has too sketchy a history intervening in Central American domestic politics to be bringing in a heavy hand. Better to deal with it multilaterally, through the emergency OAS meeting this Friday. Let Chavez play the villain, threatening to invade (this is really freaking people out), and see how his 'anti-Americanism as anti-imperialism' rhetoric holds up later.
Domestic resistance, as in demonstrations and civil disobedience, has been slow due to a lack of information or electricity. Government workers in the two major cities were already mobilized for the referendum, and were the first in the streets. Other civic organizations, including some organized labor, have added to the protests. Some pro-interim rallies have been staged too, although I imagine they have been smaller. Protesters attempted to flip the interim president's car, and a few were injured in the scuffle. One was killed when run over by a military vehicle; I don't know if that was the same incident. There has only been one shooting death, possibly (unconfirmed) by the military (they have most of the visible guns on the street). Use of rubber bullets has been confirmed by the press. On the peaceful organizing front, which seems to be the majority, camps have formed for and against the interim government. The "Union Civica por la Democracia," in support of the government, set up camp in the central park/city center (by the court and congress buildings), with the anti-government "Frente de Resistencia Popular" focusing its activity on the military-occupied presidential residence. It seems that the FRP has had trouble organizing due to military interference and the arrest of would-be leaders early in the coup. There have been no major confrontations between the two.
It is hard to tell what is going on outside the capital because domestic news has been stifled and the foreign press focuses on the biggest story. I hear that there are roadblocks throughout the country (there are only six major paved highways, all two-lane I believe). I have also been told of some unrest in San Pedro, and that automatic gunfire was heard in PIEZ hometown in Olancho (where his family is said to be in hiding). There are plenty of unconfirmed rumors going around. Most people are anxious over the threat of Venezuelan intervention. Given PIEZ use of state-owned media to cheerlead for his cause, and then the blocking of domestic news, most people are not sure what to believe regarding foreign intervention. What I do know is the following: Honduras neighbors (Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador) are to block trade at some point, and Venezuela is to stop exporting oil. PIEZ has stated his intention to return to Honduras this Friday, where interim president Michelletti has vowed to arrest and try him. We are all waiting to see what happens on Friday.
I think that economic sanctions will be sufficient to force some sort of conciliation. The business elite depend on US investment; the US and Honduras' neighbors are the account for the majority of its trade (as I recall... I haven't seen reliable financial statistics for Honduras in over a year). Armed resistance of any kind or even well organized civil resistance beyond the capital are unlikely. Both major parties support the interim government, and PIEZ never built himself a power base independent of his party. A "general strike," most likely in the sectors with unions that supported the Cuarta Urna, might happen. It is unlikely though.
The world seems to be using Honduras' crisis as a soapbox against military intervention in politics. This is legitimate, but it missed the point. The real struggle is not between the military and democracy, but between an ambitious populist and a web entrenched business elites. It reveals where power really lay in this small, impoverished, highly inegalitarian country with its export- and remittance-dependent economy and it's huge crime problem. Some academic analyses of Honduran politics like to imagine that there is no native elite comparable to the 14 Families of El Salvador or the Guatemalan oligarchy, and look to the role of US companies business (especially when Banana companies were ascendant). Those theories may be wrong in today's Honduras.
Who remains president, be it Michelleti or Zelaya, is probably irrelevant in the long term. What is important is forcing both sides to play by the rules and respect the law. The first steps would be undoing the coup, creating legal means for impeachment & for constitutional change. Reforming the judiciary is probably necessary as well. Elitist politics isn't going away in Honduras, so it is critical that any intervention focus on strengthening institutions and upholding the law. The rich and powerful (or the violent and powerful as it may be) have too much leeway running roughshod over the poor as it is.
As for myself, I am safe and healthy in Camasca. At the risk of sounding like a tourist guidebook: Hondurans tend to be patient and forgiving.* Most people I talk to (including coup-supporters and staunchly pro-Zelaya activists) have resigned themselves to wait and see what happens. I have little fear of any kind of unrest in my remote, one-road mountain town. We were ordered to stay in our communities for the last few days; tomorrow we are permitted work-related local travel (roadblocks and weather permitting). I mostly had design-work this week, so I wasn't really affected. I spent much of time talking with my neighbors and work counterparts, trying to get whatever news I could. I worry that, if the interim government refuses to allow Zelaya back, the EU will make good on its threat to withdraw its aid. We are just starting a long-term, multi-community project to be funded by COSUDE (the Swiss equivalent of USAID). So losing those funds would, among other things, shoot the knees out from under my long-term work plans here. Other than that, like the rest of Camasca I keep on truckin’ along. I had perversely fantasized about living through some kind of exciting crisis. After mudslides, earthquakes, a plague** and now a coup, I get why the ancient Chinese made "May you live in interesting times" a curse.

Much love to everyone who called, texted, emailed, or otherwise showed your support. You rock.

*There is another relevant saying though: 'beware the fury of the patient man.'
**One day the headlines blared "1000 new cases of swine flu in San Pedro." Already raised to official 'alert' mode by Peace Corps on that issue, the headlined raised some eyebrows. It was a hollow apocalypse though: they had just received diagnostic equipment from the CDC in Atlanta, and estimated that 1000 people might have been exposed. Emergency Tamaflu (Tamiflu?) shot went back in the medikit.

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