July 8, 2009 – 4:23 am

On June 28, President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was ousted in a military coup when troops arrested him in his pyjamas and sent him into exile in Costa Rica. On July 6, the military blocked the runway to prevent Zelaya from landing in Honduras. Zelaya is currently in the United States planning a second attempt to enter his country. Roger Burbach, director of the Center for the Study of the Americas, assesses the situation in Honduras.

The coup against Manuel Zelaya of Honduras represents a last ditch effort by Honduras’ entrenched economic and political interests to stave off the advance of the new left governments that have taken hold in Latin America over the past decade. As Zelaya proclaimed after being forcibly dumped in Costa Rica: “This is a vicious plot planned by elites. The elites only want to keep the country isolated and in extreme poverty.”

Zelaya should know, since his roots are in the country’s large, land-owning class, having devoted most of his life to agriculture and forestry enterprises that he inherited. He ran for president as the head of the center-right Liberal Party on a fairly conservative platform, promising to be tough on crime and to cut the budget. Inaugurated in January, 2006, he supported the US-backed Central American Free Trade Agreement, which been signed two years earlier, and continued the economic policies of neo-liberalism, privatizing state held enterprises.

But about half way into his four year term, the winds of change blowing from the south caught his imagination, particularly those coming from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, the largest regional power fronting on the Caribbean.

With no petroleum resources, Honduras signed a generous oil subsidy deal with Venezuela, and then last year joined the emergent regional trade bloc, ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Inspired by Venezuela it now has Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Dominica and Ecuador as members. Simultaneously, Zelaya implemented domestic reform policies, significantly increasing the minimum wage of workers and teachers’ salaries, while stepping up spending in health care and education.

The upshot is that a reform-minded president supported by labor unions and social organizations is now pitted against a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite that is accustomed to controlling the Supreme Court, as well as congress and the presidency. It is a story often repeated elsewhere in Latin America, with the United States almost always weighing in on the side of the established, entrenched interests.

The Honduran elites were outraged that a member of their class would carry out even modest reforms. They began to portray Zelaya as a demagogue, and demonized Hugo Chavez as trying to take over the country. When Zelaya announced that he would hold a plebiscite on June 28 to see if the country wanted to have the option in the upcoming November presidential elections to vote for the convening of a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution, the political establishment would have none of it. They incorrectly claimed that Zelaya was trying to stand for re-election.

In fact the possibility that a president might serve a second term could only emerge in a new constitution that would not be drafted until well after Zelaya left office in January, 2010. The elites did however have reason to fear a new magna carta, since this is the path that Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have used to draft new constitutions to begin transforming their countries’ political, social and economic structures.

The political establishment decided to nip this process in the bud by quashing the plebiscite scheduled for Sunday, June 28. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and the military refused to help distribute the ballots. Then Zelaya fired the head of the army, General Romeo Vasquez, and led workers and social movement activists to seize ballots stored at an air force base for distribution.

On Sunday at 6 am, the day of the plebiscite, the military sent a special army unit to seize Zelaya in his pajamas and to deport him to Costa Rica. The next day the Supreme Court levied charges of treason against Zelaya, and the Congress elevated its president, Roberto Micheletti, to be the interim president of the country.

It is doubtful if President Manuel Zelaya will be allowed to return by the coup leaders. The key may well be whether the Obama administration is willing to bring inordinate pressure to bear on its historic allies or use its military air power to impose the deadline for Zelaya’s return.

The rest of the Americas, and most of the world, reacted with outrage against the coup. The Organization of the Americas convened an emergency session and voted unanimously to call upon the coup makers to restore Zelaya to power. Regional organizations like the Group of Rio also denounced the coup, while the European Economic Union and the World Bank announced that they were suspending economic assistance to Honduras. Even the governments of Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Felipe Calderon of Mexico felt compelled to denounce the coup.

What explains this virtually unanimous opposition to the coup? Most of Latin America still remembers the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s when three-quarters of the continent’s population fell under military rule. Countries like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil still bear the scars and traumas of this period, and do not want to contemplate any opening that would allow their militaries to begin interfering once again in the political sphere.

The United States is also opposed to the coup, with President Obama denouncing it, saying it set a “terrible precedent” and that “We do not want to go back to a dark past” in which coups often trumped elections. He added: “We always want to stand with democracy.”

Many observers are suspicious of how solid the US stand against the coup is. Obama, given his emphasis on multi-lateralism, may have had little choice, knowing that his predecessor George W. Bush had roiled Latin America when he rushed to endorse the last coup attempt in the region against Hugo Chavez in October, 2002.

The State Department has taken a more tepid stance. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked if “restoring the constitutional order” in Honduras meant restoring Zelaya, she would not say yes. The New York Times reports that she did not take to the Honduran president when she met him on June 2 at the meeting of the OAS in Tegucigalpa. Zelaya annoyed her by asking her to a private room late at night to have her meet and shake hands with his extended family. In a more formal meeting Zelaya brought up his plans for the referendum on June 28 with US officials taking the position that it was unconstitutional and would inflame the political situation.

Washington also has a very close relationship with the Honduran military, which goes back decades. During the 1980s the US used bases in Honduras to train and arm the Contras, Nicaraguan paramilitaries who became known for their atrocities in their war against the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. John Negroponte, who became the czar of intelligence during the Bush administration after serving as US ambassador to Iraq, first achieved notoriety when he served as US ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s and granted US approval to death squads run by a special Honduran military unit against domestic opponents.

On Wednesday, the OAS meeting in Washington called for the restoration of Zelaya to office by Saturday, July 4. The head of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile, along with the president of the UN General Assembly Miguel d’Escota of Nicaragua, and Presidents Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Rafael Correa of Argentina and Ecuador respectively have said they will accompany Zelaya on his return.

But it is doubtful if he will be allowed to return by the coup leaders. For Micheletti and Vasquez, the Rubicon has been crossed and they cannot abandon power without suffering consequences. Any aircraft trying to descend with this list of dignitaries would require air-landing clearance by Honduran authorities and this would likely be denied.

The key may well be whether the Obama administration is willing to bring inordinate pressure to bear on its historic allies or use its military air power to impose the deadline for Zelaya’s return. And if the external pressure gets Zelaya back in office, will he be allowed to get the vote for a constituent assembly that the country so badly needs to become a progressive society?

Note: Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Pinochet Affair. The above article was posted at Counterpunch.org.

  1. 2 Responses to “HONDURAN COUP: TARGET LEFT?”

  2. As expected, Chavez is staging propaganda shows to FOOL the international community and force Hondurans to submit to Zelaya and Marxism. As usual, he is sacrificing human beings to do it!

    Most of Zelaya “supporters” are paid poor people incited to violence by ACORN-type “community organizers,” mostly from other countries such as Nicaragua. Each “supporter” on a motorcycle is being paid 300 lempiras (US$15.84) a day plus gas. Taxi drivers are being paid 3,000 lempiras (US$158.40) a day to drive “supporters.” Farmers acting as “supporters” are being paid 250 lempiras (US$13.20) a day.


    As usual, Chavez is producing and broadcasting propaganda shows created to force Hondurans to submit! Chavez lies, manipulates, intimidates and gets people killed not to let his prey escape. In this case, his prey is the Honduran people.

    By AntonioSosa on Jul 8, 2009

  3. From Mitch Cummings-
    I don’t profess to be an expert at Honduran politics or constitution, but I
    have been here a while and stay pretty involved with what’s going on in
    Honduras and especially Roatan. For those that don’t know me, I’m an
    American investor that has lived in Honduras full time since 2002. I’m very
    active on several commissions and have met with minister level executives of
    the Honduran government many times in the past few years.

    There have been a lot of comments, descriptions, and hypothesis over the
    past few days. I’ve spent a LOT of time reading Spanish and English reports,
    talking to a lot of people on the islands and on the mainland, and listening
    to the local politicians. I’d like to present my take on what’s happened.
    This is especially for Nick who’s been posting on the Roatan Tourist
    discussion group, but hopefully it will help clarify some points for others
    as well.

    · Mel Zelaya was elected 3 ½ years ago with an underwhelming 49% of
    the vote. He was seen as a fairly conservative member of the liberal party.
    The general feeling when he was elected was that he wasn’t the greatest
    pick, but his background as a wealthy logger and rancher coupled with his
    more liberal social policies would probably be OK.

    · Almost from day 1, Mel started shifting Honduras policies to the

    o Remember when he tried to nationalize the oil industry – forcing all
    fuel distributors to buy from 1 company so that Mel could control the price?
    The US rightfully reminded Mel that the US oil companies had a lot invested
    here and the confiscating of those assets would not be a good thing. Mel
    changed his mind a couple of days later.

    o Mel gave away the fishing rights to an area that Honduras has been
    fishing for decades if not a hundred years. He gave those rights to
    Nicaragua for nothing – or at least nothing that was ever publicly reported.
    Mel forgot to mention this transaction to anyone in the country, let alone
    the fisherman. Guess how the fishermen found out? The Nicaraguan Navy
    confiscated several boats over a period of a few weeks. The crews on these
    boats were detained from a few days to a few weeks. Some of the boats were
    eventually returned to the rightful owners – after paying “fines”. Some of
    the boats even had the electronics and gear still on board when they were
    returned to the owners. The Honduran government did absolutely nothing to
    repatriate these boats.

    o Mel wanted Honduras to join ALBA – a collection of countries that was
    formed by Cuba and Venezuela to counteract NAFTA/CAFTA from the US. When
    this was announced, there was a lot of concern – especially from the
    business community. I was in a meeting with the local congressman less than
    a week before it was ratified. The message being sent was that this was just
    a way to get cheap oil from Venezuela. The congress wouldn’t consider
    ratifying this treaty for 6 or 8 months and by then Mel would have the oil
    that he was after. Again, less than a week later Mel got the treaty was
    ratified by the congress.

    o Not too long ago, the minimum wage was raised from L. 3,500 per month to
    L. 5,500. That’s about a 60% increase. I’m not saying that the minimum wage
    didn’t need to be raised, but this huge increase was 3 times more than the
    labor unions were requesting (20%) and 6 times more than the business
    organizations had offered (10%). These increases caused tremendous layoffs
    on the mainland. Many maquillas (garment factories) began to move to
    Nicaragua because the cost of business in Honduras had gotten too high. This
    was another huge drop in jobs. I’ve not seen the actual number of jobs lost
    because of the 60% increase in minimum wage, but it was staggering.

    o The Honduran constitution says that each year the President presents the
    annual budget to congress for approval. If the approval is not obtained by a
    specific date (I think it’s the end of January, but am not 100% sure) the
    budget from last year will be used until the new budget is approved by

    § Mel never submitted a budget for 2009, hence the Congress can’t approve
    it so Honduras is operating in 2009 on 2008’s budget.

    § Now, why would a President not submit a budget? Who knows for sure but
    one of the possibilities is that 2009 is an election year. Mel would like to
    stay in power past 2009. The budget in 2008 didn’t include an election, so
    in essence there is NO money available for the 2009 election because we’re
    operating on 2008’s budget. There are other theories about hiding graft and
    corruption, but I would assume that anyone that becomes President in
    Honduras wouldn’t be concerned about hiding corruption and theft in the
    budget – he certainly didn’t mind doing it the previous 3 years!

    · Somewhere along the way, Mel decided to take a lesson from his
    mentor (Chavez) and arrange it so that he could remain in power for as long
    as he wanted. There was a little problem with this. The Honduran
    constitution, enacted in 1982, has 378 articles. 6 of these articles are
    “cast in stone”, meaning that they can NOT be changed. These 6 articles deal
    with defining the type of government, territory claims, and presidential
    term limits. They are the basis of the Honduran democracy.

    o One other tidbit from the constitution – Article 42, Section 5 says that
    anyone who is found to “incite, promote, or aid in the continuation or
    re-election of the President” would face loss of citizenship. Remember this
    one later on in this saga.

    · To further complicate things for Zelaya, ANY changes to the
    constitution have to be initiated by the legislative branch. The congress
    has to convene a constituent assembly. That’s basically a group of people
    selected by the congress to analyze any proposed changes and form those
    ideas into the new constitution. After the proposed changes are formulated,
    the congress would approve them to be put to a national referendum. The
    executive branch (the President) has nothing to do with that process.

    · Mel didn’t think that the congress would go along with his ideas
    of staying in power so he decided he’d call his own referendum. He doesn’t
    have the authority to do that – remember that constitutional changes can
    only be done by the legislature AND the term limits are one of the articles
    cast in stone – but he goes ahead and calls one anyway.

    · The Honduran Supreme Court says “Sorry Mel, you can’t do a
    referendum. That’s not within your power as president”.

    · Mel, or more probably one of his advisors, figures out that if a
    referendum can’t be done, we could probably do a survey or a poll instead!
    Great idea – nobody will figure out that the poll that we’re now going to do
    is exactly the same thing as we were going to do with the referendum.

    · Damn those people on the Supreme Court! They figured out the ruse!
    They ruled unanimously that regardless of what you call it, if it acts like
    a referendum the president can’t do it. If it looks like a duck, and walks
    like a duck, and quacks like a duck . . . .

    · Mel continues to talk of doing the poll on June 28 regardless of
    the Supreme Court

    · The Congress looks at the poll that Mel wants to do and gives an
    opinion that the poll would be illegal and they will not support it.
    Remember that Mel’s own political party is in control of the congress.

    · The Attorney General also analyzes the poll and determines that it
    is illegal. Over the course of the weeks leading to June 28, the AG
    reiterates many times that the poll is illegal and anyone participating in
    the poll would be committing a crime and could be arrested.

    · Mel runs into another logistical snafu. He needs some ballots
    printed. The entire political structure of Honduras (except him) has ruled
    that the poll is illegal. It’s a pretty sure bet that he can’t get the
    government to print the ballots for an illegal referendum so he asks his
    buddy Hugo Chavez to print the ballots. Of course Hugo says “No Problem

    · The rhetoric in the 2 weeks before the “poll” gets tense. Every
    legal opinion in Honduras says that the poll is illegal. The Supreme Court
    reaffirms its ruling that the poll is illegal. The Attorney General keeps
    saying that the poll is illegal and that anyone participating is committing
    a crime. Mel’s own political party says that the poll is illegal. There
    literally is not one legitimate group in the country that is siding with Mel
    about the poll.

    · Traditionally the military handles the distribution of the ballots
    and voting materials. The head of the military, Romeo Vasquez Velasquez says
    that the military will not participate in the poll because the Supreme Court
    is the entity that determines what is legal and what is illegal in Honduras.
    The Supreme Court has determined that the poll is illegal, so the military
    will not participate.

    · Mel Zelaya promptly fired Romeo Vasquez. The other heads of
    military (Navy and Air Force) as well as the Minister of Defense resigned in
    support of Vasquez.

    · The next day the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Vasquez was
    fired without reason and demanded his reinstatement. Zelaya refused.

    · The ballots arrive in Honduras (from Venezuela on a Venezuelan
    flagged plane). The Attorney General demands that the ballots be confiscated
    and held at a military installation.

    · Mel decides that if the military won’t distribute the ballots,
    he’ll get his own people to distribute them

    · Mel gets a couple of busses and a few cars full of supporters.
    They drive to the Air Force installation that was holding the ballots. They
    forcibly entered the installation and took the ballots. Not only was this
    “breaking and entering” it was a complete betrayal of a lawful order of the
    Attorney General

    · The Attorney General says that the President has committed treason
    and asks for him to be removed from office. The congress created a
    commission to examine Zelaya’s actions and determine if removal from office
    is appropriate.

    · A side note here about removal from office. I’m in no way a
    Honduran constitutional expert, but from what I understand, there’s not a
    clear means to impeach a sitting president. In a lot of constitutions, the
    impeachment of a president would be done by the legislative branch. In
    Honduras, there’s no such structure. There could be criminal charges brought
    against the president and the trial would be handled by the judicial branch.
    Not much different than anyone else accused of a crime. I’ve not heard of
    any provision to temporarily remove a president from office until the
    criminal charges were adjudicated. What would you do? Let a man accused of
    treason remain as the sitting president until the trial was completed? That
    would be insane, but that may be the only choice.

    · On Saturday, June 27, Mel got most, if not all, of the ballots
    distributed around the country. The polls were set to open at 7am on Sunday.

    · The Supreme Court voted to remove Zelaya. The Congress decided to
    remove Zelaya. The Attorney General stated many times that Zelaya was
    committing illegal acts and in fact committing treason. The military
    determined that the poll was illegal and that their responsibility was to
    uphold the constitution as opposed to supporting the president.

    · Early Sunday morning, about 6am, the military went to the
    president’s house and removed him from the building. He was put on a plane
    to Costa Rica. This was done to enforce the ruling from the Supreme Court.

    · This is where Article 42 of the constitution comes into play. The
    way that I read that article, Zelaya should have lost his Honduran
    citizenship at this point.

    · Once Mel had been removed, the President of the Congress (Roberto
    Micheletti) was sworn in as the new President of Honduras. This was exactly
    the person that is indicated by the constitution. It was a proper and legal
    succession of the presidency. The first thing that Micheletti did was
    confirm that the regularly scheduled elections would be held in November.
    His post is temporary until the new President was duly elected.

    · It’s been said all over the press that Mel was arrested in his
    pajamas. I personally don’t believe that. In an hour he would have been at
    some polling place to vote and also to motivate those that showed up. This
    was the biggest day of his life. I’d be amazed if he slept at all – I know I
    wouldn’t be able to. There was one report that Mel was actually in suit
    pants and a crisply ironed white shirt when he was arrested and he asked to
    change into other clothes. Quite frankly, I see this as more likely.

    I believe that this is an accurate depiction of the events that led to
    Zelaya’s expulsion on Sunday. If I’m wrong on a any points, I don’t think
    I’m off by much. The salient points are certainly accurate.

    I personally think that it would have been better to arrest Zelaya and hold
    him somewhere in the country. He was removed from Honduras in the interest
    of public safety. The feeling at the time was that if he was held within
    Honduras, his supporters would take violent actions to release him from
    captivity. It would be a difficult decision and I’m sure the powers that be
    did what they thought was best.

    I have been disgusted at the world reaction to these events. It’s like they
    only looked at what happened on Sunday morning and ignored what events led
    to that day. I don’t understand how the removal of Zelaya was anything less
    than a small country demanding that their country remain democratic. Their
    constitutional process worked exactly right to remove a rogue president with
    an agenda that was detrimental to the Honduran constitution and society.
    While the actions of June 28 would fit some definitions of a coup, it was
    certainly a legal and CONSTITUTIONAL coup. There have been several articles
    written that state that it was a MANDATORY coup. That’s a very difficult
    concept for most people from the first world to understand, but there are
    some coups that are good and even required.

    I’ve read so much over the past few days that I can’t remember where I read
    this, but the author was talking about the events in Honduras. He concluded
    by stating quite simply that if you find yourself aligned with Castro,
    Chavez, and Ortega – you should REALLY look at where you’re standing.

    I think that the Hondurans should be honored for what occurred. I know that
    I’ve never been prouder of a group of people than I’ve been of Hondurans the
    past several days. Instead of being isolated from the world and denounced as
    being “anti-democratic” they should be lifted on the shoulders of all free
    men around the world. I’m sure that there are plenty of people in Cuba,
    Venezuela, and North Korea that would LOVE to hear the story of what a small
    country can do to ensure democracy lives in their society for their children
    to enjoy. That is if the people in those countries ever hear of the great
    accomplishments of a small third world country with ideals and principals
    larger than the “democratic showcase” of the first world.

    By B LAnp on Jul 8, 2009

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