On 28 June 2009, a US-backed military coup removed the democratically elected president of Honduras Mel Zelaya from power. The heroic resistance of the Honduran people over the next few months failed to defeat the coup. This is what we wrote at the time (29/06/2009).
The coup in Honduras highlights once again that even mild reforms within the capitalist system cannot be tolerated by the local oligarchies in Latin America and their imperialist masters. But Venezuela teaches that if the masses mobilise reaction can be stopped. Now is the time to mobilise the full force of the Honduran workers and poor.
Early in the morning on Sunday, June 28, a group of 200 soldiers surrounded the residence of the Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, and after a 20-minute gun battle with his 10-man personal guard he was arrested. He was then taken by plane to neighbouring Costa Rica where he gave a press conference denouncing a military coup by “right-wing oligarchs”, calling on the people to mobilise in the streets and promising to come back to the country.
The immediate origin of this reactionary military coup was the conflict over plans by Zelaya to call a referendum on the need for a Constituent Assembly, which was opposed by the right wing dominated Congress, the high command of the Army, and the tops of the judiciary.
Zelaya, popularly known as Mel, won the presidential elections in 2005 as candidate for the Honduras Liberal Party, narrowly defeating his main opponent from the National Party. Despite being a wealthy landowner, the political polarisation in this small and poor Central American country pushed him to take some measures in favour of the poor, the peasants and the workers, adopting “Bolivarianism” as his model. He soon lost the support of his own centre-right Liberal Party and was forced to ally himself with the organisations of workers and peasants. In an interview with Spain’s El País he describes his political evolution:
“Look, I thought of making changes from within the neoliberal scheme. But the rich do not make any concessions, not even a penny. The rich are not prepared to give up any of their money. They want to keep everything for themselves. Then, obviously, in order to make changes one has to bring the people on board.”
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with over 50% of the population living below the poverty line and with a rate of illiteracy of over 20%. More than one million of its 7.8 million inhabitants have had to emigrate to the US in search of jobs. In these conditions, even the most moderate and reasonable measures in favour of the majority of the population are bound to be met with brutal opposition on the part of the ruling class, capitalists, landowners, the owners of the media, the local oligarchy.
Among the measures taken by his government are a number of progressive reforms, including a national literacy campaign modelled on the examples of Cuba and Venezuela, an attempt to improve healthcare for the poorer sections of society (including access to cheaper drugs, grants for medical students to go to Cuba), a cut in interest rates for small farmers and a significant increase of 60% of the minimum wage.
He also moved to cut some of the most glaring privileges of the Honduran oligarchic ruling class. He broke the monopoly of the multinational companies in the importation of fuel, through an agreement with Venezuelan based Petrocaribe. Zelaya also took measures against the pharmaceutical multinationals which control 80% of all drugs sold in Honduras, all of them imported at high costs for the national health service, by signing an agreement with Venezuela and Cuba to import cheap generic versions of the most commonly used drugs. The president also denounced the monopoly of the oligarchy over the mass media and put an end to government subsidies for the big media groups.
In the international arena Zelaya sided with the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the regional alliance promoted by Venezuela which Honduras has now joined.
All these actions contributed to increase his popularity and social base amongst the poorest sections of the population and enraged the oligarchy which has ruled the country in close alliance with US interests for nearly 200 years. Honduras for most of the 20th century was a classic “banana republic”, dominated by United Fruit, which controlled the overwhelming majority of the country’s best agricultural land and ran it like a private fiefdom with no reference to the official government of the country. There were periodic interventions of US marines to remove governments which attempted to curtail the power of United Fruit. The country’s formal “independence” was just a smokescreen, since it was firmly ruled by US imperialism for the United Fruit Company. The US marines landed in Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, and 1925. In 1911, the new “Honduran” president was directly appointed by a US mediator. In 1930, when United Fruit faced a solid strike in its banana plantations on the Caribbean coast, a United States warship was dispatched to the area to quell it.
In the words of Major General Smedley Darlington Butler of the US Marines:
"I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. (...) I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.(...) I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903"
Honduras also has a long history of Liberal presidents attempting to implement timid reforms and then being overthrown by the military and the oligarchy with the support and direct participation of the US. This was the case of president Vicente Mejía (1929-33), who was replaced by the dictatorship of general Carías Andino, supported by the banana companies which lasted until 1949. The same happened to president Villeda Morales, who attempted a mild agrarian reform and was overthrown by the US-sponsored coup of López Arellano, which ruled the country between 1965 and 1974. And of course, in the 1980s, Honduras became the main base for the operations of the US-organised contras, the counter-revolutionary thugs fighting against the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
Faced with the firm opposition of the capitalist class and imperialism, Zelaya thought that he could get around that by calling a referendum for a Constituent Assembly, following the model of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. He proposed that on Sunday June 28 a referendum would be organised to ask the population whether, as part of the November general elections, a referendum would be organised to call a Constituent Assembly. He had collected 400,000 signatures to back his proposal. On Tuesday June 23, the oligarchy, using its majority in the National Congress, passed a law declaring the proposed consultation illegal. The Supreme Court and the High Command of the Army also made similar statements. They were already preparing a military coup, in case the “constitutional coup” should fail. On the same day, left wing mayoral candidate for Tocoa local council suffered an attempt on his life when four hired thugs armed with AK47 assault rifles fired on his car.
On Wednesday 24, president Zelaya met with the High Command of the Armed Forces which refused to offer any logistical support for the consultation. Zelaya removed general Romeo Vasquez from his position as the head of the joint command of the Armed Forces. The other members of the Joint Command also resigned and Zelaya accepted their resignation. The Minister of Defence was also removed. On Thursday 25, troops were out on the streets of Tegucigalpa and the Supreme Court reinstated Romeo Vazquez to the high command of the Armed Forces. Zelaya made and appeal to the people to come out on the streets and thousands of workers and peasants gathered around the presidential palace to protect Zelaya. The troops withdrew.
On Friday, Zelaya, with a large number of supporters went into the military base where the ballots and the ballot boxes were being kept and took them away with no resistance before officials from the judiciary could seize them. Zelaya declared: “All the power of the bourgeois state was used to prevent it [the distribution of ballot boxes]. They used the judges, they used the military, the media groups. They could not prevent it.” And he added:
“We are talking about the bourgeois state. The bourgeois state is made up of the economic elite. The tops of the army, the political parties, the judges, and that bourgeois state feels threatened when I start to propose that the people should have a say.”
This initial resolution of the conflict in favour of the president and the people lured Zelaya into a false sense of security. On Saturday he declared to the Spanish El País that “I think I have control of most of the country… I control the Army... as long as I do not give orders which affect the rich.” He even added that he was confident that the US had intervened to stop the coup. A few hours later he had to jump from his bed when armed soldiers came for him.
The Honduran ruling class has lost no time. A state of emergency and curfew has been declared, Congress has quickly appointed a new president, Roberto Micheletti, who until now was president of the Congress and a wave of arrests of left-wing, worker and peasant activists was unleashed. According to some sources, Cesar Ham, the presidential candidate of the left-wing Democratic Unification Party was killed when he resisted arrest (UPDATE: it has now been confirmed that he survived the attack and has gone underground). Congress has ordered the arrest of the following mass movement leaders amongst others: Juan Baraona (Peoples’ Block leader), Carlos H Reyes (Peoples’ Block leader), Andrés Padrón (Human Rights Movement), Luther Castillos (trade union leader), Rafael Alegrón (Via Campesina peasant leader), César Han (Civic Council of Peoples and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, CCOPIH), Andrés Pavón (CCOPIH), Marvin Ponce (CCOPIH), Salvador Zúñiga (CCOPIH) and Berta Cáceres (CCOPIH).
The Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan ambassadors were detained by masked military men while they were visiting foreign affairs minister Patricia Rodas. They were later released, not before having been beaten however. The whole script of the coup follows closely that of the April 2002 coup in Venezuela against Chavez, down to the role of the media, the taking off the air of government TV channel 8, and even details like the appearance of a forged letter from Zelaya resigning as a president! Obviously the same forces are involved in both countries.
It is clear and public knowledge that the US knew that a coup was being organised. They had had conversations with the leaders of Congress in which the coup had been discussed. The advice from the US had been against taking the step of arresting Zelaya. Probably the US administration, faced with the mass mobilisation on Friday and having learnt some lessons from Venezuela, was not very confident in taking what might be seen as an illegal step and were more in favour of continuing with the script of the “constitutional coup”, leaving the removal of Zelaya for another, more favourable, moment.
Obama’s statement on the coup was certainly very mild. He called on “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” and added that the situation "must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”
We have a situation in which the democratically elected president has been illegally arrested by military forces and taken abroad and Obama calls on “all political and social actors” to respect democratic norms and the rule of law. This clearly leaves the door open to the arguments of the oligarchy that Zelaya was breaking the law by calling the consultation. A few hours later, after strongly worded statements by Chávez and a condemnation on the part of the Organisation of American States, the US administration came out publicly to say that they still recognised Zelaya as the legitimate president of Honduras.
Washington might have had some tactical disagreements with the oligarchy in Honduras, but they both share their opposition to any government that is seen as channelling the aspirations of the masses. We should not forget that the main characters in the coup are all military men trained in the infamous School of the Americas, and that the US still has 500 troops stationed in Honduras.
The same position seems to have been adopted by the Spanish El País, which has become the mouthpiece of Spanish multinational and imperialist interests in Latin America, waging a vitriolic campaign against the Venezuelan and Bolivian revolutions and against all left-wing mass movements on the continent. In a cynical editorial today their line is: We reject the coup, but we support its aims. (La vuelta del golpe, El País). They say that at the end of the day, “the truth is that on Sunday, either the president or the military, one or the other, were inevitable going to violate legality”! So, while formally rejecting the coup they are blaming Zelaya for “violating legality” for calling “a consultation which is not allowed by the Constitution and which had been opposed by Congress, the electoral authority and the Supreme Court.”
There are two lessons that must be clearly learnt from the events in Honduras. One is that even the most moderate progressive reforms in favour of the workers and peasants cannot be tolerated by the ruling class. The struggle for healthcare, education, land reform, jobs and houses can only be solved as part of the struggle for socialism. The second is that one cannot carry out a genuine revolution while leaving intact the apparatus of the bourgeois state, which will sooner or later be used against the will of the majority of working people.
El País, from the other side of the barricade, clearly identifies what was at stake in Honduras on Sunday: “What was being decided, at the end of the day, was the balance of forces in Latin America. If Zelaya got his way in the re-election consultation, chavismo would have won terrain in Central America.” The opinion of El País is very clear. This had to be stopped; it is just that the method was not of the best.
Venezuelan president Chávez, described the situation correctly when he denounced the military coup: "It is a brutal coup d'etat, one of many that have taken place over 10 years in Latin America. Behind these soldiers are the Honduran bourgeois, the rich who converted Honduras into a Banana Republic, into a political and military base for North American imperialism."
But, as in Venezuela in 2002, thousands of Zelaya supporters have come out onto the streets to fight against the coup and to demand the reinstatement of the president.
The trade union organisations, including the CGT national confederation, have called a general strike for today Monday. This is the way forward. Only through the mass mobilisation of the workers and peasants can the coup be defeated. Such a mass movement must also make an appeal to the rank and file soldiers to refuse to follow orders from their officers. Hugo Chávez posed it thus: “Soldier, empty out your rifle against the oligarchy and not against the people.”
We must give our full support to the workers and peasants of Honduras in their struggle for the reinstatement of the president. We call on the international labour movement and solidarity organisations to demonstrate their opposition to this reactionary coup. A particular role must be played by workers and peasant organisations in the neighbouring countries of Central America and Mexico. Mass demonstrations and pickets of the embassies in these countries would serve as encouragement for the masses in Honduras.
- Down with the reactionary coup in Honduras!
- Mass mobilisation on the streets and a general strike!
- Soldiers, turn your weapons against your officers and join the side of the people!