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The Latin American Revolution (Part 3): The U.S. Empire Strikes Back Through a Coup in Honduras

By Asad Ismi

At 1 a.m. on June 28, Manuel Zelaya, the elected progressive President of Honduras, was roused from his bed at gunpoint by masked Honduran army soldiers, who kidnapped him in his pajamas and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. The army replaced Zelaya with Roberto Micheletti, the head of the Honduran Congress.

As the military coup unfolded, the army assassinated union leaders and political activists, suspended civil rights, instituted a 24-hour curfew, and shut down the national phone system, the national electricity grid, and nine radio and TV stations.

The military also kidnapped and beat up the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan ambassadors. The Committee of Families of Disappeared-Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH), a non-governmental human-rights organization, released a report in mid-July that identified 1,100 human rights violations committed by the new government since the coup, including murders, assaults, arbitrary detentions, and attacks on the media.

Such brutality has failed to stop mass resistance to the coup, which is unprecedented in Honduran history. Demonstrations, strikes, and road blockades have been mounted all over the country by organizations of trade unions, peasants, indigenous people, students, Afro-Hondurans, teachers, journalists, religious groups, and human rights activists. Dozens of such organizations constitute the National Front to Resist the Coup d’Etat (FNRG).

In the largest demonstration in the country’s history, half a million Hondurans turned up to greet Zelaya at the capital of Tegucigalpa’s airport when he tried to fly back on July 5. His plane was blocked from landing by trucks parked on the tarmac by the military. Two demonstrators were killed by soldiers at the airport. On August 12, 10,000 protestors surged into Tegucigalpa, demanding Zelaya’s return after having held marches all over the country.

According to Nicaraguan-Canadian journalist Felipe Stuart Cournoyer, “The Honduran economy is in tatters.” Import-export activity has been reduced by about 60%. Protesters have erected more than 200 road barricades, and public schools have not functioned since the coup because of teachers’ strikes and student boycotts.

“Health workers have maintained a long strike, and many other work centres have been hit by shorter strikes and slowdowns,” Cournoyer reported. “The de facto government has been unable to meet payrolls, and the profits of the ten [Honduran] ruling families are starting to dry up.”

José Martinez, General Secretary of the Socialist Party of Morazanico (a left-wing party in Honduras), told me during his recent visit to Toronto that through such impressive resistance the Honduran people “will remove the military dictatorship. The people have the energy and will to do this.”

The coup was condemned by Latin American countries acting through the Organization of American States (OAS), as well as by the United Nations and the European Union (EU), all of whom called for Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement. The EU cut off all aid to Honduras. The U.S. government formally opposed the coup, but refused to end all aid to Honduras or withdraw its military personnel, both of which it is required to do under U.S. law in the event of a coup.

The U.S. refused to acknowledge that a coup had taken place at all. Washington has long dominated Honduras and used it as a client state and military base to attack progressive governments in other Central American countries. In early August, the U.S. State Department announced that the U.S. had still not decided whether Zelaya’s removal constituted a coup. The Department blamed Zelaya for his own ouster, stating: “We also recognize that President Zelaya’s insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal.”

It was for Honduras that the derogatory term “Banana Republic” was originally coined. The phrase describes a country absolutely subservient to the U.S. and multinational corporations. The Honduran élite, economy and military are highly dependent on U.S. aid, and it is inconceivable that any coup could have proceeded without covert approval from Washington. The Honduran military is trained, armed, and financed by the Pentagon, and the coup leader, General Romeo Vasquez, is a graduate of the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas, also known as the “School of Coups.” This is where Latin American militaries have long been taught how to overthrow their elected governments and suppress their populations in order to serve multinational corporations, the U.S., and the local oligarchy. Honduras hosts Soto Cano Air Force Base, the Pentagon’s largest base in Central America, which Zelaya planned to close.

The coup has been defended in the U.S. by Lanny Davis, a key advisor and close friend of both Bill and Hillary Clinton. All three of them attended Yale Law School together. Davis served as Bill Clinton’s White House Counsel and as one of Hillary’s leading fundraisers during the 2008 presidential campaign. He was hired by the Honduran branch of the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL), an extreme right-wing association, to lobby the U.S. Congress, State Department, and White House in support of the coup.

Davis works for the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe. He appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to defend the coup, claiming that “democracy and civil liberties are flourishing in Honduras.”

Aside from lobbying the U.S. government, Davis is spending lots of money on media advertising to give the coup a positive image.

Bennett Ratcliff, another lobbyist who is also a close friend and advisor of the Clintons, was also hired by the Honduran coup regime to advise it on the negotiations it was engaged in with Zelaya in Costa Rica. It is very unlikely that close friends and advisors to the Clintons, such as Davis and Ratcliff, would be playing such prominent roles in advising and defending the Honduran military dictatorship without getting approval from both Hillary and the Obama administration.

Zelaya is himself part of the Honduran élite, a leader of the Liberal Party which, along with the even more conservative National Party, monopolized the political stage in that country. The Honduran élite consists of military leaders and ten families that, in alliance with foreign companies, dominate the economy. Honduras’s main exports are coffee, bananas, and textiles. The major foreign investors include the U.S. fruit multinationals Dole and Chiquita, as well as Adidas, Nike, Gap, Fruit of the Loom/Russell Corporation, Hanesbrands, and Gildan corporation (a leading Canadian company).

The last three companies dominate Honduras’s maquiladora sector (or free trade zone), which manufactures textiles for export. Textiles account for most Honduran exports. Honduras has the third largest maquiladora sector in the world and is the third biggest exporter of shirts to the U.S. The sector is massively exploitative, paying no local taxes and very low wages (about 77 cents an hour).

Two other important revenue sources for Honduras are remittances from its citizens working in the U.S. and drug trafficking, in which army officers and the business élite are involved. Honduras is a major trans-shipment point for cocaine coming from Colombia destined for the U.S.

Decades of U.S. domination and foreign corporate exploitation have made Honduras one of the three poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, along with Nicaragua and Haiti. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of Hondurans live in poverty.

That the Honduran people would resist their impoverishment and try to end it is no surprise, and Zelaya became their instrument for achieving this goal. Before Zelaya became President, both the Liberal and National parties protected élite and U.S. interests and differed little in policy terms. But Zelaya’s ascent to power coincided with two crucial developments that prompted him to move to the left.

First was the Latin American Revolution that had swept the continent, bringing left-wing governments to power in 12 countries, and setting a shining example for the rest. Second was the decision of many members of progressive labour, social, and peasant movements in Honduras, inspired by the Bolivarian revolution, to join the Liberal party and transform it into a genuinely progressive party. They called for a more egalitarian society marked by a reduction in poverty and the provision of public medical care and education — precisely the achievements attained by Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and others.

Under Zelaya, Honduras joined the Latin American Revolution, becoming a member of the progressive trade alliance known as Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) which is led by Venezuela and its socialist President Hugo Chavez, whom the U.S. has twice tried to overthrow.

Zelaya’s most significant step towards raising Honduran living standards was to increase the minimum wage by 60%, directly threatening the profits of U.S. and Canadian multinationals, as well as national Honduran companies. Zelaya not only made Honduras a member of ALBA, but also of PetroCaribe (a second trade alliance also led by Venezuela), which ensured that the country would get cheap oil and easy credit.

Through such measures, Zelaya hoped to reduce Honduras’s poverty and dependence on the U.S. and bring it into a more beneficial economic relationship with progressive Latin American countries. Zelaya also grew increasingly critical of U.S. policy, insisting not only on closing the American military base, but also objecting to Washington’s “war on drugs,” a major justification for the U.S. military presence in Latin America. Zelaya proposed the legalization of certain drugs instead.

“The United States is behind the coup,” says Martinez. “It has organized all the coups in Latin America. The U.S. wants to remove Zelaya because he was undertaking reforms that went against their interests. These reforms included raising the minimum wage and improvements in the education and health sectors. Zelaya was bringing Cuban doctors to help the most needy Hondurans in rural communities. Cuba has also sent teachers who have educated a million people in Honduras. ALBA also goes against U.S. interests because now our oil comes from the countries in this alliance. In the past, in the banking sector, we were charged very high interest rates by the U.S., and this is not the case with ALBA. ALBA signifies independence for Latin American countries.”

The final straw for the Honduran élite and the U.S. was Zelaya’s attempt to rewrite the Honduran constitution. The constitution had proved to be a constant hindrance to Zelaya’s economic plans, having been written in the 1980s when Honduras was ruled by a military dictatorship. The constitution set up a “notoriously exclusionary political system” and Zelaya’s attempt to democratize the system provided the immediate impetus for the military coup.

Zelaya planned to hold a referendum on June 28 (the day he was overthrown) on whether or not the ballot for the national elections scheduled for November 2009 should include voting on the question of convening a constituent assembly which would draft a new constitution. This was too much for the Honduran oligarchy and the U.S., whose position stood to be permanently undermined. Not surprisingly, the U.S. and Canadian mainstream media, including the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, CBC and CTV, portrayed Zelaya’s proposed constitutional reform as a power grab, accusing him of trying to remove term limits which would allow him to run again for office, but this was a blatant lie. Zelaya’s proposal said nothing about term limits, and the fabrication was clearly aimed at justifying the coup.

The coup signifies a clear decision by the Obama administration and the Pentagon to try to roll back the Latin American Revolution through military means. Zelaya’s removal was followed by the Pentagon’s announcement that the U.S. has acquired five military bases in Colombia, a very threatening development for its neighbour Venezuela and other countries in the region. President Chavez reacted by withdrawing the Venezuelan Ambassador from Colombia and warning that all economic relations between the two countries could be cut off. It is likely that, with its two highly aggressive moves in Honduras and Colombia, the U.S. is setting the stage for war in Latin America, especially given Honduras’s importance as an American military base.

What Zelaya’s shift to the left showed was that the Latin American Revolution cannot be stopped politically. Even the country most subservient to Washington in Latin America, the original banana republic, was going left, led by a traditionally right-wing political party. Thus only through wars and coups does the U.S. have a hope of stopping and reversing the progressive wave in Latin America.

This wave includes Central America, which currently has three left-wing governments in power in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In the 1950s and 1980s, the U.S. used Honduras as a base to launch wars on left-wing governments and guerrilla movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and it appears that, with the Honduran coup, Washington wants to redeploy this aggressive strategy in Central America today.

In the 1980s, the U.S. waged war on the Sandinista revolutionary government in Nicaragua and the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador, attacking them from bases in Honduras that housed the U.S.-trained and financed terrorist Contra mercenaries. Contra death squads raided Nicaragua, killing 40,000 civilians and blowing up schools and hospitals.

A military death squad known as Battalion 316 roamed Honduras at the time, kidnapping, killing, raping, and torturing hundreds of people. Women were raped in front of their families. Ines Murillo, a Honduran woman, “was brutalized with shock torture” by Battalion 316. Murillo claims that she was imprisoned in secret jails in 1983, denied food and water for days, and prevented from sleeping by having water poured on her head every 10 minutes.

Battalion 316 was trained by the CIA and supported by the U.S. ambassador in Honduras during 1981-85, the notorious John Negroponte. In 1994, the official Honduran Human Rights Commission documented the torture and disappearance of 184 people in the 1980s by Battalion 316. The Commission specifically accused Negroponte of complicity in a number of human rights violations. U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (Democrat) denounced Negroponte in 2001 for “drawing a veil over atrocities committed in Tegucigalpa…by military forces trained by the U.S. Dodd claimed that the forces had been “linked to death squad activities such as killings, disappearances, and other human rights abuses.”

Washington’s war policy failed in the 1980s and has little chance of success today. Almost all of Latin America has slipped out of Washington’s control, despite its genocide of about half a million Latin Americans since 1945 through coups, invasions, assassinations, and economic sanctions. These barbaric policies delayed the rise of true democracy in the region for many years, but could not stop leftist and progressive movements from eventually taking over most of Latin America. This is because leftist parties and governments have effectively moved towards fulfilling the basic needs of the people for decent egalitarian societies, which the U.S. consistently opposed. These governments have worked to eliminate poverty in their countries and to provide free medical care and education, fair employment, and meaningful political rights.

Canada’s Conservative government has followed the U.S. line on Honduras and made clear its hostility to Zelaya. At a meeting of the Organization of American States in early July, Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs for the Americas, called for Zelaya to delay his return to Honduras, saying “the time is not right” and adding that “it was important to take into account the context in which the military overthrew Zelaya, particularly whether he had violated the Constitution.”

Honduras is the biggest recipient of Canadian aid in Central America, and Ottawa has not reduced this aid nor suspended its military training program for the country after its elected leader was overthrown in a military coup.

According to author Yves Engler, “Ottawa’s hostility toward Zelaya is likely motivated by particular corporate interests and his support for the social transformation taking place across Latin America.”

Engler points out that, during 1996-2006, Canadian companies were the second largest foreign investors in Honduras, including Canada’s second largest gold-mining company, Goldcorp, and Gildan, the leading T-shirt maker in the world. Zelaya’s refusal to grant new mining concessions and his raising of the minimum wage by 60% could not have been well received by these companies. Gildan employs thousands of Hondurans at low wages and produces half of its shirts in that country.

The Harper government also opposes Zelaya’s participation in the Latin American Revolution, as well as the Revolution itself, a position Harper made clear in a trip to Latin America in 2007. As a senior Foreign Affairs official explained, Harper’s trip was undertaken “to show [the region] how Canada functions and that it can be a better model than Venezuela.”

Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, September 2009

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution which has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA. This is the third in a series of articles on the Latin American Revolution.