Manuel “Mel” Zelaya is a rancher and business owner who wears large cowboy hats and, in November 2005, was elected president of Honduras, an impoverished Central American country with a population of 7.5 million. On June 28 of this year the Honduran military, backed by the country’s elite, removed Zelaya from power. He instantly became a focus of attention for the U.S. media — his statements were examined, and his appearances at the United Nations and regional meetings were dutifully covered. Most media depicted him as a major “leftist strongman” seeking to extend his term of office in the style of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
U.S. journalists generally present world events as the actions of a few important individuals, a sort of Greek drama without the chorus. Latin American politics especially are viewed as a parade of good guys and bad guys — Fidel Castro, August Pinochet, Hugo Chávez, Alvaro Uribe. Which is good and which is bad depends on your perspective.
The current Honduras coverage is no exception. Most working people in this country, pressed by the worst economic crisis of their lifetime, understandably change the channel or click on another website. If you want celebrity news, the death of Michael Jackson is far more gripping than the overthrow of Mel Zelaya.
But was this coup really about a leftist strongman?
“What Zelaya has done has just been little reforms,” Rafael Alegría, the leader of the local branch of the international group Vía Campesina (“Campesino Way”), explained to the Mexican daily La Jornada on June 29. “He isn’t a socialist or a revolutionary, but these reforms, which didn’t harm the oligarchy at all, have been enough for them to attack him furiously.”
The local elite and the U.S. media insist that the nonbinding referendum Zelaya wanted to hold on June 28 was a power grab. In reality Hondurans would simply have been asked whether they wanted to vote in the November general elections on a constituent assembly to rewrite the 1982 Constitution. If this actually came about, the new Constitution might well allow presidential reelection, but it’s not easy to see how any constituent assembly could finish its work in time to keep Zelaya in office after his term expires on January 27, 2010.
A more likely motive for the coup lies in the Honduran oligarchy’s fear of what would happen if the people got a chance to write their own Constitution.
Not many people in the United States are aware that over the past few decades Hondurans have created, under very adverse circumstances, a vibrant grassroots movement: campesino organizations like Vía Campesina; three labor confederations, often competing, sometimes cooperating; a strong indigenous movement; Afro-Honduran groups like the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH);human rights monitoring groups like the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH); environmental groups; community radio stations; an anti-militarization movement; women’s groups; student groups; and a nascent LGBT movement.
Early this year, Honduran teachers went on strike for back pay and held a sit-in at the education ministry. In February the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) organized a 12-day mobilization to protest the destruction of forests. In April hundreds of indigenous Chortí blocked access to the Copán archeological park, probably Honduras’ most important ancient Mayan site, to press demands for land.
None of these were one-time protests — they continued long-term struggles, some going back for years. And these same groups, which frequently support each other and coordinate their actions, are the ones that have confronted the coup and the subsequent repression with massive and spirited protests throughout the country.
The Chorus Takes the Stage
The growth of social movements in Honduras reflects a pattern. Everywhere you look in the hemisphere, the protagonists of the drama are increasingly “the people from below” — los de abajo, as Mariano Azuela called the subjects of his novel of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
In the first months of 2009, general strikes by virtually the whole population of the “French overseas departments” of Guadeloupe and Martinique forced President Nicolas Sarkozy to agree to an increase in the minimum wage — and inspired workers’ struggles in European France. Starting in April, militant protests by indigenous Peruvians in the Amazon region, backed by urban unionists, shook the pro-U.S. government of President Alan García. In June students battled United Nations troops in Haiti, the only country in the Americas more impoverished than Honduras, in support of workers’ demands for a higher minimum wage.
These struggles get little media attention here, but they have a direct bearing on los de abajo of our own country. Working people in the United States understand the effects of outsourcing industrial work to other countries, and they know about the pressure undocumented workers put on the wages of the native born. What they don’t know is how these phenomena are linked to U.S. foreign policy.
Some 100,000 Hondurans now work in their country’s maquiladora sector, which assembles apparel and automotive parts largely for the U.S. market. About 300,000 Hondurans live and work in the United States itself, according to the 2000 census. Hondurans don’t actually want to do backbreaking labor for minuscule pay in maquilas in San Pedro Sula, much less risk their lives crossing the border to work in the sweatshops of Los Angeles and New York. It is repression by the U.S.-backed military and oligarchy and the hardships resulting from US-promoted economic policies and U.S.-dominated trade deals like the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that have forced Hondurans into these jobs.
It doesn’t do U.S. workers any good to rail against foreign countries and “illegal” immigrants. If people here are serious about defending their standard of living, they have no choice but to oppose their government’s foreign policies and to support their counterparts in countries like Honduras. Unions like United Electrical Workers (UE) and organizations like the National Labor Committee, US LEAP, Students Against Sweatshops, and the Maquila Solidarity Network are already active in this work. We need to back them — and maybe learn some lessons from Latin America about how to fight for our rights.
David L. Wilson is co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas and co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review, 2007).