Honduras: The Hour of the Grassroots

Three weeks after the June 28 military coup that expelled Honduran President Mel Zelaya and claimed to overthrow his government, the country remains shaken by a profound and dynamic popular upsurge demanding Zelaya’s return and the restoration of democracy.

The collapse on July 18 of the much-touted “negotiation dialogue” between Zelaya’s government delegation and representatives of the military coup was all but inevitable.

The talks foundered on the one issue that neither side could agree to discuss or give ground on: who is the constitutional president of Honduras?

Mass resistance and even opinion polls show that a strong majority of Hondurans back Zelaya as their elected president and demand his immediate return.  The coup has been denounced by all the relevant international organizations: the ALBA Alliance, the Central American Integration System (SICA), the Rio Group, the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union, and the United Nations.

Failure of Negotiations

However, the coup junta’s delegation at the San Jose, Costa Rica, negotiations broke off the talks, proclaiming that they could not even discuss the possibility of Zelaya continuing as president.  The Zelaya delegation then withdrew from the talks and announced that the president would quickly “return to Honduras to help organize an insurrection against repression.”

For Washington and the coup high command, Zelaya’s return to Honduras may represent the only way to avoid an armed popular uprising.  But, for the Honduran masses, his return, even under onerous conditions, would mean that the illegality and disastrous impact of the military takeover had been admitted.  Zelaya’s return could thus fuel mass resistance and further undermine the pro-coup faction.  The coup leaders and their U.S. supporters are in a bind.  This explains why they tried to stall for time with the maneuver of the San Jose “mediation dialog.”

Lamenting the failure of his mediation, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias warned of the imminence of “civil war and bloodshed that the Honduran people do not deserve.”

Meanwhile, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza exclaimed: “it is almost impossible to avoid conflict between Hondurans and call for calm when a dictatorship seeks to stay in power in full view of everyone.”

Washington’s Complicity in the Coup

The dictatorship has imposed brutal repression against unarmed civilian protesters, including assassinations and disappearances.  Washington, for its part, has pursued a two-faced and deceitful course.

The coup was planned in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, with the participation of the U.S. embassy and U.S. military officials at the Palmerola air force base.  The U.S. then voted in favor of the unanimous OAS resolution in support of Zelaya.  But the sincerity of this vote was undermined by statements by both U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.  Although they sometimes used the word “coup” to describe the army takeover, they waffled when it came to action.  More important than their talk was their walk: they did nothing to help force the army out of power, such as by ending military aid or imposing economic sanctions.

The Obama administration has since shown its hand.  On July 20, Phillip Crowley, spokesman for the Department of State, responded to a reporter’s direct question, about whether or not the coup was illegal.  He admitted that the U.S. does not consider the military power grab to be a coup in the “legal” sense.  The coup, evidently, was “not legal” — but by the same token it was not “illegal.”  The distinction means that it is not illegal to continue U.S. military and economic aid to the coup administration and the armed forces.  (See Eva Golinger’s report at “Postcards from the Revolution,” <www.chavezcode.com/2009/07/dept-of-state-agrees-with-coup-regime.html>.)

Obama’s duplicity should come as no surprise, despite the unusually intense hopes millions of people have for his promise of real change in an imagined “post-Bush” world.  U.S. Honduran policy is in complete continuity with its long history of domination and intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean.  As Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega pointed out to a rally of hundreds of thousands in Managua on July 19, the coup in Honduras came just ahead of the announcement of the opening of five new U.S. military bases in Colombia — a response to the forced closing of the U.S. Manta airbase in Ecuador and the feared loss of U.S. bases in Honduras.

ALBA’s Role

The U.S. administration’s tacit support for the coup leaders reflects their hatred of Zelaya’s measures to support the poor and in bringing Honduras into the ALBA anti-imperialist alliance.  ALBA — the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America — unites Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, and three English-speaking Caribbean countries as a spearhead and bulwark of anti-imperialist struggle to build social and economic solidarity among the partner nations.  (See “Honduras and the Big Stick.”)

ALBA led the process of Latin American unity against the coup, holding a series of emergency meetings in Managua to lay the basis for the unanimous OAS and UN resolutions.  When Latin American and Caribbean unity and determination to smash the coup became loud and clear, Washington opted to try to camouflage its role.  But there is no hiding the fact that the coup is directed against ALBA itself — against all its members and potential members.  As Latin American leaders have pointed out, if the coup is consolidated, other countries will become coup victims again, even without Washington’s prompting.  U.S. tacit support of the Honduran coup is a clear signal to military plotters.

ALBA leaders understand in blood and flesh that the coup is intended as blow against them.  Bolivia’s Evo Morales stressed this yesterday, explaining to a radio audience that “this coup is a threat against the continued growth of ALBA.”

Resistance on the Streets

Despite repression, mass resistance continues to grow in Honduras.  International solidarity up and down Indo-Black-Latin America and across the Caribbean has not waned.

Insurrection is in the air.  Stay in the streets, Zelaya appeals.  “It’s the only place that they have not been able to take away from us. . . .  I have not surrendered and I am not going to.  I am going to return to the country as soon as possible. . . .  The right to insurrection is a constitutional right.”

The coup regime has tried desperately to silence all critical media and has imposed a nighttime curfew.  Security forces have violently attacked peaceful protesters and arrested a large number of activists.  Two protesters were killed on July 5, and two activists and members of the left-wing Democratic Unification Party (UD) have been assassinated by unknown gunmen.

Returning to Honduras that day, visibly exhausted UD Congressman Marvin Ponce stated, “The people owe Honduras a revolution, and if the legitimate president, Manuel Zelaya, is not reinstated, there will be a confrontation between social classes.  What I can say is that the days of peaceful resistance, like we have had until now, are numbered.”

On Bastille Day, July 14, tens of thousands of workers, students, farmers, and indigenous people massed in front of the U.S. Embassy in the capital Tegucigalpa.  They came from all over the country in response to a call from the National Front to Resist the Coup d’Etat (FNRG).  About 1,000 delegates joined the rally from a rank-and-file convention of the Liberal Party, to which both Zelaya and the illegitimate president installed by the coup, Roberto Micheletti, belong.  Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro played a prominent role in the mobilization.

Since the coup, over three weeks of mass resistance has all but paralyzed the country and shattered its already feeble economy.  At least two huge demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of toilers and oppressed sectors have rocked the country.  On July 16, Central American labor unions staged solidarity protests, closing Honduras’s Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran borders.  Export earnings and investments are in free fall.

Despite total press and media censorship within the country, and a near-blackout internationally, coup leaders have not been able to muffle ongoing reports and rumors of fissures in their “united front” and even among lower echelons of the armed forces and police.

The demonstrations and strikes are not spontaneous.  They are led by the mass organizations of campesinos (peasants), indigenous people, students, Afro-Hondurans, trade unions, teachers, journalists, professional associations, religious groups, and human rights groups.

The FNRG is made up of dozens of organizations.  They are well connected internationally through active networks.  They have been influenced by previous struggles in the region, especially the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua during the 1980s.  Ongoing advances for the oppressed in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and El Salvador have inspired and assisted the Honduran mass movements, giving inspiration and lessons for the struggle.

The reforms implemented by Zelaya since he was elected in 2005 responded to growing pressure from the grassroots, as his government faced dozens of major protests and industrial disputes.  This gave impulse to a new dynamic interplay between Zelaya and exploited and oppressed grassroots sectors.

A ‘Council’ Dynamic

The FNRG has managed to unite people across gender, ethnic, age, and class lines.  Its ability to resist savage repression, and maintain street and workplace protests, has proven its political maturity.  That’s why the “Zelaya delegation” to the San Jose dialog included a rainbow of union, campesino, indigenous, and Afro-Honduran representatives.

On July 20, a large council gathering of grassroots leaders resolved to step up the resistance.  Unions announced a call for a general strike.  They reaffirmed their support for Zelaya and their call for a Constituent Assembly to remake the country’s constitution.  This assembly, in my estimation, revealed that the mass protests have taken on what historians of revolution and insurrection call a “council dynamic” — that is, organizing the participation and representation of workers, campesinos, national minorities, students, and oppressed sectors through local and networked councils.

The FNRG has enabled a new, dynamic interplay between government-level leadership and the will and initiative of the grassroots.  It is still only a beginning, but a vigorous one.  Whether it can be consolidated depends on the course of the struggle and on international solidarity.

How long can the mass resistance endure the ongoing repression?  People have to make a living, and cannot remain in the streets forever.  Campesinos will soon have to begin planting their fields.  Time is now more than ever critical to victory.

If resistance deepens, the hour of Jose Francisco Morazan, the 19th century Honduran national hero who implemented important pro-people reforms, may well have sounded.

Felipe Stuart Cournoyer is a militant of the Nicaraguan FSLN.  He divides his work between Nicaragua and Canada, and is a contributing editor of the digital publication Socialist Voice: <www.socialistvoice.ca>.