TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras—On June 28 of last year, soldiers burst into the Honduran presidential palace in the middle of the night, put Manuel Zelaya, the country’s leftleaning, democratically elected president, on an airplane and exiled him to Costa Rica.
Cesar Silva, a reporter for state-run Channel 8 television, tried to go on the air to denounce the coup, but was censored. Instead, he took to the streets with his car and a loudspeaker to broadcast news of the overthrow, which was orchestrated by Honduras’ traditional oligarchy.
It would be the first of many independent broadcasts for Silva, 29, who tirelessly documented opposition to the coup and the human rights abuses that were visited on the opponents of the new regime. He too was forced into exile after an incident in late December in which masked men dragged him from a taxi at gunpoint and brought him to a clandestine jail where he was interrogated and tortured for 24 hours before being dumped on the side of the road on the outskirts of the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
“It was impossible for me to remain in my country,” Silva said. “I couldn’t go anywhere without unmarked cars with tinted windows following me, parked outside of my house — I didn’t have any other option than leave the country.”
A year after the coup, Silva’s experience is not uncommon in this deeply polarized Central American nation of about seven million people. A resurgence of paramilitary death squads along with regular pre-dawn police raids on the homes of government opponents have terrorized the population and helped reduce the visibility of the resistance. According to the Committee for the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras, there have been at least 12 politically motivated assassinations since late January and more than 9,000 documented human rights violations committed by state and paramilitary forces since last year’s coup. However, the repression hasn’t so much eliminated opposition to the government as forced it to take a different form.
The National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), or simply the Resistance, poured into the streets in the first days after the coup. For months, this massive nonviolent protest movement demonstrated daily, frequently blocking highways, while national unions carried out several strikes. Leading groups in the resistance include the Union of Beverage Workers, the Association of Secondary Teachers of Honduras, the Tegucigalpa- based Popular Block and the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH). All four have been targets of death threats and assassinations.
“The coup leaders want a bloody solution,” said Carlos H. Reyes, head of the beverage workers union and a leader in FNRP.
“That’s why they are repressing us.” The FNRP, whose platform is explicitly anti-capitalist, has evolved into a national coordinating body with local and regional coordinating groups as well. Despite the ongoing repression, it continues to organize “in every neighborhood, in every colonia, in every community,” according to FNRP coordinator Juan Barahona. The Resistance still calls for former President Zelaya to be allowed to return to the country along with 200 other political exiles. Its central demand, however, is transformational: a democratically elected constitutent assembly that would rewrite Honduras’ constitution to favor the country’s poor majority.
To achieve this goal, it is patiently building for the future. Anti-government marches that draw thousands still take place, but the focus has shifted toward local organizing, political education and solidarity building between the diverse movements and organizations that make up the FNRP.
“We couldn’t march half a block before they began to beat us and launch tear gas — that is why we began to change our strategy,” said Berta Cáceres of COPINH and FNRP.
“Popular Resistance Collectives” are one FNRP initiative aimed at broadening political participation throughout the country. These collectives are intended to create local, democratic and participatory spaces for reflection and action. They are already taking root: From the campesino movement in the Aguan Valley in the north to the striking workers at the National Autonomous University to the campesinos of Zacate Grande in the south, diverse organizations and communities have begun to develop a sense of solidarity with movements throughout the country, each acting from its own space, but with a common purpose.
On March 12-14, more than 1,000 delegates from the Resistance participated in a mock constituent assembly in the town of La Esperanza to begin hashing out concrete proposals in anticipation of installing a future assembly to draft a new Constitution.
In mid-May, FNRP initiated a series of public forums across the country entitled “Peoples’ Thinking,” in which participants discuss and analyze Honduras’ history and its present reality. These forums are also being broadcast over the internet so as to broaden the discussion and to allow the re-transmission of these exchanges by individuals, as well as community radio stations springing up throughout the country.
“The experience of the coup has saved the left decades of political education regarding the impossibility of genuine democracy under capitalism,” said Tomás Andino of the FNRP in a recent magazine interview.
With most of the large commercial media vociferously backing the coup makers, community radio stations with strong ties to peasant, indigenous and social organizations played a fundamental role in breaking the information blockade in the months following the coup, and continue to do so today.
Not surprisingly, these independent voices have been targeted by state and paramilitary forces. On Jan. 5, Garifuna community radio station Faluma Bimetu was pillaged and burned, and by the end of May courts ordered the destruction of newly inaugurated La Voz de Zacate Grande in southern Honduras. Operators of other independent radio outlets such as the Jesuit Radio Progreso have received numerous death threats and in some cases have had to go into hiding.
Just as the Honduran media is deeply divided, so too are other institutions. In this heavily Catholic country, much of the Church hierarchy has been outspoken in its support for the coup, most notably Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga. Yet, the majority of the Catholic base and much of the clergy are sympathetic to the resistance and have denounced the cardinal and other clergy for their complicity with the coup. Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos of Copán, near the border with El Salvador, and exiled Olancho priest Andrés Tamayo have maintained close ties to the Resistance, with Santos leading mass at highway blockades.
A DIVIDED OLIGARCHY
Honduras’s internal divisions extend into its ruling elite.
Rightist Porfirio Lobo assumed the presidency on Jan. 27 following elections last November that the FNPR boycotted and a majority of Latin American nations declared illegitimate. Since then, Lobo has struggled to gain support. His public approval ratings inside Honduras hover under 40 percent according to a recent CID-Gallup poll, while abroad the country still has not been re-admitted to the Organization of American States from which it was booted following the coup.
While maintaining a discourse of national unity and reconciliation, Lobo has taken clear steps to further consolidate the coup, placing current and former military officers in charge of migration control, the merchant fleet, civil aviation and even the state-owned telephone company. He established a truth commission, but his nominations exclude the victims of human
rights abuses — a fundamental element of truth commissions by international standards. In response, the Human Rights
Platform, a group of six national and international human rights organizations, has launched an independent commission that will begin its work June 28. However, his catering to the armed forces and the oligarchy has failed to placate the more hardline elements behind the coup. Lobo’s lack of popular support, combined with his clashes with certain business interests and even the Supreme Court, leaves him atop a government on the verge of collapse.
Desperate to obtain more international goodwill and legitimacy for his government, Lobo has also floated the idea of offering amnesty to both sides in the coup. On June 9, Lobo stunned observers when he announced he too was at risk of being deposed in a coup. The plotters, he claimed, were members of his own party.
“I’m warning you that I know who you all are,” Lobo said. “I have information, and you were wrong about me.”
Meanwhile, as Honduran oligarchs feud among themselves, the FNRP continues organizing.
All across the country, resistance members are in the midst of a massive campaign to gather signatures for “sovereign declarations” from their fellow citizens calling for a constitutent assembly to re-found the country. They also seek the return of all political exiles, including Zelaya. This effort is intended to counter the repressive political climate and broaden participation in the resistance before the FNPR’s founding assembly in September, in which it looks to consolidate its position as the most dynamic political force in the country.
The FNRP’s goal is to gather 1.2 million declarations, equal to the official number (most likely inflated) of votes that Lobo received in last November’s election. The declarations are being checked and centralized in Tegucigalpa. On June 14, with three months to go before the September 15 deadline, 549,743 declarations had been collected nationally. When the campaign is completed, the declarations will be presented before the Honduran Congress as well as international institutions to dramatize the level of discontent with the present situation in the country.
Last year’s coup was carried out with the tacit support of the Obama administration (which has since fully embraced the Lobo regime), the Pentagon and right-wing interests throughout the Western Hemisphere. They sought to draw a line in the sand against the “pink tide,” the growing wave of left-leaning governments that have risen to power in Latin America during the past decade and have slowly begun to move the region out from under U.S. domination. This is not lost on the FNRP, which sees its struggle in a broader context.
“What comes next is not at all easy for the countries of Latin America,” said Carlos H. Reyes. “The United States already has Honduras in its plans as a police force for Central America. From here they go against El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the same goes for Colombia … against the countries of South America. These people are ready to put an end to all of the integrationist processes that we have been developing across the continent.”
In spite of this offensive, the Resistance continues in its struggle to build “popular power from below with the direct participation of all sectors of society” towards a political program that responds to the grave crisis the country and the region are currently facing. As the one-year anniversary of the coup approaches, the FNRP doesn’t plan on mourning the assault on democracy. Instead, it recently announced it will celebrate “the birth of a authentic direct democracy, which has put us on the path towards the refounding of Honduras, and the construction of a just future for all.”
Chris Thomas is an independent journalist based in Chiapas, Mexico.
June 28, 2009
Honduran President José Manuel Zelaya is kidnapped by his own military and sent into exile. Head of Congress Roberto Micheletti is installed as president. Zelaya previously angered Honduran elites with a number of initiatives including raising the country’s minimum wage by 60 percent and forging closer ties to a coalition of left-leaning countries led by Venezuela. The coup takes place on the day Hondurans are scheduled to vote on a non-binding referendum to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the nation’s constitution, a move supported by Honduran social movements but deplored by the country’s political establishment.
July 4, 2009
The Organization of American States expels Honduras by a vote of 33 to 0. Called a “blow to the democratic conscience of the continent” by Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, the coup is widely denounced in Latin America, a region still scarred by memories of U.S.-backed dictatorships that flourished during the Cold War era. The Obama administration criticizes the coup but does little to pressure the Honduran oligarchy, despite its close economic and military ties to the United States.
July 5, 2009
More than 100,000 demonstrators march to an airport on the edge of Tegucigalpa to watch Zelaya’s attempt to return to Honduras accompanied by the presidents of Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador. His effort is thwarted when the military refuses to allow his flight to land.
U.S. State Department-backed talks between representatives of Zelaya and Micheletti begin under the auspices of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The Miheletti government is advised by Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton family political operative-turned-lobbyist for Honduran business interests. The talks drag on for weeks, giving Honduras’ new rulers additional time to consolidate their power.
Protesters inside Honduras continue to call for a constituent assembly and a new constitution. Zelaya successfully sneaks back into the country Sept. 21 and is greeted by tens of thousands of supporters when he appears at the Brazilian Embassy. The Honduran military quickly cordons off the area. Zelaya is confined to the embassy for the next four months.
Nov. 29, 2009
The main opposition groups boycott the elections as National Party candidate Porfirio Lobo wins the presidency in a vote marred by low turnout. The United States declares the Honduran elections a success while most Latin American nations refuse to recognize the election results.
Jan. 27, 2010
Zelaya is allowed to leave the country as Lobo is inaugurated as Honduras’s president.
March 12-14, 2010
A thousand delegates from the National Front of Popular Resistance convene a mock constituent assembly and begin to hash out their ideas for what they would like to see in a new constitution.
June 10, 2010
President Lobo announces that members of his own political party are plotting to overthrow him and install a new president.