Manuel Zelaya, the former president of Honduras who was ousted in a coup in 2009 returned home this month after two years in exile. And since his return, Zelaya has dished it up to the post coup regime and the US. Even though it’s been a big year, news wise, it’s remarkable that the biggest story in Latin America has received scant attention in mainstream media since it broke. Manifestations of people power equal to those seen recently in the Middle East have been a feature of life in Honduras over the last two years.
Zelaya was perhaps the most popular president in the history of Honduras. Initially distrusted by the left because of his political base in the Liberal Party and his origins in an old landowning family dynasty, he won the confidence of a broad range of social organisations with a few moderate reforms — like raising the minimum wage slightly above subsistence levels, legislating free education to the age of 15 with free lunches for primary school students, and unlocking land formerly held by the US military from its legal limbo for use by peasant farming communities.
The pretext for the coup was viewed as flimsy not only by his supporters but also by the US embassy. Zelaya proposed a poll on 28 June 2009 on whether a non-binding vote should be included on the ballot paper for the November elections that year. This was a poll for holding a plebiscite on the formation of an elected Constituent Assembly to formulate changes in the constitution — which would then be put to another plebiscite.
Zelaya, who could not run for a second term as president wanted some assurance that his reforms would not be clawed back by the next administration. Early on the morning of polling day, however, Zelaya was whisked out of the country on the grounds that he was illegally attempting to violate the constitution to seek a second term. He was left abandoned at an airport in Costa Rica in his pyjamas. His daughter escaped by hiding under a bed, and his wife and two sons headed to three different embassies.
There was a spontaneous surge of popular outrage in response. After a day of non-violent confrontation with the military, the Honduras Resistance Front (the FNRP) was born.
Zelaya attempted to fly back into the country a week later. Conservative estimates put the numbers turning out to greet him at over 300,000. The military put trucks on the runway and live ammunition was used against non-violent demonstrators.
A few months later he made another attempt to re-enter Honduras. He was smuggled into the capital in the boot of a car and given asylum in the Brazilian Embassy. He stayed there for three months, sleeping on the couch and giving press conferences over the phone, only leaving after the coup regime threatened to take the embassy by force. 350,000 supporters saw him off at the airport.
Nearly two years after the coup half a million Hondurans have turned out again to welcome the former President back. Hundreds of thousands more mobilised in a massive nationwide street party to celebrate his return
In a recent series of interviews with Democracy Now, Zelaya went into much more detail about the coup and the role played by the US.
Among the bombshells lobbed by Zelaya was his allegation that one of the colonels involved in the coup told him that the planning group wanted to assassinate him. The military baulked at this. The coup planners proposed a mercenary squad do the job instead. The military baulked at that as well. We only have Zelaya’s word for this.
But given the Byzantine strategies of Latin/US American politics, it is credible. Zelaya has made claims before about the role of the US intervention in Honduras in the past, and interestingly, Wikileaks disclosures have proven them to be on the money.
Zelaya also slams the US administration for its role in Honduras. He expresses respect for Barack Obama, who along with the rest of the OAS (Organisation of American States) withdrew recognition of the coup regime, expelling Honduras when Zelaya was exiled. But less than two weeks later Obama took the advice of Hillary Clinton and a State Department stacked with appointees with dubious backgrounds and backed the coup regime. A July 2009 Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa admits that the legal grounds for the coup were embarrassingly spurious.
An election held in November 2009 was boycotted by nearly 70 per cent of the voting population (this, in a country with compulsory voting), and by the OAS which refused to send observers. The boycott extended to international human rights organisations who argues that four weeks of martial law with dusk to dawn curfews undermined claims that the election was free and fair.
The US and a handful of its allies viewed the election of Porfirio Lobo as legitimising the post-coup government, and proceeded to put pressure on member nations of the OAS to recognise it. Meanwhile the FNRP maintained a series of non-violent demonstrations and protests for nearly five months.
The turnaround by Obama was profoundly disappointing to Zelaya and the FNRP. Zelaya expressed a belief when he spoke to Democracy Now that the key advisors and officials in the State Department were old hands from the Cold War with ties to corrupt CIA interventions, apologists for, and possibly participants in, gross human rights violations. He is of the opinion that the right in the United States is responsible for the disastrous policy decisions that have so damaged Honduras.
The key negotiating issue over the past two years has concerned Honduras’ readmission to the OAS. Honduras had been hurt economically by the exclusion, notwithstanding the US upping levels of aid and loans to the country. The readmission of Zelaya to Honduras was negotiated in return for the readmission of Honduras to the OAS. The fact that these negotiations took place without the participation of the US is seen as a significant sign of a changing tide in the affairs of Latin America.
The first point of these negotiations, that Zelaya and other exiles be allowed to return unconditionally, has been met. Other conditions are pending. The FNRP is to be recognised as a legitimate political movement and may contest elections in 2013.
The OAS remains circumspect. Member nations are looking in askance at the human rights record of the post-coup regime. Ecuador voted against the readmission and Venezuela, which mediated the negotiations, abstained. The OAS itself has lost much of its influence with the growth in power of other Latin American coalitions like UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) and ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas). These have made the US-dominated OAS less relevant to continental affairs.
The current president Porfirio Lobo is favoured by the US, but there have been over thousands of documented human rights violations under his watch. In December 2010, Human Rights Watch reported "47 cases of threats or attacks — including 18 killings — against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists since the inauguration of President Porfirio Lobo in January 2010". Three journalists were shot, two of them fatally in the very same week that Lobo was negotiating with Zelaya and the FNRP in Colombia. In the same week 3 more campesinos were assassinated and another kidnapped, bringing the number of campesino casualties to over 40.
More ominously, Zelaya had been barely a week back in the country when the post coup government placed one of his closest colleagues under house arrest with US$1.4 million set as surety. Enrique Flores Lanza, former Minister for the Presidency under Zelaya returned from his exile in Nicaragua with his old boss. He was arrested for "wasting public assets" during the time he served as Zelaya’s minister. Zelaya has already denounced this as a violation of the agreement. Mass actions are planned by the FNRP with an angry call to the co-signatories of the negotiated agreement (Venezuela and Colombia) and the international community, to intervene.
The post coup government still appears to be intransigent. But with arch negotiator Manuel Zelaya back in the country anything could happen.
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