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Military Coup in Honduras

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On 28 June, the generals of the Honduran Army, backed by the Supreme Court, launched a coup that removed from office President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, better known as Mel Zelaya and deported him to Costa Rica.

Young people, workers, the poor, all those who constituted the bulk of his electorate, are taking to the streets across Honduras to protest the removal from office of the president.

Honduran union leader Ángel Alvarado has called a national strike for Monday 29 June to protest the coup.

Opponents of the coup face a declaration of martial law and large scale military occupation of the city centres. "Warning shots" have, reportedly, been fired at the demonstrators. Radio broadcasts indicate that the military have set up roadblocks and shut down public transportation to prevent Zelaya’s supporters from outlying regions reaching the capital, Tegucigalpa.

The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) has issued a communiqué;

"We tell everyone that the Honduran people are carrying out large demonstrations, actions in their communities, in the municipalities; there are occupations of bridges, and a protest in front of the presidential residence, among others. From the lands of Lempira, Morazán and Visitación Padilla, we call on the Honduran people in general to demonstrate in defence of their rights and of real and direct democracy for the people, to the fascists we say that they will NOT silence us, that this cowardly act will turn back on them, with great force."

The crisis erupted when the army refused to distribute ballot boxes for an opinion poll called by President Zelaya. The question was: Do you agree to install a fourth urn (i.e. ballot box) in the November 2009 general elections to decide on calling a National Constituent Assembly that would approve a political constitution?”

The poll on 28 June was only consultative. Decisive referenda are severely restricted under the current constitution and prohibit an incumbent president standing for re-election.

The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez, refused to allow the army to distribute the ballot boxes for the June 28 poll and other materials stored on an Air Force base. The president then dismissed the army chief for refusing a direct order from the head of state and at the head of a crowd rescued them.

The heads of all branches of the Honduran armed forces then resigned in solidarity with Vasquez. Vasquez, however, refused to step down, bolstered by support in Congress and a Supreme Court ruling that reinstated him. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, too, called for a boycott of the referendum.

Vasquez, like many of the country’s top military leaders, graduated from the United States' infamous School of the Americas (SOA). US Congressman Joseph Kennedy has remarked, "the U.S. Army School of the a school that has run more dictators than any other school in the history of the world."

The reason why all the institutions of the Honduran elite turned on Zelaya is that they feared there was going to be a massive yes vote. Even though it would not be a legally binding referendum, such an outcome would make it well-nigh impossible to deny the people a real referendum in November.

The Citizen Movement to Restore Honduras notes the enthusiasm grassroots organisations have for the idea of a new constitution: "The poll is very popular, and has sparked the widespread mobilisation of party activists and progressive sectors, in which we include ourselves, and the people in general who see an opportunity to structurally change some of the many inequities in Honduras, and throw out, by means of a new Constitution, institutions built on the corruption and privilege of the national and internationally powerful."

With a landslide vote in the poll a tidal wave for social change and democratic rights would have been unleashed. All the power and privileges of the plantation owners, the big business interests, the hierarchies of the armed forces and church, could be called into question. They were terrified that Honduras might follow the path trodden in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Yet Zelaya had, thus far, done little to threaten the pampered Honduran elite. He himself remarked after his ousting, "Imagine if I had proposed a real reform? They would have executed me on the spot." Nor has he hitherto been a threat to the military. Again, he complained,

"The country is militarised. I am the president who has most supported the military forces and they repay me with betrayal..." He added, “We can settle our differences through dialogue." But what sort of dialogue is it when one side has all the guns and the other is totally disarmed?

What has the role of the United Sates been in all this? Between 1963 and 1982, Honduras endured three coups that merely changed military dictatorships. In January, Zelaya increased the minimum wage, from 157 to 280 dollars, producing a counterattack by the employers who sacked many workers. Then Zelaya courted US disapproval by joining the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) headed by Hugo Chávez. The US, despite Obama’s charm offensive, can hardly look with equanimity at the radicalisation of the situation in Honduras. No wonder Hondurans are suspicious as to what the US may be up to.

The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) stated that the U.S. ambassador "alerted beforehand of the events denounced here, left the country and called on the directors of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other institutions close to the U.S. government to abandon the country, thus demonstrating his complicity with the forces attempting the coup."

Since the coup, however, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has stated: "The action taken against President Manuel Zelaya violates precepts of the Inter-American Charter... It should be condemned by all. We call on all parties in Honduras to respect the rule of law.”

President Obama issued a condemnation more “even handed” as between the coup makers and the coup victims,

"I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organisation of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference."

We will see what actions follow. Honduras is heavily economically dependent on the U.S. In recent years the U.S. threatened to cut off visas, impose trade sanctions or block remittances when it felt US interests were threatened. Remittances from the Honduran citizens resident in the U.S. were $2.56 billion in 2007 alone, more than one-fifth of the country’s GDP, and the U.S. is by far the country's major trade partner (62 per cent of exports go to the US). It would hardly take more than a serious frown to bring the Honduran army to its senses, if that was what Washington really wanted.

It is, of course, possible that the networks of the CIA and US armed forces, which link many of the Latin American military to their Big Brother in the North, including such institutions as the infamous School of the Americas, has continued working along the Bush line or even seek to embarrass Obama. The Venezuela representative to the Organisation of American States has observed,

“There is a person who has been important in the diplomacy of the US who has reconnected with old colleagues and encouraged the coup.” He was referring to Otto Reich, ex sub-Secretary of State under Bush. Reich is now operating in the region under cover of an NGO. “We know him as an interventionist person... In 2002 he tried to deny the lawfulness of President Hugo Chávez."

On the other hand, even though Obama may not exactly welcome a coup at the moment, neither does he want to see a Venezuelan scenario develop in Honduras. Ironically, the plotters may have helped unleash just such a process.

Whether the US does anything to rein in the Honduran élite will depend on how sustained and effective the masses are on the streets, how effective the trade unions can be in launching a general strike and by confronting, with effective agitation, the troops being asked to repress the people. If the latter refuse their officers’ orders to shoot, then the coup will crumble and there will be a radicalisation such as happened in Venezuela. Vital to this would be the creation of delegate councils of workers, the rural and urban poor to take charge of the struggle. Added to the primacy of events on the street in Honduras, the verbal hostility of most Latin American governments and Washington could crack the unity of the Honduran high command and the political and business élite, turning the present revolutionary situation into a revolution.

The only danger then is a “compromise”, brokered by the US no doubt, that robs the masses of their undoubted democratic right to elect a sovereign constituent assembly from which they can, in turn, forcefully demand the fulfilment of their vital demands. Of these there are plenty.

Honduras was one of the original "banana republics"; in the 1920s, bananas accounted for nearly 90 per cent of exports. Coffee and bananas continue to be the dominant cash crops. 50.7 per cent of Hondurans live below the national poverty line and the United Nations estimates that over one-fifth are malnourished. Honduras is not only a desperately poor country, the third poorest in the hemisphere; it is also an incredibly unequal one.

The top 10 per cent of households receive 42 percent of the country’s wealth while the lowest 10 percent receive only 1.2 per cent. Forty-four percent of the population live on less than 2 dollars a day, according to the United Nations. US State Department figures show 38 percent of the population are unemployed or underemployed, not counting the more than one million who have migrated to the United States in search of the living they could not find at home.

The harsh conditions of life in Honduras cannot be solved by piecemeal reforms. Even the Venezuelan model, based as it is on that country’s huge oil resources and on the ousting of large parts of the old army high command after their failed 2002 coup, will not meet these needs. Neither is the model of the benevolent left wing, “socialist” president, controlling everything, the model to follow either. It is undoubtedly true that Venezuela’s social reforms, and the popular mobilisations (albeit controlled by Chávez) have acted as an inspiration to millions in Latin America. Nonetheless, the exploitation and inequality rife in Honduras can only be ended if the workers and peasants take control of their own political destiny, via democratic councils of delegates, an armed mass militia and an internally democratic revolutionary party.

Meanwhile, the first step is to defeat the coup plotters and drive them from power. That means mobilising in the workplaces and on the streets, a huge political general strike. It means winning over the rank and file soldiers and the police to join the masses. Then, a revolutionary constituent assembly can be elected where the delegates of the poor can find radical solutions to the country’s problems: land to those who work it, workers’ control of the factories and banks, free education and health service and a universal literacy campaign. Such a revolution should not stop halfway but progress to socialist measures, the expropriation of the big landowners, bankers and businessmen. Nor, in a small country like Honduras, can it stop at the country’s borders. It must expand outwards as a regional, continental and ultimately world, revolution.