Bob White | November 3, 2009
Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)
appears that the crisis in Honduras is coming to a satisfactory
conclusion. It is possible that things could still go badly wrong, but
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon has made it clear that unless
Mel Zelaya sits in the presidential chair prior to the November 29
election neither the United States nor any other government of the
hemisphere will recognize the election results. While we can expect
some face-saving maneuvers and delays, it is reasonable to conclude
that the coup is over and that is has failed.
I am worried by one statement that appeared in the Honduran press today
attributed to Shannon in which he seems to say that regardless of how
the congressional vote comes out the U.S. government would accept the
result. If this is an accurate quote it could be asking for trouble.
As I looked back at the rationale for the present coup, I was
struck by the many similarities between the coup of 1963 and the
overthrow of the constitutional government in 2009.
In 1963, toward the end of his term of office, President Villeda
Morales could look back with some satisfaction on his record. His
reform program had included social security, welfare payments to the
poor, and a labor code.
Fearful that Villeda's likely successor, Modesto Rodas, would
continue his program of moderate change, those who held the reins of
economic power convinced the nation's military leaders that it was
their patriotic duty to protect democracy by overthrowing President
Villeda Morales and sending him into exile.
In 2009, toward the end of his term of office, President Mel Zelaya
could look back with some satisfaction on his accomplishments. He had
pushed through legislation to preserve the country's plundered forests,
blocked efforts to privatize the national telecommunications company,
revoked concessions to mining companies that harmed the environment,
and raised the minimum wage. Encouraged by the broad appeal of his
populist agenda, Zelaya scheduled a straw poll to determine public
support for a constitutional convention to reform the constitution.
Fearful that the Honduran people might approve the reform
referendum, and with it, the possibility of a second term in office—not
for Zelaya, but for future presidents—those who hold the reins of
economic power convinced congressional and military leaders that is was
their patriotic duty to protect democracy by overthrowing President
In 1963, those who provoked the coup used their dominance of the
press and radio to falsely accuse Villeda Morales of acting as a tool
of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
In 2009, those who provoked the coup used their dominance of the
press and TV to falsely accuse President Zelaya of acting as a tool of
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In 1963, the successful coup ushered in a series of military
dominated-governments that set limits on the exercise of civil
liberties, including restrictions on free speech and assembly. Then,
during the 1980s the Honduran military, with U.S. help and
encouragement, established the infamous Battalion 316 that tortured and
killed citizens whose only crime was to oppose the use of Honduran
territory as a launching pad to attack Nicaragua and destabilize the
In 2009, the coup not only failed, it damaged, perhaps fatally, the
cohesion of the Liberal party, and succeeded in creating a new sense of
empowerment among the leadership of the poor.
For decades, most poor Hondurans have viewed politicians with
indifference and contempt. Bishop Luis Santos Villeda spoke for them
when he said "There has never been a real democracy in Honduras. All we
have is an electoral system where the people get to choose candidates
imposed from above." He accused the wealthy elites of overthrowing Mel
Zelaya because "he defended the poor."
It was true that the genuine concern Mel Zelaya had displayed for the
poor had to some extent shaken people out of their political lethargy
and suddenly large numbers of poor Hondurans had a cause. Guided by
leaders of labor union and campesino organizations, protest marches
broke out across the country. One young woman, a teacher, told an
onlooker: "I am not marching for Mel Zelaya, I am marching to demand
the return of constitutional government."
During the past four months of sporadic repression and declarations of
martial law, that young teacher and many thousands like her have
experienced a political awakening. They have discovered that in a
democracy, peaceful change is possible and that corrupt leaders may
eventually fall to concerted action.
These newly-minted democratic activists are also political
realists. They understand that they are citizens of a small
impoverished nation and require the support of the international
community to achieve practical progress and to promote economic
justice. They feel a justifiable pride that with the eyes of the world
upon them, they have, with help from their hemispheric partners, gone a
long way toward abolishing the stock description of Honduras as "the
quintessential banana republic."
At the Summit of the Americas, President Obama promised a new vision
for the Americas, a democratic Western Hemisphere composed of equal
partners engaged with one another on a basis of common interest and
shared values. When the Honduran military seized President Zelaya at
gunpoint and forced him into exile, Obama immediately declared the
overthrow "illegal" and said "we don't want to go back to a dark past."
While U.S. diplomats occasionally wavered in carrying out the
presidential guidance, Assistant Secretary Thomas Shannon did not. He
told those responsible for the results of this month's coup that
elections would not be recognized by the Obama administration unless
constitutional order was restored. Secretary Clinton talked to coup
leader Roberto Micheletti who accused her of having a vocabulary
limited to the one word: "restitution."
Those who argued that to bring back President Zelaya would only
serve to extend the influence of President Chavez have it precisely
wrong. Had President Obama failed to play a leading role in restoring
constitutional government, he would have fulfilled the dreams of every
anti-American demagogue who accuses the United States of talking
democracy but practicing expediency.
By refusing to be separated from our hemispheric partners, by
working through the Organization of American States, President Obama
and Secretary of State Clinton have played a key role in achieving a
victory for democracy in the Western Hemisphere. The Organization of
American States made an important contribution to the successful
outcome by keeping pressure on the coup government and by reminding the
lead actors, including the United States, of their duty and
responsibilities under the charter.
Honduras is notorious for its economic inequality. The wealthy few
who hold the means of power are literally above the law. These
oligarchs have learned an expensive lesson. More than that, the coup
they sponsored may have awakened the Honduran people from their long
Rip Van Winkle sleep of political indifference.
It would not surprise me if Mel Zelaya did not fade into the role
of Olancho cattle baron, but instead emerged as the symbolic leader and
unifier of a new populist movement whose first objective would be the
calling of a constitutional convention to draft a new governing
document that would give elected leaders more power to curb the
excesses of the Honduran economic elite.
E. White is a former United States ambassador to Paraguay and El
Salvador (1980-1981), where he was instrumental in the investigation of
the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen by Salvadorean death
squads. He is currently the president of the Center for International
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