What took place in the wee hours of June 28 thrust Central America into a nightmare. The military coup d’etat in Honduras—which deposed President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya and his government and installed Roberto Micheletti as the country’s new ruler—ended our neighbor’s fledgling attempt at democracy, if that’s what we can call the nearly three decades during which Honduras was spared direct and visible military intervention in politics. Forces that we imagined had been relegated to the past rose up to re-establish what they called a “broken institutional order.” Left behind were the much-vaunted Esquipulas II Peace Accords of 1987, which began the process of building peace and democracy in our war-ravaged region, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter of 2001, meant to strengthen and maintain democratic institutions in the hemisphere. Neither of these prevented the despicable coup, which has affected virtually all of Central America with varying consequences. Those consequences are the principal focus of this article, but first some reflections are in order concerning what the Hondurans are suffering through.
Anything and everything has been said about Honduras since the fateful day of the coup. Commentary has ranged from the laughable to the pathetic, and only occasionally has it been serious and objective. Concepts and terms have been abused in an effort to dismiss alternative views and to advance one interpretation or another: It was a coup or it wasn’t; the White House and Pentagon were behind it all, or they weren’t; Mel or Micheletti. But above and beyond the juxtaposition of these two m’s, there is a third m that is seldom cited but must be placed front and center in any consideration of what afflicts our Honduran neighbors. That m stands for misery, the condition of the popular majorities of that long-suffering people. MISERY, in capital letters, a condition that is ubiquitous in a land ruled by megalomaniacal millionaires, mezquino (brutal) military men, messianic manipulators, marrulleros (fraudsters) and miscreants, murderers of people and laws, mastiffs of unworthy interests . . . these are the people who dominate our suffering societies, doing with them as they wish.
Poor Honduran brothers and sisters! As if the brutal poverty imposed on them by the more or less visible elites of their country were not enough, today they are oppressed by a political situation unlike any they have experienced for decades, and certainly quite unlike what could be expected at this stage of Central America’s history. On the one hand we have the de facto regime headed by Micheletti and supported by private capital, the army, the National Congress, the Supreme Court of Justice, the National Human Rights Commission, and who knows who else: 21st-century fascism in the making! On the other hand we have Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, together with his unswerving allies Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, supporting the deposed and now famous constitutional president of Honduras: nothing less than 21st-century socialism!
And then there are the official positions of other countries, which range from those who at first categorically condemned the coup and then followed up with prudent caution, convenient silence, or suspicious ambiguity, to those who pleaded with the deposed Zelaya not to return, to remain where he was to avoid a “civil war” and the consequent “blood bath.” But now Zelaya has returned, declared himself in power, and ready for the ultimate sacrifice. And that’s precisely what some would like to see.
In the midst of it all, to paraphrase the singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, está la gente—the people are there, the Honduran people, “the crucified people,” as the liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría once called them, subjected to everyday humiliations to which we can now add assaults on their dignity and human rights. And why? Is it because of their decisive and intransigent defense of democratic institutions, their decision to side with Zelaya, or their simply being poor Hondurans trapped in the context of a putschist government’s out-of-control crackdown?
I was part of an international mission of human rights observers that visited Honduras from July 18 to 22, and I returned August 19 to attend hearings conducted by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights during its visit to the country. The experience left me with no doubt that 21st-century fascism had come to power, so far with success. A synthesis of the human rights mission’s preliminary report, issued July 23, is as follows.
Fifteen people—including jurists, journalists, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, and experts on human rights from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, Germany, Nicaragua, Peru, Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay—began arriving in Honduras on July 17. We divided ourselves into four working groups, each tasked with gathering testimony concerning cases of alleged human rights abuses. We interviewed human rights organizations and activists, social movements, union members, journalists, congressional deputies, representatives of political parties, the attorney general, the human rights prosecutor, the director general of the National Police, officials of international development agencies, UN representatives, diplomats, the president of the Supreme Court, the ombudsman, the director general of migration, and members of Zelaya’s family. We excluded no one.
What did we observe? The obvious reality: a flagrant violation of the Honduran people’s right to self-determination as expressed through the elections that Zelaya won and that should prevail today until the presidential election slated for November 29. We heard accusations of serious human rights violations following the coup, including extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, countless threats of violence, constraints on freedom of expression and information, and undue restrictions on freedom of movement, all in an environment of clear persecution that particularly affects union leaders, human rights defenders, social movement leaders, and journalists.
What can be said now, more than 100 days after the coup? What can we add, at a time when information flows freely over the web and is available to anyone with an Internet connection? From the perspective of the mission, now established as the International Observatory on Human Rights in Honduras (OISDHHN), all that can be added to its report is that there have been still more deaths, detentions, and violations of freedom of thought, expression, and information. For precisely this reason the mission institutionalized itself as the OISDHHN. This has enabled us to compile firsthand, verified information, to continue measuring the gravity of events, and to continue denouncing them.
As members of the OISDHHN, we issued a communiqué on September 29 in which we categorically condemned Micheletti’s suspension of constitutional guarantees and liberties for 45 days, as well as the state of siege imposed once again by the de facto government.2 We repudiated the unconstitutional interruption of broadcasting and the military crackdown on media critical of the government. We deplored “the death of the young law student Wendy Elizabeth Ávila, who died on Saturday, September 26, in the Hospital Escuela de Tegucigalpa, presumably due to effects of tear gas.” We also condemned Micheletti’s rejection of OAS proposals to end the crisis, “the expulsion of four OAS delegates, the rupture of diplomatic relations with Brazil,” and Micheletti’s demand that the Brazilian government clarify Zelaya’s status within an arbitrary deadline of 10 days.
“In this context of repression and rapid deterioration of the situation,” we added in the communiqué, “it is clear that conditions are inadequate to conduct an electoral campaign. Hondurans cannot exercise their civil and political rights with freedom, and fundamental freedoms are constantly besieged and threatened.”
Given the various scenarios that can be imagined, one must ask: Who will be the winners? Will it be the so-called 21st-century socialism led in Honduras by Zelaya, or will it be the 21st-century fascism personified by Micheletti, together with the army and the segments of big capital who own the country? Of the two candidates in the upcoming election, will it be Porfirio Lobo or Elvin Santos? Any predictions could well prove incorrect. What is beyond a doubt, however, is who the losers will be: the poor crucified people of Honduras.
Another question in this vein: Who will prevail in the end, Chávez or Obama? The Venezuelan president quickly tempered the strident tone of his initial denunciations, while his U.S. counterpart began to adopt measures, a full month after the uprising, to pressure the perpetrators a bit more. Could it be that the White House has decided to do something to restore “order,” as it’s long been accustomed to do in its “backyard”? If that is the case, it has so far failed to achieve its objectives.
Among the many noble propositions of the Esquipulas II Peace Accords, now 22 years old, the following affirmation is found in the final document: “In the climate of liberty that guarantees democracy, the Central American nations will adopt those accords that allow development to accelerate, in order to achieve societies which are more egalitarian and free from misery. . . . Consolidating democracy involves creating an economy of well-being and an economic and social democracy.”3
After so many years, what is the situation in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador today? Sadly, we find communities divided by economic and social inequalities, political polarization, and the impunity that favors those responsible for grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Countries hijacked, openly or covertly, by drug-trafficking mafias, hit men, and corruption. Territories bathed in blood by gangs and anyone else who seeks to “resolve” conflicts with violence. Broken states, some more so than others, complete with stunted institutions and officials with sticky fingers.
Yet, at least until lately, these countries appeared to have liberated themselves from at least one problem that had cursed them throughout the past century: the subordination of the civilian population to military authorities, through which powerful factions were able to maintain absolute political control. Has this actually changed? We shall see. Guatemalan human rights defender Miguel Ángel Albizures notes that the military in his country is obedient and noninterventionist in matters that “don’t affect their interests; but once you get near them, they do not hesitate to threaten a coup or provoke instability in order to flex their muscles for anyone who dares to investigate their ranks, offices, and institutions, which they operate according to their every whim and desire.”4
Albizures made this statement in March, reacting to the failure of the Guatemalan minister of defense to submit all of the military archives covering one part of the genocide to a judge who had requested them. Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes has also already been warned not to touch the amnesty granted to his country’s military; this warning came from retired officials belonging to La Tandona—the infamous cohort in charge of the military during the civil war, which participated in a march of about 5,000 veterans on September 15, 2008.
After the Honduran coup took place, frightening justifications for it began resounding in El Salvador. Retired soldiers and civil guards deny that Zelaya’s exile from Honduras was the result of a coup, asserting that he is the one to blame for pursuing an “inadequate” referendum. One audacious Salvadoran columnist justified such a setback for regional democratization as the coup by calling it “a clear message to those Latin American leaders who wish to disrespect the established constitutional order in their respective countries.”5
A pundit saying this is not alarming. More alarming is another statement, given who made it: the retired general and former minister of national defense, Carlos Humberto Corado. For him, the ends justify the means, when he says the following: “The Honduran military analyzed this [situation] with other southern state authorities and determined that it would be better to abort [the referendum] at this moment than to allow it to [take place], for tomorrow it could turn out to be inconvenient for the national interest.”6
Corado is not considered a hard-liner. But there are other high-ranking retired officials who are, and extremely so. For example, Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, the now retired general who negotiated and signed the peace accords, warned Funes not to commit “the grave error of touching the amnesty” because, Vargas said, what happened to Argentina’s Raúl Alfonsín in 1987—when a group of soldiers known as the carapintadas mutinied over the trials of dirty-war veterans—could also happen to him.7
The Esquipulas II accords alluded to the “perfection of democratic, representative, and pluralistic systems that guarantee the organization of political parties and meaningful popular participation in the decision-making process.” And none of the signatories were overthrown by their militaries. Daniel Ortega and Óscar Arias, who are again today the leaders of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, respectively, were among the signatories and can attest to this. But did these militaries understand the message of the accords or did they in fact never let their guard down, remaining on alert behind the scenes of these “low-intensity democracies”? Who knows? In any case, what we see is that, as before, following the coup in Honduras the soldiery has returned to put a gun to the head of governments and societies in El Salvador and Guatemala.
If Funes treads on big transnational firms by enacting a trade embargo against Honduras, if he proposes “inconvenient” projects like fiscal reform, if his party fails to side with the right and opts not to select a docile attorney general and Supreme Court, or if he decides to listen to the demands for truth, justice, and reparations for victims—could what happened to Zelaya happen to him too? Would the Salvadoran soldiers behave the as their Honduran counterparts did if they believed that they should restore “order” to a country with the highest homicide level in the region and one of the highest in the world? What if they decide that Funes is doing something “inconvenient” for El Salvador (or, more precisely, for its owners)?
Although the current government’s military authorities have expressed no intentions of repeating a coup in El Salvador, there is concern about the bad influence that Honduran situation may have on the country.8 Who is correct? In this context of rising tension, on September 15 Funes’s government celebrated the nation’s independence from the Spanish crown with parades including students, indigenous people, and champion beach-soccer players. There was also, however, a big dose of military pageantry, even more elaborate than the army parades during ARENA’s governments. Worse yet, they marched in quadrants with names—Monterrosa, Atalcatl, Atonal—that do not merely evoke the names of indigenous leaders, but also, in the case of the last two, recall the rapid-attack battalions, better known as death squads, that committed atrocities yet remain unpunished.
At least to me, it was shocking to see the parading band of the Military School—the alma mater of future generations of military officials who should not be educated there—escorted by military helicopters and planes, knowing that they were spending taxpayer money on an extravagant show reminiscent of an era that we thought we had left in the past. But most disturbing was the “ingenius” combat simulation, even as the spilled blood from El Salvador’s truly fratricidal civil war is still fresh. And all of this took place to celebrate “independence,” after the Honduran military had just revived our neighboring country’s coup-plagued past.
Why does the Funes government, the government of “change,” provide a place of honor for a military that has not even recognized its responsibility for the genocide that took place both before and during the war? My common sense would answer that, in part, it is in response to the “Honduran effect.” But besides a fear of the established military, and perhaps some who are retired from the service, among others, another factor should be considered: This government has many favors to be repaid, above all to the country’s big capitalists—some of whose riches are of dubious origin, and who have traditionally relied on the armed forces to protect their interests.
Central American peoples continue to be impoverished and in deadly peril when the earth shakes, volcanoes erupt, hurricanes thrash, and grounds flood; the mortal victims of the violence and crime common to the Northern Triangle are abundant and insulting; justice still reprimands only the shoeless poor, while a few outfitted with “boots of gold”— members of organized crime or white-collar criminals—enjoy impunity. Furthermore, this infamous state attitude, above all in the judiciary, sweeps blood-red crimes under the institutional rug while protecting those camouflaged in olive green who owe truth, justice, and reparations to their victims; this final problem has been most serious and painful in El Salvador, because at least Honduras and Guatemala have abided by some of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights’ rulings.
In the field of diplomacy, responding to the coup in Honduras, both Funes and foreign minister Hugo Martínez have maintained, from the beginning, a careful posture, making measured declarations but clearly denouncing the coup itself. The most “belligerent” of Funes’s actions in defense of Honduran political institutions and their Constitution are of pair. First: his proposal, made shortly after the coup, to block commerce with Honduras for three days. Second: denouncing the coup and calling for a return to institutional order in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 23. These positions contradict those of ARENA, the right-wing opposition party, although at first ARENA and the Salvadoran corporate groups did in fact oppose the coup, crying to high heaven and demanding that the Funes government close the border with Honduras.
At the end of the day, neither the armed forces nor big business—be they in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador—are solely responsible for defending the Constitution and democratic institutions. It is precisely these sectors that have failed in Honduras. If Zelaya committed sins that merited his removal, he should have been prosecuted in a court of law, not in the arbitrary tribunal of military rifles. And in order for this to occur, a more active, intelligent, creative, strong, and firm citizenry is required to participate in and operate the state apparatus, remaining socially accountable. It requires willingness and courageous policies from government officials, as well as transparency.
We encounter an example of this ethos of civic engagement in Honduras from the editorial staff of the online journal El Inventario, where they defend their position as follows:
By and large . . . we are young, not old enough to have lived through previous ‘coups’; we do, however, have sufficient critical reasoning to reject what has recently been perpetrated and to warn that what is to come is even worse. We do not feel for, nor do we represent or identify, with President Zelaya, but even lesser yet with the military, Micheletti, or any member of this ultraconservative group which today took power. . . .
We are not in power, nor do we wish to feel like the accomplices of those who hold it, but we also cannot and will not stand by with our arms crossed. We are dedicated defenders of human rights, at liberty to debate, propose, protest, criticize, access information, and as long as we stay true to our principles that the two-party system and corruption have no place in our work, and as long as ethics guides our steps, we will stay on course to a hopeful resolution.9
Benjamín Cuéllar is a longtime human rights activist. Since 1992 he has served as the director of the Institute for Human Rights at the Central American University “José Simeón Cañas” (IDHUCA) in San Salvador. Translated by NACLA.
1. International Observation Mission on the Human Rights Situation in Honduras, preliminary report, July 23, 2009, idhuca.blogspot.com/2009/07/constatan-violaciones-sistematicas-los.html.
2. OISDHHN, “Honduras: Gobierno de facto desafía al mundo,” fifth communiqué, September 29, 2009, www.gloobal.net/iepala/gloobal/tematicas/crearpdf.php?id=8586.
3. Esquipulas II Peace Accords, August 7, 1987, full text at www.sieca.org.gt/publico/Reuniones_Presidentes/ii/acuerdo.htm.
4. Miguel Ángel Albizures, “Los archivos militares,” El Periodico (Guatemala City), March 3, 2009.
5. “Honduras ejemplar,” editorial, La Prensa Gráfica (Antiguo Cuscatlán), June 29, 2009.
6. Interview with Ernesto López, Diàlogo, Channel 21, El Salvador, June 29, 2009.
7. Blanche Petrich, “Jamás puede lograrse la paz por vía militar, dice el ex general salvadoreño Mauricio Vargas,” La Jornada (Mexico City), June 4, 2009.
8. Elaine Freedman, “Réplicas del terremoto político hondureño,” Envio (Managua), no. 329 (August 2009).
9. See inventariandoopiniones.blogspot.com/2009_06_01_archive.html.