As we go to press, deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is hunkered down in the Brazilian embassy and the coup-installed Roberto Micheletti resorting to increasingly desperate and violent measures to hold on to power. Whatever the outcome of the standoff, it is clear that the golpistas (coup mongers) have achieved what they accused Zelaya of having only tried to do: They have polarized society, delegitimized political institutions, and bankrupted the treasury. Meanwhile, they have empowered the country’s wide-ranging social movements—made up of workers, peasants, progressive religious folk, environmentalists, students, feminists, and gay and lesbian activists—which have come together to oppose the coup government. While so far unable to restore Zelaya, these movements have prevented the new regime from consolidating itself.
In retrospect, it is hard to understand what those who carried out the coup in June hoped to achieve. Prior to the ousting of Zelaya, a candidate from either the Liberal or National party—both relatively conservative—was set to win the scheduled November 29 elections, an outcome that would have easily contained whatever popular restlessness was unleashed by Zelaya’s social reforms. But the coup, along with Zelaya’s dramatic stealth return, has created a no-win situation for the Honduran ruling class. If they negotiate Zelaya’s symbolic return to the presidency in order to legitimate the November elections, the social movement that backs him will feel victorious and the coup plotters discredited. If they force Zelaya back into exile, arrest him, or keep him holed up in the Brazilian embassy, the National Party’s Porfirio Lobo—now expected to win, since the coup split the Liberal Party—will remain diplomatically isolated, with social movements demanding a constitutional convention as the only solution to reestablish political legitimacy.
The latter idea was put forth by none other than Costa Rican president Óscar Arias, architect of the so-called San José Accords, acceptance of which the international community continues to hold up as the minimal requirement to bring about an end to the crisis. Arias recently called the Honduran constitution an “invitation to coups.” “This is something that will have to be resolved,” he said, “and the best way to do this is, if we can’t have a constitutional election, is to have certain reforms so this Honduran constitution ceases to be the worst in the entire world.”
Micheletti’s crackdown (at least 16 Zelaya supporters have been killed since Zelaya’s ouster) reveals more than his own desperation. It suggests the larger dilemma of Latin American conservatives. Over the last few years, those opposed to the region’s left turn, like Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa and his son Álvaro Vargas Llosa, have tried to represent themselves as democratic modernizers, having left behind the authoritarianism of the region’s old, Cold War right. This is exactly the image Micheletti’s coup hoped to project to the rest of the world—even hiring U.S. lobbyists and public relations firms to buffer its image.
But in Honduras, as in most of Latin America, there is no social base to create something along the lines of Europe’s new conservatism. Clinging to a discredited “free market” economic model, the Honduran golpistas’ political program is based almost exclusively on “anti-Chavismo.” And in a country as poor and economically stratified as Honduras, that means relying on increasing doses of violence to maintain order, resurrecting and reuniting the same revanchist constituencies of the military, the Catholic and evangelical churches, and the oligarchy that powered Cold War authoritarianism in Central America, to disastrous effect. Ominously, foreign paramilitaries, including an estimated 40 members of the Colombian AUC, have been contracted in Honduras, according to a UN human rights panel.
Honduras may very well be the “first reversal in the drive to spread ‘21st Century Socialism’ in the region,” as Iran-Contra veteran Otto Reich, a prominent U.S. backer of the coup, recently wrote. Yet that reversal—if it holds—comes at the cost of revealing the lie that there is a progressive alternative to the contemporary Latin American left.
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University. He serves on the NACLA editorial committee.