Honduras began its transition to democracy 32 years ago, ending the long shadow of military dictatorships that had taken power through coups d’état in 1963 and 1972, and smaller-scale attempts in 1975 and 1978. For nearly two decades, the Honduran military had stamped its brand of authoritarianism on the country, marginalizing political parties and fragmenting social movements and protests. In 1980, however, the first transitional democratic government was voted into office in open elections. That government founded the National Assembly, which approved the new Honduran constitution in 1982 and laid the groundwork for the succession of eight civilian governments—five constitutionally elected presidents from the Liberal Party and three from the National Party.
From 1982 to 1990, Honduras was a weak but strengthening democracy. There was still a strong military and police presence, and severe human rights violations. However, with the end of the Cold War, Honduras was determined to overcome the Central American crisis. For nearly the next two decades, Honduran electoral democracy would be consolidated, and institutional reforms were carried out in the military, police, judicial system, and the electoral process. While the country was challenged by increasing crime and deep social problems that stemmed from unsatisfied citizen demands, the government offered greater political and ideological diversity.
Unfortunately, all of this came to an abrupt end with the June 28, 2009, military coup against President Manuel Zelaya (2006–9). The coup halted the progress of the democracy and knocked the country back into the past.
Since the coup, corruption has spread throughout the country. Many crimes remain unpunished, and citizens have been unprotected by the failing justice system. The armed forces and police, which maintained direct control of the state until 1980, have renewed their presence. The coup has also polarized Hondurans. It has debilitated the government’s bipartisanship and leadership, and handicapped a judicial branch that is incapable of resolving human rights violations, increasing police inefficiency, corruption, and impunity, and reaffirming the presence of the military in the most conservative sectors of Honduras.
During the weeks that led to the coup, the political-military-business-religious coalition that backed the coup revived its Cold War rhetoric and pushed forward ideological arguments that were aimed at stigmatizing social protest, spreading fear, and manipulating information to portray Honduras as a waylaid country on the verge of succumbing to international Communism.
The supporters of the coup used their money and influence to overthrow the elected government in different sectors. Retired military officials relied on their old training from the military academy and the U.S. School the Americas to ally themselves with the military leadership of coup leader General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez. Religious leaders from the Catholic Church, spearheaded by Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, and the evangelical church, led by Pastor Oswaldo Canales, rallied to defend their interests in the upper echelons of power. Journalists, in unison with the military and the clergy, lent their pen and voice to the service of the business-owned media, which aligned itself with the coup. Major businessmen dominate the Communications Media Association, including former president Carlos Flores, owner of the newspaper La Tribuna; Jorge Larach, owner of La Prensa and El Heraldo; and Rafael Ferrari, owner of the country’s biggest chain of television cable and radio stations. Powerful businessmen also controlled the Honduran National Business Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Chamber of Commerce of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula—two of the most important cities in the country. Frightened by the democratic changes that were upheld during the transition, they all committed their money and influence to the coup.
Honduran citizens responded by mobilizing in the streets to protest the military intervention. Many of these activists rediscovered old rebellious slogans, protest songs, graffiti, symbols of dissidence, and new heroes. When the elected government was deposed, Honduras became divided, forced to relive its history.
As in the 1963 coup, entrepreneurs, clergy, military, and conservative politicians who supported the 2009 coup imposed their private interests on the general public. This coalition, like its predecessors, tried to justify the coup as a bold initiative that was committed to defending society and democracy, when in fact they supported their own interests and did only what they considered necessary to protect those interests. All public institutions were subordinated to military and government interests, and after three decades of democracy, many Hondurans found themselves without representation, unable to exercise their civil rights.
The coup government responded to the popular protest with force, ushering in a return to the repressive policies and strategies of the past. The military and police aligned themselves with the political and economic elite; prevented citizens from exercising their rights, systematically violating the human rights of dissenters and the underprivileged; and manipulated the judicial system to give themselves total impunity. The military and police expressed the same contempt for the public interest as in previous coups. At all levels they imposed the superiority their weapons gave them, and they failed to embrace the lessons of the past 50 years. The coup government has not punished violators of human rights, has abused its power, and used force to contain social protests in 2009—as was done in the 1960s and 1970s—evading its legal obligation to process the complaints of citizens who were not being defended by the law. The clearest message was sent by the Supreme Court, which exonerated the military, arrested and deported Zelaya, and dismissed the accusations of multiple human rights violations.
In 2009, as in 1963 and the 1980s, the weakness of the legal system was exposed when it failed to defend its citizens. The laws and the binding framework of the Constitution were broken, human rights abuses went unpunished, social mobilization was obstructed, and speech was censored. Faced with this injustice, the legal system failed to react, and its leaders—judges, district attorneys, and police officers—became accomplices of those who broke the law.
The government’s failure to defend the public interest has been repeated throughout Honduras’s history, particularly during moments of crisis, when private interests undermine democratic reforms.
Today, 32 years after the transition to democracy (and two and a half years after the rupture of that democracy), old and new social conditions coexist across Honduran society, politics, and the military and police. Over three decades, Honduras has changed gradually from a rural to an urban society and opened its doors to information, education, and technology. Yet for all its efforts to modernize and democratize, high social inequalities still prevail. Honduras ranks 121 out of 187 countries surveyed in the Human Development Index of the United Nations (which ranks the world’s countries according to several social factors, such as equality). The rapid increase of crime and widespread corruption in the military, legal system, and police has intensified poverty and transformed Honduras into the most violent place in the world, with 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the National Autonomous University of Honduras and the United Nations.
Honduras’s instability has lowered its quality of life and sparked a nostalgia for the past among the Honduran elite, who demand severe penalties against crime and the application of hard-line policies. This strong desire for stability has empowered the military and the police to suspend democratic reforms, usurp control from the elected government, and abolish the separation of the military and civic authorities. Honduras’s insecurity has even reached the justice system, which lacks prisons that can carry out the rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates who are incarcerated in overcrowded facilities. One such prison in Comayagua caught fire in February, killing nearly 400 people.
Politically, the majority of people in leadership positions today do not recall, or have not studied the Cold War, the coups, and the crisis of Central America. Some older leaders support an authoritarian, vertical hierarchy that is rooted in the Honduran coups of the past and resists the democratic changes that are occurring in the world. The other leaders haven’t fully eradicated this authoritarian culture, but grew up in a democratic Honduras, which was often complex and contradictory.
This contradiction between old and new classes can also be observed in the armed forces and the police. Older generations, established at the highest ranks, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are directly linked to the shameful past of Honduras’s military coups. This older class retains power through the military hierarchy, while younger generations of officers who were trained after the Cold War and the Central American war period are still invisible. This is also the case in the traditional Liberal and National political parties, whose leaders participated in the democratic transition that ushered the departure of the military from government in the 1980s and are still in power. Younger generations of politicians are present too, directly or indirectly controlling state powers, but many of them have the same vices of the past, and the same attitude toward the military. Other politicians outside of these two groups have poor visibility, taking extreme caution and care to ensure the continuity of democracy.
In Honduras’s political climate, there are also old caciques who champion the military’s intervention in politics. These politicians do not acknowledge the military as subordinate to civilian control, nor do they respect the separation of powers between defense and security, military and police. They place soldiers on the streets when common crime increases (such as former president Ricardo Maduro, who served from 2002 to 2006), name ex-militaries to direct the police (all the civil presidents since the transition, both Liberal and National, have done this), and support military over civilian heads for the Ministry of Defense. These political dinosaurs also direct and influence the decisions of their parties, placing their relatives—children, nephews, and nieces known as bebesaurios (baby dinosaurs)—in political positions.
The same is true for the military and police. While the older graduating classes are being displaced by younger ones, there are still noticeable differences between higher-ranking officers who were complicit with the coups and human rights violations, and those officers who either joined or were enlisted later. The older generation participated in “social-cleansing” operations, which targeted democratic dissidents, journalists, religious and community leaders, and common criminals. They are members of the National Congress, the Supreme Court, armed forces, police, and large corporations—hidden but making the big decisions, and keeping outside the reach of the law.
This opposition between the old and new affects all sectors of Honduras, but more specifically, it will shape the elections in 2013. The 2009 coup damaged the two-party political system, having an adverse impact on the popular Liberal Party and encouraging the creation of a new political force that is known as the Free Party (Freedom and Refoundation). This group plans to enter the 2013 general elections as the political arm of the National Popular Resistance Front, which emerged in opposition to the coup, and for a National Constitutional Assembly. The right has also reorganized itself into a new political party—the Honduran Patriotic Alliance—which is composed of retired generals and colonels who support the presidential candidacy of Vásquez Velásquez, who on top of leading the 2009 coup was also trained at the School of the America. Once again, the old polarity between those who support change and those who oppose it will shape the electoral race.
The results of the 2013 elections will reveal whether the impact of the coup has ended the bipartisanship of the political system, whether the Honduran political and institutional spectrum can be diversified, and if Honduras can overcome its authoritarian past. The electoral battle will draw new territorial boundaries for parties that are competing on equal terms to attract votes. It will be a contest between the past and the present, between those who defend democracy and those who undermine it, and between those who want real change and those who prefer to maintain the private interests that have either been complicit in, or generated, the country’s widespread poverty, insecurity, corruption, and drug trafficking. The old and new will undoubtedly determine the future of Honduras.
Leticia Salomón is a Honduran sociologist and economist. She is the Director of Scientific Research at the Autonomous National University of Honduras (UNAH) and a research associate for the Center of Documentation of Honduras (CEDOH), specializing in governability, defense, and security.