What Comes After Zelaya?
Manuel Zelaya Rosales’ unexpected return forced a dialogue and accelerated negotiations, but no negotiations in either the near or medium future will pull us from the depths into which this conflict has plunged us. Only a social pact based on a national project, including the now national demand for a constituent assembly, might prove positive following this tumultuous and incredibly costly period of our history.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
The coup on September 21 represented a sea change in the national conflict triggered by the June 28 coup d’état. When we received the news at Radio Progreso that deposed President Manuel Zelaya was in the United Nations headquarters in Tegucigalpa, the skepticism hardened by persistent rumors in an unstable and confrontational atmosphere led us to resist the temptation of broadcasting it without first confirming it.
One of the station’s journalists called a top UN official, who insisted, “We don’t know anything. And I can tell you that with all certainty because the director of our headquarters is sitting right here in front of me: it’s not true that Zelaya is going to come through here.” But the rumor kept being passed from mouth to mouth, cell phone to cell phone. The station decided to continue broadcasting Latin American songs despite a frustrated cry to us from the street to “Inform the people!” Then another journalist with a direct connection to the overthrown President called the station to inform us of a short message Zelaya himself had sent to his cell phone, which read simply, “Yes, I’m in Honduras, in the Brazilian Embassy. You can disseminate that.”
With that Radio Progreso put the news on the air and a few minutes later Roberto Micheletti, the usurper President, called a press conference to state that it was false and had been put out by desperate Zelaya followers. “That man is in a hotel suite in Managua,” he announced. “My intelligence team has just confirmed it.” Everything that happened after that ridiculous statement is now well known.
The objectives of the Like a poor man’s thrill, the euphoria of Zelaya’s followers in particular and the different expressions of the Honduran resistance in general didn’t last very long. The coup regime escalated the repression, persecution and control to a level never before experienced in the country’s history. Faced with mass mobilizations outside the Brazilian Embassy, the regime created a repressive siege and went as far as attacking the Embassy with toxic gases, establishing unending curfews that crystallized in the approval on Sunday September 27 of an executive decree establishing a state of siege.
wave of repression
In the afternoon of the next day, a group of police officers turned up at Radio Progreso to deliver an edict that according to the officer in charge had to be broadcast. The document established that public meetings could only be held with police approval following a request made 24 hours in advance, specifying the names of the people responsible for the activity, its motive, schedule, location and number of participants. It also warned that the nearest police station had to be notified of any meetings in closed spaces such as churches, halls or homes, including parties.
The executive decree established the closure of radio, written or television media that said or published anything damaging the dignity of public officials. Implementation of the measure was precise and immediate. During the early hours of that same day a police operation burst in on Radio Globo and Channel 36, both based in the capital city of Tegucigalpa and owned by recognized pro-Zelaya Liberals, whose programming was dedicated to attacking the de facto regime and supporting the national resistance. “And there’s still a radio station on the north coast,” said the de facto Minister of Government. Which would they descend on first, our station, based in the city of El Progreso, or Radio Uno, based in San Pedro Sula? We were the only two stations in the north coast region vehemently opposed to the coup d’état.
By week’s end, despite pressure, threats and tension, the closure hadn’t come. Fearful that the domestic resistance might overflow, the dictatorship decided to turn the screws to avoid new and unpleasant surprises. It expelled the Organization of American States’ technical commission from the country and refused entry to the European ambassadors returning to the country to contribute to the dialogue process, but these measures only revealed its enormous weakness and erosion. The specific objectives of all its measures were to eliminate the Tegucigalpa media not controlled by the media siege and with a strong influence on the resistance, force negotiations in conditions favorable to the pro-coup forces and pressure the media to identify the de facto regime as promoting and leading the initiative for dialogue. By then the resistance was totally focused on the Brazilian Embassy.
Everyone wants to dialogueZelaya’s return, mocking the dictatorship’s intelligence, exerted pressure to open up a dialogue that would lead to negotiations. Until his arrival, that possibility had been snared in the coup-makers’ delaying tactics. The unexpected turn of events strengthened the resistance, provoked the dictatorship’s repressive response and forced a reaction from national sectors that had been putting up with the coup for almost three months.
A week after Zelaya’s return, proposals for dialogue had been presented by the business sectors, rightwing candidates for the presidential elections, the US Embassy and the Catholic hierarchy from the Tegucigalpa Archdiocese. Although everyone understood that mediation by Tegucigalpa’s Catholic hierarchy was discredited, the cameras started to point to auxiliary bishop of Tegucigalpa, Juan José Pineda, who kept going in and out of the Brazilian Embassy. “Everyone’s talking about dialoguing, but nobody’s really doing it,” said the bishop, who has been seriously questioned by Honduran analysts for his close links to personalities identified with the coup and compromised by well documented acts of corruption. “I’ve decided to be the one who takes the first step.”
No one could remain on the sidelines after hearing this new information, which rocked both coup-makers and the grassroots resistance. Everyone got into the idea of dialoguing, some genuinely interested in helping resolve a crisis that was gradually sinking the country, but most seeking to capitalize on the opportunity to favor their own particular advantages. What stood out were opportunistic interests in recovering a lost image, avoiding the possibility of future sentences or settling of scores, or putting an end to a situation that’s severely affecting businesses and capital investment flows. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the negotiator, wanted to take advantage of Zelaya’s return to bring his proposal back to the table after having been quashed by the pro-coup sectors’ delaying inertia.
What Micheletti wantsThe team surrounding Roberto Micheletti knew best how to respond to Mel Zelaya’s return. They were feeling smothered by international isolation, besieged by domestic resistance and up against a November 29 deadline for holding seriously questioned elections, which they had already been warned would not be recognized by the international community or different sectors linked to the resistance. So they exploited his return to promote negotiations that would allow them to legitimize the general elections, guarantee themselves an amnesty and a big enough power base to remain protected from national and above all international lawsuits, and strike deals with the presidential candidates. In short, their objective was to stay alive within the state apparatus.
Zelaya’s mistaken dreamManuel Zelaya has given very clear signs of being a daring politician, expert at improvising and shaping an environment to suit his “genius and figure,” albeit with a wrongheaded analysis of the correlation of forces, which means his calculations end up off the mark. Thus he launched the “fourth ballot box” and moved toward a constituent assembly based on an analysis that totally overestimated the capacity of the grassroots movement’s forces, while underestimating the power groups that have demonstrated their enormous reserves and destructive capacity during this post-coup period. Zelaya’s decision to return to the country was based on another analysis, involving a very weak reading of the composition of the forces at play during his absence.
Carried away by the enthusiasm of three months of grassroots resistance, the man in the ten-gallon hat broke the delaying inertia imposed by the pro-coup sectors confident that the people would immediately surround him and carry him on their shoulders to the presidential palace, forcing Micheletti and his cronies to withdraw. And the call for a national constituent assembly would immediately become reality. Zelaya’s calculation of people’s spontaneous and enthusiastic reaction wasn’t wrong; they gathered by the tens of thousands around the Brazilian Embassy. But his calculations were still off the mark: there weren’t enough numbers and persistence to withstand the ruthless repression unleashed by the dictatorship. The resistance continued to fight back, but not in the numbers the controversial President from Olancho had perhaps hoped for, while Micheletti’s team—once recovered from its initial surprise and the mockery of its intelligence and security forces—decided to cordon off Zelaya in the embassy, exploiting his confinement to capitalize on the national and international demand for a dialogue that would lead to real negotiations.
A two-staged coup and a plan BMicheletti and his team of coup-makers obviously based their actions on an analysis closer to reality. Fully aware of their weakness and the political, diplomatic and economic blockade, they worked the last week of September and the first of October to reap the greatest possible benefits from the pressure being exerted for a dialogue that would put an end to their de facto regime.
For them, Zelaya’s overthrow on June 28 was only the first step—albeit a decisive one—toward consolidating their political and economic project. To put it more clearly, Zelaya’s banishment and the installation of a de facto regime headed by Roberto Micheletti appears to have been the first stage of a broader coup d’état.
The second step would be the November 29 general elections, which would legitimize and consummate the events of the last Sunday in June. While the coup-makers worked on this plan, they always had a back-up plan B, in case the electoral option did not work. This emergency plan—nurtured, no doubt, by Micheletti—was to prolong the de facto regime with its current composition for at least two years.
The argument to justify this would be that the resistance was impeding and boycotting the electoral process, preventing a favorable environment in which to hold peaceful elections. The de facto regime would thus promise to create the right conditions for truly free, democratic and transparent elections in the coming two years.
Approval of the decree announcing a state of siege played a dual role: a negotiating card for a regime that feels weak and needs to repress in order to dialogue, and a factor to pressure negotiators and mediators to push through a negotiated solution that guarantees the coup perpetrators immunity from possible legal action. Otherwise, the regime would block the elections, opening the way for the prolongation of the regime headed by Micheletti.
The political spur goading The politicians and businesspeople who allied to pull off the coup d’état have two spurs goading them to seek a solution with all possible urgency. The first is the electoral process that needs to be forged into a tool that frees them of any threat to their interests—understood by the Arab-native entrepreneurial alliance as Hugo Chávez.
the coup perpetrators
Micheletti and his team diddled with the dialogue, delaying any solution to get as close as possible to the elections. They thought that resistance to the coup wouldn’t last longer than a few days; a month at the most. They never expected such domestic opposition, let alone the international community’s encirclement. But dragging out any possible solution in order to reach the elections didn’t work out as expected, above all because the population took the resistance fight seriously and the international community warned that it wouldn’t recognize the results of elections held during a de facto regime. Washington added a small but decisive ingredient, stripping practically all officials and businesspeople directly involved in the coup of their US entry visas. All of this has encouraged a negotiated solution and forced the coup-makers to sit down, however reluctantly, with the pro-Zelaya sector.
The economic spurThe other spur is economic. Businesses are in big trouble and the State currently has no way to implement any economic project. Honduras is experiencing the exact definition of ungovernability. Even before the coup, the government could barely administer the international crisis. But today, with that crisis having severe effects on economies as fragile as Honduras’ and the international community suspending most of its aid, businesspeople have been screaming blue murder. Because their businesses are going under, the very same people who promoted the coup and created the media hate campaign against Zelaya and “his master, Hugo Chávez”—as they like to put it—are now the most ardent promoters of dialogue.
Experts say the Honduran economy has been so affected that the fallout will be felt for years, particularly, as always, by
the most secularly depressed sectors. Economists from the Social Forum against the Honduran Foreign Debt say that the lempira has slumped so much that in practice it has been devalued since June 28. The fact that it hasn’t as yet been officially devalued from its current 18.89 lempiras to the dollar is for strictly political reasons, but by the end of the year or the beginning of the next, once agreements are reached, it will be traded at 24. This means that both purchasing power and salaries will drop precipitously, while neither the government nor private business will be able to stop the inflationary avalanche and the deterioration in the living standards of grassroots sectors that are already struggling to survive in alarming levels of misery.
Devaluation and the worsening of the crisis didn’t just result from events during these more than 100 days of the de facto regime. They’re also an effect of the Zelaya government’s poor handling of the international crisis and its populist use of domestic reserves and international aid. According to one survey in March, 72 out of every 100 Hondurans felt the Zelaya government wasn’t taking appropriate measures to respond to the international recession. And the situation only further deteriorated following the coup for a variety of reasons including a 20% drop in the remittances sent home by Hondurans living abroad, increased unemployment following mass layoffs at the assembly plants for re-export known as maquilas, the loss of incentives for agricultural production, decreased tax revenue, a reduction of the national reserves and the freezing or suspension of bilateral international aid.
You don’t have to like Repudiation of the coup has been almost universal. The unanimous international condemnation and rejection of the Honduran case has been unprecedented. But the level of agreement isn’t as strong when evaluating the Zelaya administration. Repudiating a violent coup d’état doesn’t necessarily imply any affinity or sympathy for the victims of that act. Wanting all people and sectors rebelling against the coup-makers to be “pro-Zelaya” is like wanting the whole world to speak the same language, belong to the same race or have the same religion. What unites the Honduran rebellion isn’t Manuel Zelaya Rosales, but repudiation of a coup d’état. Only along these lines is it possible to understand the identity of the resistance; tying it to support for Zelaya only disperses and divides, as opposed to providing identity and cohesion.
Zelaya to oppose the coup
The resistance is a new realityIn the over 100 days of struggle against the coup, the country’s streets, highways, bridges, parks, mountains, paths and squares have been full of resisting people. But not all are driven by the same interests. The pro-coup media go out of their way to label all those opposed to the coup as the pro-Zelaya resistance, while pro-Zelaya Liberals go out of their way to insist on grouping all of the resistance under the single slogan of “Mel is urgently needed.” Nothing could be further from the real situation than a resistance under a single pro-Zelaya banner.
The resistance is a national phenomenon that has capitalized on older expressions of discontent and unease, bringing sectors traditionally organized into professional and other associations, trade unions, fronts of struggle, grassroots social movements, political movements and even employers’ associations, with many other sectors that have had no organizational experience. The resistance is a social phenomenon formed around the political demand to restore constitutional order that has succeeded in linking older social and political actors with a new one consisting of all those who spontaneously take to the streets to protest and express their repudiation of both the violence and the country’s rich. It’s a phenomenon that has awakened a rebelliousness contained and repressed for many years.
The pro-Zelaya dynamismAt the risk of falling into simplistic conceptions, the resistance formed by the coup’s 100-day mark can be seen as consisting of three “dynamics.”
The first is that of the pro-Zelaya Liberal sector, whose identity is based on its undisputed leader, Manuel Zelaya Rosales. It has brought together many people who, without necessarily being Liberals, have been captivated or enthralled by a President who broke the molds and faced off against power groups from the inside in a way nobody had ever attempted before, established international relations with sectors and countries with a clear leftist line and stood firm against the International Monetary Fund and the United States.
This dynamic established a line of alliances with leaders of grassroots and leftwing sectors, in which it was unclear where the Liberal Party ended and the leftwing leadership started. The pro-Mel dynamic has largely defined the identity of the struggle and, for better or for worse, the permanently improvised, suggestive words of its leader have determined the nature of the mobilizations.
The dynamic of the LeftThe second dynamic is that of the leftwing grassroots sector, whose identity revolves around ongoing resistance to the exclusionary neoliberal model in favor of the Latin American bloc headed up by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. This dynamic is pro-Chávez in nature rather than pro-Zelaya, but the fact that Mel Zelaya is with Chávez strengthens the alliance with the pro-Zelaya grouping, linking different fronts of struggle, such as the Grassroots Bloc, the National Coordinator of Grassroots Resistance, the Civic Committee of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the powerful and controversial teachers’ associations, the Coordinator of Grassroots Organizations of the Aguán (COPA), the El Progreso Permanent Grassroots Assembly (APP) and the unions representing banana workers and many others associated in Honduras’ three workers’ and union federations.
The persistence, cohesion and organizational nature of the resistance come from this second dynamic, although it has also shown the weakness of union organization in the country. This is expressed, for example, in the fact that at no point during the struggle against the coup has the weapon of a general strike been successfully implemented. The weak capacity of the federation leaders to mobilize their rank and file members and the distance between the two, in which the membership is dispersed and has a fragile ideological cohesion, has been evident.
There are very close links between these first two dynamics that often cross over and get confused, particularly with the leftist Democratic Unification Party (UD) and the independent candidacy of veteran union leader Carlos Humberto Reyes.
The dynamic of the multitudeThe third dynamic is the spontaneity of the multitude, the “mishmash” of people, some linked to the first dynamic and others to the second, but most of them independent. These people have had their awareness and rebelliousness activated and turned on the imposition of the coup, either going out onto the streets to protest or supporting those who do.
This dynamic includes people who in the months leading up to the coup were linked to the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice that emerged from the historical hunger strike of April-May 2008. That movement faced off against the same corrupt sectors that currently form the alliance responsible for the coup and are sustaining the de facto regime. For the most part they are common people who surely voted for one of the two traditional parties and are Catholic or Evangelical, but don’t agree with the blessing of the coup perpetrators by their priests or pastors. These people have been going out into the streets and walked dozens of miles or have given cheese, tortillas and juice to those out marching. This dense mass of people with their largely municipal-eye view on the world has made enormous strides in awakening its civic awareness in response to the violent imposition.
If the different dynamics The more the resistance is linked with the first of these dynamics, the less it will be able to find and express its own identity, while the more the second and third dynamics fuse, the more identity and grassroots power it will acquire. The challenge is to get the second dynamic—the one related to the leftwing organized grassroots sector—closer to the third while maintaining greater autonomy from the first. At the same time, the third dynamic will have greater influence and coherence the more it feeds off the experience of the second, but without letting itself be trapped by an excessively “trade union” style, which looks out for more its own interests than those of the poorest and non-associated sectors. The more color the resistance takes on from the mishmash of people who have taken to the streets, the better able it will be to shape itself into a new political subject.
come closer together
After Zelaya’s return, the observed tendency has been for the leaders of the first and second dynamics to unite, viewing the multitudes as little more than useful street-fillers rather than companions on the road ahead.
Best- and worst-case scenariosAny scenario that results from the signing of agreements between the poles in conflict will be able to contain the current crisis, but won’t resolve it either soon or down the road.
The most desirable scenario would be agreements that initiate an ongoing dialogue regarding the State involving not only business and political party sectors, but also those linked to the resistance and the international community, resulting in the creation of a new social pact.
The worst-case scenario is one reduced to agreements trapped in the very short-term context of the upcoming elections, in which eternal opportunists exploit any solution to the crisis to achieve greater quotas of power for themselves. And we won’t even mention here a possible scenario resulting from a resounding failure of the dialogue that leads to the continuity of the Micheletti coup d’état, even if it continues without Micheletti.
Scenario 1: One possible scenario involves agreements that restore Zelaya to government, albeit with his hands tied, just to legitimize the November elections. Those elections would most likely result in victory for National Party candidate Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who represents the pro-coup alliance and the new regime and would himself lead a regime with clear authoritarian features.
Victory for Pepe Lobo
Such a scenario would involve reassembling the same old pieces of institutionality subjected to the arbitrarinesss of the political party bosses and business leaders. This would leave the conflict still activated; the elections would be tainted; pressure from the resistance would continue to be a key factor in the country’s life; and the next government would have to increase the mechanisms of coercion and pressure to remain afloat.
Scenario 2: A second scenario would result from agreements that restore Zelaya to government for the few weeks before the elections, again hobbled. In this case, however, he would back one of the two leftwing candidates—César Ham of the Democratic Unification Party or independent candidate Carlos H. Reyes—with the central commitment of promoting a constituent assembly, an idea pushed as the resistance’s main political demand in the next political cycle.
The resistance wins the elections
In this scenario the resistance would be defined as a political party under Zelaya’s shadow, a symbol of the rupture of Zelaya’s sector with the Liberals and of the alliance between this Liberal sector and the traditional Left. It would be a kind of Zelaya national liberation grassroots party, an extension or transfer to the Left of one of the internal tendencies of the two traditional parties that have always seen their mission as revolving around some caudillo figure.
In the unlikely case of a victory by this alliance between the Left and a dissident Liberal sector, the winning candidate—César Ham or Carlos H. Reyes—would push for the establishment of a National Constituent Assembly between its first and second year in office, proposing none other than Manuel Zelaya Rosales as Assembly president.
Scenario 3: Civil warA third scenario would result from agreements restoring Zelaya to government based on the San José pact, conditioned on not calling any fourth ballot box or constituent assembly initiative and subordinated to a kind of transitory government of national reconciliation. Following a prior agreement, the resistance would exert so much pressure that it would finally force the executive to respond to demands for a constituent assembly, thus breaking with the signed agreements.
This scenario would run the serious risk of an extreme ratcheting-up of the conflict, assuming Zelaya would opt to fan social and political upheaval, leading the international community to erect a much more radical diplomatic blockade than the one raised against the de facto regime. The conditions could be set for not holding the elections at the end of November, opening the way to a violent conflict, even a civil war, with unpredictable consequences.
Scenario 4: Following meandering ideas, a fourth scenario would be based on agreements that would end up with a third figure as transitional President, someone who obtains consensus among both the pro-Zelaya and pro-Micheletti sectors. It could be someone from the clan of Rosenthal, a Liberal Jew who was part of Roberto Micheletti’s campaign team. One member of this clan was Zelaya’s presidential minister, who at the time of the coup gave Micheletti a wide berth, establishing an editorial line promoting dialogue based on the San José agreements. Although far-fetched, this scenario does have a certain logic, as the Rosenthals have always managed to land on their feet at each particular moment in the last 40 years, no matter how conflictive it may have been.
Someone else takes office
The most desirable scenario: The most desirable scenario is for the agreements to ensure the return to constitutionality with Zelaya’s restoration to the presidential palace, but opening the way for an international truth commission to conduct a serious, impartial investigation into abuses of authority, public crimes, crimes against humanity and the violation of human rights. The goal would be to move toward a reconciliation based on truth that guarantees redress for the loss of dignity and damages suffered in this conflict promoted by top political and business elites. No agreements should be accepted based on impunity for the violators and those responsible for the fierce repression exercised in the months following the coup.
A social pact
Women have charged that they suffered abuse and sexual harassment in the different repressive actions of the police and army. The case of the young woman from the August 14 protest in the city of Choloma, department of Cortés, who was captured, violently transferred to an isolated place then raped by four police officers, who shoved a billy club into her vagina and rectum, cannot end in impunity no matter how many reconciliation agreements are signed in the name of the love of peace and the homeland. The only way to love the homeland, peace and justice is to guarantee to the many people who have been violated, most obviously including that young woman, that the material and intellectual authors of the crimes will be tried by national courts and even the International Court of Justice.
In this desirable scenario, Zelaya, as constitutional President, would legitimize the November 29 elections, but would actually stress the creation of a social pact with the participation of political parties, businesspeople, sectors of the national resistance and of civil society, all of which would contribute elements to ensure implementation of a national project in the areas of agriculture, the environment, a solidarity-based economy, food security, health, education, housing, culture, security, the media, politics, political parties, current legislation, the rule of law and relations with the international community.
Such a social pact project must be passed on to the new government the day it takes office and be used to define good and bad government, thus starting a social vigilance process conducted by the same sectors called upon to design the national project. This could then be used as the basis for the political parties’ proposals for the following electoral process.
The national demand for The contents of this social pact based on a national project would represent the process to be followed to reach the holding of a national constituent assembly. This idea originally came from a small circle within the Zelaya administration, then became a demand from the Honduran leftwing grassroots sectors, and after 100 days of resistance against the coup has turned into a truly national demand.
a constituent assembly
Moving from the constituent assembly as a slogan to fleshing it out and adding content through a social pact and a national project is without doubt the main political task in the transition toward a new public administration. Working out how
to build, promote and socialize such an administration with all of the Honduran population should form the work and identity of the national resistance, that new political subject that has emerged from this tumultuous and prolonged coup period. Perhaps in this way we can finally break with Honduras’ bipartite model.
Ismael moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.