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More than Zelaya: Multilayered Resistance in Honduras

Is the significance of Manuel Zelaya’s return to Honduras really about the brokerage of the Organization of American States? Is it even really about Zelaya himself? Reports from Honduran citizens, and my interviews with scholars and observers on the ground in Honduras, suggest otherwise.

Yesterday, the legitimately elected and illegitimately removed President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, returned to that country “greeted by a large, heated crowd and a nation still bitterly divided by tension and violence.” The return was the result of an agreement brokered by the Organization of American States and signed by “President” Porfirio Lobo and will allow Honduras to re-join the OAS. In a final drip of irony regarding the “legal coup” that some American commentators have defended, a Honduran court dropped all the charges against Zelaya that had been used to justify his removal in the first place.

It’s clear that Zelaya’s return changes nothing materially. But it will surely intensify the political struggle that Zelaya himself set into motion, a struggle supercharged by the coup and subsequent repression. The intensification of political struggle will be stark, because, as one Honduran blogger wrote, the country now has two presidents:

Starting today, Honduras will have two presidents, two types of people, and the division will be absolute, a gap too big to heal, this division will be permanent, there is no doubt about that.
. . .  He was received with a hero’s welcome, amid cries of Viva Mel! President Zelaya! making it known that he remains their president, now is the time to reflect: Who is the real president of the nation?

Using stories often written by biased, pro-coup sources (outlined by Adreienne Pine in my interview with her below), the mainstream media has largely focused on the role of the Organization of American States and the impact of Honduras’s re-entry into the OAS. The American media has largely ignored the involvement of the United States government in the politics of the coup and subsequent installation of Lobo, as well as the repression that followed the coup. The post-coup atmosphere in Honduras has been retro-style brutal.  Violence against women is pervasive and deliberately ignored by authorities. There is a great deal of repression of journalists, typified by the recent murder of Hector Francisco Medina Polanco, who had reported on corruption in the right wing government. Widespread assassination and intimidation of union members, teachers, and campensinos (peasants) has been reported. In the face of all this, Zelaya is perceived by many as a source of potential stabilization, rather than the destabilizing force in the right wing government’s contrived narrative justifying the coup.

While there has been speculation and debate concerning whether the U.S. engineered the original coup or passively supported it, there is little doubt that capital, and the military industrial complex, view Honduras with a different criterial lens than that of ordinary working people. This letter urging contractors and construction companies not to bid on infrastructure supporting U.S. military presence is significant. It includes leadership of several major religious groups, as well as Noam Chomsky and other academic activists.

I spoke briefly with Dana Frank, prof history at UC Santa Cruz,  author of “Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America.” The other day, Frank wrote:

President Zelaya’s return offers a brief glimmer of hope, but the ongoing repression by current President Porfirio Lobo’s military regime — now even worse than immediately after the coup — remains undiminished, as state security forces now routinely use tear gas canisters as lethal weapons, and teachers, trade unionists and campesinos in the opposition are still being assassinated with complete impunity. Lobo and Secretary of State Clinton insist that democracy has been restored to Honduras. But the reality on the ground remains terrifying, which is why over 75 Congress members are calling for a suspension of U.S. military and police aid to Honduras.

I asked her if she still believed this to be true, and whether the OAS-brokered agreement would do anything to stem the political repression and human rights violations in Honduras. “The agreement guarantees nothing new except to Zelaya,” she told me. “Lobo’s police already teargassed and use live bullets against high school students on Wednesday, who were peacefully protesting the suspension of their teachers.  This is AFTER the accord.”

I had a more extensive conversation with Adrienne Pine, assistant professor of anthropology at American University, is in Honduras presently, and was able to answer several detailed questions when I contacted her there, the day before Zelaya’s return. Among the most important things I learned from my interview with Professor Pine are first, that not all who opposed the coup are “Zelaya supporters” and, by extension, the drive to reform Honduras goes beyond simply Zelaya; and second, that we should be suspicious of the mainstream media concerning Honduran politics, as evidenced by Pine’s critique of the work of Freddy Cuevas. Third, the vast majority of Hondurans, regardless of their attitude toward Zelaya, consider the Lobo regime completely illegitimate.

POLITICALCONTEXT.ORG: Here’s what the Associated Press had to say–it seems very spun: “The 2009 coup that was staged to maintain the interests of Honduras’ political and business elite in the end may have created a window for change in one of the Americas’ poorest countries, where more than 65 percent of the people live in poverty.” The article goes on to mention that congress has amended the  constitution to do what Zelaya wanted to do, and also speculates that his popular support may be thin. How much of this is accurate?

Adrienne Pine: [AP reporter] Freddy Cuevas is a notoriously pro-coup reporter who has time and  again distorted the facts on the ground and repeated nearly verbatim  (albeit in translation) the lies of the same Honduran media outlets  that themselves sponsored and provided the propaganda for the coup, and hired Lanny Davis as the Micheletti regime’s lobbyist in Washington.

 [Prof. Pine has written some notes about Cuevas’s work here and here.]

With regards to his claims in this particular article, he misleads as usual. “Honduras wanted back into the international community, specifically the Organization of American States” is an outright lie, unless you’re counting “Honduras” to mean only the Lobo administration and other coup-supporters. The vast resistance movement itself does not recognize the Lobo administration and is nearly unanimously opposed to reintegration into the OAS.

The amendment to the constitution Cuevas refers to was carried out only in response to a massive campaign last year in which a “Citizen Declaration demanding a representative, popular, and inclusive constituent assembly be held was signed by well over 1 million 250 thousand people. The amendment only provides the possibility of a constitutional assembly, without any promise of participatory inclusive democratic process demanded by the Resistance movement, and which formed part of Zelaya’s original proposal.

The idea that Zelaya’s support is thin is utter nonsense. Whether he will retain his popularity in the months following his arrival is certainly up to debate, but at the moment Zelaya, as General Coordinator of the FNRP, has a something approaching saint-like status among a majority of Hondurans, something that will be more than evident in the masses of people that will be there, rain or shine, to receive him tomorrow.

PC: What is happening to Zelaya supporters on the ground right now? 

AP: It’s important to note that many, many of those who opposed the coup, and even gave their lives in the Resistance struggle, do not consider themselves Zelaya supporters.  This has been a linguistic trick of the right wing to try to link Zelaya to Chavez (as a strongman with “followers” who don’t lead themselves) and to simplify the struggle of the Resistance movement, which for most Resistance members is not about Zelaya, but rather about (albeit via different proposed strategies) the refoundation of the nation.

The repression has only increased in recent months, with militarized police shooting directly into crowds on a weekly, and sometimes even daily basis, with live ammunition and teargas canisters, which are lethal. Just this week in Tegucigalpa, police ambushed a high school, shooting teargas canisters and live bullets at students as young as 16 years old who were protesting the Lobo government’s suspension of their math teacher for speaking out against the privatization of education. One student was sent to the hospital and 21 others were arrested—along with two student mothers, who had come to beg for mercy—for threatening the public order.

PC: A group called Artists in Resistance posted a letter in support of  Zelaya: Translated, a portion reads:

Artists in Resistance is part of an essential current that seeks to make power an instrument of the people, and along this road we have been witnesses to the growth of thousands of voices and faces of leadership, leaders of neighborhoods, municipalities, towns, collectives, and organizations — an immense demonstration of the strength and will accumulated over decades in the bowels of a humiliated Honduras.

AP: I translated that letter, and I wouldn’t say it’s in support of Zelaya. It’s welcoming him as a compañero in struggle, but at the same time making it quite clear that the collective disagrees with processes like that of the Cartagena Accord, which Zelaya signed without consulting the diverse leaders mentioned in the above quote. The Cartagena Accord, in paving the way for the FNRP to participate as a political party and for Honduras to be reincorporated into the OAS, also contradicts the overwhelming majority decision taken by the representative members of the FNRP in its national assembly on February 26, in which it determined that it would not participate in the electoral process and that it would not recognize the Lobo administration.

PC: At The Nation, Tom Hayden writes: “The National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) has been headed by Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, Juan Barahona, Rasel Tome, Guillermo Jimenez Rafael Alegria, and a cross-section of other popular leaders. At a convention in February, they voted to join a broad front (“frente amplio”) aimed a ‘refounding’ Honduras through the constituent assembly.” What are the viability and significance of groups like these?

AP: Hayden, whom I admire deeply, here unfortunately presents a simplified analysis of the FNRP structure, ignoring the point made by the Artists in Resistance above. The Resistance movement has not responded to the hierarchical leadership Hayden describes, but rather has created 
thousands of new leaders at all levels, many of whom aspire to a much more participatory and horizontal democratic process than that implied here. As a result, and as a result of the determination of the majority of the movement to NOT participate in elections, if we’re talking about electoral viability, I would say viability is low. The majority of the Resistance movement itself is not enthusiastic about that route, which it sees as illegitimate, and the “leadership” cited by Hayden is not really at the helm. However, if we’re talking about the movement’s viability in terms of bringing about grassroots change and challenging the violent structures of the Lobo administration and the Obama administration supporting it, the potential is enormous. The militancy of the social movement that arose in Honduras following the coup is unprecedented, and it has already had a huge impact, even if we just look at the concessions cynically cited by Cuevas.

PC: Zelaya has been promised the right to campaign for a new constituent assembly. Would the coup government had agreed to this if they thought Zelaya would be politically successful?

AP: On its own, the government and the oligarchy it represents will never cede power. All we have to do is look at the other treaties that it has negotiated, including the 2009 San Juan and Guaymuras Accords, both of which, it is clear today, were negotiated in bad faith. Even the weak stipulations of the Guaymuras accords, which paved the way for legitimation of the Lobo government, have not been complied with. If the coup government ends up allowing a constituent assembly, it with be neither representative nor inclusive.

PC: Is there any way Zelaya can do more from the outside than he could have as President? Considering he was ousted for fairly minimal reforms, I
wonder if he can agitate better than he was allowed to lead?

AP: Certainly Zelaya has been more effective as a symbol and as a leader as an ousted president than he was as president. He won’t return to the presidency (that is prohibited by the constitution, and although it gets broken right and left, I’m pretty sure he’ll stand by that), but how he agitates, for what and with whom will determine his effectiveness. If, upon his return, he begins acting like a politician, making concessions without consulting the broad resistance movement, he will quickly lose support. However, if he leads in a more horizontal, inclusive fashion, as he has previously shown he is capable of doing, I think it is likely that he can have a great impact in pushing forward the agenda of the resistance movement.

PC: In brief, what’s going to happen when Zelaya returns? (This was asked the day before Zelaya’s return)

AP: Tomorrow, Zelaya will return, masses of people with all hopes pinned upon him will greet him (some are already camped out at the airport), and one of the first things Zelaya will do is go to a formal luncheon with Porfirio Lobo (whom the Resistance doesn’t recognize as president) and José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS. It will be an enormous, powerful celebration of resistance,  but at the end of the day, the only thing that will have concretely changed is that Zelaya will be in the country. As recent communiques by COFADEH and COPINH  and the above-quoted Artists in Resistance letter note, democracy and reconciliation are 
still a long, long way away.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.