[News] Honduras: The Coup That Never Happened

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Dec 22 12:51:42 EST 2009

<http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/>The   B u l l e t
Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 290
December 22, 2009

Honduras: The Coup That Never Happened


Tyler Shipley

“When the media goes quiet, the walls speak.” ­ graffiti in Tegucigalpa.

What strikes a visitor to the Honduran capital 
most immediately in this moment is the degree to 
which the social and political conflict that has 
erupted since the golpe de estado (coup d’etat) 
on June 28th is actually written on the walls, 
the fences, the rockfaces, bridges, errant bits 
of siding, abandoned buildings, and even the 
concrete upon which one walks. Though the 
discourse in the international press is muddled 
and misinformed, the situation in Honduras is 
very obvious to those who are here – as a quick 
taxi ride around Tegucigalpa demonstrates.

Honduras has been long dominated by a handful of 
some ten to fifteen wealthy families. Everyone 
here knows their names – Facusse, Ferrari, 
Micheletti – and now they are scrawled on walls 
everywhere, next to accusations of golpista 
(coup-supporter) and asesino (assassin). These 
oligarchs used to be satisfied by controlling the 
economy and buying off the politicians, but they 
now increasingly insist upon exercising direct 
political control themselves, and their names 
show up more and more in congress, in the supreme 
court and now even in the executive branch.

It is in that context that an event that fit 
perfectly the definition of a coup is being 
recast by the Honduran elite, and its foreign 
allies, as a constitutional transfer of power. 
Never mind that the democratically elected 
President was abducted from his home and flown 
out of the country in his pyjamas on the morning 
of a non-binding referendum on re-opening the 
constitution to reform. Never mind that the 
movement to reform the constitution was driven by 
a social movement that wanted to re-found the 
country along more equitable lines, breaking the 
decades of uncontested dominance by the few over 
the many. Never mind that President Manuel 
Zelaya’s only transgression was that he was 
appealing directly to the people, in defiance of 
a congress and supreme court that was subservient 
to the oligarchy and would never consent to 
reforming a constitution that was written to serve their interests.

These details – say the golpistas – are not 
important. Instead, they spin a tale in which 
Zelaya was a minion of Venezuela’s President Hugo 
Chávez (who according to this discourse is 
inherently bad) and claim that Zelaya intended to 
change the constitution to make himself 
president-for-life. In order to preserve 
democracy, the story says, the congress and 
supreme court proceeded with a legal process to 
remove the elected president and replace him 
until new elections could be held. This story has 
been taken up by the international press, despite 
its being patently untrue, and repeated ad 
nauseam in the hopes of giving legitimacy to a 
process that seeks to re-entrench an oligarchy 
feeling its power threatened for the first time in decades.

The U.S.S. Honduras

The central issue at stake in Honduras today – 
and the spark for the oligarchy’s risky decision 
to carry out the coup in June – is the 
increasingly adamant insistence on the part of 
Honduran social movements for a constituyente, 
the striking of an assembly to re-write the 
constitution. It was, indeed, this very question 
that was to be put to a non-binding referendum on 
the morning of the coup and it was expected that 
the people would support the idea overwhelmingly. 
Like many of its Central and South American 
neighbours, Honduras’ principle legal code was 
written during a period dominated by U.S. Cold 
War imperialism and local comprador 
quasi-fascists. The legacy of the Operation 
Condor/School of the Americas era was, among so 
many other tragedies, legal and political 
structures that ensured the continued dominance 
of the elite few and Honduras was a perfect case study.

In fact, the current constitution of Honduras was 
ratified in 1982, during the period in which it 
earned the nickname ‘U.S.S. Honduras.’ The most 
successful resistance group in Honduras in the 
1970s was called the National Federation of 
Honduras Peasants (FENACH) and wasn’t able to 
muster the kind of strength that the Sandinistas 
in Nicaragua built, nor even to achieve the 
limited level of challenge of the guerillas in 
Guatemala or El Salvador. As a result, Honduras 
became the perfect base for U.S. operations in 
Central America, and indeed the Contra Wars 
against Nicaragua were waged from the U.S. 
military base at Palmerola, just outside of 
Tegucigalpa, among countless other interventions 
and terror campaigns in the region.

In addition to the 18 military bases it 
established and the 10,000 American troops 
stationed there, the U.S. also provided the 
Honduran armed forces with over $100-million 
between 1980-84. This infusion of money and 
technical support to the military and business 
elite reinforced the strength of the oligarchy in 
Tegucigalpa and led to dramatic increases in 
poverty, inequality and political repression. The 
1982 constitution was written after decades of 
military dictatorship while Honduras was playing 
host to a U.S.-led paramilitary contra force of 
over 15,000 soldiers trained in what we now call 
‘counter-insurgency’ – specializing in campaigns 
of terror against primarily poor and ill-equipped 
guerilla forces and their supporters. During that 
period, according to Joan Kruckewitt, “the use of 
repression, instead of concessions and reform, 
became the norm” and that “the military emerged 
from the period of U.S.-led militarization as the 
most powerful sector in the country, with few 
checks and balances to restrain them.”[1] Indeed, 
between 1981-84, while the new constitution was 
being written, ratified and established into 
political order, the military carried out 214 
political assassinations, 110 ‘disappearances,’ and 1,947 illegal detentions.

Given that context, calling the 1982 constitution 
‘representative’ of any but the most elite strata 
of Honduran society would be patently absurd; the 
vast majority of people in the country were 
living in abject poverty and ceaseless fear of 
their own soldiers and police. But as the 
political climate in Latin America has shifted, 
and as new openings for emancipatory projects 
have emerged, Hondurans have become increasingly 
insistent on the need to re-establish the country 
on their own terms. Social movements centered 
around trade-unions, human rights and campesino 
groups increasingly drew people from a wide 
variety of Honduran civil society into a broad 
movement for significant reform, and had their 
greatest successes between 2005-2008 under President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya.

June 28th and the Demise of Democracy

Perhaps the most interesting thing about June 
28th was the way that it created Mel Zelaya as a 
popular figure in Honduras. He was elected 
President in 2005 as a member of the Liberal 
Party, one of the two primary parties, neither 
known for any history of radicalism. Zelaya’s own 
background was as a junior-member of the 
oligarchy, a wealthy rancher from the south, and 
his long political career had never shown any 
signs of divergence from the standard 
conservatism of Honduran politics. In fact, the 
only thing that separated Zelaya from someone 
like Roberto Micheletti – the tremendously 
unpopular figure who emerged as de facto 
President after the coup – was that he recognized 
the growing popularity of the movements for 
social reform. His decisions to raise the minimum 
wage, to declare a moratorium on foreign mining 
concessions and to veto a law banning 
birth-control pills were not simply 
manifestations of his own radical spirit, no 
matter how noble his intentions may have been.

No, Zelaya executed in a calculating way – 
through undeniably positive – political decisions 
that kept him palatable to the people on whom his 
support relied. Indeed, he relied on that support 
increasingly after his support for the 
constituent assembly broke him from his allies in 
the Liberal Party. But Zelaya before June 28th 
was simply a means to an end for the social 
movements in Honduras – a politician who had 
proven to be malleable to demonstrations of 
popular politics. His endorsement of the 
constituyente was the most important move he made 
and, in fact, he conducted the process with due 
diligence to the existing constitution and, 
despite its being repeated in every AP news 
bulletin since the coup, it never contained even 
the possibility of giving Zelaya another term in office.

The process was to be as follows: on June 28th, 
Hondurans would vote in a non-binding referendum 
on whether they supported the addition of a 
fourth ballot in the general elections scheduled 
for Nov. 29th. Normally, Honduran elections 
feature three ballots, corresponding to each of 
the three levels of government. If the referendum 
came back with a strong ‘yes,’ Zelaya would have 
added the fourth ballot asking the question “do 
you support the creation of a national 
constituent assembly to re-draft the 
constitution?” Accordingly, the constitution 
could not have possibly been changed before the 
Nov. 29th elections, and so Zelaya could not have 
possibly stood for re-election. Furthermore, the 
primaries for that election had already taken 
place and, again, Zelaya’s name was not put 
forward – even had he wanted to, it was illegal.

The notion that Zelaya intended to manipulate the 
process to stay in power is patently absurd. But 
the Honduran Congress, packed with members of the 
oligarchy, felt that the re-opening of the 
constitution could represent a real threat to 
their stranglehold on power and refused to accept 
the idea. Zelaya, in response, appealed directly 
to the people – implicitly rejecting the 
legitimacy of the Honduran form of representative 
democracy that had brought him to power in the 
first place – and vowed to pursue the constituyente if the people asked for it.

Of course, that process never went ahead, because 
the morning that the first non-binding poll was 
supposed to happen, Zelaya was abducted by the 
military and flown to Costa Rica. Roberto 
Micheletti was sworn in as de facto President, 
and the referendum was cancelled. Dramatic 
footage from that morning showed people in the 
early hours of the day, coming out to vote and 
finding the military in the streets – outrage 
turned to despair which, in turn, was channeled 
into absolute determination to resist this 
transparently coercive undermining of popular 
will. Demonstrations erupted in the immediate 
aftermath of the coup, and the golpista regime 
expected them to last for only a few days. Unlike 
Zelaya, they underestimated the strength and 
commitment of the Honduran movement for reform.


“I’m proud that Hondurans are usually so 
peaceful, but I’m even more proud that we’re 
finally standing up for ourselves.” – Rosa Mayda 
Martinez, office worker, Jutiapa.

What followed was the largest sustained 
demonstration in Central American history. For 
156 straight days, Hondurans took to the streets 
of Tegucigalpa. The numbers fluctuated from as 
high as hundreds of thousands to the still 
impressive thousands that were protesting right 
up to the day of the ‘elections’ on Nov. 29th. 
Predictably, they met widespread and violent 
repression. Between June and November, 33 people 
were killed in political violence and hundreds 
more were detained, beaten, kidnapped, raped and 
otherwise victimized by an increasingly 
militarized state apparatus. In September, 
President Zelaya returned to the country and took 
refuge in the Brazilian embassy, where he still 
remains, guarded by police who are under orders 
to arrest him the moment he leaves Brazilian territory.

There is much more to be said about the nature of 
the resistance than space here permits. For the 
time being, it will have to suffice to say that 
the coup produced the unintended consequence of 
uniting an otherwise fragmented group of 
organizations into a broad coalition – the Frente 
Popular Nacional de Resistencia (National Popular 
Resistance Front) – which has become the most 
important popular organization in Honduras. Its 
members come primarily from the poorest classes – 
workers and campesinos – but are also drawn from 
the relatively small ‘middle’ classes, including 
teachers, lawyers, doctors, left-liberal 
politicians and civil servants etc. They have 
worked closely with local human rights 
organizations and some foreign NGOs, but they 
have maintained absolute autonomy from foreign 
interlocutors (whatever their intentions) in 
defiance of the characterization of the Frente as 
a Chávez-exported ring of professional troublemakers and socialists.

The demonstrations have not been limited to 
Tegucigalpa. The second largest city in Honduras, 
San Pedro Sula, is a major industrial center and 
is the epicenter of foreign-owned Honduran 
maquiladora-style production. Protests have 
erupted there regularly, including one on the day 
of the Nov. 29th ‘elections.’ It was repressed 
with tear gas and rubber bullets injuring dozens 
of people, including a Reuters photographer from 
Brazil. Furthermore, rural Hondurans have been 
active in the resistance, blocking highways, 
distributing information and protesting outside 
government offices. Only a few areas of Honduras 
have not seen major movements against the coup – 
primarily Roatan and the Bay Islands, a ring of 
tropical island destinations off the north coast, 
dotted with, and politically controlled by, 
foreign-owned resort hotels (many of them Canadian).

The foreign and local elite who have turned the 
islands, and most of their inhabitants, into 
tools for their personal profit have been the 
most vocally supportive of the coup. They pump 
out misleading or, at best, willfully ignorant 
anti-Zelaya rants everywhere they can, notably on 
internet news sites; my own reports have been 
consistently attacked and, in 
instance, they even went as far as to threaten my 
life. These attacks are most likely motivated by 
the insistence of the social movements for tax 
reforms that would bring a share of their profits 
back to the state for the purposes of 
re-distribution through increased support for 
education, housing, health care and other social 
programs. Foreign-owned companies currently 
operate in an almost-entirely tax free 
environment, one of the many grievances that the 
proponents of the constituyente were hoping to redress.

The Re-Emergence of State Terror

“In my case, I am known by the police, they can 
do anything to me. I thought about moving to a 
new house with comrades, do you think this is a 
good idea?” – Rosner Giovanni Reyes, member of 
Resistance, in a meeting with COFADEH representatives, Nov. 28th, 2009.

But the golpistas and their beneficiaries are 
bound and determined to block that process 
indefinitely. Repression of the resistance has 
been violent and thorough. Human rights groups 
like the Committee of the Families of the 
Disappeared and Detained in Honduras 
(<http://www.cofadeh.org/>COFADEH) have worked 
tirelessly since June 28th to produce detailed 
documentation of the brutality. Their reports, 
not surprisingly, fall on deaf ears. The campaign 
of state terror they have documented is too 
far-reaching to possibly reproduce here, but they 
provided a very useful summation in a report on 
Nov. 28th. This report, produced by the five 
leading human rights groups in Honduras, was 
presented to the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) 
on the day before the ‘elections’ in a formal 
declaration demanding that the elections be 
cancelled on account of the impossibility of 
their being fair and free in the context of the coup and state terror:

“(These elections are being conducted) in a 
context of grave and systematic violations of 
human rights. Since the day of the coup, we have 
documented 33 violent and politically motivated 
deaths, torture, cruel and inhuman and degrading 
treatment, sexual assault and restrictions on 
freedom of association, assembly, expression, opinion and more.”[2]

They go on to note that holding elections under 
these circumstances is absurd, given that the 
same people who are committing this violence are 
those who are supposed to be responsible for 
running fair elections. They also note some of 
the most high-profile cases of repression. Carlos 
H. Reyes, a member of the social movements and 
initially an independent Presidential candidate, 
was hospitalized after a brutal blow from police 
in a peaceful demonstration. Ulises Sarmiento, a 
well-known member of the Liberal Party who 
sympathized with the resistance had his home 
ransacked by soldiers with automatic weapons in 
the province of Olancho. Eliseo Hernandez Juarez, 
a vice-mayoral candidate, was assassinated.

Not surprisingly, the violence has not been 
limited to high-profile politicians. Victor 
Corrales Mejia and his son, members of the 
resistance, were arrested the night before the 
elections and beaten in their home. Police came 
to their home, hit Victor in the head and spine 
with batons and threatened to kill him. “They 
kicked in my door, they threw me out like I was a 
sack of corn, they want to intimidate us,” he 
told me. “But our desire for democracy is 
stronger than they are.” In Comayagua, where the 
resistance is strong and led by teachers, 
campesinos and women’s and indigenous rights 
activists, the Mayor threatened to give the names 
and addresses of anyone who interfered with the 
election to the military. In fact, the military 
sent a letter a month before the elections 
demanding such lists from all the Mayors across 
the country. Meanwhile, state henchmen shot 
Alejandro Villatoro, the owner of Radio Globo – 
one of the few media outlets brave enough to 
speak out against the coup – and stole the 
computer from which the station was broadcasting.

Indeed, Radio Globo had by that point resorted 
almost exclusively to broadcasting online from 
secret locations, after months of repression. 
Radio Globo, along with Radio Progreso and Radio 
Uno, television station Canal 36 and newspaper El 
Libertador are among the media outlets that have 
faced relentless repression since the coup. Some, 
like Canal 36, have shut down altogether after 
having equipment destroyed, signals interrupted, 
offices ransacked and editors assassinated. Even 
organizations that are not directly linked to the 
resistance are being targeted in the context of 
police impunity. Red Comal, a campesino 
organization that helps small farmers to market 
their produce and runs educational campaigns 
designed to build networks between campesinos and 
social movements, had its offices attacked, 
computers and money stolen, and employees beaten. 
Miguel Alonzo Macias, the director of the 
organization, explained to me, “we teach people 
why they are poor. For that, we are a threat.”

Whitewashing the Coup

“No to the coup regime elections! Free men and 
women of Honduras, they want to use your vote to 
legalize the coup. Each vote is a blow to your freedom.” – Resistencia poster.

Given the context described above, it is hard to 
imagine how anyone could seriously claim that 
‘the event’ on Nov. 29th could be called a free 
or fair election. On the day of the vote, the 
Frente urged Hondurans to stay home and boycott 
la farsa (farce). And that is precisely what 
happened – on a day that is normally a boisterous 
street party filled with red or blue flags 
representing to the two primary political 
parties, Honduras was quiet and subdued. Most 
polling stations had more military and police 
than civilians. The TSE itself admitted that only 
around 1.7 million people voted, in a country of 
nearly 8 million, with 4.6 million eligible to 
vote. That makes a turnout of around 35%, the 
lowest since the end of military dictatorships in 
the early 80s. Inexplicably, on the night of Nov. 
29th, the TSE announced a projected turnout of 
60%, which became the number repeated in almost 
every international news source. Fox News in the 
United States was one of the few exceptions, 
reporting the absurd figure of 70% – no one has 
yet been able to explain where that number came from.

A few days after the election, video journalist 
Jesse Freeston of the Real News was able to get 
into the TSE headquarters and produced a 
documenting fraudulent reporting of voter totals, 
designed to create the illusion that Hondurans 
had not boycotted the election. This 
documentation is important in demonstrating to 
the international community that these elections 
should never be recognized as legitimate in any 
way. But it is totally unnecessary for Hondurans 
themselves, who knew long before the elections 
ever took place that they would be a sham, and 
had that knowledge confirmed on Nov. 29th. As the 
human rights organizations explained in their Nov. 28th document:

“holding reliable elections does not depend 
solely on the implementation of sophisticated 
technology, international observers or the strict 
adherence to the formal process; it also requires 
knowing that there was a clean process preceding 
the elections, produced by a climate of full 
freedom, one where candidates and the electorate 
can express themselves openly and in a context of 
absolute equality, without fear of assassination, 
torture, detention and incarceration.”[3]

Indeed, an interview I conducted with Edward Fox, 
a former USAID official, Republican campaign 
financer and an elections observer sent from 
Washington to legitimate the process, 
demonstrated quite plainly that the few 
organizations who went to Honduras for Nov. 29th 
were not interested in investigating what was 
happening away from the polling stations. As we 
spoke on camera from Miami International Airport 
on Dec. 1st, Fox claimed to know nothing about 
“alleged” human rights violations, cast suspicion 
on the groups documenting the violence despite 
not being able to name a single one of them, and 
justified his endorsement of the elections by 
telling me that he had spoken to the U.S. 
Ambassador who is, Fox reminded me, “there all 
the time.” His organization, the Washington 
Senior Observer Group, reported that they:

“witnessed the enthusiastic desire of thousands 
of Honduran citizens to cast their ballots. Many 
took time to thank us for our presence today. 
Without exception, they expressed confidence in 
the electoral system, pride in exercising their 
right to vote, and a profound hope that their 
election is a decisive step toward the 
restoration of the constitutional and democratic order in Honduras.”[4]

They further asserted that they saw “no voter 
intimidation by any group, individual, or party” 
and that their observations “coincide with those 
reported by other observers and by the media 
throughout Honduras.” Nonetheless, when I asked 
Edward Fox about those other observers, the 
groups who have been documenting the violence and 
terror, he admitted that he had not spoken to any 
of them. Avoiding them must have taken some 
effort, because when those groups presented their 
report to the TSE on Nov. 28th, the U.S. 
observers were there; in fact, the human rights 
delegation had their meeting scheduled for 2:00 
p.m. but had to wait until well after 4:00 p.m. 
because TSE officials were meeting with the U.S. 
observers. We were all there together, and at one 
point I overheard the U.S. observers chatting 
amongst themselves derisively about the human 
rights group and about Honduras in general.

Looking Ahead

“Where are the people? The people are in the 
streets, struggling for their freedom!” – Resistencia chant.

Sadly, though not surprisingly, reports like 
Fox’s bolstered the positions taken by 
governments of the global North and their 
right-wing allies in Latin America. Both have 
fallen all over themselves to legitimate the 
election process and, in so doing, legitimate the 
coup itself. Canada’s foreign affairs minister 
Peter Kent responded to the elections announcing that Canada:

“congratulates the Honduran people for the 
relatively peaceful and orderly manner in which 
the country’s elections were conducted. While 
Sunday’s elections were not monitored by 
international organizations such as the 
Organization of American States, we are 
encouraged by reports from civil society 
organizations that there was a strong turnout for 
the elections, that they appear to have been run 
freely and fairly, and that there was no major violence.”[5]

Much more needs to be said about Canada’s 
relationship to Honduras and the golpistas. 
<http://petitiononline.com/helect>A petition, 
calling for non-recognition of the elections is 
circulating and has garnered nearly 400 names – a 
small step toward building public awareness of 
Canada’s complicity in this desecration of democracy and human rights.

In the meantime, a death squad killed five more 
people on a street corner on Dec. 6. A human 
rights worker with links to Amnesty International 
was murdered on Dec. 14. The teenaged daughter of 
a critical journalist was found dead on Dec. 16. 
Repression has increased and turned even more 
vicious and calculated since the farce elections; 
the regime has evidently been emboldened by their 
successful misrepresentation of the fiesta 
democratica and the willingness of the 
international media to ignore the reality facing 
the majority of Hondurans. Nonetheless, the 
resistance continues, having realized long ago 
that this will be a long struggle. It is hard to 
predict at this point what shape the struggle 
will take in the coming months, though it is 
clear that the Jan. 27th transfer of power to 
golpe-President-elect Pepe Lobo – Pepe Robo (the 
Robber) as the walls call him – will be another 
flashpoint for the resistance. “The police keep 
telling us they will come to our homes and take 
us away, and it makes us want to run,” says 
Francisca, a high school teacher in Comayagua. 
“But we have worked too hard for too long to build the homes we have.” •

Tyler Shipley is a doctoral candidate and 
activist from Toronto, Canada. He did research 
and human rights observation in Tegucigalpa with 
a delegation organized by Rights Action, 
reporting on the resistance to the coup and the 
Nov. 29 elections. The entire photo essay 
“Honduras Police State – A Week In Pictures” is 
at available at 


1. Joan Kruckewitt, “U.S. Militarization of 
Honduras in the 1980s and the Creation of 
CIA-backed Death Squads,” in Cecilia Mejivar and 
Nestor Rodriguez, When States Kill: Latin 
America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror, 
University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, 2005.

2. Official Statement by representatives of 
TSE, Nov. 28, 2009. Translated from Spanish.

3. Ibid.

on the National Elections in Honduras, Washington 
Senior Observer Group, December 1, 2009.

5. Peter Kent, 
Congratulates Honduran People on Elections,” December 1, 2009.

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