Rodolfo Pastor de María y Campos is Minister of Political Affairs for the Honduran Embassy in Washington, DC. This speech was given Dec. 9, 2009.
I was born on the 4th of July 1980. Honduras was then still under the rule of a military regime that had been in power for 18 years and, like most dictatorships in the region, was backed by the United States. From the Palmerola Base in Honduras, the U.S. army overlooked the surrounding conflicts that spread around Central America: civil war in Guatemala and El Salvador, revolution in Nicaragua. The CIA trained contras and death squads in Honduras. Why was there such intense turmoil, why were the people revolting against the ruling elites, what role did the U.S. and the international organizations play back then?
Two years later, Honduras returned to the task of rebuilding democracy, burnishing a new political class that would take over from the military regime, a Constitution was drafted by a brand new Congress, under the supervision of the military junta and complete control by traditional party bosses. Still, it inspired hope.
By 1986, my father, a historian trained in Mexico and the US, decided it was safe enough for us to move back to Honduras. Being a well-known critic of the military, our house was still visited by their helicopters, that would fly low over our roof, sending my dad a warning, a very direct threat. Through other messengers my father was told that he was not yet dead, because he was part of the elite, but that he should be very careful. It was scary, but things were getting better.
Time passed and things did seem to improve, the army slowly turned power into the hands of the new civilian governments, and by mid 1990´s we could boast about having complete civilian control of the military. Civilian rulers were able to rescue Government Institutions which had fallen into military control during the dictatorship (national telecom HONDUTEL, the PORT AUTHORITY, THE MERCHANT MARINE, and AIRPORTS ADMINISTRATION) we even had an independent attorney general and an ombudsman, who together started investigations on human rights abuses during the military regime (nowadays both institutions back the coup).
By the time President Zelaya was elected, 25 years of an incipient democracy had already gone by; the military had started to become a respectful and respected institution. President Zelaya, on his fist day in office, ordered the army to a new role, protecting the vast Honduran forests from the growing illegal lumbering, and instructing them to commit themselves to the fight against drug traffic.
Profound poverty and acute disparity in wealth distribution still plagued our country. Ours is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and the second most unequal. With 70% of our population living in poverty and a very wealthy and powerful elite controlling it’s weak institutions and corrupt bureaucracies. Violence, and organized crime predominated, but no one could have imagined a coup. Democracy was, if deeply flawed, our system of choice.
President Zelaya ran against Pepe Lobo in 2005. He won against all odds, for under President Maduro´s administration, Lobo was President of Congress, and was running for office even if, under his own tenure, Congress had decided to forbid the president of Congress and of the Supreme Court from aspiring to the executive, to prevent them from using public resources to run their campaigns. Lobo argued the new prohibition did not apply to him.
Lobo was running on a jobs and security platform, highlighting the establishment of the death penalty as his main proposal. Gang members had been extensively persecuted and exterminated by Maduro´s government (through massive prison fires that are still being investigated). Lobo was famously portrayed as the man with the iron fist, who would continue and stiffen that policy designed by then Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez, who has been recently confirmed to that post by Mr. Lobo.
President Zelaya ran a campaign based on citizen participation, basically, it meant empowering citizens so that they could hold their authorities accountable. He proposed and then went on to create the Law of Transparency and the Institute of Public Information. He got Congress to approve a Citizen Participation Law, which created the Citizen Assemblies and was a step towards strengthening a more direct, participatory democracy. In order to control growing violence, as gang members were chased into the hands of organized crime, President Zelaya proposed doubling police numbers, providing rehabilitation and job opportunities. Social investment was a priority, and a social cabinet was established.
As President, Zelaya started to propose important reforms which were from the beginning, repeatedly attacked and blocked by the elites and the powerful media they own, it was soon clear that there was to be a confrontation.
Finally, the people had a government that was looking out for them, instead of serving specific interest groups that usually benefited from the traditional political system, President Zelaya made it a point to serve the common interest, applying policies that benefited most Hondurans, instead of only some. This was exciting and inspiring to the traditionally excluded majorities. To the elites and the corrupt political class that served them, it was simply unacceptable.
The President confronted the elites when he started looking for oil at a better price as oil prices peaked worldwide and strangled consumers and production back home. He was criticized when he questioned unreasonable tax exemptions for the wealthy and raised the minimum wage, even if falling short of the necessary increase to match rising prices. He was attacked when he lowered the interest rates for loans even if, ironically, making the bankers, at first skeptics, much richer. He confronted the Catholic Church, when he decided to veto a Congressional decision to outlaw a contraceptive pill. The Minister of Health briefed Congress about the scientific purpose of this pill, to counter radical conservative propaganda that accused the President of supporting abortion.
Once and again, the President tried to convince the elites that progressive reform was necessary and that the current conditions of inequality and poverty were polarizing, dangerous and not sustainable, but they would have none of that, their priority was to protect their precious privileges.
Although he was repeatedly accused of wanting to do so, the President never closed any media, even though he came under systematic attack and was subjected to outright slander from the elite owned media. He was much criticized by the elites for creating the Government’s own TV station and weekly paper.
By contrast Michelleti´s regime, the coup regime, was quick to threaten, censor, sabotage and finally shut down any critical media, saying they could not let them speak against the Government. Official TV with pro coup propaganda and permanent attacks against the President was soon re-launched.
Although accused tirelessly by the elites of being a puppet of President Chavez, with whom he developed a very reasonable alliance, President Zelaya never closed or privatized any business, he was always a true believer in free enterprise and free trade, and ratified the CAFTA-DR as soon as he was elected, even with hard opposition from the left.
Despite much manipulation by the Honduran media barons and the expensive and intricate spinning in the international media, portraying it as a power grab by President Zelaya trying to extend term limits, the Cuarta Urna Project or fourth poll, was a nonbinding official POLL that would ask the people, on June 28th, if they wanted to include, on November 29th, a fourth polling station, in addition to the ones for electing a new President, a new Congress and new municipal authorities throughout the country.
This fourth polling station would in turn, ask Hondurans if they wanted a Constitutional Assembly that would then have to be approved by Congress and be organized and administered by the newly elected government. The assembly, conformed by all sectors of society, would be in charge of revising and reforming the Constitution, the very flawed and outdated legal framework that provided for the current institutional weakness and the resulting crisis, the disproportionate power for the political bosses and a lack of genuine representation, especially of poor sectors. The poll proposal became instantly popular.
This project was backed by a broad popular movement, eager to take Honduran democracy to a next, much needed and long awaited step, from an elemental electoral democracy to a more participatory one with enhanced representation, a democracy where citizens had more to say and could hold their authorities accountable. The abuse of the Constitution was constant, and obviously still is, making the idea of a reform ever more urgent and relevant.
The mere idea of this profound change really enraged the elites that felt the President was challenging and shaking the foundations of their own power and wealth. The core of the status quo was at stake.
Today President Zelaya is a refugee at a systematically harassed Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, surrounded by the once again mighty army.
29 years later, the frail democracy that was slowly being consolidated has collapsed.
The coup has a simple logic to it. The elites, who control the country and its institutions through the political class they fund, decided that the President was out of their control and that it was necessary to take him out.
Without checks or balances from the executive, Congress appoints the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. None of these institutions are either apolitical or independent, they serve the political bosses that appoint them.
Early in the morning, on June 28th , around 200 soldiers barged into the President’s private residence and at gunpoint flew him out to Costa Rica. Immediately, Congress presented a falsified letter of resignation through which the President confessed problems and offered the resignation of his cabinet. The same Congress, Presided by Michelleti, accepted President Zelaya´s false resignation and immediately named Michelleti himself, the new President of Honduras.
The move was at once backed by the Supreme Court, which issued a postdated order for the Army to arrest the President. The Court and the Attorney General fabricated 18 accusations against President Zelaya, (none of which had been previously notified) to back the arrest warrant and justify the procedure, which was itself unconstitutional.
That same day the National Business Chambers and the Association of Industrialists issued separate statements praising the coup and pledging to patriotically fund and support the operation. The Honduran Cardenal, an uncle of mine, gave a nationally televised address, praising the “constitutional succession” and warning President Zelaya not to return.
The basic argument was that the President was guilty of treason for trying to modify the Constitution in order to extend his term limits and remain in power indefinitely, as inspired by his ally, Hugo Chavez. This message had been intensely disseminated through the mainstream media for months now, even though the President denied it repeatedly, once in front of Secretary Clinton and all the hemispheric representatives during his opening speech at the OAS General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, a month before the coup.
Once installed, the de Facto Regime fabricated further evidence of supposed crimes committed by the President and his cabinet members and accused any political ally of the President of corruption.
As protests against the coup rapidly grew in number and intensity, the regime established a repressive strategy to crash any Zelaya friendly protest and protect the pro coup rallies they organized. Any media that was pro Zelaya, critical of the coup or simply independent, was censored and soon shut down. A state of emergency, granted the army and the police the power to arrest, search and repress without any accountability and prevented the resistance from staging further protests against the regime.
A few were selected to be executed to send a clear message, more than 20 Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International now report. Human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and locomotion, were all cancelled to prevent further disorder the Ombudsman, stood by quietly, even when he was widely scorned by his international counterparts.
Meanwhile, in Washington, expensive lobbying firms, powerful and highly influential, and a very sophisticated communications strategy were immediately implemented by the coup regime, funded by Honduras´ businessmen and scarce public moneys. The State Department´s silence was contrasting.
The poor majorities have lost, once again, their right to decide with their votes, in a democratic manner, their destiny. Their elected president has been ousted by their patrones. It has been made cruelly clear to them that their aspirations to a more just, representative and sustainable democracy are way out of order.
Although not monolithic, today Honduras elites stand more united and strengthened than ever, they were after all thoroughly successful in their undertaking of this 21st century coup and have now only to gain from their initial investment. The expensive lobbying paid off and now they have unquestionable control of every single institution and branch of Government, including of course, the executive, that for a while there, seemed to inconveniently slip away.
This is a genuine confrontation between the wealthy and powerful elites and the vast poor majorities of this country, emboldened by an extraordinary President that unexpectedly began to pay attention and fight for them. A war started by the elites, which felt their comfortable and profitable status quo was threatened by the change that was commencing.
The elections, held outside of constitutional order and under the repressive de facto regime, were neither free, nor fair.
Pretending that this is a significant solution, is a grave mistake, it is like slapping a band-aid on a bleeding sable wound. It is a dangerous exit strategy, not at all a solution.
Liberal candidate Elvin Santos lost because he sided publicly with the coup, and Lobo won because, as a more experienced politician, knew better, and deftly kept his support for the coup behind the scenes, reassuring the elites, while portraying himself neutral to the public. A majority of the people didn’t vote, many who did, did so against the coup, the number of blank ballots increased dramatically.
But fixating on this, as some pretend, means losing sight of the whole picture, of the deeply irregular context that made the elections themselves a fraud, because they were held under the coup regime’s tight control and repression and did not provide for a free and fair campaign. The first and only independent candidate in Honduran history was beaten and later resigned his candidacy, as did many other candidates.
Neither the Organization of American States nor the Carter Center, the traditional observers, agreed to participate in what they understood as questionable circumstances. The same is true for the United Nations and the European Union.
Even though they were in fact organized before the coup itself, it is precisely because of the coup that these elections cannot be free, fair, legal or legitimate. Under these conditions, of course the elections were now serving the specific purpose of whitewashing the coup. Why would the people vote this time, if they know that, if the President works for them, and not exclusively for the elites, he would simply be taken out again?
The ghost of coups past has been summoned and a clear message has been sent to those who organize, implement or back coups that they will stand and they will go unpunished. In Honduras, we can now expect systematic selective repression to increase as a control mechanism of the reinforced elites and their police regime.
But Honduras´ poverty and disparity are not exclusive, many countries within the region share similar conditions, and the dangerous precedent set here by the successful coup, can be easily replicated elsewhere.
A further danger posed for the region as the coup prevails is that other Presidents will dread to take on necessary reforms, fearing the possibility of a similar reaction from the elites. This will prevent Presidents from doing their work, severely affecting governance, as it has and will in Honduras. Other countries and Presidents are aware of this.
I am a friend of America, I was privileged enough, as part of my country’s elite, to be educated in American schools, have travelled its cities and enjoyed its culture.
But recognizing these elections was a big mistake. Maybe because of mismanagement, the constant flip flopping or a chronic misreading of the situation, the United States has made a huge strategic blunder, by setting a dangerous precedent and making it very clear that the new diplomacy President Obama boasted about in Trinidad, one of a new era of engagement, of multilateralism, is no more than rhetoric.
The coup regime was emboldened and empowered by the U S stance: by doing too little, too late, by not speaking out for human rights, by not taking the required measures, targeting backers of the coup through focused diplomatic pressure, freezing their assets in the U.S. rather than freezing vital aid that flows to the many poor and making very evident diplomatic blunders, that one cant but suspect to have been intentional, or part of a strategy.
America loses credibility in the region, as it already has in other parts of the world. Who will now believe or trust in this new era of engagement, when a crime stands and impunity sets a precedent? What will this do for endemic anti-americanism in the region?
I refuse though to end on a grim note, although the circumstances are deeply so.
At 29, I join my father in exile, as the de facto regime accuses me of usurping authority and retaining state property, because I refused to follow the instructions sent by the Coup leaders and decided to continue representing President Zelaya. But something positive has come from this sad learning experience, the wide awakening it has provoked. Masks have been taken off, it will no longer be so easy to manipulate or misinform my people. They are more aware of their rights and their right to self-determination than ever before, and they are keenly aware of who they stand against. The task at hand is to resist, reform, and rebuild. In that I still believe.