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Constitutions and Coups: The Honduras Case

Constitutions and Coups: The Honduras Case
by Clifton Ross

Even in the best of times a coup in Honduras wouldn’t get much coverage in the U.S. since most North Americans couldn’t find the country on a map and, moreover, would think they have no reason to do so. Nevertheless, those in the U.S. who have been alert to the changes in Latin America over the past decade and almost everyone south of the border know that the coup d’etat (or “golpe de estado”) against President Manuel Zelaya has profound implications for the region and, in fact, all of Latin America. While the US press will glance from their intent gaze at reruns and specials on Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett only long enough to report on President Obama’s reaction to the coup, Latin Americans will keep their eyes on the governments of the region as well as the social movements in Honduras as they search for a key to how the whole affair will turn out. As President Rafael Correa said in the Extraordinary Summit of  ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) in Nicaragua on the evening after the early morning coup, “this is not just a coup against the people of Honduras, but one directed against the democracies of the peoples of Latin America.”

In a power play between President Zelaya who maneuvered (some say illegally) to push a referendum on the constitution, and a congress that see their jobs possibly go on the line if there is a new constitution, the military played the decisive role and ousted Zelaya in the early hours of the morning on Sunday, June 28, 2009, preempting the national referendum. After producing a forged letter of resignation, supposedly from President Zelaya, president of the congress, Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in. From exile in Costa Rica, President Zelaya denounced the forgery and maintained that he continued to be the only legitimate president of Honduras. Meanwhile, back at Micheletti’s solemn swearing-in ceremony, the AP reported, “outside of Congress, a group of about 150 people opposed to Zelaya's ouster stood well back from police lines and shook their fists, chanting ‘Out with the bourgeoisie!’ and ‘Traitors!’”

Venezuelan-based Telesur, however, gave a distinctly different impression of the scene. It reported at least one hundred times that many people (“at least 15,000” -- there were other estimates of 20,000) were gathered in a strike and a leader of the Bloque Sindical Popular (Popular Union Block), Ángel Alvarado, was calling for a general strike the following day. On the evening after the coup, Micheletti’s government put the country under curfew enforced by the military which also enforced a ban on all news of the golpe. Meanwhile, regional leaders and members of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) met in Nicaragua where Chávez recalled the similarities between what happened to him in Venezuela in April, 2002 and the events in Honduras. Chávez ended his tale calling on the “golpistas” (those who carried out the coup) to surrender, while Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa demanded that they be tried for treason.

If possibility for support for the “golpistas” looked slim in Latin America, things didn’t look better up north. Indeed, what was most striking about the coup, if the Wall Street Journal can be believed, is that it appears that the new administration of President Obama was opposed to the coup even in the planning stage. Paul Kiernan and Jose de Cordoba report in the Wall Street Journal that “the Obama administration and members of the Organization of American States had worked for weeks to try to avert any moves to overthrow President Zelaya.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated bluntly that “The action taken against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya violates the precepts of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and thus should be condemned by all.”

For those hoping to see a new US policy in the region, this is indeed reason to be guardedly optimistic, even more so since Zelaya is a close ally to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. This will be among the first military coups in fifty-five years of coups throughout the continent that the U.S. wouldn’t have either perpetrated or backed after the fact -- the first one being the four-hour-long coup in Ecuador in January, 2000, carried out by center-leftists.

The Wall Street Journal article, however, offered a hardly credible reason for the coup: “Voicing the fears that sparked the military's action, retired Honduran Gen. Daniel López Carballo justified the move against the president, telling CNN en Español that Mr. Zelaya was a stooge for Mr. Chávez. He said that if the military hadn't acted, Mr. Chávez would eventually be running Honduras by proxy.”

While it’s true that the most reactionary forces in the region see sinister motives behind Chavez’s generosity and do all they can to demonize the Venezuelan leader, the more obvious reason for the coup was the fact that Zelaya had called a referendum on the constitution, an act which has drawn a similar response from reactionaries in other countries in Latin America. The problems are the same: progressive leaders enter power on a wave of popular support only to find their hands bound by constitutions written by their neoliberal predecessors of the 1990s under the tutelage of Washington. The new leaders then face the choice of playing by the very limited rules of the neoliberal constitution or writing up a new charter. Even the proposal of new rules enrages the local oligarchy which, of course, was behind the neoliberal constitution in the first place, and the opposition to constitutions aimed at democratizing power has grown with each successive process.

President Hugo Chavez was the first progressive president of the region to call for a referendum on a nation’s constitution after his election. The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was written by thousands across the country and passed in popular referendum by nearly 72% of the people in a popular vote, establishing the “Fifth Republic.” Chavez then ran again for president, was re-elected with an even larger margin than before, and he now had the possibility of carrying out reforms that would have been impossible under the old, 1961 constitution of the Fourth Republic.

While the Venezuelan process was peaceful, when Rafael Correa came to power in Ecuador, his call for a constituent assembly to write the new constitution frightened the old congress, almost cost him his job and led to street battles and the cordoning off of the congress. Eventually that crisis passed, with Correa beating the old congress and a winning a new Constitution, the first in the world to guarantee the rights of Mother Earth and nature.

That mini battle in Ecuador between congressmen and police, however, was nothing compared to what nearly became a civil war in Bolivia over the proposed new constitution. The crisis, which left over 100 dead in the department of Pando, and nearly brought about the succession of the “Media Luna” departments from Bolivia, was eventually resolved and in the process set a new precedent for diplomacy in the region. For the first time in modern history a political crisis in Latin America was resolved not by the U.S. dominated OAS but by the newly formed UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) at a meeting held in Santiago, Chile presided over by the center-left President Michelle Bachelet and the notable absence of the United States, whose representatives were not invited. This was the first test of the newly formed UNASUR which had until then existed largely only on paper, and it was viewed everywhere as a great success, proving that the nations of the South American continent could resolve their own problems more effectively among themselves than under the aegis of the imperial eagle of the north. Evo returned to Bolivia with the full backing of UNASUR and nine countries of the region (including the neoliberal governments of Peru and Colombia) and eventually the “Media Luna” had to submit. The new Constitution was passed in the referendum in January of this year.

While it’s impossible to say how the coup in Honduras will play out, the new president sworn in on the day of the coup, Roberto Micheletti may fare only a little better than the unfortunate Pedro Carmona, President-for-a-day in Venezuela (April 12-13, 2002) when Chavez was briefly overthrown. Micheletti hasn’t a single ally in Latin America, and even the Empire now seems to be resigned to the fact that military coups are a thing of the past and has turned its back on him.

It’s no surprise that the rise of a viable left in Latin America would evoke a response from the privileged sectors, ruling elites and those allied with international capitalism. Those who wrote the rules of the game the first time around ensured, with their earlier constitutions, that anyone who arrived in the presidency would enter office in their golden handcuffs made of the stuff of the Golden Rule: “Who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s also obvious that the key to the handcuffs is a new set of rules, which is precisely what a constitution is. Up to now progressive leaders have followed Chavez’s lead and called for a new constitution, written by the popular forces, immediately after election. The oligarchies were initially slow to catch on, but it appears that their resistance is meeting the resistance of the forces for change, each time causing a greater explosion. Then there’s the other actor in this regional drama who is down, but not out: The United States of Empire. While Obama’s (and Clinton’s) response to the coup may be viewed positively, there’s always more than meets the eye. As Steve Ellner wrote to me in an email,
“…I think the U.S. strategy is more nuanced. I think the aim is to tie Zelaya's hands as a condition for letting him return to power. For the U.S. that would certainly be the "best-case scenario," much better than a successful coup which is repudiated around the world. Chavez calls for a distinct strategy, namely once Zelaya returns to office to put the coup leaders and their accomplices on trial. Comparisons are being made here in Venezuela (by Vladimir Acosta, among others) to the aftermath of the 2002 coup when Chavez held out an olive branch to the opposition who then took advantage of the situation to plan for the general strike later that year. Chavez, now looking back on his post coup conciliatory discourse, criticizes himself for having been naive.”

With this in mind, it would be no surprise that progressive leaders in the region would be attempting to deal with this crisis through regional organizations that exclude the U.S., such as SICA (Central American Integration System), ALBA and the Rio Group. As the OAS (Organization of American States), which includes the U.S., becomes more involved, the situation also becomes more complex.

Honduras is critical insofar as it represents another and more fierce battle in this process for social transformation and Latin American independence that revolutionary forces in Latin America are creating. With the social momentum for change moving north from South America into Central America, a battle between the oligarchy, and an allied sector of the military against the people of Honduras with the support of all the governments of the region, will determine whether or not this process continues to gain territory. The wild card in this game over the rules is still the United States.

Clifton Ross is the writer and director of the feature-length movie,  “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out (available here at www.pmpress.org) and author of  “Translations from Silence” (www.freedomvoices.org). He can be reached at clifross@gmail.com.



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