Honduras: The Preventive Coup

Latin America and the Caribbean

Pro-Zelaya protesters marching in Tegucigalpa • Photo by Yamil Gonzales

“If the American nation will speak softly, and yet build and keep at a pitch of the highest training a thoroughly efficient navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far.” –President Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

“I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” –Woodrow Wilson, July 4, 1914

What provoked a dozen families last June to conspire to overthrow Honduran President Manuel (Mel) Zelaya? He did not apparently harbor a secret revolutionary agenda, nor try to impose non-legal changes to bridge the immense gap between the handful of super rich and millions of poor. The oligarchy bogusly accused Zelaya of seeking constitutional changes so he could run again.

Zelaya had authorized oil explorations and planned to convert the U.S.-controlled Palmerola military base for civilian planes ­contrary to the oligarchy’s wishes. Zelaya also brought Honduras into ALBA ­Venezuela’s and Cuba’s project to integrate Latin American economies without the U.S. He helped mobilize the region against Washington’s “isolate Cuba” policy. His biggest sin, however, was proposing, through a non-binding referendum, a Constitutional convention to consider structural change.

In June, Honduran military officials, allegedly following Supreme Court orders, arrested (kidnapped) Zelaya, and flew him to Costa Rica. Since then analysts have forgotten this “incident” and “moved forward.” Few have asked questions.

Why would the oligarchy “need” to oust a President who did not intend to remain in power? Zelaya had no substantial military support, or plan to obtain it. Economic power belonged to the oligarchy or foreign capital, along with all government institutions.

Two of three factions in Zelaya’s own Liberal Party conspired to remove him. The constitution limited what any President could accomplish on social and economic change. Zelaya had six months remaining in office.

But “the guilty flee when no one pursues.” Zelaya’s referendum asking the public to vote on whether they wanted basic change could signal serious problems for the filthy rich who no longer counted on White House support. U.S. voters had replaced right wing Republicans with a seemingly law-respecting Obama. Yet, the coup moved forward – even after U.S. officials, apparently, had advised against it.

U.S. right wing radio crusaders and Members of the House and Senate encouraged the connivers. The NY Times and Wall Street Journal also leaped on the anti-Zelaya campaign.

Those who expected Obama to respect sovereignty (majority interests in Latin America) should have recalled similar hopes by Latin Americans in Woodrow Wilson. As Wilson announced non-interventionist doctrines, he ordered U.S. forces to invade and occupy Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba.

In 1933, Wilson’s Assistant Navy Secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, became President. His “Good Neighbor” policy included friendly gestures to Leonidas Trujillo, brutalizer of the Dominican Republic; Anastasio Somoza, who specialized in murder and theft in Nicaragua; and dictator Fulgencio Batista in Havana. All three treated U.S. corporations with great respect.

John F. Kennedy followed his Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba with a “New Frontier,” a Peace Corps and an Alliance for Progress. Simultaneously, however, he launched counterinsurgency, which aided democracy’s prime enemies ­ the military forces of Latin America.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society at home contrasted to his ordering U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic. Reagan attacked Grenada. George Bush had U.S. troops arrest disobedient General Manuel Noriega, killing hundreds of Panamanians in the process.

These post Gun Boat Diplomacy incursions occurred when U.S. trained Latin military forces – less costly than Marines – failed. The CIA and 82nd Airborne became insurance policies for overseas banks and corporations. Post Bolshevik Revolution policy fought communism to justify neighborly interference; after 1991, it became “democracy promotion.”

Honduras’ “preventive coup” showed the coupsters had calculated correctly: Washington was stuck with the result of their action, no matter how State Department wordsmiths squirmed.

Obama said it was a coup, but maybe not exactly a coup. So, we won’t freeze the evildoers’ assets. Reality dictates acknowledging the de facto government. Mediation will solve the conflict followed by new elections, Washington’s antibiotic combating disobedience and sovereignty infections: elections cure Couping Cough.

The Honduran right wing crowed. Chiquita Banana executives smiled at not having to pay banana pickers higher wages. The naïve who believed law would prevail received a cold reality bath. “Radical populism” – efforts to redefine power relations – remained an anathema in Washington. If the poor control their own national resources, U.S. banks and corporations have less power at home and abroad.

Last June’s events also provoked grassroots activism. The resistance leaders who backed Zelaya’s return, sought to unite the poor under a constitutional banner. Ironically, the un-elected “de facto” President also unfurled the sovereignty flag claiming an OAS team looking into the coup would violate the very Honduran rights he had just subverted.

We have watched “Good Neighbor” and “Gun Boat” morph into “Smart Power”: combining force and diplomacy, and mobilizing U.S. “civil society” assets abroad. In Honduras, Obama borrowed from Teddy Roosevelt but added a word: “speak softly, prevaricate, and carry a big stick.”

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow. Nelson Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.


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