The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 82 (Winter 2010).
Barack Obama’s pretense of a new era of international good will was exposed by events in Honduras in 2009. A reactionary coup on June 28 overturned the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who was tapping into popular sentiments and favoring a path of constitutional reform.
Yet even though Zelaya never stood for a break with imperialism, raising mass hopes for a constituent assembly still represented a threat to the status quo. The response was the coup that expelled Zelaya from the country at gunpoint. This set a dangerous precedent for all of Latin America, where more potential right-wing coups wait in the wings. Ruling classes in a number of countries are eager to reverse social gains won by mass struggles in the past decade, as well as to preempt future outbreaks. The disastrous consequences of the global economic crisis on the continent make further attempts to turn to reaction inevitable.
Honduras is a small impoverished country whose economy and military both depend heavily on the U.S. At first Obama seemed to denounce Zelaya’s ouster in a forthright manner, calling it a “coup” and “illegal.” He argued for respectfully abiding by the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS). This seemed a far cry from the obvious support which George Bush had given to the reactionary coup attempt fostered against President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in 2002. Yet Obama refrained from calling Zelaya’s ouster a “military coup” – terminology which would have required stronger sanctions and other consequences. This word game meant that the Obama administration could avoid acting vigorously to restore Zelaya.
Roberto Micheletti, the former president of the National Congress, replaced Zelaya. Obama’s waffling let Micheletti’s de facto regime know that there was wiggle room. Then the Obama team bypassed the OAS by unilaterally appointing Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to oversee negotiations between Zelaya and the new regime. Arias is a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, thanks to pushing through the “peace agreements” in the late 1980’s which laid the groundwork for the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as well as the leftist FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador.
The negotiation process served to buy time for the coup regime, and the process aimed to divert the resistance of the masses. Towards this end, Zelaya himself, as well as other regional “left” leaders like Chávez, raised unjustified hopes in Obama. Addressing the United Nations in late September, Chávez spoke of Obama in a way that strongly contrasted with his performance in 2006, when he famously compared George Bush to the devil. Along with his routine anti-imperialist rhetorical criticisms, Chávez saluted the U.S. president: “I hope Obama will be able to look and see, genuinely see, what has to be seen and bring about a change. It doesn’t smell of sulfur here anymore. It smells of hope.”
After the General Assembly passed a unanimous resolution supporting Zelaya’s return to power and condemning the coup, an elated Zelaya claimed, “It is significant and it will empower every last citizen of this world.” In fact, at a press conference at the U.N., Zelaya insisted that “The United States has changed a great deal,” adding that “I have listened to President Obama. It is not only that he condemns the events, but he has demanded the restoration of the president.”
Unfortunately, the political leadership of the Honduran mass struggle mainly went along with this delirium, thereby breaking with any historical understanding of the nature of imperialist institutions and representatives. Illusions in the U.N. resolution fed into the idea that the U.S.-led negotiations would lead to a positive outcome.
The leadership of the National Resistance Front, comprised of labor and peasant union leaders as well as heads of other social organizations representing oppressed sectors, enthused over the imperialist-backed talks even while carrying out a range of mass actions. Many layers of the masses showed a will to fight back, and teachers and other sectors carried out strikes and other heroic actions over many months. But the anti-coup leadership heavily pushed Zelaya’s line of non-violent resistance, which made victory impossible against a regime armed to the teeth. And the general policy of the Resistance leadership was to subordinate mass mobilization to the ongoing negotiations and diplomacy.
Early in the negotiations process, Zelaya was required to renounce the constituent assembly that he had previously advocated and to agree to returning to a presidency stripped of its powers. This requirement was meant to slap down not only Zelaya but also the mass movement. Zelaya showed his willingness to betray the struggle by trying to agree to practically everything the imperialist-run negotiations demanded of him.
Both the mass resistance in Honduras and general international opinion favored Zelaya’s return to office. But for the U.S. administration, the main aim was to make sure that elections on November 29 would go forward. Elections were needed to provide a fig leaf of democracy and thereby enable the U.S. to go back to business as usual, building up the military and continuing to superexploit the country’s workers and resources.
During months of on-and-off-again negotiations, the Micheletti regime carried out murders, tortures, rapes and disappearances. Not once did Obama speak out against these atrocities. By late October U.S. representatives had stepped in directly and twisted arms to broker a pact, which both the Micheletti and Zelaya representatives signed. This San Jose-Tegucigalpa Accord called for a temporary “government of national unity” with both sides in the cabinet, and for the Honduran congress to vote on putting Zelaya back into office until a newly elected president would take office in January.
But days after the Accord was signed it became apparent that Zelaya was not going to be restored to the presidency, not even for a few months. Zelaya and the National Resistance Front turned to decrying the deal they had originally celebrated as a victory, despite its obvious sellout on the constituent assembly. At best it would have produced a coalition regime with the coup makers, but the betrayal was justified on the grounds that the deal would put Zelaya back into office.
Once the Accord fell through, Zelaya and the National Resistance Front turned to calling for a boycott of the election. This call deserved the support of all organizations and individuals internationally who believe in genuine democracy for the masses and the right of self-determination for oppressed nations. And as it turned out, there was in fact a high abstention rate. But Zelaya and the National Resistance Front leaders’ insistence on non-violence meant opposition to any mass self-defense. And that left the anti-coup fighters facing an aggressively militarized and repressive situation as Election Day approached. As a result there could be little by way of mass protest on the streets of Tegucigalpa.
Thus while the regime had been widely repudiated after the coup, the pretense of a democratic election gave a number of countries the excuse to recognize the Micheletti regime. Once the new president, Pepe Lobo, takes office in late January, it is expected that most other countries will resume normal relations with Honduras.
Obama’s victory in Honduras is only part of a plan to maintain and increase influence in Latin America. The most notable omen so far is the agreement signed with Colombia, which allows the U.S. to deploy an increased number of troops there and to lease seven Colombian military bases – thus providing potential land, sea and air access to the region far beyond what existed under Bush.
Honduras shows that Obama’s talk of a new era in Latin American relations was nothing more than a “velvet glove” – the imperialist iron fist is in operation whatever the disguise. There have been numerous human rights violations by the coup regime, including at least 130 killings, over 450 persons wounded, thousands of illegal detentions and 114 political prisoners taken. Not by coincidence, Micheletti has employed members of Colombian death squads as well as other contracted paramilitaries from the region. With amnesty for military perpetrators of the coup in the works, murderous attacks on activists are continuing.
The fight for justice, the fulfillment of democratic aspirations and a decent life for all in Honduras has been set back. Defeating imperialist policy in Honduras will require the power of the working class and oppressed, supported by action by more powerful working classes in the region. To overturn imperialism once and for all will require the re-creation of the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution, dedicated to proletarian socialist revolutions internationally.
January 9, 2010