Tension builds in Honduras confrontation

Tension is building in Honduras as President Manuel Zelaya, driven from his country by a military coup, has taken brief but powerfully symbolic steps across the border from Nicaragua, while sending a letter to US President Barack Obama asking the United States to sharply increase pressure on the coup regime.

On Wednesday July 22, negotiations being mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias appeared to have bogged down. The previous week, Arias had presented a seven point proposal both to President Zelaya and to Roberto Micheletti, the head of the de-facto coup government. Micheletti did not accept the proposal on the grounds that it would have brought Zelaya back to Honduras as president to serve out his term which ends in January of 2010. Arias then presented a modified proposal which neither side has accepted.

Many analysts familiar with the situation suspect that the strategy of Micheletti and his colleagues in the coup government is to drag out negotiations until after the November 29 presidential and congressional elections (which Micheletti wants to move back to October). After a new president is elected, Micheletti expects that international pressure, including sanctions imposed on Honduras by the OAS and other bodies plus most countries around the world will fade, and the coup plotters will have won.

This horrifies the other countries of Latin America, many of which have vivid memories of coups d’état by bloodthirsty military adventurers like Augusto Pinochet of Chile or Efrain Rios-Montt of Guatemala, whose governments killed many thousands of their countrymen. This is why there is such unity among Latin American countries in insisting that Zelaya be restored to power.

The two main traditional conservative political parties in Honduras, the Liberals and the National Party, are both anti-Zelaya at the leadership level, even though there are suggestions that part of the Liberal Party’s base may be moving toward Zelaya, who won as that party’s candidate in the 2005 presidential elections, but then moved leftward. The main party of the left in Honduras, the Party of Democratic Unification, with 5 seats in the outgoing Congress, has been heavily identified with the project of a non-binding referendum to ask if citizens wanted a vote on a constitutional convention in the November election. This referendum effort was the pretext for the coup on June 28, though the real reasons probably include the many progressive, pro-worker steps the Zelaya government had been taking. The coup leaders accuse Zelaya of having violated the Constitution by planning to extend his time in office, though he himself has said nothing of the kind, and the wording of the referendum does not mention presidential terms in office, only the idea of having a constitutional convention.

Democratic Unification and its presidential candidate, Cesar Ham, have been very active in resistance to the coup regime, along with labor unions and peasant, student and other mass organizations. Thus Democratic Unification is undergoing strong repression right now, with reports of two of its activist having been killed. If the coup regime succeeds in keeping Zelaya out and itself in power up to the elections, with press controls and other repressive measures, it will be very hard for Ham and Democratic Unification to campaign, if they are allowed to at all. The coup regime is getting plenty of aid and comfort from the ultra-right in the United States, especially Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Connie Mack (R-FL) who have been inviting representatives of the coup regime to testify in Congress. U.S. corporate interests invested in Honduras, including Chiquita Banana and others, have a stake in keeping Micheletti in and Zelaya out, and the right- wing press and pulpit in the United States are putting out massive amounts of disinformation about the real situation in the Central American country. This weekend, right-wing US Congressmen Connie Mack and Brian Bilbray (R-CA) showed up in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, to express their support for the coup.

Zelaya’s allies among the other countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), including the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, are suspicious that the Arias negotiations are a ploy to run out the clock on the situation in Honduras and assure that the coup group can manipulate the elections in the above manner. They have therefore been highly critical both of Arias and of the US government for promoting the mediation instead of maximizing US economic pressure on the coup government and its supporters.

President Zelaya has now unleashed two logjam-breaking initiatives designed to force the international community to act more decisively to oust the Micheletti regime.

On Friday July 24th, Zelaya himself, accompanied by a large group of supporters and press, personally drove from Esteli, in Nicaragua, to the Honduran border at Las Manos, with the stated purpose of crossing over and demanding that the Honduran military let him enter and resume his post. Meanwhile, thousands of Zelaya supporters, including Zelaya’s wife and children, were converging on the crossing point from the Honduras side to greet Zelaya and form a protective cordon for him. At the same time, Honduran unions announced a general strike, and Zelaya supporters manned many roadblocks throughout the country. Zelaya crossed the border on Friday, spoke briefly to an army lieutenant colonel and requested that he contact the army high command to ask them not to oppose Zelaya’s return. This didn’t happen and Zelaya went back across into Nicaragua again, where he has established a base camp in the town of Ocotlan.

The army and police have been kept busy confronting the demonstrators who have been converging on the border, arresting a number of people, driving others into forested areas and killing at least one.

The second initiative by Zelaya was to write directly to US President Barack Obama to insist that the U.S. government ratchet up pressure on the coup regime by such measures as canceling the visas of people in the leadership of the coup government, including the commanders of the armed forces, army and navy as well as top civilian coup leaders, and freezing their U.S. bank accounts until Micheletti and his gang back down.

Immediately after the coup, President Obama had made a strong statement denouncing it and affirming that the United States considers Zelaya to be the legal president of Honduras. The United States, like the OAS and the European Union, cut off some aid to Honduras, about $19 million worth. However, the State Department has so far declined to officially classify the situation as a coup d’état, perhaps because Honduras would then lose more aid under requirements of U.S. law. Before Zelaya entered Honduras on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had criticized the move as “reckless” (as had OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, in milder terms), which caused annoyance in the Zelaya camp.

The Mexican daily La Jornada quoted Enrique Reina, Zelaya’s minister of communications and ambassador delegate to the United States, as saying “We believe that the measures we are requesting from the US administration will exercise direct pressure on those who executed the coup without causing a negative impact for the Honduran people”.

In the United States, cosponsors are adding their names to a resolution in the House of Representatives, H RES 630, which deplores the coup and calls on the United States to exert pressure for Zelaya’s return to the presidency. There are 40 cosponsors to the measure, whose main sponsor is Congressman Bill de la Hunt of Massachusetts. A rival measure promoted by the ultra right, which calls for the recognition of the coup government, has 31 cosponsors.

The U.S. government had said that President Zelaya was coming up to Washington DC this coming Tuesday to meet with officials, but this is now in doubt, as Zelaya says anybody who wants to talk to him can come down to his encampment in Ocotal, Nicaragua.

Media are now reporting that the commander of the Honduran armed forces, General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, one of the people whose visas Zelaya has asked to be cancelled and bank accounts frozen, has stated that he will not fire on Zelaya if he returns to Honduras, and that he supports the mediation process. According to press reports, the statement was drafted for General Vasquez by “US congressional aids”.