In June 2009 center-left Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was removed from power in a military coup widely seen as being backed by the US. Ten years later, in June 2019, a massive street revolt against the continued rule of right-wing Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) shakes the small Central American nation. Neither event has had much impact on international media headlines.
Elected in 2006 as a liberal from a wealthy logging family, Zelaya shifted to the left over the course of his Presidency, seeking to bring Honduras into ALBA, the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. When soldiers entered the Presidential residence in June 2009 and put him on a one-way flight to Costa Rica, Zelaya immediately declared he had been the victim of a coup. The two leading Generals involved in the coup were graduates of the notorious School of the Americas, the US’ training ground for future Latin American military leaders. The UN immediately denounced the events as a military coup. The US, however, equivocated, refusing to formally declare the ouster of the sitting president a coup, which would have required the US to stop sending aid to Honduras.
In response, Hondurans took to their street. A mass protest movement, dubbed ‘la resistencia’, protested the undemocratic actions of the military and demanded that Zelaya be reinstated. They were met with armed repression from the forces of the state. TV stations, including CNN en español and TeleSur, were shut down. Amnesty International reported widespread and indiscriminate use of force by police and military against the peaceful protesters, including violence and sexual assault against female protesters. At least two protesters were killed.
A general election, boycotted by Zelaya and the opposition, and not recognized by governments throughout Latin America, elected right-wing politician Pepe Lobo to the Presidency. Over the next number of years the resistance to the government became institutionalized within the Libre party, with Xiomara Zelaya, wife of the ousted President, as the party’s figurehead. Under Lobo’s Presidency, Human Rights Watch claims that at least ten members of the resistance were killed. However, the opposition movement’s shift to electoralism, and the increasing centralization of the movement around the family of the Zelayas, resulted in electoral failure. Although Xiomara Zelaya was leading in the polls in the run-up to the election in 2013, Juan Orlando Hernandez, a right-wing politician from the conservative National Party was elected President.
JOH was returned to power in 2017, amid elections that mirrored disputed elections in Venezuela in 2018 and Nicaragua in 2016. Many in Honduras and in the international community denounced the election as fraudulent. Streets were blocked, vehicles set on fire, shops looted and burnt down. The main highway linking Honduras with Guatemala, and therefore the primary artery for transport moving from US through Central America, was blockaded for days by protestors. Transport and the economy was severely disrupted. However, the regime of JOH responded with the customary brutality, and over the course of the demonstrations over 16 people were killed and many more injured and detained.
Even during the early 2000s, Honduras was a violent country, beset by the side-effects of the US-led War on Drugs, that has spilled beyond the borders of the US and into Central America. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18 are international criminal organizations that hold sway throughout much of Central America, and Honduras in particular. . As a result, Honduras consistently sits prominently on lists of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world, and despite the law-and-order rhetoric of JOH and other right-wing politicians, this crime rate has continued to spill out of control.
As a result, most Hondurans, who cannot afford the private security and gated communities available to Honduras’ tiny oligarchy, live in fear in their own communities, with almost all families affected by a personal story of the violence of their society. Emigration from Honduras has surged, with many people and families fleeing the violence and heading North to the United States, often paying exorbitant prices to a coyote, a smuggler who promises to sneak them across the border. More recently, a migrant caravan began its journey north in San Pedro Sula in Honduras towards the US-border to seek asylum from the increasing political destabilization and violence in their societies. This forced emigration has become an act of deliberate collective protest against the arbitrary violence of border regimes. In the process it has carved out a rare safe space in deeply conservative societies for LGBT Central Americans who also joined the caravan.
Meanwhile, state repression of civil society and left-wing activists has continued, with environmental activists, many of them indigenous or Garífuna afro-descendent people, who seek to protect Honduras’ natural resources from exploitation and extractive industries particularly targeted. In 2013, Tomás Garcia, an indigenous Lencan activist from the Rio Blanco community, was murdered by state forces at a protest against the construction of the massive Agua Zarca dam. The dam is largely backed by Chinese interests, a further instance of the increasing neo-colonial power of Chinese capital in extractive megaprojects throughout Latin America. In 2016, Berta Cáceres, founder of indigenous and environmental rights organization COPINH, was murdered for her activism against the dam. Former military officers have been charged as the ‘intellectual authors’ of her murder.
Typical of the right-wing ‘shock doctrine’ playbook, the repression of social movements and civil society in Honduras has gone hand-in-hand with economic deregulation and capitalist expansion. Honduras has become a laboratory for neoliberal, right-libertarian utopian fantasies of completely free markets, with several towns and industrial areas of Honduras declared ‘Charter Cities’, exempt from corporate taxation and labour rights regulations, free-fire zones for Capital.
However, in May of this year, Honduras once again burst into popular revolt. The neoliberal regime’s plans to privatize large sections of the healthcare and education sectors met immediate and widespread protests. On the 28th of May images flew around the world of protesters setting fire to piles of tyres outside the front door of the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. For many in Honduras there is a clear connection between US interference in their country dating back to the 2009 coup (and before), and the right-wing, neoliberal policies of the current regime. A national general strike was held on the 30th and 31st of May.With tens of thousands of Hondurans once again joining the protests, JOH’s government has been forced to withdraw the plans to restructure the education system but Hondurans remain in the street, demanding the fall of the regime.
These mass protests mirror the mobilizations just across the border in neighbouring Nicaragua since April of 2018. Although the Honduran protests are taking place against an openly right-wing regime, and the Nicaraguan protests are against a nominally left President (albeit one that forged an alliance with the Church that has led to the most repressive abortion regime in Latin America), both protests are strikingly similar. Both emerged from the context of highly disputed elections in 2016 and 2017, and both were sparked neoliberal reforms to the economy and social services. In both countries a brutal state crackdown targets feminist, leftist and environmentalist civil society in particular. Solidarity with the people of Latin America demands solidarity with both mass movements of the popular classes for democracy and against state repression.
Honduras was one of few CA countries that hadn’t experienced a mass, popular left-wing revolt since 2009. That is now changing. Despite the atmosphere of fear and insecurity caused by US intervention, state repression and the continuing breakdown of society under a wave of gang violence that has forced many Hondurans across borders, Hondurans have built militant grassroots organizations such as the indigenous-led COPINH and OFRANEH, which represents the coastal, afro-indigenous Garífuna people. Karina Flores, a social activist and former comrade of Berta Cáceres from the Plataforma del Movimiento Social, a Honduran ‘movement of movements’, visited Ireland in 2018 to speak at LASC’s Latin America Week, about the threats she has faced . Despite all efforts of Lobo and JOH and the repressive right-wing governments, and the drift into electoralism under the Zelayas, the tradition of mass protest that was born out of the ‘resistencia’ of 2009 has not been crushed, but has emerged again and again to challenge and force back the regime. The withdrawal of the privatization agenda of the government
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Tomás Lynch is an active member of LASC. He lived outside San Pedro Sula in Honduras in 2013-2014.