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Salvaging Democracy in Honduras Will Be Tricky

Zelaya’s Return

by NIKOLAS KOZLOFF

Manuel Zelaya, the ousted leader of Honduras who was overthrown in a right-wing military coup in June, has made an incredible political gamble: yesterday he returned to the troubled Central American nation in a bid to reclaim the reins of power. In the capitol of Tegucigalpa some Zelaya supporters gathered in front of the United Nations building where they believed the former president was holed up. However, there was no confirmation that Zelaya was indeed inside. Later however the President appeared smiling on the balcony of the Brazilian embassy.

Since taking power the coup regime has clamped down on social movements with an iron grip — indeed about 1,500 people have been jailed for political reasons. Hopefully an agreement can be reached without further loss of life, Zelaya will be returned to power and respect for human rights can be restored.

It’s unclear however how this political crisis will unfold. On two previous occasions when Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras clashes between the army and the president’s supporters resulted in the deaths of several people. Needless to say, the coup government has declared a 15-hour curfew in Tegucigalpa.

In the event that the coup regime crumbles the U.S. and Latin American left will rejoice — before he was toppled Zelaya championed progressive reforms such as a raise in the minimum wage. The ex-President also brought Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas or ALBA, a reciprocal trade agreement spearheaded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

A Zelaya regime would be infinitely more preferable than the present government. However, even if Zelaya returns to power the road to democracy will be fraught. Honduras is a corrupt and politically unstable place which has become a media free-for-all in recent years. While the coup government has clamped down on the media [see my previous July piece on my personal blog entitled “Honduras: Latin American Media Battle Continues”], Zelaya was no pushover either in his day. Indeed, since the coup took place progressives have tended to gloss over some of the more questionable dealings of the former regime.

In 2007 Zelaya — a member of the wealthy landowning elite who only recently underwent a political conversion of sorts by adopting some progressive policies — ordered all the country’s TV and radio stations to carry government propaganda for two hours every day. Taking measures against the media was necessary, Zelaya argued, because it had provided unfair coverage of his government and had sought to exploit political and social problems like violent crime so as to boost profits.

Such a charge was not without merit: in 2006 there were 3,118 homicides in Honduras, certainly a lot but only enough to earn the country third place in Central America within this category. The media however did its utmost to encourage the perception that the murder rate was increasing despite the fact that the number of homicides in 2006 was 3% lower than in the previous year.

In a rhetorical flourish, Zelaya said that he was in a “fight with no quarter given” with the country’s media owners who presided over “an oligopoly.” He remarked that media barons exhibited a conflict of interest as they were invested in the telecommunications sector, construction, housing and banking. “The information which gets to the Honduran people is influenced by interests that distort the news,” he added. Media magnates, Zelaya said, represented “powerful economic groups motivated by self-interest to exploit political and social problems to provide grist for their mills.”

Again, there was certainly more than a grain of truth in Zelaya’s statements: in Honduras as in many other Latin American countries, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of powerful bankers and politicians. But while the Honduran media was certainly in need of reform, Zelaya’s remedy was to simply take over the airwaves for his own political benefit.

In his all out war on the media establishment, Zelaya declared that TV and radio outlets would be compelled to broadcast interviews with him as well as government ministers. In seeking to justify his position Zelaya claimed that it was imperative to counteract misinformation about his government. The main journalists’ union protested the decision, comparing it to measures carried out by former military governments in Honduras.

Zelaya’s decision was entirely legal and fortunately the President scaled the measure back shortly after it went into effect. It’s possible however that the government’s heavy handed approach encouraged a climate of fear and intimidation for local journalists. Inter Press Service (IPS) — hardly a right wing media outlet — reported in 2007 that Dagoberto Rodríguez, the news director of Radio Cadena Voces, was warned by the police that sicarios or hitmen wanted him dead. Since 2005 Rodríguez’s station had been harassed for its reporting on government corruption and staff received anonymous telephone threats.

Fearing for his life, Rodríguez fled the country. “I never expected to abandon my country this way, because the only thing I have ever done is journalism,” he said. “But the levels of intolerance of criticism and of freedom of speech, and the growing lack of safety in Honduras, have forced me to leave,” he added.

Rodríguez fled the country 12 days after the murder of another journalist, Carlos Salgado, who hosted a radio program called Fríjol, el terrible which mixed humour and news. Salgado was shot by two unidentified gunmen as he left the offices of RCV, an independent radio station which does investigative reporting. The hitmen shot Salgado at close range at least seven times before speeding away. Rodríguez believed that Salgado’s murder was linked to the latter’s reporting on official corruption.For progressives there’s more to give one pause.

Take for example Zelaya’s handling of the ALBA trade agreement before he was ousted from power. IPS cited an investigation by local newspaper El Heraldo which revealed receipts for a total of $284,000 allegedly distributed by the government to 38 social and political leaders. The figures reportedly received the funds in exchange for their support for ALBA and for carrying out protests in Congress prior to ALBA ratification.

Concerned about the report in El Heraldo, Zelaya allegedly tried to bribe one of the newspapers reporters in an effort to halt the investigation. The journalist told IPS that “when I asked (Zelaya) to comment on our investigation, he looked at me and said: ‘I’ll give you 500 lempiras (19 dollars) for you to stop talking.’ Then he called his guards and said to them, ‘pay this guy,’ and took out a 100-lempira bill (five dollars), at which point I told him to show me some respect.”

It’s unclear whether this particular sensational story could be true. However, after the Attorney General’s office initiated an investigation into the ALBA matter Zelaya’s presidential chief of staff confirmed that the government had indeed provided the funds. The official remarked “we contributed those resources in response to a request from social groups and for a good cause that will bring huge benefits for Honduras.”

One member of a local labor confederation told IPS that his organization had received the government money “as aid.” Yet another union official declared that “this new scandal should call the social and popular movement to reflection. It’s not ethical but it happened. This is an old practice that has existed under many governments, and nobody has done anything to put a stop to such irregularities because there are a lot of interests involved.”

Zelaya should be restored to power to serve out his term and the coup leaders overturned. As recent history has shown however, Honduras is a politically fragile country displaying deep seated corruption. Whether right or left, future governments will have to contend with this problematic legacy.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)