What political and social forces are at the heart of Sunday’s coup in Honduras? Let’s start by looking at the role of Roberto Micheletti, the man Hugo Chávez loves to hate. The former head of the National Congress, Micheletti declared himself Honduras’ new President on Sunday. He replaces President Manuel Zelaya, a politician who had been moving towards more politically and economically progressive positions in recent years. A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, Micheletti studied business administration in the United States and worked as the CEO of Honduras’ state telecommunications company Hondutel in the late 1990s. While he was CEO of the firm Micheletti sought to privatize the firm.
As a believer in so-called “neo-liberal reform,” Micheletti found himself at odds with the Zelaya regime which came to power in early 2006. After he left Hondutel, Micheletti sponsored legislation in Congress which would have cut Hondutel’s rates. Zelaya and Hondutel condemned Micheletti’s provisions, arguing that they would further erode the company’s revenues. For years, long distance profits had provided a lucrative source of income for the government. Over time Hondutel had been subjected to deregulation and had lost its absolute monopoly on long distance calls, fixed lines and telex service. As part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA, Honduras was obliged to reform its telecommunications law which would allow Hondutel to attract private business partners. Observers believed that telecom reform would represent the first step towards outright privatization. Zelaya was one of the most fervent opponents of telecom reform, declaring that it would benefit the private sector and gradually weaken Hondutel’s control of long distance service.
Micheletti formed part of the influential business elite which had grown increasingly disenchanted with the government’s progressive drift. In Honduras, powerful businessmen are the main contributors to political campaigns. They are so powerful and linked to the political system that it can be said that they handpick presidents and dictate the news agenda in the media.Speaking to Inter Press Service, one Zelaya presidential adviser remarked that the country’s economic groups were “insatiable, they make one request after another…in a meeting with President Manuel Zelaya, they told him that in the 1980s, the most important political decisions were put to consultation in the military barracks, but that now they were here, the businesspeople and the media.” In the meeting the businessmen reportedly sought to put Zelaya in his place, remarking “You are only temporary, while we are permanent. We want to be consulted about decisions, we want contracts and to participate in the public tenders, we want to express our opinions on some appointments of public officials, and we want official advertising contracts.”
Apparently Zelaya was not intimidated and instituted a 60% minimum wage increase which angered the wealthy business community. When private business associations announced that they would challenge the government’s wage decree in Honduras’ Supreme Court, Zelaya’s Labor Minister called the critics “greedy exploiters.” One organization that was particularly critical of Zelaya’s measure was the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP. Amílcar Bulnes, COHEP’s President, argued that if the government went forward with the minimum wage increase employers would be forced to let workers go, thus increasing unemployment in the country. The most important business organization in Honduras, COHEP groups 60 trade associations and chambers of commerce representing every sector of the Honduran economy. According to its own Web site, COHEP is the political and technical arm of the Honduran private sector, supports trade agreements and provides “critical support for the democratic system.”
Such democratic pledges have been exposed as farce in light of COHEP’s reaction to the coup against Zelaya. The international community should not impose economic sanctions against the coup regime in Tegucigalpa, COHEP argues, because this would worsen Honduras’ social problems. In its new role as the mouthpiece for Honduras’ poor, COHEP declares that Honduras has already suffered from earthquakes, torrential rains and the global financial crisis. Before punishing the coup regime with punitive measures, COHEP argues, the United Nations and the Organization of American States should send observer teams to Honduras to investigate how sanctions might affect 70% of Hondurans who live in poverty. Bulnes meanwhile has voiced his support for Micheletti and argues that the political conditions in Honduras are not propitious for Zelaya’s return from exile.
Micheletti and the business elite receive support from the U.S.-trained military, without which they would not have been able to force Zelaya out of power. Two generals, Romeo Vasquez and Javier Suazo played a key role in the coup. Both had studied at the infamous U.S. School of the Americas which provided instructions in how to torture political dissidents.
There are uncanny parallels between the Honduran overthrow of Zelaya and the Venezuelan coup. In 2002, another Vasquez, Efraín, played a key role in opposing the government of Hugo Chávez. Like his Honduran counterparts, Efraín Vasquez also graduated from the School of the Americas. As army commander in chief, he reportedly met with Otto Reich of the State Department in advance of the U.S.-sponsored coup. On April 11, 2002 amidst opposition protests Vasquez was the only high military official to call for Chávez’s resignation. As I point out in my first book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006), Vasquez halted deployment of troops to protect Chávez in the presidential palace. The following day, Vasquez negotiated Chávez’s ouster and worked to disarm and dismantle citizen groups allied to the regime.
As in Honduras, the military was allied to the globalizing business elite. Dictator for a day Pedro Carmona, who briefly overthrew Chávez in 2002, was a prominent member of Fedecámeras, a business association similar to COHEP in Honduras. In Caracas, Fedecámeras gave voice to the globalizing elite which was fearful of Chávez’s social and economic policies. Carmona, who worked as an executive in the petrochemical industry, was openly critical of Chávez’s moves to exert greater control over the state oil company.
Today it is the U.S.-trained military and the corporate globalizing elite which are most actively seeking the demise of progressive reform in Latin America. Time and again, it is these two key constituencies, acting in tandem, which have sought to overthrow governments.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)