When rallying in the streets of Tegucigalpa for the ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Alejandra Fernandez, a 23-year-old university student told a journalist why she supported Zelaya: “He raised the minimum wage, gave out free school lunches, provided milk for the babies and pensions for the elderly, distributed energy-saving light bulbs, decreased the price of public transportation, made more scholarships available for students.” Others gathered around to mention the roads and schools in rural areas the president had created.
“That’s why the elite classes can’t stand him and why we want him back,” Alejandra explained. “This is really a class struggle.”
But it’s not just because of these relatively progressive reforms that Zelaya enacted that he deserves our support. Nor is it simply because this democratically-elected leader was ousted in a repressive coup led by right-wing oligarchs and military officials trained at the infamous torture and counterinsurgency school, the School of the Americas, now known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, based in Georgia.
He also deserves our support because he was ultimately overthrown in response to his plans to organise a popular assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution.
According to Central American political analyst Alberto Valiente Thoresen, Honduras’s current constitution, written in 1982, “was the product of a context characterised by counter-insurgency policies supported by the US government, civil façade military governments and undemocratic policies.” In an assembly made up of elected representatives from various political parties and social sectors, a new, likely more progressive and inclusive constitution could have a lasting impact on the country’s corrupt politicians, powerful sweatshop owners and repressive military institutions.
Many commentators have said that Zelaya sought to re-write the constitution to extend his time in office. Yet nothing indicates that that was the case. Leading up to the coup, Zelaya was pushing for a referendum on 28 June in which the ballot question was to be: “Do you agree that, during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?” This non-binding referendum – not plans from Zelaya to expand his power – was enough to push right wing and military leaders to organise a coup.
If the Honduran people approved the formation of a constitutional assembly in November, it would likely take years – as it did recently in Bolivia – to rewrite the document. Zelaya would not be president as he would not be running in the upcoming elections. His term in office finishes in January 2010, too short a time to complete a national assembly’s rewriting of the constitution.
Given that it was the call for the constituent assembly that led to the coup, it appears that the coup leaders are more worried about an assembly in which the people could re-write their own constitution, than Zelaya himself. Clearly it’s the Honduran oligarchs, rather than Zelaya, who are more interested in concentrating and conserving their own power.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Zelaya in Washington today, and one development was that Costa Rica’s president Oscar Arias will act as mediator for the return of Zelaya. But there still is plenty of room for improvement in the US’s stance. The Obama administration should listen to Zelaya’s demands rather than impose preconditions for US support. And it should avoid bullying Zelaya into dropping his plans for the new constitution, or limiting any progressive reforms he may want to enact upon returning to office. The Honduran people should decide what course Zelaya should take, not the Obama administration and certainly not any right wing junta.
Although the Obama administration has been critical of the coup and relatively supportive of Zelaya, it should go much further. Some clear signs that Washington backs Zelaya would be withdrawing the US ambassador from the country, following in the footsteps of the other nations that have condemned the coup. The US should also cut off all of its aid to the rogue government, and end all military aid to the country. These actions would put pressure on the already weak military and send a clearer message to the region that, at this point, Washington is entirely against the coup, and willing to respect demands from Latin American leaders, all of whom have called for Zelaya’s reinstatement.
This past Sunday, after his plane was turned back upon trying to land in Honduras, Zelaya told reporters: “the United States, which has tremendous power, should take action. Specifically, the strongest government in economic matters, in aspects of the sphere of the dollar, for us is the United States. If they decide to live with the coup, then democracy in the Americas is over.”
BENJAMIN DANGL is currently based in Paraguay and is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press). He edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.