Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Early summer. A hotel bar, a quiet night. You finish another beer. You press the barback for his thoughts on Manuel Zelaya, the president toppled ten years ago. The bartender taps the counter to interrupt you. “That man,” pointing to a far corner, “bought you a drink.” You turn to look. “He has it there. He’d like to speak with you.” You walk, less unsteady than you’d feared, across the room to his table.
Polite introductions. The man wears a suit, white linen, and sits half beyond the light, his face shadow-shrouded. He asks how long you’ve been in Honduras, whether you’ve visited the Museo para la Identidad Nacional, how you earn a living. You drink guaro? Good. The banter ends.
“Manuel Zelaya,” he begins, “had no reason to become the leader he was. His parents were rich ranchers in Olancho. They were the type of people one can do business with. That one can speak frankly to. And we felt, once Zelaya became president– he won the 2005 election— that he would conduct himself, in office, in a manner befitting his family.
“There were early promising signs. He supported foreign investment. And he brought our country into a free-trade arrangement. Our NAFTA, essentially. Fine decisions.
“But in time we discerned the problem. By problem, I mean the flaw in Zelaya’s character. By flaw, I mean an erroneous assumption– one infecting his policies: the minimum wage hike, the pensions, the proposed land reform. It’s quite straightforward. Zelaya felt, for whatever reason, that in some basic sense Honduras belongs to Hondurans. That the country must develop in line with the general public’s interests and needs. The entire history of the nation– we’re the original “banana republic,” after all– tells us the exact opposite….
“But that’s a story for a different evening. Zelaya: we unseated him on June 28, 2009, as you know. Soldiers took him from his home— very early, before dawn– and flew him to Costa Rica.
“That date was significant. On it, Zelaya intended to poll the public. To ask whether they wanted a question on the ballot in November 2009, in our national election. A question that could, with enough support, lead to constitutional reform. None of this was especially alarming. It was certainly legal. But it was too easy for us to frame it as a power grab, as Zelaya’s attempt to rewrite the law, to grant himself a second– unconstitutional– presidential term. As part of his broader plot to bring Chavismo to Central America, to ruin Honduras as Venezuela was ruined.
“I’m not saying any of us took these charges, this power grab narrative, seriously. At least not those of us I consider sophisticated. Zelaya’s threat to our interests was real. Without question. The pretext for the coup was ridiculous.
“As our legal advisor– a graduate of your School of the Americas, incidentally– confessed days after the overthrow, ‘We know there was a crime there.’ A crime in how we ousted Zelaya. Or consider what your ambassador wrote five days before the coup. I have the exact quote saved on my phone, just a moment…. O.K. He explained there was ‘no hard intelligence suggesting any consideration by Zelaya or any members of his government to usurp democracy and suspend constitutional rule.’ You see? No consideration of unconstitutional behavior, to say nothing of efforts to that end. We’re not delusional. We knew exactly what we were doing.
“As did your government. Obama feigned outrage, sure. But your State Department’s decision was crucial. Hillary Clinton’s decision. She claimed our actions were too ambiguous to label a military coup. The rest of the world understood our army’s kidnapping and banishment of Zelaya was exactly that. But your finest Washington analysts, one was to believe, found our overthrow too complex, too shot-through with ambiguity, to earn the label. Military coup? Who could say?
“This refusal to call our crime by its name meant aid from your country was not suspended. This support, in turn, bought us time. Valuable time. We needed just five months, until November. The next election.
“It was a complete farce, of course. The stakes were too high to risk anything but the democratic play-acting we orchestrated. And we had to intimidate our opponents– those still supporting Zelaya, or those active in the movements and organizations his policies benefited– as the contest approached. The army ordered mayors to list so-called ‘enemies of the electoral process,’ for example, in order to neutralize them. Our efforts paid off.
“We got our man, Pepe Lobo, elected. Your government had promised to recognize the winner before the vote occurred. Two years later, Obama hosted Lobo at the White House. By then we knew we were in the clear.
“From what I heard you asking Polón at the bar, I doubt you know this story’s main contours. The 2009 contest was only the first of three electoral farces after the coup. In 2013, it took considerable intimidation of our enemies to see Juan Orlando Hernández win. We even killed three of them that November weekend to get the point across. And the 2017 contest nearly blew up in our faces, it was such an obvious fraud. But JOH, as he is known, won his second term.
“A second term– what we pretended to fear Zelaya wanted. What did I tell you? The pretext for the coup was ridiculous. Not that your government cares. They haven’t backed Honduran democracy for over a century— why would they start now? The money still flows, even after Trump’s threatened cut-off. And your president recognized the most recent sham, the one I just mentioned. Obama the one before that.
“But listen. We could speak until dawn, wading through the details of these contests, parsing the legacies of the post-coup leaders. But our elections, like your country’s presidential races, distract from deeper issues. From the fact that we who run this country have long-range interests, objectives that transcend any presidency.
“Think of our national development plans. These were effected with Zelaya out of the way. The current initiative, The Nation Plan (2010-2022), is just the first phase of a long-term strategy, Country Vision (2010-2038). The time frame is seven four-year presidential terms. A chief aim is economic growth, 7% annually. Growth by what means? Maquiladoras. Tourism. Natural resources: our forests, our minerals, our agribusiness crops. Energy.
“What this plan implies is obvious. Or should be. But I’ve learned never to underestimate naïveté, especially when engaging foreign affairs analysts, academics, political commentators, so-called rigorous reporters. You know who I mean. So forgive me for spelling this out: By defining development as we have, by emphasizing economic growth, the exploitation of natural resources, by prioritizing profit-making, we’ve charted a path to the future many Hondurans now clutter as obstacles. They’re barriers to our goal.
“Let me be specific. Do you think peasant farming pushes us towards the future Honduras, the 2038 Honduras we wish to see? Nonsense. Farmers must grow crops to export. Or produce for supermarkets– Walmart, for instance, is installing itself here. Development workers from your country are helping it do that. And if neither option appeals, the peasants can move. Our cities are growing. Most Hondurans, just over half the population, now live in cities. And if San Pedro Sula doesn’t suit them, they can leave the country. Adapt– or leave.
“Now, some refuse to accept this decision. They refuse to adapt. They refuse to leave. They are infected with the same belief Zelaya had. I’m referring to those opposing the Los Encinos hydroelectric dam, for example. The Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz, MILPAH they call themselves. They don’t want it in their community. But the dam, the hydroelectric project, the generation of energy, draws us closer to our 2038 vision. MILPAH would be content dragging us back to 1938.
“There’s no reasoning with these people. And when dialogue, when logical discussion fails, force is required. We terminated three of the dam’s enemies to make our position clear. One we left dismembered along the Chinacla River. Another’s hands we bound with bootlaces and burned severely, stabbing him again and again — we’d actually killed his son earlier. A family of imbeciles.
“I’ll give more examples. The Berta Cáceres murder is well-known, of course. It stems from the same juvenile hostility to hydroelectric power, in this case the Agua Zarca dam, just described. But this retrograde attitude takes many forms.
“Resistance to mining or logging, say. In the northern part of the country, in the Yoro Department, in a place called Locomapa where the indigenous Tolupan live, two of our men shot to death a pair of demonstrators in their 40s and a 71-year-old woman. The men we meant to eliminate. They had been blocking a road, disrupting efforts to use local antimony deposits, local timber, in the proper way– as engines of growth. As commodities. As throughways to 2038. The old woman? Murdered by accident. But that’s how these things go.
“You seem squeamish. Myself, I consider sympathy a waste of time. A distraction. Tell me: What purpose does it serve? This concern for others? The murder count here, UNAH found, is something like 70,000 since 2004. That figure echoes another– I can’t imagine you know much Central American history– the number killed in El Salvador, in the ’80s, in the state slaughter referred to as a ‘civil war.’ Well. So what? So what of the gang killings? The massacres? What good is it to weep over these corpse mountains?”
You push your chair away from the table. “You’re a psychopath.”
The man sits silently. He takes an electronic cigarette from his breast pocket, examines it, then pulls before exhaling the vapor, breathing out for what seems ten seconds. The cloud surrounds you, traced with scents of ripe bananas, blood, rotten eggs, formaldehyde, DBCP. “Perhaps,” he replies through the haze. “But ask yourself this: Why did your country’s rulers, its political and business elite, feel compelled to create me?”