A Chance for Real Democracy in Honduras

News Abroad

Kevin Coleman, a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at Indiana University, is conducting field research in Honduras. He previously authored the HNN piece: “A Coup is Not a Coup. A Not Coup is a Coup.”

Honduras is changing. In 1981, Ronald Reagan imposed democracy from the outside, yielding a constitution that minimized the participation of the citizenry in the decisions of their government and a process that repressed and decapitated the social movements—led by workers, peasants, and students—who sought to have their voices heard. Nearly three decades later, as President Manuel Zelaya made marginal steps toward reform, by raising the minimum wage from about $0.50/hour to about $1.20/hour and attempting to create a mechanism for the people’s participation in their government, the previously fragmented Honduran elite united to overthrow him.

That same elite and a deeply colonized Honduran middle class thought that the United States and other conservative members of the international community would embrace this undemocratic step. That was their first miscalculation. Their second misstep was to assume that the historically acquiescent Honduran people would shut up and accept the dictates of their social and economic superiors. The complete opposite has turned out to be true.

Huge masses of Hondurans are responding with outrage and indignation, refusing to accept the lies of the coup leaders and their propagandists. With cowboy hats and varied skin tones, they have marched. With music, theater, and banana chips, they have protected the few journalists and media outlets that have remained independent in spite of the threats and intimidation. For example, Natalie Roque, a young historian in charge of the National Newspaper Archive, scanned old newspapers and posted them on Facebook for her friends to learn about Roberto Micheletti’s attempt to convoke a Constituent Assembly—the very crime that he accuses Zelaya of—back in 1985; that Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez has been receiving a monthly allowance of $5,000 from the Honduran government since 2001; and that military chief Romeo Vásquez Velásquez was convicted of leading a group of car thieves in February 1993. After releasing several embarrassing moments in the coup leaders’ past, including the time when Micheletti was arrested for ripping off passengers on his buses, she was fired. And when internationally renowned cartoonist Allan McDonald was arrested after protesting the coup, cartoonists from around the world rallied in support, satirizing in their local papers the undemocratic transfer of power that had taken place in Honduras.

When the coup government cut the power of the poor rural communities of southern Honduras, the campesinos (peasants) tuned in their AM radios to broadcasts from Nicaragua and El Salvador, getting around the Honduran media’s assault of soap operas, old soccer games, and sermons about the “peace” and “democracy.” Or, when agents from the police Criminal Investigation Unit (DNIC) photographed demonstrators from an unmarked car, the demonstrators stopped the car and pulled out their own digital cameras to photograph the effort to intimidate them. Photography can be used as a means of domination and a way to naturalize socially constructed inequalities, but it is also being used here to document repression, making visible what the coup government would like to hide from the world.

We are witnessing a democratic awakening of the Honduran people. This time, if democracy is restored, it will come from the bottom up, from university students camped out in stairways to protect journalists, from workers with cheap digital cameras, from campesinos hiking through mountains and flouting curfew to say to elites: “Hello! This is not how a democracy conducts itself.”

The new liberal Honduran political culture that is being fashioned at this moment is not emerging from empty space. Its elements were there from the beginning. From 1837-1849, following independence from Spain, the indigenous Lencan of Texiguat fought in Francisco Morazán’s army for a united Central American Federation of States. In 1954, as workers and artisans, women and men, refused to load bananas onto boats now owned by the Chiquita and Dole Fruit companies, a new Honduran political subject was brought into being. In the 1970s, as campesinos struggled for land reform and dignity, a vision of Honduran democracy was being formulated. This vision was not of unlimited freedom for the few and a mockery of the principle of equality for the many. Instead, campesinos were insisting that freedom and equality could not be brutalized by the elite and their U.S. backers. And now, in 2009, after a military coup orchestrated by the commercial elite, blessed by the leaders of Honduras’s evangelical churches and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, embraced by much of Honduras’s small middle class, and only tepidly denounced by the United States, the ghosts of the indigenous of Texiguat, the banana plantation workers of El Progreso, and the campesinos of Tocoa, are coming back to haunt the present moment.

If the Honduran people manage to oust the coup regime and to reinstitute their democratically elected president, this will be the moment when Honduran democracy is born. But this time, the people are fighting not for plutocracy hidden behind a fig leaf of “democracy,” but for a system of government that is of, for, and by the people.

But this is not a struggle easily won. The elite and its coup government have their guns pointed at those who oppose them. Curfews are being imposed throughout the country, restricting people’s ability to move freely within their own country. Nonviolent demonstrators against the undemocratic regime are being beaten up, intimidated, and in some cases killed. On July 2, journalist Gabriel Fino Noriega was first threatened for having reported on the popular resistance to the coup; then he was gunned down. On July 11, Roger Iván Bados González, a member of the leftist party of Democratic Unification (UD) was executed in his own house by a group of ununiformed men. One day later, another leader from the UD, Ramón Garcías, was returning from a demonstration against the coup when he was kidnapped from a bus and then killed. On July 5, I heard the gunshots that took the life of nineteen-year-old Isis Obed Murillo Mencías. I photographed the pool of blood that he left behind. And when a Honduran newspaper, La Prensa, published a photo of Murillo Mencías being carried away, they airbrushed out the fountain of blood that poured from the back of his head; but in a public sphere that is now international in scope, viewers in other parts of the world saw the life dripping from the boy’s head. Each day, the killings, physical and symbolic, continue.

In Honduras, the rightwing has kept the masses of poor people at bay not through indiscriminate killing but through carefully targeted repression designed to decapitate social movements. Throughout the late Cold War, elite squads in the Honduran military, with direct assistance from the United States, gathered intelligence and tracked down leaders of groups clamoring for justice and systematically eliminated them. This surgical repression often fails to spark the moral outrage of the international community and allows the Honduran elite to continue ruling the country with little regard for the poor and less regard for the country’s democratic institutions.

As the ghosts of those fallen in the long struggle for a more just Honduras come back to haunt the present moment, the Honduran elite must be worried that this time they may have overplayed their hand. As defenders of the coup invoke Gandhi, M.L.K., and Israel in their piously absurd attempt to hold on to power, they increasing sound like cartoons themselves. This time the Honduran people are not so easily bullied. This time they are not accepting the emaciated and exclusionary form of “democracy” that they are being offered by the Micheletti regime. This time they are demanding not only the restitution of their elected leader but a participatory democracy that responds with concrete action to their long forgotten plight.

But in the all-too-likely scenario that the coup government is able to hold out till the elections in November, the social wound inflicted on the Honduran body politic will only grow deeper. The main candidates—Elvin Santos and Pepe Lobo—will go forward with their campaigns, attempting to “put the coup behind them” as they seek the legitimacy of elections. Meanwhile, the current government will continue its acts of targeted repression, quelling dissent, and disarticulating the broad opposition movement that is congealing around the demand to restore democratic rule in Honduras. This unexpected opening in Honduran political culture will be nailed shut.

Yet hopefully, this time, at this defining moment, the United States will be on the side of the poor Hondurans struggling for a democracy based on principles of liberty and equality. This could give substance to President Obama’s pledge to forge a new relationship with Latin America.

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Mike A Mainello - 8/9/2009

First off, I apologize that I didn't directly respond to your childish attack and your comment:

didn't I already answered your present two-professors-and-the-book "argument"?

No you did not answer the argument. You dismissed it because it did not fit your preconceived answer. Unlike you, I try to read and become better informed on a subject. I even try to keep my mind open to different facts and arguments that may inform me where I am wrong.

You may not believe that I have provided any valuable input here, but you certainly have re-enforced what I have come to believe about liberals / democrats / statists, so thanks for the education!

Mike A Mainello - 8/9/2009

I guess since I don't agree with you and provide evidence backing up my points, you have decided to go home.

Just because the majority believes something doesn't make it right.

The majority of people believed the earth was flat, how is that working for them?

Now 2 UCLA professors studied the Great Depression and came up with different conclusions, your stand is they are wrong. It is your right.

Did you even read the link?

Why even study history if the majority have already decided?

Mike A Mainello - 8/9/2009

This is the clearest explanation I can provide to you.

While seven justices agreed that the court-ordered, statewide recount violated the Equal Protection Clause, only five justices agreed on the remedy. Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST and Associate Justices SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, ANTONIN SCALIA, CLARENCE THOMAS, and ANTHONY KENNEDY noted that Florida law required the state to select its electors for the electoral college by December 12, which was the day the Court announced its decision in Bush v. Gore. Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy concluded that it was thus impossible to complete a statewide recount by day's end. For all intents and purposes, then, a majority of the Court ruled that the 2000 U.S. presidential election was over and George W. Bush had won.
Justices JOHN PAUL STEVENS, DAVID SOUTER, STEPHEN BREYER, and RUTH BADER GINSBURG dissented, with Stevens, Breyer, and Ginsburg each writing their own dissenting opinion. The December 12 deadline chosen by the majority was misleading, the dissenting justices asserted, since under federal law the electors had until December 18 to deliver their votes to Congress and until December 28 before Congress could request the electors to deliver their votes had they not already done so. "By halting the Florida recount in the interest of finality," Justice Stevens wrote, "the majority effectively orders the disenfranchisement of an unknown number of voters whose ballots reveal their intent—and are therefore legal votes under state law—but were for some reason rejected by ballot-counting machines." In addition, Breyer stated: "An appropriate remedy would be to remand this case with instructions that, even at this late date, would permit the Florida Supreme Court to require recounting all undercounted votes in Florida … and to do so in accordance with a single uniform standard."

Read more: http://law.jrank.org/pages/4945/Bush-v-Gore-U-S-Supreme-Court-Steps-In.html#ixzz0NhR6QsWV

Arnold Shcherban - 8/9/2009

Look, let's stop this becoming pointless discussion, 'cause you don't
even have a respectful bone to reply to someone's arguments. Instead, you make comments on waht you think would have been your opponents arguments.
E.g. when I mentioned: "highly controvercial in essense (i.e. even provided they have come as a result of someone else's analysis.)" didn't I already answered your present two-professors-and-the-book "argument"?
Didn't you understand the term "highly controvercial", as obvious hint on the MAJORITY of professors and books that favor FDR's SS decision?
Anyway, let's drop it.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/9/2009

I repeat: the final ruling that should be in the US Supreme Court records (in difference with opinions expressed before the actual vote) in BUSH v. GORE was 5-4.
"The Court ruled 5–4 that no constitutionally valid recount could be completed by a December 12 "safe harbor" deadline. The Court asserted that "the Supreme Court of Florida has said that the legislature intended the State's electors to 'participat[e] fully in the federal electoral process,' as provided in 3 U.S.C. § 5." The Court therefore effectively ended the election, because "the Florida Legislature intended to obtain the safe-harbor benefits of 3 U. S. C. §5."

Four justices (Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter and Breyer) dissented as to stopping the recount. The four dissenters invoked the principle of fairness. The actual counting had ended with the December 9 injunction issued by the same five-justice majority, three days before any deadline.[20] However, two of those four dissenters (i.e. Justices Breyer and Souter) acknowledged that the counting up until December 9 had not conformed with Equal Protection requirements.

If you stubbornly insist on 7-2 or 6-3
ruling count, I offer you a $1000 bet paid in check to whoever is right on the ruling count. I, on my side, publicly swear that loosing the bet I will pay you the money indicated.
Now the ball is on your side.

Mike A Mainello - 8/8/2009

I was wrong, 7 Supreme Court justices were on record saying the recount procedures were constitutionally wrong.

"Seven Justices of the Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court that demand a remedy. See post, at 6 (Souter, J., dissenting); post, at 2, 15 (Breyer, J., dissenting). The only disagreement is as to the remedy. Because the Florida Supreme Court has said that the Florida Legislature intended to obtain the safe-harbor benefits of 3 U.S.C. § 5 Justice Breyer’s proposed remedy–remanding to the Florida Supreme Court for its ordering of a constitutionally proper contest until December 18-contemplates action in violation of the Florida election code, and hence could not be part of an “appropriate” order authorized by Fla. Stat. §102.168(8) (2000)."


It is convenient to say when the vote goes against you that it is politics. I guess it helps you sleep at night.

So do a little research and quit throwing childish, naive fits when the facts are slightly different than what you want.

Mike A Mainello - 8/8/2009

Two UCLA professors studied FDR's actions and concluded he deepened and extended the Great Depression. The link is still good.

Also you might want to read FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression

Social Security was originally a limited program. The pool to draw from it has constantly been expanded by the liberals. The programs monetary requirements have constantly had to be increased, almost 15% of a self employed individual. In addition the government continues to spend whatever it brings in. Just think, I am on track to contribute over $200K to Social Security in my lifetime. If I die at 66, my family will have nothing. Seems rather cruel to me.

With President O's 1.8 Trillion deficit this year and $1+ Trillion deficits into the future, more and more strains will be placed on the taxpayer (are you one of those?).

I know you are going to blame President Bush, but his worst deficit was $500 Billion and they were constantly dropping during his term, pesky tax cuts. If congress had followed his request to reform Fannie and Freddie (their responsibility) and the libs hadn't blocked every reform attempt, we might not be in such a mess. But then Mr. O wouldn't have such a big crisis to use to try and take over the government.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/8/2009

First, of all the vote was 5-4, not 6-3 as you stated(this type of mistake is commonly called "wishful thinking".)
Secondly, all 4 Democrat Judges voted for the recount, and all 5 Republican - against it, i.e. voted exactly along the partisan line.
Everyone who knew mathematics just a little bit has quickly calculated
that the probability of such clear partisan vote occurrence was very low...
That's what I meant by when mentioned
the prevailing ideological and partisan bias (having little to do with any legal regulations, Constitution included) present in Supreme Court of any country.
To claim the absence of a considerable influence of such a bias and a Primacy of Law in Supreme Courts decisions is to expose one's deep naivety in questions of political and social life.
Thanks, but I'm done with this discussion.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/8/2009

All three of your last statements (not a conclusions of any analysis made by you) carry heavy ideological bias and none of even plausible arguments and facts.
Plus, they are all (as you, I suspect, well know) are highly controvercial in essense (i.e. even provided they have come as a result of someone else's analysis.)
Not mentioning already that your Social-Security-statement is outright ridiculous, since you blame FDR for something that only MAY occur in the
future relative to the point in time 70 years away from his Soc.Sec. act!?
I would call it Tripple-Trouble "argument".
Check your logic, Mr. Mainello...

Mike A Mainello - 8/7/2009

I still don't understand your example. The Honduran and US Supreme Court made decisions based upon the law and not political leanings.

The US Supreme Court voted 6-3 that Florida decision was not fair to both candidates and that is why they canceled the recount.

If anything there decision was very even handed.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/7/2009

I gave the US Supreme Court example not to show whether Republicans or Democrats were correct/right in that particular case, but to turn your attention to the following fact of life: Supreme Court of any country is as ideologically and politically biased in favor of power elite (being appointed by the latter), as any other governing institution and therefore many of its decisions don't necessarily represent democratically legitimate ones.

Mike A Mainello - 8/6/2009

President Hoover and then FDR's government spending actions turned a recession into a depression.

Social Security will probably bankrupt this country. People believe that it will pay for their retirement when it does nothing of the sort.

He helped to discourage personal responsibility and encouraged government dependency.

Mike A Mainello - 8/6/2009

Please give a realistic example. The Supreme Court voted down the democrats version of the recount which was to count in only pro-Gore counties.

Every re-count that was conducted after the election was one by President Bush.

No recounts showed Mr. Gore winning, none.

In addition no evidence was ever substantiated regarding voter intimidation.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/6/2009

FDR "ruined this country"? For whom?
For rubber and steel barons?

Arnold Shcherban - 8/6/2009

The Honduran Supreme Court is the symbol of democratic justice? If the US Supreme Court is as democratic, as
corporate lobby, can we even consider Honduran one relevant?
Plus, nothing can be more democratic in expressing will of a populus than a national referendum.
The Court found it unconstitutional just on one obvious reason: they knew Zelaya would win it (the same way the US Supreme Court voted against the recount in 2000 Presidential elections)!

Arnold Shcherban - 8/6/2009

Let me try to answer your question, in a greatly abridged manner.
First of all, the very definition of the term "democracy" has to be established. Do we mean democracy as the power of majority of the populus, as it was initially defined by Greeks, or its modern Western variant, which is something else (for not necessarily worse... or better?) Do we mean full-fledged democracy, or striving for democracy (which invariably would return us to the first dilemma: what democracy is?)
Let say we opt for the Greek version.
Then, today's Venezuela is a nation striving for a full-fledged democracy, but so not so close to it, though perhaps much closer than some of the US so-called "friendly" countries. Are there violations of human rights in Venezuela? Yes, they are. But, say, Israel (I suspect indisputable democracy in your opinion) is, also indisputably in my opinion, violating human rights as we speak...
Honduras, in its turn, as an overwhelming majority of other Central and Latin American countries was as scene of a extremely brutal and
bloody internal and external conflicts/wars for many decades, the conflicts whose main characterization
was a struggle for economic, cultural, and political independence from the domineering, first European, then replacing it American empire.
As it well-known only such an independence allows for establishing
a real democracy. However, the democratization does not happen, and never did, overnight. It is a long and invariably (especially in the countries of the Third World) torturing process of cultural and social transformation, over which many not so democratic, or even anti-democratic things happen. As long as those anti-democratic violations don't
become systematic and massive, wide international (and what, I suspect, really matters to you - Western) community would allow them (as it did and still does towards
many other "friendly" regimes, under which those violations are systematic
and massive, but towards the other side of a barricade, so speak.)
So far, let me finish.

Mike A Mainello - 8/3/2009

Mr McWilliams, I missed President Reagans and Bush's third term. I am sure you are aware that the only president that ran for more than 2 terms was FDR and he pretty much ruined this country.

However, ordering the military to illegally distribute referendum ballots does constitute Hugo Chavez type dictator actions.

William McWilliams - 8/2/2009

"Now the writer calls a President that is trying to run for an illegal third term a friend of democracy."

No term limits for the Reagans and Bushes of this world, only for leaders
whose politics show a concern for every
economic and social class, not just the wealthy.

A proposed referendum is not the same thing as a statement of intention to violate the law.

Mike A Mainello - 8/1/2009

What I have read on the time line is the following.

June 24 - President Manuel Zelaya fires military chief of staff Gen. Romeo Vasquez after the army refused to help distribute ballots for an unofficial referendum on overhauling constitution in part to allow for presidential re-election. The Supreme Court had already ruled the vote illegal.

June 25 - The Supreme Court rejects Zelaya's firing of the head of the army and orders Vasquez reinstated. Zelaya leads a group of rowdy supporters to storm a military base to take the ballots by force and vows to move ahead with the vote.

"June 28 - On the day of the referendum vote, soldiers arrest Zelaya in an early morning raid on his house and expel him in his pyjamas on a flight to Costa Rica.

-- Honduran Congress names Micheletti interim president. Supreme Court says it ordered the army to remove Zelaya."


While I agree with you other steps might have been taken, it appears that former President Zelya kept pushing the illegal referendum and and the Supreme Court acted.

I understand that most countries have condemned this action, but the US is very powerful and when they take a stand, few want to openly oppose the US. However, if Dictators Chavez and Ortega are against the action, then I am betting it was the correct way to go.

Calling this a coup and implicating the military is misleading. They followed the orders of the court because the President of this small country went rogue. I applaud the military for following the proper channels when it would have been easier to salute the President and carry out his orders.

Kevin Coleman - 8/1/2009


We agree on many of the basic facts.

Not only the Honduran Supreme Court, which you mention, but also the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Congress, the Ministerio Público, and the churches all weighed in saying that the so-called Cuarta Urna (scheduled to take place during the November elections and asking citizens to vote yes or no on whether they would like to convoke a Constituent Assembly to discuss revising the constitution) would be illegal.

Now, was Zelaya stupid to try to go through with the public opinion poll that could have led to the referendum in November? Yes, of course (and if you check out my previous piece, "A Coup is Not a Coup," you'll see that I try to address Zelaya’s many shortcomings). But what was a potential procedural infraction was dealt with by committing a political crime--sending the tanks down the streets of Tegucigalpa to kidnap the president at gunpoint, to shut down multiple news outlets, and to attack those who opposed the coup regime. The medicine was far worse than the illness. And that is why so many Hondurans who just five weeks ago were deeply opposed to Zelaya are even more outraged that a small and powerful group could subvert their democratic system.

It is simply beyond dispute that Honduras had the democratic institutions in place for dealing with political and administrative infractions. The proper course of action for those concerned that Zelaya was about to violate the Honduran constitution would have been to have taken the rulings of the Honduran Supreme Court to the Congress. In the Honduran Congress, they could have debated impeaching Zelaya. If they voted to impeach him and if he did not respect the vote of the Congress, the Fiscalia General de la República could have then ordered the police (and NOT the military) to remove Zelaya from office.

This is not just me saying that Honduras had the democratic institutions in place to deal with this without sending in the military to kidnap the president. Hugo Llorens, the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras who was sent here by George W. Bush, also makes this point. The World Bank, also led by a Bush appointee, Robert Zeollick, has suspended loans to Honduras until constitutional order is restored. The Inter-American Development Bank has done the same. The entire world community has denounced what the OAS has called “an unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order.” The Pentagon has suspended joint military activities with Honduras. But the United States has not yet officially categorized the removal of Zelaya as a coup, a move that would automatically trigger the suspension of economic aid to Honduras until democracy is restored.

As I’m sure you know, the Honduran press is reporting all sorts of wild things, but the coup government has had a month to produce solid evidence and as of yet they’ve only managed to falsify a resignation letter from Zelaya and to release his presidential decree from June 25th. If they had evidence that Zelaya was trying to extend his term, why didn’t they present it in a court of law? And even if they didn’t have evidence for that, they could have still put Zelaya through a penal process for trying to go forward with the June 28th opinion poll that was to precede the November referendum.

Yet, the military’s kidnapping of their president was preceded neither by impeachment nor penal hearings. Instead, an agreement was apparently reached between Micheletti and the army generals to overthrow Zelaya. On the very same morning of the coup, a court without the legal authority to order the detainment of any person, much less the president of the country, re-released its earlier ruling ordering the suspension of the Cuarta Urna.

Mike A Mainello - 8/1/2009

The Honduran Supreme Court ruled his referendum unconstitutional. He decided to have the vote anyway. One newspaper even reported Presidential computers were found with vote tallies from the referendum ready to be published. Guess what, he won.

The congress of his own party voted to support the supreme court decision. He violated Honduran law and paid the price. I am impressed with Honduras.

Based on your logic, you support the Iraq War because the UN voted in support of the US.

At least you were right one issue.

Kevin Coleman - 7/31/2009

Not one single country in the world has recognized the coup government.

Strange how those who speak so eloquently about promoting democracy are willing to accept kidnapping a president at gunpoint as acceptable behavior that we should support.

Short of kidnapping, there were all sorts of democratic measures that could have been pursued--voting "no" in the public opinion poll scheduled for June 28th; putting Zelaya through penal hearings; or just simply voting him out of office during the November elections. None of those democratic alternatives were chosen by the Honduran elite and that is the reason that the world has unanimously and universally condemned the coup d'état.

Mike A Mainello - 7/31/2009

Wow, free speech is alive and well.

Venezuala shuts down all free speech with force, but Obama discourages free speech, but it still happens. Big difference.

Now the writer calls a President that is trying to run for an illegal third term a friend of democracy.

I don't know if I want me daughter to go to college with these kind of professors.

Mike A Mainello - 7/31/2009

Wow, free speech is alive and well.

Venezuala shuts down all free speech with force, but Obama discourages free speech, but it still happens. Big difference.

Now the writer calls a President that is trying to run for an illegal third term a friend of democracy.

I don't know if I want me daughter to go to college with these kind of professors.

Daniel Horowitz Garcia - 7/29/2009

First, I know I'm not the one you addressed the question to.

Second, this is a non sequitur.

Third, Venezuela is about as much of a democracy as the US.

KevinM Groeger - 7/29/2009

Mr. Coleman, do you consider present day Venezuela a democracy?