The overthrow of President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales in Honduras has vividly raised the spectre of a continent plagued by coups de etat and dictatorships once more. The governments of Latin America have been unanimous in their condemnation of the coup, with the OAS, the Rio Group, ALBA, Mercosur and UNASUR calling for the restoration of the constitutionally elected president. The ousted President has also received the support of the Inter American Human Rights Commission, and has been invited to address the UN General Assembly ‘as soon as possible’ by its President, Miguel D’Escoto.
Honduras is a deeply unequal country, the richest 10% of the population take home 43.7% of the National Income, while the bottom 30% take just 7.4%. Just under 40% of the population live in poverty (defined as earning less than double the cost of the basic food basket) and only 4.7% of the population have access to the internet, which might go some way to explaining the vociferous (and largely anglophone) criticisms of President Zelaya on some websites.
President Zelaya was taking steps to address this inequality, a process which earned him the enmity of much of Congress. He also pursued a leftist foreign policy, joining the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) and bringing in Cuban doctors to provide healthcare to the poorest sectors of Honduran society. This has undoubtedly caused significant discomfort among some in Washington, especially at a time when much of Latin America has seemed to move beyond the reach of US political power. It also caused outrage among the Honduran elite, who have become increasingly hostile to President Zelaya.
The catalyst for the assault on the Presidential home by the armed forces, and the subsequent detention and expulsion of the President from the country was the vote that was due to take place yesterday (Sunday 28th June) upon whether a referendum ought to be held, alongside the Presidential election ballot in November 2010, which is when Zelaya’s term officially ends, on the convocation of a constituent assembly, . In other words, the coup was sparked by a non-binding vote which asked the population whether or not they wanted to be asked about a constitutional reform.
The coup was officially called for by the Honduran Supreme Court, although this is highly misleading as the Supreme Court in Honduras has no legislative function, rather being the equivalent of an electoral tribunal which governs the electoral process. It is not the highest instance of the Judicial branch, and it is indicative of the state of much reporting on the crisis that this has as yet not been picked up on.
This is merely the first of several lies and misleading statements being issued by the de facto government. Prime among them being that the coup is in fact a ‘constitutional transfer of power’ as if this is possible when the President’s home is assaulted by the military, the President himself bundled into a military aircraft in his pyjamas and flown into exile, with his Ministers detained and beaten alongside the ambassadors of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Secondly, the illegally installed ‘president’, Roberto Micheletti has declared that “80 or 90 percent of the population support what happened today”, this is highly doubtful given his declaration of a curfew, the ongoing demonstrations, road blockades in the west of the country, and the general strike called for by social organisations and the trade union movement. However, Micheletti has unsurprisingly received expressions of support from the Honduran business sector. It remains to be seen whether the Honduran military will be prepared to shed the blood of civilians to protect an illegal government with no international backing.
Although there is little direct evidence of US interference in the coup, Eva Golinger has indicated certain similarities between the coup attempt against Chavez in 2002 and the current situation in Honduras. She points out that a New York Times article states that the US government was working for “several days” with the coup planners in order to 'prevent' the coup. Surely, it would seem naïve not to believe that if the US government had expressed their firm opposition to the coup, it would never have occurred.
Regardless of the extent of US involvement in, or support for the coup, it is undoubtedly a litmus test for President Obama’s policy towards the region. With such universal condemnation of the coup, if the US does not act to support the reinstatement of President Zelaya it will cause profound harm to its relationship with Latin America as a whole, as well as further eroding what little ‘soft power’ the US retains in the region, and send a powerful message about the truthfulness of US rhetoric on liberty, democracy and the right to self determination.
 Figures from 2007, source: ECLAC Annual Report 2008