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Friday, Aug 14, 2009, 9:00 am

Honduras Coup: The Labor Angle

BY Kari Lydersen

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Maria Luisa Borjas, a former police officer in Honduras, says unions have been the strongest arm of the resistance against the recent coup.   (Kari Lydersen)

The “golpistas” who took power in Honduras after forcibly expelling president Manuel Zelaya on June 28 have largely attributed their actions to Zelaya’s call for a vote on whether to revise the Constitution through a democratic process, which could have led to the abolishment of term limits.

But the real reason, according to Honduran civil society leaders, was fear of a new constitution less favorable to the long-ruling oligarchy and the corporations they control; and Zelaya’s moves in recent years to raise the minimum wage and empower campesinos, workers and civil groups.

In other words, maintaining the labor status quo was a major reason for the coup, according to four Honduran community and non-governmental leaders who visited Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago in the past few weeks. This is a status quo where, like much of Latin America, large multinational companies or local powerful, wealthy families typically get their way and exploit natural resources and cheap labor with little accountability.

“The oligarchy traditionally has power, and they don’t want to share it,” said Abencio Fernandez Pineda, an attorney and coordinator of the Center for the Investigation and Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CIPRODEH), which has logged at least nine political killings since the coup and thinks the real number is much higher. “They treat people like slaves, if you visit the maquilas that’s what you see. The people behind the coup are from private enterprises, they own the economy, they own the people in politics.”

Honduran unions including the teachers’ union, beverage bottlers, electrical workers and water workers are part of the multi-faceted Bloque Popular opposing the coup. The major Honduran labor federations, the CUTH, CGT and CTH, have called several general strikes demanding Zelaya’s return. On July 26, a bomb was set off outside the beverage workers’ union (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Bebidas y Similares- STBYS) office just after a meeting of unionists, students, campesinos and others, on their way to the funeral of a young Zelaya supporter whose body was found with signs of torture the day before.

Maria Luisa Borjas, a Congressional candidate in the upcoming November elections with the leftist UD party, said organized labor has been key in mobilizing the population and gaining solidarity from U.S. and European unions. International unions including the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and International Textile Workers Federation have made statements against the coup and called for a boycott of Honduran exports; and AFL-CIO officials have spoken in support of Zelaya.

“The strongest arm of the resistance was the unions,” said Borjas, a former police officer fired for exposing corruption. She noted that U.S. and European union workers are refusing to unload or handle Honduran products, including fruits and vegetables, in protest against the coup.

“That’s a big blow to business, and it hits them right where it hurts most, the pocket book,” she said.

Fernandez said unions played an important role, but regular non-union workers or campesinos took a much bigger risk to join the demonstrations.

“The unions know who they have at the demonstrations, but if you are at your house and the demonstration goes by and you say, ‘I have to be part of that,’ no one knows you are there and you are more at risk,” he said.

In the days before the coup, the plotters asked business leaders for about $3 million to fund the effort, according to documents obtained by Zelaya supporters.

In August 2008 Honduras signed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) trade agreement, a populist alternative to free trade agreements with the U.S., which was spear-headed by leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Right-wing forces and business leaders in Honduras stridently opposed the ALBA, fearing it would endanger trade with the U.S. under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), ratified in 2005 under former president Ricardo Maduro.

Borjas said that after the ALBA signing Venezuela distributed many tractors to campesinos who had previously been plowing and sowing by hand.

Borjas said that Hondurans want President Obama to officially acknowledge the coup as such, which would mean withdrawing ambassador Hugo Llorens, suspending trade and aid and refusing to issue visas to those involved in the coup. That would allow the democratic process of potentially revising the Constitution to proceed if Hondurans choose, she said.

“We are fighting for a peace that is not only the absence of war,” Borjas said. “Protecting the human rights and civil rights of each person, with the chance for everyone to grow professionally and personally, that’s all we’re asking for.”

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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