‘Blood and Fire’ in Honduras: An Interview with Mel Zelaya

As peace accord negotiations continue, the ousted president speaks from his Brazilian Embassy refuge.

Jeremy Kryt

Soldiers and police guard the Honduran National Congress building on November 7, 2009. The graffiti in the foreground, which refers to the de facto president reads: 'Micheletti the fascist.' Thousands of anti-coup protesters have maintained a daily vigil in front of the building for the last two weeks. (All photos by Jeremy Kryt.)

TEGU­CI­GAL­PA, HON­DURAS – In late Sep­tem­ber, oust­ed Pres­i­dent Manuel Mel” Zelaya slipped back into Hon­duras and took refuge in the Brazil­ian Embassy with about six­ty sup­port­ers and his family. 

Zelaya has been besieged there ever since, the com­pound sur­round­ed at all times by more than 400 sol­diers and riot police, all wait­ing to arrest him should he set foot in pub­lic. The U.N. has doc­u­ment­ed the use of chem­i­cal and son­ic weapons against those inside, and Hon­duran forces con­tin­ue to keep out vis­i­tors and the press. 

A wealthy ranch­er known for his trade­mark vaque­ro hat and elo­quence, Zelaya returned to his coun­try after three months in exile. Just after dawn on June 28 of this year, the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly-elect­ed leader was awak­ened by sol­diers fir­ing M16s inside his home, kid­napped and flown out of the country. 

Zelaya had attempt­ed to change the face of Hon­duran soci­ety. In less than one term in office he raised the min­i­mum wage by 60 per­cent, set up finan­cial aid for stu­dents, invent­ed Hon­duran social secu­ri­ty, and imposed strict laws to com­bat ram­pant and exploitive min­ing and logging. 

He even went so far as to sug­gest reform­ing the Hon­duran Con­sti­tu­tion, which per­mits a very form of weak democ­ra­cy that is eas­i­ly con­trolled by a tiny but well-fund­ed minor­i­ty of land own­ers and tex­tile tycoons. On the day Zelaya was seized by sol­diers, the first-ever pub­lic ref­er­en­dum in the his­to­ry of Hon­duras was sup­posed to take place – a non­bind­ing poll that would’ve let the cit­i­zen­ry vote on whether or not to go ahead with restruc­tur­ing the country’s social contract. 

Although those who authored the putsch have claimed that Zelaya secret­ly wished to alter the con­sti­tu­tion to extend pres­i­den­tial term lim­its, there is no evi­dence for this. Zelaya him­self nev­er spoke of such a thing, and there was no men­tion of it on the bal­lot for the pro­posed ref­er­en­dum.

In any case, imme­di­ate­ly after the putsch, the mil­i­tary-busi­ness jun­ta began a reign of ter­ror against the anti-coup forces, impos­ing mar­tial law, shut­ter­ing inde­pen­dent media, and fre­quent­ly using vio­lent meth­ods to break up peace­ful demon­stra­tions. Thou­sands have been ille­gal­ly detained by author­i­ties. At least 21 peo­ple have been killed.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma sent a team of diplo­mats down to Hon­duras to nego­ti­ate a peace accord that would restore con­sti­tu­tion­al order in time for the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions on Novem­ber 28

After a pact was signed by both par­ties, pun­dits believed the cri­sis had end­ed and that Zelaya would be restored to office – albeit with sig­nif­i­cant­ly lim­it­ed pow­ers and the con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum off the table – to fin­ish out his term. 

But the Tegu­ci­gal­pa accord had appoint­ed the elite-con­trolled Hon­duran Con­gress to re-instate Zelaya, and so far the body con­tin­ues to balk, refus­ing even to con­vene. U.S. diplo­mats have con­tin­ued to con­fer with both par­ties, but Zelaya has pub­licly declared the deal a dead let­ter” and urged the cit­i­zen­ry to boy­cott the elec­tions. Many Hon­durans believe that elec­tions under a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship sim­ply can’t be fair or transparent. 

When In These Times spoke to Zelaya by cell phone on Tues­day, Novem­ber 10, the call often fad­ed in and out, prob­a­bly because its trans­mis­sion was being jammed by the author­i­ties. Some of Zelaya’s words were inaudi­ble. An edit­ed tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion, trans­lat­ed from Span­ish, is below. 

Zelaya spoke calm­ly and in mea­sured tones, with a hint of exhaus­tion in his voice.

In These Times: How are con­di­tions inside the embassy?

Mel Zelaya: We have the basics of food and water – but oth­er things are not allowed in. We’re all phys­i­cal­ly well. Our health is good – unlike that of the coun­try itself. There are grave polit­i­cal prob­lems in Hon­duras. Prob­lems that are, so far, with­out resolution.

ITT: Are you still being harassed by forces out­side the embassy?

Zelaya: The police aren’t both­er­ing us now, but they were, and we have denounced their cow­ard­ly actions. After [U.S. Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of State Thomas] Shannon’s vis­it, for the last two weeks, there has been less oppres­sion against us.

ITT: [De fac­to Pres­i­dent] Rober­to Micheletti’s nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee has just ordered Con­gress to con­voke on the mat­ter of your rein­state­ment. What is your opin­ion of that ruling?

Zelaya: [Inaudible]…Mr. Michelet­ti and his mil­i­tary henchmen.

ITT: Do you believe there was a secret pact between Ambas­sador Shan­non and [con­gres­sion­al leader and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date] Pepe Lobo, in which Lobo promised to have you rein­stat­ed if the U.S. would rec­og­nize elections?

Zelaya: No, it nev­er hap­pened. That is a lie.

'There are certain people who want to have elections, because they want absolution from their illegal actions,' Zelaya says.

ITT: What went wrong with the [Tegu­ci­gal­pa] accord? Why aren’t you pres­i­dent right now?

Zelaya: Look, it’s nec­es­sary to do things trans­par­ent­ly. [The de fac­to régime] only does things for appear­ances, and to deceive. Their actions do not reflect the truth. The cause of progress in Latin Amer­i­ca is fail­ing. The cycle of times past was filled with coups and mil­i­tary dictatorships.

We don’t want to go back to that. Which is why we’re strug­gling to rid the coun­try of this mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship – so that, in Hon­duras, we don’t return to those times. Such as what hap­pened in Nicaragua, Chile, or the Domini­can Repub­lic. All those coun­tries suf­fered through their own dic­ta­tor­ships, too…

ITT: The U.S. State Depart­ment recent­ly said they would now rec­og­nize elec­tions in Hon­duras even if you were not re-instat­ed. What’s your opin­ion on that statement?

Zelaya: The moment that the U.S. rec­og­nizes the elec­tions under oppres­sion, they lose the moral qual­i­ty to ques­tion oth­er coun­tries when there are these kinds of problems.

ITT: Why wasn’t an amnesty clause for you includ­ed in the peace accord? [The coup régime has charged Zelaya with 18 dif­fer­ent felonies, all of them com­ing after his ouster.]

Zelaya: I won’t beg for amnesty, because I didn’t com­mit any crime. I returned to Hon­duras, because I am inno­cent of all their accu­sa­tions. But this gov­ern­ment of usurpers, they do not fol­low the order of the law. Laws mean noth­ing to them. This was a con­spir­a­cy [inaudi­ble] cre­at­ed by the two great pow­ers of the coun­try: the armed forces and the rich.

ITT: What about elec­tions? What do you think should happen?

Zelaya: There are cer­tain peo­ple who want to have elec­tions – because they want abso­lu­tion from their ille­gal actions. But elec­tions now would be like [the recent bal­lot vote] in Afghanistan. It could be even worse. It could be a dis­as­ter. With blood and fire. We want elec­tions with a peace treaty. We don’t want what hap­pened, or is hap­pen­ing, in some oth­er countries…

ITT: Why have you been meet­ing this week with [U.S. Ambas­sador to Hon­duras] Hugo Llorens?

Zelaya: He man­i­fest­ed that the U.S. main­tains its posi­tion, that it isn’t ready to make a final deci­sion about the elec­tions. And that they are still inter­est­ed in the resti­tu­tion of demo­c­ra­t­ic order.

ITT: How much longer will you stay inside the [Brazil­ian] Embassy?

Zelaya: I will quit being pres­i­dent in Jan­u­ary 27, 2010. This is when my term is up. 

ITT: What is the most impor­tant thing for peo­ple in the U.S. to know about what is hap­pen­ing in Honduras?

Zelaya: The return to vio­lence in Latin Amer­i­ca affects the secu­ri­ty of the U.S., and the image of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. The gov­ern­ment of the U.S. would be the first in the world to rec­og­nize these elec­tions – and Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma would dam­age his image as well. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma plead­ed with me to have a dia­logue with the putschists. I agreed. But this dia­logue ben­e­fit­ed only them. Ben­e­fit­ed a dic­ta­tor­ship. And it weak­ened the posi­tions of the Amer­i­can States. This was not the plan. The plan was to resti­tute democ­ra­cy, not to val­i­date a dictatorship.

ITT: So does blame for the treaty’s fail­ure lie with the de fac­to gov­ern­ment – or with how the peace accord was written?

Zelaya: [The accord] was intend­ed to ben­e­fit democ­ra­cy, I can tell you that. Not to ben­e­fit the forces of anti-democ­ra­cy. With the dic­ta­tor­ship, in this case, I would ask the gov­ern­ment of the U.S. not to weak­en, and to main­tain its well-known prin­ci­ples and val­or­ous man­ners. And to con­tin­ue to be brave in sup­port­ing democ­ra­cy, as it has been so many times before.

Jere­my Kryt is a Chica­go-based journalist.
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