‘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 regime] 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 regime 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.

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Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.
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