Casualties of the ‘Bloodless’ Coup

No matter what prominent U.S. apologists say, the military takeover of Honduras was—and is—violent and unjust.

Jeremy Kryt

On September 23, two days after deposed President Mel Zelaya's return, Honduran riot police stand ready to disperse a peaceful protest march in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Thousands have been beaten and detained by authorities since the coup; five people have died in the last month alone. (Photo by Jeremy Kryt)

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — Many apologists for the thuggish takeover of the elected government in Honduras still claim that what happened last June 28 was a bloodless” coup. In a Wall Street Journal editorial on October 10, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R‑S.C.) went one step further, denying there even is a political crisis here, and referring to the ousting of President Mel Zelaya as a supposed military coup.’”

But the hundreds of peaceful demonstrators who have been brutally beaten since the putsch might disagree with adjectives like supposed” and bloodless.” As might the family of Jairo Sanchez, the most recent victim of government-sponsored violence, who after weeks of drifting in and out of consciousness, died in the capital on Monday, October 19

According to the report prepared by the Committee for the Families of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), Sanchez, a 38-year-old husband and father, was shot in the face during a police raid against unarmed marchers on September 30. Three other peaceful demonstrators were critically wounded in the same attack. Apparently none of this well-documented violence made an impression on DeMint. The senator recently returned from a brief visit to Tegucigalpa, were he’d been the guest of the same political elites who worked with the military to orchestrate the putsch. As all strong democracies do after cleansing themselves, Honduras has moved on,” DeMint opined. 

During his visit, Honduras was under martial law, independent media were shuttered and police and soldiers attacked peaceful protestors just blocks from the Senator’s hotel. Yet upon returning home, DeMint reported there is no chaos there,” that like the coup itself, this is all merely supposed.”

Honduras was plunged into this supposed” chaos last summer, when soldiers exiled Zelaya and presented a false letter of abdication to Congress on national television. In the same ceremony, far-right political veteran Roberto Micheletti was installed as a puppet to head the civilian government. 

Since then, riot police and soldiers have shown an increasing willingness to use violence against anyone who publicly opposes the coup. Truncheons, tear gas, rubber bullets and even live rounds are frequently employed to disperse peaceful demonstrations. COFADEH estimates that since the coup, 17 people have died at the hands of authorities.

DeMint, however, made no mention of such casualties in his editorial. Nor did he reference the political scandal his Honduran junket had caused back home. In order to show his support for the coup regime, DeMint had defied direct orders from John Kerry, head of the Foreign Relations Committee. Because Kerry refused to authorize the trip, the senator flew to Honduras in a military jet sent by the Pentagon, causing crucial Foreign Relations Committee meetings to be cancelled in his absence.

But that wouldn’t be the first time the South Carolina Republican has been the source of a political log-jam. DeMint – who was ranked by the National Journal as the most conservative of all U.S. Senators in both 2007 and 2008 – is also holding up crucial votes on Obama’s picks for assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs (Arturo Valenzuela) and ambassador to Brazil (Thomas A. Shannon Jr.).

Armed against the unarmed’

During a recent interview, COFADEH Director Bertha Oliva said, “[The authorities] are killing people…and it is selective. They are targeting the leaders of the resistance, just as they did in the 80s… And they can control the media, to help them accomplish whatever they intend.”

Oliva said Zelaya had initiated some modern social reforms in Honduras, like raising the minimum wage, initiating social security and passing laws to conserve natural resources. But such bold moves threatened the power structure for the nation’s wealthiest families and the military. When the rancher-turned-president vowed to let the people vote on a referendum for broad constitutional reforms, troops seized Zelaya in his pajamas, hustling him out of the country at gunpoint.

This is a struggle of the armed, against the unarmed,” said Oliva, when we met in her downtown office, which was recently shelled with tear gas by police. But the Resistance will not give up its peaceful principals.”

Zelaya returned to the capital in a surprise move on September 21, but remains holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, under threat of arrest and surrounded by hundreds of troops. In addition to union leader Sanchez, others killed by authorities since Zelaya’s return include a 67-yeaar-old man, a newly-wed girl, a school teacher and a nurse. And that’s just in the last month.

[The de facto government] ignores these casualties, because they would like to say that the Resistance does not exist,” Oliva said. But they will not be able to say it for much longer.”

Sen. DeMint insisted on the connection between America's patriotic heritage and the current peasant-killing, media-censoring regime in Honduras.
Slaves to a piece of paper’

The coup-plotters in Honduras claim they acted to prevent Zelaya from extending his time in office and becoming a despot like Hugo Chavez. In his editorial for the Journal, DeMint also defended the legality of their actions, citing an August briefing from the Law Library of [U.S.] Congress.

In fact, the law library report (PDF file) makes clear that the Honduran military’s decision to exile Zelaya was in direct violation of the Article 102 of [their] Constitution.”

DeMint also accuses Zelaya of defying the Honduran Supreme Court regarding the much-disputed constitutional referendum. But such accusations must be viewed in context. The Library of Congress brief says that when the Supreme Court first outlawed the referendum, Zelaya was willing to play along. He obliged the Court by suggesting a nonbinding poll so that, in the words of the report, The Honduran people could express their opinion” on Constitutional reforms. 

But the Supreme Court ruled even a simple poll to be inexplicably illegal. The judicial branch of the Honduran government was preventing a plebiscite, one of the basic tools of transparent, isocratic government.

The Court’s injunctions were increasingly repressive, obviously designed to thwart much-needed reforms. According to Oliva, Zelaya was simply answering public demand by agreeing to a referendum on the Constitution. In the current system, everything is rigged for the interests of the wealthy,” Oliva said. Zelaya wanted to give the people a voice.”

DeMint, echoing the junta itself, claims that the nonbinding poll on political reforms would have somehow allowed Zelaya to extend his time as president. In fact, the proposed ballot question made no mention of term limits, and Zelaya was not even running in the upcoming elections.

They are usurpers,” Oliva said. The only way they can hold onto power is by spreading lies and fear.”

Dr. Valerio Gutierrez, Secretary of State under current de facto leader Roberto Micheletti, said in a recent interview that Zelaya had tried to subvert the authority of Congress and the Supreme Court, thus legalizing his own deposition. Yet Gutierrez admitted that many people in Honduras want to change the constitution” and that this could be a good idea if the majority voted for it.” If such a vote is not allowed, said Gutierrez, the people would be little more than slaves to a piece of paper.”

Constitutional contention

Near the close of his Wall Street Journal article, DeMint praises the Honduran Constitution, and likens its framers to our own Founding Fathers. But several legal experts I’ve spoken to in Tegucigalpa, including Honduran Congressman Marvin Ponce, admit that their national charter is deeply flawed, describing it as draconian’ and outdated.’

The Honduran Constitution was written in 1982 under the auspices of Policarpo Paz Garcia, the last military junta to rule this beautiful but impoverished country.

It does not include rights for women, or for minorities, and it lends itself to exploitation by the elite sectors of society,” said Ponce, who recently had his arm broken in three places when soldiers attacked him during a peaceful demonstration.

But in his editorial for the Journal, DeMint insisted on the connection between America’s own patriotic heritage and the current peasant-killing, media-censoring de facto regime in Honduras. The Senator wrote that the Micheletti government had comported itself, as our own Founding Fathers would have hoped.”

When I asked Oliva why she thought powerful U.S. politicians like DeMint were backing the coup in Honduras, she answered using the Spanish word golpista.” Golpista translates literally as putschist” – although today in Honduras, it has taken on a meaning closer to the English word fascist.”

There are golpistas everywhere in the world,” she said. Not just in Honduras. It is a mindset. An ideology. Of course they would stick together.” 

Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.
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