Crisis of Legitimacy in Honduras?
A long, brutal year after the June 28, 2009, military coup that deposed President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya, official Honduras is collapsing under the weight of its own illegitimacy. On the anniversary of the coup, the opposition took over the nation’s highways and bridges in overt resistance to Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo’s new government, while his own appointees are openly defiant of the slightest concession. The Obama administration, meanwhile, remains insistent that Lobo is the only path forward.
The anniversary of the coup started early in Choloma, outside San Pedro Sula, where the maquiladoras loom and enormous trucks rumble through carrying boxes of T-shirts and jeans for export from Puerto Cortes. Protesters from the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (National Front of Popular Resistance, FNRP), the broad national coalition uniting women's groups, trade unions, campesinos, the gay movement, indigenous people's organizations and human rights groups, shut down the highway at 8 <span style="text-transform: uppercase; font-size: 9px">AM</span>. The whole operation was surprisingly low-tech: 200 people in red shirts loosely arrayed along a four-block stretch of the highway, waving banners, chanting and erecting makeshift barriers out of burning branches and a few tires. By 9 over 150 police had arrived, many in riot gear, huddling closely like cattle in the shadow of two trees in the median strip. More ominously, a truck carrying a giant tank of water laced with chemicals and pepper spray pulled up in front of the blockade; a commander informed the protesters that they’d be forced from the road in forty-five minutes. A half an hour later, though, most of the police suddenly trotted back to their truck and followed the tank truck back to San Pedro Sula.
In a complicated dance of countervailing powers within Honduras and beyond, Lobo is desperately seeking legitimacy, and thus forced to both simultaneously show force and restrain it. He vowed in his first days in office not to tolerate any road blockages or occupations. But the anniversary protests were too widespread, international attention too vigilant, to give Lobo much space to maneuver. "There are too many road takeovers all over the country today and not enough police for them to repress us all," a wholesome-looking young man in a FNRP baseball cap explained. Indeed, that same morning over 200,000 marchers occupied the main boulevards of Tegucigalpa, the nation's capital, as well. In El Progreso and Santa Rita, Choluteca and Santa Barbara, La Ceiba and Tocoa, protesters successfully blocked all the country's main arteries.
Tutored closely by Washington, Lobo is trying desperately to present his administration as a "government of national reconciliation." A so-called Truth Commission, unveiled in February with much fanfare, is supposedly investigating the transgressions of the coup but lacks enforcement power, covers only abuses before Lobo's time, and has been largely discredited by the resistance—which has launched its own, alternative truth commission.
The nation’s longtime ruling elites, though, want nothing of concessions, even cosmetic ones. The Supreme Court, in overt defiance of Lobo, in May fired five judges and public defenders who opposed the coup. Despite at least fifty paramilitary-style assassinations of opposition activists and over 3,000 illegal detentions since the coup, including eleven killings under Lobo’s own regime, impunity reigns. The Public Ministry is not moving forward with a single prosecution, critics say.
The Lobo government is collapsing from all sides. The FNRP, by contrast, is tightening its own organizational infrastructure with impressive efficiency. While the police in Choloma roasted in black-uniformed sweat under their trees, resistance volunteers, with a year now of experience, passed plastic bags of water to the demonstrators with enthusiastic discipline. As the demonstrators marched into San Pedro Sula, twenty kilometers away, a team trotted alongside handing out carefully packed sandwiches. Once in the Parque Central for speeches and music, the opposition's chants were joyous, crisp and full of well-practiced mockery: "Presidente Pepe Lobo, ha ha ha ha ha! Comision de la Verdad [Truth Commission], ha ha ha ha ha!" The crowds—maybe 2,000 in San Pedro Sula, and over 200,000 in the capital—weren't as huge as those on May 1, when around 30,000 marched in San Pedro Sula and over 500,000 in Tegucigalpa, but this was only because the anniversary was a work day, many told me.
If the opposition is clearly popular, and Lobo's own oligarchs in open rebellion, who then backs Lobo's administration? Not the military, rumored to be antsy for a new coup. That leaves President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The day after the anniversary, Obama praised Lobo and accepted the credentials of Honduras's new ambassador in the Oval Office, normalizing relations with Honduras.
Congress is still developing a spine in relation to Honduras. Three days before the anniversary, Mike Honda and 26 other Democrats in Congress issued a letter calling for investigation into violations of human rights in Honduras. Only when their numbers grow, under pressure from a broad movement in the United States to defend basic human rights in Honduras, will our new, modernized phase of Yankee imperialism end.