The push to restore Honduran president Manuel Zelaya– dragged out of bed a month ago by soldiers and bundled onto a plane to Costa Rica–has reached a tense deadlock. After negotiations between coup leaders and Zelaya’s representatives brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias broke down last week, the deposed leader vowed to return to his country over land, setting out from Managua, Nicaragua, in a jeep. He arrived at the border on Friday, symbolically stepping foot on Honduran soil before returning to Nicaragua, where he remains camped just a few feet from Honduras.
For his part, Roberto Micheletti, Honduras’s de facto president, has vowed to arrest Zelaya if he tries to enter the country again. Soldiers have set up a cordon on roads leading to Nicaragua and have aggressively sought to contain Zelaya supporters, launching tear gas into gathering crowds and detaining hundreds. On Saturday a protester captured by troops the day before turned up dead. A twenty-four-hour curfew for southern Honduras remains in effect. About 500 Zelaya supporters have avoided the main roads, however, entering Nicaragua over mountainous paths to join the ousted president.
It’s a dramatic showdown, a fight for which Zelaya, who goes by the name Mel and likes to dress in a white shirt, black leather vest and white cowboy hat, seems perfectly cast. No one knows how it will end–rumors are swirling in Tegucigalpa that the military is pressuring Micheletti to agree to Arias’s proposal to allow Zelaya to return as president, as head of a reconciliation government–but it does feel that the monthlong fight to win over public opinion is coming to a head.
Honduras’s new regime has gone to great lengths to present itself to the world as democratic and constitutional, in line with the values of an open society. Micheletti and his backers claim to have acted procedurally, intervening on behalf of the courts to stop Zelaya’s Hugo Chávez-like lunge for power. The coup’s business backers even hired Lanny Davis, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, to lobby his old boss to recognize the new regime. “This is about the rule of law. That is the only message we have,” Davis said.
But in Honduras, paranoia reigns, redolent of a time when death squads ruled and anticommunism justified widespread murder. Then the perceived threat was Moscow. Today it is Caracas. “I’m against the way Zelaya was forced out of the country,” said one prominent television host the other night, “but I’m also against Hugo Chávez coming here and conscripting my son to serve for six years in his army.”
Then there’s Fernando–a k a Billy–Joya, a former member of Honduras’s infamous Battalion 316, a paramilitary unit responsible for the deaths of hundreds in the 1980s. Joya had previously fled the country on charges of, among other atrocities, having kidnapped and tortured six university students in 1982. But he’s resurfaced as “special security adviser” to Micheletti’s government. He’s been seen walking side by side with Micheletti in a pro-coup “March for Peace and Democracy,” and he’s appeared on local talk-shows as an “international analyst,” justifying the overthrow of Zelaya by invoking his admiration of Augusto Pinochet (lucky for Lanny Davis, Joya stays off CNN). And none other than Pinochet’s daughter Lucia has endorsed the coup, praising Micheletti for continuing her father’s legacy, fittingly so since the International Observation Mission–made up of representatives from fifteen European and Latin American human rights organizations–has warned of ongoing “grave and systematic” political persecution.
At least nine people have been assassinated or disappeared in the past month, with one body dumped in an area used by death squads in the 1980s as a clandestine cemetery. Among the executed, disappeared and threatened are trade unionists, peasant activists and independent journalists. They include Gabriel Fino Noriega, a reporter for Radio Estelar, in the department of Atlantida, shot dead leaving his work, and Roger Ivan Bados, a former union leader turned reformist politician, pulled off a bus following a pro-Zelaya demonstration and killed. Progressive Catholic priests have likewise been targeted, including Father José André s Tamayo Cortez, a prominent advocate of environmental and social justice, who went into hiding after receiving death threats following his participation in an anti-coup protest, in the department of Olancho. The Jesuit Ismael Moreno, director of the independent provincial Radio Progreso, has also been harassed by the military.
A member of the International Observation Mission told me that the number of killings and disappearances are likely higher than documented, as security forces reign with impunity in some remote, rural areas, making it nearly impossible to report such crimes. The army has also taken advantage of the crisis to conduct “forced conscriptions,” kidnapping the teenage sons of peasant families–a practice that was commonplace throughout Central America through the 1980s, during the dark days of oligarchic rule, and only recently abandoned in Honduras.
One of the first to be killed was Vicky Hernandez Castillo, previously known as Sonny, a transgendered activist in San Pedro Sula’s LGTB community. Hernandez left her home on the night of the coup, apparently unaware that the new government had decreed a curfew. She was found dead the next morning, shot in the eye and strangled. Just one month before her killing, Human Rights Watch had issued a report titled “Not Worth a Penny: Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Honduras,” which documented seventeen unsolved murders of transgendered people in the past five years, as well as sustained police violence against them. The details of Hernandez’s killing are unknown, yet her activism highlights the expansion of oppositional politics that has taken place in Central America since the end of the cold war, to include issues concerning sexual rights. That she was the first person killed suggests how the fundamentally antidemocratic nature of the coup is aimed at all challenges to hierarchy, not just those defined in economic terms.
Reading the major Honduran newspapers or watching news on Honduran TV is like entering a time warp back to the censorious days of the cold war, with one story after another trumpeting Micheletti’s virtues. After Honduran troops shot and killed a 19-year-old protester, La Prensa, a major daily, ran a doctored photo of the boy’s limp body, with the blood that was still pouring out of his head airbrushed away. Billboards with smiling faces of well-fed peasants (more than 40 percent of Hondurans live on a dollar a day) thanking Micheletti for defending democracy adorn major thoroughfares. Alternative media outlets–mostly radio and television stations in the provinces, not owned by a coup-supporting family–have been occupied and threatened. CNN was shut down for a period, and Telesur, the Spanish-language news network sponsored by, among other countries, Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia, is off the air (in covering the border standoff, CNN in Spanish is primarily using video feed from Telesur, which highlights the importance of that network as an information source). Every evening, the government takes over cable and broadcast channels to announce the hours of the next day’s curfew.
What specifically did Zelaya do to conjure these malevolent spirits of the cold war past? The US press has focused on his efforts to build support for a constitutional assembly, misrepresenting the effort as a power grab when in fact the proposal to revise the Constitution was broadly supported by social movements as an effort to democratize Honduras’s notoriously exclusive political system. The business community didn’t like Zelaya because he raised the minimum wage. Conservative evangelicals and Catholics–including Opus Dei, a formidable presence in Honduras–detested him because he refused to ban the “morning-after” pill. The mining, hydroelectric and biofuel sector didn’t like him because he didn’t put state funds and land at their disposal. The law-and-order crowd hated him because he apologized on behalf of the state for a program of “social cleansing” that took place in the 1990s, which included the execution of street children and gang members. And the generals didn’t like it when he tried to assert executive control over the military. Similar to the armed forces in Guatemala and El Salvador, the Honduran military after the cold war diversified its portfolio, with its officers investing heavily in both legitimate and illegitimate businesses, such as the narcotics trade, illegal logging, and illicit adoptions. In 1993 the general who carried out the coup, Romeo Vasquez Velasquez–trained in the School of the Americas–had been arrested and charged with running a car-theft ring.
Zelaya likewise moved to draw down Washington’s military presence; Honduras, alone among Central American countries, hosts a permanent detachment of US troops at the Soto Cano air force base, a holdover from the Contra war. Zelaya’s government also picked at cold war wounds not yet healed. Among his top advisers are Milton Jiménez Puerto–who in the 1980s was one of the students tortured by Joya–and Patricia Rodas, daughter of Modesto Rodas Alvarado Zamora. In the 1960s Rodas Alvarado represented the developmentalist wing of the Liberal Party, and in 1963 he was prevented from becoming president in a coup Hondurans insist was engineered by the CIA. Zelaya himself comes from a family with a deep history in the cold war: some in Honduras speculate that his reformism stems from a desire to atone his father’s involvement in the 1975 massacre of fifteen activists, mostly peasants and two priests–one from Colombia, the other from Madison, Wisconsin–on his family’s hacienda, in the northeastern department of Olancho. In the 1980s, an anti-coup activist told me, Zelaya was one of the few Liberal Party members to speak out against the Contra war, which the CIA organized and ran from Honduras. “History is pushing Mel,” a journalist, critical of Zelaya during his tenure for a certain degree of demagogy yet firmly in favor of his return, told me.