Mel Zelaya returns to Honduras – reconciliation or class struggle?

On May 28 Mel Zelaya, the Honduran president removed by a coup in June 2009 returned to Honduras where he was met by a massive crowd. On June 1, the Organisation of American States voted to readmit Honduras as a member, with only Ecuador voting against. The agreements that made this possible have provoked a lot of discussion amongst Honduran revolutionaries in the Resistance Front (FNRP) and throughout Latin America.

On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military kidnapped the country’s president Mel Zelaya and took him first to the US military base in Palmerola and then to Costa Rica. The immediate trigger for the coup was the attempt by Zelaya to hold a popular consultation about the calling of a referendum about the need for a Constituent Assembly. Elected as a president for the Liberal Party, Zelaya had progressively earned the wrath of the country’s oligarchy (closely linked to US imperialism). In his attempts to improve the conditions of the country’s poor he had aligned himself with the ALBA countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and others). 

His attempt to convene a Constituent Assembly had caught the imagination of millions of the country’s workers, peasants and poor as an opportunity to fundamentally change their living conditions. The ruling class feared that such a move could unleash a revolutionary movement with the participation of the masses and decided to move against Zelaya before things went too far. The United States knew all about the coup preparations and their only objection was that it should be carried out “institutionally”, that it should have some sort of “legal” cover. Obviously, the 12 families of the oligarchy that have ruled the country for the last 200 years had other ideas and did not care much for “legality”, and although they got the Supreme Court to ban Zelaya’s popular consultation, they just went ahead with an old fashioned coup. Wealthy businessman Roberto Micheletti, from Zelaya’s own Liberal Party was appointed as the new illegitimate president.

Far from preventing the Latin American revolutionary wave from reaching Honduran soil, the coup unleashed a process of mass mobilisation, resistance, organisation and development of the political consciousness of the masses without precedent. Hundreds of thousands participated in mass demonstrations, strikes and daily protests and the National Front of Peoples’ Resistance was established as an organisation coordinating the different sections involved (trade unions, peasant organisations, the youth, etc).

It was in the context of this massive movement of the Honduran people that the country was expelled from the Organisation of American States at the initiative of Venezuela and the ALBA countries. Despite all the attempts by the US and its agents in the region to find some sort of negotiated settlement (through the so-called San José Accords), the Honduran oligarchy stubbornly refused to make any concessions. In these conditions it was difficult even for Washington to recognise the legitimacy of the Micheletti regime.

Through a combination of brutal repression and diplomatic manoeuvres, the Micheletti regime managed to survive until November 2009 when it called new elections. These were rigged elections without any democratic guarantees, taking place in conditions of brutal repression, selective assassination of Resistance activists, intimidation of opposition media, etc. The Resistance rightly boycotted the elections which resulted in a massive 65% rate of abstention. While the United States and other right wing governments in Latin America (Perú, Colombia, Panamá) recognised the new government of Porfirio Lobo as legitimate and democratic, Venezuela and most other Latin American countries refused to restore relations with Honduras.

The continued struggle of the Honduran people against the Lobo regime, which went through different phases but was never completely smashed by repression, put the Honduran ruling class in a difficult position. The country is heavily dependent on international finance and investment and unless its government was fully recognised it could not get complete access to either. Being readmitted into the Organisation of American States was crucial from their point of view.

Mediation – who benefits?

In April 2011, there was a meeting between the new Colombian president Santos, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Porfirio Lobo at which they agreed to start a “mediation” aimed at bringing Honduras back to the OAS at its scheduled general assembly in June. The picture of the three together caused surprise and consternation amongst the activists of the Honduran Resistance. How was it possible for Chavez to meet with Lobo, thus implicitly recognizing him as the legitimate president of Honduras?

The FNRP had just celebrated its national assembly in February 2011 in which those who favoured an electoral strategy had been defeated, and the Front had agreed to start a process towards convening a Constituent Assembly, for which they had collected 1.3 million signatures, in direct confrontation with the oligarchy and the Lobo regime. The beginning of the mediation took place as Honduran teachers were involved in a bitter strike against Lobo, in which the regime was using brutal repression.

Clearly, these talks had started behind the backs of the elected leadership of the Resistance Front and not even Zelaya himself was aware of the meeting. Zelaya came out quickly in favour of the mediation. But the leaders of the Front had to be flown to Caracas where they met with Zelaya and Chavez and raised four demands for the negotiations:  “the safe return of the Coordinator of the FNRP, Manuel Zelaya and of all the exiles; respect for human rights; the convocation of a National Constituent Assembly and the recognition of the FNRP as a political force with the capability and legal status to participate in future electoral processes.”

Many of the FNRP activists were extremely unhappy both about the way in which the talks had started as well as about the content of what was being discussed. One of the main leaders of the resistance, former assembly member Tomás Andino published an open letter expressing the opinion of the left wing of the Front. He correctly pointed out that the whole negotiation and reconciliation process was a trap which had been set in motion by Colombian president Santos, with the sole aim of getting Honduras readmitted into the OAS. He further criticized the fact that the four conditions that the FNRP representatives had set in Caracas were in contradiction with the democratically decided aims of the Front, as ratified in its National Assembly in February. Specifically, there was no mention of punishment for the coup plotters and all those responsible for human rights abuses under Micheletti and Lobo. And finally he pointed out that the Front representatives to Caracas had not been elected or appointed by anyone and that any decisions or proposals should be put to the democratic vote of the structures of the Front and consulted with the rank and file of the Resistance.

The Honduran negotiations therefore are part of the foreign policy of Hugo Chavez of rapprochement with Colombia. The argument put forward by the reformists in Venezuela is that Santos is somehow different from the former Colombian president Uribe, that he is not a puppet of Washington and that in order to minimise the threat of counter-revolutionary provocations from Colombia it is necessary to reach a friendly understanding with the Santos government. This is then used to justify a policy which includes security deals with Colombia, leading to the handing over of Colombian political exile Pérez Becerra to Bogotá and more recently the arrest of FARC leader Julian Conrado in Venezuela in an operation carried out jointly with the Colombian security forces.

OAS welcomes Honduras back. Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/ OASOAS welcomes Honduras back. Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/ OAS We think that this policy is mistaken. The Venezuelan oligarchy, imperialism and its puppets in Colombia are mortal enemies of the Bolivarian revolution. The only way to prevent them from attacking it is if the revolution ceases to be a revolution. Santos was the Defence Minister of Uribe, who played a key role in every single counter-revolutionary attempt against the Venezuelan revolution and the government of Hugo Chavez. To think that he has fundamentally changed is the same as hoping for a tiger to become vegetarian. As a matter of fact, Wikileaks cables from the US embassy in Bogotá reveal the real strategy which Uribe followed and that now Santos continues: to appear to move towards friendly diplomatic relations in order to better prepare plots to undermine the Bolivarian revolution and its influence throughout the continent. Colombian Foreign Affairs Minister Holguín, reassured her masters in Washington that in the newly found “friendship” between Santos and Chavez, her country was acting “strategically”.

Revolutionaries do not refuse to participate in negotiations as a matter of principle. Any worker who has been involved in a strike knows that many times a strike cannot be won and a settlement must be reached which amounts at best to a partial victory. Sometimes a partial retreat is better than an all out defeat. Through these experiences, the workers involved in a struggle can learn important lessons and prepare the ground for renewed battles in the future. But the fundamental condition is that the leadership has to explain things as they are and be frank with the rank and file. A partial retreat or a partial victory should not be presented as a complete success and the boss should never be presented as a friend with whom we need to reach reconciliation, as if he was a brother with whom we just had a fight.

Reconciliation with the oligarchy?

And this is perhaps the most dangerous element in this new diplomatic strategy of the Bolivarian revolution which has now involved the Honduran Resistance. All the speeches of Hugo Chavez and Mel Zelaya talk about reconciliation, peace and national unity, about the peaceful resolution of problems. This is in our opinion extremely dangerous and a serious mistake.

We should learn from the recent experience of the Venezuelan revolution. On April 11, 2002, the Venezuelan capitalist class, backed by imperialism, conducted a military coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez. On April 12 and 13, the Venezuelan people, the workers, the peasants, the poor, the youth, the women, came down from the cerros and the barrios and through mass revolutionary action they defeated the coup. Dozens were killed by the coup plotters and Chavez himself only saved his life because of the swift action of the revolutionary people and revolutionary sections of the Armed Forces. Then, having been returned to power, Chavez addressed the victorious crowd from the Miraflores palace balcony and called on the people to go back home and appealed to national reconciliation with those who had just carried out a coup. No-one was put on trial and to this day the main leaders of the “opposition” are people who directly participated in carrying out that coup.

What was the response of the oligarchy? Did they accept the call for reconciliation? Not at all. They immediately started preparing a new attempted coup which materialised in the insubordination of the Plaza Altamira military officers and then the bosses lock out and sabotage of the oil industry of December 2002, barely 7 months later. After that they have attempted a whole series of other counter-revolutionary provocations (the guarimba, the infiltration of 200 Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuela, the street riots around the non-renewal of the licence of RCTV, etc).

The ruling class in Venezuela cannot reconcile itself with Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution, unless they completely cease to be what they are, revolutionary. The same is the case in Honduras.

Let’s examine the terms of the deal that has been reached:

  • the return of Zelaya now that pending court cases against him have been nullified,
  • respect and protection for human rights,
  • the fact that a Constituent Assembly referendum can now be initiated as a result of an amendment to the Constitution
  • that the FNRP should be allowed to be registered as a legal political party

In exchange for this, Honduras is readmitted into the OAS and recognised by the “international community”. To their credit, Ecuador voted against, pointing out that the agreement legalised the impunity of those who carried out the coup. They were the only one to do so. The position of Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolás Maduro, who said that they were voting in favour but “with reservations”, was lamentable. Venezuela has played a key role in brokering the deal, if they were not happy with it, why did they accept it? After all, it was Nicolás Maduro himself who signed the agreement at Cartagena de Indias, which is the reason why Honduras is being readmitted into the OAS. One can be either in favour or against something. But it is not logical to sign an agreement and later on express “reservations” about it.

In effect, the only real point which has been achieved is the return of Zelaya. The aim of the Honduran ruling class is to try to put an end to a situation in which it had become a pariah in the international scene with the negative impact that this had on the country’s economy. At the same time they want to steer the Resistance away from revolutionary struggle and into the safer channels of bourgeois democracy and defuse the demand for a Constituent Assembly (which for the masses means a fundamental change in the social and economic structure of the country) into a legally restricted exercise of constitutional reform.

Impunity remains

The activists of the Resistance and the left wing of the Front are quite right in being critical of this agreement. Many organisations of the resistance have issued statements criticising the fact that the agreement gives de facto impunity to the coup plotters and those responsible for human rights violations in the last two years, as well as legitimising a regime which was the result of fraudulent elections. This is the case with the Civic Council of Peoples and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPIHN) and with a statement signed by 21 Honduran human rights organisations against the readmission of the country into the Organisation of American States.

In a sharply worded article, Tomás Andino points out that the real nature of the Lobo regime is revealed by the fact that even after signing the Cartagena Agreement which includes “respect and protection of human rights”, there was brutal police repression against students in struggle at the Instituto Técnico “Luis Bográn” and further killings of peasant activists in the Bajo Aguán region took place.

The points they make are correct. As a matter of fact, all of those who directly participated in the coup have been given positions of responsibility by the Lobo administration; some of them are part of the government itself. However, one thing is what a section of the Honduran ruling class might want, the channelling of the revolutionary movement into controlled bourgeois democratic channels, and a very different one is what will happen.

It is estimated that one and a half million people (in a country of 8 million inhabitants) turned up for the mass rally that welcomed Mel Zelaya back into Honduras on May 28. The mood was electric and one of victory. Finally, after nearly two years of struggle, the president they had elected was allowed back into the country. The masses gathered there to celebrate what they, correctly, considered to be a victory, although this is only a partial victory. Clearly, the return of Zelaya would not have been possible had it not been for the constant mobilisation of the Honduran workers, peasants and the poor.

May 28, reception of Zelaya. Photo: Felipe CanovaMay 28, reception of Zelaya. Photo: Felipe Canova The masses do not read the small print of the official agreements and documents. For them the return of Zelaya means a Constituent Assembly, democracy and radical change. Let us not remember that the Front has now adopted the slogan of “towards socialism”. A comrade present at the mass rally commented that “the people are convinced that Zelaya’s return will solve all their problems, and that the murderers will end up in prison”.

The key to the whole equation is that the aspirations of the masses for education, health care, decent housing, jobs and a better future, which are summarised in the idea of a constituent assembly, clash head on with the interests, power and privileges of the 12 families of the oligarchy.

As we explained at the time of the coup:

“Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with over 50% of the population living below the poverty line and with a rate of illiteracy of over 20%. More than one million of its 7.8 million inhabitants have had to emigrate to the US in search of jobs. In these conditions, even the most moderate and reasonable measures in favour of the majority of the population are bound to be met with brutal opposition on the part of the ruling class, capitalists, landowners, the owners of the media, the local oligarchy.” (Defeat the reactionary military coup in Honduras)

This contradiction has not gone away, if anything it has become sharper. The masses have gone through the experience of the coup and the brutal repression of the last two years which has resulted in 200 activists and leaders killed. They have gone through the experience of struggle and their level of organization and political consciousness has advanced in leaps and bounds.

They will now demand what is rightfully theirs and this will provoke a renewed clash with the oligarchy and a sharpening of the class struggle. As a matter of fact, the Honduran ruling class is divided over the question of the agreements. There is a powerful section of landowners, bankers and capitalists which think that the only way to deal with the “mob” that is asking for too much is to teach them a brutal lesson.

The right wing UCD party has denounced the agreements and accused Lobo of “having adopted Chavez’s agenda!”. In a conference given in Nicaragua, Roberto Micheletti, the first coup president immediately after the removal of Zelaya, said in no uncertain terms: “We should not be afraid of Socialism of the XXI century, whatever happens the democrats will be ready to face any situation that arises. The democrats we will fight against the communists and against the socialists. We will not allow (Zelaya), a bad pupil of Chavez to have his way in our country”. In other words, the “democrats” (read “the coup plotters”) are ready to carry out another coup if there is any hint of Zelaya and “the communists” coming to power.

This is the real voice of the Honduran ruling class. Micheletti is not a lunatic right winger, he is not on the fringes of Honduran politics. He was after all the president of the national assembly elected by the Liberal Party, one of the two main political parties in the country. He faithfully reflects the views of a key section of the Honduran oligarchy.

Their spokesperson in Washington is Roger Noriega, who was the US permanent representative to the OAS and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Bush. In an “opinion” article in Fox News (of all places) he talks of Lobo’s “secret pact with Chavez” in order to install a “minority government … to push through drastic economic and social changes.” All this, of course, in order to use Honduras as a basis for “trafficking drugs from South America to markets in the north” in conjunction with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah (Honduran leader's secret pact with Hugo Chavez). This is the twisted view of someone who was actually running US policy for Latin America until not so long ago.

The tasks of revolutionary socialists

Mel Zelaya on May 28. Photo: Felipe CanovaMel Zelaya on May 28. Photo: Felipe Canova What kind of reconciliation can there be with people like this? The scenario is open for a new confrontation amongst the classes. The danger is that the most advanced activists in the Resistance, who can see the real nature of the agreement and have correctly criticised it, might cut themselves off from the masses who do not understand it in the same way. That would be fatal.

The masses are confident, emboldened and feel that they have achieved a victory. The task of revolutionary socialists in Honduras is that of patiently explaining that the only solution to the most pressing demands of the masses is through the overthrow of capitalism and the oligarchy and the coming to power of the ordinary working people. They have to participate and be a part of the movement around Zelaya and the Resistance, whatever form it takes, and within it advance demands that help raise the level of organization and understanding of the masses.

It would be through their day-to-day concrete struggles, for land reform, for better wages, to defend state education, for human rights, against impunity, that the masses will learn. Revolutionary socialists must push these struggles forward, participate in them and help the masses draw the necessary conclusions from them. Zelaya himself will be put to the test in the eyes of the masses through these events.

One of the reasons why the masses were not victorious in the mighty struggle which developed immediately after the coup in 2009 was the vacillations of the leadership which did not advance the necessary slogans at the right time and which allowed itself to be confused by the fog of diplomacy and negotiations. The task now is to build a revolutionary socialist tendency within the mass movement of the Resistance that can point the way forward and through concrete experience win their trust and confidence.

The Honduran masses have set an example of courage, bravery and determination in their struggle. A leadership worthy of them must be forged. This is a most urgent task. The terrain has never been so fertile.

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