The press agency Reuters has reported that Zelaya, the President of Honduras who was deposed by a rightist military coup, has finally returned to his home country.(1) This has not wholly been confirmed, but we may assume it true. Zelaya was deposed by the army with the connivance of the Supreme Court of Honduras and the ruling majority of its Congress after the latter accused him of attempting to change the country’s Constitution to allow multiple terms for the Presidency. The Constitution itself, bizarrely, forbids such attempts at altering it. Perhaps this was initially conceived as a democratic measure to prevent the caudillo style of ‘strong man’ government prevalent in the weak countries of Latin America, but the real effect has been precisely the opposite. A Constitution that does not permit its own alteration is not a democratic framework, but a chain that fetters the people, and is equally hateful to progress as is living by a covenant with God. In creating this clause, which is founded in the country’s 1982 Constitution following, its framers irrevokably planted a seed that could not but bloom into a political crisis at some later point.
That is not to say that Zelaya’s actions are themselves to be encouraged. Zelaya ran as a Liberal Party candidate, the party that has the majority in the country’s Congress, and as a law-and-order businessman; only the progress of time found him increasingly favoring a more popular approach, and he has made ouvertures toward the governments of Castro in Cuba and Chavez in Venezuela, both broadly socialist in character. Zelaya’s subsequent decision to hold an advisory referendum on changing the Constitution is of complicated legality – on the one hand, the Constitution of Honduras permits advisory referenda by the institution of the President, yet on the other hand, it strictly prohibits any attempts to meddle with its term limits. Such a straightjacket is not compatible with democratic government, and as a result has been torn apart, and the nation with it. Zelaya has claimed that the country’s existing Constitution favors the old oligarchy that mostly rules this nation, as in so many unreformed Latin American states.
This argument is however opportunistic. Zelaya was late to reinvent himself as a socialist, and especially in pursuing an aim that serves only to aggrandize himself as an individual, rather than a possible new left movement, the risks of caudillo populism rather than a genuine people’s movement arising are great. After all, even Bolivar himself got carried off in that direction over time, due to the excessive concentration of power and attention on his person. Indeed, Honduras is the third-poorest country in Latin America, where 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and capitalist liberalism has obviously failed it as it has failed everyone else.(2) There is a great need for a popular democratic movement, supported by the peasant majority of the country, to undertake land reform and destroy the oligarchy by democratization. Zelaya recently had been making moves in this direction, as well as allying by Venezuela and so challenging the American imperialists, who maintain a large base in Honduras. However, all his real policies have amounted to an arbitrary raise in the minimum wage, which was widely ignored by capital, and arranging some Venezolan presents.(3) Zelaya’s failure to create a separate movement for reform however contrasts with the successes in Venezuela itself, and he shares with Chavez an undue sense of personal importance. As a result, he not only had the more conservative oligarchy of the Nationalist Party against him, but also the more liberal one of his own party, which inevitably reacted against his anti-capital rhetoric. In this manner he invited his own destruction in a rather futile manner.
This, of course, by no means veils the naked display of aggression shown by the new ruler Micheletti and his henchmen. Once again the Latin American oligarchies show that their talk of protecting democracy is just that, talk; they are only interested in protecting it from itself, when its results do not suit them. Precisely the ease by which Zelaya’s attempts to break out of the existing political establishment led to his downfall shows the truth of his accusations about the true meaning of the nation’s Constitution. In fact Zelaya had not even shown any inclination towards real socialism, just a rhetorical preference for the nation’s poor classes, perhaps as a little Bismarck intending to use them against the existing oligarchs to favor his own position. In any case it was enough to cause the oligarchy to call in the military.
Most interesting has been the international response. The European Union and the other Latin American states could be relied upon not to tolerate all too naked displays of oligarchic power; in particular the EU always favors the long-term interests of capital over its short-term interests, having been founded for this precise purpose. It prefers ‘peaceful’ capitalism and its soft murder to the naked aggression of more primitive ‘entrepreneurs’. The United States usually could be relied upon to maintain oligarchs in its back-yard at any cost, and indeed the Republican Party, always the more short-sighted of capital’s defenders in the nation itself, immediately supported Micheletti c.s. But the current President has aimed at mediation and finding a solution in holding new elections. This would of course confirm de iure what exists de facto, namely the military coup against Zelaya, and yet would maintain a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Moreover, since there is no time to form any popular counter-movement between the return of Zelaya and the proposed elections, the result will inevitably be the ‘legitimate’ victory of one of the oligarchic powers, which in turn will safeguard the American military (and economic) position in Honduras. It is not for nothing that Honduras is the original ‘banana republic’, and for all his geniality, it is not likely that President Obama will permit any too radical changes in that status. Everything will be quite as it was, with the only difference that the hidden relations of power in Honduras will have been made visible to the world. This, at least, is of value as an example: it shows decisively that the emperor of liberal democracy in the Third World has no clothes.
1) “Ousted president Zelaya says returns to Honduras”. Reuters (Sept. 21, 2009).
2), 3) Booth & Forero, “U.S. Misread Scale of Honduran Rift”. Washington Post (July 5, 2009).