Solidarity After The Coup
A Review of Dana Frank's The Long Honduran Night
By Joe Parziale \ 2019-06-02
Until recently, Honduras produced few refugees and asylum seekers compared to the countries with which it shares eastern and northern borders – El Salvador and Guatemala, respectively; the three nations make up what is often called the Northern Triangle1. That began to change dramatically after June 28, 2009, when the Honduran Army, on orders from the Supreme Court, raided the official residence of President José Manuel “Mel” Zelaya Rosales, kidnapped him, and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica at gunpoint. He would remain in exile for nearly two years. The court’s order, officially at least, was based on Zelaya’s defiance of a previous order to stop promoting a nonbinding referendum on whether to elect delegates to a constitutional convention. Honduran oligarchs would persistently claim that the push for a constituyente was a power grab, and that Zelaya planned to change the article restricting presidents to one term in office, an argument that made little sense considering any prospective convention would have happened after his term had ended. The elite was likely more concerned that a president of their own class and social status had turned on them by strengthening economic ties with the left and center-left governments in the hemisphere, and by vowing to protect public services from privatization.
The Organization of American States (OAS) promptly suspended Honduras and, along with the United Nations and European Union, condemned the removal as a military coup. Not the United States. President Obama at first called it “illegal” and a “coup,” but he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later hedged, pointedly refusing to use the term “military coup,” a designation that would have required an immediate suspension of aid to Honduras under U.S. law.
Dana Frank’s The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018) is one of the first book-length surveys of post-coup Honduras in English. Indeed, the country has long received less attention in the popular and scholarly U.S. literature than El Salvador and Guatemala, not because Washington has had a lighter hand in Honduran affairs, but more likely because U.S.-sanctioned repression had not descended into the same levels of protracted counterrevolutionary violence. Frank, a retired professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a specialist in U.S. and transnational labor history by training, but she has been working in and writing about Honduras since 2000, when she traveled there to study and work with the country’s banana unions. She writes here as an activist, affording her work great passion and moral clarity to complement her fine research skills and clear, compelling style.
Immediately after Zelaya’s forced exile, the Honduran National Congress voted, again illegally, to formally unseat him, elevating National Congress President Roberto Micheletti as the country’s de facto leader until previously scheduled elections in November. The Obama administration quickly got to work shoring up the coup regime. The State Department cynically promoted its sponsorship of negotiations between Micheletti and Zelaya to restore the latter to power until the scheduled end of his term, but conditioned any settlement on approval by a hostile National Congress, in an apparent bid to stall for time. Meanwhile, U.S. officials insisted that they were neutral in the dispute between the two parties, and then proceeded to disparage Zelaya out of the other side of their mouths; one remarked that Zelaya “contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal,” a rationale Frank identifies as “a rather grammatically convoluted way of blaming the victim.” When elections were finally held, amid violent repression and an opposition boycott, the U.S. was virtually alone in touting the process as a restoration of democratic stability; international bodies refused even to act as observers.
The U.S. had every reason, Frank argues, to want Zelaya out. With its stranglehold on the region slipping as a wave of anti-imperialist governments sprang up, an opportunity presented itself to preserve Honduras’ historical role as a base for the projection of U.S. power in the hemisphere, at the same time sending a message to governments that dare chart an independent course. The evidence she compiles is quite damning. Much of what has transpired in the years since the coup has been eerily reminiscent of the 1980s dirty wars in the region: disappearances, tortures, and scores of documented killings by security forces, all while levels of military aid from the United States have soared and Washington has marveled publicly at the progress of Honduras’ democratic institutions. The administrations of the two presidents that succeeded Micheletti, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo and the especially thuggish Juan Orlando Hernández, in league with the oligarchs and the National Congress, have proceeded with schemes to completely privatize everything from the water and electricity supplies to the public education system, laying off thousands of public-sector workers in the process. An especially egregious plan involved creating charter cities for international investors – essentially, zones of immunity from Honduran labor and environmental laws and other protections.
Frank’s is ultimately a hopeful story, however, for the coup unleashed a broad nonviolent resistance that even the bullets and clubs of the security forces have been unable to contain. The grassroots organizing and coalition-building required of assembling a sustained resistance have, in turn, allowed other social movements to thrive, including the LGBT movement, movements for campesino, indigenous, and Garifuna (Afro-indigenous) land rights, and an already robust labor movement. All of these individual movements built on and emboldened each other, and the author’s portrayals of the Honduran people’s empowerment and courageous solidarity provide some needed respite in an otherwise bleak tale. The resistance motivated Frank and her allies in the Honduran Solidarity Network as well, and she describes her own dogged efforts to draw attention to the criminal regime in U.S. media and convince any member of the U.S. Congress who would listen to cut off aid and hold the State Department accountable, achieving some significant, if momentary, successes.
For the November 2017 election, the resistance united behind an opposition alliance dominated by the left-wing LIBRE party that had been established by the umbrella group of post-coup social movements, the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP). Heading the ticket was TV presenter Salvador Nasralla, with Xiomara Castro – Zelaya’s wife – as his running mate. The candidate of the ruling National Party was the incumbent Hernández, a protégé of then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly from Kelly’s days at the head of U.S. Southern Command. Hernández’s candidacy carried considerable irony considering that he had stacked the Supreme Court with loyalists to nullify, unlawfully, the one-term presidential restriction – precisely the same charge critics had unconvincingly wielded against Zelaya, prompting that same court to issue an order to kidnap the president and send him into exile more than eight years earlier.
The opposition was realistic about their prospects, since the incumbent government controlled the electoral machinery, but to their surprise Nasralla led Hernández by five percentage points with more than half the ballots counted. Then, suddenly, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) stopped releasing results; two days later, it claimed that the computers were malfunctioning, and released the remainder of the results gradually until Hernández showed a 1.5 percent lead – roughly his victory margin when the TSE officially announced he had won fully a month later. The OAS noted egregious irregularities and called for a new election, but again the U.S. gave its blessing to the government’s criminal behavior, congratulating its patron on his victory. The security forces visited a bloody crackdown on demonstrators, but a Pandora’s box had already been opened; in post-coup Honduras, as Frank carefully documents, it takes more than dead bodies to overrule the will of the people.
1“Refugee and Asylum Seeker Populations by Country of Origin and Destination, 2000-16,” migrationpolicy.org, March 20, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/refugee-and-asylum-seeker-populations-country-origin-and-destination
Joe Parziale is a Cofounding Editor at The Flood.