Acts of Empire: The 2009 US Military Coup in Honduras and its Disastrous Effects

Graffiti against the coup in Tegucigalpa, 2009

In 2017 and 2018, US President Donald Trump and his allies on Fox news and other reactionary media whipped up a racist and jingoistic campaign of demonization and fear-mongering about groups of Central American migrants traveling together towards the US border. While Trump, whipping up his voter base before the congressional elections, spread outrageous conspiracies, the reality was much simpler: thousands of individuals and families fleeing political repression, deadly crime waves, and ecological crises in Central America decided it was safer to travel together in large groups, rather than take the risky and potentially deadly journey alone. This migrant exodus, colloquially referred to as the migrant caravan, had members from various countries in Central America, but the largest proportion came from Honduras. While the roots of Honduran poverty and US imperialism in Honduras go back more than a century, much of the current crisis driving migration has its origin in the 2009 coup, which would not have been possible without the United States.

As of 2018 statistics, Honduras is a country of approximately 9.5 million people, with 48.6% of the population living under the poverty line, extreme rates of income inequality, and one of the highest murder rates in the world. Since the early twentieth century, US military and commercial interests have dominated the country; the expression “banana republic” was coined to describe countries like Hondorus, where the government served as little more than an extension of the United Fruit Company and other US commercial interests. To support US-friendly governments, the American military intervened in Honduras on seven separate occasions between 1903-1925. This period of constant intervention cemented the ruling alliance between the commercial and landholding elite of Hondorun society and US Imperialism that has dominated Honduras through today.

While coffee and palm have replaced the banana industry, the basic “banana republic” structure remained in place throughout the twentieth century and into the early 2000’s, resulting in high rates of poverty, increasing emmigration, and an economy increasingly based on remittances from Hondoruans in the US. When Manuel Zelaya was elected president in 2006, he was very much part of that elite, being the son of a wealthy businessman and having had interests in the logging and timber industries. As president, however, Zelaya upset the traditional ruling class and its US backers by pushing an agenda of mild reform; the Zelaya government lowered interest rates, increased subsidies to small farmers, and expanded public education. Alongside those domestic reforms, the Zelaya government made a symbolic move away from US domination by joining the ALBA alliance of Latin American countries founded by Cuba and Venezuela under the leadership of Hugo Chavez.

Although the proposed reforms were limited in scope, they were enough to upset the elite and trigger a coup d’etat against Zelaya. On June 18, 2009, Zelaya was deposed by the military. They disarmed the guards outside of his home, arrested him in his pajamas, put him on a military helicopter, and eventually flew him to Costa Rica. Officially, Zelaya was accused of having defied a Supreme Court order, but the the judicial and military coup plotters denied any due process, didn’t let Zelaya defend himself before the National Congress, and justified the coup by presenting a forged resignation letter and appointing the right-wing politician Roberto Micheletti as president.

The coup was met with international condemnation and protests in the streets. The coup government instituted a weeks-long curfew, suspended constitutional protections, and shut down TV stations. A Jesuit-run radio station was pulled off the air at gunpoint, and the ambassadors from Nicarauga, Cuba, and Venezuela were detained and beaten by the Hondorunan military. Protests against the coup were violently repressed. On July 5, 2009, Zelaya attempted to return to the country; his plane was prevented from landing, and one of his supporters—a 19-year-old—was shot in the head by security forces. In the intervening days, union leaders, campesino organizers, and members of opposition parties were assassinated.

While carried out by the Hondouran military, the coup had deep roots in the United States and wouldn’t have been possible without US backing. The removal of a democratically elected president by the military, a textbook coup, is supposed to trigger a suspension of US military and foreign policy aid. In the case of Honduras, the Obama administration refused to do so, despite admitting that it was a coup.

In the days immediately following the coup, Obama himself said: “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there,” and the US embassy in Honduras (as revealed by WikiLeaks) cabled that “there is no doubt” that the events of June 28 “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” The State Department, then headed by Hillary Clinton, refused to declare a coup, backed the repressive government, and endorsed the widely discredited elections that were held under the coup regime. They even pressured international institutions to resume issuing loans and ensuring that US corporations had access to cheap natural materials and could continue building export processing zones, unfettered by reform or protest. The role of Hillary Clinton was particularly odious; in the first edition of her memoir, Hard Choices, she openly mentions that her goal was to prevent the return of Zelaya to power, a sentence she removed from the paperback edition when she was preparing to run for President in 2016.

In addition to the State Department’s support for the coup, there is the possibility that elements within the US military knew about and potentially even participated in the removal of Zelaya. There are longstanding and historic ties between the Hondoruan and US military, beyond the repeated interventions of the early twenitieth century. Hondorus served as a staging ground for the 1954 US intervention in Guatemala and US support for the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980’s, and the military plane that brought Zelaya out of the country refueled at a joint Honduras-US military base. Most damningly, four of the six military officials who carried out the coup were trained at the notorious US military School of the Americas (SOA). Now called the The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the SOA is notorious for having trained the enforcers of many vicious far-right US backed regimes in Latin America.

Speaking about the connection between the SOA and the Hondoruan coup, Father Roy Bourgois, the founder of protest group School of the Americas Watch, has said: 

“Well, first of all, we’re not surprised, you know, that there’s a connection to the School of the Americas, now called WHINSEC. This school is well known in Latin America as a school of coups, a school of dictators, a school of torture. There is a direct connection, which we expected. The two main players in this coup in Honduras that ousted President Zelaya are two generals, well-known graduates of the school: General Romero Vasquez, who’s the commander-in-chief, the head of the military, not only a graduate, a two-time graduate; and, of course, also General Luis Suazo, a graduate of the school in 1996, who’s the head of the air force. This school is well known in Latin America, again, as a school of coups. Whenever there is a massacre, cases of torture, human rights abuses, we have been able to document a direct connection to this school. This school has trained over 60,000 soldiers from fifteen countries in Latin America in combat skills, all paid for, I must say, by the US taxpayers.”

The decade following the coup has seen even further immiseration of the Hondoruan people. Poverty rates increased as US corporations set up low-wage sweat-shops called maquilas, displaced small landholders for palm plantations, and increased environmental devastation with massive hydroelectric dams, revealing the true motivations behind the coup—to make sure that Honduras was “Open for Business,” as the coup government declared. The government has made this clear by continuing to privatize government services and natural resources and slash wages and benefits. The privatization of services, crumbling of the public sector, and low-wage jobs all contributed to a rise in the informal economy and sky high murder rates—in 2012, Honduras averaged 20 murders per day.

2018 protests against US backed President Juan Orlando Hernandez

The Hondoruan people have mounted courageous resistance to these outrageous conditions, staging militant protests to current president Juan Orlando Hernandez and his re-election. Hernandez’s re-election was widely considered fraudulent, as the vote count was stopped multiple times, each time leading to an increase in votes for Hernandez. Protests against the fraudulent election were met with violent repression, including the murder of protesters and the disappearance and torture of protest leaders. The Hernandez government has overseen what Univision calls a “Pandora’s box of corruption” and has known links to narco-trafficking. Hernandez’s own brother has been indicted for drug trafficking.

Berta Zúñiga Cáceres (the daughter of Berta Cáceres) speaking at a 2016 rally

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the climate of repression better than the murder of Berta Cáceres. An internationally recognized Indigenous environmental activist, Cáceres was leading a years-long struggle against a hydro-electric dam and was murdered by representatives hired by the electric company. Prior to her death, Cáceres was known as a fierce representative of the resilience of the Honduran people, particularly women and Indigenous militants, and in her death became a symbol of the climate of impunity brought by the coup. Before her assassination, Cáceres said:

“We’re coming out of a coup that we can’t put behind us. We can’t reverse it. It just kept going. And after, there was the issue of the elections. The same Hillary Clinton, in her book, Hard Choices, practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country. The return of the president, Mel Zelaya, became a secondary issue. There were going to be elections in Honduras. And here, she, Clinton, recognized that they didn’t permit Mel Zelaya’s return to the presidency. There were going to be elections. And the international community—officials, the government, the grand majority—accepted this, even though we warned this was going to be very dangerous and that it would permit a barbarity, not only in Honduras but in the rest of the continent. And we’ve been witnesses to this.”

Sources:

Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America (1971); Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night (2018); Nina Lakhani, Who Killed Berta Cáceres (2020); HondurasSolidarity.org; Democracy Now; The Guardian; The Intercept; Jacobin; New York Times; Univision