Another Coup Against a Constitutional Process: Honduras

Even in the best of times a coup in Honduras wouldn’t get much coverage in the U.S. since most North Americans couldn’t find the country on a map and, moreover, would have no reason to do so. Nevertheless, those in the U.S. who have been alert to the changes in Latin America over the past decade and almost everyone south of the border know that the coup d’etat (or “golpe de estado”) against President Manuel Zelaya has profound implications for the region and, in fact, all of Latin America. While the US press will glance from their intent gaze at reruns and specials on Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett only long enough to report on President Obama’s reaction to the coup, Latin Americans will keep their eyes on the governments of the region as well as the social movements in Honduras as they search for a key to how the whole affair will turn out.

In a power play between President Zelaya who maneuvered (some say illegally) to push a referendum on the constitution, and a congress that sees their jobs possibly go on the line if there is a new constitution, the military played the decisive role and ousted Zelaya in the early hours of the morning on Sunday, June 28, 2009, preempting the national referendum. After producing a forged letter of resignation, supposedly from President Zelaya, president of the congress Roberto Micheletti was sworn in. From exile in Costa Rica, President Zelaya denounced the forgery and maintained that he continued to be the only legitimate president of Honduras. Meanwhile, back at Micheletti’s solemn swearing-in ceremony, the AP reported, “outside of Congress, a group of about 150 people opposed to Zelaya’s ouster stood well back from police lines and shook their fists, chanting ‘Out with the bourgeoisie!’ and ‘Traitors!’”

Venezuelan-based Telesur, however, gave a distinctly different impression of the scene. It reported at least one hundred times that many people (“at least 15,000” — there were other estimates of 20,000) were gathered in a strike and a leader of the Bloque Sindical Popular (Popular Union Block), Ángel Alvarado, was calling for a general strike the following day. On the evening after the coup, Micheletti’s government put the country under curfew enforced by the military, which also enforced a ban on all news of the golpe. Meanwhile, regional leaders and members of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) met in Nicaragua where Chávez recalled the similarities between what happened to him in Venezuela in April 2002 and the events in Honduras. Chávez ended his tale calling on the “golpistas” (those who carried out the coup) to surrender, while Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa demanded that they be tried for treason.

If possibility for support for the “golpistas” looked slim in Latin America, things didn’t look better up north. Indeed, what was most striking about the coup, if The Wall Street Journal can be believed, is that it appears that the new administration of President Obama was opposed to the coup even in the planning stage. Paul Kiernan and Jose de Cordoba report in The Wall Street Journal that, “the Obama administration and members of the Organization of American States had worked for weeks to try to avert any moves to overthrow President Zelaya.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated bluntly that, “The action taken against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya violates the precepts of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and thus should be condemned by all.”

For those hoping to see a new US policy in the region, this is indeed reason to be guardedly optimistic, even more so since Zelaya is a close ally to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. This will be among the first military coups in fifty-five years of coups throughout the continent that the U.S. wouldn’t have either perpetrated or backed after the fact — the first one being the four-hour-long coup in Ecuador in January 2000, carried out by center-leftists.

The Wall Street Journal article, however, offered a hardly credible reason for the coup: “Voicing the fears that sparked the military’s action, retired Honduran Gen. Daniel López Carballo justified the move against the president, telling CNN en Español that Mr. Zelaya was a stooge for Mr. Chávez. He said that if the military hadn’t acted, Mr. Chávez would eventually be running Honduras by proxy.”

While it’s true that the most reactionary forces in the region see sinister motives behind Chavez’s generosity and do all they can to demonize the Venezuelan leader, the more obvious reason for the coup was the fact that Zelaya had called a referendum on the constitution, an act which has drawn a similar response from reactionaries in other countries in Latin America. The problems are the same: progressive leaders enter power on a wave of popular support only to find their hands bound by constitutions written by their neoliberal predecessors of the 1990s under the tutelage of Washington. The new leaders then face the choice of playing by the very limited rules of the neoliberal constitution or writing up a new charter. Even the proposal of new rules enrages the local oligarchy which, of course, was behind the neoliberal constitution in the first place, and the opposition to constitutions aimed at democratizing power has grown with each successive process.

President Hugo Chavez was the first progressive president of the region to call for a referendum on a nation’s constitution after his election. The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was written by thousands across the country and passed in popular referendum by nearly 72% of the people in a popular vote, establishing the “Fifth Republic.” Chavez then ran again for president, was re-elected with an even larger margin than before, and he now had the possibility of carrying out reforms that would have been impossible under the old, 1961 constitution of the Fourth Republic.

While the Venezuelan process was peaceful, when Rafael Correa came to power in Ecuador, his call for a constituent assembly to write the new constitution frightened the old congress, almost cost him his job and led to street battles and the cordoning off of the congress. Eventually that crisis passed, with Correa beating the old congress and a winning a new Constitution, the first in the world to guarantee the rights of Mother Earth and nature.

That mini battle in Ecuador between congressmen and police, however, was nothing compared to what nearly became a civil war in Bolivia over the proposed new constitution. The crisis, which left over 100 dead in the department of Pando, and nearly brought about the succession of the “Media Luna” departments from Bolivia, was eventually resolved and in the process set a new precedent for diplomacy in the region. For the first time in modern history a political crisis in Latin America was resolved not by the U.S. dominated OAS but by the newly formed UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) at a meeting held in Santiago, Chile presided over by the center-left President Michelle Bachelet and the notable absence of the United States, whose representatives were not invited. This was the first test of the newly formed UNASUR which had until then existed largely only on paper, and it was viewed everywhere as a great success, proving that the nations of the South American continent could resolve their own problems more effectively among themselves than under the aegis of the imperial eagle of the north. Evo returned to Bolivia with the full backing of UNASUR and nine countries of the region (including the neoliberal governments of Peru and Colombia) and eventually the “Media Luna” had to submit. The new Constitution was passed in the referendum in January of this year.

While it’s impossible to say how the coup in Honduras will play out, the new president sworn in on the day of the coup, Roberto Micheletti, may fare only a little better than the unfortunate Pedro Carmona, President-for-a-day in Venezuela (April 12-13, 2002) when Chavez was briefly overthrown. Micheletti hasn’t a single ally in Latin America, and even the Empire now seems to be resigned to the fact that military coups are a thing of the past and has turned its back on him. Elections and constitutions aimed at the transformation of nations in Latin America from “representative” to “participatory” democracy seem to be the wave of the future that even well-armed militaries will no longer be able to oppose.

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at) His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela. Read other articles by Clifton.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 29th, 2009 at 11:56am #

    american lower classes, to whatever degree [on a scale 0ne to hundred] are excluded from taking part in governance of and in governing their land, need to demand a rewrite of the constitution.

    i don’t know if nader’s org [or is it a party?] also asks for a new constitution.
    as the s. amer lands have shown, a new constitution can be obtained only via a political party. tnx

  2. Melissa said on June 29th, 2009 at 1:21pm #

    Yes to a rewrite. But a dangerous effort all same, we need to be clear and unified and above all, diligent in this effort. Lest the effort get hijacked by the ruling class crime syndicate.

    People have submitted (through States) hundred of demands calling for a Constitutional Convention . . . they are swept under the rug and ignored. Another expression of symptoms in this diseased country.

    However, in order to advance to a rewrite (and then, hopefully, a decrease in statism) we have to own the constitution we currently have, employ it and reassert the fact that the people have not consented to dismantling that has happened through interpretive courts/judges and corporate reps and senators.

    This is not futile, and yes, a unified party (must include people you don’t like) is the vehicle to push for a sane and humane framework.


  3. Ryan said on June 29th, 2009 at 2:26pm #

    Wow… Some say illegal? It is written in law that only the congress has to power to put a referrendum on the ballot and his own party who is power refused to do so… He ignored them and tried to make his own vote so he could be elected for his third term. He wanted to be able to maintain power permenatly. This article forgets to mention the facts that the Honduras Surpreme Court declared his acts unconstitutional and illegal, told him to stop. The attorny general then warned that if any individual continued to carry out trying to initiate the refferendum they would be arrested. Zelaya ignored him and then the surpreme court ordered the military to arrest him and in accordance to their laws, exile him. The same political party as the President then elects a new interim leader until an election can be held in November… Yet this is a military Coup?

  4. lichen said on June 29th, 2009 at 8:29pm #

    Yes, we need a new constitution here; but the right wing reactionaries who want to claim some stupid trash like that social services are unconstitutional under the current document will not hold sway.

  5. Melissa said on June 29th, 2009 at 9:54pm #

    Lichen, yes. Hence the need to be clear, unified and diligent. I believe one way to fold in as many citizens as possible is to offer a reasonable alternatives (rather than the tired old arguments that have never worked) for those sticking points.

    You offer an example of SS and the argument that it is unconstitutional. Face it, the argument is sound. Promoting the general welfare should not amount to robbery by force, which is how taxation works. Majority of USAers are check to check. The question is why the tiered society that makes such programs necessary? We can appeal to the crowd you speak of by addressing the monetary system and how the electronic blips we call money and credit belong to the citizenry as a whole, not to people who produce nothing. Because we ALL represent the good faith of producing and consuming.

    Instead of framing a social safety net as something some people get for doing nothing, while others toil to have a portion stolen to provide for others, why don’t we all get a guaranteed dividend? Cut out the parasites to whom we pay all that interest, for our own damn money. It takes the wind out of the sails of the unconstitutional argument -and re establishes constitutional monetary system. Richard C. Cook has published here at DV . . . check him out if you are interested in proper distribution of the wealth that we represent.

    If you truly want to effect change, and foster real conversation that is focussed upon solutions you’ll do better to find words and attitudes that don’t draw such chasms of division. Maintaining a “side” or a box that has been constructed according to your perceived opponents’ position always keeps you on the defensive. It drives potentials and possibilities farther away rather than strengthening your own, and you’ll die frustrated that you didn’t win ’em over to your side. There are wider avenues that are big enough for both you and “right-wing reactionaries” to walk together, each with your own baggage of issues and enough space to air them.

    Look for common ground, don’t keep drawing the same line in the sand. It only reminds others how rigidly they must guard their own box. If we’re all guarding our boxes, we’re all behind bars and nullified.

    Peace, Resistance, Hope,

  6. lichen said on June 29th, 2009 at 10:11pm #

    I am divided from you, Melissa, and I am glad for that; the fact that I was obviously correct about your motives and intentions in posting here about the “constiution” proves that very well. Perhaps you should call for a progressive taxation system that truly makes the very rich and corporations pay, you instead take on a stupid reactionary tone, as if there would be any “dividend” to give out to everyone without taxes, and as if you and everyone else don’t owe a huge amount to what taxes and the public sector has given us. Taxes are good and constitutional, and the majority agrees with that, so there will be no constiution that says otherwise.

  7. Melissa said on June 29th, 2009 at 10:46pm #

    I think I have not explained the concept that Richard C. Cook proposes well enough . . . take issue with me, but not the entire message of a guaranteed social dividend for every person. The dividend comes from the interest that we would normally pay to a private banker. -For the money government borrows, for the plastic credit that we use as consumers, for the loans made etc . . .

    It is truly a progressive system that would bring people out of poverty (an unnecessary reality foisted upon people by credit being owned by private bankers) as well as stopping the siphoning of what should be our shared wealth. The very rich and the corporations would not be taking a free ride off the backs of every interest paying citizen, and yes that’s all of us, if you ever use US cash or credit.

    You see, taxation itself is the heist that is making these bankers and traders grossly rich and is cause for such extreme socio-economic disparity. It is only a joke and disinformation that leads people to believe that taxation itself benefits the public. We need a better safety net than what we are getting. For housing, health, food, education . . . we can do better. The scarcity thing is really an illusion here, it’s not that, it’s a population and economy being held hostage.

    I apologize for not explaining concepts as well as possible. Maybe you needed buzzwords and jargon that sounded more familiar, or just to slow down and investigate before being reactionary. Please read some of Cook’s essays, he’s pushing something that I really believe would resonate with you. He’s a progressive.

    Corporations shouldn’t exist at all, btw.

    Peace, Resistance, Hope,

  8. brian said on June 29th, 2009 at 11:34pm #

    FYI from Eva GollingerL
    Telesur, which has been the ONLY media outlet to provide non-stop coverage on the coup in Honduras since yesterday, has just been the victim of violent repression in Honduras. During the beginning of the meetings taking place this afternoon in Nicaragua with all heads of state from Latin America, Telesur abruptly interrupted coverage to broadcast the words and cries of Adriana Sivori, Telesur correspondent in Tegucigalpa, denouncing she was being detained, along with her cameraman, by military forces in Honduras under orders by the coup dictatorship. There is massive repression underway in Honduras right now. The Telesur team has been detained by armed forces and placed under arrest in clear violation of international law. Their identification documents have been confiscated by the military and they have been kidnapped.

    Roberto Micheletti is the name of the dictator in Honduras, who illegally took over yesterday after the military coup kidnapped and forced into exile the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Remember his name for he should be tried for human rights violations.



  9. momo said on June 30th, 2009 at 5:48am #


    “It is written in law that only the congress has to power to put a referrendum on the ballot and his own party who is power refused to do so…”

    Ah Ryan but their is no such law. You lie through your teeth.

    “He ignored them and tried to make his own vote so he could be elected for his third term. He wanted to be able to maintain power permenatly.”

    In power permanently through elections, his plan is so dictatorial!

    “This article forgets to mention the facts that the Honduras Surpreme Court declared his acts unconstitutional and illegal, told him to stop.”

    “The attorny general then warned that if any individual continued to carry out trying to initiate the refferendum they would be arrested.”

    Again you parrot a lie. The democratically elected leader was ousted and you turn logic on its head. However, you are not fooling anyone.

  10. bozh said on June 30th, 2009 at 7:36am #

    folks, more on constitutions or anything uttered
    anything written or said can only be proven as valid/moral/correct on experimental or daily living level.

    that one has no health care alone proves any constitution invalid/wrong.
    another proof that a constitution is wrong, is the fact that only judges can interpret it; no hobo, ditch digger, miner, secretary, farmer, et al need apply for the job.

    one can cite bible, quran, torah, constitutions all one wants- one is still on theoretical level and not on a living level.
    a constitution, tho still on wishfulness level, is valuable to a point only if it directs us what to do and how to do it.
    ‘direction’ that one has the right to pursue happiness, right to vote, etc.,
    doesn’t direct how to achieve it or how one shld vote.
    constitution doesn’t say,One can vote only after properly educated and informed.
    or that one has the right to obtain knowledege and how to go about obtaining it.
    if knowledge is owned by, let’s say, 5% of people, a constitution then is an hurtful writ for 95% of people.
    it may be better to be uniformed than disinformed.
    to conclude, it si not about solely what to do but what/how/show me! tnx bozhidar balkas

  11. momo said on June 30th, 2009 at 8:49am #

    Who needs dictatorships when “democracy” works so well. No coup happening here, just a vibrant “democracy”: