Seven years after the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras, the Central American country’s democracy is still in crisis, epitomized perhaps most clearly by the recent murder of internationally-renowned environmental leader Berta Caceres. Assassinated after years of resisting unwanted corporate projects on Indigenous land and an onslaught of neoliberal policies and government repression in the wake of the coup, Caceres has brought global attention to the the fatal criminalization of political dissenters—with both U.S. funding and near total impunity—and grave human rights crisis in post-coup Honduras.
In the early hours of June 28, 2009, a military coup ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, flying him to exile in Costa Rica. Zelaya had planned to hold a non-binding poll on whether to hold a referendum in the upcoming election on convening a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution.
Zelaya, of the Liberal Party, showed a progressive turn during his presidency by raising the minimum wage, negotiating land deals with campesino movements, and joining the Venezuelan-led regional energy alternative ALBA, in addition to opening the conversation on a constituent assembly.
Coup-backers accused Zelaya of attempting to manipulate the Honduran constitution to extend his presidency, which was limited to one term in Honduras before a Supreme Court ruling last year changed the wording in the constitution. Despite allegations that Zelaya was trying to strong-arm his way into staying in power—a key justification for the coup—the non-binding poll would not have changed the fact that he was barred from running for reelection in November 2009 race.
The coup against Zelaya was widely condemned by governments across Latin America, the European Union, the Organization of American States and other regional blocs.
In contrast, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in her autobiography “Hard Choices” that she used her power to stir the crisis into a favorable outcome for the U.S., even if it meant forgetting about democracy. “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot,” she wrote in her book. The “free and fair” elections that Clinton envisioned included a media blackout and targeted assassinations of anti-coup leaders ahead of the polls. No international institutions monitored the elections.
In an interview in Buenos Aires over a year before her murder, Caceres pointed specifically to Clinton for her role in the coup, arguing that it highlighted the extent of North American “meddling” in Honduras and support for the ongoing crisis.
Former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis was involved in lobbying against the elected Honduran leader deposed in the military coup. Working for the Honduras branch of the equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Davis called on U.S. lawmakers to back the military removal of Zelaya.
While multiple world leaders were quick to condemn Zelaya's ouster and demand a return to democratic rule, Obama's White House refused to label the political crisis a military coup.
Human Rights Crisis
Berta Caceres is one of the latest in a long list of victims of targeted assassinations in the past seven years of institutional crisis in Honduras. Since the coup, the human rights situation in Honduras has deteriorated drastically, earning it the monicker of the “murder capital of the world.” In the northern Aguan Valley region alone, close to 150 campesino activists have been killed since 2010. Last year, Honduras was deemed the most dangerous place in the world for environmental activists, who often face harassment, violence, death threats, and even murder.
A recent report found that human rights are "invisible" in Honduras thanks to the coup that ramped up abuses and militarization. Human rights defenders have found that 15 assaults per month are perpetrated against journalists, human rights defenders, and political opposition. At least 59 journalists have been killed since the coup, while, gender-based violence is out of control with the femicide rate surpassing epidemic levels.
Under a reign of impunity, perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, political violence, gang wars, and rampant femicide go unpunished. In the wake of the coup, left-wing activists, journalists, Indigenous people, campesinos, human rights defenders, land and environmental activists, and women are among those who have suffered the greatest abuses.
Governments After 2009 Coup
President Juan Orlando Hernandez came to power in 2013 under highly suspicious circumstances, with widespread calls of electoral fraud and political repression against the left-wing opposition Libre party candidates.
The post-coup election of Hernandez's National Party predecessor, President Porfirio Lobo, was widely condemned for taking place under a coup regime with rampant violations of human rights. While the election was not recognized internationally by Latin American regional leaders and organizations, such as Mercosur and UNASUR, President Barack Obama endorsed Lobo's election.
The national popular resistance movement, from which the Libre Party was born, also strongly condemned both post-coup elections, claiming the resultant governments were a continuation of the coup regime.
Corruption Comes to the Fore
Discontent with the Honduran government has boiled over in recent months in the wake of Caceres' assassination. But thousands of Hondurans also flooded to the streets last year as widespread government corruption and embezzlement schemes came to light, leading ousted Zelaya to call in the heat of the mobilizations for permanent protests to force Hernandez out of office.
As part of widespread government fraud, the Honduran Social Security Institute reportedly funneled more than US$200 million to the ruling right-wing National Party, which Zelaya alleges was used in Hernandez' 2013 presidential campaign.
Under post-coup National Party President Porfirio Lobo, directors of the Social Security Institute allegedly embezzled more than US$350 million.
The corruption scandals reinvigorated popular outrage, bringing tens of thousands to the streets in several consecutive weeks of torchlit anti-corruption marches calling for the resignation of the president and an independent investigation into government fraud and impunity.
While the so-called Indignados movement has lost steam since its peak last year, protests against the government's neoliberalism, corruption, disregard for the popular will of the people continue, such as the recent wave of student protests against the increasing privatization of public education.
Changes to the Constitution
Reigniting the debate on presidential term limits that has become a hallmark of conservative hypocrisy, the Honduran Supreme Court controversially ruled last year to change the constitution to eliminate term limits and allow for re-election. The heated decision came six years after Zelaya was ousted for planning to hold a non-binding poll, which coup-backers used to justify the ousting, claiming he was trying to convene a constituent assembly to seeking re-election.
Zelaya and other Libre Party opposition members condemned the change as illegal, saying only the Honduran people have the power to change the constitution. But the Supreme Court rejected appeals filed against the constitutional changes, paving the way for presidential reelection.
In light of the decision and expectations that Hernandez will seek reelection as the National Party candidate, Zelaya announced last month his interest in running again for the country's top office in the 2017 presidential race. The ousted president will seek approval during the Libre Party's internal elections this fall to be the candidate on the ballot next year for the elections that, ironically, could take place under a Hillary Clinton's presidency.
Popular Movements Reject the Status Quo
In the immediate wake of the 2009 coup, tens of thousands of popular resistance activists took to the streets in Honduras to condemn the unconstitutionality of the coup regime and demand a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution.
While demands of mass mobilizations of Hondurans today are different, calling not directly for a refounding of the state but for an independent investigation into the murder of Berta Caceres and an end to unwanted corporate projects on Indigenous land, among other demands,what remains clear is that popular discontent and utter outrage with the government still is palpable.
The coup enabled the consolidation of elite political and economic power and has given way to widespread privatization of public institutions, land, and resources. Grave repression of resistance activists, criminalization, and intense militarization have helped pave the way for the government to roll out waves of policies that benefit a few economic elite, often at the expense of the rights of Indigenous people, campesinos, and other marginalized communities.
President Juan Orlando Hernandez has ignored waves of protests that have called for his resignation and shows no signs of ceding to demands for an internationally-led independent investigation into Caceres' case. But Caceres' murder has also come to symbolize the crisis of Honduran democracy and galvanized the stuggle for social justice, as activist say that their slain leader has not died, but multiplied.
As injustice continues on many fronts on the seventh anniversary of the coup, what remains clear is that not only is the status quo in Honduras not working, but popular movements will continue to fight it.