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Progress not perfection: coups and resistance

4 November 2009

Laura Carlsen — if not the best informed, then certainly in the top five, of well-informed foreign political correspondents writing about Mexico and Central America, questions the so-called “Guaymuras Accords” that either do … or don’t… end the coup in Honduras:

… from this observer’s view, negotiation and dialogue played a minor role in the apparent resolution of this phase of the crisis. In the end, the mobilization of Honduran society sent a clear message that “normal” government would not be possible and even more widespread insurrection loomed unless a return to democracy reopened institutional paths. International pressures and sanctions played a far greater role in cornering the coup than the technical terms of an accord that is vague, difficult to implement and contentious.

The last-minute decision of the coup to sign also begs the question: if this is what it took–a little strong-arming from the State Department’s A-team–why didn’t they do it before twenty-one people were killed?

Joseph Shansky, a Democracy NOW! en Español employee lately working as a reporter in Tegucigalpa argues the “real winners” were not the Hondurans:

… what the Guaymuras Accords actually do most is create a space for the United States to recognize the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for November 29. With National Party front-runner Pepe Lobo likely to win (thanks to a campaign season in which any independent voices were sharply silenced by media censorship), the US also likely secures another puppet in the region who will be opposed to the progressive social, economic and political reforms being articulated and demanded by the country’s social movements. This also serves to counter the region’s growing independence from Washington’s political and economic influence.

Furthermore, throughout the entirety of the coup, neither Secretary of State Clinton nor President Obama (surely occupied with political concessions of his own at home) have acknowledged the repression and violence perpetrated by the Micheletti government and Honduran military in its wake. And they still refuse to do so.

So the actual power returned to Zelaya may be symbolic at best. But it’s extremely important for another group involved- the Resistance movement all around the country.

Still, the bottom line remains the same. Military coups in Latin America are not a thing of the past yet, and their outcome can be strongly influenced, in fact practically determined, by the US.

The “symbolic” return may be more important then the U.S. State Department — or the old guard in Honduras — realizes.  The future of Manuel Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti — their various hangers-on, apologists and henchmen — are “normality” and insomuch as the negotiators bought a few more months or years of “normality” is not necessarily a win.


Mexican resistance, 1913

Without resorting to my usual fall-back of the Ten Tragic Days of Mexico (9 -18 February 1913) when a bloody coup — which was easily defended as “constitutional” — overthrew the mildly reformist Madero administration (and bumped off Madero for good measure), it unleashed the first of the modern social revolutions, redefining the nature of the governed and the governing powers, there is a recent example of democratic slow progress resulting from a brokered coup agreement.


Presidente Guevara Arce

Ironically, the thirtieth anniversary of that coup — the 1979 Todos Santos coup in Bolivia — was November second, almost coinciding with the Honduran accords.  Longtime dictator Hugo Banzer — like Porfirio Diaz in 1910 — reneged on promises to return his country to “normal” constitutional rule in 1978.  The presumptive winner of the election — was not the people’s choice, but fraudulently, General Juan Pereda Asbún was installed in the Quemado Palace.  Perada surprised everyone when he admitted his Presidency was nothing more than a military coup, and struggled with Banzer to rectify the situation.  Perada lasted only four months in the Presidency, being overthrown by more democratically inclined officers, led by David Padilla, who scheduled elections.

Here, if we had followed the Mexican example, the popular reformer should have been elected.  However, Bolivia’s constitution requires the winning candidate to receive more than 50 percent of the total vote.  With no clear winner, Congress selected — constitutionally — Senate leader  Wálter Guevara Arce to serve until the “regular” 1980 election.

Given the instability of the political situation, and the obvious weaknesses of the Constitution, coupled with economic problems (NOW it sounds like Honduras, ca. 2009), Guevara suggested extending his term for another year.  This was the excuse given for the Todos Santos coup headed by Colonel Alberto Natusch Busch.

Guevara — like Mel Zelaya in Honduras — was hardly the perfect democrat, nor the most successful of reformers… but, again like Zelaya, the people realized a president headed in the direction of reform (and holding out the promise of better political and economic conditions) was worth fighting for.


Todos Santos, La Paz, 1979

The resistance was fierce.  Natusch’s 16 day presidency is mostly remembered for the eight people left dead, 221 wounded, and 124 disappeared fighting to force the Colonel out.  Natusch agreed to mediation, and offered his resignation on one condition… that Guevara not return to office.  Congress — again acting constitutionally — elected then speaker of the house, Lydia Gueiler Tejada* to serve what remained of the “normal” presidential term.


Presidenta Gueiler, 1980

While the Bolivians had the extreme good luck to go through their crisis during the Carter Administration in the United States, which was one of the few in U.S. history to have the decency to NOT always retard social movements in Latin America on the premise that they might be a threat to private financial interests — and Gueiler herself would be driven from office by  the “Cocaine Coup” of July 1980 (by which time Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and democratic left-wing reformists could expect little in the way of assistance) — what is important is that an organized, creative resistance to exploitation and misuse of power had coalesced in support of imperfect reform.


Honduras, 2009 -- ?

Bolivia would remain politically and economically unstable for several years, but … the resistance — bringing together unions, indigenous groups, the urban poor and middle class — would eventually succeed in creating a new state, one hardly that intended by Wálter Guevara in 1979 (or perhaps even by his supporters) any more than what Mexico became in the 1920s was that which Madero’s defenders foresaw, and … who knows… what will eventually emerge from an energized Honduran resistance.

(Sombrero tip to El Duderino for remember the Todos Santos coup)

* In selecting Gueiler, Bolivia became the first nation in the Americas to have a female head of state who had not been preceded in office by her husband (like Isabella Martinez de Peron of Argentina), or father (the Commonwealth’s Queen Elizabeth).


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