Aftershocks of Honduras’ Political Earthquake
Author: Elaine Freedman
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on August, 2009
Is the coup d’état in Honduras a mirror that the FMLN government of Mauricio Funes, El Salvador’s armed forces, grassroots movement and political parties ought to be looking into? If they do so, what will it show them?
The very day after Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was pulled out of bed at machinegun point and sent into exile in Costa Rica, the legislative bench chief of El Salvador’s Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), Donato Vaquerano, sent a warning to the new President of El Salvador: “Funes must have a mirror in which he can see himself with President Mel Zelaya.”
Although the clarity of the implicit threat made his declarations very upsetting, Vaquerano wasn’t wrong. Both President Mauricio Funes and the entire nation’s political and grassroots forces can see themselves in that mirror right now. As Ernesto Rivas Gallont, former Salvadoran Ambassador to the United States (1981-1989) stated: “Clearly, the coup has exacerbated the differences between the Left and Right, and not only in Honduras.” The Honduran coup is a political earthquake whose aftershocks are being felt on Salvadoran soil.
Are coups really a thing of the past?
For several years, we’ve been hearing in El Salvador that coups are a thing of the past. In recent history, our country has lived through five that have been recognized by historians, politicians of all stripes and the population. Yet against all such evidence to the contrary, we’ve been told over and over that coups are now museum pieces. The Right argues that the modernization of political processes has eliminated any basis for such a mechanism, while the Left affirms that the strategy of coups responded to another period of US imperialism and political crises are now being resolved in other ways.
Despite the failed coup attempts in Venezuela (2002) and Bolivia (2007), both with documented participation by the US embassies and the CIA, even the Left has argued that coups—a handy mechanism that frequently let rightwing groups secure state power throughout Latin America in the 20th century—had been exhausted by the end of the 1980s. There were close to 250 coups in Latin
America during the 20th century compared to only 11 in the past 18 years. While those led by progressive factions of the military have clearly been the minority, two of them occurred in El Salvador: in 1944 and in 1979.
Mirror, mirror…the Tandona is here
With this background in mind, we need to examine how the Salvadoran armed forces are sizing up the Honduran coup. Very few members of the military have been willing to make public statements to the press, and none has openly defended the action. However, the way they address this event says a lot. General Humberto Corado, a former Salvadoran defense minister, explained that a coup cannot be justified from any point of view, but claimed that the events provoked by the already “defeated” President had made him “vulnerable.” Reading between the lines, we find that although he believes the coup was not “justifiable,” it was to be expected. In other words, the coup gains validity because “there was no other choice.”
The infamous “Tandona” group—graduates of the Military Academy class of 1966, who directed the war against the FMLN and the people—is still influencing national policies. Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, El Salvador’s ambassador to Honduras since 2001, is a member of the Tandona and was responsible for three important massacres during the war: in El Calabozo (Cabañas), La Joya (Zacatecoluca) and Los Llanitos (Cabañas).
Ambassador Ochoa Pérez’s relationship with recalcitrant sectors of the Honduran bourgeoisie and the armed forces is very well known. So while there’s no concrete evidence, many Salvadorans believe he may have actively supported the coup leaders and are thus demanding that President Funes immediately remove him from this diplomatic post.
All this should be seen in the light of an important event that is still casting a shadow over the Salvadoran Armed Forces. In September 2008, in the midst of the campaign for the March 2009 general elections, the Veteran Officers’ Association, led by unrepentant Tandona members responsible for human rights violations during the war, such as René Emilio Ponce and Francisco Elena Fuentes, organized a march that was joined by ARENA’s presidential candidate, Rodrigo Ávila. It was a pure show of force, their way of reminding the populace that although most of them are now retired, their influence remains indisputable.
ARENA’s mirror sees it as fairest of them all
The coup mirror reflects the image of the rightwing ARENA party even more clearly. Just hours after the coup had taken place, the first declarations from former President Alfredo Cristiani, currently president of ARENA’s executive body, COENA, seemed to send a positive signal. He initially “lamented” the events in Honduras and labeled the search for “solutions or changes through non-legal means” as “negative.”
However, all other party sources have justified these “solutions or changes” as necessary. In an apparent shift from Cristiani’s original position, ARENA hasn’t wanted to call the assault on power in this neighboring country a “coup d’état.” The argument put forward by ARENA’s legislative bench chief Vaquerano was very much like that of General Corado: “It was Mel Zelaya himself who created the conflict. This has led to a series of actions. It is the result of a failure to respect the role of different organs.” Other ARENA officials have made similar statements, including veteran Gloria Salguero Gross, COENA’s ideological vice president Jorge Velado, former leader Hugo Barrera and former presidential candidate Rodrigo Ávila. Velado minced no words: “If President Mauricio Funes acts like Zelaya, the same thing that happened in Honduras could happen here.”
Moreover, ARENA has criticized the international community for unanimously condemning the coup. “The Democratic Charter obliges those who govern to exercise a democratic government,” argued Vaquerano. “And the basis of democracy is respect for the jurisdiction of each branch of government. That famous Charter condemns Mel Zelaya,” he concluded, “as it condemns many Latin American governments that have not respected it and today are trying to use it as a weapon.” With this remark, ARENA dismissed out of hand the position of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations and the Central American Parliament, all institutions of which El Salvador is a member.
One week after the coup, ARENA issued a communiqué stating that, as the governing party, the FMLN is following the slogans of non-Central American leaders, riding roughshod over the Honduran people’s sovereignty. ARENA believes that the FMLN’s actions are affecting relations with the Republic of Honduras. When the FMLN introduced a motion in the Assembly to condemn the coup
in Honduras, ARENA argued that instead of condemning the coup, the Assembly should condemn the executive order to shut down trade at the Salvadoran-Honduran border.
Honduras and El Salvador: No parallels, but similarities
Although there are no parallels between the Honduran and Salvadoran situations, some similarities with the Honduran power structure are notable in El Salvador’s current political arrangement. Despite having lost control of the executive branch, the Right maintains control over the legislature, the recently elected Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office and the Court of Auditors.
Hugo Barrera—Roberto d’Aubuisson’s vice presidential running mate in the 1984 presidential election and one of the contenders for ARENA’s presidential nomination in 2008—argues that “it is debatable whether a coup took place or not, above all given the pronouncements made by the Supreme Court and Attorney General’s Office, and the Congress’ unanimous position.”
These are dangerous statements, a bad omen for the Salvadoran political panorama. With ARENA issuing such messages, the image in the mirror is crystal clear.
The private sector’s mirror is in its wallet
El Salvador’s private sector has reacted more cautiously to events in the neighboring country. Although their counterparts from the Honduran big business umbrella association COHEP publicly backed the coup, explaining that it shouldn’t be characterized as such, Salvadoran businessmen initially distanced themselves from the events. Federico Colorado, President of El Salvador’s National Private Enterprise Association (ANEP) argued that “the way the President was kicked out of the country clearly has the mark of a coup d’état.”
Business groups didn’t look squarely into the mirror until they started to feel the coup’s effects in their own wallets. As soon as El Salvador endorsed the 48-hour trade stoppage at the border, a measure adopted at the emergency Central American Integration System (SICA) meeting in Managua, businessmen began to change their tune. Colorado’s discourse shifted: “It’s important to see the other side of the coin, in the sense that President Zelaya’s attitude did not respect the agreements of democratic institutions… Zelaya ended up alone because his party abandoned him, the democratic institutions abandoned him, and the people are now supporting the recently constituted government.”
The next day, Colorado met with his Central American counterparts at an extraordinary meeting of the Central American and Panamanian Private Sector Federation (FEDEPRICAP), which issued a joint statement rejecting the border closure approved by the governments of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The Federation of Central American Chambers of Commerce (FECAMCO) did the same, and its president, Salvadoran Jorge Daboub, clarified that the discussion had centered on topics that went beyond events in Honduras. “This is a question of legal security, of respect for free trade agreements, of the principles of economic freedom and respect for private property.” He thus revealed the real issues being discussed, exemplifying Rivas Gallont’s affirmation that the Honduran coup exacerbated the contradictions between the Right and the Left, “and not only in Honduras.”
Funes’ mirror is cloudy
President Funes’s mirror is the cloudiest of all, as he tries to walk a tightrope in his handling of the Honduran situation. On the one hand, he has shown respect for the principle of constitutionality and international norms. On the other, his distance seems an attempt to dissuade the Salvadoran Right from making good on its threats. Statements by Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez on the eve of the coup were confusing. When the majority of Latin American presidents had already denounced the coup as it was beginning to unfold, Martínez called for respect for Honduran constitutionality, without condemning the coup that, in his view, had still not prevailed. On the other hand, Funes was the first President in the region to declare his rejection of the coup the day it took place, demanding Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement. He sent troops to the border that same day, and participated in the SICA meeting where he endorsed the 48-hour trade embargo.
The business sector’s belligerent reactions to this action appear to have caused Funes to backtrack. He requested understanding from businessmen, arguing that the military coup merited the imposition of drastic measures such as closing the border. But he added that some mechanism could be created to compensate for lost export earnings during the border closure.
The government of El Salvador has indisputably backed the anti-coup forces. It has received Mel Zelaya twice since June 28 and facilitated a press conference that included the Presidents of Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and the UN General Assembly president, Nicaragua’s former Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto. While the Salvadoran government has certainly fulfilled its offer of “hospitality” to Mel Zelaya, many analysts view it as the minimum diplomatic gesture in a scenario fast becoming the most important geopolitical boxing match of this period.
At this stage, there’s no doubt that, despite its verbal condemnation of the coup, the US government had prior knowledge it was in the works and did nothing to denounce or prevent it. Moreover, it hasn’t cut off any economic or military support to the coup leaders.
Nor has it gone unnoticed that the ALBA nations—an alliance of which Honduras forms a part—interpret the coup as a US-backed action aimed at slowing the advance of Latin America’s progressive nations. Thus, while El Salvador’s hospitality could be authentic support, it doesn’t respond to grassroots expectations that the government more actively defend the people’s interests in the region.
The people are the real Snow White
According to the classic fairytale, when the evil queen asked the mirror who was the fairest in the land, the mirror answered Snow White. It is likely that if Donato Vaquerano were to ask the mirror the same question, he would hear a similar reply. In this case, the fairest of them all are the human values and the numerous expressions of solidarity and fraternalism that El Salvador has shown to Honduras.
CCR, a community association in Chalatenango, was categorical in its July 3 communiqué: “The organized communities of Chalatenango are in solidarity with our sister nation of Honduras, with which we have shared a long history of strong ties, solidarity and the struggle for justice. For this reason, we vigorously condemn the coup d’état as a desperate maneuver by the Right to detain the progress of democratically elected governments in Central America.”
This same feeling has inspired many different sectors in El Salvador to organize multiple actions since June 28. These have taken place on almost a daily basis during this period, and have had different targets: the Legislative Assembly, the Honduran Embassy in El Salvador, the US Embassy, the Cathedral and the two customs offices bordering Honduras. The goal of the actions has been to support the FMLN legislative bench’s initiatives: issue a legislative condemnation of the coup; pressure the Salvadoran Embassy in Tegucigalpa to take a position against the coup leaders; protest the support that Archbishop of San Salvador Luis Escobar Alas has given to Cardinal Rodríguez, the right hand of the Honduran coup leaders; protest against the US government position and organize “grassroots” trade embargos against businesses providing economic and political support to the coup leaders.
The Salvadoran social movement should pay tribute to the Honduran social movement for its unexpected ability to confront a coup of this type. Neither the coup leaders nor anybody else expected the Honduran people to be able to keep up an almost nationwide struggle in the streets, deal with the state’s selective repression and wage protests under martial law for an entire month.
Ignorance isn’t bliss
The Salvadoran social movement will need to look at itself in the mirror to assess its strengths and weaknesses and measure its own real possibility of confronting a similar or other situation in our country. The cooperatives grouped in the Salvadoran Agrarian Reform Federation (CONFRAS) are finding great receptiveness to their statement that “the political and economic Right in El Salvador is hoping that the mutinous Honduran government will consolidate itself. They are dreaming that this same formula might be used against the FMLN government any day now.” Whatever the real potential for a coup in our country, it would be naive for the grassroots sectors (including the FMLN itself) to ignore this possibility or a similar event with a more Salvadoran flavor. The way ARENA and other rightwing forces waged their electoral campaigns, the way the Legislative Assembly president, the Supreme Court chief justice and the General Attorney were elected, and the attempts by the Armed Forces to block the appointment of current Minister of Defense David Munguía Payés are clear indications, signals and warnings.
Faced with the threat of losing power
The grassroots sectors know that when the Central American Right takes action, it does so as a bloc. As former Ambassador Rivas Gallont affirms, “If the coup leaders prevail in Honduras, there’s no doubt it will embolden the Right throughout Central America.” Nor is there any doubt that this bloc has historically received (and is currently receiving) support from the US embassies.
In his famous book, “Coup D’état: The Technique of Revolution” (1931), the controversial Italian writer Curzio Malaparte—a critical voice within European fascism—argued that the coup d’état is a resource for power when the danger of losing power is at stake. The repeal of Cuba’s expulsion from the OAS on June 3rd, against the express will of the United States, was a clear sign that Latin America’s scenarios of power have changed. Necessarily, the scenarios for rightwing forces in our countries have also changed. At such moments, we shouldn’t be surprised by aggressive reactions to initiatives such as the Fourth Ballot Box, the first step in Zelaya’s plan for a Constituent Assembly process in Honduras, allegedly to allocate more power to the people.
In this respect, Via Campesina’s call “to accompany grassroots, indigenous, trade union and peasant organizations that are resisting in the name of Central American integration” signifies a type of self-defense for the people of El Salvador who through the March 15th presidential elections have shown their desire for real change.
Bio: Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.