Witness to a coup

Seven locals dined with Honduras’ President Manuel Zelaya, then woke up to a coup d’etat

The night before the coup, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya met with a Sacramento group invited to observe the country’s referendum on forming a constitutional assembly.

The night before the coup, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya met with a Sacramento group invited to observe the country’s referendum on forming a constitutional assembly.

Photo By Arturo Aleman

a retired state employee who now runs a Sacramento-based consulting company Information on the Honduran relief organization project CHIMES can be found at www.projectchimes.org.

A few months ago, I received a letter of invitation, on behalf of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, to serve as an observer to a June 28 survey to hold a referendum in his country. Known as a “cuarta urna,” the referendum asked the public to vote on whether they supported a constitutional assembly to help citizens in this poor Latin American country gain a stronger voice in their government.

I agreed to go, along with six others from Sacramento. Little did we know that while we were there, Zelaya would be ousted by a military coup d’etat that would stun the rest of the world.

Our group included Bill Camp, executive director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council; Dion Archuleta from Teamsters Local 150; Lloyd McKinney, vice president of Sheet Metal Workers Local 162; Kate Allen, an intern; Chris Bender of Service Employees International Union Local 1000; and Greg Larkins, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 340; and myself. We were invited to represent the AFL-CIO because of work we had done with California Honduras Institute for Medical and Education Support, a Honduran relief organization.

We arrived in Honduras at approximately 5 p.m. on June 27, and were immediately informed that we needed to get to the Casa Presidencial for a meeting with the president. Twenty-eight ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens, and about 60 other election observers from Latin America, Europe and Asia, attended the meeting, where Zelaya explained the referendum was necessary to align the Honduran constitution with true democracy.

After the meeting, we “acompañadores” were invited to dine with Zelaya. I was fortunate enough to sit next to him at dinner, so I was able to talk to him even further. Zelaya told us he wanted to place the referendum on the November ballot and call for a constitutional Congress along with the election of the new president.

He further explained that certain sectors of Honduras were opposed to such changes—namely, the people who benefit from low wages and poverty. For example, six months ago, Zelaya proposed a change in the law that required employers of domestic workers to enroll them in social security, thereby providing them and their families medical services. These domestic workers, who constitute more than 600,000 out of a population of 7 million, earn less than their costs for basic foodstuffs. But thereafter, Zelaya was branded a communist—one in league with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez—and groups opposed to the move began working to get him out of office.

That night, Zelaya made it clear that allegations that he wished to change the constitution so he could extend his presidency were entirely without merit, especially because the proposed changes to the constitution would come after he was out of office.

He also added his belief that our presence there as acompañadores might temper things with those who opposed this idea.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.

Fighter jets and shouting

The meeting ended and we returned to our hotels.

At approximately 5:30 a.m., we were awakened by an automobile caravan with bullhorns exhorting people to come out and vote on behalf of the call for a constitutional Congress. But the bullhorns were soon drowned out by fighter jets that swooped down on the caravan with the intention of intimidating the people to discourage them from voting.

After making my way to the hotel lobby, I found representatives from other countries, and they informed me that the military had conspired with the Supreme Court and some congressional leaders in a coup d’etat.

We congregated in the hotel lobby to discuss what was occurring and what our role should be. Then, at approximately 6 a.m., all independent media inside Honduras was cut off or censored. Private channels that obviously supported the coup began broadcasting a constant anti-Zelaya harangue.

From there on until mid-morning, the city was paralyzed and eerily quiet. This was very unsettling, as we did not know whether to anticipate violence or not.

Later that morning, we heard that President Zelaya, who lives in a modest home in a middle-class neighborhood, had been arrested (by “masked military men,” we heard) and taken, while in his pajamas, to Costa Rica. We learned that the presidential guard had been overcome in a shootout.

Next we heard that the Honduran Congress had unanimously supported removal of the president. However, we also learned, from persons on the ground, that those congresspersons who opposed the action had literally been removed from the floor and not allowed to vote. We confirmed this by watching the televised vote closely and counting the empty chairs on the floor of Congress.

Later someone read an alleged letter of resignation by Zelaya, followed immediately by a televised interview on CNN where he denied having written or signed such a letter. After the letter was read, Roberto Micheletti was selected president by the partly formed congress. While all of this was going on, more than 1,000 persons began to assemble at the Casa Presidencial, where they demonstrated against the ousting of their president.

President Manuel Zelaya presented his planned referendum on forming a constitutional assembly to an audience including 28 ambassadors. The next morning, he was ousted from office by a military junta.

Photo By Arturo Aleman

By 2 p.m., the acompañadores began to return to their home countries. The American delegation—including us Sacramentans—decided to approach the U.S. Embassy to see if we should seek safety there. Officials there told us to remain at the hotel, not to go out on the streets. They told us they would continue to monitor the situation and let us know if we needed to evacuate the hotels.

We agreed to this and continued to monitor the situation by telephone, television and through word of mouth. We became aware that many Hondurans had continued to vote in the referendum despite the military’s severely repressive tactics.

We heard that Honduran Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas Baca, the woman who had invited us to Honduras on behalf of Zelaya, had been captured by the military and that her well-being was in question. Later, word of mouth reached us that she had been either taken to Mexico or that she was under arrest by the military and being detained at the Honduran air force base.

Also, we learned that the military would enforce a 9 p.m. curfew. We knew it would be very dangerous to be out on the street after that.

Around 7:30 p.m. at the hotel, we were surprised by a visit from Dr. Luther Castillo Harry, the Honduran leader of CHIMES. He informed us that he was on the list of those being marked for detention, torture and death by the military. We began making contact with our representatives—state Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein—imploring them to urge the State Department to intervene on behalf of Zelaya, Chancellor Baca, Dr. Harry and the others we heard had been signaled out for severe action by those who initiated the coup.

Around 8 p.m., some people from our group decided to personally visit the Casa Presidencial, where smoke continued to billow from the roof. They return to tell us that the military had cordoned off the entire area. By midnight, we finally went to bed. We tossed and turned throughout the night. When we awoke at 5 a.m., we continued our previous efforts.

At 8:30 a.m., we made our way to the airport to return home. The roads were clogged with heavy traffic from people trying to make their way toward the Casa Presidencial or toward the airport. At the airport, we met many other Americans—many of them religious missionaries who had been working in the impoverished country for years—who were also trying to leave the country.

En route back to Sacramento, we learned that Patricia Rodas Baca had been released and that Dr. Harry was still on the run attempting to evade arrest by the military.

Aftermath of a coup

After the coup, President Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras to retake control as the leader of his country, but his attempt to land at the airport in Tegucigalpa was blocked on the runway by the army. His airplane was unable to land.

Zelaya was forced to return to the neighboring country of Nicaragua.

The president of the United States, the Organization of American States, every other country in the Western Hemisphere, China and Europe have denounced the coup. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to broker a return of Zelaya to complete his term of office. The Organization of American States also attempted to broker a resolution with the assistance of Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica.

So far these talks have been rebuffed, even when they offered full amnesty to the perpetrators of the coup.

Additionally, the United States froze all of the assets, grants and loans to the Honduran government and military. This action is in line with the actions taken by the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions around the world which fear that if the military continues to crack down, full-blown rebellion may ensue in the country, thereby creating a seriously destabilizing situation in Latin America.

On Sunday, July 5, more than 15,000 persons demonstrated peacefully at the international airport, awaiting the return of President Zelaya. The military opened fire on some demonstrators and killed at least two people, one of them a 16-year-old. The demonstrators took cover where possible; shortly after the shooting, they continued protesting. The internal media in Honduras has failed to report on the demonstrations and the shootings. However, Hondurans are still able to remain informed by telephones, international media, word of mouth and other methods.

As of now, there have been at least 30 very large demonstrations in support of Zelaya, along with some counterdemonstrations in support of Micheletti. The demonstrations have remained relatively nonviolent; the police continue to work to maintain order and appear to be standing between the demonstrators and the military. Zelaya, who calls continuously for nonviolent demonstrations, has been able to keep the lid on his supporters. Meanwhile, as the demonstrations increase in size and protesters move toward governmental buildings, the police are retreating while containing the demonstrators and protecting property to the extent possible.

Still, the leaders of the coup have refused to accept Zelaya’s return and the talks have stalled. It is well-recognized that the longer Zelaya stays out of the country, the less likely his opportunity to return. While the talks are in limbo, the de facto government is taking advantage of the lull to establish relations with the more conservative countries in the region, mainly Mexico, Chile and Colombia. Meanwhile, Honduras remains outside the realm of recognized nations and its financial situation worsens.

It has now been a month and a half since we witnessed the ousting of Zelaya.

Recently, two of our party—Bill Camp and Lloyd McKinney—have returned to Honduras to get an on-the-ground view of what is happening and to look after CHIMES supporters. In the meantime, all the rest of us can do is urge the U.S. government to continue to push for what’s right and take additional sanctions, including continuing to refuse to recognize the existing government in that country.

We must continue to call for the return of the democratically elected president of Honduras.