Workers Vanguard No. 964
10 September 2010
Honduras: Massive Struggles Under Military Repression
Forge an Internationalist Revolutionary Workers Party!
Sharp social struggles have rocked the impoverished U.S. neocolony of Honduras ever since the June 2009 military overthrow of bourgeois populist president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. An estimated 50,000 people protested in the streets of the capital city of Tegucigalpa this May Day, and thousands throughout the country marched in protest on June 28, the anniversary of the coup. The 65,000-strong teachers union has been on strike since August 9, fighting against the government’s withholding over $150 million from the union retirement fund and also against plans to privatize teacher training schools.
In solidarity with the teachers, union federations are calling for strikes on September 7 and October 12 as a step toward a general strike, demanding an increase in the minimum wage and opposing the privatization of public services. There have also been protests by peasants demanding cheap credit and defending a land reform decree issued under Zelaya. These courageous expressions of popular opposition to the coup regime are taking place despite severe repression by the military, police and shadowy death squads. Dozens of oppositionists have been murdered since the coup, and thousands have been arrested, kidnapped, tortured, raped or beaten.
Heavily boycotted elections in November 2009 installed Porfirio Lobo of the National Party as the new president, replacing Liberal Party coup leader Roberto Micheletti as civilian head of the military-backed government. After his January inauguration, Lobo amnestied the coup participants and booted Zelaya, who had reentered Honduras and received asylum in the Brazilian Embassy, into exile in the Dominican Republic. The Obama administration praised these efforts at “national reconciliation” and has lobbied hard for international recognition of the Lobo government. Meanwhile, as documented by numerous human rights groups, the “new” Honduran regime immediately intensified repression, particularly targeting trade unionists, journalists and their families, as well as leaders and supporters of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP)—a mass pro-Zelaya bourgeois populist movement that formed immediately after the coup.
The June 2009 coup by the Honduran military was instigated by U.S. imperialism and/or its Honduran lackeys. The Zelaya presidency had increasingly taken on a populist character after being confronted with social turmoil marked by strikes, land occupations and protests. Zelaya implemented various ameliorative reforms to head off social unrest, and in 2008 he allied with Venezuela’s populist president Hugo Chávez. These acts led to an intensified polarization in the bourgeoisie between Zelaya and his supporters on the one hand and the more hardline oligarchs, the Honduran military and the U.S. imperialists on the other. Local business owners were particularly outraged when, in December 2008, Zelaya announced a minimum-wage increase of 60 percent. A nonbinding referendum on convening a constituent assembly, which Zelaya scheduled for 28 June 2009, became the pretext for the military coup and state of siege.
This was not just an intra-bourgeois squabble in which the working class had no side. It was necessary for the proletariat to oppose the coup—which threatened the ability of the working class to organize in its own interests and struck a blow at all the downtrodden—and to defend the reforms won under Zelaya. Without giving any political support to Zelaya’s bourgeois populist government, Marxists were duty-bound to militarily defend Zelaya and his supporters against the coup and to side with the masses on the streets, fighting for the proletariat to emerge under its own banner.
It is elementary for Marxists to defend bourgeois-democratic rights and other gains for workers and the oppressed when they come under attack. In Mexico in 2005, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) government under Vicente Fox moved to ban the presidential candidacy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the bourgeois populist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). While this was a juridical measure and not a military coup as in Honduras, our comrades of the Grupo Espartaquista de México opposed the attack, declaring:
“This attack would have represented a blow against the thin ‘democratic’ layer covering volatile Mexican capitalism and would have reinforced state tyranny. We Spartacists opposed the PAN’s attack against the elementary democratic rights of the entire population: essentially the right of people to vote for whomever they want.... We took this position without giving the PRD any political support and while making clear the PRD’s bourgeois and therefore inherently anti-worker nature.”
—“Mexico: López Obrador, Democratic Rights and the Tasks of the Working Class,” WV Nos. 853 and 855, 2 September and 30 September 2005
Defense of Honduran trade unionists and others caught in the vise of brutal repression is in the direct interests of the proletariat internationally. Workers and leftists in the U.S. have a special duty to defend the Honduran masses. Since the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. rulers have considered Central America and the Caribbean their own fiefdom. Despite some policy differences, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations both helped set the stage for Zelaya’s ouster, with the Obama White House subsequently propping up the coup government and strongly backing the successor Lobo regime. The Spartacist League/U.S. fights to mobilize opposition to U.S. imperialism based on proletarian class opposition to both capitalist parties, Democratic and Republican.
Central America and Permanent Revolution
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, part of the Central American isthmus that is divided into small, marginal states under the U.S. imperialist boot. Until well after World War II, Honduras was the quintessential “banana republic,” dominated by United Fruit and Standard Fruit. Today, however, the economy is no longer completely dependent on traditional agricultural exports. There is also a maquiladora light industrial export sector employing over 100,000 workers. To maintain its rule, the tiny and weak Honduran bourgeoisie relies on its bonapartist military officer corps and, crucially, on the backing of the American imperialists.
The role the Honduran rulers have played on behalf of U.S. imperialism in the region was clearly seen in the 1980s when U.S. military forces used Honduras—dubbed Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier”—as its strategic base of operations against Sandinista Nicaragua and leftist guerrilla forces in El Salvador and Guatemala. U.S. imperialism’s dirty wars in Central America were part of its drive for the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, a degenerated workers state, and to roll back the gains of the Cuban Revolution, with leftist insurgents declared to be Cuban and Soviet proxies.
Honduras was a staging ground for the U.S.-backed contra counterrevolutionaries who sought the bloody overthrow of Nicaragua’s left-nationalist Sandinista government. The 1979 Sandinista-led insurrection that overthrew the hated Somoza dictatorship shattered the capitalist state’s repressive apparatus as the National Guard fled into exile (along with some of the bourgeoisie). We fought to defend the Nicaraguan revolution, calling on the workers to complete it by expropriating the remaining bourgeoisie and to extend socialist revolution throughout Central America. After a decade of attacks by the contra murderers and a U.S. starvation blockade, the Sandinistas’ dead-end strategy of negotiating with the imperialists and allowing the local capitalists to retain control of the economy demoralized the exhausted Nicaraguan masses. In 1990, a U.S.-supported bourgeois regime was elected, marking the reconsolidation of a capitalist state.
The U.S. also enlisted the Honduran military in its efforts to smash El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)—a large left-wing guerrilla insurgency that fought against the murderous U.S.-backed military junta. We called for military victory to the Salvadoran leftists and for workers revolution, declaring that defense of Cuba and the USSR began in El Salvador. But a military victory for the insurgents was obstructed by the popular-frontist FMLN leadership. Embracing a class-collaborationist alliance with a “progressive” wing of the Salvadoran bourgeoisie, the FMLN sought a “negotiated solution” with the death-squad regime. The leftist forces eventually signed a sellout, U.S.-brokered settlement in 1992, an abject accommodation to the post-Soviet “new world order.” Today’s Sandinista and FMLN leaders serve as openly bourgeois politicians at the head of their respective capitalist states.
In the last decade, in much of Latin America popular revulsion at the nakedly pro-imperialist “neoliberal” governments has been channeled into support for a new layer of bourgeois populists, from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales to Zelaya in Honduras. However, this shift is not “anti-capitalist.” While posing as defenders of the oppressed and exploited masses, these rulers seek to co-opt and contain discontent within a capitalist framework, which necessarily means subordination to the world imperialist system. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader with V.I. Lenin of the October Revolution of 1917, wrote in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940):
“Inasmuch as the chief role in backward countries is not played by national but by foreign capitalism, the national bourgeoisie occupies, in the sense of its social position, a much more minor position than corresponds with the development of industry. Inasmuch as foreign capital does not import workers but proletarianizes the native population, the national proletariat soon begins playing the most important role in the life of the country. In these conditions the national government, to the extent that it tries to show resistance to foreign capital, is compelled to a greater or lesser degree to lean on the proletariat. On the other hand, the governments of those backward countries which consider it inescapable or more profitable for themselves to march shoulder to shoulder with foreign capital, destroy the labor organizations and institute a more or less totalitarian regime. Thus, the feebleness of the national bourgeoisie, the absence of traditions of municipal self-government, the pressure of foreign capitalism, and the relatively rapid growth of the proletariat, cut the ground from under any kind of stable democratic regime.”
The key to social revolution in Honduras and the rest of Central and Latin America is that the proletariat emerge as the leadership of all the exploited and the oppressed, in political opposition to all wings of the capitalist class, “neoliberal” or populist. The example of the 1917 Russian Revolution, a stunning confirmation of Trotsky’s theory and perspective of permanent revolution, points the way forward.
In seizing power under the leadership of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the working class took in its hands the historic democratic tasks previously associated with the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries and moved on to begin the socialist reconstruction of society. The Soviet workers and peasants government abolished private ownership of land, calling on the poor peasants to complete the agrarian revolution against the landlords, and freed the country from the imperialist yoke. The workers state expropriated the capitalist class and took over the means of production and banking system, eventually leading to a collectivized, centrally planned economy. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky understood that to achieve socialism—a classless society of material abundance—required the extension of proletarian revolution throughout Europe and to other advanced industrial countries.
There can be no liberation from imperialist domination, no real alleviation of the masses’ desperate poverty short of a workers and peasants government—i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasants. Especially in a tiny neocolonial country like Honduras, such a regime would have to fight to immediately extend socialist revolution throughout the Central American isthmus and to Mexico, with its powerful proletariat. This perspective must include the fight for proletarian revolution in the U.S. imperialist heartland, which, under a workers government, would provide massive economic and technological resources for the alleviation of poverty and qualitative leaps in development throughout the Americas. What is urgently necessary is to build Leninist parties as sections of a reforged Fourth International, whose purpose is to lead the working class to victory through socialist revolutions throughout the world.
Under the Thumb of U.S. Imperialism
Manuel Zelaya is a wealthy landowner who was elected president in 2005 as a mainstream bourgeois politician of the Liberal Party, which has tended to alternate with the National Party in power. In the first six months of his term, Zelaya faced more social protest than had occurred in the previous ten years. In response, he sanctioned wage hikes and increased government subsidies to the poor, which in Honduras make up two-thirds of the population. Zelaya also sought to reduce gas prices and high national energy costs by putting fuel supply contracts out to international bid. This is hardly radical, but it provoked the ire of the Honduran and multinational fuel monopolies.
Facing shortages manipulated by the fuel companies, and with independent gas stations threatening to close and bus drivers promising to strike, in late summer 2007 Zelaya authorized direct fuel imports and vowed to build government-owned fuel depots. In January 2008 Zelaya joined Hugo Chávez’s oil pact PetroCaribe, which allowed him to sign up for favorable terms for fuel. In August of the same year, with the global economic meltdown in full swing and oil prices at a high, Zelaya signed on to Chávez’s ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas) trade and political alliance. In return, Venezuela offered to buy Honduran bonds worth $100 million, with the proceeds to be spent on housing for the poor. Chávez also offered a $30 million credit line toward farming and for four million low-energy light bulbs, while Cuba planned to provide more doctors and literacy teachers.
Honduran business interests opposed ALBA on the grounds that it would harm “free enterprise” and interfere with the U.S.-led Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which is the equivalent of the NAFTA “free trade” rape of Mexico for Central America and the Dominican Republic. Former conservative president Ricardo Maduro warned, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Indeed, the alliance with Chávez did not please the representatives of U.S. imperialism. According to a 20 April article posted on the North American Congress on Latin America Web site, then-U.S. ambassador Charles Ford asserted on Honduran TV that a large portion of remittances from Honduran immigrants in the U.S. was the product of drug trafficking! With remittances making up over 20 percent of the Honduran GDP, this outrageous accusation was a none too subtle threat to withhold aid and increase deportations of Hondurans.
Zelaya wanted to have some say in how and where the American military operated in Honduras. In 2006 Zelaya met with Bush about his plans to convert part of the Soto Cano military air base, which houses 550 U.S. troops in Joint Task Force Bravo, into a civilian airport. At the same time, it was announced that a new military base would be built and made “available” to U.S. forces in the Mosquitia region in eastern Honduras. In 2009 Zelaya signed on to the Mérida Initiative supposedly aimed at drug trafficking in Central America and Mexico.
In the U.S., the “war on drugs” is a vehicle for government repression, particularly targeting blacks as well as Chicanos and Latino immigrants. In Latin America, it provides a pretext for extending imperialist domination and propping up pro-U.S. regimes; for example, the U.S. military has had a longstanding presence in Colombia, next door to Chávez’s Venezuela. Under the banner of the “war on drugs,” Costa Rica recently authorized the entry of 46 U.S. warships and 7,000 Marines. In June, scores of people were killed in Jamaica as the U.S. demanded that the government assist in hunting down purported gang leader Christopher Coke. We say: Down with the “war on drugs”! All U.S. military forces and bases out of Latin America and the Caribbean!
The U.S. military buildup in the region also targets the Cuban bureaucratically deformed workers state. The elimination of capitalist class rule in Cuba in 1960-61 led to enormous gains for working people, despite the rule of a bureaucratic nationalist caste led by Fidel Castro. We stand for the unconditional military defense of Cuba against U.S. imperialism and internal counterrevolution and call for U.S. out of Guantánamo. At the same time, we fight for a proletarian political revolution against the Castroite bureaucracy, which opposes the perspective of proletarian revolution in the Americas, favoring instead the quest for alliances with “friendly” bourgeois regimes.
U.S. Imperialism and the Honduran Coup
Polarizations in the Honduran bourgeoisie came to a head in March 2009 when Zelaya, soon after decreeing the minimum wage hike, announced a vote to gauge popular support for placing a referendum for a constituent assembly on the ballot for the November elections. The nonbinding poll was declared illegal by the courts, and the Congress, led by Roberto Micheletti, passed a law to prevent the referendum. Meanwhile, Zelaya asked the military to provide security and logistics for the balloting (the norm under the constitution, which is itself a measure of institutionalized military bonapartism in Honduras).
On June 24, after the head of the military, General Romeo Vásquez, refused to comply, Zelaya fired him. The next day, the Supreme Court ruled that Vásquez be reinstated. That same day, Zelaya led hundreds of supporters in Tegucigalpa to a nearby military base to recover boxes of blank ballots that his opponents meant to destroy. Coup rumors flew as the military deployed troops in the capital. In the early morning hours on June 28, the military kidnapped Zelaya, still in his pajamas, and flew him out of the Soto Cano air base to Costa Rica. Demonstrators that day braved the state of siege to protest outside the presidential palace. Large protests and strikes immediately followed.
In the weeks leading up to the coup, U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon Jr. had met with Zelaya’s political and military opponents, purportedly to advise them to stay within constitutional bounds. (Llorens has some experience with coups—he was principal national security adviser to Bush on Venezuela during the failed U.S.-backed 2002 coup against Chávez.) The New York Times (30 June) quoted an unnamed U.S. official who said: “There was talk of how they might remove the president from office, how he could be arrested, on whose authority they could do that.” The article continued, “But the official said that the speculation had focused on legal maneuvers to remove the president, not a coup.”
While some Republican neocons openly supported the coup, the Democrats mainly struck a more critical posture, but with the same goal of achieving social stability in Honduras to better pursue untrammeled imperialist exploitation. The immediate public response of the Obama White House to the coup was studied neutrality, calling on “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms.” Diplomatic pressure from Latin America and elsewhere led Obama to change his tune the next day: “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton qualified this by refusing to answer “yes” to a press conference question whether “restoring constitutional order” meant returning Zelaya to office. Zelaya repeatedly appealed to the Obama administration to do just that, without success.
Key Honduran coup plotters, and their advisers, have longstanding ties to the U.S. government and its bloody wars in Central America. General Vásquez twice attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas, notorious for instructing military officers in torture and other gruesome counterinsurgency techniques. Billy Joya, a key Micheletti adviser, headed the U.S.-trained Honduran Battalion 3-16—responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering hundreds of suspected leftists during the 1980s. U.S. figures who helped fuel the campaign against Zelaya included the sinister Otto Reich, former longtime head of the State Department’s Latin America desk who in the 1980s acted as Ambassador John Negroponte’s right-hand man in running the death squad and contra operations out of the embassy in Tegucigalpa. (Reich was also directly implicated in the short-lived 2002 anti-Chávez coup.)
In the Honduran coup’s aftermath, the Obama administration orchestrated “dialogue” with both parties, discussing Zelaya’s return under conditions acceptable to the coup regime. In late October 2009, Zelaya and Micheletti signed the “Tegucigalpa-San José Accord” in which Zelaya agreed to drop his proposal for a constituent assembly in return for being allowed to serve out his last weeks in office in a “national unity” government that would amnesty the coup plotters. However, the coup regime balked at Zelaya’s return and stalled until the November elections. Widely boycotted, the elections were hailed by the U.S. and became the basis for pushing renewed diplomatic recognition of the Honduran regime.
The FNRP Opposition Movement
Unions have been prominent in the protests since the coup, offering a glimpse of the potential power of the Honduran proletariat. However, the working class has not appeared in its own name. Opposition to the coup politically coalesced around the pro-Zelaya populist nationalism of what is today called the National Front of Popular Resistance. The FNRP’s leadership includes union leaders, reformist leftists, feminists and black and indigenous rights activists. But as a July 12 FNRP communiqué lays out, first place in the National Front is reserved for Manuel Zelaya, “recognizing his leadership and placing him at the front of this project.” Pro-Zelaya dissidents from the Liberal Party also consider themselves part of the FNRP.
The FNRP’s manifesto, published one year after the coup, describes the resistance as a “combination of revolutionary forces.” At the core of FNRP politics is bourgeois populism—opposition to neoliberalism in favor of a mythical “progressive” national capitalism. Its economic program is for a “mixed” economy that would cancel “illegal concessions granted under the neoliberal model and within strategic sectors in the country’s economic life.” This populist model is to be achieved through “patriotic, peaceful, democratic struggle” for a constituent assembly that will “refound” the country.
Marxists give no political support to bourgeois political formations such as the FNRP resistance movement, which subordinates the distinct class interests of the Honduran proletariat to those of the “progressive” bourgeoisie. What’s needed is a revolutionary workers party, steeled in the fight for the political independence of the proletariat from all bourgeois parties and formations. Breaking from the nationalist class collaborationism of the FNRP, the Honduran proletariat must champion the demands and aspirations of the peasants and other oppressed strata for democratic rights, agrarian revolution and freedom from the imperialist yoke. These demands can be realized only through proletarian socialist revolution extending throughout the Americas.
Class collaboration in the name of “democratic struggle” and “national liberation” has a long and disastrous history in Latin America and beyond. As we wrote in the International Communist League’s “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 54, Spring 1998):
“The ‘anti-imperialist united front’ is the particular form that class collaboration most often assumes in the colonial and ex-colonial countries, from the liquidation of the Chinese Communist Party into Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang in the 1920s to decades of prostration of the South African ‘left’ before the African National Congress (ANC), which has become the imperialist-sponsored front men for neo-apartheid capitalism. Today in Latin America, ‘anti-Yankee’ nationalism is the main tool whereby militant workers and insurgent peasants are induced to place their hopes in bourgeois ‘radicals.’ Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution is the alternative to placing confidence in fantasies resting upon the backward, imperialist-dependent bourgeoisie of one’s own oppressed country as the vehicle for liberation.”
In sharp contrast, various reformist left groups uphold a program that is entirely within the bounds of capitalist class rule. The day after Zelaya’s ouster, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) looked to pressure the Obama administration to act against the coup, proclaiming in an editorial that “global outrage against the coup could change the calculations in Washington.” Reinforcing the political subordination of the proletariat to its bourgeois class enemy, the PSL and much of the left internationally simply hails the FNRP and calls to reinstate Zelaya.
Dressing up nationalist populism with some “Trotskyist” clothing, the Mexican Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (LTS) and its international organization, the Fracción Trotskista (FT), sometimes lay claim to the perspective of permanent revolution. But they distort the very essence of permanent revolution, which is premised on the proletariat leading all the oppressed in revolutionary struggle, independent from and in opposition to the national bourgeoisie. Instead, they complain that the bourgeois populists have failed to sufficiently lead an “anti-imperialist” struggle against the United States.
At an international FT gathering last month, one of its spokesmen talked of “the need to build a revolutionary political alternative” to the “strategies” of the bourgeois populists, based on “the independent organization of the workers” (La Verdad Obrera, 26 August). At the same time, the speaker complained that not only Brazil’s Lula and Argentina’s Kirchner but “also governments friendly to Zelaya, like Chávez in Venezuela and Correa in Ecuador, did nothing but make declarations—refusing to push for a mass movement in Latin America in order to defeat the coup-plotters!”
This is a whitewash of these bourgeois regimes. Chávez, Lula and their ilk live in deadly fear of the proletariat emerging as an independent force against oppression and imperialism, because that would challenge their own class rule. Populists seek to maneuver among the various imperialist powers, something Chávez can more easily do because of Venezuela’s oil revenues. But whatever their rhetoric and policies, as administrators of capitalist wage slavery, they are ultimately incapable of breaking with the imperialists—they can only renegotiate the terms of their own subordination.
Zelaya’s FNRP supporters say that he has “evolved.” But he was and remains a bourgeois politician—no less the class opponent of the victory of the workers and the urban and rural poor than neoliberal politicians. And regardless of Zelaya’s personal participation, the bourgeois-nationalist program of the FNRP is antithetical to working-class political independence. Throughout Latin America, what is needed are Trotskyist parties built in political struggle against the widespread illusions in populism and nationalism. The struggle for a Socialist Federation of Central America is closely linked to working-class struggle in Mexico, the Caribbean, South and North America. In the United States, the key to building a revolutionary workers party is to break the chains forged by the pro-imperialist trade-union bureaucracy that bind the working class and minorities to the parties of capital, particularly the Democratic Party. For workers revolution throughout the Americas!