Toppling a Coup, Part II: The Honduras Regime Is Like an Onion
By Al Giordano
In three decades of organizing or reporting on social movements, one develops a very good memory of which of them won their battles, which were defeated, and what made the difference between those that won and those that lost.
If it could be boiled down to a single factor it would be this: In victorious struggles, a critical mass of the organizers arm themselves to think strategically and act tactically to isolate and defeat their opponent.
They learn from experience that the power structure that props up the enemy – be it a government, a particular corporation or an entire political-economic system – is shaped like an onion, and they set about methodically to identify, target and peel away the rings of protection around its core.
In this, Part II of a series on how the Honduran people are toppling a coup d’etat, I will identify the rings around the coup regime. The lines between each ring represent the cracks and potential divisions of the coup structure. And as with an onion, it is often easiest to begin with the outer rings and peel one’s way down to the core, a tiny stub that without those rings becomes vulnerable, unprotected, and quickly rots in the sunlight.
As preface, here is some sage advice, offered in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Friday evening, July 31, by Serbian resistance veteran Ivan Marovich, invited to speak to a closed door group of key sectors of the Honduran civil resistance held at the Beverage Workers union hall (SITBYS, in its Spanish initials).
Because this was a private meeting – a crew from Telesur and I were invited to attend on the condition that we did not record the meeting on audio or videotape – I won’t be quoting or identifying the participants, who represented labor, campesinos, students, artists, neighborhood, and other organizations throughout the country. But with Marovich’s permission, I will quote from my notes from his words there over the course of three-and-a-half hours.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should also inform that organizers called upon me to translate for Marovich during the latter part of the meeting. The session went on for so long, with rapt attention by all participants, that the translators needed a relief pitcher. For those parts, I obviously do not have written notes, so will borrow from my notes of other presentations and interviews with Marovich conducted on Saturday and Sunday, August 1 and 2, as well my own interviews with him.
By way of introduction, Marovich summarized the story of the decade-long struggle in Serbia to bring down the regime of dictator Slobodan Milosevic in a country of seven million people, roughly the same size as Honduras. The ultimate goal of the Serbian civil resistance – a new constitution – was the same as that almost universally expressed by the many Honduras civil resistance participants interviewed last week by Narco News.
We learned the hard way how to defeat our dictatorship.
In 1991, the first big demonstrations were held. We didn’t pay attention to discipline or strategic planning, and it was all over in six hours. The regime brought tanks into the streets and put thousands in jail. Leaders were beaten up and disappeared. It took us five years to recover from that. Meanwhile, the war in Bosnia was raging.
In 1996 we made our next attempt. We held demonstrations daily for 123 days, for four months. This time we were better at discipline.
We discovered that the regime was not monolithic. In the military there were many conscripts.
The police were highly militarized. They didn’t fight crime. Their only purpose was to protect the regime.
And there were the secret police, the death squads: small but scary.
In our case the military was not really a problem because it had normal people in it.
The police were called militia. Serbia had seven million people and 100,000 national policemen.
We knew that if there was somebody that could crack down and destroy us, it was the secret police.So we spent four months trying to avoid the police, trying to avoid any kind of confrontation with the police. We had gone from a demonstration of just six hours in 1991 to be able to sustain them for four months in 1996. But we still didn’t win.
Two years later was the third intent. This time we did it. We learned how to do it over a long period of time.
Our conflict was not resolved in a frontal clash and it wasn’t resolved in a standoff. In the end, there were three principles that carried us to victory.
One: We had to maintain our unity and expand our movement: We had a broad coalition from left to right, and often the divisions were among those that were closest to each other ideologically. On the right we had some monarchists that wanted a return of monarchy, but they came in two groups that fought over which dynasty they supported. On the left, the communists that had supported Tito and now were with us were divided in two main groups.
We wanted a new constitution and we avoided details about what it would say. That was important because lots of energy was lost debates before that over what the new constitution would say.
Two: Organization and discipline were key. Unions and political parties were using their organizational potential in civil disobedience: strikes, blockades, and boycotts. Each did the thing they were best at doing.
We, the students, were mainly involved in street activities: university blockades and strikes.
The transport workers were the best at organizing blockades because with a single bus they could close a route.
We worked with the structures of existing organizations and they were responsible for maintaining the nonviolent discipline of their members.
Three: We had a strategic action plan: We wanted to isolate Milosevic. We set about to peel away people who were crucial for his remaining in office. There were divisions in the regime, of personalities and from the greed of some of its supporters.
That third point, the goal to “peel away” the layers of support or silent consent for the Serbian regime, describes the onion concept.
As long as the regime felt it was being attacked from outside, they hung together. So we carefully picked objects for attack.
In the end, everybody except five people around Milosevic abandoned him. It took us a long time to get to that point.
We also looked at where the opponent was weak. We studied which institutions had the least loyalty to the regime, and also which could be the most dangerous to our efforts.
Milosevic kept elite troops. They had been through five years of the war in Bosnia. This was a force that killed 8,000 people in five days.
But in the end, in 2000, the police units fell one after another. The different police agencies and units didn't say, "We won't follow orders." They just said, "We'll wait."
On the final day, the death squads circled our demonstrations with their jeeps. Then they said, "We're with the people. Milosevic has to go.”
The Onion Skin: The Luster of Inevitability
One of the outer layers of the Serbian regime’s onion – very similar to the current situation in Honduras - was the worldwide perception that it had firm control over the country and its population. It’s the “inevitability factor,” and considerable sectors of global and national opinion, business interests, blow-in-the-wind politicians and parts of society that simply want to be left alone and favor a climate of the least conflict possible, will generally side with, or at least silently provide consent to, the party in the conflict that appears to be in control.
A great part of the spin and lobbying in the media on behalf of the coup is designed to reinforce the idea that the regime equals the status quo, that whatever discomfort one might have with its actions, it’s still fully in charge and therefore always will be.
An example of that kind of spin came last week from the always-shifty Michael Shifter of the Inter American Dialogue in Washington, one of these “Latin Americanist experts” whose job is to give sound bites to commercial media that seem objective but that always tend to reveal a pro-status-quo agenda. In this case, Shifter’s agenda is to prop up the Honduran coup regime by making it seem like it can’t be toppled. His words to the Wall Street Journal, when seen through the lens of the inevitability factor, are nakedly intended to influence that outer layer of the onion, the part that simply wants to “be with the winner.” He said:
"In Honduras, Washington's wavering will be seen as a sign that the government can wait it out until the elections and that the costs they are bearing for international isolation, while considerable, are preferable to the risks of allowing Zelaya to return, even for a limited time and with his authority curtailed.”
That echoes exactly what was the spin from many officialist quarters back in the 1990s regarding the Serbian regime; that it would be able to “hang on” despite international isolation. And now that play from the playbook is being repeated to spin and influence the outer reaches of the onion structure that supports or acquiesces to the Honduras coup.
During the public meeting on Saturday, August 1, Marovich shared with the Hondurans how his movement set about to successfully disarm that inevitability factor that had worked to prop up the dictator Milosevic:
The response we got from the world, including the US, for eight years was "we don't care. He's in charge."
Our task was to demonstrate that he was not in charge.
Instead of arguing about legitimacy, we aimed to show that it wasn't working.
We started with the weakest institutions, feeding divisions. We tried to improve our unity and divide theirs. Milosevic, for his part, tried to create division in our ranks.
The “dilemma actions” that we described in Part I of this series were the knife with which the Serbian civil resistance peeled away that outer skin's luster of perceived inevitability from the regime. The resistance actions, one after another, often daily, pounded away at a greater truth: that the regime really wasn’t in control, that it was bumbling, stupid, bureaucratically calcified, unable to react to provocations effectively or intelligently, and cumulative effect of many of those individual creative dilemma actions was to significantly erode the myth that the dictator was really in charge.
Specific to Honduras, the obsession in the corporate media and the First World academic left alike with the circus up above among politicians and nations – even though the two sectors see themselves on opposite sides of the Honduran struggle – has served only to reinforce the system’s spin of inevitability of the coup regime. For forty days and forty nights now, this tandem team of right-left messaging has sung in harmony, not authentic opposition, and has used up much of the oxygen and attention that the civil resistance from below in Honduras needs to demonstrate that the coup regime really isn’t in control.
Yet as anyone can observe from our own reports – focused on what is happening not up above, but on the ground, among the people – and those of a precious few other authentic media, the reality is that the coup regime has never established control over the population. It is in fact in a tailspin. This was objectively documented yesterday by the Bloomberg agency, which looked at the economic indicators in Honduras.
Honduras’s central bank cut its economic outlook today, predicting a contraction of as much as 2 percent as the global slump and a political crisis curtail trade and tourism.
The $14.1 billion economy will shrink 1 percent to 2 percent this year, compared with a previous estimate for growth of as much as 3 percent…
Consumer spending, exports and inflows of tourism dollars have all declined since the military removed President Manuel Zelaya from the country at gunpoint on June 28…
Economist Alcides Hernandez, director of the Tegucigalpa- based National Autonomous University’s economics program, estimates the crisis is costing the country $20 million daily in lost trade, aid, tourism and investment.
“I don’t know how long the Micheletti government can resist international pressure,” Hernandez said. “If they start blocking trade too, a country as poor as ours would quickly buckle.”
We’ve all met those fans of a particular sports team that yell from the bleachers or the Barcalounger that they want a home run or a touchdown pass, not content to see their baseball team instead methodically set up players on base with singles and double hits, or their football team's running game that slowly marches the ball down the field. Those that put all their attention in the basket of hoping sanctions from a single foreign government will be that “Hail Mary pass” in Honduras are no different than those armchair quarterbacks of sportsdom. On a fundamental level, they don’t study the game, they don’t listen, they don’t do community organizing themselves, and so they don’t understand how victories really are constructed with strategy and tactics on the field.
This series of essays is obviously for you: those that do study, that do listen, that do understand or want to know how history is really made to happen from below.
The Second Ring: The Honduran Economy
The Bloomberg estimate of $20 million dollars in losses per day as a result of the coup and its consequences on the Honduran economy, if continued for a year, adds up to $7.3 billion – fully half of Honduras’ $14.1 billion national economy without a single additional international sanction heaped upon it. Even if that $20 million per day figure is exaggerated, there's no doubt that the economic hit is sufficient enough to cause attitude adjustments among those whose pockets are emptying.
And that brings us to the next layer of the coup regime’s onion: its support from business interests, including among the oligarchy of a few families that has historically controlled so much of the ownership, wealth and political power in Honduras.
It’s no secret that the business community in Honduras backed the central push behind the coup and remains its foundation. Coup “president” Roberto Micheletti virtually admitted it on July 29 when he told reporters that although he could see his way to agree to the San Andrés proposal that Zelaya could return “with limited powers,” the business community, he said, would never tolerate it.
With that statement, Micheletti fell into a kind of trap. He admitted that he is not in control, that the real power is economic, that of the oligarchy.
Truth is, Micheletti has the ultimate power over whether he stays or resigns as coup “president.” Yet it is also true that he is subjugated in every way by the economic powers in his country (including the multinational corporations that have sweatshops, agribusiness and other interests there).
As we will demonstrate, Micheletti himself, along with the nation’s Supreme Court, make up the smallest inner stub of the coup onion. They will be the last to fall, and it will come because the civil resistance will peel the outer layers away from them, leaving them unprotected.
Already the important tourist industry, particularly along the northern coast of Honduras, are voicing discontent with how the coup has turned their hotels, restaurants and attractions into ghost towns, with only a very small cadre of year-round expats and other tourists to toss them a few lempiras or dollars. One of the stakes in the tourism industry’s heart came from the regime itself in the form of military enforced curfews over the past 40 days and nights, choking the bars, clubs, restaurants, entertainers and workers that were shut out of their paychecks by it. Resentment is building against the regime to the extreme that whatever these interests thought of President Manuel Zelaya, the objective truth is that they did better when he was in power than they have since the coup arrived.
A great many of these businesses are facing complete destruction and bankruptcy already. Flights into Honduras from other lands are, on average, more than half empty, whereas flights out of the country are, on average, full with those Hondurans who can afford to escape this disaster-in-process fleeing the scene of the crime. This economic problem will continue to compound and deepen every day that the civil resistance keeps up its fight, reminding the country and the world that Honduras has not returned to normalcy (further suppressing tourism and non-criminal investment), and the best, most objective indicators of that are economic.
The Third Ring: The Political Class
Claims of unanimous support on both sides of the coup conflict are becoming unraveled. Internationally, the unanimity in opposition to the coup has weakened from Ottawa to Washington to San Andrés to Panamá City to México City to Bogotá. These are the focal points of the authoritarian hyper-capitalist right in the hemisphere, and those with their gaze fixed at the circus up above are mainly watching that indicator.
But the same is happening inside the Honduran political system that, at first, unanimously endorsed the coup (including with a specious claim that the Honduran Congress had “unanimously” voted in a session that, it has since been revealed, locked out dozens of legislators that it knew would oppose the coup).
This fracture is probably fatal to the Liberal Party, which along with the National Party makes up the simulacrum of a “two party system” in Honduras. Both Micheletti and Zelaya were elected to Congress and to the Presidency, respectively, as Liberal Party candidates.
But the 2009 Liberal Party presidential candidate, Elvin Santos, who had been Zelaya’s vice president until last December when he stepped down to be his party’s nominee for president this year, is now claiming that he never supported the coup and that he backs the San Andrés agreement. His problem is that nobody, absolutely nobody, believes him in that claim. And yet it is a clear indication that the political system’s previous united support for the coup has become unglued.
On August 5, AP reported that Santos now sings a different tune:
"I will go to all corners of the country to explain that I was in no way a part of the events of June 28," Santos said on Channel 5's "Face to Face" show.
"The huge mistake was taking him (Zelaya) out of the country and leaving him defenseless," said Santos, whose Liberal Party includes both Zelaya and the man who replaced him, Roberto Micheletti.
Santos is what we call in Latin America “un pendejo con iniciativa” – a pendejo with initiative - which can be loosely translated as an idiot who can’t help but remind everyone of how weak and stupid he is with his loud protestations and bumbling actions to the contrary.
This was most clearly demonstrated on that same August 5, when he had the temerity to bring his campaign to the National Autonomous University.
Santos arrived at the university with a group of plainclothes bodyguards. When students began booing and cat-calling the presidential candidate - "Out! Out! Son of a Whore!" - they perceived as having supported the coup in its first month, you can see in this video that his security goons pulled out pistols and aimed them angrily at the students. The students didn’t back down and the armed gunmen and Santos can be seen running away on the video.
You didn’t read about Santos' provocation in any of the English language press accounts of the police riot at the university last Wednesday, but it was that incident – Santos’ bodyguards pulling guns out on unarmed students – that sparked the escalation: It was then that students took to the streets and blocked a main intersection. The National Police were already gathered nearby – indicating that they fully expected a conflict that day and likely were in on its provocation – and charged violently upon the students. When the rector of the university came out to try and calm the situation, the National Police charged against her and knocked her to the ground, an image that was seen on national TV in Honduras. The university is now suing the National Police.
In Honduras last week, your correspondent shared a taxi ride with Nelson Avila, economic minister to the Zelaya government and Liberal Party member. He told us that important leaders of the party who did not, as individuals, support the coup have been meeting regularly to plan opposition to the party leadership that sponsored the coup. The Liberal Party is thus in tatters, divided down the middle, and its once pro-coup candidate both declaring he’s not with the coup but while also escorted by gunmen that aim their pistols at coup opponents. In other words, stick fork in Santos. He’s toast.
While the conservative National Party and its 2009 presidential candidate, 2005 nominee Pepe Lobos, are united behind the coup, they are so tied to the business interests in Honduras that the collapse of consensus for the coup in that sector, driven by the big hole in their pockets and bank accounts it has caused, will shortly come into play as well.
The leading political parties also have pollsters. They understand full well that public support for the coup – a very low 23 percent favorability rating for coup “president” Micheletti in early July – has collapsed even further since then. With faux-elections coming up in November, both leading parties will have to contend with those hard numbers and readjust their public positions accordingly, especially because two anti-coup candidates, Carlos Reyes and Cesar Ham, will also be on the ballot, if the “election” happens at all.
The Fourth Ring: The Security Forces
We already saw, last month, on the day that President Zelaya said he would cross back over the border into Honduras but stepped back after doing a New York Times-style “toe touch” (that act of journalistic hocus pocus in which a byline dated in a particular country or city is filed days after the reporter has passed through there, giving the false impression that she or he is presently there on the scene… that actually happened in a story filed yesterday by Timesperson Ginger Thompson, datelined Tegucigalpa on August 7, but two days after the reporter flew out of San Pedro Sula through Atlanta) how the National Police called a brief strike for unpaid back pay, bonuses and higher wages.
Although the coup regime is increasingly strapped for cash, it had to give in immediately to the 14,000 National Police corps demands and pay them handsomely to remain on the job. The coup is so dependent right now on that security force to break up blockades and repress demonstrators that the National Police have it by the short ones. We can expect more and bigger demands for even more money for these cops – the last line of defense of the regime - as the civil resistance keeps up its fight.
We also saw on July 5, after military soldiers at the Toncontin International Airport fired upon protesters and assassinated 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo, how the National Police commander on the scene withdrew his troops from the ring around the airport, not wanting to share in the infamy and blame that now stains the Armed Forces.
The other big security force at play is obviously the military itself. We reported last week the desperate attempt on national TV by General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez and his chiefs of staff to defend their actions of kidnapping and exiling the President on June 28 and their repressive behavior since then. (See also the insightful account by journalist Belén Fernández of that televised spectacle, Honduras Generals Break Silence in Hopes that the World Will Understand Them. Fernández is now reporting full time from Honduras for Narco News.)
Both the 9,000 member military and the 14,000 member National Police forces – already vastly outnumbered by hundreds of thousands of coup opponents in the streets - are growing increasingly nervous about becoming scapegoats for the coup when it all becomes unraveled. The Armed Forces in particular need to worry about this. You can read the signals in Elvin Santos’ statement above - "The huge mistake was taking him (Zelaya) out of the country and leaving him defenseless," he said, in a clear allusion to the institution that did it, the military – that it will be the sacrificial lamb on the coup altar when push comes to shove.
More chilling yet for the Generals were the words of Adolfo Facusse, from one of the key oligarch families and head of the Honduras National Association of Manufacturers, when he recently said on tape about the military:
"They exceeded themselves. They should have captured him and submitted him to justice.
"We have the Armed Forces on trial because they exceeded the order… They have to respond in court and defend themselves… We don’t tolerate the Armed Forces or anyone to play around with the Constitution…"
In the end, the oligarchs have visceral contempt for the military because it is partly led by non-oligarchs, members of the lower classes who rose up through the ranks. This puts the General and his men in a “pincer effect” where they have to defend their increasingly narrow space from two ends: On one side, they seek to maintain the coup (which is why it was a military complaint that led to the order to close Radio Globo this week) but on the other side they have to struggle to ensure that if the coup begins to collapse, they don’t get the blame and punishment for it.
And yet the Armed Forces has an ace up its sleeve: At the moment when it concludes that the oligarchs are going to scapegoat them for the excesses of the coup, in a single swoop they can move from being goats to heroes, by determining that the hour has come to turn against the coup regime and facilitate the safe return of the elected President. It really will be the only option that Vásquez and the other generals have when push comes to shove, to save their own hides.
So far, the coup mongers, Micheletti in particular, who invited the General to speak and stand next to him on stage during a July 3 pro-coup rally in Tegucigalpa, have tried to carefully keep this natural rift between military and oligarch from blowing up. But as the pressure mounts, and the need for scapegoats grows on a sinking ship, watch this dynamic at work.
The Onion’s Core: Micheletti and the Supreme Court
As with what happened in Serbia in 2000, when Milosevic and “five people around him” were the last specimens of the regimen left isolated as the other layers of their particular onion peeled off, in Honduras it will be Micheletti and the Court.
You’ve now read about the onion peel: how a civil resistance that whose no signs of fatigue or surrender is methodically chipping away at the “inevitability factor” that props up the illusions of control needed for the regime to survive. You’ve read how the second ring – the Honduran economy and the business community’s greater suffering under the coup than under Zelaya – is coming unstuck. You’ve read about the turmoil in the political class of Honduras – the third ring – through the fracture down the middle of the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party’s Super Glue attachment to the outer economic ring present the circumstances for that layer of the onion to strip away from the coup out of naked self interest. And you’ve read about the fourth ring of the onion’s worry – that of the Army and the National Police - that they will become scapegoats and find themselves alone with the final pathetic nub at the inner core of the coup.
And as when most onions get peeled, there’s a lot of crying going on in the coup kitchen right now.
In the final inner core of the coup onion are the make-believe “president” Roberto Micheletti and the members of the Honduras Supreme Court who provided the legaloid justification for the June 28 coup.
Neither of those players has an EXIT door through which to escape. They are backed into a corner of their own making.
In the case of Micheletti, a career politician of more than three decades in the national congress, he has already resigned his legislative position to become the coup “president.” Once the coup falls apart, and the music stops, he is left without a seat in this game of musical chairs.
Likewise, the Supreme Court members don’t have a parachute or lifeboat either. This is why neither they nor Micheletti will ever really go for the San José agreement for Zelaya to return but with limited powers. (And it is why the Clinton-Restrepo plan of putting all of Washington’s eggs in that basket will prove so utterly stupid and incompetent on both their parts: they abandoned the initial pro-democracy stance from DC at the precise moment that the coup began to unravel from below. How harshly will that be judged by history?)
Were the San José “solution” to be signed by both sides, it is the Supreme Court that will become national laughingstock, along with Micheletti. Its claims of moral authority as interpreters of the Constitution and the law will evaporate with the coup itself.
And that is precisely why an “institutional solution” is no longer possible in Honduras. There is no solution possible that keeps the Supreme Court’s current members in place, and they’re not going to willingly resign, and nor is there a convenient manner by which to remove them. They and Micheletti are the Milosevics – the Milosevilettis! – of the Honduran revolution underway against them.
The civil resistance will peel away the skin of inevitability and the myth of a coup “in control.” It is already doing so. The economic consequences will peel away the business community’s unity in backing the coup. Public opinion is already making hamburger out of the political class’ alliance with the coup. And the security forces are looking nervously over their shoulders with the knowledge that they can’t trust the economic and political classes not to throw them under the bus when the going gets tougher very shortly.
The civil resistance in Honduras has, over 40 days and nights, proved itself strong, united, increasingly disciplined and with an impressive capacity to shift tactics rapidly in response to immediate developments. The coup, on the other hand, as Marovich noted in Honduras, is slow to adapt to changing circumstances and realities, suffering growing divisions and cracks, has no end game, no idea how to resolve this thing so that it can terrorize in peace and continue in power.
But that the Supreme Court is part of the final inner stub of the onion leaves the civil resistance no alternative except to do what, once these layers of the onion are peeled away, is in its power to do: to chase the judges out of the court building, call the Constitutional Convention with or without an institutional imprimatur, and remake the nation and the government in accordance with a new Constitution.
That it will have to go outside of “institutional” structures to do so is not really a problem. Because since June 28, there have been no legitimate institutions in Honduras. The institutions forfeited their right to exist. And thus people power from below will take the initiative to rebuild their country anew from the ashes of the old.
The act of peeling away layers of support and apathy that provide consent for the coup is not the same – and this is what organizers understand better than academics or activists – as becoming allied with those forces, be they international, economic, political or security forces. Manipulating a sector through grassroots action in no way creates permanent alliances with those sectors. Successful civil resistances have always developed the strategies and tactics to peel them away nonetheless.
It’s all about the onion and how it gets peeled. The tears of the regime, its inner stub, and its foreign cheerleaders, be they outright golpistas or those in nostalgic love with “institutions” that no longer legitimately exist, are merely a natural effect of the peeling.
In the end there are two paths to take while the onion is being peeled: Cry, or organize.