The 2009 Military Coup

On November 6, 2009 the US State Department issued a Travel Alert for Honduras:

“The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the current uncertain political and security situation in Honduras, and recommends that American citizens exercise caution when traveling to Honduras, while deferring all non-essential travel to the capital city of Tegucigalpa until further notice.  This Travel Alert expires on December 20, 2009.”

The alert was in response to demonstrations following the ousting of elected President Manuel Zelaya and his replacement by former head of Congress, Roberto Micheletti. Although most of the demonstrations were in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, the warning expressed concern that they might spread as the November of the election approached.

The election occurred, the new president has been sworn in, and the Travel Alert was not renewed.

Below is an attempt to explain this sequence of events, updated as new developments are reported.

Sequence of events:

On June 28, 2009, the elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was taken to the airport (allegedly in his pajamas) and put on a plane for Costa Rica. Under the constitution, the next in line was the head of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, who took power, with the support of the military in what many term a military coup. The impetus for the ouster was a “non-binding consultation” Zelaya planned to hold on his proposal to set up a commission to revise the Honduran constitution. If the commission met with popular support, it would probably have been voted on in the November presidential election. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled the “consultation” unconstitutional and blocked the distribution of ballots; Zelaya ordered the ballots to be distributed anyway, and that night found himself escorted by members of the military to the airport. (See the BBC for a fuller background story; the citizen news source Groundreport offers video and images of events on June 28).

Since then the interim government, headed by Interim President Roberto Micheletti has been running the country, imposing road blocks and curfews, and even closing the airports for a time and shutting down media outlets “sympathetic” to Zelaya. Most Western nations along with the Organization of American States (OAS) called on Micheletti to step down and reinstate Zelaya. Micheletti, backed by the military, refused. The OAS suspended Honduras’ membership in the organization and the World Bank suspended much-needed aid. European Union member nations withdrew diplomats from Honduras, as did Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. There have been protests, escalating when Zelaya returned to Honduras and took up residence in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on September 21. Various presidents of other nations, most notably Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, and organizations have tried to broker some kind of power-sharing agreement, so far to no avail. Zelaya appealed to the United Nations for help, saying that it is Micheletti who has created a “dictatorship,” and that he only wants peace. The Organization of American States (OAS) was reported to be close to a deal in early October. On October 29 a peace accord brokered by the US was signed under which the two leaders were to set up a national unity government by November 5 to administer the election. That did not happen, and on November 6 the US State Department issued the Travel Alert above.

On November 19, President Micheletti said in an address to the nation that he would to take a “leave of absence” from the Presidency from November 25-December 2, the period of the election–reserving the right to return to power in the event of increased violence.  Zelaya dismissed the decision and called on his supporters to boycott the elections if they could not be delayed until after the decision about his return to power for the remainder of his term. Several governments said they would not accept the outcome of the election (most notably Argentina and Brazil). The US and Panama said that they would recognize the outcome of the election. The October 29 deal required the Honduras Congress to decide who would run the  country before the November 27 election, but that vote was not held until December 2– after the election.

On January 27, 2010, the new president,  Porfirio Lobo, was sworn into office and relative peace has been restored. The U.S. Government removed the travel alert and considers Honduras safe for American travel.

Why the big deal?

It depends who you ask. Was Zelaya (elected as a member of the Liberal party in 2005), as he says, looking to improve the conditions of the people by finding ways to increase their representation and raise the minimum wage, or was this a bold-faced effort to change term-limits and allow Zelaya to be re-elected as his opponents claim? Micheletti claimed in an interview that Zelaya wants to “establish a dictatorship” (BBC). Zelaya, although a businessman and rancher himself, was certainly closer to left-wing politicians in the region than many business people liked and as his term of office progressed, he took an increasingly anti-American stance even though the US is Honduras’ major trading partner. He is reported to have been praised by Cuban president Fidel Castro. He was supported by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who himself used constitutional reform to accomplish many of the social programs Zelaya claimed to favor. And to increase term limits to allow him to accomplish those changes.

Constitutions are a sensitive matter in every country, and more so in countries like Honduras that have a relatively short history of democracy. Under the constitution that caused these problems, the president is limited to one, four year term.

Who ran in the November 29 elections?

Well, for a start, neither Zelaya or Micheletti, who are actually from the same political party. That party, the Liberal Party, did run a candidate though: Elvin Santos, a business leader and Zelaya’s former vice-president. The major National Party candidate was Porforio Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in 2005 by less than 70,000 votes. In October the the Tegucigalpa-based newspaper La Prensa reported that according to a CID-Gallup Poll of 1,420 adults Lobo was leading Santos by 16 points. And Lobo went on the win the election.

This Associated Press article published November 22 offered an assessment of the situation and a good analysis of the politics behind this series of events.

Who is the real loser?
Well, it could be the fragile democracy of Honduras. Or the poor who could have been helped by Chavez-like reform. But most agree that the main contender for the title is the Honduran economy, which Honduras This Week says has been “set back ten years” by this series of events. Reuters also reports that the freeze on aid from foreign nations is harming health and welfare programs.

To read about the impact this had and continues to have on the children and organizations we work with, check out the newsletter by the Reverend Richard Kuntz, the Director of El Hogar Projects, based in Tegucigalpa (the nation’s capital).

You can learn more about Latin American politics in a Latin American Studies class, and by reading the media coverage of events like this online.