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Washington Tried to Destroy Honduras’s Left. Now It’s Back in Power.

Xiomara Castro won Honduras’s presidency pledging to tax wealth, expand the welfare state, and end the country’s “failed neoliberal model.” Her win was also a defeat for the US, which backed a coup that overthrew her husband Manuel Zelaya 12 years ago.

Xiomara Castro, wife of former president Manuel Zelaya who was ousted in a right-wing coup, won Honduras’s recent presidential elections. (Inti Ocon / Getty Images)

Iraq is still in flames, Henry Kissinger will probably live to 100, and the world’s nations are pockmarked with the irreversible damage of countless capital-driven military coups. Yet as Xiomara Castro’s win in Honduras should remind us, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that the world’s many wrongs are destined to never be righted.

This past week, the socialist Castro won the Honduran presidency in a landslide, ending twelve years of right-wing rule in the country and becoming its first female president in the process. That Castro won on a platform to tax wealth, create a new welfare payment for the poor and elderly, and overhaul the country’s “failed neoliberal model” is significant enough. But Castro’s win is also a symbolic reversal of the US-backed right-wing coup that threw her husband, Manuel Zelaya, from power twelve years ago.

How to Win Enemies and Alienate Business

A well-off landowner from an elite family who won on the centrist Liberal Party ticket, Zelaya had been no radical. Believed to have supported anti-leftist death squads in the 1980s, once in power he backed Honduras’s entry into the neoliberal Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) despite vehement grassroots opposition to it in the country, and continued the country’s traditional military cooperation with Washington, winning praise from US military leadership.

Though he’d moved left over the course of his term — upping teacher pay, providing free lunches at public schools, topping up pensions, and abolishing school fees — even his populist moves had a firm ceiling. While he raised the minimum wage by 60 percent, it stayed at poverty level, and didn’t apply to workers in the maquiladora export industry, a neoliberal business model created to draw in foreign investment. Not that it mattered: Being forced to lose even a cent of profit to their grossly underpaid workers was an outrage to the Honduran business elite. With Zelaya pairing these moves with an increasing use of leftist rhetoric, he lost the support of his own party, and the Honduran right plotted to move against him.

Meanwhile, in Washington, despite playing ball with the US elite, Zelaya’s cardinal sin was forging closer relations with left-wing Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who visited Honduras for the first time in 2008. Under Zelaya, Honduras entered Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s program for selling subsidized oil to friendly governments, and joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of Our America (ALBA) trade bloc, an embryonic leftist counterweight to US-led, neoliberal free trade in the hemisphere. Zelaya called the latter “an act of freedom,” adding, provocatively, that he was “taking a step toward becoming a government of the center left, and if anyone dislikes this, well just remove the word ‘center’ and keep the second one.”

This was a step too far. Though Zelaya had cast his pivot to Chávez as a pragmatic move, born of frustration with the “moderate offers” of support from rich countries, he also took a swipe at the “decades-long relationship of dominance by the United States.” The move inflamed conservative fears in the country and anger among the US Right. “If President Zelaya wants to be an ally of our enemies, let him think about what might be the consequences of his actions and words,” Otto Reich, a former diplomat to the region under George W. Bush, told the press in 2008.

The pretext for Zelaya’s removal was his move in early 2009 to hold a nonbinding referendum on rewriting the country’s twenty-six-year-old constitution, ostensibly to reflect the “substantial and significant changes” that had taken place in Honduras. Zelaya’s insistence on holding the vote, a power grab in his critics’ eyes, put him at odds with the courts, the legislature (his own party included), and military leaders, who refused to defy the courts by lending their resources to carrying it out. The matter soon spiraled into a crisis that saw Zelaya remove two top military officials, thirty-six others resign in protest, and calls from the Honduran establishment to boycott the vote — all of it culminating in the June morning where soldiers occupied the capital and military leaders escorted Zelaya, at gunpoint, to a plane out of the country.

Making the Coup Stick

There’s no doubt Zelaya’s brinkmanship fed the crisis that ended in his own ouster. But before you side with the coup plotters, consider a few things. For one, there’s the fact that this abrogation of a democratic constitution came in response to not just a referendum whose victory was far from assured, but a nonbinding one.

Second, let’s allow that the worst thing Zelaya was accused of plotting — to change the constitution to allow himself a second term — is eminently reasonable. While not uncommon in Latin America, a single term for a national leader is comparatively restrictive in the global context, and as we’ll see, the Honduran elite changed their mind about this in a few short years. The charges also didn’t make sense: With a presidential election set only five months after the referendum was due to be held, there was little possibility the constitution could be amended in time to keep Zelaya in power (which he’d have to win a second election to secure anyway).

Nor is Honduras’s constitution some kind of sacred, untouchable document. It had been serially rewritten over the twentieth century, and the version Zelaya was operating under had been written by the country’s military dictatorship in 1982, with preserving the power of the armed forces expressly in mind: it established a weak executive and an unusually independent military hierarchy, and split the country into military regions commanded by military officials. The constitution had also been amended 130 times by decree in the intervening decades. (And if you think there’s something automatically out-of-bounds about rewriting an antiquated constitution against the wishes of a conservative political establishment, ask yourself if you feel the same way about calls to overhaul the gridlocked US political system and reform its right-wing Supreme Court).

The outrageous act sparked outrage across the hemisphere. Even US officials acknowledged the flagrantly despotic nature of the coup. “On the one instance, we’re talking about conducting a survey, a nonbinding survey; in the other instance, we’re talking about the forcible removal of a president from a country,” one anonymous official told the New York Times.

Nevertheless, military ties run thicker than any democratic commitments in Washington, and US policymakers could never be too hostile toward the coup plotters their own military had trained. (“It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government,” said an army lawyer.)

In the same Times report, anonymous members of the newly elected Barack Obama administration admitted to the Times that, before Zelaya’s removal, they had discussed with the military legal methods to “remove the president from office, how he could be arrested, on whose authority they could do that.” On its way out of the country, the military plane carrying Zelaya to his exile stopped at a Honduran air base US troops used as a headquarters, supposedly to refuel; the military denied US personnel knew about the flight, despite officially sharing air traffic control duties at the site.

Once it happened, and in the days, weeks, and months ahead, the administration toed a careful line, issuing stern words of general disapproval while assiduously taking care not to undermine the ouster. They avoided calling it a military coup (which would have automatically triggered a legally mandated withdrawal of aid) and refused to condemn what was happening in the country — including repression of Zelaya supporters that involved mass arrests, torture, and killings — and Obama avoided meeting with Zelaya as he furiously lobbied in Washington, all while the administration dragged its feet on fully punishing the coup plotters.

As Washington ran out the clock, Honduras’s neighbors lost their patience. The Union of South American Nations, including US allies, unanimously declared it wouldn’t recognize a government elected under the coup government, while Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva joined hands with Mexican president Felipe Calderón, a conservative Bush ally, to say the same. The United States, meanwhile, worked to block the Organization of American States (OAS) from following Lula and Calderón’s lead.

Hillary Clinton would later boast in her autobiography of trying to block Zelaya’s return to office behind the scenes, strategizing with regional allies to “ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” She justified the coup government’s repressive curfew and denounced his attempts to reenter the country, and her State Department pressured OAS officials to sideline him and work with the coup leaders.

Clinton wasn’t stupid. The country’s US ambassador had warned her in advance that the coup would happen and unambiguously told her it was “an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” and Clinton’s friend and underling Anne-Marie Slaughter urged her to declare it as such. But the coup government quickly hired former Clintonites as lobbyists to legitimize its democratic overthrow, used by Clinton to open communications with the interim president, whom the administration ended up advising and even editing the speeches of.

Despite loudly claiming to have punished the government, in reality, Washington kept the money flowing to Honduras, including from a development agency Clinton herself was chairing. Meanwhile, the close relationship between the two countries’ militaries proved a boon to the coup plotters. We now know that an active military official met with them the night before they acted, while a retired official helped the coup government lobby Washington after the fact.

In the end, Washington negotiated an agreement that required congressional approval of Zelaya’s return to power. When Congress of course rejected this, the Obama administration quickly said it would recognize the results of the upcoming elections anyway, isolating it from virtually the entire planet. In an election clouded by government repression and a voter boycott that saw turnout drop, and which not even half of voters viewed as legitimate, Pepe Lobo, a right-wing businessman and rancher, beat Zelaya’s vice president by sixteen points.

“The United States was the only country that maintained an ambassador in Honduras and was extremely helpful in eventually finding a path out of the crisis,” he said later.

Horror and Blowback

Whatever anyone thinks of Zelaya and his halting reform program, his ouster set off a more-than-decade-long nightmare for the country.

The Lobo government, filled with military officials who had presided over the coup, moved immediately to roll back Zelaya’s achievements. He pulled Honduras out of ALBA, gutted a wage increase meant to take effect at the start of the year, weakened labor laws, shelved Zelaya’s land reform plans, and announced privatization plans for the education and health care sectors. Declaring his government bankrupt early on, Lobo took out an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan and imposed the neoliberal policies demanded in return, with more borrowing to come later.

Hardly a Scandinavian paradise before the coup, Honduran social and economic indicators have plummeted in the years since. Economic growth, unemployment, and poverty all worsened, while inequality sharply rose and violence against LGBT activists exploded. Organized crime has enjoyed a boom period, as has drug trafficking, with both Lobo and his right-wing successor, president of the congress Juan Orlando Hernández, facing serious accusations of personally working to get cocaine onto US streets.

Hondurans’ resistance to this neoliberal agenda faced more of the violent repression started by the coup government. Striking teachers, and the parents and students who lent them solidarity, were met with tear gas, beatings, and even murder. Eight journalists were killed in the new government’s first six months alone, along with ten opposition activists.

Death squads returned to the country, picking off environmentalists, indigenous land activists, and any other “terrorists” standing in the way of the rapacious business interests unleashed by the government. With more than 120 killed between 2010 and 2017, the country has consistently ranked at the top of the list of most dangerous countries to be an environmental activist. The victims include Berta Cáceres, the famed activist murdered in her home in 2016 after her name ended up on a military hit list and who blamed Clinton before her death for enabling a “counterinsurgency” on behalf of “international capital.”

This state violence was directly facilitated by Washington in another way as well: the hundreds of millions of dollars of US aid that’s been funneled to military and police under post-coup governments, some of it in a plan expressly designed and sold by Joe Biden when he was vice president, and which Biden has used as a model during his own administration. Given that it’s these very “security forces” that are responsible for the violence toward and terrorization of ordinary Hondurans, the move has been entirely counterproductive, to the extent that we take its stated goals at face value.

Meanwhile, once in power, the Honduran right seemed determined to become exactly what it once accused Zelaya of being. After winning the 2013 presidential election, Hernández and the same politicians who cried despotism over Zelaya’s attempt to amend the constitution’s single-term limit did just that, with the assent of a supreme court that suddenly did a 180 on the issue. Then, in 2017, Hernández won a second term in an election riddled with irregularities, to the point that even the right-wing, Washington-friendly OAS called for new elections. This time, the US State Department wasted little time in warmly congratulating Hernández on his victory.

None of it had bothered Washington. Even as bodies like the United Nations and European Union and other Latin American nations called the 2009 election illegitimate, Clinton had termed it “free and fair” and declared the following January that the crisis had “been managed to a successful conclusion” and “done without violence.” Full US aid was restarted, and the Obama administration worked to get Honduras back in the OAS. As violence in the country continued to skyrocket, assistance from Washington was always forthcoming. In fact, the US military expanded its presence in the country, with three new military bases.

But in a lesson worth mulling over for any aspiring liberal White House technocrats, it wasn’t just Honduras that felt the reverberations of the 2009 coup. The disruption, repression, and violence it fostered within Honduras has been and still is a major push factor in the waves of northward migration that, down the line, have fed a rolling series of domestic crises in the United States: first under Obama and now under Biden, whose inability to stem the flow of desperate people coming to the border — and whose inhumane, Donald Trump–lite response to their arrival — has become the biggest political liability of his presidency.

But the biggest US loser of the coup was, ironically, Hillary Clinton herself. Despite excising the incriminating passage about Zelaya from later reissues of her book, the matter nevertheless became one of many campaign issues in the 2016 Democratic primary that helped dent enthusiasm for the candidate come election day. Meanwhile, the human displacement unleashed by the coup she aided had also fed the growth of virulent, anti-immigrant sentiment, contributing directly to the rise of her opponent, Trump, who snatched away her presidential hopes.

Doing the right thing seven years earlier might have benefited her politically. Instead, Clinton, who did more than most people to make sure the coup and the rightist government that followed were legitimized, was left serially complaining about how unfair it was she lost her own election.

A Breeze of Change

Castro’s win only goes a small, albeit powerfully symbolic, way toward correcting the injustices of the 2009 coup. A defeat of the repressive, anti-democratic right-wing bloc that’s ruled the country since Zelaya’s removal is just the first step, and no easy feat. Now comes the even more difficult feat of governing, where Castro will have to work with a likely divided congress and a state bureaucracy shaped by and aligned with her opposition, all of which will limit what she can do.

Still, her victory is another sign of the dramatic change currently sweeping Latin America, which has already seen leftists win the presidency in Peru, and where upcoming contests in Chile — now rewriting its own constitution — and, further down the line, Brazil, could do the same. For those in the region who want to protect their land and waters from a ravenous business sector, end the widespread practice of murder with impunity, and control and benefit from their own resources, these are heartening sights.

After her husband had already been deposed at gunpoint, Castro had lost twice, once as a presidential candidate in 2013, then as vice president in 2017. Her win reminds us that, even in the murderous landscape of Latin American politics, setbacks and defeats aren’t permanent, however heartbreaking. Sometimes, wrongs can be righted.