President Zelaya came through Mexico City this week to woo Mexican President Felipe Calderon and talk to grassroots organizations that support his return to power. I decided to go see the man I've been writing about for the past 40 days.
The public event came on the heels of the official meeting with Calderon, who agreed to take up Zelaya's case with President Obama at the North American Summit this weekend. In a one-hour speech, the Honduran president tailored his message to the Mexican workers, debtors, students and urban poor in the audience at the city's elegant Teatro de al Ciudad. As the crowd shouted and waved paper Honduran flags, he gave a run-down of his efforts to build "citizen power", the resulting coup and the "insufficient" efforts of the international community to resolve the crisis.
This mixture of high diplomacy and building support from the bottom up reflects his two-pronged strategy to restore constitutional order in the Central American country. In the front rows sat members of Zelaya's cabinet and the Mexican Congress. Up in the nose-bleed section, I was flanked by university students and whole families that traveled in from the poor fringes of this massive city, to hear about what they see clearly as the latest front in the battle between haves and have-nots, and feigned democracy and real democracy.
"This is almost the first coup of the 21st century, the first to be condemned by the international community, the first to have massive sanctions applied," Zelaya told the crowd. Yet in spite of unprecedented diplomatic action, the coup remains in power. He called the stalemate a reflection of the "weakness of the international community," and appealed to the right of the people to peaceful resistance.
Zelaya said, "Our people have the right to resist repression with all the arms of our democratic system but also peaceful insurrection... Patience has limits -- I'm advising all the recalcitrant right from Washington to Tierra del Fuego." He was careful to repeat that "ours is a peaceful, civic and tolerant struggle... but patience is running out." The resistance movement has been building up over a month now and seen at least six of its members assassinated.
"International solidarity has been extraordinary against the coup but we think that it is insufficient. There is still more to do in the international arena to build support, to repudiate this event that has shamed our country, but with the shame falling on the shoulders of the groups that exercise illegitimate power."
Hopes Pinned on Obama
Zelaya stated clearly where international pressure needed to come from at this stage of restoring his government.
"If President Barack Obama really wants to turn back this coup, these coup leaders will last all of five minutes because the economy of Honduras, all our military, commercial and migration activities, depend on the United States." Emphasizing how the Honduran coup is a test case for the new government, he added, "We'll see the extent of his sincerity, force and democratic conviction."
Zelaya explained that the reason he agreed to enter into the mediation process under Costa Rican President Oscar Arias was to make the U.S. government continued to play a role in returning him to office.
"I recognize the force of the international community. When Sec. Hillary Clinton proposed Oscar Arias to me, I agreed because I wanted the U.S. to play a leading role."
As he's done everywhere else, Zelaya differentiated between the support from the Obama administration, which he did call "lukewarm", and forces in the U.S. government that openly support the coup.
"Many of the fundamental actors of the coup d'etat in Honduras did not come out of the government of Barack Obama but did come from the hawks in Washington who promoted them." He gave the specific example of U.S. congressional representatives "who have said publicly that the coup is good because it halts the social reforms of President Chavez, President Morales, Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega in Central America." Rep. Connie Mack and others have stated that the forced exile of the Honduran president does not constitute a coup d'etat and protested U.S. sanctions.
Zelaya criticized the mediation process that has been at a standstill since coup leaders refused to agree to Zelaya's return, but didn't discard it completely. "I think that apart from the good-faith efforts of Pres. Oscar Arias, who won a Nobel Peace Prize, they have treated the coup with kid gloves. This is the time to clamp down."
In one of his most political speeches, Zelaya detailed the achievements of his government in growth and raising the minimum wage, saying that despite the advances, the elites "didn't want to share."
The president said he'd been reflecting on what he did in office to provoke the economic and political elites to a coup. He explained the principle of "poder cuidadano" -- citizen power -- as combining two concepts: empowerment and citizenship. He went through the conflicts leading up to the coup, particularly the decision to consult the population on voting in November elections on whether to convoke a Constitutional Assembly and noted that his Law of Citizen Participation gave the people the power to be consulted on major decisions and was a critical step to "pass from a representative democracy to a participatory democracy."
"A president can't resolve the problems of the country alone. You need the large majorities, to listen to them, not just in elections -- you need to listen to them in decisions. The people aren't just there to elect, but also to decide... on development plans, on international trade treaties..."
He told the audience that the economic and political elite chose the wrong people, the wrong country, the wrong century and the wrong president to try out a modern-day coup. The people are "determined to struggle for guarantees of their constitutional rights, their human rights and their universal rights" and "Honduras is no longer willing to put up with a return to arms" in the 21st century, he noted.
Zelaya said the coup offered him money and benefits to his family to stay in exile, which he refused. He plans to return to the border with Nicaragua to prepare to return to Honduras.
In a new revelation, Zelaya narrated a phone call he received in Nicaragua from the head of Honduran Armed Forces, General Romeo Vasquez shortly after the coup. called him. He said Vasquez told him, "'Mr. President, we received instructions that you were to be eliminated in the capture (eliminated meaning assassinated). And we decided then, the Joint Command, that we are your friends (Zelaya paused to question the term friends) and that to preserve your life we had to take you out of the country.'"
Zelaya told the audience, "I'm telling you this because the radical positions of the traitorous right came to this extreme."
Pressuring Washington through the Big Guys
The emphasis on the "weakness of the international community" comes at a time when talks have broken down and the U.S. position has been ambiguous. The State Department reportedly wrote a letter to Sen Richard Lugar softening its stance on the coup. When questioned Aug. 6, spokesperson Robert Wood did not deny the letter, and said the U.S. position was "robust." He reaffirmed State's commitment to the Arias accords, said they it could not yet determine legally that it was military coup, and added that further sanctions are not the focus.
Zelaya announced Mexican President Felipe Calderon offered support and agreed to discuss the Honduran political crisis with President Obama at the Summit of North American Leaders. Calderon received the ousted Honduran president with full state honors. At this point though, Zelaya had a tough audience. When he mentioned Calderon's name, the crowd broke out in boos and cries of "espurio!" (illegitimate) that made it impossible for him to continue. The uproar revealed the still-simmering resentment against what many people in this country, especially the poor and popular organizations that filled the theater, still consider the elections of 2006 to have been stolen presidential elections in 2006.
But for Zelaya, courting Calderon to intervene with Obama is a strategic move. He openly referred to something Washington insiders have been saying as the world tries to pinpoint what has seemed a vacillating position within the Obama administration. With U.S. forces consolidating in favor and against the coup and a marked difference in tone between the president and his secretary of state, many have emphasized the major influence of the U.S.'s two most powerful allies in the region -- Mexico and Brazil -- in deciding to soften or strengthen pressures against the coup. There are powerful U.S. interests close to the government that prefer the coup to Zelaya, but one thing the Obama administration does not want to do is alienate these two countries. The press reports that Zelaya plans a trip to Brazil later this week.
Zelaya continued once the shouting died down. "[Calderon] will be with President Obama in Guadalajara and the force with which the United States decides to take effective actions will also depend on this meeting." He said Mexicans must watch the talks between Calderon and Obama, because they will have an impact "on the destiny of Latin America."
Following the meeting between teh two presidents Tuesday, Calderon confirmed support for the Arias mediation process and asserted his "full support for restitution and pacification." His remarks send a message to Washington but fall short of Brazil's position. Brazil has already come out saying there should be no conditions set on Zelaya's return and that any concessions to the coup in the framework of the mediation process would encourage further coups in the region. This contrasts with the Arias proposal to form a coalition government including coup supporters.
Moving back to the grassroots, Zelaya noted the strength of the Honduran resistance. "Today I want to express my solidarity with the Honduran people. We are 37 days into a teachers' strike... It's not just to protest the coup -- what the teachers say is that they can't go to the classroom to teach the children how coups are made, they want to teach them how to revert coups d'etat in the streets."
Honduran organizations are now on the frontline of the battle to defeat the coup in their country and the president stated that the coalition of unions, women and workers have carried out more than 100 peaceful civilian road blocks. He specifically asked the international community to support Radio Globo, almost alone, he noted, in reporting on repression in the country and currently facing closure by the coup regime that controls the media.
To the enthusiastic crowd, Zelaya framed his dilemma as a struggle without borders. "When the struggle is for a value, a principle, there are no borders, there are no countries." Outside the theater, more Mexicans who didn't fit inside waited to greet the Honduran president. It didn't exactly look like a sea change in increasingly polarized Latin American politics, but for them it represented the possibility, somewhere, of defending real democracy.
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