THE BLOG
11/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Independence Day Celebrations Reveal Deep Divisions in Honduras

Tens of thousands of Hondurans took to the streets of their capital, Tegucigalpa, on Tuesday to commemorate Independence Day. One group, dressed in the white and blue of the Honduran flag, followed the Civic-Military March to the National Stadium, where soldiers marched, paratroopers landed dramatically, and the crowd cheered for de facto President Roberto Micheletti. The other group, equally large, dressed in red, marched down Morazán Boulevard for "La Resistencia", the resistance, and clamored for the return of President Mel Zelaya while booing the military planes flying towards the stadium.

From among the Micheletti supporters, the megaphones exclaimed: "Honduras is the wall that finally stopped Chávez!" Meanwhile, the red shirts cried out, "Which is the way? Getting rid of those sons of bitches [who deposed President Zelaya]!"

These celebrations differed markedly from previous years. September 15th is usually school bands' moment to shine--children typically miss untold hours of class for band practice in the six weeks before Independence Day. On Tuesday, however, most school groups stayed away from the pro-Micheletti march, with teachers either fearing for children's safety or siding with the teachers' unions, five out of six of which support Zelaya.

This year, Independence Day revealed the deep divisions in Honduran society following the coup. For many years, Honduras was Central America's most politically stable nation outside of Costa Rica; now, it has become deeply polarized.

The pro-Micheletti event, despite its title, amounted to little more than a military parade. Groups began to line up at 7am, with roughly as many military personnel and police as civilians. The military police took the lead, while the military academies, soldiers, reservists, and riot police brought up the rear. In the middle were several civic groups, with a few private school groups and supporters from five government agencies. This march took these groups several blocks to the stadium, where, by late morning, roughly twenty thousand civilians had arrived to witness the military exhibition.

In the stadium, people cheered enthusiastically as planes passed overhead and soldiers marched. María Martínez, 60, exclaimed, "We're celebrating the anniversary of becoming a free, sovereign nation! Micheletti is our hero. He saved us from communism!" And Carlos Guzmán, 35, asserted, "The people are grateful to the military [for removing President Zelaya]." In a country where trust in the military outstrips trust in all other national political institutions, this sentiment is common. Meanwhile, some cheering fans remain uninterested in party politics. Sandy Vásquez, 28, who comes every year to watch the school bands (mostly absent this year) and military exhibitions, explained, "I'm apolitical, but I like these marches. I like seeing the paratroopers fly down into the stadium."

Less than a mile away, the pro-Zelaya march was filled with popular music, school bands, and Chilean protest music from the 1970s. Alongside ranchero and bachata music, old recordings of Victor Jara and Quilapayún's rendition of "El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido"--the people, united, will never be defeated--were impossible to miss. Dozens of civic groups donning red--students, lawyers, former government employees, and teachers unions--demanded Zelaya's return and accused Micheletti of being a coup leader in bed with the country's business elites. "We can't return to previous decades," says Eduardo García, 42. His brother, Carlos, added, "We don't want any more coups."

Most people in red supported both Manuel Zelaya and his controversial "Cuarta Urna"--the "poll" for a constituent assembly ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. "We've never had a leader like Mel before. If he was guilty of a crime, then there should have been a legal process [to remove him]," opined Marco Mendoza, 34. And, while some of those present were not strong Zelaya supporters, they still rejected the coup. A lawyer employed at the Public Ministry noted, "It was Mel this time, but I would be here if it had been someone else, too. What we have to do is defend the constitutional order."

Accusations flew between those on each side. Supporters of Michelleti said that Zelaya supporters are paid to march, while Zelayistas countered that the de facto government forces government employees to attend their rallies. Both claims are extremely difficult to verify. They also mask the reality that people have willingly taken to the streets en masse to support both sides of this conflict.

Micheletti supporters also asserted that pro-Zelaya supporters have been infiltrated by foreigners, an accusation that bears an eerie resemblance to Cold War rhetoric of "outside agitators." It is true, however, that bandanna-wearing adolescents were also scattered around the pro-Zelaya march, sporting sticks and spray-paint cans to spray graffiti on street walls and fast-food restaurant windows.

Both marches were peaceful, but Micheletti supporters use these disturbances (several fast-food restaurants have also been destroyed since the coup) as evidence that those wearing red shirts are "relajeros" (troublemakers), while they--those in white and blue--are the peaceful ones. But, of course, Micheletti supporters have no reason to disturb the peace--they favor the sitting government, which has shown no signs of letting Zelaya return before the November elections. Furthermore, the mainstream Honduran media covers all of their marches, while only one TV station in Tegucigalpa and select radio stations cover "La Resistencia." Major newspapers here report disparagingly, if at all, on the counter-demonstrations.

What is clear is that the country remains divided. At both marches, marchers disparagingly referred to those on the other side of town as "los otros," the others. And neither side, whether at the marches or at Oscar Arias' negotiating table in Costa Rica, shows any signs of ceding ground. Independence Day, usually the pride of Honduras, this year underscored the political instability that this country thought it had left behind with the transition to democracy.