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Political tensions escalate with Honduras coup

Commentary, 30 June 2009
Americas
The military coup taking place in Honduras on 28 June illustrates an enduring climate of political unrest. President Manuel Zelaya’s call for a referendum to allow him to stand for a second term of presidency have caused widespread outrage, resulting in his detention to halt the proceedings. As the coup creates chaos for the country, social tensions are heightened, but there may be some advantages for the Honduran President.

The military coup taking place in Honduras on 28 June illustrates an enduring climate of political unrest. President Manuel Zelaya’s call for a referendum to allow him to stand for a second term of presidency have caused widespread outrage, resulting in his detention to halt the proceedings. As the coup creates chaos for the country, social tensions are heightened, but there may be some advantages for the Honduran President.

By Mark Joyce for RUSI.org

The military coup in Honduras on 28 June should be viewed in the context of a country that is exceptionally poor, violent and dysfunctional, even by the low standards of Central America. By way of comparison, whilst the political future of the British Foreign Secretary was recently brought into question over disputed claims for gardening and home furnishing expenses, his Honduran counterpart was forced to resign last year after a drunken, public brawl with a police officer. He delivered his resignation speech with a black eye, facial bruising and an undertone of bravado. In a country where violent crime is commonplace and electricity and water shortages frequently spark rioting, perhaps the most surprising thing about the latest uprising is that it was relatively bloodless.

Military coups were once common in this part of the world but have been less fashionable since the 1980s. In this sense, events in Honduras are a setback for the region, although progression toward a democratic norm has not been as impressive as widely claimed. Honduras, along with neighbouring Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, remains extensively corrupt and its political classes are inclined towards authoritarianism. Current President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya is a caudillo (or, ‘strongman’) in the long Latin American tradition. Like Daniel Ortega in neighbouring Nicaragua, he has used an ostensibly leftist political ideology primarily to boost his own power and cult of personality.

Zelaya becomes a hero

The crisis was caused by Zelaya’s attempts to amend the constitution to allow himself to stand for a second term as President. This has been an increasingly common tactic among populist Latin American leaders (of both left and right) in recent years, with Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez having used repeated constitutional amendments to spend more than a decade in power. A vote on setting up a constitutional referendum was due to take place on 28 June and to prevent this, the Army – backed by opposition politicians and the Supreme Court – detained Zelaya and forced him on a place to Costa Rica still wearing his pyjamas.

The coup is in many ways the best thing that could have happened to him. Prior to the rebellion, he was heading into the final months of a non-renewable four-year term having made little progress on rooting out corruption, improving law and order or boosting the country’s desperately weak economy. He had drifted closer to Hugo Chávez in recent months and the US was looking forward to seeing the back of him. As a result of the military’s clumsy intervention, Washington and the Organisation of American States have now had to issue statements in Zelaya’s defence and he will return to Honduras as a hero.

An enduring struggle

The crisis looks set to continue for some time yet. In the immediate term, the next flashpoint will be Zelaya’s planned return to Honduras on 2 July. Given the weight of international pressure, it seems inevitable that some sort of arrangement enabling him to serve out his remaining six months in office will be found. However, political tensions will remain high up to the Presidential and congressional elections in November, with more violent protests and clashes likely.

Regionally, the crisis highlights the continuing dangers of diplomatic crises pitching the US against Venezuelan-backed leftist populists. Chavez, predictably, has attempted to portray the coup as a US-sponsored conspiracy, which seems implausible given Washington’s immediate and unambiguous condemnation of the military’s actions. This refusal by Washington to rise to provocation from Chávez is consistent with its circumspect response to recent events in Iran. It makes it difficult to envisage any realistic scenarios under which this situation could escalate into a military crisis involving the US. After the dust has settled, therefore, it is more likely to go down as just another chapter in the sorry political history of Honduras and Central America.

Mark Joyce is RUSI’s Americas Fellow and a Senior Analyst with Stirling Assynt, a global intelligence network that provides business-focused reporting on terrorism, security and country risk issues in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America.

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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