Honduras: Defying regime, Zelaya attempts return; Interview with President Manuel `Mel' Zelaya

Protesters confront police and army, July 4. Photo by James Rodríguez.

By Felipe Stuart Cournoyer

Update, July 24, 2009 --  Today, Honduras has been totally paralysed by a general strike, and Honduran resistance activists and protesters are chanting.

Zelaya - get used to it. The people are rising up
(it rhymes in Spanish).

Also common is the resistenCia, resistenCia, resistenCia, el pueblo unido jamas sera vencido (people united will never be overcome) and so on...

This afternoon Zelaya crossed over the frontier at Las Manos north of Esteli. He stood technically just inside Honduran territory, having crossed the chain separating the two countries in the "neutral" strip between them. Zelaya remained there for about two hours, hoping to meet up with members of his family and others who were trying to join him.

On his walk over he received phone calls from presidents Lula of Brazil and Lugo of Paraguay, and many others. He seemed to be glued to the phone or else responding to reporters questions, taking time to occasionally sip water and juice. At times he was seen gazing at high points, no doubt on the lookout for snipers. Reporters at one point sounded a sniper alert, but the suspect disappeared in seconds, it seems.

The Honduran president did not attempt to clear the immigration offices, although he spoke with the offficial in charge. Reporters pointed out a place where they had seen a sniper, but no attempts on Zelaya's person took place. He was not arrested, and he said he placed phone calls to top advisors of the high command of the armed forces, the real de facto government or junta of the country that controls ``Goriletti]'' and other "cabinet" stooges like marionettes.

Thousands of Zelaya's supporters have been trapped at roadblocks along the roads going south from Tegucigalpa, including his wife, his daughter and his mother. They were trying to join him at the  border. Two people at an army roadblock just north of the Las Manos border crossing were injured by trooper gunfire. Most of the army roadblocks are in the Paraiso Department (province), one of them at Danli, where Zelaya's family were held up.

Several hundred Hondurans got to join him by entering Nicaragua at other points and then meeting him at the chain separating the Nicaraguan side of the neutral strip between the two territories. At that point Zelaya crossed back into Nicaragua, along with members of his team. They will stay overnight in Las Manos and re-enter their country tomorrow by the same approach.

It gets dark in Las Manos just after 6 pm. TeleSur showed a few minutes ago video of demonstrators sleeping on the road, and a wall of soliders with their protective shields and helmuts still stationed and ready to stop any who try to move closer to the border.

The coup junta established a longer period of curfew, now running from noon to 4 am. Hence, those who are still in the streets or roads protesting are technically in violation of the decree.

This will in all likelihood be repeated tomorrow morning, in roughly a similar drama and maneuvering, on both sides. But tomorrow we expect greater numbers of resistance activists to hit the streets and roads, and also a greater display of military strength. The army will feel emboldened by Hillary Clinton's attack on Zelaya (see below), but also more nervous because of the evident strength of the pro-Zelaya forces.

Leaders of the National Resistance Front Against the Coup interviewed by TeleSur said that protests grew throughout the day in most parts of the country and were much larger than the few pro-coup demonstrations. TeleSur showed video of the pro-coup action in the industrial centre of San Pedro de Sula, where it appeared to have drawn upwards of 1500 people -- a size which the head of the resistance front said was miniscule.

Most media within Honduras have blocked any news of Zelaya's presence. However, Radio el Globa did carry news, and El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan radio reaches fairly deep into the country. As well TeleSur can be seen via the internet, and cell phones are common, even among poor people. Hence, what the Cubans call Radio Bemba is no doubt airing loud and clear across the country, as news goes by word of mouth even into remote areas.
US Secretary of States Hilliary Clinton made a last ditch attempt to dissuade Zelaya from crossing the border, saying that his plan was "reckless". Zelaya's foreign minister Patricia Rodas responded to Clinton on TeleSur. She mocked the US State Department position of treating the coup leaders as equals of the deposed president. The ``golpistas'' (coup makers, coupsters), she reminded Clinton, are the reckless party, the side who refused to even discuss the mediation document put forward by Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias, and the cabal that resorted to arms and massive repression against the population. All Zelaya is doing is attempting to exercise his constitutional rights, and to create the conditions for a real dialogue between the army high command and the elected government of the country, which has universal international recognition and majority support in the country. It's a pity that Clinton's remarks could not have been repeated in English and made available on the major US networks because she demolished the Clinton-Obama charade, although she did not mention Obama in the same breath as the former senator from New York.

The ability of Zelaya's team, and of the Resistance Front leaders, to sustain their determination to keep their protests peaceful and free of bloodshed is a sign of the growing maturity of the mass movement. Over the past month the army has on too many occasions fired bullets into protest actions, as they did again today on the road to Danli. It takes considerable and considered discipline and sophistication not to fall for the traps being set by such provocations, and not to become enraged and respond in kind.

Meanwhile, some signs of a weakening of the once solid Latin American front against the coup registered by the unanimous vote in the OAS appeared during the Mercosur summit today.

Venezuela attempted to have Zelaya invited in order to strengthen Latin America's resolve to take more concrete measures to sanction the military regime and show the US an example of what really could be done where there is a will to do it. But Brazil's President Lula blocked this, at which point Chavez chose not attend. Despite this, strong statements were made again against the coup, especially by Argentina's Kirschner and Bolivia's Morales, and Fernando Lugo, Paraguay's newly elected president.

Last night William Grigsby, director of Managua's Radio La Primerisima and of its flagship program of political analysis Sin Fronteras [without borders], told his listeners that he was aware of significant signs that both Mexico and Brazil, as well as Chile, have softened their stand on the coup, in the sense that they will try to block any concrete measures against Honduras' regime aimed at returning Zelaya to power, such as suspension of trade and economic relations.

Evo Morales made a strong intervention calling on Latin American countries to unite to expel all US bases from South America and the Caribbean. He argued that if the coup in Honduras is allowed to stand every other Latin American government will be in danger of army-led coups, and pointed to the danger of having their high commands trained by the Pentagon. Of course, he specifically denounced the announcement of four new US bases for Colombia, a direct threat to his own revolution, and to Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua [with whom Colombia has a historic dispute following its seizure of the San Andres islands. The US grranted them to Colombia as compensation for ripping out the province of Panama from Colombia in order to secure the Panama Canal].

The hour of the grassroots approaches

By Felipe Stuart Cournoyer

July 21, 2009 -- Three weeks after the June 28 military coup that expelled Hondura’s President Mel Zelaya and claimed to overthrow his government, the country remains shaken by a profound and dynamic popular upsurge demanding Zelaya’s return and the restoration of democracy.

The collapse on July 18 of the much-touted “negotiation dialogue” between Zelaya's government delegation and representatives of the military coup was all but inevitable.

The talks foundered on the one issue that neither side could agree to discuss or give ground on – who is the constitutional president of Honduras?

Mass resistance and even opinion polls show that a strong majority of Hondurans back Zelaya as their elected president and demand his immediate return. The coup has been denounced by all the relevant international organisations: the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA), the Central American Integration System (SICA), the Rio Group, the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union and the United Nations.

Failure of negotiations

However, the coup junta’s delegation at the San Jose, Costa Rica, negotiations broke off the talks, proclaiming that they could not even discuss the possibility of Zelaya continuing as president. The Zelaya delegation then withdrew from the talks and announced that the president would quickly “return to Honduras to help organise an insurrection against repression”.

For Washington and the coup high command, Zelaya’s return to Honduras may represent the only way to avoid an armed popular uprising. But for the Honduran masses, his return, even under onerous conditions, would mean admitting the illegality and disastrous impact of the military takeover. Zelaya’s return could thus fuel mass resistance and further undermine the pro-coup faction. The coup leaders and their US supporters are in a bind. This explains why they tried to stall for time with the manoeuvre of the San Jose “mediation dialog” .

Lamenting the failure of his mediation, Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias warned of the imminence of “civil war and bloodshed that the Honduran people do not deserve”.

Meanwhile, OAS secretary general José Miguel Insulza exclaimed that “it is almost impossible to avoid conflict between Hondurans and call for calm when a dictatorship seeks to stay in power in full view of everyone” .

Washington’s complicity in the coup

The dictatorship has imposed brutal repression against unarmed civilian protesters, including assassinations and disappearances. Washington, for its part, has pursued a two-faced and deceitful course.

The coup was planned in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, with the participation of the US embassy and US military officials at the Palmerola air force base. The US then voted in favour of the unanimous OAS resolution in support of Zelaya. But the sincerity of this vote was undermined by statements by both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. Although they sometimes used the word “coup” to describe the army takeover, they waffled when it came to action. More important than their talk was their walk: they did nothing to help force the army out of power, such as by ending military aid or imposing economic sanctions.

The Obama administration has since shown its hand. On July 20, Phillip Crowley, spokesperson for the US Department of State, responded to a reporter's direct question, about whether or not the coup was illegal. He admitted that the US does not consider the military power grab to be a coup in the “legal” sense. The coup, evidently, was “not legal” – but by the same token it was not “illegal.” The distinction means that it is not illegal to continue US military and economic aid to the coup administration and the armed forces. (See Eva Gollinger's report at Postcards from the Revolution, www.chavezcode.com/2009/07/dept-of-state-agrees-with-coup-regime.html.)

Obama's duplicity should come as no surprise, despite the unusually intense hopes millions of people have for his promise of real change in an imagined “post-Bush” world. US Honduran policy is in complete continuity with its long history of domination and intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean. As Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega pointed out to a rally of hundreds of thousands in Managua on July 19, the coup in Honduras came just ahead of the announcement of the opening of five new US military bases in Colombia – a response to the forced closing of the US Manta airbase in Ecuador and the feared loss of US bases in Honduras.

ALBA’s role

The US administration’s tacit support for the coup leaders reflects their hatred of Zelaya’s measures to support the poor and in bringing Honduras into the ALBA anti-imperialist alliance. ALBA – the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America – unites Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras and three English-speaking Caribbean countries as a spearhead and bulwark of anti-imperialist struggle to build social and economic solidarity among the partner nations. (See “Honduras and the Big Stick,” www.counterpunch.org/kozloff07202009.html.)

ALBA led the process of Latin American unity against the coup, holding a series of emergency meetings in Managua to lay the basis for the unanimous OAS and UN resolutions. When Latin American and Caribbean unity and determination to smash the coup became loud and clear, Washington opted to try to try to camouflage its role. But there is no hiding the fact that the coup is directed against ALBA itself – against all its members and potential members. As Latin American leaders have pointed out, if the coup is consolidated, other countries will become coup victims again, even without Washington’s prompting. US tacit support of the Honduran coup is a clear signal to military plotters.

ALBA leaders understand in blood and flesh that the coup is intended as blow against them. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales stressed this on July 20, explaining to a radio audience that “this coup is a threat against the continued growth of ALBA”.

Resistance on the streets

Despite repression, mass resistance continues to grow in Honduras. International solidarity up and down Indo-Black-Latin America and across the Caribbean has not waned.

Insurrection is in the air. Stay in the streets, Zelaya appeals. “It’s the only place that they have not been able to take away from us.… I have not surrendered and I am not going to. I am going to return to the country as soon as possible... The right to insurrection is a constitutional right.”

The coup regime has tried desperately to silence all critical media and has imposed a night-time curfew. Security forces have violently attacked peaceful protesters and arrested a large number of activists. Two protesters were killed on July 5 and two activists and members of the left-wing Democratic Unification Party (UD) have been assassinated by unknown gunmen.

Returning to Honduras that day, visibly exhausted UD Congress member Marvin Ponce stated: “The people owe Honduras a revolution, and if the legitimate president, Manuel Zelaya, is not reinstated, there will be a confrontation between social classes. What I can say is that the days of peaceful resistance, like we have had until now, are numbered.”

On Bastille Day, July 14, tens of thousands of workers, students, farmers and Indigenous people massed in front of the US embassy in the capital Tegucigalpa. They came from all over the country in response to a call from the National Front to Resist the Coup d’etat (FNRG). About 1000 delegates joined the rally from a rank-and-file convention of the Liberal Party, to which both Zelaya and the illegitimate president installed by the coup, Roberto Micheletti, belong. Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, played a prominent role in the mobilisation.

Since the coup, more than three weeks of mass resistance has all but paralysed the country and shattered its already feeble economy. At least two huge demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of toilers and oppressed sectors have rocked the country. On July 16, Central American labour unions staged solidarity protests closed Honduras’ Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran borders. Export earnings and investments are in free fall.

Despite total press and media censorship within the country, and a near-blackout internationally, coup leaders have not been able to muffle ongoing reports and rumours of fissures in their “united front” and even among lower echelons of the armed forces and police.

The demonstrations and strikes are not spontaneous. They are led by the mass organisations of campesinos (peasants), Indigenous people, students, Afro-Hondurans, trade unions, teachers, journalists, professional associations, religious groups and human rights groups.

The FNRG is made up of dozens of organisations. They are well connected internationally through active networks. They have been influenced by previous struggles in the region, especially the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Ongoing advances for the oppressed in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador have inspired and assisted the Honduran mass movements, giving inspiration and lessons for the struggle.

The reforms implemented by Zelaya since he was elected in 2005 responded to growing pressure from the grassroots, as his government faced dozens of major protests and industrial disputes. This gave impulse to a new dynamic interplay between Zelaya and exploited and oppressed grassroots sectors.

A ‘council’ dynamic

The FNRG has managed to unite people across gender, ethnic, age and class lines. Its ability to resist savage repression, and maintain street and workplace protests, has proven its political maturity. That’s why the “Zelaya delegation” to the San Jose dialogue included a rainbow of union, campesino, Indigenous and Afro-Honduran representatives.

On July 20, a large council gathering of grassroots leaders resolved to step up the resistance. Trade unions announced a general strike for July 24-25. They reaffirmed their support for Zelaya and their call for a constituent assembly to remake the country's constitution. This assembly, in my estimation, revealed that the mass protests have taken on what historians of revolution and insurrection call a “council dynamic” – that is, organising the participation and representation of workers, campesinos, national minorities, students and oppressed sectors through local and networked councils.

The FNRG has enabled a new, dynamic interplay between government-level leadership and the will and initiative of the grassroots. It is still only a beginning, but a vigorous one. Whether it can be consolidated depends on the course of the struggle and on international solidarity.

How long can the mass resistance endure the ongoing repression? People have to make a living, and cannot remain in the streets forever. Campesinos will soon have to begin planting their fields. Time is now more than ever critical to victory.

If resistance deepens, the hour of Jose Francisco Morazan, the 19th century Honduran national hero who implemented important pro-people reforms, may well have sounded.

[Felipe Stuart Cournoyer is a militant of the Nicaraguan FSLN. He divides his work between Nicaragua and Canada, and is a contributing editor of the digital publication Socialist Voice.]

Manuel Zelaya: `Democracy has a price and I am prepared to pay it'

Giorgio Trucchi’s interview with Hondura’s President Manuel Zelaya Rosales (pictured above) was conducted on July 19 in Managua, Nicaragua, as an exclusive for Sirel-UITA (Regional Latin American Secretariat of the International Union of Food, Agriculture and Hotel Workers World Wide). The English language website of the UITA is at http://www.iuf.org/www/en/. The interview only appears in Spanish at the Latin American website based in Montevideo, Uruguay, at http://www.rel-uita.org/.

This translation is by Felipe Stuart Cournoyer, July 22, 2009. Words within square brackets [like this] are the translator’s additions made for the sake of clarity.

* * *

By Giorgio Trucchi

When the Managua press conference of the constitutional president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya Rosales, ended I was able to get into the president’s vehicle along with his minister of the presidency Enrique Flores Lanza to go to an interview with international media. In just a few days -- or perhaps hours -- President Zelaya was to set out on his return trip to Honduras. In the intimacy of the vehicle we began this exclusive interview for Sirel.

Giorgio Trucchi: In the last few days you’ve announced your intention to return to Honduras, no matter the cost. Is this a definitive decision?

Zelaya Rosales: This is not a question of something that goes against the stability of the country; rather it is a solution in the search for stability. We hope that this will be the best way to undertake an internal dialog that solves the conflict and end the repression under which the Honduran people are suffering.

Dialogue with whom?

With the people because the people command in a democracy . The power-sectors who have taken up arms are repressive groups and they have to give up the exercise of command that the people have not granted them.
What has most saddened you about this coup against your person and your government cabinet?

What pains me is that the country is being destroyed. Society is suffering, and they are trying to destroy the progress we have achieved and the efforts of so many generation through the use of arms. 

The de facto government is totally isolated on the international plain and is facing a strong and tireless internal resistance from grassroots movements. Despite that, it is carrying on with a totally intransigent attitude. The question arises -- is this just a matter of insensitivity, or are they placing their confidence in support from foreign actors?

They are like wild animals from the jungle who cling to their food. They think Honduras is their personal ranch. They’re a group of ten families who want to consolidate their economic wealth and privileges. Their fear is groundless because no one is trying to get at them. Nevertheless, they believe that democratic development will [badly] affect them and so do not accept democracy.

In the press conference you said that sectors of the United States extreme right supported and continue to back the coup. Are you convinced the involvement of those sectors?

These people have made public demonstrations of their support to the coup, including US senators and members of Congress. Mr Otto Reich is the former Under Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and he came out in support of the coup. Many people in the United States have done the same. Hence, there is proof and evidence that ex-president George W. Bush’s hawks are behind this coup. 

What importance has the grassroots, social, and union movement had in blocking the progress of the coup? 

The are protagonists in defence of democracy because the think that democracy is an instrument that enables them to make social conquests. They are combating the coup and won’t give up until the effects of this attack against the Honduran people and against democracy is ended.

The coupsters are defying the world and we have to set a precedent before it is too late.

UITA [International Union of Food, Agriculture and Hotel Workers] has been following events from the optic of grassroots movements, before, during, and after the coup? For those sectors there are two elements that cannot be negotiated: rejection of amnesty for the coupsters, and going ahead with having a fourth ballot box [in the coming elections that would consult voters about whether or not a constitutional reform process should be undertaken], and the installation of a constituent assembly. What do you think about those points?

It would be ridiculous to award a prize to the coupsters for carrying out a coup. I think the position of the social movements is to seek a solution to the conflict, but without any prizes or pardons for committing penal and common crimes. At the same time, I think that the seven points put forward by [Costa Rica’s] President Oscar Arias speak about political amnesty but not for ordinary and penal offences.

Regarding social reforms, I think that finding a new strategy to carry on with these reforms must be part of a broad process of discussion throughout Honduran society. Social reforms should not be ended, nor should the peoples’ rights to participation [in political decisions] be blocked because they are constitutional rights. In that sense, Oscar Arias’s points were not discussed in their breadth because the coupsters do not accept restitution of a democratic system. They want a de facto regime that is lawless; they want to maintain it with violence. We cannot accept that. 

It’s been said that there are two basic elements in trying to find a solution to the conflict: the position of the United States and the role of the armed forces. What’s your opinion on that?

Today we sent a letter to President Barrack Obama, respectfully asking him to stiffen measures not only against the repressive state, but also against those individuals who conspired and carried out the coup.  We hope a quick response so that the measures undertaken will really restore a system based on law and order. If that does not happen we are all in a precarious situation, not just myself -- a victim of a coup for defending society’s rights -- but the whole population.  I believe that President Obama not only has diplomatic mechanisms to exercise pressure, but also has other strong resources that I hope he applies; and also other countries in Latin America [should do the same]. 

Regarding the armed forces, if they are going to be used to carry our coups, then logically we have to evaluate their role. However, I believe that, in this case, it was the high command that ordered the coup. The officers and the new generation that is going to receive  blood-stained armed forces do not agree with this coup.

Is it getting close to the moment of your return to Honduras? Aren’t you afraid of being arrested or assassinated?

I have no fear. But I am taking precautions and being careful. When life demands, you have to live with a sense of effort and of its rewards. Sometimes sacrifice is necessary to bring about social conquests, and I am ready to make the effort for people’s liberty, democracy, and peace.

Did you ask the media to accompany in your attempt to return to the country. Are you really proposing to go back?

I’ve asked them to accompany me. I am going to risk everything and the world is taking the same risk with my return. I’ve said that if there is an assassination General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez will be responsible for my death.


Zelaya, Negroponte and the Controversy at Soto Cano

The Coup and the U.S. Airbase in Honduras

By Nikolas Kozloff 

July 22, 2009 "Counterpunch" -- The mainstream media has once again dropped the ball on a key aspect of the ongoing story in Honduras: the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano, also known as Palmerola.  Prior to the recent military coup d’etat President Manuel Zelaya declared that he would turn the base into a civilian airport, a move opposed by the former U.S. ambassador.  What’s more Zelaya intended to carry out his project with Venezuelan financing.

For years prior to the coup the Honduran authorities had discussed the possibility of converting Palmerola into a civilian facility.  Officials fretted that Toncontín, Tegucigalpa’s international airport, was too small and incapable of handling large commercial aircraft.  An aging facility dating to 1948, Toncontín has a short runway and primitive navigation equipment.  The facility is surrounded by hills which makes it one of the world’s more dangerous international airports.

Palmerola by contrast has the best runway in the country at 8,850 feet long and 165 feet wide.  The airport was built more recently in the mid-1980s at a reported cost of $30 million and was used by the United States for supplying the Contras during America’s proxy war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as well as conducting counter-insurgency operations in El Salvador.  At the height of the Contra war the U.S. had more than 5,000 soldiers stationed at Palmerola.  Known as the Contras’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” the base housed Green Berets as well as CIA operatives advising the Nicaraguan rebels.

More recently there have been some 500-to-600 U.S. troops on hand at the facility which serves as a Honduran air force base as well as a flight-training center.  With the exit of U.S. bases from Panama in 1999, Palmerola became one of the few usable airfields available to the U.S. on Latin American soil.  The base is located approximately 30 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

In 2006 it looked as if Zelaya and the Bush administration were nearing a deal on Palmerola’s future status.  In June of that year Zelaya flew to Washington to meet President Bush and the Honduran requested that Palmerola be converted into a commercial airport.  Reportedly Bush said the idea was “wholly reasonable” and Zelaya declared that a four-lane highway would be constructed from Tegucigalpa to Palmerola with U.S. funding.   

In exchange for the White House’s help on the Palmerola facility Zelaya offered the U.S. access to a new military installation to be located in the Mosquitia area along the Honduran coast near the Nicaraguan border.  Mosquitia reportedly serves as a corridor for drugs moving south to north.  The drug cartels pass through Mosquitia with their cargo en route from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

A remote area only accessible by air, sea, and river Mosquitia is full of swamp and jungle.  The region is ideal for the U.S. since large numbers of troops may be housed in Mosquitia in relative obscurity.  The coastal location was ideally suited for naval and air coverage consistent with the stated U.S. military strategy of confronting organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism.  Romeo Vásquez, head of the Honduran Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked that the armed forces needed to exert a greater presence in Mosquitia because the area was full of “conflict and problems.”

But what kind of access would the U.S. have to Mosquitia?  Honduran Defense Secretary Aristides Mejía said that Mosquitia wouldn’t necessarily be “a classic base with permanent installations, but just when needed. We intend, if President Zelaya approves, to expand joint operations [with the United States].”  That statement however was apparently not to the liking of eventual coup leader and U.S. School of the Americas graduate Vásquez who had already traveled to Washington to discuss future plans for Mosquitia.  Contradicting his own colleague, Vásquez said the idea was “to establish a permanent military base of ours in the zone” which would house aircraft and fuel supply systems.  The United States, Vásquez added, would help to construct air strips on site.   

Events on the ground meanwhile would soon force the Hondurans to take a more assertive approach towards air safety.  In May, 2008 a terrible crash occurred at Toncontín airport when a TACA Airbus A320 slid off the runway on its second landing attempt.  After mowing down trees and smashing through a metal fence, the airplane’s fuselage was broken into three parts near the airstrip.  Three people were killed in the crash and 65 were injured.

In the wake of the tragedy Honduran officials were forced at long last to block planes from landing at the notoriously dangerous Toncontín.  All large jets, officials said, would be temporarily transferred to Palmerola.  Touring the U.S. airbase himself Zelaya remarked that the authorities would create a new civilian facility at Palmerola within sixty days.  Bush had already agreed to let Honduras construct a civilian airport at Palmerola, Zelaya said.  “There are witnesses,” the President added. 

But constructing a new airport had grown more politically complicated.  Honduran-U.S. relations had deteriorated considerably since Zelaya’s 2006 meeting with Bush and Zelaya had started to cultivate ties to Venezuela while simultaneously criticizing the American-led war on drugs.

Bush’s own U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford said that while he would welcome the traffic at Palmerola past agreements should be honored.  The base was used mostly for drug surveillance planes and Ford remarked that “The president can order the use of Palmerola when he wants, but certain accords and protocols must be followed.”  “It is important to point out that Toncontín is certified by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” Ford added, hoping to allay long-time concerns about the airport’s safety.  What’s more, the diplomat declared, there were some airlines that would not see Palmerola as an “attractive” landing destination.  Ford would not elaborate or explain what his remarks were supposed to mean.

Throwing fuel on the fire Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, said that Honduras could not transform Palmerola into a civilian airport “from one day to the next.”  In Tegucigalpa, Negroponte met with Zelaya to discuss Palmerola.  Speaking later on Honduran radio the U.S. diplomat said that before Zelaya could embark on his plans for Palmerola the airport would have to receive international certification for new incoming flights.  According to Spanish news agency EFE Negroponte also took advantage of his Tegucigalpa trip to sit down and meet with the President of the Honduran Parliament and future coup leader Roberto Micheletti [the news account however did not state what the two discussed].

Needless to say Negroponte’s visit to Honduras was widely repudiated by progressive and human rights activists who labeled Negroponte “an assassin” and accused him of being responsible for forced disappearances during the diplomat’s tenure as ambassador (1981-1985).  Moreover, Ford and Negroponte’s condescending attitude irked organized labor, indigenous groups and peasants who demanded that Honduras reclaim its national sovereignty over Palmerola.  “It’s necessary to recover Palmerola because it’s unacceptable that the best airstrip in Central America continues to be in the hands of the U.S. military,” said Carlos Reyes, leader of the Popular Bloc which included various politically progressive organizations.  “The Cold War has ended and there are no pretexts to continue with the military presence in the region,” he added.  The activist remarked that the government should not contemplate swapping Mosquitia for Palmerola either as this would be an affront to Honduran pride.

Over the next year Zelaya sought to convert Palmerola into a civilian airport but plans languished when the government was unable to attract international investors.  Finally in 2009 Zelaya announced that the Honduran armed forces would undertake construction.  To pay for the new project the President would rely on funding from ALBA [in English, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas] and Petrocaribe, two reciprocal trading agreements pushed by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.  Predictably the Honduran right leapt on Zelaya for using Venezuelan funds.  Amílcar Bulnes, President of the Honduran Business Association [known by its Spanish acronym COHEP] said that Petrocaribe funds should not be used for the airport but rather for other, unspecified needs.

A couple weeks after Zelaya announced that the armed forces would proceed with construction at Palmerola the military rebelled.  Led by Romeo Vásquez, the army overthrew Zelaya and deported him out of the country.  In the wake of the coup U.S. peace activists visited Palmerola and were surprised to find that the base was busy and helicopters were flying all around.  When activists asked American officials if anything had changed in terms of the U.S.-Honduran relationship they were told “no, nothing.”

The Honduran elite and the hard right U.S. foreign policy establishment had many reasons to despise Manuel Zelaya as I’ve discussed in previous articles.  The controversy over the Palmerola airbase however certainly gave them more ammunition.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).