Honduras’ latest coup

In modifying its constitution, Honduras’ hypocrisy is world-class.

A militarised policeman takes part in the repression of youth gangs in Honduras [AFP]
A militarised policeman takes part in the repression of youth gangs in Honduras [AFP]

Last month, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled that Article 239 of the national constitution was no longer applicable.

The article prohibited the re-election of presidents, who were limited to a single four-year term, and furthermore stipulated that any president “directly or indirectly” supporting a modification of said article would be immediately removed from his post and banned from public office for 10 years.

Regarding 239’s demise, you might therefore say: Big deal. It’s a ridiculous prohibition anyway.

But it happens to be the very same article that was invoked to justify the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, who was accused of endeavouring to rewrite the constitution to retain his hold on power.

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At the time, you would have thought Article 239 was the universe’s most sacred item.

The threat of democracy

The caricature of Zelaya offered by his right-wing opponents cast him as a megalomaniacal wannabe dictator seeking to transform the country into a den of socialism and other vices.

Evidence of this nefarious scheme was that the man had dared to organise a referendum to consult the Honduran citizenry on whether or not to install an extra ballot box at elections later that year, via which folks would then vote on whether or not to convene a constituent assembly to revamp the constitution.

Lest Honduran “democracy” remotely live up to its name by allowing the people a say in political matters, the Honduran military swooped into the president’s bedroom on the morning of the scheduled referendum and carted a pajama-clad Zelaya off to Costa Rica.

So much for Article 102 of the constitution, which prohibits the forcible expatriation of any Honduran citizen.

Guardians of the hemisphere

In the aftermath of the events, I interviewed General Romeo Vasquez, coup leader and alumnus of the notorious School of the Americas, who contended that Zelaya’s proposed public opinion survey had been “part of an international project commanded by Hugo Chavez”.

Army commander Miguel Angel Garcia went as far as to proclaim that the Honduran armed forces had succeeded in halting the spread of socialism, which had been making its way to the “heart of the United States”.

And while the US denied having a role in ousting Zelaya, the latest poster boy for the international leftist plague, it legitimised the coup by recognising the outcome of illegitimate elections held under the coup-installed regime.


That Honduras would play up its utility to the US is no surprise given its longtime service as a regional US military base. In fact, the 1982 Honduran constitution containing the heretofore hallowed Article 239 was penned during an era in which the nation was affectionately known as the USS Honduras – its comprehensive militarisation allegedly warranted by the existential threat of communism.

Apparently, times haven’t changed much.

And while the US denied having a role in ousting Zelaya, the latest poster boy for the international leftist plague, it legitimised the coup by recognising the outcome of illegitimate elections held under the coup-installed regime.

As economist Mark Weisbrot notes at Al Jazeera America, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has since owned up to her role in preventing Zelaya’s (lawful) reinstatement.

Meanwhile, the coup marked the start of the present phase of near-total impunity in Honduras, which has achieved the distinction of homicide capital of the world. Among the groups prone to homicidal behaviour and other forms of violence are state security forces backed by the US.

Deadly occupations

As historian Dana Frank details in a recent article for World Politics Review, current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has thoroughly “militarise[d] domestic security”, unleashing a new military police force that has busied itself with activities such as “beating up and detaining Honduras’ leading advocate for children … and tear-gassing 35 opposition members inside the main hall of Congress”.

Yet the money continues to pour in from the trusty imperial neighbour to the north, which is scheming to drastically increase funding for the Honduran military as part of its ongoing quest to make the world safe for neoliberalism.

The Honduran right-wing is, of course, fully on board with the project, and as Frank points out, Hernandez and his illegitimate predecessor Porfirio Lobo “have already sold off nearly 30 percent of all Honduran land in mining concessions“.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez [AFP]
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez [AFP]

This context is helpful, perhaps, in understanding why environmental and land rights activism in Honduras is such a deadly occupation. Then again, merely existing in the country is often a deadly occupation.

And the elimination of Article 239 means Hondurans have more of the same to look forward to. Given that the constitution is scripted on behalf of elite interests in the first place, its flouting serves more as a reminder that the government is above the law than as an indication of significant structural change.

Constitution, made-to-order

The Los Angeles Times reports that “the way the ban [on presidential re-election] was struck down was clouded in confusion”: After five Supreme Court judges who were “appointed by Hernandez or his proxies” voted unanimously to void the ban, one reversed his vote, which meant the case would need to be presented before the entire court.

“But for reasons not completely clear,” the Times writes, “the government’s official Gazette went ahead and rushed to publish the ruling as unanimous… With that, it enters into effect.”

As a result, we’ve now got Hernandez – a key player in Zelaya’s ouster over allegedly unconstitutional machinations – eligible for re-election thanks to constitutional manipulation by his own Supreme Court minions.

And that, to put it mildly, is one hell of a coup.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.