Memories of a Honduran coup

How the events of 2009 in Honduras shaped my worldview.

Supporters of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya block a street to prevent military trucks from passing near the presidential residency in Tegucigalpa on June 28, 2009 [File: Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas]

Twelve years ago, in the wee hours of June 28, 2009, Manuel Zelaya, the president of Honduras, was abducted from his residence by heavily armed Honduran soldiers and carted off to Costa Rica in his pyjamas, never to be restored to his rightful post.

Prior to the coup, the slightly left-leaning Zelaya had raised the urban minimum wage to $300 a month and pursued a smattering of other domestic adjustments. While these measures hardly did much to alleviate institutionalised misery, they were still too abominable a departure from business as usual for the right-wing Honduran elite – faithful acolytes of American empire and replicators of capitalist oppression.

Following Zelaya’s overthrow, the Barack Obama administration in the United States took its sweet time debating whether the coup had actually been a coup and should therefore trigger the required cutoffs in aid to Honduras.

Ultimately, the US heel-dragging allowed the Honduran right wing to re-entrench itself in power, and subsequent illegitimate and fraudulent elections – swiftly signed off on by Obama & Co – sealed the deal.

When the coup transpired, I was in Argentina visiting my parents, who had recently relocated there from the US homeland. I had just spent four months hitchhiking through Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela – a trip that, like my previous international hitchhiking jaunts, had offered me a first-hand glimpse of my country’s malevolent machinations worldwide.

I had seen, for example, the rubble of Lebanon in summer of 2006 – when the US had rush-shipped bombs to the Israeli military to assist in apocalyptic destruction – and the rubble of a Colombian society decimated in part by massive US funding for Colombian security forces with a penchant for massacring civilians. The takeaway from my travels was clear: civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr had been dead right when he called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”.

On the subject of Honduras, however, I was still woefully clueless – to the extent that, watching the news of the coup on Argentinian television on June 28, I thought the country was an island.

Exactly one month later, I was on a flight from Buenos Aires to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, having bought a ticket on a whim. Naturally, it was infinitely easier for a US citizen to enter Honduras with no other excuse than that she was bored in Argentina than for a Honduran to enter the US for more existential, life-threatening reasons – many of them resulting from US violations of Honduran sovereignty in the first place.

Indeed, the US bears no small part of the blame for the obscene levels of violence in Honduras, which became even more obscene in the aftermath of the coup and led to the country’s stint as the murder capital of the world. It is no accident that the inaugural 2018 US-bound migrant caravan originated in Honduras.

During the Cold War, the Central American nation had been dubbed the “USS Honduras” in light of its central role in the Contra war against neighbouring Nicaragua, which had aimed to terrorise Nicaraguans out of their leftist inclinations.

The US also had plenty of terror tricks up its sleeve in Honduras itself, and, throughout the 1980s, a CIA-trained military unit called Battalion 316 tortured and otherwise antagonised Hondurans suspected of opposition to capitalism.

In 1995, the Baltimore Sun interviewed a former battalion member who “recalled how he nearly suffocated people with rubber masks, how he attached wires to their genitals and shocked them with electricity, how he tore off a man’s testicles with a rope”.

Anyway, what is not to like about capitalism?

In the contemporary era, meanwhile, US contributions to violence in Honduras have ranged from your typical neoliberal devastation of lives and livelihoods to vast financial contributions to homicidal state security forces operating with near-total impunity.

When I arrived in Tegucigalpa in July 2009 for what would turn into a four-month stay, daily and overwhelmingly peaceful anti-coup protests were being met with ludicrous displays of force by the coup regime. On one occasion, I watched as elderly Honduran ladies were dutifully blasted by water cannon loaded with pepper spray.

On another, I attended the burial of Jairo Sánchez, a union leader shot in the face by police – one of the countless Hondurans killed, disappeared, maimed, raped, and abused as part of the valiant effort to ensure that the USS Honduras retained its prized spot as a key node of empire.

Of course, my US passport and the fact that I could remove myself from Honduras at will meant that I could not even remotely experience the institutionalised violence perpetually bearing down on Hondurans. I can nonetheless definitively say that, in the 70 or so countries I have travelled in, I have never felt so acute a lack of personal security as in Honduras.

There was the time I awoke in the middle of the night to find a man in my room – on what sort of mission I will never know, as my bloodcurdling screams caused him to dive back out the window, leaving me to never sleep again. There was the time I was accosted while jogging and relieved of five dollars and a dilapidated alarm clock, although my accoster quickly decided I could keep the clock. And then there was the time I was accosted and threatened with death-by-shooting if I did not hand over something of value.

In this last case, I suggested to the man that we walk to the nearest ATM, which fortuitously ended up being quite far and thus gave me time to ponder what to do about my lack of an ATM card. Even more fortuitously, my companion and I got to chatting (“So, what do you do when you are not assaulting people?”), and he eventually pronounced me not half-bad and not in need of mugging. As a bonus, he gave me the option of adopting his 18-month-old son on account of the child’s mother’s crack cocaine habit.

While I did not take him up on the adoption offer, I did see his sudden kindness as a form of human resilience in the face of a brutal economic system that blames poor and desperate individuals for their own brutalisation. And yet the US-backed capitalist arrangement in Honduras and beyond ensures the production of these very “criminals” by denying populations basic rights like healthcare and shelter – because, obviously, human rights interfere with profit.

Some months into my stay in Tegucigalpa, I finagled a rare interview with Romeo Vásquez, the Honduran general who had spearheaded the coup and an alumnus of the US-run School of the Americas – a longtime go-to institution for Latin American dictators and death squad leaders.

In addition to charmingly remarking that he was not at all opposed to taking a second wife, Vásquez unleashed intriguing soundbites such as that the “goal of the military at the moment is the protection of life” and that “human life is the priority of the state”.

Now, as the Honduran coup turns 12, human life is no more a priority than it was then – neither for Honduras, nor the US, which continues to fuel right-wing abuses by the Central American nation and across the world. And as my own writing career also turns 12, there is no dearth of things to write about.

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