Honduras on edge as president defies courts, military
The Supreme Court of Honduras June 25 rejected President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya's dismissal of the country's senior military officer, Gen. Romeo Vásquez, deepening a confrontation over Zelaya's proposal to reform the constitution. Zelaya vowed to push ahead with a vote scheduled for June 28 to measure public support for holding a National Constituent Assembly. At a rally in Tegucigalpa, he told supporters that the court's decision amounted to a coup. As tens of thousands of Hondurans rushed to the defense of the president, filling and surrounding the presidential palace, soldiers were ordered into the streets.
Zelaya fired Vásquez after the military refused to cooperate with the referendum. Both the National Congress and the courts have already deemed the planned referendum unlawful. The Supreme Court ordered Gen. Vásquez reinstated, but Zelaya told crowds he refused to comply. "We will not obey the Supreme Court," he told cheering supporters in front of the presidential offices. "The court, which only imparts justice for the powerful, the rich and the bankers, only causes problems for democracy."
Zelaya was elected in 2006 and under the current constitution is barred from standing for re-election. The pending referendum seeks a mandate for a second vote on a new constitution that would be drafted in time for the November elections—in which Zelaya is barred from running under the current constitution.
Proposed provisions of the new constitution include a raise in the minimum wage; measures to re-nationalize power plants and the telephone system; and strengthening the labor code. The lifting of presidential term limits is widely suspected by the opposition of being the real agenda—although the reform would not take effect until Zelaya is scheduled to leave office next year.
The current constitution was written in 1982, when Honduras was controlled by a US-backed military-dominated regime, and the US itself had a huge military presence in the country. The Honduran armed forces initially pledged support to provide logistical support for the referendum. Then, on June 23, the army informed the president they would not support the vote. The president fired the head of the armed forces, Gen. Vásquez, and Minister of Defense Edmundo Orellana resigned. Fearing for the safety of Zelaya, thousands of Hondurans surrounded the presidential palace.
The National Congress is strongly opposed to the referendum, and on June 25 met to draft a letter of resignation for the president. The Congress also called upon the OAS to withdraw the elections observers currently arriving to observe the referendum, and broached initiatives to block their entry to the country. Public statements by opposition political figures have asserted that voters participating in the referendum could face 10 to 15 years in prison.
Around midday June 25, President Zelaya and thousands of civilian supporters left the presidential palace in city buses and headed to a military base outside the capital, where they were reported to have successfully recovered the ballot boxed needed for the referendum. The referendum is said to have 80% support. (BBC News, Americas Society, June 26; NYT, Rights Action via MarxMail list, June 25)
Last month, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) threatened civil disobedience and insurrection if there are any attempts to impede the vote on the formation of a Constituent National Assembly. On May 18, over one hundred campesinos, machetes in hand, staged a protest outside the Public Ministry building in Tegucigalpa. In a comuniqué distributed to the press, COPINH sent out a "call to all sectors of Honduran society, stating that if the obscurantist and power groups and the transnationals and their spokespersons deny us our right to a consultation and to reforms to transform Honduras into a people's democratic state, we will organize a massive popular insurrection." (Rights Action, May 18)