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Christian Frevel {*}

The Coup d'État and the Church

The Situation in Honduras Continues to be Unstable


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2010, P. 303-307
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After the coup in June 2009, Honduras has superficially returned to everyday life. But the domestic political crisis showed how fragile the democratic fabric is. The church in the country calls for a return to political daily business and thus to improve the living conditions of the poor majority.


Scenes of a coup: Just before the dawn of the 28th June 2009 soldiers armed with guns forced their way into the villa of the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, forcing the chief of the Central American country, clad only with a pajama, to board the airplane that brought him to the neighbouring Costa Rica. Military units occupied television and radio stations, cut off temporarily the electricity supply in the capital, and blocked some foreign television stations and traffic junctions. On the morning of the same day the parliament assembled and accepted Zelaya's letter of resignation - a paper that was obviously faked. The MPs entrusted the previous Parliament Speaker, Roberto Micheletti with the office. The newly appointed president, Zelaya's party colleague from the Liberal Party imposed immediately a curfew and the state of emergency.

Manuel Zelaya, however, presented himself in Costa Rica as the victim of a coup. In the international outcry about the former President's deprivation of power and his involuntary departure it was almost missed that the military had fulfilled the order of the Supreme Court when it ousted the President from power.

The international response is understandable. The events looked too much like a relapse into the time of the "banana republics" in Central America, which was believed to be long past. After all, for many years the military in Honduras had been involved in numerous coups and human rights violations, and the army of Honduras is still the largest army in Central America.



At the beginning of the 20th century a representative of the U.S. United Fruit Company sneered that in Honduras the costs of a mule were higher than of a member of parliament, and the US ambassador in Honduras' capital Tegucigalpa had anyway more power than the President of the country. The country was chronically unstable. No sooner was a president in power, he had lost it again. Between 1821, the year of independence from Spain, and 1932 in Honduras 115 changes of government took place. This political carousel was promoted and exacerbated by the two major U.S. fruit companies in the country, the United Fruit Co. and the smaller rival firm Cuyamel Fruit Company. Honduras was in 1920 the largest banana exporter in the world.

The United States watched carefully to ensure that during the turmoil of political disputes "American lives and property" were not injured in Honduras. In 1924 U.S. Marines occupied for two months Tegucigalpa and determined the political events. With nearly $ 300,000,000 the expansion of the army in Honduras has been supported, and so the number of its troops was almost doubled. The Pentagon had temporarily deployed more than 7,000 soldiers in Honduras. In addition, 15,000 Nicaraguan fighters of the anti-Sandinista Contras, who were living in camps on Honduran territory, were generously supported.

When in 1981 free elections were held, all the leftist parties were excluded. Many members of the opposition were kidnapped and murdered. In 1982 a new constitution came into force, which is effective until today. Since then, the political events are dominated by the two political parties Partido Liberal (PL) and Partido Nacional (PN), which ever since supplied also all presidents.

In contrast to the neighbouring countries of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the political system in Honduras is not shaped by ideological differences. The Constitution of 1982 strengthened the position of the economically strongest families in the country; and the governments, which always contained also politicians of the opposition, were always anxious about building consensus. This remained so until Zelaya took office in 2005. In Honduras politicians see themselves less as representative of a political movement than as moderators between different economic groups and families.

It is therefore only logical that the various political families (which have often been supplying office-holders since several generations) are interwoven in a network, regardless of the parties to which they belong. There are common economic activities of the various families up to the surveillance of the media, which are also largely in the hands of the ruling class.

In a pastoral letter the bishops had admittedly already in 1949 called on the faithful to participate actively in the "Catholic Action" and had pointed out the importance of the lay apostolate for Church and society, but no movement emerged from it. The Catholic radio schools, which besides evangelization are active in the field of literacy and social education (in 1964 there were 343 radio schools with more than 14,000 participants in Honduras), and the movement of "Delegados en la Palabra", the "representatives of the word" became important for the laity.


Catholic Lay People are Hardly Active in Politics

These are the laymen who are appointed by the bishops to lead the liturgy of the Word and to catechize. In 1966 the bishop of Choluteca in southern Honduras, the Canada-born Marcelo Guerin who is member of a religious order began to train the first layman for their service in the pastoral care. He based his work on the council's decree "Apostolicam actuositatem" about the lay apostolate, which had only a few months ago been published.

The movement of "Delegados de la Palabra" grew quickly. Today there are in Honduras more than 17,000 "Delegados" who closely cooperate with the approximately 420 priests in the country. "Without the Delegados in Honduras the pastoral work would be no longer possible," said the vice president of the Honduran episcopal conference, Angel Garachana, Archbishop of San Pedro Sula. But there are only a few Catholics who from working in the church moved into politics. "The church is close to people," a bishop said ambiguously in a background discussion.

Most bishops are foreign missionaries. Only a few, like the archbishop of Tegucigalpa and most famous representative of Honduras' church, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, were born in Honduras. More than half of the 420 priests are still foreign missionaries.

In the late seventies, the conservative elites in Honduras accused the Catholic Church of pursuing party political interests with its laity movements. Church educational institutions were accused of stirring up violent land conflicts. In 1972, the general assembly of the bishops rejected the accusations that the Church sympathized with communism, and that the base communities were a "breeding ground" for the newly formed Christian Democratic Party. However, the bishops called upon the laity committed to church-led activities to abuse neither their position nor the pastoral structures for party politics. Many "Delegados" who were committed to agrarian reform and social care were vilified as "communists".



The persecution of some church representatives who were active in the field of social care had a tragic climax in the massacre of Los Horcones, a hacienda in the Diocese of Olancho. In June 1975 two priests from Colombia and the United States and five campesinos were tortured, mutilated and murdered. As a result, priests, religious women, "Delegados de la Palabra" had to leave the diocese - also Bishop Nicholas D'Antonio, who had come from the United States. The work of social care as well as the commitment of the Delegados was heavily disturbed by the massacre.

Thirty years later exactly this massacre played an important role in the campaign for the presidency, because the Hacienda in Juticalpa (Olancho Department), on the grounds of which the priests and lay people had been murdered, belonged to the father of the presidential candidate of the Liberal Party. He was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment but after two years already released due to an amnesty. But it could never be proved that his son, the politician José Manuel Zelaya took part in those misdeeds.

When he, however, in November 2005 won the presidential elections against the candidate of the National Party and against his neighbour in Juticalpa, Pofirio 'Pepe' Lobo, nobody suspected that Zelaya would change the course of the previous four presidents of the Liberal Party since 1982. For since the eighties Honduras experienced a strengthening of democracy, although in the rigid corset of a two-party system. "Despite the problems," so the Honduran Episcopal Conference had already written in May 1995, "the country is gradually progressing towards democracy."

Under the pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the governments had to take austerity measures. They hit mainly the general population: dismissals in the public sector, cuts in health care, elimination of subsidies for basic food, and a devaluation of the national currency. Honduras is still one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and was also heavily affected by natural disasters such as the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

World Bank statistics show that 50 percent of the Honduran population still live below the poverty line and that the income distribution is very unequal. Ten per cent of the population have more than 40 percent of total income at their disposal. 58 per cent of the population live in absolute poverty. More and more people move from rural areas to the growing shanty towns at the edges of large cities, because almost two thirds of all farmers in Honduras, so the result of a UN study, go hungry. And the wages of agricultural workers continue to go down. This is due not least to the inflation rate of around 30 per cent. That's why many Hondurans try to go to the U.S. or Canada. Hundreds of thousands of families live on the "Remesas", the remittances of their relatives in the U.S.. In 2008 they made up almost one quarter of the gross domestic product.



During the election campaign Manuel Zelaya had shown himself as a representative of the "Rancheros", the stock breeders; and up to this day the typical white cowboy hat remained his trademark. Immediately after the election the government was under pressure by the International Monetary Fund IMF. The debt service of Honduras has still to pay for loans of the eighties. In view of empty state treasury Zelaya declared the "state of emergency because of the energy crisis". Due to high oil prices, the electricity prices were increased, and Zelaya temporarily handed over the control of state power plants to the military.

The President negotiated with Brazil and Venezuela about oil deliveries. This resulted in January 2008 in a trade agreement between Zelaya and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. From then on 20,000 barrels of oil flowed daily at significantly reduced prices to Honduras. Six months later, the Honduran President announced his country's accession to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA), which had been founded by Chávez. Zelaya obtained thus financial leeway and doubled the minimum wage. This was seen in parts of the population as a sign that now the president would also tackle the promised social reforms.

For his foreign policy, however, he had lost the support. His fellow party member Roberto Micheletti, the then president of the National Congress, wanted to overturn the ratification of the law in Parliament. After a meeting between Zelaya and Micheletti, however, the Parliament voted by the votes of the Liberal Party to join ALBA. Observers reported at that time that Zelaya had promised Micheletti to support him in the candidature for becoming his successor. But in the primaries for the presidential candidate of the Liberals Elvin Santos prevailed, the then Vice President.

The reason given for the coup was Zelaya's attempt to change the Constitution by a referendum in order to allow him a second term. This is ruled out by the Constitution of 1982 in Article 239, and a little further on it says, "The who broke this provision or propose its reform, as well as those who support directly or indirectly, cease immediately in the performance of their respective positions and will be disqualified by ten (10) years for the exercise of public office."

The vote on convening a Constituent Assembly, which was first called referendum and later "citizens' survey" by President Zelaya, was rejected several times by different courts and by Congress. Only Porfirio Lobo, presidential candidate of the Conservative Party showed readiness to talk. Afterwards, when all the courts including the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal had forbidden Zelaya the referendum, he tried to use the military. As Supreme Commander he ordered to support logistically the referendum, and to bring the boxes and ballot papers to the polling stations. But the Chief of Staff Romeo Vásquez Velásquez refused - and was dismissed from office by the President. But the Supreme Court appointed him again chief of staff.


No Coup in the Eyes of the Church

Only a few days later it came to the above-described scene. Zelaya was against his will brought outside the country, and the parliament elected Roberto Micheletti as interim president. The following events are relatively well known, because the international community, but especially the international press paid suddenly attention to Honduras. The transitional government remained isolated internationally and has not been recognized. Even the U.S. government refused Micheletti entry into the U.S., and demanded instead the reinstatement of Zelaya. The ousted president presented himself at the side of the ALBA countries' leaders, of whom Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez even threatened to take up arms against Honduras.

The president of the Honduran episcopal conference, Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga soon expressed his understanding for Zelaya's dismissal, which he described as being in conformity with the Constitution. But at the same time he criticized also the manner in which Zelaya was brought outside the country. The international response to the removal of Zelaya he described as being politically wrong. And the Honduran episcopal conference emphasized in a statement the legality of compulsory retirement under Article 239 of the Constitution, but also demanded a explanation of the fact that Zelaya had been brought by force of arms abroad.

Not only in the eyes of the church, it was therefore no coup, because the reigns of government were assumed by forces that had already been legitimized by elections and whose actions were based on the Constitution. It was nevertheless a coup, because both the Zelaya's abduction abroad and the way in which Micheletti's interim government was appointed were not endorsed by the Constitution.

The bishops, so also Cardinal Rodriguez explained, had for quite some time feared a "Bolivarization" of the country following the Venezuelan model. Similar to Venezuela, there were also in Honduras attacks on churches and church services after the coup d'etat, and one could soon read on many walls the slogan "Cardinal golpista" (coup cardinal). The Archbishop of Tegucigalpa was suspected of being involved in the coup, because he had approved Zelaya's removal.

In fact, the church had for a conspicuously long time restrained herself, until more than a week after Zelaya's removal the bishops' conference issued its declaration.



In the meantime, it was said that the internationally respected Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez had met with representatives of all camps and foreign mediators in order to "prevent a bloodshed". According to the bishops' conference, Honduras had been on the verge of civil war. For many years Cardinal Rodriguez has been patron of the international debt relief campaign and is since 2007 President of Caritas Internationalis.

Within the bishops' conference, only the bishop of Santa Rosa de Copan, Luis Alfonso Santos expressed a different opinion. The pastoral council of the diocese stated its "disapproval of the way how a new government has been forced upon the people." Rodriguez and Santos are both Salesians.

Also on the international stage Cardinal Rodriguez met with opposition after the coup: the award of the Honorary Doctorate in Paris had to be canceled due to the threatened massive counter-demonstrations, and in Germany for instance the Christian Initiative Romero railed against the invitation of the Cardinal to Munster, because he had "supported by his conduct the illegitimate action of the putschists".

Even after the settlement of the crisis, the bishops' conference continues to follow this line. The bishops contradict the view that the Honduran Constitution of 1982 was "weak", as Oscar Arias had said, the former president of Costa Rica and mediator in the Honduran crisis. The change in office to Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo had run democratically, it says in the bishops' conference.

The new president Pepe Lobo, who in 2005 had made e.g. the reintroduction of the death penalty an issue in the election campaign, and had promised more security, is in office since January 2010. Only a few days after his inauguration, which was accompanied by massive military and police presence, "Delegados de la Palabra", employees of the social care and base communities distributed among Catholics signature lists with 15 demands to the President. There they called inter alia for social reforms, raising the minimum wage, and more civic participation.

Lobo, who like the previous governments had also appointed ministers from other parties than the ruling Conservative Party, comes now under pressure because several violations of human rights in the country have taken place. Several journalists and people committed to the land rights movement have been murdered.

A truth commission is now to clarify the background to the coup in Honduras. President Porfirio Lobo has entrusted the former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein with the formation of the Commission. The Commission sees itself not as a prosecuting authority, said Stein. "We are looking for a way to achieve reconciliation between truth and justice." The investigations are to last up to two years.


    {*} Christian Frevel (born in 1960) is director of public relations and education in the Episcopal Action Adveniat. Previously he was editor and public speaker with various newspapers, magazines and institutions, from 1999 to 2002 deputy editor in chief of the mission magazine "continents" in Cologne.


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