In The Long Honduran Night, Dana Frank gives a personal and detailed account of the resistance of Honduran people and the involvement of the US, finds Orlando Hill
In the beginning of her book, Dana Frank admits that Honduras has a reputation of being ‘uncool’ compared to its more revolutionary neighbours such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Over the years it has been seen as a US puppet where mass struggles had failed to emerge.
However, after 28th June 2009 this perception would be shattered. In the early hours of the morning the Honduran military surrounded the home of the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya and at gun point flew him off to Costa Rica still in his pyjamas. This was a traditional military coup successfully tried out throughout Latin America along its turbulent history. There were the usual scenes of military planes roaring through the skies; tanks roaming the streets; phone services disrupted, and the military occupying buildings. However, Honduras would be the last country in Latin America in which the armed forces played a major role in the overthrowing of an elected government.
What did not go to plan was the enormous resistance movement that sprang out apparently from nowhere. Thousands took to the streets. Bridges were shut down. The opposition consolidated into the National Front of Popular Resistance (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular, FNRP) bringing together the labour movement, campesinos, indigenous people, women and other sectors committed to constitutional order. Due to the lack of a judicial process, the coup leaders quickly lost the cultural and ideological dispute. The social movements were able to organise quickly a considerable and impressive united resistance.
Honduras served as starting point to rethink how to destabilise and overthrow centre-left governments in the region:
‘Honduras was the first domino that the United States pushed over to counteract the new governments in Latin America’ (p.19).
Obama, only five months in office, was quick to recognise the new government and try to stabilise the coup, sending a clear message of how ‘new’ his foreign policy would be.
In Honduras, after two years of negotiations, a comprise was reached with Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and the Honduran government, allowing President Zelaya to return to Honduras. According to Frank, the powers in the region and the United States wanted a resolution to the problem of Honduras being seen as a pariah state, and for things to go back to ‘normal’. However, the coup was indeed normalised as a result, and not defeated.
The right-wing sectors in the rest of Latin America learnt a lesson. They could not rely simply on the military to overthrow a progressive government like they had done so many times in the past. Social movements have gained experience in their struggle for democracy and against neoliberalism. Successful coup leaders would have to win the cultural hegemony before attempting to overthrow the government. Furthermore, the coup would have to be carried out in such a way as to give it the character of legality. This new model proved very successful in Brazil with the constitutional coup against Dilma Rousseff finalised in August 2016. Recently. Juan Guaidó seems to not have learnt the lesson when attempting his failed coup against Maduro of April this year.
This book is a very personal account of the coup and the following eight years of resistance. In some moments it makes very depressing reading, for the deaths are not just statistical numbers, but people she knew; she does not want them forgotten. She tells of communities of campesinos (peasant farmers) burnt to the ground to make room for west-African palm-oil plantations. These dramatically reduce the need for labour, suck dry the underlying water table, require more poisonous chemical inputs, and are destined for the export market. They are in the interests of corporate profit rather than the people and the environment.
Among the dead who should not be forgotten is Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores, an indigenous activist, a feminist, a supporter of LGBTI rights, and a critic of capitalism. She won various international prizes, but despite all her fame she was shot dead in her house.
Ten years on Hondurans are still in the streets fighting against neoliberal policies. Some have opted to migrate as a means of escaping the profound social inequality that is mounting in the country. With US pressure for neighbouring countries such as Guatemala and Mexico to reinforce their borders, preventing the march of large numbers of migrants from reaching the US, the humanitarian situation worsens. The only answer the Honduran government of Juan Orlando Hernández gives is more violence and repression.
What are the lessons for the left in Latin America and anti-imperialism in general? Those who took to the streets soon after the coup were not necessarily Zelaya supporters, as the US media portrayed them. According to Frank, at least half of the protesters were ‘ferociously opposed to Zelaya while he was in office’ (p.21). They were in the streets to defend the constitutional rule of law, to defend democracy. Raquel Varela once said that bourgeois democracy does not exist. Democracy has historically been conquered by the working class against the bourgeoisie. Democracy has been hard fought for in just this way in Honduras, Latin America and rest of the world.
Frank understands that on its own Honduras cannot succeed. A big part of her book describes her attempt to build solidarity and awareness in the US. The left in Latin America and the world should be more active in building solidarity. Relying on their governments is not enough, even if these governments are progressive. The powers in the region, including Venezuela under Chávez, were quick at reaching a compromise.
I would recommend Frank’s book to anyone who wishes to have a very personal and detailed account of the resistance of the Hondurans against neoliberalism.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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