Jun 30, 2019 00:24 UTC

Ten years after a US-backed coup handed Honduras over to big business, the country is rising up. A leader of deposed President Manuel Zelaya’s party explains to ‘The Grayzone’ what’s behind the protest wave, writes journalist Alexander Rubinstein in his report titled: “Why Protesters Set Fire to the US Embassy in Honduras?”

The streets of Honduras were filled with protesters and clouds of tear gas as the month of June began. The national police fanned out through the country to crush the protests with heavy-handed tactics at the direction of President Juan Orlando Hernández, the US-supported neoliberal leader who won power in elections marred by documented fraud.

As the protests peaked, fire was set to the doors of the American embassy in the capital, Tegucigalpa, in an apparent act of retribution against the United States for its role in propping up the widely unpopular president. It was a striking act of symbolic resistance that recalled events in 1988 when Hondurans burned the vehicles of US embassy personnel to protest Washington’s dirty war against Nicaragua. The fortifications installed around the US embassy after that incident may have prevented the latest burning from consuming the rest of the building.

Ten years ago, the democratically elected center-left Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, was whisked away from his residence in a brazen military raid supported by the United States. Zelaya’s removal cleared the path for the interests of big business across the country. As the ten year anniversary of the US-supported coup approaches, Hondurans are rising up against neoliberal austerity measures imposed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that have triggered mass public sector layoffs and raised prices on basic goods.

Following mass demonstrations on Friday, May 31 which were especially sizable in the capital of Tegucigalpa, The Grayzone spoke by phone with Gerardo Torres, Secretary of International Affairs for the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), the new party to which Zelaya now belongs.

He said: “Yesterday and today we declared a national strike, which was successful. The estimate is that there were over a hundred demonstrations in Honduras in the last two days.”

Throughout the month of May, healthcare workers and educators organized widespread demonstrations against decrees by Hernández that put their livelihoods in immediate jeopardy. Honduran citizens have followed these public sector workers into the streets, infuriated by IMF loans that required the government increase electricity costs while slashing healthcare and education. Anger about the abuses of foreign mining companies was also a major factor in the protest grievances.

LIBRE’s Torres explained: “Honduran people went out in the streets. And not only the health workers and teachers, but all of the workers and political organizations and people that are fighting against mining companies; the people that are fighting for land and for the defense of their territories; for their natural resources – we all got together with the teachers and the health workers. We have been in a struggle for more than a month. In recent days, the demonstrations have increased.”

As tweeted by Honduras Solidarity on June 12: “Right now, Honduran police are repressing a protest & road blockade in southeastern and they have repressed protest at El Salvador-Honduras border. There was also a march in Tegucigalpa.

In early May, the IMF and the Honduran government reached a “staff-level” agreement on a USD $311 million loan, meaning that it still requires approval from the IMF executive board. According to the IMF, the agreement “reforms” the public electricity company, Empresa Nacional de Energía Eléctrica (ENEE). Energy distribution was privatized in 2014 and sold off to the highest bidder: the Honduran Commercial Finance Bank. It isn’t clear what reforms the new IMF deal will bring on.

Torres said that “the IMF is demanding that education and healthcare – the public system – should pass to the control of intervention boards that would oversee and manage a change to the system. The problem is that those agreements that the government has already signed allowed them to fire many people.”

The IMF says for its part: “A key objective of the economic program is to maintain macroeconomic stability, while enacting economic and institutional reforms to foster inclusive growth. Policies will build on previous achievements to strengthen the policy and institutional framework.”

By touting its “previous achievements” in Honduras, the IMF has signaled how out of tune it is with the country’s poor and working class, who have experienced no such gains in their own livelihoods. While the IMF’s “macroeconomic” agenda has fostered economic growth, it has been anything but inclusive; restricted to country’s elite and the drug cartels they work with. The conditions faced by the poor majority have only worsened. It is negotiating a neoliberal nightmare.

While the measures that would be imposed under the new IMF deal remain unknown, the effects of neoliberalization on Honduras’s health and education sectors have brought economic punishment down on the country’s workers.

Honduran economist Hugo Noé Pino said: “The government’s spending on education, nearly a third of the overall budget one year after the coup, has been slashed to less than a fifth, according to. Healthcare spending was slashed by 20 percent, meanwhile.”

Honduras has the highest poverty rate in the continental Americas: 65.7%, by the last available official government count in 2016, with a staggering 42.5% of the entire population classified as living in extreme poverty.

The harshest austerity measures were meted out by Juan Orlando Hernandez, a US-friendly politician whose election in 2013 violated the Honduran constitution and was marred by fraud. Following his first year in office, Hernández oversaw the layoffs of 2,000 employees of the government-owned electric company known as ENEE. Thousands of sanitation and public telecommunications workers have also been let go under the government of Hernández.

Meanwhile, repeated fuel price hikes since 2012 have devastated the working class and sparked popular resentment.

Corruption has gone hand-in-hand with the austerity measures, and are now described simply as Honduras’s “Operating System.” Massive protests in 2015 followed the revelation that Hernández’s allies had gutted the Honduran Institute for Social Security (IHSS), stealing healthcare funds to finance electoral campaign and defrauding the public through selling wildly overpriced placebos to the IHSS for vast profits.

While protesters demanded an anti-corruption body akin to the then-robust United Nations-led CICIG in neighboring Guatemala, they were instead handed a toothless anti-fraud mission called MACCIH.

Anthropologist Adrienne Pine, an Associate Professor at American University who has lived in Honduras and written extensively on the country, told The Grayzone, “The MACCIH is frankly something of a laughingstock in Honduras, seen as a technocratic tool of the U.S. government to legitimize the Hernández regime. It has pursued mostly small, safe targets in cases that do little to threaten the current structures of power put in place through the US-supported 2009 coup.”

Pine said: “But when the biggest example of corruption imaginable — the blatant theft of the country’s election — happened on its watch in 2017, the MACCIH remained silent. And when you have violently anti-democratic policies like IMF-led efforts to privatize healthcare and education overriding the will of the Honduran people, that doesn’t fit within the MACCIH’s narrow definition of ‘corruption’ either.”

Back in 2014, a paper from the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) think tank on a $189 million IMF loan noted that the poor would bear the brunt of the economic shock therapy. Five years later, with this prediction confirmed, Hernández is pushing for more austerity in the name of “reform.”

As Torres explained, “We have seen in the Hernández government how he has destroyed all of our public services with the intention to transfer those public services to private hands in a neoliberal strategy that we all know very well: you destroy the public institutions and then you say that there is no other way to save it unless it’s passed to the private sector.”

When he was elected president of Honduras in 2009, Manuel Zelaya struck a less revolutionary posture than those of most of his progressive counterparts across Latin America. He brought a minimum wage to the country and instituted some much-needed economic reforms.

It was only after he signed cooperation agreements with Venezuela through the PetroCaribe economic alliance and began to work towards resolutions on land disputes between poor and indigenous populations that multinational corporations, government insiders and US-backed civil society groups began to turn up the heat.

In the lead-up to the coup, CIA cutouts like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were pumping $50 million a year into Honduras for “democracy promotion.” US-backed civil society groups like the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise and the Center for International Private Enterprise focused on driving a wedge between big business and Zelaya.

By June 2009, the coup plotters were confident enough to make their move. The night before they came for Zelaya, they met with a high-ranking US military official. The Defense Department was reportedly concerned that Zelaya’s presidency gave Venezuela’s then-President Hugo Chavez increasing influence in the country.

In an early morning military operation, Zelaya was rushed onto a plane bound for Costa Rica. The plane took a pit stop at the US’ Soto Cano air base, known locally as Palmerola. Zelaya described the operation as a kidnapping upon landing in Costa Rica.

A little less than a month later, the US embassy in Honduras sent a cable to the White House and a handful of higher-ups in the State Department, including Secretary Hillary Clinton. The cable, later released by WikiLeaks, declared that there was “no doubt” that the raid “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.”

Describing the coup as a “kidnapping,” the embassy concluded that none of the arguments of regime change supporters had “any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution. Some are outright false.”