What is Honduras and why does it exist?

If the Republic of Honduras didn’t exist, it would have to be invented because its history is inexorably linked to the original “banana republic” — a phrase coined by the American writer O Henry (real name William Sydney Porter) in his 1904 book Cabbages and Kings. It was set last century in the fictional country of Anchuria but based on the time he spent in Honduras when huge US corporations like the United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita) dominated the country’s lucrative banana business and controlled its turbulent politics.

And Graham Greene, who made his career chronicling the peculiarities of life in small and unstable Caribbean nations, would surely have been at home in Honduras when, in 1969, the Hondurans went to war (fair dinkum) with neighbouring El Salvador as a result of bad feelings during a series of World Cup qualifiers. El Salvador started the war (and qualified for the 1970 World Cup winning 3-2 after extra time in the playoff game in Mexico) but Honduras won the war and had its honour satisfied. Unfortunately, 2000 Honduran civilians died to prove the point.

Columbus sighted the region in 1502, naming it Honduras (meaning “depths”) for the deep water off the coast. If you forget the earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, pervasive poverty, chronic corruption, high-crime rate, cartel drug culture, malaria and Dengue Fever that inflict its 7 million inhabitants, Honduras (“free, sovereign and independent” is its motto) is a very picturesque country that stretches from the Pacific to the Caribbean. The white orchid is its national flower and its national bird is the wondrous scarlet macaw.

Where is Honduras? Was there a coup there? How many were killed?

It’s in Central America on the isthmus, its north of the Panama but definitely south of the border. There was a coup (in Spanish it is known as a golpe de estado) there on June 28. The coup itself was bloodless but subsequently there has been one confirmed death but other reports say the death toll has doubled to two. All deaths are tragic but compared to the 156 who died on the first day of rioting in Xinjiang it is small beer. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed 5600 Hondurans.

What’s it all about?

It appears the then president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, a wealthy land-owning, cattle baron and timber merchant with a penchant for big cowboy hats and a recent convert to left-wing politics, wanted to change the constitution of Honduras so that he could run for a second term. He denies this but he illegally orders a non-binding referendum to be held on June 28 so that he can set up a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. His party, the Congress and the Supreme Court violently disagree with this course of action and his arrest is ordered by the Supreme Court before Congress can start impeachment proceedings to dismiss him.

So it’s like the Whitlam dismissal then?

Only in that it was a constitutional crisis that was resolved by a high authority than the government of the day. Whitlam wasn’t arrested in his pyjamas at gunpoint and put on a one-way RAAF flight to New Zealand. Whitlam’s commission was revoked under Section 64 of the constitution by Governor-General (and Commander General of the ADF) Sir John Kerr because a) he was a bastard and b) he was concerned about the legality of Whitlam’s proposals for borrowing money and to govern without supply contravened the constitution. He dismissed Whitlam on 11 November 1975 and installed a caretaker prime minister with instructions to call a double dissolution election.

While Whitlam’s dismissal followed some sort of due process, Zelaya’s dismissal is somewhat more problematic. According to Honduras This Week the Honduran Supreme Court ordered the military to arrest Zelaya because he had broken his vow to uphold the constitution by seeking to rewrite it to remove the four-year term of the president. The constitution cannot be changed or a referendum held without congressional approval which he clearly did not have.

When Zelaya insisted the referendum would go ahead, Congress voted to remove him for what it called “repeated violations of the constitution and the law”, and the Supreme Court said it had ordered the president to be removed from office to protect law and order.

The Supreme Court ruled Zelaya had committed “an act that is considered unconstitutional and is considered as a crime of treason”. The Honduras’ Congress appointed its Speaker, Roberto Micheletti, as interim president until the scheduled presidential elections on 29 November. The army returned to their barracks after a brief visit to the pink presidential palace.

Zelaya probably scored an own goal but there is nothing in the Honduran Constitution about the president being removed at gunpoint.

So did the Yankees order the Junta to overthrow Zelaya?

No, not this time, the US and every other country in the world supports Zelaya. However, the US has been actively interfering in Honduran politics for most of the last century. During the 1980s, Honduras served as a base for insurgent activity against Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas government of Nicaragua by rebels known as Contras.

Even when the U.S. Congress prohibited federal funding of the Contras in 1983, the Reagan administration continued to back the Contras covertly; for this, Reagan’s National Security Council aide Oliver North took much of the blame. The country’s economy became heavily dependent on aid from the United States, which supported the rebel bases.

Many of the Honduran armed forces were trained at the infamous School of the Americas in the States.

What are the politics involved?

Zelaya campaigned for office on a law and order ticket but Honduras remains a major drug-trafficking transit point, overrun by street gangs and violent crime. Although elected –alongside his former ally Micheletti – for the Liberal Party, Zelaya’s government has been moving steadily to the left. It recently joined ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America) which is a sort of trade pact set up by Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba in 2004. It was originally aimed at the exchange of medical resources and petroleum between both nations. Now it is like a mini Warsaw Pact that includes Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica and Ecuador.

What will happen next?

Probably nothing. Peace talks, brokered by the US, are going on between Zelaya’s people and Micheletti’s people in Costa Rica. Both sides claim the high moral ground and refuse to negotiate with the “criminals” on the other side. Hugo “Loco” Chávez, the Castro brothers and Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua are all threatening to invade Honduras to restore Zelaya to the presidential palace and let him extract his revenge on those who ousted him.

This turn of events is unlike to receive approval from Washington or be greeted with rapture by the Honduran people. What is more likely is the presidential election due to be held on 29 November will be brought forward to legitimise the de facto regime of Micheletti. Zelaya can then be granted an amnesty to return to his big ranch in Olancho province and wear his cowboy hats.

View our Crikey Clarifier archive