On the night of 14 June, Luis Arturo Mondragón was sitting with his son on the pavement outside his house in the city of El Paraíso in western Honduras. He had often criticised local politicians on his weekly radio programme, the latest edition of which had just been broadcast. He had received several death threats, but disregarded them. At 10 p.m. a car drew up and the driver fired four bullets, killing him instantly. Mondragón was the ninth journalist to be murdered so far this year. Honduras is now officially the most dangerous country in the world in which to work for the press.
The overthrow of President Zelaya last year was only the second military coup in Latin America since the end of the Cold War. The first, a US-backed attempt to overthrow Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, was a failure. The coup in Tegucigalpa shouldn’t have succeeded either: Obama had promised a new approach to US policy in the region, and there was strong popular resistance to the coup in Honduras itself. And yet, a year on, the coup’s plotters have got practically everything they wanted. Zelaya is in exile in the Dominican Republic, and the right-wing Porfirio Lobo, elected president in January’s widely-boycotted elections, has consolidated his power base. Honduras is slowly being welcomed back into the international fold: it’s still excluded from the Organisation of American States, but was quietly invited to rejoin SICA last week. In Honduras, Lobo has reversed the changes begun by Zelaya. In particular, he has blocked land reform and done nothing to resolve violent conflicts between peasants and land owners, supported by the army and police, in the Aguan river valley.
Last month, 27 members of the US congress wrote to Hillary Clinton to express their ‘continuing concern regarding the grievous violations of human rights and the democratic order which commenced with the coup and continue to this day’. Along with the murders of the nine journalists, they noted the arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances of members of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP). They also pointed out that four supreme court judges who opposed the coup have been sacked, while military leaders involved in it have benefited. General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the head of the armed forces at the time of the coup, has not only been pardoned for arresting an elected president and expelling him from the country, but in January was allowed to retire from the army and given the presidency of Hondutel, the state-owned telephone company.
Since Lobo’s election, Clinton has been promoting his interests in her contacts with other hemispheric leaders, and can’t have appreciated this reminder of his shortcomings. Nor will she have welcomed the stories that have emerged about how the coup may have been planned. Roland Valenzuela, a former minister in Zelaya’s government, claimed in an interview broadcast on 20 June that he had papers which named a businesswoman, Jacqueline Foglia Sandoval, as the ‘manageress’ of the coup plot, which had been hatched in a hotel in Dubai. Foglia is a graduate of the West Point military academy and well-connected in the US, having once been defence attaché at the embassy in Washington. On the day after the coup, she was quoted as saying that it was ‘extremely popular’.
Among the other alleged plotters in Dubai were various businessmen who, it is said, were former members of the army death squad known as Battalion 316. The papers, handed over by a bartender who thought Valenzuela was part of the group, supposedly included the draft decree that would be used to destitute Zelaya, and according to Valenzuela was going to be taken to the US ambassador in Honduras for his comments. Valenzuela also said he knew who forged the president’s signature on Zelaya’s ‘letter of resignation’. In a separate development, it has become known that the plane which flew Zelaya out of the country first called at the US airforce base Palmerola.
Not surprisingly, the exiled Zelaya has claimed that all this points to the prior knowledge and probable involvement of the US government in the coup. The State Department describes his allegation as ‘ridiculous’. Unfortunately, Valenzuela is unable to elaborate as, shortly before the recorded interview was broadcast, he was shot.
Will the full truth of what happened in the coup and its aftermath ever emerge? In a move applauded by Clinton, the Lobo government appointed a ‘truth commission’, widely suspected of being cosmetic. The FNRP, which is remarkably uncowed by the assassinations and other oppression, has appointed an alternative truth commission of international jurists. Its findings may have little currency with the Obama administration, but they will certainly be taken into account by other governments in the OAS.
Like the rest of Central America, Honduras celebrates its independence on 15 September. By then the resistance front aims to have collected more than a million signatures (in a country with fewer than eight million people) calling for a new constitution. In his absence, they have elected Zelaya as their leader. They show no signs of giving up the struggle, but on the other hand they are well aware that, if Honduras slips back into obscurity, the oppression will only get worse.