In the early hours of Sunday, 28 June the residence of Manuel Zelaya, the president of Honduras, was surrounded by tanks. His supporters, anticipating a coup, formed a human shield but were quickly dispersed with tear gas. In no time at all soldiers had entered the building and disarmed the security guard. Zelaya rang the US Embassy but there was no reply from the duty officer. He didn’t have time to call again before the soldiers threatened to shoot if he didn’t give up his phone. He was taken at gunpoint to the airport, put on a plane, flown south to Costa Rica and handed over to embarrassed officials at San José International Airport.
A few days later, the army’s legal adviser, Colonel Inestroza, admitted to the Miami Herald that the military leadership had acted illegally in authorising the kidnapping, but the alternatives, he said, would have been worse. To have assassinated Zelaya would have created a martyr, and if they had put him in prison, there would have been violent protests, which would inevitably have been met with further violence. Presumably the general who directed the coup, Vásquez Velásquez, judged that letting Zelaya continue in his job was the worst option of all.
For decades, Honduras and neighbouring Nicaragua have been the poorest countries in mainland Latin America. Economically and politically, Honduras was the quintessential ‘banana republic’. The United Fruit Company and its smaller competitor Standard Fruit began to settle much of the most fertile land with vast plantations in the early years of the last century. They created the country’s infrastructure in their own interests: Tegucigalpa was now the capital city of a nation with a developed railway system, but no railway station of its own. The main purpose of the railways (and of most other investment) was to extract Honduras’s fruit resources as cheaply and quickly as possible.
Politically, too, the fruit companies – and the US governments that were looking after their interests – had a massive influence. Together they supported a military dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s, helped suppress a general strike in 1954, and in 1963 supported a military coup against the modest reformer Ramón Villeda. This led to a sequence of governments dominated by the military until the present constitution was introduced in 1982. Since then there have been eight relatively free elections, with power switching between the Liberal and National Parties, both of which continue to draw their support from the country’s elite.
After the revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, Honduras, sitting between Sandinista Nicaragua to the south-east, and war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala to the west and north, became the US government’s trusted ally. In 1981, the US ambassador in Honduras reported to Washington that he was ‘deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations’: this wasn’t the message the Reagan administration wanted to hear and he was quickly replaced by John Negroponte, a conservative hardliner.
Negroponte began to consolidate Honduras as a client state of the US and the base from which the Contra war against Nicaragua was directed. When he became ambassador, US military assistance to Honduras was four million dollars; by 1984 it had risen to $78 million. A massive military base, Soto Cano, was established at Comayagua, and from here the Contras conducted their operations across the border. Aid for development was also increased, to $200 million by 1985, making Honduras, which had a population of no more than four million, the eighth-ranked recipient of US aid.