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The Power of Nonviolent Action in Honduras

The massive nonviolent movement that put pressure on the coup government may be only the first chapter of an important and prolonged struggle for justice in one of Latin America’s poorest and most inequitable countries.
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Protesters took to the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, following Preident Zelaya's ousting.

Photo by Yamil Gonzales.

The decision by Honduran coup leader Roberto Micheletti to renege on his October 30 agreement to allow democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya to return to power was a severe blow to pro-democracy forces who have been struggling against the illegitimate regime since it seized power four months ago. The disappointment has been compounded by the Obama administration’s apparent willingness—in a break with Latin American leaders and much of the rest of the international community—to recognize the forthcoming presidential elections being held under the de facto government’s repressive rule.

Still, there are reasons to hope that democracy can be restored to this Central American nation.

The primary reason the de facto government was willing to negotiate at all was the ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign by Honduran pro-democracy forces. The role of popular nonviolent action has not been as massive, dramatic, or strategically sophisticated as the movements that have overthrown some other autocratic regimes in recent decades. There were no scenes of hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets and completely shutting down state functions, as there were in the people power movements that brought down Marcos in the Philippines or Milosevic in Serbia.

Nevertheless, the nonviolent struggle has been of critical importance.



The sustained nonviolent resistance movement has prevented the provisional government, which was formed after the June 28 coup, from establishing a sense of normalcy. What the movement has lacked in well-organized, strategic focus, has been made up for with feisty and determined acts of resistance that have forced the provisional government into clumsy but ultimately futile efforts at repression—exposing the pretense of the junta’s supposed good intentions.

Sometimes a resistance movement just has to stay alive to make its point. Day after day, thousands of Hondurans from all walks of life have gathered in the streets of Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, demanding the restoration of their democratically-elected government. Every day they have been met by tear gas and truncheons. Over a dozen pro-democracy activists were murdered, but rather than let these assassinations frighten people into submission, the opposition turned the martyrs’ funerals into political rallies. Their persistence gradually has torn away the outlaw regime's claims of legitimacy. Rather than establishing themselves as a legitimate government, de facto president Micheletti and his allied military officers have been made to look like little more than a gang of thugs who took over an Old West town and threw out the sheriff.

Since the return of the exiled President Zelaya to Tegucigalpa (he successfully sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy), the pro-democracy movement has surged. Micheletti and his henchman initially panicked—suspending basic civil liberties, shutting down opposition radio and television stations, and declaring a 24-hour curfew. This disruption caused the business community's support for the de facto government to wane; the Obama State Department, which had been somewhat timid in pressing the junta up to that point, began to push harder for a deal.



It has been a great credit to the pro-democracy forces that, save for occasional small-scale rioting, the movement has largely maintained its nonviolent discipline. It would have been easy to launch a guerrilla war. Much of Honduras consists of farming and ranching country where many people own guns. The neighboring countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have experienced bloody revolutionary struggles in recent decades. Yet, despite serious provocations by police and soldiers loyal to the provisional government, the movement has recognized that armed resistance would have been utterly futile and counter-productive. Indeed, they recognize that their greatest strength is in maintaining their commitment to nonviolence.

Those who have engaged in these courageous acts of resistance will feel betrayed, however, if the Obama administration is indeed ready to defy the international community by allowing Micheletti to stay in office and to recognize the results of an election held under such repressive conditions. The United States does have the power to force the illegitimate regime out and to facilitate the return of the country’s democratically-elected president to power if the Obama administration chose to use it. Indeed, there are few countries in the world as dependent on trade with the United States as Honduras.

As for those of us in the United States, it is not enough to cheer from the sidelines at courageous acts of nonviolent action by the people of Honduras. We must be willing to challenge our own government—through engaging in nonviolent direct action ourselves, if necessary—to support democracy in Honduras.

However, even if the Obama administration refuses to take a more responsible position and the coup is allowed to stand, the struggle will not have been for naught.

Honduras laundry

A community washing area in Lempira, Honduras. Approximately half of Hondurans live below the poverty line.

Photo by Lon&Queda

The Honduran opposition movement consists of a hodgepodge of trade unionists, campensinos from the countryside, Afro-Hondurans, teachers, feminists, students, and others who, along with insisting on the right of their elected president to return to office, are determined to build a more just society. Prior to the coup this summer, there had never been a national mobilization in Honduras lasting for more than a week, much less four months. The protracted struggle against Micheletti may have served as a vaccination: Popular forces may now have developed the antibodies to engage in a sustained struggle for social justice, deepening the capacity for radical change in a society that has a rather weak tradition of social movements relative to much of the rest of Latin America.



Regardless of who occupies the Honduran presidential palace, there is a critical need to replace the old constitution, imposed by the outgoing military junta in 1981, which minimizes the participation of ordinary citizens in political decisions and effectively suppresses popular social movements. It must be replaced by one in which members of the country’s poor majority will have more of a say in determining their future. It was the movement for a popular, non-binding referendum to gauge support for a Constitutional convention that prompted the coup last June.

This struggle may be only the first chapter of an important and prolonged struggle for justice in one of Latin America’s poorest and most inequitable countries. It is important that the people of North America become engaged as active allies.


Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Stephen is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco and the chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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