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Zelaya's Return Creates Pivotal Moment for Democracy in the Americas

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Protesters took to the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, following Preident Zelaya's ousting June 28, 2009. Here, protesters support the fourth ballot box referendum vote, la cuarta urna, during a June 29 protest.

Photo by Yamil Gonzales.

As returning president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya remains holed up in the Brazilian embassy and the man who deposed him, Roberto Micheletti, maintains a cordon of state police around the embassy and a state of siege throughout the country, leaders at the UN are calling for his reinstatement in a moment that may prove pivotal for democracy in the Americas.

Zelaya's opponents on the right have criticized him with a familiar refrain: he is a left-wing dictator intent on dragging his country into socialism. But the people who elected him, a majority of Hondurans, have supported him as a new kind of president, with a consultative style of governance that engages previously marginalized people, including women, workers, farmers, and indigenous communities.

These were the people who, upon hearing the news that Zelaya had returned, left their homes at dawn and streamed into the city from the countryside by the thousands, filling the streets of Tegucigalpa with dancing and celebration.

Micheletti frantically tried to stem the tide of celebrants, first calling reports of Zelaya's presence in Honduras "media terrorism,” then sending the state police to beat and arrest the demonstrators. A piercing alarm filled the streets, said eyewitness Andres Conteris, director of the Program on the Americas for Nonviolence International. Three hundred people were arrested, and three killed, according to reports by Telesur. This morning Micheletti cut off electricity to the Brazilian embassy.

"I have come to engage in dialogue," Zelaya told the Columbian news station Radio W. "We don't want to live in war, we don't want dictators."

Arriving at the beginning of the UN meeting was a bold and astute move for Zelaya, throwing into sharp relief the contrast between his peaceful efforts to regain his presidency through the UN with Micheletti's brutal tactics in suppressing Honduran citizens.

 But for those who danced in the streets on Monday morning, it was not so much Zelaya the politician they were celebrating as Zelaya the symbol. Like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, he had responded to the groundswell of marginalized people that has swept across Honduras and the rest of Latin America in the past decade, a clamor for change and inclusion from those who have been most damaged by the neoliberal economic policies that have run rampant throughout the Americas for many years. This groundswell has transcended traditional political boundaries, including not just farmers, workers, the poor, and indigenous, but also, according to activists within Honduras, an increasing number of people from the middle class .

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Photo by Yamil Gonzales.

These are the people who elected Zelaya, and these are the people Zelaya was responding to when he organized a survey to find out how many Hondurans wanted to create a new constitution—one not based on the outdated class systems of the old Latin America, but inclusive of all people.

If Zelaya is a symbol of the new, Micheletti, with his gun-toting state police and his ties to the School of the Americas, represents a fading ghost of Latin America's past—a past haunted by violence, by fear, by death and disappearances.

The fear of change that exists in Honduras, in Latin America, and indeed in our own country, will not go away overnight. Battles will continue to be fought, waves of paranoia and resistance will sweep over us as we attempt to move forward to a more just and inclusive society.

The potential return of democracy to a tiny Central American country is more than just a blip on the historical radar. It is a moment we should pay attention to, because it mirrors back to us our own collective vacillation between fear and hope, between change by autocracy and gunfire on one side, and change by the democratic process on the other.

Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, told a UN press conference on Tuesday night that the presence of the elected president in the Honduran capital was an opportunity to achieve a peaceful resolution to the stand-off in this Central American country.

This morning, President Lula of Brazil called for a special meeting of the UN Security Council, which will force the United States to take a more active role in the crisis.

Micheletti may have replaced the government, but he has not been able to erase the popular sentiment that elected Zelaya in the first place.

Zelaya, Andres Contreris tells us, is prepared for "a long and belabored stay" in the Brazilian embassy.

Change, it seems, will not easily be evicted from the Americas.


Lisa GarriguesLisa Gale Garrigues wrote this commentary for YES! Magazine. Lisa is an award-winning journalist and YES! contributing editor. She spent four years in Latin America reporting for YES!, Indian Country Today, Pacific News Service, elatico.com, and other media.

Interested? Latin America Rising, YES! Magazine's special issue on democracy in Latin America.

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