Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere—a land, it has been said, where even the rich are poor. A casual observer might expect Honduras’s reputation for political tranquility, favorable location for trade, and valuable natural resources to generate some modest level of prosperity. Yet just the opposite happened in the twentieth century, as Honduras became, in the words of Alison Acker’s Honduras: The Making of a Banana Republic, “a beggar nation, a sieve for international aid, a country for rent.”

The United States did some of that renting three decades ago, when Central America was the Reagan administration’s top foreign-policy issue. Back then, revolutionary insurgencies in Central America, and especially the 1979 Sandinista overthrow of Nicaraguan president Somoza, turned Honduras into a training and staging area for U.S. military forces in the region. The country became known as “the Pentagon Republic” or “U.S.S. Honduras”—“a satellite,” wrote columnist Jack Anderson, “that could be trusted, bought and paid for by the United States.” By the end of the ’80s, however, the Sandinistas fell from power; peace accords were signed in Guatemala and El Salvador; and Honduras vanished from the U.S. radar. Reverting to its traditional peaceful, if desperately poor, status quo, the country rarely got a mention—never mind a front-page headline—in the American press.

Then came the events of this past June 28, when Honduran soldiers rousted President José Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya out of bed and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. The ouster capped an intense political and constitutional struggle. The Honduran constitution criminalizes any presidential attempt to stay in office beyond the elected term. Zelaya, a wealthy landowner and timber magnate, had become something of a populist, aligning himself not only with the Honduran Left but with the “new Left” of Latin America—Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. When Zelaya proposed a referendum to seek popular support for amending the constitution (in hopes of extending his own term of office, opponents claimed), the National Assembly and Supreme Court declared him unfit and authorized his removal. The head of the legislature, Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in as president pro tem.

Over the course of the summer, as Zelaya’s supporters and opponents, both in Honduras and abroad, debated whether the ouster was a coup d’etat or a lawful action, street battles between the pro-Zelaya “insurgents” and the police and military officials of the Micheletti government marred public debate (and resulted in several deaths). Behind the specific charges lurked the strong suspicion that Zelaya had been moving the country in a direction similar to the anti-American “Bolivarian Revolution” of Chávez in Venezuela, with its restrictions on civil liberties and nationalization of foreign companies. Zelaya, meanwhile, had returned to the country and found sanctuary in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.

The intricacies of U.S.–Latin American relations over recent decades put the Obama administration in an awkward position when it came to responding to the ousting of Zelaya. President Barack Obama joined the rest of the hemisphere in condemning the coup, cut off nonhumanitarian aid, and canceled visas for Hondurans seeking to travel to this country. Yet Washington backed Zelaya’s return to power with limited enthusiasm. Eventually, OAS Secretary José Miguel Insulza acknowledged that, as “the top trading partner of Honduras,” the United States needed to play a central role in crafting a diplomatic solution. On October 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a long telephone conversation with de facto president Micheletti, persuading him to resume the broken-off negotiations; and on October 30 an agreement was announced, calling for the formation of a coalition government until the Honduran Congress could vote on whether to reinstate Zelaya, followed by a national presidential vote at the end of November. But the agreement fell apart when the Honduran Congress refused to reinstate Zelaya. Zelaya subsequently boycotted the November 29 election, and has refused to accept the landslide victory of Porfirio Lobo, a conservative politician and wealthy landowner whom Zelaya defeated in the 2005 election. The United States has recognized the validity of the election along with a handful of other Latin American countries, although Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina have not. (After the election, the Honduran congress voted not to reinstate Zelaya for the remainder of his term.)

The Catholic hierarchy’s response to this summer’s turmoil in Honduras has been conflicted, even confused. One might have expected the country’s most famous churchman, Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB, to figure significantly in mediation efforts, given his prominence as the country’s first cardinal and former president of the Latin American bishops’ council (CELAM). The cardinal had once been a close friend of Zelaya—he reportedly encouraged the young “Mel” to pursue the priesthood—but the two are no longer friendly, and Rodríguez is thought to have shed no tears over the president’s expulsion. Nonetheless, his auxiliary, Bishop Juan José Pineda, CMF, was able to meet early on with Zelaya and Micheletti as an intermediary.

Another prominent bishop, Luís Alfonso Santos, SDB, has been Zelaya’s most outspoken defender in the hierarchy. Santos, the bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán, issued a statement denouncing the coup immediately after it occurred, as Cardinal Rodríguez was just returning from meetings in Rome. Within a week, Rodríguez succeeded in producing a conference communiqué (signed by all eleven Honduran bishops, including Santos) that neither supported nor denounced the coup, but called for a return to civility and urged broad social reform. Santos alone continued to participate in activities and prayer services calling for the return of Zelaya.

The role of the Honduran church in the country’s politics has a tumultuous recent history. In the early 1970s, conflict arose from the church’s Vatican II–inspired pastoral initiatives, especially the 1968 Latin American bishops’ meeting at Medellín, Colombia. The tension gave rise to an event now known as the Olancho Massacre, which involved a rancher named Mel Zelaya—father of the ousted president. Olancho was the least developed part of the country, a Honduran “wild west,” ruled by cattle ranchers and lumbermen. In 1962, a modest agrarian law had granted peasants the right to settle undeveloped national lands. Peasant movements pressing for this right were met with hostility by large landowners. A military coup in 1963 effectively ended the land reform. The armed forces, which ruled Honduras until 1982, showed little interest in campesino rights.

In June 1975, organized peasant groups planned a national march to demand implementation of the 1962 reforms. They received substantial aid from Catholic priests and sisters in the Olancho prelature. (At the time, a majority of the priests and sisters in Honduras were missionaries from abroad, mostly North Americans and Spaniards—something still true of the country’s bishops.) On June 25, after an early morning Mass, hundreds of campesinos began the march. As Joseph Bernardin, then archbishop of Cincinnati and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, noted in a subsequent “Statement on Human Rights in Honduras,” the marchers were set upon by the military, “forcefully and at times brutally.” Virtually all priests and religious in Olancho were forcibly detained, and some were later expelled from Honduras altogether. Rectories and convents were searched, “and numerous people, including two priests, were brutally murdered,” Bernardin wrote.

Under pressure from abroad, the Honduran government conducted an investigation of the massacre and ultimately charged four individuals—two military officers and two civilians connected with the landowners’ association. One of the civilians charged and found guilty was Mel Zelaya, who owned Los Horcones ranch, where several peasant leaders had been murdered. Zelaya and the three others were convicted and sentenced to twenty years, but were granted amnesty in September 1980. Their release is still seen by many as a travesty of justice.

Early last summer, only days before the junior Zelaya’s forced removal, the Honduran National Congress declared the June 25 anniversary of the Olancho massacre the Day of the Martyrs. Yet those fateful events, bad as they were, have been far overshadowed by the events of June 2009, which will resonate for decades to come. As of today, the divide between the pro- and anti-Zelaya partisans has never been deeper. The Obama administration’s announcement that it would accept the results of the presidential election even without Zelaya’s participation has exacerbated the tension between the United States and several Latin American countries. While the intrigue continues, one waits to see whether impoverished and long-suffering Honduras will yet claim its natural place as a leading Central American democracy.


Related: Robert E. White, "Honduras & a Divided Latin America"

Tom Quigley is a former policy advisor on Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean issues to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

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Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: View Contents
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