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Hondurans Take Sides and Hit the Streets

4 minute read
Ioan Grillo

Two plazas. Two demonstrations. One street apart. In Parque la Merced, angry protesters push against soldiers surrounding Tegucigalpa’s parliament. With sun-scorched faces and hardened hands, they cry passionately about the misery of the Honduran poor. And they chant the name of the man they say has helped them: President Manuel Zelaya, whom they fondly call Mel. A hundred yards away, in Parque Central, marchers in neat, white T shirts and designer sunglasses sing the Honduran national anthem. They blast Zelaya as a fire-breathing class warrior and heartily applaud the troops for rousting him from bed at the crack of dawn on June 28 and flying him out of the country in his pajamas.

These scenes of chaos in a sweltering tropical republic seem like part of a time warp from Central America’s war-ridden 1980s. Indeed, as Honduras struggles with the first regional coup in almost two decades, it resembles the bad old days of the Cold War. Soldiers stand on every corner, backed up by humvees and low-flying helicopters. In the heat of the afternoon, groups of young men gather in the streets, burning tires and smashing windows, before troops hit back with baton charges and tear gas. Then as darkness descends, everyone rushes home to beat an all-night curfew.

The mustachioed, Stetson-wearing Zelaya cuts an unlikely figure for a leftist hero. A 56-year-old rancher and timber merchant, he took office in 2006 after campaigning as a centrist. But once in power, he grew close to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and soon copied his formula for popularity: give handouts to the poor and blame Honduras’ problems on the rich. Amid rising crime and a sputtering economy, Tegucigalpa’s Establishment turned on Zelaya. The boiling point came when he called for a nonbinding referendum on changing the constitution to allow Presidents to stand for a second term. Even though the Supreme Court ruled the vote was illegal, Zelaya vowed to proceed. Before he could do so, however, soldiers whisked him away.

True to ’80s-style politics, coup supporters are quick to smear Zelaya as a communist who planned to turn this nation of sweatshops and banana plantations into a Soviet-style fortress. One of his worst crimes, say critics in Parque Central, was boosting the minimum wage to $290 a month. “With this action, he declared war on business,” says Jesus Sabat, a 23-year-old entrepreneur, waving the nation’s blue-and-white flag.

Down the street at Parque la Merced, the poor complain that their lot hasn’t improved in the past two decades. “You can work all your life, but you can never make it in this country,” says waiter Antonio Bustamente, 50, waving his hands in fury. “The problem is the rich,” chips in Maya Martinez, a 42-year-old housewife. “We have a few wealthy families who own everything, and don’t even pay taxes. They attacked Zelaya because he stood up to them.”

But while Honduras may be stuck in the past, the rest of the world has moved on. President Barack Obama, along with the rest of the international community, was quick to condemn the coup. His position has left an ironic change in tone on the streets of Tegucigalpa, where leftist protesters now praise the U.S. (which backed right-wing putsches during the Cold War) and urge it to help them restore Zelaya. Officials, however, grumble that the world is unfairly against them. “Foreign governments misunderstand our situation,” says Congressman Juan Orlando. “Once they learn that this was really a legal change of power, they will change their position.”

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s Chávez has promised to back Zelaya in his bid to return to power. Congressman Roberto Micheletti, recently sworn in as the new Honduran President, has vowed to arrest his predecessor if he sets foot in the country. With neither side backing down, the prospect of a violent clash worries many here. “All this mess could make the economic problems even worse,” moans Daniel Joya, a 42-year-old shop owner. “If things fall apart, I will have to leave this country.”

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