Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Power of Nonviolent Action in Honduras

Grassroots Power

The Power of Nonviolent Action in Honduras

A massive nonviolent movement, critical to the resolution of the crisis in Honduras, 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.


posted Nov 03, 2009


Protesters outside the National Congress in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on July 2, 2009.

Photo by Giggey.

The role of popular nonviolent action in the apparent victory of democratic forces in Honduras was not as massive, dramatic, or strategically sophisticated as the movements which 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 which brought down Marcos in the Philippines or Milosevic in Serbia.

Nevertheless, the nonviolent struggle was still decisive.

The sustained nonviolent resistance movement prevented the provisional government, formed after the coup that ousted the democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya last June, from establishing a sense of normalcy. What the movement lacked in well-organized, strategic focus, it made up for with feisty and determined acts of resistance that 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 gathered in the streets of Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, demanding the restoration of their democratically-elected government. Every day they would be met by tear gas and truncheons. Over a dozen pro-democracy activists were murdered, but rather than letting these assassinations frighten them into submission, the opposition turned the martyrs’ funerals into political rallies. Their persistence gradually tore away the outlaw regime's claims of legitimacy. Rather than establishing themselves as a legitimate government, de facto president Roberto Micheletti and his allied military officers were made to look like little more than a gang of thugs who had taken over an Old West town and thrown out the sheriff.

Following the return of the exiled President Zelaya to Tegucigalpa (he successfully sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy), the pro-democracy movement surged. Micheletti and his henchman panicked, suspending basic civil liberties, shutting down opposition radio and television stations, and declaring a 24-hour curfew. Such 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 is a great credit to the pro-democracy forces that, save for occasional small-scale rioting, the movement 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 had experienced bloody revolutionary struggles in recent decades. Yet, despite serious provocations by police and soldiers loyal to the provisional government, the movement recognized that armed resistance would have been utterly futile and counter-productive. Indeed, they recognized that their greatest strength was in maintaining their commitment to nonviolence.

Honduras laundry

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

Photo by Lon&Queda

The opposition movement consisted of a hodgepodge of trade unionists, campesinos from the countryside, Afro-Hondurans, 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 June 28 coup, 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 have now developed the antibodies to engage in a sustained struggle for social justice, deepening the capacity for radical change in a society that has had 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.

The restoration of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency 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.

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.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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