Monday, June 29, 2009

Honduras, Haiti and the Struggle for Popular Democracy

When I heard the news from Honduras that democratically elected Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped in a coup, there was a 5 second delay before I thought about Haiti. In 2004, the democratically- elected president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide was also violently overthrown in a similar US-supported coup and taken hostage by military forces. Each coup was more than an action against a sitting president, but were counter-revolutions by elites aimed at silencing popular movements for social and economic change. We can't let them win.

In Honduras Sunday, the military took over the government television station, a curfew was imposed, and the Venezuelan, Cuban, and Nicaraguan Ambassadors were also kidnapped and detained. According to the New York Times, the only people permitted to have access to information were the wealthy with access to the internet. President Manuel Zelaya told Telesur from Costa Rica that he was kidnapped in his pajamas and told if he refused to hang up the cell phone, he would be shot. Zelaya was largely supported by organized labor and the poor. The referendum was expected to succeed by popular mandate---hence the violent reaction by elites who wanted to prevent the voting altogether. The referendum was bitterly opposed by the Honduran upper-classes who feared Zelaya would extend his four- year term limit and transform political inequalities in their representative system.

Choosing not to use violent revolution, a host of popularly elected leaders in Latin America are using the ballot box to empower the poor and working class. The most powerful weapon in their arsenal until now has been the referendum, which allows citizens to vote on constitutional reforms aimed at redistributing power and influence. Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, and Haiti's Bertrand Aristide had taken calculated risks, upsetting historical elites who for years have used the constitution to protect their private wealth and influence.

Today in Haiti, the same entrenched elites that staged the 2004 coup have united against former president Aristide's party, Fanmi Lavalas, by banning them from running candidates in the next election. They fear that the massive support which the party continues to enjoy could lead to a broader movement toward popular democracy in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. In response, the Lavalas party has called for a successful boycott of the elections which are clearly illegitimate without their participation.

In 2002, the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez was also overthrown briefly before a popular movement and resistance in the military restored him to power. There is a widely circulated video on the internet called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which highlights how the US and Venezuelan media were culprits in fomenting the anti-democratic actions of domestic elites.

Much the same thing is happening in both Honduras and Haiti, where popular movements for justice are all to often silenced by violent reactionary force from people with tremendous historical privilege and power. In the United States of America, there needs to be more forums that allow popular movements in Latin America to express their struggle among those of among us with a conscience and heart for the poor and exploited.

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