A conversation with former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup in 2009. Zelaya reflects on that coup, what has happened to Honduran politics since then, and the migration crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of Central Americans flee to the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, June 28th marked the 10th anniversary since Honduran soldiers stormed into the residency of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica, ousting him from Honduras just six months before the end of his term. Since the coup, which was plotted by the Honduran military, business and political elite, and which was supported by the Obama administration, tens of thousands of Hondurans have been murdered, including more than 300 LGBTQ people, 60 journalists and hundreds of campesino rights leaders and environmental and land protectors. One of the most devastating blows to environmentalists in the country was the brutal killing of Lenca environmental activist and winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, Berta Cáceres, who was shot to death in her bedroom three years ago by Honduran military intelligence specialists with links to the country’s U.S.–trained special forces.
AMY GOODMAN: As both extreme poverty and violence skyrocketed in the last 10 years, in recent years, under the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández, tens of thousands of refugees have fled Honduras in caravans with the hope of political asylum in the United States. Many argue this is a humanitarian crisis caused by U.S. intervention in Honduras, as well as the U.S. government’s unconditional support for Hernández. Many challenged the fairness of his re-election in 2017.
Since April, tens of thousands of protesters have marched throughout Honduras, protesting plans by Honduras’s government to privatize healthcare, pensions and education. Protesters have been met with violent repression from the Honduran military and police. The reforms were suspended, but the protests are ongoing, demanding Hernández resign.
For more, we’re joined by the ousted President Manuel Zelaya, coordinator of the Honduran opposition party, Libre. He is speaking to us from Honduras, where he has just returned for this 10th anniversary of the coup that ousted him.
Manuel Zelaya, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you start off by describing what happened to you 10 years ago, and then what’s happening in your country, in Honduras, today?
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] Very well. Greetings, Amy. And greetings to Democracy Now! Democracy Now! has covered the events in Honduras very objectively, in an exemplary manner, for the last 10 years, when we began to have direct contact.
Honduras is part of this region. We are neighbors of the United States. We are under the aegis of the dollar for the United States. Before, we were good neighbors. We have now become an uncomfortable neighbor for the United States, because they changed their perspective on the region, on Central America and South America, especially because they always used the idea that this region should be treated from the standpoint of, well, establishing democratic regimes in recent decades. Nonetheless, I think U.S. policy towards our region has changed radically.
And Honduras is a special case. It would be easier for the United States, which has absolutely meddled in this country, and it has interfered in a way to support the dictatorship—it would be easier to handle the situation if there were not a military and oppressive regime with a system that impoverishes the people of Honduras, because the economic system that is sealed for us by the International Monetary Fund is harmful, privatizing all activities. Privatization itself is not bad. What is bad is that it drives up the price of basic services for the population. Plus, since private enterprise needs profit and needs to accumulate wealth, it impoverishes the rest of the population. The famous trickle down of the capitalist system never reached our society. Here, 70% of the population is living in poverty. And the problem is that poverty continues to deteriorate the lives of millions of people who—or, of thousands of people who migrate to the United States.
The caravans coming from Central America are made up of persons from Honduras, also El Salvador and Guatemala. But the large caravans are people going after what we know as the American dream, which has become the American nightmare, because people go and find that the policies of President Donald Trump, who is a white supremacist—that’s how we see him. He looks down on and holds in contempt mestizos and migrants. Young Hondurans, in particular, don’t migrate from Honduras just because they want to, but out of necessity. There are more than 1 million Hondurans who have family members in the United States. And if we look at it from the perspective of Honduran migrants in the United States, well, there are a million Hondurans who have close family ties with their families in Honduras. But family reunification is a crime that has no name. Nobody has chosen where they were born in this life. Even your name is given to you by your parents when you’re born. And the least that we human beings should have is the right to live where we want—of course, following procedures.
But now these conditions, I consider that militarizing society, which is what the United States has done with Honduras from the Southern Command—and the United States doesn’t even have an ambassador in Honduras. It has Colonel Heide Fulton, who is chargé d’affaires, who has been running the country for the last four years. The United States looks at Honduras merely from the standpoint of security policy. Here, if you want to characterize what is happening in terms of what the Trump administration is doing to us, we’ve practically gone back to the 1980s. Here, there’s a major campaign against communists, against those who sympathize with Chávez or the Chavistas.
President Hernández, who has usurped power, because he is a result of the coup d’état, he illegitimately assumed the presidency through election fraud, two election frauds, that the United States has been supporting incredibly. Even the Organization of American States, Mr. Almagro, who is a major conservative and totally pro-U.S., said that the Honduran elections should be redone. Nonetheless, Colonel Heide Fulton came forward, the chargé d’affaires here, and, at a press conference with the electoral tribunal, said that would 5,000 new would be counted. Well, 70% of the vote tally sheets had been collected. And with the other 20,000, they said there were 5,000 that had to be recounted, and that changed the outcome. It was a clear fraud that was supported by the United States.
And this president came to power. And then he said, facelessly—the current president, who is illegal, said that the problem in Honduras is that practices of al-Qaeda were coming in. Imagine, telling us that the opposition had Islamic tendencies and bringing in other things from the Middle East from other conflicts. And he also blamed drug trafficking for the problems that he has. But there was an increase in drug trafficking after the coup d’état. The Department of State says so.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Zelaya, you’re mentioning drug—you mentioned drug trafficking. Here in the United States, most of the images that the American public receives of what’s going on in Honduras is of the violence of the street gangs in Honduras, of the criminality in Honduras, but very little of the political repression by the government against the people. Could you talk about your perspective of how the rise of street gangs and the violence in Honduras is linked to the coup that occurred, to the corruption in the government, that is occurring every day in your country?
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] Well, look, the coup d’état, inexorably, it marks a new form of U.S. meddling in our society. Ten years ago, John Negroponte, undersecretary of state, and President George W. Bush warned me and threatened me, when I was president of Honduras, saying that if had relations with Hugo Chávez, then I would have problems with the United States. Six months after that warning, I was removed from power and removed from this country. The problem for the United States is that the friends of those who they consider their adversaries are not their friends. They’ve decided they’re enemies of the United States, quite simply, because I was seeking better relations with the south, bringing in oil from Venezuela and getting financing for hydroelectric projects with President Lula da Silva, who they are now holding prisoner in Brazil.
So, the policies of the United States towards this region changed. And they made a mistake. And I’ll talk to you about the gangs, the maras, in just a moment, to your question. But if you think about the elite in the U.S. government, well, their view for this region is mistaken. They want to go back to the 1980s, which was marked by the Cold War, stigmatizing the opposition. They’ve created shock forces, psychological war, dirty war. Well, if they think that they’re going to be able to stop migration in this way, well, it’s only going to worsen.
The gangs are a link in the drug trafficking business, and they come about because there’s no jobs. There’s an excess of poverty. Poverty is misery in Honduras. Youth find no solution. So, organizations such as—well, then the drug trafficking organizations come on the scene, and instead of creating more jobs, the government brings more repression.
Plus, these are components of the dictatorship the United States is supporting. They’ve looted the country. Since the coup d’état, in these 10 years, each year, the United States, through the International Monetary Fund, has authorized $24 billion of additional debt each year. So now we have approximately $14 billion debt. When they removed me 10 years ago, we only owed $3 billion. Today, it’s $14 billion. So, to uphold the dictatorship, first they militarize the country, then they drive the country into debt. And they take out huge credits, which they call sovereign bonds, at huge interest rates. And of every 100 lempiras, 40 now go to the banks.
Plus, they loot the state institutions. The levels of corruption are exorbitant. They are abusive in every sense of the word. They’ve looted institutions such as Social Security, which is where the retirement funds for the elderly are and where the moneys are to cover the illnesses that the mothers suffer. They have looted these institutions in order to finance an unpopular, anti-democratic and dictatorial regime.
The United States doesn’t talk about Honduras, because it’s shameful. They are ashamed to talk about what they’re supporting in Honduras. And the only thing to do about it is to denounce it, because there are murders. There are death squads. They’ve exported what’s called Plan Colombia to Honduras, the false positives, where many opposition leaders, such as Berta Cáceres, to mention one, or Murillo at the time of the coup, or another person who was asphyxiated—a 24-year-old who was asphyxiated by the gases—all of these, there’s no way to describe these crimes over the last 10 years other than by calling them crimes against humanity. And this country should be brought before the International Criminal Court, because what U.S. policy is doing is supporting genocide in Honduras and in Central America.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Zelaya, I would like to ask you about another country in the region, about the role of Mexico, because many expected that when Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency in Mexico, that Mexico would develop a more humane policy toward the refugees coming across its borders. What’s your assessment of the first year or the first several months of AMLO’s presidency in relationship to your country and your situation?
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] Well, look, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, I consider him to be a profoundly human man, with values that are in line with great moral principles, for the region and for Mexico and for Central America. He has had a very clear position vis-à-vis the United States. I believe that Mr. Trump’s pressures against Mexico are serious. When they threaten to impose tariffs on Mexican merchandise, well, that produces more migrants, more migration and more poverty in our region. So, the policies of Mr. Andrés Manuel López Obrador are practically being punished by the United States.
In focusing on migration, they’re going to look for some solution to the system that is provoking the migrants, because everyone talks about migration, but the causes of migration are the U.S. policies, the IMF policies, the policies of the Southern Command for this region, are provoking more and more migrants with each passing day. So, militarizing Central America, militarizing Honduras means that that escape valve that the Honduran people have had, which is to be able to get work in the United States—and the Honduran people haven’t even looked for jobs in the United States. It is the U.S. businesses. U.S. businesses, for example, have large crops and cannot pay a U.S. person to work in the countryside. They give the travel expenses to the family members of those who are their employees, and that is why there’s massive migration to work in the United States. They might work six months or a year, and then go back and then return. Migration is a human process, seeking to find solutions. When they militarize the border, what they are going to provoke here will be greater convulsions, greater explosions.
And the Honduran people—you’ve seen this in media reports—the Honduran people are in the streets, and they’re protesting. And they’re not protesting because we, the opposition, tell them to protest. Nobody goes out to protest because some politician tells them to do so. Maybe there would be a group of a hundred people in that context, but here it’s thousands of people in different parts of the country engaged in massive protests, peaceful protests. They do not use weapons. At most, the protesters might mobilize in the streets, making traffic difficult, bringing transportation to a halt. But those expressions of migration shows that poverty has worsened, the debt has gone up. And people are in the streets protesting because the cost of electricity, the cost of transportation, the cost of fuel. Almost everything has been privatized in Honduras.
So, that should be evidence that this, which is a model for neoliberal capitalism—everything is turned into a business for a small group, and for the rest, there’s no solution. It’s a failure of Mr. Donald Trump in Central America. And then drug trafficking increases. No one wants to say so, but drug trafficking increased after the coup d’état, because the drug traffickers, when they see a country that they can control, through an authoritarian system, well, they immediately get involved. Here, they’ve found the military and the police. So, democracy is the way forward for Honduras and Central America. The United States should learn to live with democracy and not be creating repressive policies against us. We have the same right that they do to be able to make a living and live in freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: You have the current president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, investigated by the U.S. government for drug trafficking, and his brother, Tony Hernández, actually arrested for cocaine trafficking. He was arrested in Miami. He’s currently awaiting trial in this country. How does—what does this mean for the people of Honduras? I mean, this is under the Trump administration, that supports the current president, Hernández.
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] Well, there’s only one way to read this. The United States is protecting its dictator here. And mistakenly, they think that benefits the government of Donald Trump. Donald Trump might win re-election in the United States, if the world sees that he is taking measures in favor of democracy in Honduras rather than in favor of the dictatorship, as he is doing now.
Drug trafficking is a measure of that. Drug trafficking is managed by the DEA. The DEA knows of each shipment that comes out of Venezuela and Colombia. The DEA knows about it. And some pass through without any problem, and others are stopped. So, there is not a fight against drug trafficking. There is a fight against cartels. There are some cartels that are fought, and others, they let them go. They know the implications of drug trafficking here. Nonetheless, justice is selective. They take action against some and protect the others. I think the president is protected by the United States.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ten years ago, before the coup against you, throughout Latin America there were progressive governments trying to change the social conditions of their people. And we’ve seen this enormous change—in Brazil, in your country, in Argentina, in the attacks on the government in Venezuela. What is your sense of what is happening in Latin America today in terms of the movements of peoples for greater social equality?
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] Well, there were some statements recently made by a U.S. senator that triumph in socialism was seen that it could set a bad example for the United States, because it could even impact domestic politics in the United States. They could not allow socialism, modern socialism, I would say, because this is a socialism that is different than the socialism one found in Europe during the Cold War. This is a socialism that accepts capital—not capitalism, but capital. It accepts private enterprise, not control by capitalism of the state, because we understand the concept of popular sovereignty, where sovereignty resides in the people. Power does not reside in a military or economic elite as under the neoliberal model.
So, of course, for the United States, which has internal opposition, because internally in the United States there’s begun to be talk of democratic socialism. I have heard Democratic Party candidates talking about democratic socialism. That is why the policy of the United States towards our region has changed. And in Brazil, they went after Dilma Rousseff with a technical coup d’état, because of socialist agreements with the people of Honduras and others in the region. And the right won the elections because Lula was in prison. They would not have done so if Lula were free. And now the United States not only trains military, but also judges, because they’re using the justice system as a tool for political purposes.
AMY GOODMAN: President Zelaya, what is your assessment of President Trump and what he’s doing along the border?
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] I don’t know if that brings him any electoral benefit. But I consider it to be an absurd action in a globalized world, in which for the last three decades we’ve been talking about free trade, talking about competition and competitiveness as part and parcel of the development of capitalism. And now he has come up putting a halt to globalization. So, Trump is like a negation of the historic process. He is a setback in almost every sense.
So, in a conservative society, such as the United States, that can bring him electoral benefits. But in the eyes of the world, he is behaving like a white supremacist, with no human sensitivity as one would require in the 21st century, because migration—well, migration is a right, not a crime. And the migration of the poor northward is bad, but migration of the investor southward is good. The investors come to take over the natural resources, to take over like an oligopoly. And they further impoverish our countries, and that impoverishment produces migration and the increase in drug trafficking and so on and so forth. So, I see that Mr. Donald Trump’s policies, with the Republican Party, represent a setback when it comes to having good neighbor relations with Latin America.
AMY GOODMAN: President Trump cut off all aid to the Northern Triangle countries, to El Salvador, to Guatemala and to your country, Honduras. This is very interesting, considering he supports Juan Orlando Hernández, the president. Now he’s backed off cutting that aid, but threatens to do so if the immigrant flow continues. Do you think President Hernández would fall without that U.S. aid?
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] We don’t need the help of the United States. The United States gives very little assistance. What the United States wants is to exercise economic control over the structures of the macroeconomy worldwide. For example, the World Bank gives Honduras some $150 million a year, $150 million. The Inter-American Development Bank, a similar sum. So, all told, we might get about $240 million. And that is controlled by the United States. And it also has a specific weight in our region. The IMF authorizes a letter that is signed every year so that Honduras can go into debt at very high interest rates, because it is a government that is allied with the United States. What that provokes in our region is clear, I think. I think it’s evident, what it causes in our region. I believe that that relationship, where they say they’re going to cut the assistance, has almost no effect.
Let me put it in clearer terms. Honduran migrants send to Honduras about $4 billion a year. Let me repeat this, Amy: $4 billion a year. And the United States, together with the World Bank and the IDB, sends $200 million.
So, Honduras should be concerned. And the current president has no dignity. We should be able to speak to the Americans on equal conditions, with reciprocity and dignity. But he doesn’t protest, because an immigration treaty we had with the United States was canceled. We had an immigration treaty. It was renewed every year. Indeed, I had good relations with the United States. The U.S. and European oil companies don’t accept competition. But they respected me. And every year, they renewed TPS. Every year, they renewed the Millennium Account. But this year they have not renewed a single penny of the Millennium Account. But, of course, the policy is threatening that aid.
Well, the U.S. aid, from the standpoint of hegemonic control of capitalism through the transnational corporations, through businesses, through the control of the Southern Command over security, and the IMF over the economy, and the OAS—the OAS has supported or made an internal effort on the justice system through the MACCIH. So, if the justice system is controlled by the OAS, and if the U.S. and Monetary Fund and IDB control the economy, and security is controlled by the Southern Command, then—well, then what does Honduras run?
It’s all based on U.S. policy and on the interference and meddling of the United States in Honduras. We should simply reach agreement, because the United States is a strong neighbor. It’s the biggest military and technological power in the world. It’s not that we’re going to be the same as the United States, but we should not be a vassal of the United States. We are a small country, but with the same dignity as the Europeans and the U.S. have.
AMY GOODMAN: President Manuel Zelaya, we want to thank you very much for joining us. President Zelaya was president of Honduras from 2006 to 2009. He was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup June 28th, 2009, coordinator of the Honduran opposition party, Libre. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.