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Why Zelaya’s Protest Support Dwindled

Reading Time: 6 minutesThree months after the coup the Hondruan crisis appears to be peacefully resolved, but the pro-Zelaya [i]Resistencia[/i] was not a factor in the compromise.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Resistencia Calls for Zelaya’s Return.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

October 30, 2009

A peaceful resolution to the Honduran crisis appears to be at hand. Pending the approval of the Honduran Congress, Manuel Zelaya will return to power, the elections will take place at the end of November (with the military under the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s control for this month) and the international community will recognize the upcoming elections. Notably, the solution resulted from foreign, rather than domestic, pressure on both Roberto Micheletti and Manuel Zelaya, with the United States leading the final push. This raises the question of why, even as international pressure on Micheletti’s regime increased, domestic opposition protests dwindled. What explains the pro-Zelaya Resistencia’s relative weakness and its ultimate marginalization from the solution to the Honduran political crisis?

After an initial surge of popular protest, the pro-Zelaya Resistencia fell off the radar. Through mid-September, these forces had the capacity to mobilize tens of thousands of protesters—most clearly evidenced at the Independence Day march in Tegucigalpa on September 15. Then, after Zelaya’s return to Honduras, Roberto Micheletti’s de facto government beat protests back with overt repression and a two-week State of Exception, which suspended freedoms of assembly, speech, media, and movement, as well as due process. Repression then diminished, but the Resistencia remained a shadow of its former self. This weakness requires explanation. No doubt, repression was the proximate cause of the Resistencia’s inability to bounce back. Fully understanding this story, however, requires an appreciation of longer-term, structural factors of Honduran society. In particular, one must understand the Left’s historical weakness and the impact of this legacy on efforts to mobilize Zelaya supporters since the coup.

The Effects of Repression

On its face, the Resistencia’s decline has a simple explanation. Repression quells mobilization. Batons and bullets scare protesters into staying home, and governments go about their business. But political scientists have long noted that the relationship between repression and mobilization is ambiguous. For, while repression can quash mobilization, repression can also backfire by reducing state legitimacy to such an extent that protest swells. So, when does repression quell protest, and when does it foster it, and where does the Honduran case fit into the equation?

Charles Brockett’s book, Political Movements and Violence in Central America, offers the best exploration of this question for Central America. Focusing on authoritarian Guatemala and El Salvador through the 1980s, Brockett sets out to answer the “repression-protest paradox.” Brockett finds that, once a protest cycle has ensued, a gradual increase of repression usually proves counter-productive and engenders further protest. Massive repression, however, usually ends the protest cycle and minimizes non-violent contentious activities. He concludes: “When regimes are willing to repress as necessary and have the capacity to do so, they usually succeed in eliminating popular contention as a threat to their regime and often to their own rule as well.”

Admittedly, Brockett’s analysis is not a perfect fit for the present comparison. He was focusing on long-standing authoritarian regimes, which Honduras is not. But his analysis is the best we have, and it raises interesting questions for the current Honduran crisis: was the repression really massive? No doubt, hundreds of people were detained, scores were beaten and some were killed—a chilling reminder of Latin America’s repressive past. But state violence was nowhere near the scale of Central America’s gory past. And still it managed to break the Resistencia.

Zelaya’s Weak Base of Support

So why was relatively small-scale repression able to quell Zelaya’s supporters?

First, unlike its neighbors, Honduras has never had a strong Left. Historically, this was due to greater land availability and relatively weak domestic elites. This combination contributed to less ideological polarization. More recently, relatively accommodating military regimes used land reform and co-optation to undercut the Left in the 1960s and 1970s, and a repressive counter-insurgency apparatus stamped out revolutionary organizations in the 1980s. Throughout, two right-wing parties have maintained a stranglehold on politics through extensive patronage networks. These historical factors assured that Honduras would never become the Latin American Left’s next stronghold.

Because the Left has always been weaker in Honduras, quelling protest has never required as much state repression. Whereas the Salvadoran and Guatemalan states, combined, killed hundreds of thousands of their own citizens in the 1980s, Honduras’s death toll remained in the hundreds. This was still horrifying, but the horror paled in comparison to the state-sponsored terror in neighboring countries. And yet, smaller-scale repression was sufficient to destroy incipient insurgent groups and popular mobilization. Honduras’s Left has always been weaker and easier to control than the Left in neighboring countries; the current crisis is no exception. This suggests that there is no universal answer to how much repression is “enough” to quell protest. National and historical context remain critically important.

In the current crisis, the Left’s historical weakness translated into the coordination problems of pro-Zelaya forces. It is not that Zelaya had no domestic support. While he did not enjoy majority approval, he did maintain some vociferous urban followers and a poor, rural base that he had courted with popular state subsidies. But the State of Exception managed, at least temporarily, to handcuff both sectors.

Rural quiescence is the easiest part of the story to explain. Political scientists have long noted that rural passivity is the norm, not the exception. Collective action problems usually prove insurmountable in the countryside, where peasants face geographic dispersion, limited economic resources and low levels of political awareness. And, while important cases of rural mobilization have marked Central American history, they have not occurred in Honduras. While Honduran peasant organizations have persisted since 1954, these organizations have never sustained widespread contentious activity. To a great extent, the story of Honduran rural organization has been one of co-optation, first by the military and then by the two dominant right-of-center parties.

This legacy of not protesting persists in the Honduran countryside. In a recent cross-national survey of rural parents, Javier Corrales and I found that virtually no Hondurans in these areas had ever protested, which contrasted sharply with high levels of protest among similar Guatemalan respondents. In follow-up interviews since the coup, even rural Hondurans who identified with the Resistencia said that fear would keep them from ever protesting. Tegucigalpa is too far away, too expensive and too scary to visit on a good day, they said. Even after Micheletti lifted the State of Exception—which barely touched these people’s communities, anyway—protesting simply remained out of the question. Rural passivity persisted.

Meanwhile, in urban areas, the repression and State of Exception had enough teeth to quell protest. Immediately after Zelaya’s clandestine return, thousands of vehicles from secondary cities and towns flocked to the capital. The military and police prevented many from entering Tegucigalpa. Early reports of the de facto government’s repressive actions deterred even those who had managed to get into the city. The week-long curfew then cowed people into staying home.

The Resistencia Misses Its Opportunity

Even after laying dormant for a week, though, the Resistencia could have reemerged. Micheletti’s repression sparked division with the country’s elite—as evidenced by presidential candidate Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo’s calls for dialogue—and the State of Exception itself provoked rejection from most Honduran political actors.

The Resistencia, however, did not manage to stage a comeback. This was because the Left’s debility was as much about organizational weakness as it was a numbers game. The Resistencia consisted of an impromptu coalition of small organizations. With the important exception of the teachers’ unions—five of six of which supported Zelaya—these organizations lacked national membership and networks.

Meanwhile, both major political parties—the National Party and Liberal Party—remained resolutely against Zelaya. Zelaya lost his own party’s (the Liberal Party) support with his proposed constituent assembly. He then maintained the support of only the two most marginal candidates—Carlos H. Reyes and Cesar Ham—in a six-horse presidential race. Officially, Honduras has six parties; in practice, however, it is the Liberal Party and National Party that reach down into every corner of Honduran society, often co-opting the country’s associational life. The lack of resources and networks from these parties handicapped the Resistencia from the beginning.

This is why shutting down the pro-Zelaya media, and Radio Globo in particular, was so important to the Micheletti regime. Radio Globo was a critical part of the nervous system of an ad hoc movement. The station proved decisive for encouraging and coordinating protest, enraging listeners with accounts of repression and relaying messages from Zelaya and Resistencia leaders outside the embassy. The station’s closure multiplied the Resistencia’s coordination problem and revealed the movement’s impromptu nature. Without this medium, the pro-Zelaya networks were not strong enough to sustain themselves.

Radio Globo eventually returned, but recent events further reduced the odds of a Resistencia recovery. Already weakened by repression and censorship, the movement received two additional blows from the Guaymuras Dialogue and the electoral campaign’s increasing momentum. Once Zelaya agreed to renounce the constituent assembly, he removed movement leader Juan Barahona from the negotiating table. The Resistencia thus became increasingly marginal to resolving the crisis.

Barahona and other leaders maintained their support for Zelaya’s restitution, but they also claimed they would never give up fighting for the constituent assembly. No longer were Zelaya and the Resistencia on the same page, and this division cost the movement strength. Simply put, it became harder to mobilize supporters—especially those facing the prospect of repression—when they felt betrayed.

The upcoming elections further divided the Resistencia. The movement proclaimed its intention to boycott the elections, but some pro-Zelaya candidates then began to hedge their bets. While, certain Liberal Party congressional and mayoral candidates declared they would not run if Zelaya was not first re-instated, Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos recently met with a group of pro-Zelaya mayoral candidates to convince them to support Santos’ candidacy. Despite rhetorical support for Zelaya, it seemed clear that most candidates would ultimately allow self-interest to prevail over conviction.

Now, the situation has changed. The Congress will likely approve Zelaya’s return, given that this is the key to obtaining international legitimacy for the upcoming elections. The Resistencia will then claim victory, declaring that it has achieved its principal objective—restoring Zelaya to power. But, while the Resistencia played a significant early role in showing significant popular disgust with the coup, this inchoate movement experienced a steady decline in the six weeks leading up to the resolution of this crisis. The Resistencia was not, therefore, responsible for the final push toward a resolution. Instead, given the pro-Zelaya forces’ decline, only international pressure proved able to surmount Micheletti’s intransigence.


Daniel Altschuler has written extensively on Central American politics and U.S. immigration politics for publications including the Christian Science MonitorForeign Policy, The Nation, CNN, and Dissent. He is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and holds a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.

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