This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2010

Postcard from Honduras: Birth of the coup

Ashley Holly McEachern

Honduran citizens cast their votes in defiance of a military coup that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and cancelled planned elections. Photo by Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters.

Honduran citizens cast their votes in defiance of a military coup that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and cancelled planned elections. Photo by Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters.

Sunday morning was dark and my alarm didn’t go off, so I slept in. I was awakened late in the morning to a fellow gringo, my friend Luke, shouting through my window. “Ashley!” he yelled, “wake up, did you hear what happened?” I had heard nothing but silence that day. I let him in and before he could explain what was going on my alarm began to flash and my cellphone began to ring. The silence is broken. On the other end of the phone my father shouts, “Are you okay, what is going on there Ashley. Come home.” Before I even knew it, my father told me that overnight, I’d been swept up in a military coup.

I had arrived in the small city of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, in the early summer of 2009 to work with an NGO and study the atrocities of the Canadian gold mining industry for my master’s thesis. As a student of international development, June 28, 2009, was one of the most educational days of my life.

That was the day that Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had slated for a referendum on adding a fourth ballot to the upcoming election asking Hondurans if they supported the writing of a new constitution. For the 70 percent of Hondurans who live in poverty, this was an opportunity for unprecedented change. The professors, the indigenous people, the NGOs, the activists—at least the ones I heard from—were all voting yes. This was a day that everyone had been talking about, although the democratic system in Honduras had seldom inspired too much confidence: People thought that perhaps the referendum would be cancelled; that officials would record who voted in order to intimidate them; or that the results would be rigged.

What actually happened—Zelaya forced from his home by the army and exiled to Costa Rica in a midnight coup— hadn’t even been on the radar, but that’s exactly what happened. Immediately, thousands of Zelaya supporters took to the streets in the capital, calling it an act of terrorism, and condemning the coup as the work of Honduras’ rich and powerful ruling class.

Still half asleep and incredibly confused, I threw on some jeans and joined Luke on the eerily deserted street corner. We arrived at the park to find about 30 people wearing red T-shirts that read “Yes to the Fourth Ballot,” singing the national anthem, and passing around makeshift ballots for people to cast their mock votes. Four military guards cornered the park. Elsewhere, all of the stores were closed and the church service ended early so we could all return home in time for the 9 p.m. curfew the new president had enforced “for safety.” Or, argued my colleagues, to keep the protesters out of the big cities.

When I returned to my hotel the door was padlocked with chains. The hotel owner hastily shuffled me inside and told me that we must be careful, since no one knew exactly what to expect. Although it may be overwhelming, he told me with grim humour, I couldn’t be here at a more opportune time: “Ashley,” he told me, “You are going to leave this country with the highest understanding of politics and revolution.”

Sunday night I couldn’t get to sleep. Fantasizing about being back home, where I could get minute-by-minute news feeds sent to my phone, I eventually dozed off, only to wake up the following day faced with a curfew newly extended from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., no independent news channels, limited cellphone connections—and a glimpse of what real resistance looks like.

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