Protect Democracy, End the Coup in Honduras, an Interview



Editor's note: Interviewed here, Dan Kovalik is senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers (USW). See the joint statement condemning the Honduras coup signed by the USW here. Click here for an audio version of this interview.

PA: How did your recent trip to Honduras come about and what were some of the activities you took part in?

DAN KOVALIK: The trip was organized by the School of the Americas Watch, an organization dedicated to shutting down the School of the Americas, which has trained repressive military leaders in Latin America for many years. Honduras has become a place of particular interest for them as of late, because two of the top coup leaders were trained at the School of the Americas, so School of the Americas Watch organized a delegation there. Just the week before the Steelworkers, along with the Unite union in the UK, under our umbrella group called Workers Uniting, put out a very strong statement against the coup, urging the US to cut off military aid and to call for the immediate return of President Zelaya. In light of that message, when I heard about the delegation I decided to go down with them to Honduras.

PA: Can you describe your meetings with human rights groups and labor unions?

KOVALIK: Actually the group we spent the most time with was the Center for Families of the Displaced and Disappeared, also known as COFADEH. We spent a lot of time with the director, Bertha Oliva. Her husband was disappeared twenty-some years ago, and she started this organization. She gave us a very interesting perspective on Zelaya and the process that was happening there before the coup. She became very good friends with President Zelaya, who actually had issued a decree in which the government promised they would start to look into these long-standing disappeared. They had been disappeared by the military regime in the 1980s. Bertha and many others are now very worried that if this coup solidifies and continues that they may return to those days, where people were being disappeared and arbitrarily detained and arrested. She also talked about the process of how Zelaya evolved as a leader and a president. He was initially a rich rancher. He was the Liberal Party candidate, and in Honduras the Liberal Party is pretty conservative, actually. He was elected on a very conservative platform. Initially he went to the business leaders to try to work with them on policy issues affecting Hondurans, and actually got a cold shoulder from them. He didn’t get much help. They weren’t interested in any type of change in Honduras. Then he turned to the social groups like the human rights groups, the trade unions, indigenous groups, peasant groups, and began to work very closely with them and consult with them on policy for Honduras, and he came through that process radicalized and really started becoming an advocate for the people, which was really the issue the elites had with him, and that ultimately led to the coup.

We also met with union groups. We met a number of union groups at the big beverage union hall there in Tegucigalpa. The three main union confederations there are very united against this coup, as are all the social groups in Honduras.

PA: You mentioned the statement that the Steelworkers and your British counterparts put out calling for Zelaya’s return and denouncing the coup. How did that statement originate, and why did the Steelworkers feel this was something they had to be on the record on?

KOVALIK: I think that as time has gone on the unions in the US in general and the Steelworkers in particular have really realized how much we are linked to unions and the fate of workers in other countries, particularly in Latin America. We have become very involved in Colombia. We have been very heavily involved with that for almost 10 years because of the unprecedented violence against union leaders there, where year after year the vast majority of unionists assassinated in the world are assassinated in Colombia. About 2,700 union leaders have been killed there since 1986 and over 20 so far this year. We have been very involved in fighting the Free Trade Agreement based on our human rights concerns in Colombia. We have been involved in some law suits against corporations, which we have alleged conspired with paramilitary groups to kill union leaders in Colombia, and essentially over time have become more and more involved in the struggles in other countries, particularly in Latin America. We saw what was happening in Honduras now with this coup as a huge backward step for the entire region.

What really is at stake is a return to the period when there were episodic military coups in the region which brought into power military regimes which were very repressive towards workers, peasants and poor people, where they were actually murdering thousands of people. We are basically of the view that we cannot return to that period, and that if this coup is allowed to continue that is what is going to happen, that we could really slip back to a period of massive repression in Latin America that we are just not willing to accept.

PA: President Obama has made a number of strong statements denouncing the coup and calling for the restoration of Zelaya, but, in your mind, is there more that should be done by the United States to help restore democracy there?

KOVALIK: It is true that Obama has made very strong statements against the coup, which frankly, I think, has made him a very popular figure amongst the social groups in Honduras who are calling for President Zelaya’s return, and with the average person in Honduras. But frankly he is seen as an enemy by the elites there who want the coup to continue. His statements have been heard down there, and he is definitely being seen as on the side of the return of President Zelaya and on the side of democracy. At the same time, there is some leeriness, given US past policy in Honduras – long-standing policy, in which we really treated Honduras as more or less a military outpost of the United States. There is some fear that other sectors of the US government and the US military may be more favorable to the coup. Also some of the statements that Hillary Clinton has made have been very vague and noncommittal in terms of whether she wants Zelaya to return or not.

So we really want the US to take more affirmative steps: both to show that they support the unconditional return of Zelaya, and to put pressure on the coup government to allow Zelaya to return to his rightful office as President. That is what people are calling for. And while the US did apparently (according to the press release of last Wednesday, which was issued while we were down there) cut off military aid to Honduras, there is still about $180 million or so of economic aid which they could cut off, which we are urging them to do to pressure the government there to allow Zelaya to return. We are also calling upon the US ambassador to be withdrawn from Honduras, just as the ambassadors from the EU have been withdrawn, and we are calling on the US to remove the 500-600 US troops stationed in Honduras, which are actually stationed on a Honduran Air Force Base, again in protest of what the military did there in kidnapping President Zelaya and throwing him out of the country. Those are the main things that we are calling upon the US to do to make it clear that they are not going to tolerate this coup government.

PA: Multinational corporations that have business interests in Honduras are calling on President Obama to take a noncommittal position. How is this related to the question of workers’ rights in Honduras and free trade, and to the question of the promotion of business interests in that country, without any environmental or labor standards that protect the people who live there?

KOVALIK: I definitely think that there is a very stark difference between Zelaya and the new coup government on those issues. Zelaya had actually increased the minimum wage by around 65 percent. He was very supportive of the unions and was actually taking advice from them. He was moving in the direction of trying to protect workers’ rights. Historically the US and the types of business interests you have mentioned have been very opposed to these kinds of steps, because US companies generally want free access to cheap labor and resources in countries like Honduras. Therefore they would see the coup government as much more favorable to their interests, and that is why the big business interests in the US would naturally align with the coup government. It is clear that supporting Zelaya’s return is supporting the union movement in Honduras and supporting workers’ rights, which he was trying to protect.

The coup leaders claim this is a struggle over the constitution of Honduras – and it is certainly – but we think the return of Zelaya is the only way to ensure the continuation of constitutional democracy there. However, even more to the point, this is ultimately a struggle over class, a struggle between those who want more rights for workers and the poor and indigenous people in that country – those folks who are lining up behind the return of Zelaya, and the business interests who would like to keep the country safe for penetration by multinationals, which don’t want protection for workers.

PA: In a larger context, some people are saying that the outcome of this crisis has broader implications for Latin America and the question of democracy generally. Do you agree with that?

KOVALIK: I desperately agree with that. I think what happens in Honduras will determine the fate of Latin America for decades to come. People have indicated, for instance, that in Guatemala, which has a progressive president, the chances of a military coup are pretty great, and it borders Honduras. Believe me, the military in Guatemala is looking to see what happens in Honduras to decide if they would engage in the same type of military ouster of their president. It wasn’t long ago, you know, in the late 1980s and even into the 1990s, that you had death squad governments in Central America that were slaughtering thousands of people. So whether or not Zelaya returns could determine whether we go back to that kind of period.

That is why Latin America is lining up very very strongly behind Zelaya, because they see that. It’s quite interesting – even President Uribe of Colombia, a very conservative, I would say, even right-wing president, who has ties himself to death squads in his own country, is opposed to this coup. And the reason why is very clear. You cannot allow militaries to overthrow constitutional presidents with impunity. Otherwise, other countries will follow, and any sitting civilian president, even one like Uribe in Colombia, does not want to be the next one to face this sort of thing. So what happens in Honduras is a very important issue for all of us.

PA: Finally, for people who are just starting to hear about this issue, how would you recommend they learn more and then speak up on behalf of democracy in Honduras?

KOVALIK: In terms of learning more, the SOA Watch website has some wonderful information on their website about what is happening in Honduras. There are a lot of reports from our delegation, for example. They also talk about the background of what is happening there and the US role in Honduras. So I would urge them to go there. At the same site there are suggestions on how to get involved, by contacting your congressperson and the US State Department, in order to put more pressure on the Honduran coup government to allow President Zelaya to return.