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After a Century of Overthrows, What’s Washington’s Role?

Manuel Zelaya

Manuel Zelaya

It is heartening to see the international community condemn the leaders of the coup against President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras. The United Nations welcomed him as an exiled hero and the Organization of American States has threatened to expel Honduras if the plotters do not reinstate Zelaya within days. President Obama and the State Department have also steadfastly defended the democratically-elected Zelaya. In such a context and with no evidence, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s intimations that the CIA was involved sound hollow.

But few in the media are seeing the historic shifts that have—and have not—occurred in this instance. While the surface role of the US government is appropriate, the United States is guilty of the deeper crime of having championed, over the last century, the absolute rule of property and the domination of rich over poor in Central America that led to the income inequality at the root of Zelaya’s ouster.

Honduras’s trial brings to mind another Zelaya, overthrown one hundred years ago in adjacent Nicaragua in one of the first coups ever orchestrated by the United States anywhere in the world. That event is instructive for what it tells us about continuity and change in U.S. priorities.

Back in 1909 President José Santos Zelaya was an ally of Washington until he ran afoul of its capitalist expansion. Zelaya was, by today’s standards, a monstrous dictator: he jailed or killed political opponents, stole from the treasury, and even overthrew the president of—you guessed it—Honduras. But that was par for the course back then, and Washington did little to stop Zelaya. Why? Zelaya was a typical turn-of-the-century positivist, a believer in “progress and order,” a phrase that telegraphed opening up one’s economy to the export-import trade that U.S. agribusinesses soon dominated.

Zelaya’s real crime was to open up his economy to too many nations. The United States, building the Panama Canal, believed itself the hegemonic power in Central America. Concessions of land should be mostly to U.S. corporations and nothing should threaten the economic promise of the Canal. Zelaya had different ideas. He welcomed U.S. businesses and Protestant missionaries in Nicaragua, but he also took loans from the British and canvassed the Germans and Japanese on the building of a second canal, in Nicaragua this time.

The U.S. government quickly reacted. A U.S. mining interest, shares of which belonged to the family of Philander Knox, the secretary of state, funded an insurgent army against Zelaya. When Zelaya understandably executed two U.S. soldiers of fortune laying mines for the insurgency, Knox saw an opening. The secretary of state sent Zelaya a note that historian Michel Gobat called “the most hostile ever sent by the U.S. government to a Latin American country.” The note called Zelaya a “blot upon the history of Nicaragua” and demanded a $200,000 reparation. Knox followed up with a thousand marines to persuade Zelaya to resign.

The Nicaraguan fled to Mexico, where audiences welcomed his speeches with shouts of “Death to the Yankees!” For a generation following 1909, Zelaya’s Liberal Party blamed the United States for many of the country’s ills. In early 1911, the U.S. minister reported that “the natural sentiment of an overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans is antagonistic to the United States.” When Knox himself visited the country in 1912, he was almost killed by a conspiracy to blow up his train. Anti-U.S. demonstrators met him everywhere he spoke. The anger at the United States culminated in Augusto Sandino’s six-year war against the marines in the 1920s and 1930s.

Sandino’s own murder, by U.S. ally Anastazio Somoza, not only began over forty years of dictatorship followed by a decade of socialist revolution but it also accelerated the concentration of land and power in the hands of a few.

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So while U.S. policy has slowly moved toward the encouragement of political democracy, it has rarely addressed the root cause of political instability—the lack of economic democracy.

More broadly in Central America, U.S. capital and its government allies long helped broaden the gap between rich and poor. In the early century, all-powerful fruit companies in Honduras and elsewhere concentrated lands in the hand of a few while forcing newly-landless farmers into cities and mountains.

The spread of cheap-labor maquiladoras throughout Central America has also helped propel a few native managers and owners to positions of great wealth and influence while keeping workers in perpetual poverty.

Even policies such as the 1960s Alliance for Progress, nominally designed to level the economic playing field, in reality increased Central America’s focus on exports, taking up more land from poor subsistence farmers and handing it to wealthy exporters of cattle and coffee.

And the anti-protectionist push of the last few decades, culminating in the Central American Free Trade Agreement now fully in effect in all the region’s countries, has done far more than lower tariffs and trade barriers. CAFTA signals a new anti-regulatory environment in Central America, forcing onto these societies new freedoms for the corporate elite to ally across borders while labor has no such opportunity. Privatizing trade deals notably reduce what the World Bank calls the “redistributive capacity of the state,” or the ability to regulate and tax business. Honduras has had the consistently highest index of income inequality in Central America in the last 20 years.

The true appeal of someone like Manuel Zelaya is that, like Chávez, he promises to reverse that inequality. His enemies in Honduras are wholly supported by the middle and upper classes, who make up the membership of the Congress and Supreme Court that backed his ouster. The military was just following orders. Chávez enraged all the same social groups as Zelaya but he was wily enough to transform the military early in his presidency so as to avoid such a threat. Zelaya was not so able.


Championing democracy and the return of Zelaya is laudable. But Obama also needs to address the economic sources of the Honduras coup plotters with a fresh look at export-driven policies and neoliberal structural adjustments that only make such coups likely.

Alan McPherson

Alan McPherson is associate professor of international relations at the University of Oklahoma. He is author of Yankee No! Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations.