Report from Land Occupations in Post-Coup Honduras

Poor farmers are taking land from agribusiness that supported the 2009 military coup – and paying with their lives.

It’s been more than 20 months since a military coup shook the Central American country of Honduras to it’s core. The aftermath has seen a decades old land conflict reach deadly heights as poor farmers occupy agribusiness-owned land, and are often found dead soon after.

In previous years, the farmers would be on their own, but the coup gave rise to a broad resistance movement of which the campesinos are a key sector.

Produced by Jesse Freeston.

JESSE FREESTON: On June 28, 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and left in his pajamas at an airport in Costa Rica. The military and police took control of the streets to repress the mass movement that demanded both Zelaya’s return and the progressive changes he was pushing for in the country. Twenty months later and the military are still deployed, perhaps nowhere more visibly than the Aguan Valley. The region has become a key battleground between farmers with little or no land, known as campesinos, and wealthy landowners backed by military and police. The price of basic foodstuffs has doubled since the 2009 coup, and campesinos have ramped up a long-held tradition of occupying unused land or land in the hands of the country’s richest people. A recent study found that there are roughly 300,000 Honduran families in need of land. Meanwhile, the majority of the land in Honduras’s fertile Aguan region is in the hands of three men, all supporters of the coup, who are using Honduras’s richest soil to produce palm oil for export. This is the community of Orica, where one of the groups of campesinos that organized after the coup are now planting corn and radishes on land they occupied seven months ago.

CAMPESINO (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): I used to make at most $2.50 or $3 per day. The rich man wants us to give him our lungs and grow old working for him, and we never prosper. Our families are always suffering.

CAMPESINO (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We had to recover what was ours. I commend many who, as a result of the coup d’etat, took off their blindfold and now we’re in the struggle.

CAMPESINO (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We have a right to land. We occupied this land so that we could work it.

FREESTON: The government of Manuel Zelaya, just weeks before it was overthrown in 2009, agreed to grant land titles to some of the campesino groups in the region. In November 2010, the military occupied the region’s National Land Reform Institute, a government ministry charged with distributing land to campesinos. Staff were forced to leave, and the military held the building for two months. During that same period, while the entire region was militarized, security guards of Miguel Facusse, the richest man in Honduras, ambushed and killed five campesinos working land they’ve held for more than ten years. Miguel Ramirez survived the massacre, despite being shot in the face with a high-caliber machine gun.

MIGUEL RAMIREZ (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We lost five companions, and we miss them a lot, victims of a struggle to sustain our families. Those watching this video need to understand that what’s happening in our country is a struggle of the poor going up against monsters.

FREESTON: Facusse later admitted on national television that the killers were indeed his guards, but placed the blame for the deaths on the government’s land reform office for having given land titles to the campesinos in the first place. More than two months have passed since his admission, and there is no criminal investigation of Facusse for the November killings or any of the 14 campesino murders that Honduras’s Committee for Human Rights have blamed on Facusse specifically. Meanwhile, Honduras Chamber of Industry recently awarded Facusse for, quote, “his continued investment, despite the country’s instability”. He spoke to Honduras’s El Heraldo newspaper.

MIGUEL FACUSSE: We need to bring in foreign capital. But these events unfolding in the Aguan Valley, where they’re robbing the private businesses, the investment sector, looks bad on us.

FREESTON: For Ramirez, these events confirm his belief that the country needs fundamental change, and he sees the People’s National Resistance Front, which formed in response to the coup in 2009, as the means to get it done.

RAMIREZ: The Resistance has to move this country forward. It’s our only hope. Thankfully, the country has awoken.

FREESTON: On February 26, the National Popular Resistance Front had its first truly national assembly. Fifteen hundred delegates participated, representing each of the country’s 298 municipalities after local assemblies like this one in the town of Saba were held nationwide to elect delegates and debate the future of a movement most people simply refer to as the Resistance. The movement is unified by its call for a new constitution to replace the one written in 1982 under US-backed military dictatorship. It is also unified in its rejection of the current regime of Pepe Lobo, who took power in elections held under a coup government, with the military occupying the streets during a national boycott by all who opposed the coup, and with zero international observation and ample proof of fraud. Nonetheless, the elections were recognized by the United States, Canada, and a few others. And since the United States represents at least 60 percent of Honduras’s international trade, their recognition alone was enough for Lobo to take office. The position of the US is that Lobo represents an end of the political crisis. But as president, Lobo has awarded those who led the coup and repressed those who opposed it. General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez was the head of the military that carried out both the coup and the repression of the movement that rose up in resistance. Lobo named Vasquez president of the country’s state telephone company. WikiLeaks has since released a cable sent by US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens to the State Department at the headquarters in Washington, reporting that Lobo was considering appointing General Vasquez as his minister of defense but changed his mind after the US ambassador advised him that it wouldn’t look good internationally. Meanwhile, the political leader of the coup, Roberto Micheletti, has been rewarded with Honduras’s first ever seat as a congressman for life. The Lobo regime is also upholding an amnesty law that forbids the legal prosecution of Vasquez, Micheletti, or anyone else who was involved in the coup. This impunity for the powerful sectors is a daily reality in post-coup Honduras, where dozens of political assassinations, including ten journalists in 2010 alone, along with illegal detentions, kidnappings, torture, and accusations of gross corruption are all left unpunished and largely uninvestigated. The Resistance’s national assembly began with a tribute to those assassinated since the coup. Author Melissa Cardoza covered the assembly for local radio station Radio Gualcho. She says the murders helped unify groups like the campesinos, who previously struggled alone.

MELISSA CARDOZA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Those of us who’ve been in the Resistance and confronted the repression realized that the enemies of our people, well, they want to kill us. It’s not by coincidence that the Resistance has so many murdered martyrs. I think this brought about something very important for this country and others, that the struggles of each group, whether organized by profession, by party, by identity, the coup and the repression forced us to work together.

JUAN CHINCHILLA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Since Pepe Lobo took power, there have been 21 campesino killings.

FREESTON: Juan Chinchilla is a member of the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan, one of the many campesino groups currently occupying and working the land of the region.

CHINCHILLA: We’ve been militarized twice this past year with 7,500 soldiers.

FREESTON: In February, Rigoberto Funez was shot dead while driving home midafternoon. He was the president of the campesino cooperative Prieta and a local leader of the Resistance. Also killed was the cooperative’s treasurer, Freddy Gonzalez Castro. The police immediately declared the attack a robbery, but Chinchilla doesn’t agree.

CHINCHILLA: They want to create a smokescreen, to cover it up nationally by saying it was a robbery. They were murdered in cold blood on a major highway at midday with lots of traffic. We can’t allow these cases to remain in impunity.

FREESTON: As for Chinchilla himself, in January he was kidnapped for more than 24 hours, where he was beaten and tortured with an open flame before narrowly escaping. Two months later and he and his companions are still receiving regular threats, such as this text message sent to his good friend, Jorge: “Not even Chinchilla can save you. We know you’re in Tegucigalpa, and we will find you and your little Juan when you guys are all alone.”

CHINCHILLA: We face constant persecution. So after everything that’s happened to me, why am I still fighting? Because I’m determined to refound my country. And if these people want to take my life, I’m prepared to give it to bring change to my country.

FREESTON: But the countryside isn’t the only battleground where the resistance is fighting. In the next segment, we look at the battle over public education that’s raging in Honduras’s cities and highways. Reporting from Honduras for The Real News Network, I’m Jesse Freeston.