Honduras After the Coup: Fear and Defiance

"Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo." ("They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.") This slogan was chanted by the thousands of demonstrators who defied the illegitimate de facto government imposed by the Honduran military in the protests that erupted throughout the country immediately after the after the coup of June 28, 2009. I recently visited Honduras along with a delegation led by Rights Action, a human rights group based in Toronto and Washington, D. C. I was introduced to the role that fear plays in the political life of the country, and to the importance of the fact that so many people are ready to defy that fear.

Background to the Coup

Honduras has long been an important platform for the United States to dominate the region. The military forces that overthrew the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 were organized and trained there. The CIA used Honduras to organize the terroristic attacks of the "contras" against the Nicaraguans in the eighties. The Palmerola air base is used by the United States as a training base and to wage its "war on drugs."

The leadership of the Honduran army is dominated by officers who have been trained at the School of the Americas (now renamed WHINSEC) in Georgia, where they, along with the elite of many other Latin American armies, have learned methods of torture and repression to be used against their own people. The Honduran oligarchy have been subservient to US interests since the days when banana growing corporations came to dominate this original "banana republic." International mining interests and corporations running sweatshops have a free hand in exploiting the country’s resources and people. Whenever their rule has been effectively challenged, death squads, acting with impunity, have eliminated labor leaders, peasant organizers, or anyone else who got in the way of the political, military, or corporate masters.

Political life has been dominated by two parties, Nationalists and Liberals. The Nationalists have traditionally had close ties to the military. The Liberals once had a tradition of struggle for progressive reforms; because of this many of them were murdered during the forties and again in the sixties. But in recent years they have taken their place as a party that can be trusted to loyally serve the powers that be. Thus it was expected that Liberal Party President Jose Manuel "Mel" Zelaya Rosales, son of a wealthy, conservative rancher, would carry on in the service of the rich and powerful.

In retrospect, some analysts believe that Zelaya had an unstated agenda of serious reform when he came into office, trying to position himself so as to be able to carry it out. Early on he attempted to get close to the army by raising their salaries. One by one he replaced key government officials and started making changes. Agrarian reform had been started back in the late 60’s and 70’s but was derailed; Zelaya got it going again. He improved the working conditions for teachers, raised the minimum wage by 60%, refused to renew the contract of the US military to use the Palmerola air base, lowered the price of fuel, set up processes for poor people to have ownership of their houses registered and to help them improve their housing, and impeded the process of privatizing ownership of energy and communications.

In August of 2008 Zelaya signed the papers that made Honduras a member of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for America, a trade organization including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries which was set up as a rival to the US led FTAA (Free Trade Alliance for the Americas). Then, in March of 2009, he proposed that a referendum vote be taken along with the next election in November, asking whether a constituent assembly should be convened to rewrite the nation’s constitution.

These moves truly frightened the oligarchy. ALBA is an initiative that was launched by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has been leading a peaceful socialist revolution in his country for the last ten years. One of the first things that Chavez did upon taking office in 1999 was to convoke a constituent assembly to write the most progressive constitution in the world, guaranteeing the rights of all people to a decent life, including women, workers, and indigenous people, and promoting participatory democracy. In the intervening years, Bolivia and Ecuador did the same thing. The worst nightmare of the oligarchy was about to come true!

The establishment went into full court press. The congress, the supreme court, and especially the media declared such a referendum illegal, unconstitutional, and a communist inspired power grab designed to install Zelaya as dictator for life. It didn’t matter that any constitutional revision would happen months or years after Zelaya was out of office, they just kept repeating the same thing: "He wants to change the constitution so he can be president for life!" Zelaya changed the plan to be a non-binding public opinion poll, but even this was more than they could tolerate. The early morning before the poll was to be held, on June 28, soldiers blasted their way into the president’s bedroom, forced him onto a plane, and dumped him in Costa Rica.

Nearly everyone was surprised at the reaction to this move. For one thing, the Organization of American States unanimously condemned the coup as a barbaric violation of democratic norms, similar to the 20th century coups in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, etc. But far more surprising was the response of the people of Honduras. The spontaneous outrage was overwhelming. Not only had the oligarchs acted illegally, and not only had they deposed a president who had for once shown some sign that he might actually want to do something about the crushing poverty of the majority of the people, but they were trying to justify their actions with an argument that was so transparently false that people saw it as an insult to their intelligence.

Labor, human rights organization, women’s rights activists, indigenous peoples, gays, campesinos, community organizers, virtually every progressive in Honduras saw this as the last straw, and they came together on the streets, determined that this shall not stand. The Resistance was born.

The Defiant

Betty Perez is the leader of a coffee producers’ coop in Marcala, a town in the mountains to the west of Tegucigalpa. Betty was one of the thousands of volunteers who were expecting to conduct the referendum the morning of June 28. When she went to pick up the ballot boxes to take to polling places, she found that the army confiscated them, and that there had been a coup. People got together and marched around town with Honduran flags, and had a meeting where they decided that they would go into Tegucigalpa to demonstrate. But the local head of the army said that they would not be allowed to go.

The next morning Betty got in her pickup truck and scouted ahead, finding that there were five checkpoints on the way to the capital. People filled three buses and set out. They would drive until they were a little short of a checkpoint, get out, and walk up through the mountains, coming back to the road where they were out of sight of the soldiers. Meanwhile, Betty and people in a few other cars would go to the checkpoint and distract the soldiers, telling them various stories about why they were going into the city, keeping them busy so they wouldn’t go looking around.

The trip from Marcala to Tegucigalpa normally takes about three or four hours, but under these conditions it took all day. Some people got stopped, some just couldn’t keep trekking, two of the buses were stopped before they got all the way. About fifty of Betty’s group got through to a union hall in Tegucigalpa where people were streaming in from all over. The next day they joined a huge demonstration.

As the summer went on, protests continued. San Pedro Sula is a commercial and manufacturing center about 180 miles north of Tegucigalpa. The road between the two cities is a major artery; given the mountainous terrain and the deplorable condition of all but the most important roads, there is no practical alternative route. The teachers planned a roadblock, and many women went around with trumpets, singing the national anthem, recruiting people for the action. Betty went with her truck to get a load of tires to burn, and some young men showed her a back road route to get around a police checkpoint.

The roadblock went from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon. When there are road blocks like this, people get out of their bus and walk around, then get on a bus on the other side which turns around and takes them on their way. As they were walking past they would say, "I’m with you, but I’m on a trip and have to keep going!" There was no repression this time, they made their point and called it a day.

The next time was different. About 8 people came from Marcala to this one, joining teachers, campesinos, women, and people from other towns; about two hundred people. This roadblock was in August, near Palmerola, the big air base. When they arrived, Betty suspected that this would be different, because there was a small airplane circling over them. There were a lot of police this time, and they said, "We’ll give you until one o’clock." But people said, "We plan to stay until two." Then the police charged, shooting guns and tear gas grenades.

Betty has asthma, so tear gas would be especially serious for her, maybe even fatal. She ran for her truck, changed her appearance as well as she could, and pretended that she was just someone waiting out the roadblock. Others were not so lucky. Some took refuge in houses along the road; the police dragged them out. The women that they caught they took by the hair and dragged them on their faces along the road. They knocked the men down and stood over them, beating them severely. Then they put them all in a closed truck and threw in a tear gas grenade. When people stuck their heads out to get air, they beat them on the head with their clubs.

Betty started calling everyone they could–human rights organizations, the Red Cross, people back in Marcala–to try to get people freed and to see that their wounds were treated. She was going to go to the jail to help, but someone told her to stay away; those who were captured were afraid that the police had caught her and were going to "disappear" her, so they gave the police her name and demanded to know what they had done with her. Finally, at one in the morning, they were released. The person injured the worst was a man who had multiple fractures in both arms. After extensive surgery to put in steel pins he is finally regaining the use of his arms.

In September, when President Zelaya snuck back into the country and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy, people knew they had to act fast. They filled three buses and raced into Tegucigalpa to join the massive demonstrations of support. The next day an empty bus went ahead and Betty went with one of three groups of people who set out through the mountains to meet the bus down the road. This time the police and the army were looking for them. There was an around-the-clock curfew, with all travel banned.

The police caught Betty’s brother and a doctor, and then called the people in the mountains on their cell phones. They said the only way they would let their two captives go was if the whole group turned themselves in. By then it was very late, and it was clear that they were not going to make it all the way, so they agreed, but not before they spray painted resistance slogans on the way to where the police were waiting. The police took their pictures before they got on the bus. After they passed the last checkpoint back to Marcala they started chanting slogans to raise their spirits–and the bus ran out of gas. They walked home in the rain, exhausted but satisfied that they had done what they could.

I commented to her that even with the round-the-clock curfew and roadblocks, the demonstrations around the Brazilian embassy were massive. Betty replied that if people had been allowed to gather freely there would have been millions; they would have gone to the presidential palace and driven out the dictator Micheletti.

I asked Betty if I could use her name, and she said to go ahead. The police know all about her, there would not be much that I could add. She is well aware that they could come for her at any time, and that she might either just disappear or be the victim of another "unsolved" murder.

A visit to the office of COFADEH, the Committee of Families of the Disappeared, can be a sobering experience. Their walls are covered with pictures of people who have been murdered or disappeared by the regime, and one has the sense that more will be added as time goes on. At the time of my visit, the COFADEH had about 36 ironclad cases of people who have been murdered because of their

politics, cases that would stand up in any international court. The catch is that international human rights institutions demand that before they will take up a case, the national processes must be exhausted. But in a country like Honduras, where impunity reigns, turning to the "authorities" in place would not only be an exercise in futility, it would also imply recognition of their legitimacy.

But beyond those cases that are beyond dispute, there are countless other deaths of activists, organizers, and leaders that are widely assumed to be "lessons" for those who might consider taking up their work. Beyond the murders and disappearances there are the rapes, the torture, and the beatings of activists, and the relatively random killing and wounding of people who are involved in or even just nearby a demonstration. And even more, there are many people who are abused but don’t dare say anything about it to anyone, for fear of more harm to themselves or their families.

Berta Oliva of COFADEH is a survivor of the barbarities of the eighties, when death squads enforced "order" on what was seen then as the USS Honduras. She now senses the same kind of fear. Of the 20 people who work with COFADEH, half have been individually persecuted or intimidated since the coup.

False charges are used to discredit and imprison activists. While President Zelaya was in the Brazilian embassy, Channel 8 news said that Berta Oliva was his "mule"–that she was smuggling drugs in to him. In fact, she says, she has never met Zelaya. She did try to get some food to him, but the guards around the embassy took it from her. Then for weeks the libelous stories were in the news.

Our delegation learned of another case of libel being used to punish when we interviewed Maritza Arita. She was a supreme court judge for eleven years, in the section of the court that hears criminal cases. The police charged three people who had been in a demonstration with arson–there had been a fire in a business along the way. After reviewing the evidence, she ruled that they should be granted bail. This displeased the Micheletti dictatorship, so she was summarily (and illegally) removed from the criminal section of the court and given only civil cases. This was followed by thirteen days of scurrilous attacks in the right wing media, to the point that she felt physically threatened. Judges who are threatened have a right to security protection, but when she asked for it, the government did not provide it. (Later, another judge dismissed the charges against the three demonstrators.)

I learned that a group of international volunteers were helping to rebuild a community radio station, so I took a bus north to spend a few days helping. There I met Alfredo Lopez, a leader of the Garifuna community along the north coast of Honduras. Alfredo was imprisoned for seven years on a false drug charge, because of his work in opposing developments of luxury vacation resorts that threaten to destroy communities and disperse the Garifuna people. Now, Lopez is back in his community, organizing a string of community radio stations that have a key role in informing and mobilizing the struggle against the well funded developers who covet their beautiful beaches.

In February the radio station in Lopez’s town, Triumfo de la Cruz, was broken into, equipment was stolen or vandalized, and a fire was set. A month after the attack, with the help of volunteers, it was ready to broadcast again. No one knows for sure who was responsible for the destruction, but it is clear who stands to benefit from it. The developers hold out the illusion of jobs and prosperity, even though in similar developments they have brought in outsiders to work in their hotels, and only a handful of locals benefit.

These illusions have a disruptive effect on the community. As I was walking on the beach I met Ricky Lyon, a dreadlocked fisherman who had immigrated to Honduras from Belize. He started with an impassioned speech about discrimination in Belize, where he said he and other black people are seen as "monkeys", and how he felt so much more at home among the Garifuna, who are mostly descended from Africans. Then he told me that he was a "community leader" who was organizing young people to bring in a new kind of economy. He himself wants to open a diving school for tourists. He was very angry about the role of the Garifuna radio stations. He said, repeatedly, that the people running the station were lucky that only property was destroyed. If they go on with what they are doing, "Maybe next time somebody will get killed." I mentioned this to Alfredo, and he said, "Yes, Ricky was part of the movement when he first came here." Clearly he has gone over to the side of the developers. Given the history and ongoing threats of violence, there are plans to guard the station in the future.

While all of the big daily newspapers have supported the coup, some national radio and TV stations were opposed it. But even big, nationwide media have been shut down, their equipment vandalized and confiscated, and their employees intimidated and attacked. Radio Globo and Channel 36 have been resolute in reporting the truth and opposing the coup, and have been on and off the air regularly. Since they depend on advertising revenues, some wonder whether they will be able to hold out over the long haul, or if they will be softening their attitude toward the Lobo government. The monthly opposition newspaper El Libertador has been bravely publishing and maintaining an informative website, but the editorial staff has suffered from torture and death threats.

Given this censorship, together with the violence and intimidation of those who objected to the coup, the elections held on November 27, 2009 were not recognized as legitimate by the Resistance and by many foreign governments. The United States and a few other countries that have interests that coincide with those of the Honduran oligarchy have recognized the "winner," in the interest of "stability."

The Fearful

Not everyone who is opposed to the oligarchy is able to defy them.

I was walking over a bridge in Tegucigalpa when a man coming from the other direction said, "Hello!" This is not uncommon, since I look very much like a gringo, and people often try out their few words of English in a friendly greeting. But this time was different. He went on to ask, "Where are you from?" followed by, "Why are you here?" When I told him that I had come with a human rights delegation, and that I was staying on another week to do my own informal investigations, he asked if I would like to talk for a while, "English or Spanish, your choice." It was clear that he wanted a chance to practice English; we spent the rest of the afternoon in a very revealing conversation.

I will call him Juan, and I will be vague about some particulars, for reasons that will be apparent. He lives with his mother who is in her eighties. She raised many children as a single mother in one of the poorest parts of the country. She worked constantly, making tortillas, taking other people’s wash down to the river, domestic service, whatever she could do. Finally, when she was about sixty her legs became so swollen that she could not work. He is glad that he was able to bring her to the city and can provide her with a home now; her legs are much better. His sister also lives with them. She is in her thirties and has a disability which makes it impossible for her to work.

We visited his home. It is in a new development on the edge of town. Row upon row of identical concrete block houses, one story, about 20 or 25 feet square, quite close together, nearly barren ground around them with a few chickens wandering around. The streets are paved, and the water, sewers, and electricity are all there, so it provides the basics for housing.

I asked Juan if he is married. He laughed and said that he was embarrassed that although he is in his late thirties and would like very much to be married, it was just not possible. His economic situation is precarious. He works two jobs, one is in a government agency, and at night he teaches teenagers and adults. He has a mortgage on his house, and even with his two jobs it is hard to cover his expenses.

Juan is outraged at the situation in Honduras. "Everything is broken!" Justice, education, the economy…"We are alone in this country." Corruption is everywhere. As for the rich, "They hate us!" But he doesn’t dare say a word to anybody about what he thinks, because if he spoke out he might lose one or both of his jobs. Of course those who favor the coup are free to sound off as much as they like, and people like Juan just bite their tongues.

It is impossible to know what proportion of the population share Juan’s frustration; it is revealing that a very large proportion of people who respond to public opinion polls say they have no opinion. Fear of the death squads is very real and ever present for those who dare to take leadership roles. But in a country where people face great economic insecurity, the fear of losing a job or missing out on a promotion forces even those who are not political activists to keep their opinions to themselves.

The Resistance

In Marcala I sat in on a meeting of the resistance at its lowest, grass roots level. Campesinos came, some with their children, after a day’s work, to listen to a presentation made by a couple of men who had been to a meeting at the provincial capital and projected the text of a manifesto by Juan Almendares, one of the national leaders of the resistance. They read the text aloud, possibly so as to help any in the audience who might have trouble reading.

Afterwards several people spoke about their disgust with the government and their determination to see this struggle through. They had hoped that they could elect representatives to the regional committee, but due to short notice not enough people had come to the meeting, and they felt that it was important to take their time and include everyone, so they put off elections until next time.

I was also lucky enough to catch a few minutes of a regional meeting, and to participate in an encounter between some of the central leadership and two of the human rights organizations that were in Tegucigalpa for the inauguration and the demonstration that happened across town. My contact in both cases was relatively brief, but I could see that this movement is being run by experienced individuals.

The number of people who are prepared to demonstrate their support for the resistance is astonishing. On Wednesday, January 27, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo was installed as president. The stadium downtown was filled with dignitaries, including representatives of the United States and various clients, such as Israel, Columbia, Panama, etc. In another part of town there was an immense march, several kilometers long, ending at the airport where President Zelaya was scheduled to fly away to the Dominican Republic, accompanied by the president of that country.

It would be difficult to estimate the number of marchers with any scientific accuracy, but many observers put it at around a quarter of a million. I was somewhere in the first half, and whenever we got to one of the various high spots along the route all I saw was a thick stream of people stretching out as far as I could see ahead and behind. After marching for the better part of an hour someone nearby called on their cellphone to a couple of journalists who had stayed back at the beginning to record people as they left, and they said that people were still leaving.

The next day I looked at every page of one of the big daily newspapers, El Heraldo. There was lavish coverage of the inauguration, but not a single word about the far larger event that was going on at the same time in another part of the city. In a recent demonstration a new chant has been raised: "No somos cinco, no somos cien, prensa vendida, cuentanos bien." ("We are not five, we are not a hundred, sold out press, count us right!")

Unlike most of the other large demonstrations since the coup, there was no repression along the route. (This was anticipated, because Lobo was stressing "reconciliation," and it might look bad if people were being beaten simultaneously with his speech.) Later I learned that there were roadblocks on the roads coming into the city, and that people trying to get to town for the march were turned back. There were police and soldiers along the route, but they were just standing and watching with their clubs and shields. As we were passing along in front of the central portion of the airport I saw several people looking up and gesturing with their middle fingers. When I asked what they were doing they said to look up at the control tower. A couple of soldiers were standing there, leaning against the wall. "Not them. Look closer." A friend had a powerful telephoto lens on his camera and he showed me the image on his camera’s screen. There were sharpshooters lying in a prone position on the walkway around the control tower, watching us through their telescopic sights. This had a chilling significance, because just such a sniper had killed a young man in one of the first demonstrations after the coup.

Strategy of the Resistance

The newly-installed government of Pepe Lobo presents itself as a government of reconciliation. Lobo has appointed ministers from opposition parties, and has begun to set up a "truth commission" to be led by a former vice-president of Guatemala. The United States is leading an effort to get other countries to restore diplomatic relations, and a few of its clients, such as Israel and Colombia have done so. South Korea and Taiwan have an interest in the cheap labor available in Honduras, so they too are falling into line.

But the resistance is not accepting any of these moves. Whatever credibility the newly appointed ministers may have had evaporated as soon as they accepted positions in a government that owes its existence to an election held under conditions of violent repression and censorship. The "truth commission" includes not a single representative of those who have been repressed, and is therefore seen as a sham, a "whitewash commission." Since it is generally assumed that the United States was complicit in the coup in some way, any international recognition that the Lobo government achieves will not add anything to its credibility in Honduras.

The hollowness of Lobo’s statements about "reconciliation" and "truth" was demonstrated on February 4, with the discovery of the body of 29 year old mother of three, Vanessa Zepeda, an activist of the Union of Workers of the Honduran Social Security Institute, and an emerging leader of the Resistance. On the same day a report came that two young cameramen working for the opposition TV Globo had been kidnapped and tortured by men who claimed to be police. As usual, these crimes are "unsolved," and no disciplinary action is contemplated against the police.

The Honduran armed forces have 20,000 members on active duty, and there are about 8,000 police. There are also about 60,000 private security guards. You see these guards all over, armed with shotguns, not just in front of banks, but guarding supermarkets, hotels, pizza places, etc. Developers, mining concerns, factories, and other corporate interests have their own armed security forces. Given all of these armed men serving the interests of the oligarchy, there is clearly the possibility of another coup if a truly legitimate government were to be elected. I asked several people whether elements within the army might develop some kind of patriotic rebellion, but this was dismissed as impossible. The answer I got was variations of, "The only thing we can hope for with the army is that it would disappear," since the only function the Honduran army has is to repress the Honduran people.

Given the massive forces of repression ready to crush any kind of armed resistance, this route is rarely mentioned. The Resistance has been resolutely non-violent, apart from some spontaneous responses to police violence very early in the struggle.

Honduras is the third poorest country in the Americas. The economic problems of the United States affect Honduras intensely, since the United States imports 70 % of Honduras’s exports, and also because remittances from Hondurans living in North America have fallen off. The turmoil that has accompanied the coup and its aftermath has had a very negative effect on Honduran business. Recognition by the United States and a few other countries will probably lead to some increase in business activity, but the overall prospect seems bleak.

The Resistance expects the struggle to go on for years, hoping to build a movement that brings in many people who have not been active in the past. Communication is a big concern, with community radio stations playing a role, especially if the anti-coup commercial radio stations that depend on advertising revenue are not able to continue providing the solid support that they have given the movement in the past. The internet will also be useful. Political education will be important, as well as a democratic organization solidly based on broad participation of all popular sectors.

The basic program of the Resistance has three elements: non-recognition of the Lobo government, no dialogue or negotiation with what is seen as an illegitimate regime, and a constituent assembly to create a new, just constitution as the only real solution to the situation. Work on a new constitution is proceeding even without official sanction. COPINH, Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares y Indigenas, was founded in 1993 to defend the interests of the Lenca people who live in the Western Highlands. COPINH has issued a call for a Peoples Assembly in the city of La Esperanza, March 12 to 14, where the ideas that would be embodied in a new constitution will be discussed.

At a recent meeting in the southern city of San Lorenzo leaders of the Resistance planned to build an organization that will be able to take power through the elections in 2013. No one knows whether the oligarchs will allow this program to proceed. The one thing that is certain is that there are many people who are willing to risk everything, including their lives, for the sake of a country that is no longer governed by fear.

Burlington, VT resident Peter Lackowski recently returned from a Rights Action human rights delegation in Honduras. Photo from Indymedia