We Need to Awaken the Solidarity Movement: A Report Back from Honduras

[Source – El Salvador Solidarity]

Report Back from the January Honduras Accompaniment Project Delegation
By Alexandra Early (SC Staff) and Ann Legg (SC board member)

The government sells itself by saying they have advanced in terms of human rights, that they have created mechanisms to protect human rights, and they say they are concerned about reconciliation in Honduras. They say they are open to hear us…But what the lying regime does not say is that at the same time they have created monstrous laws that squash any possibility for real respect for human rights. They don’t talk about the new anti-terrorism law. They don’t say that they have sold off all the natural resources of entire zones of the country. They don’t say and cant explain how the budget of the Armed Forces, both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry Security, has increased. They don’t say that they have completely criminalized political protest…These are clear government policies and actions that create terror and violate human rights…It is like we are returning to the Honduras of the past, a Honduras that is completely militarized, poor and terrorized. We have to awaken the solidarity movement because worse days are still to come. -Berta Oliva, General Coordinator of COFADEH

The Two Faces of Honduras
Two Republican members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, are calling on the Obama administration to further embrace the government of Honduran President Pepe Lobo. Representative Mack has declared, “what happened in Honduras was not a coup. To this day we’re still punishing Honduras for doing what we would hope all countries in Latin America would do.” Mack is referring to what US Ambassador Hugo Llorens recently called the “political crisis” of June 2009 when Honduran soldiers pulled President Manuel Zelaya out of bed, flew him to the U.S. Palmerola airbase and then out of the country.  On our week-long delegation with the Honduras Accompaniment Project we saw what a military coup looks like in Honduras and what El Salvador and the rest of Latin America would look like if they were to take Mack´s advice and follow the Honduran example.

ImageDespite what mainstream Honduran and U.S. newspapers say, a country ruled by “golpistas” is not democratic, it is not safe, and it is not fair. It is a place of corruption and impunity, where the only safe place is perhaps inside a heavily guarded Burger King or Pizza Hut.  All sectors of Honduran society are affected by the coup and the new regime: women, campesinos, workers, journalists, teachers, youth, human rights defenders and the LGBTQ and indigenous populations. While the coup was intended to put an end to positive change in Honduras all these sector surprised themselves and the Honduran military and oligarchy by taking to the streets after the coup and fighting back for their right to life, land, education, health, free expression and true democracy.

Since the fraudulent elections in Honduras of November 2009, the United States has been the most faithful and influential supporter of the coup regime of de-facto President Pepe Lobo. The Lobo government’s main goal has been to achieve unconditional international recognition through a campaign to clean up the government’s image and sell itself as a responsible protector of human rights. The government established the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, and a new Secretary for Security and Human Rights and passed an amnesty law to ensure that national “reconciliation” would not be hampered by the arrests of military or police personnel who have violated human rights and  were charged with “abuse of authority”.

In another supposed advance for human rights and democracy, on January 26th, Rene Osorio Canales was named as head of the Honduran Armed Forces. Osorio is a graduate of the School of the Americas who participated directly in the military coup. According to Berta Oliva, general coordinator of COFADEH, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras, “this appointment indicates the direction we are going in and will increase the police and military brutality. Like many in the social movement, Oliva believes Osorio will be taking orders not from President Lobo, but from the Pentagon.

The Attack on Human Rights Defenders, Organizers and Youth
Honduras was not a paradise for human rights before the coup…but with the coup we saw mass repression, mass violations of human rights, the return of the use of torture this time used against the political opposition…recently the pattern has changed, and the repression is more targeted against union activists, teachers, youth, the LGBTQ community — all of whom oppose to the coup. -Human Rights Defender, COFADEH

The School of the Americas watch estimates that 4,000 grave violations of human rights and 64 political assassinations have been committed in Honduras since the coup. COFADEH is one of the main organizations that has been documenting these human rights abuses committed by the government. Members of the COFADEH human rights project offered us details about the patterns of violence and repression against human rights defenders, community organizers and journalists. They recounted that since the coup there have been at least 9 human rights defenders who have been forced to leave the country and 4 who have suffered very serious attempts against their lives. Also, between March and December of 2010,10 reporters were assassinated.

In the past year there have been news trends in the violence, with more assassinations of and death threats against activists’ family members, many of whom are not at all involved in the Resistance. For example, there have been two documented cases in which community organizers’ children were killed because of their parents’ work and criticism of the government. Another trend, is that organizations and individuals have had their homes, offices and cars broken into. Like with the violent crimes, police try to attribute these robberies to common delinquency and gangs but often the only items stolen are cell phones, computers, or files – all of which contain information about their organizing and communication work.
ImageYouth are very common targets of state repression, in the form of death threats or actual violence. Like in El Salvador, Honduras passed extreme anti-gang legislation in the early 2000’s that allowed police to arrest youth in groups of over eight people or solely on the basis of their appearance, if they have tattoos, piercings, etc. With the increased police attention came attacks by death squads dedicated to violent social cleansing.
Since the coup, the new targets of violence are youth wearing t-shirts or hats with pro-Resistance political slogans or images, for example pictures of Che Guevara or Hugo Chavez. These youth, especially those who are  involved in the resistance movement or community organizing, are constantly at risk of being detained by police, in the best of cases, or of being assassinated.  As Victor Alejandro, a youth organizer with COFADEH, explained, “many of youth in Honduras woke up politically when the coup began, when they were beat up or arrested by the police at a march or just walking down the street. And now they are one of the driving forces behind the resistance, and as a result they are one of the number one targets of state repression.”

Under international pressure, the government has supposedly offered personal security details, police patrols and special cell phones, but none of these security measures have provided real protection to human rights organizations. The organizations that have felt obliged to accept personal security details, for example, complain that their police protectors monitor and spy on their organizations’ activities.  While supposedly protecting human rights defenders, on November 17th, the coup congress passed an anti-terrorism law specifically targeting non-governmantal organizations. The new law allows the government to monitor the activity of any NGO that receives more than $2000 dollars worth of outside funding a year.

None of the crimes against campesinos, human rights defenders, journalists, teachers or members of the LGBTQ community have been solved. As a result of the government two-faced stance, human rights defenders and members of the opposition are increasingly vulnerable and defenseless against threats and violence.

To read more about COFADEH in Spanish visit http://www.defensoresenlinea.com/cms/

The Attack on Campesinos
Zacate Grande is a defenseless because the judges and courts rule against the people and do whatever they, or the rich, want. -Pedro Canales, president of ADEPZA

During our week-long visit to Honduras, we visited the peninsula of Zacate Grande, in the Golfo de Fonseca. Zacate Grande is a sparsely populated peninsula with only 5,000 inhabitants. We were hosted there by a community organization called ADEPZA, the Association for the Development of the Peninsula of Zacate Grande, which is fighting the efforts of rich landowners to take over the island.
ImageOne of the leaders of ADEPZA is Pedro Canales, who lives with his family along the edge of the Golfo de Fonseca in a community called La Flor. Like many of his neighbors, Canales has lived in La Flor his whole life but only has a conditional land title which gives him permission to use and live on his small plot of land.  His is one of 22 families in La Flor who are being charged with illegally occupying land that supposedly belongs to Honduran businessman, Miguel Facussé.

Although Zacate Grande has been populated by small farmers and fishermen like Canales for over a century, Facussé  and other rich landowners claim to be the rightful owners of the peninsula. Facussé wants to develop the area into a sanctuary for the rich, where they can have their summer homes and hotels right on the waterfront. To this end, residents of communities like La Flor are being pushed off their land and denied their legal right to access the waterfront, access they need in order to make a living as fishermen.

ADEPZA is committed to a very different future for Zacate Grande. They envision a Zacate Grande in which people work in agriculture, small industry and local, sustainable tourism and have title to their land. They would like to create a technical high school on the peninsula that trains local young people in running small businesses, like shrimp farms, and teaches them foreign languages so they can attend to tourists. Meanwhile, however, all of their energy is focused on fighting off the violent harassment of police and Facussé’s security personnel and the area’s legal defense.

One source of hope and optimism for campesinos like Canales, was the passage of Decree 18-2008, under President Zelaya. Decree 18-2008 established mechanisms for families and communities who had lived and subsisted on lands for a determined amount of time to get title to that land, as well for expropriation of unused private lands for subsistence farming under certain conditions.  After over a year and a half of stalling the titling process through both the Micheletti and Lobo regimes, in January of 2011 the Supreme Court declared Degree 18-2008 to be unconstitutional, to the disappointment, frustration, and outrage of campesino groups and their allies across the country. According to the director of the National Agrarian Institute, the decree would have benefited over 3,500 families and the repealing of the law only shows that the Supreme Court “is a defender of the oligarchy.”

One way ADEPZA is fighting back is through a community radio station,  La Voz de Zacate Grande, which is located in the largest town on the peninsula, Puerto Grande.  La Voz is run by three local youth who are committed to using the radio to raise the political consciousness of community members. Unlike other mainstream radio stations, La Voz de Zacate Grande plays protest music by Mercedes Sosa and Victor Jara, and airs youth designed programs about gender equality, sexual education and criticism of the corrupt local government. La Voz operates without a license because the Honduran government lacks licensing mechanisms for community radio stations. On the 3rd of June, 2010, the radio station was attacked by 300 police and military personnel trying to close the radio. There was a day long stand-off between community members and the authorities, who eventually left.

ImageThe communities of Zacate Grande are not the only ones threatened by the land-grabbing of Honduran oligarchs. The Aguan Valley in Northwest Honduras has long been a target because it has the most fertile land in Honduras and an organized population. Campesinos there have been in a long struggle to gain legal title to the land they work and live on. Like the campesinos of Zacate Grande, the farmers in the Aguan Valley were close to getting those titles thanks to Decree 18-2008 but with the coup the process for obtaining land titles came to a halt.

While we were in Honduras, another human rights delegation from the Chicago organization, La Voz de Los de Abajo, visited the community of Buenos Amigos in the Aguan Valley. Two months ago, 100 campesino families moved in and occupied 360 hectares of land that had been neglected and foreclosed upon. The community knew that the  area has long been designated for land reform and initiated the necessary legal procedures to secure the land through the National Agrarian Institute.   Despite these efforts, the community learned from the police that they planned to evict the families on Tuesday, January 25, 2011.  Because of the presence of the Chicago delegation the police delayed the eviction.

On Thursday January 27th, our delegation attended a march in Tegucigalpa and the Chicago delegation left the Aguan to attend a parallel march in San Pedro Sula. The government took advantage of the shift in attention to siege the community of Buenos Amigos and try to evict the 100 families. As reported on the website Honduras Resists, “armed police along with the former owner of the community’s land, Cesar Velázquez, surrounded the community for at least an hour. While occupying, they burnt huts and clothing, destroying whatever belongings they could find.” Three peasants were arrested during the encounter, José Santos Rios, Santiago Rodriguez and Jorge Santos. It is not clear if security forces had an eviction order or arrest warrants.  Community members reported that one of the detained men had been tortured and human rights organizations are very concerned about the welfare of the three detained.

For more information about Zacate Grande and the radio station visit http://zacategrande.blogspot.com/

For more information about the Bajo Aguan and the Buenos Amigos eviction see http://hondurasresists.blogspot.com/2011/01/buenos-amigos-follow-up.html

The Attack on The Environment

ImageThe environmental movement was able to push through a moratorium on mining in 2006-2007. After the coup, the regime reversed the moratorium and began selling off huge chunks of land to mining companies and other big industries.  Most in the social movement believe that mining companies knew about and supported the coup.  The majority of these mining companies, like Goldcorp, which runs the open-pit mine in the Valle de Siria, are headquartered in Canada, whose government has continuously supported the coup government. Electricity companies have also profited from the coup. The new regime has designated 130 rivers for hydroelectric dams just in Western Honduras, an area where there is a high concentration of indigenous populations.

For information about the ties between the Canadian government, mining companies and the coup see http://thetyee.ca/Views/2009/07/09/ShameOnCanada/

The Attack on the LGBTQ Community

The only thing they can’t control is our minds and our bodies so when they see a transsexual in the street it infuriates them, and they react exactly the way they want to, by killing them. -Fernando, gay rights activist

During our delegation, we attended a forum hosted by Juventudes en Resistencia,  the youth block of the Resistance, on repression against the LGBTQ community. The presenters, all gay rights activists, spoke about the huge increase in repression and violence against this community since the coup. In the five years prior to the coup 17 LGBTQ people were murdered, but in the 20 months since the coup there have been 35 to 42 people murdered. So, where as before the coup one gay person was murdered every 4 to 5 months, now someone is turning up dead every 15 days. Gay rights activists see these crimes as part of a campaign of social cleansing, especially because of the brutality of the crimes.  While homophobia has long been a problem in Honduras, the murders are part of a national atmosphere of impunity, where police and government officials can do whatever they want without any repercussions.

The official response to these murders has been shockingly negligent. 171 crimes against LGBTQ people have been reported and documented, but like the repression against other community organizers, all the work of documentation and denunciation has fallen on the shoulders of human rights organizations, because government commissions on human rights, the Attorney General and the Supreme Court are not responding to the situation. Gay activists held a press conference on January 20th to decry the fact that 7 LGBTQ people have been murdered already in 2011.  While few newspapers have covered this wave of violence, the mainstream newspaper El Tiempo covered the press conference. One of the headlines of the article was a quote from Marco Tulio Rivera Palma, the director of the National Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DNIC) who said he would try to solve these crimes, but explained that “among gays there is a lot of vengefulness and feuds.”

The gay rights activists we talked to have been working to get more support and solidarity from the gay community in the United States and Europe.

The Attack on Teachers
As one of the largest organized forces in the resistance, teachers –and the public education system– have been another major target of the coup regime. We saw an example of this repression during our visit. On January 25, four teachers were arrested after a protest march and held for 24 hours. On January 26th, our delegation leader, Caitlin Power, got a call from a teachers’ union leader requesting we go to the jail and check on the detained teachers.

ImageWhen three of us arrived at the jail we saw that a line of riot police clutching their night sticks were blocking off the road and stopping anyone who did not live or work there from entering — with the exception of members of the conservative media. The police at the station delayed and delayed until finally Caitlin was able to contact the police commander by cell phone and we were allowed in.

The commander greeted us warmly as did members of the mainstream media, who were eager to take our picture.  It seemed that the commander had delayed so that he could clean up the situation and try to present the detention of the teachers as totally legitimate, just another example of the respectability of the Lobo government.  We were able to talk with the four teachers in the waiting area without police interference and they said they had not been beaten or treated badly.  However, the teachers all seemed to be  quite frightened, one looked like he was about to cry. They said they were very grateful that we came to see them. The teachers were released later that afternoon on the condition that they not participate in any more protests or marches.

The Resistance
“The coup was a breaking point between a people who were submissive, living in misery and poverty and a people who stand up and resist, who say to themselves, something has to be done to end the injustice in this society.” – Ever Guillén, Honduran gay rights activist and member of the FNRP

El Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (The Honduran National Front of Popular Resistance) was born out of the spontaneous protests that took place in the wake of the coup and has been in a constant state of adaptation to the changing realities in Honduras. In February, the FNRP will have a national assembly to decide on the form of a more permanent national structure, with specific seats for different sectors like campesinos, women and the LGBTQ community.  While Hondurans do not have the history of struggle of their Nicaraguan and Salvadoran neighbors,  many people told us that the common cause and common enemy created by the coup has led to greater coordination and unity than has ever been seen before. And, bit by bit the unity and diversity of the movement is chipping away at the machismo and homophobia of Honduran society. As Gerardo Torres, member of the international relations commission of the Resitence, said “in marches people used to call police culeros (fags), like we would shout in the soccer stadiums. But when gay people were marching with everyone else day after day, people stopped saying those things because that might offend the compañera from the LGBTQ community next to you. Then, in rallies if someone addressed the crowd as ‘Compañeros’, a woman from the Feminists in Resistance would shout back, ‘Compañeras!’”

ImageOn Thursday, January 27, we accompanied a very peaceful protest march in Tegucigalpa protesting the one year anniversary of President Lobo´s taking power. In a very short article about the anniversary, The Washington Post described the marches in San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and La Ceiba as “protests by supporters of ousted former leader Manuel Zelaya.” Observing the protest march and speaking with members of the Resistance, we saw how incorrect and manipulative this description is.

Like the resistance movement itself the march was populated by all sectors of society whose goals go way beyond Zelaya’s return to Honduras. There were young people spray painting the walls with slogans against U.S. intervention, teachers shading themselves from the sun under umbrellas and people from the gay community holding rainbow flags. There were a few people draped in flags with the common phrase “Urge Mel!” (we need Mel Zelaya), but just as visible were signs and slogans declaring the need for ALBA, democracy, human rights.

ImageThe U.S. media wants to make Honduras seem like just another case of caudillismo, of a confused population blindly following one corrupt leader after another into disaster. But Ever Guillén, who has dedicated many years to defending human rights, explainwed that “Zelaya is part of the movement, but the movement transcends Zelaya. He gave people hope and started a process, but it is our goal to continue and finish that process, the process of re-founding Honduras.”

To read more about The Honduran National Front of Popular Resistance visit http://www.resistenciahonduras.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout=blog&id=23&Itemid=337

How to work in Solidarity with Honduras

As U.S. residents, it is our responsibility to make sure that the repression and violence that  left so many dead and in exile in El Salvador does not repeat itself in Honduras. Sister Cities has an ad-hoc Honduras committee working with our partners in El Salvador and the Honduras Solidarity Network in the U.S. on educating our network, doing advocacy and organizing delegation visits to Honduras. Email us if you are interested in participating in the Honduras committee and our monthly phone calls.

You can also learn more about other ways to be in solidarity with the Honduran people by visiting the website of the Honduras Accompaniment Project or the SOA Watch at