By Rachael Townsand
This June, I participated in a Rights Action Delegation to Honduras for the one-year anniversary of the resistance to the coup d’etat. The military removed president Manuel Zeleya on June 28, 2009, the day there was to be a vote on a popular referendum, the “cuarto urno” or fourth ballot. If passed, the cuarto urno would have shown national support for forming a committee to rewrite the Honduran constitution.
For decades the Honduran people have been involved in non-violent struggle to gain recognition and power in a government that is controlled by a few wealthy families and U.S. multinationals. It is widely agreed the main reason for the coup was that Zeleya was actively engaged in making that power shift a reality, endangering the corrupt oligarchs and the financial interests of U.S. corporations. The purpose of the delegation was to meet with organizations and individuals involved in resistance as a human rights delegation and to provide international solidarity and support.
In five days we met with twelve organizations and individuals involved in the resistance, including campasinos, indigenous organizations, unions, the national lawyers’ guild, retired members of congress, environmental justice groups from communities effected by international mining, the organization for the tortured and families of the disappeared, and the voice of the resistance, Felix Armalina, whose radio show is one of the only mainstream media sources available critical of the coup.
We attended two rallies, including the national day of action on the one year anniversary of the coup, and the launching of the real truth commission, an independent international committee to investigate the human rights violations that have occurred since the coup.
Major themes emerged during the delegation as we met with communities and individuals involved in the resistance. The first was the threat that Zeleya’s reforms posed to the oligarchs of Honduras and to the profits of multinational corporations. Zeleya was working with many groups and was making steps toward bringing people out of poverty.
He was bringing groups to the table that in the past when engaging with the government had only ever been met with red tape and years of bureaucratic stalling. Agrarian reform laws were passed in Honduras in the early 1970s and had never been lived up to by the government. The INA, or the Agrarian Reform Institute, provides the legal framework for landless campasino groups to gain land but has for decades worked with wealthy land owners to slow and stop the process of land redistribution. Under Zeleya’s direction the government was moving forward with the promise of giving unused land to the groups of landless campasinos.
Early in his presidency Zeleya passed environmental and health safety restrictions on the use of cyanide in mining, a cheap and environmentally destructive process of extracting minerals that is dangerous to local populations. One of the largest steps Zeleya took to decreasing poverty in Honduras was to increase the minimum wage from 3500 lempiras a month ($190) to 5500 lempiras ($290). The increase has never been upheld by the coup government. Public education in Honduras under the constitution is supposed to be free but there are many extra costs attached, making it impossible for many families to send their children to school. Zeleya promised the government would pay all the extra costs allowing over 450,000 children to start attending school.
Maybe the most controversial reforms Zeleya made was to join Honduras in ALBA, a collaborative alternative trade agreement with Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. By joining the ALBA, Honduras was able to buy oil from Venezuela at a reduced rate of interest, and Cuba provided doctors to communities in desperate need of medical professionals.
Since the coup the national debt has skyrocketed to 25 billion lempiras and there are no funds for basic social services, while privatization of public services, water, hydro dams, education are moving forward smoothly through the congress and Lobo administration.
The second theme of the delegation was the institutional corruption in the political process in Honduras and the systemic problems that occur because of the ties between the congress, judicial system and the military. The political parties here resemble the two-party system of the U.S. The liberal party is supposedly the party of the people but has clear ties to U.S. multinationals and is primarily concerned with upholding the status quo, and the National party is the party of the oligarchs and the neo-fascists.
The most glaring problem with corruption is in how the judicial system and the congress are tied together. The congress elects the Supreme Court, which means that the same politicians that are working for international business interests and orchestrated of the coup are the same people who elect judges, who, in turn, ignore and refuse to prosecute corruption and uphold the status quo. Last year, the national lawyers’ guild went on a hunger strike to protest any re-election of justices because of their unwillingness to prosecute high level corruption. None of the justices were re-elected, which was thought to be a victory. But months later the new court was found to have been involved in the planning of the coup.
Another problem with the political system is the military’s involvement in the electoral process. It is a function of the military to distribute and collect ballots, a conflict of interest particularly obvious on the day of the cuarto uno when there was a military coup and to no great surprise, the ballots never went out.
The most chilling recurring theme in Honduras today is the return of violent repression and of human rights violations with tactics reminiscent of the 1980s. There has been non-stop targeted violence and harassment against individuals and communities vocally critical of the coup. In the five days of the delegation two of our Honduran companeros active in the resistance were arrested and harassed by the
police, and one was tortured. Our friend was beaten by the police. They sprayed tear gas directly in his eyes and then left him for over 12 hours without medical attention. Both are leaders in their communities and leaders in the resistance, and they were told they were being arrested because they didn’t respect authority.
Journalists and teachers have also been targets of violence by the state for their involvement in the resistance. In four months earlier this year eight journalists were murdered, and a teacher was shot and killed in front of a group of his students. There have been three cases of disappeared people, a horrible practice used by the CIA in the ’80s all over Latin America. It is clear that individuals involved in orchestrating the coup are the same individuals involved in the repression of the ’80s and are still enjoying impunity today.
What has been happening in Honduras since the 28th of June last year has been an incredible show of solidarity through resistance and organizing. Massive protests and rallies were held the first hundred days of the coup with hundreds of thousands of people marching every day from all sectors of society. Organizations and individuals work within La Frente National Resistencia Popular, or the FNRP, and have created an organization determined on following through with democratic and progressive reforms to their government.
The main goals of FNRP are to organize, educate, and mobilize the people of Honduras. As part of its current campaign, it is the gathering signatures to show the popular support for the “constituyente,” or the constitutional committee. In six weeks the FNRP had gathered over 700,000 signatures, which is more than the number of people that voted in the controversial elections last November. The goal is to gather over 1.2 million signatures to present at an international event for Honduras’ independence day on September 15 to show the widespread national support for a constituyente.
Another more recent struggle that La Frente is working on, is solidarity with the teachers national strike. Teachers are the largest most organized sector of workers in Honduras and after the coup their retirement fund, IMPEMA, was drained by the Micheletti and Lobo governments. The retirement fund was created by the salaries of teachers. They pay 800 lempiras a month into the fund that they are supposed to be able to draw from after they turn 60.
Last Thursday there was a call for a general strike and tens of thousands of teachers began marching every day in the capital blocking freeways and traffic to protest the robbery of their retirement and will continue to take to the streets every day until it is returned. It is clear the government is not interested in bargaining fairly. During recent negotiations they offered to repay only 170 million of the 350 million in stolen pensions.
The hypocrisy of the situation is clear. The Lobo administration paid for high-level officials to go to the World Cup in South Africa with tax payer money, while supposedly there is no money to pay the retirement salaries of thousands of teachers.
There is also talk of a general strike by the three major unions CUTH (La Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Honduras) CTH (La Central de Trabajadores de Honduras ) and CGT (la Central General de Trabajadores), and the campasino organizations because of the government’s unwillingness to uphold the minimum wage passed by Zeleya.
One of the biggest obstacles to the resistance is the lack of tools for communication and education through media. During the coup, there was a total blackout of media critical of the coup. While the mainstream media in the U.S. played an instrumental role in propping up the coup government, the mainstream media in Honduras has been used similarly to say that Zeleya was a puppet of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and to lie about the resistance.
Similar to Argentina during the dirty war, there has been a crack down and controlling of the media to present a face of civilian compliance to the international community which does not understand the severity of the situation here in Honduras. The three main newspapers are owned by oligarchs and report little or nothing about the resistance.
The situation with the teachers is made worse because of the reporting from the mainstream media that talks about how the teachers are selfish and doing a disservice to the children of Honduras because of the strike, and they greatly under-report the amount of people in the marches.
The one radio station that reports consistently on the work of the resistance, Radio Globo, has been a target of repression by the military and police. There are three community radio stations in Honduras, and all have been targets for repression and intimidation. Most recently the radio station of Zacate Grande was raided by the military. The people of Zecate Grande are involved in a land dispute with the oligarch Miguel Faccuse, one of the largest landowners in the country and owner of a large percentage of the mainstream media.
The resistance in Honduras is a movement of the people, and the diversity of the FNRP is what gives it strength. From unions to teachers, lawyers fighting for judicial justice, campesinos, indigenous, GLBTQ, taxi drivers, religious, rich, poor, intellectuals and patriots, all are engaged not only in the conversation about what kind of country they want Honduras to be, but in direct action to make those conversations a reality.
There is a saying here that many people before the coup were asleep, but now the Honduran people are awake and they are paying attention. People are having the political conversations. They are talking about the resistance, and they are aware of the real obstacles that their movement faces. They are thinking differently. They are opening their discussions and having a social dialogue. They are working to define what it means to be Honduran and what exactly they are fighting for. Hondurans know that the eyes of the world are watching. They are aware of the increased military presence in the country. They see the pressure from the United States government to reinstate Honduras into the Organization of American States (OAS) and the implications it has for the region. They understand the overwhelming challenges their movement faces because of U.S. foreign policy and the key role it has played in not only working to legitimize the coup government but to maintain the country as a strategic pawn in the region.
The international community plays an important part right now in the struggle for democracy in Honduras. The most pressing issues are for the international community to continue to resist U.S. efforts to reinstate Honduras in the OAS and to continue to document and denounce the repression by the government. Allowing Honduras back in the OAS it legitimizes the coup government, and in the words of Harry Dickson it would be “locking the people of Honduras in a closet with a murderer”
Simple reforms will not fix the situation in Honduras. Less than 1% of the population owns 85% of the wealth in Honduras, while almost 70% of people live in extreme poverty. The people of Honduras know this is a long term struggle and they are committed to a non-violent movement. They face overwhelming challenges if they are alone in this fight. The media is unbalanced and manipulates everything that is said. The government has proven that it is not afraid to harass, torture, and murder to maintain control.
It’s important for the people of Honduras to know that the international community hasn’t forgotten them. That people are working within the U.S. to change its foreign policy and that they have brothers and sisters across borders that are actively engaged in resistance of globalization.
In conclusion get your butts down here for the 15th
Soon after Rachael Townsend submitted this report, the Honduran government settled with the teachers’ union, agreeing to repay 3.6 billion lempiras ($189 million) it stole from the teachers’ retirement fund.