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6th July 2010
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Honduras (and in cities around the world) on Monday 28th June, the first anniversary of the military coup. Not that they were commemorating the coup of course, but to celebrate the first birthday of the National Popular Resistance Front. The FNRP is a remarkable coalition of brave people from all the traditionally oppressed sectors of society: the Committee of Families of the Disappeared; a myriad of feminist organisations; indigenous groups; the Afro-descendant garífuna people; youth movements; the gay community; human rights activists and trades unions. The FNRP is an alliance of hundreds of grassroots organisations which, despite the risk to the lives of all involved, have refused to give in and accept the illegal takeover of their country by a ruthless and self-serving elite.
Heavy military forces drove around the capital in a bid to intimidate, and extra troops clustered around the Presidential Palace and other public buildings in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. It didn’t take long for violence to break out – by midday on Monday police had attacked a peaceful rally in Villas del Sol with clubs and teargas.
SchNEWS readers may remember that a year ago, democratically-elected Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya was abducted from the Presidential Palace by 200 military troops in balaclavas, bundled onto a plane (which stopped at a US airbase on the way) and dropped onto a runway in Costa Rica (see SchNEWS 712). The Chair of Congress, fellow Liberal Party colleague Roberto Michelleti, took over as ‘de facto’ president, with full backing of the military. According to Berta Cáceres, leader of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, who was arrested on Monday but quickly released due to massive national and international pressure, ‘it’s a twenty-first century dictatorship, which…deploys new strategies to give the appearance of democracy. However, there is no doubt that it’s a dictatorship… and its goal is to undermine the processes of liberation that are sweeping across our continent.’
June 28th is also the anniversary of an intended opinion poll, which the coup prevented, to determine whether the Honduran people supported the idea of calling a national assembly to discuss the country’s constitution. The right wing coup-makers and the media seized on this as a leftist attempt on Zelaya’s part to seize power unconstitutionally for a second term, but in fact he would have been long out of office by the time the meeting was assembled. Honduras’s constitution was written in 1982 following ten years of ruthless military dictatorship, and as Cáceres has pointed out, it doesn’t even mention women once.
While Honduras is unlikely to see Zelaya return, the resistance movement is about something much bigger than that. In its own words, it ‘dares to dream of a new society: just, equitable, and inclusive’. To work towards that end it intends to ‘convene a National Constituent Assembly, democratic and popular, with which we will re-found state and society’. Their motivation for doing so is not hard to sympathise with. Honduras is a country dominated by a landed oligarchy, a handful of ten or so families who own the majority of land and businesses. Ousted president Zelaya is himself a part of that oligarchy; his politician father was involved in the murders of peasant protest movement leaders in the 1970s. However, in power, Zelaya made a radical choice to break ranks, and by doing so he ‘awoke the tiger’, to use the sinister language oligarch Adolfo Facussé used to describe the business sector in a position paper for ANDI, the National Industrial Association which represents transnational corporate interests in Honduras.
When Zelaya came to power in 2005, he inherited a country in dire financial straits. Official figures underestimate the level of poverty in Honduras at between 70-78%. Despite this, when the price of oil fell worldwide, the US oil companies supplying oil to Honduras failed to pass on the price cuts, creating serious hardship. Zelaya tried to play by the neoliberal book; he first went to the IMF and the World Bank, but when they failed to offer him a way forward, he turned to ALBA, a coalition of left wing Latin American countries, who offered him a 25-year contract for cheap oil from Venezuelan oil company Petrocaribe, and even low-interest credit to buy the oil. To the disgust of his country’s privileged class, on 25th August 2008 Zelaya signed a treaty to join ALBA. Coachloads of supporters poured into the capital from all over the country to show their support, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill around the Presidential Palace. Many of Zelaya’s popular reforms – free milk for babies, meals for schoolchildren, pensions for the elderly, subsidised travel, a minimum wage – appealed to the poor majority, and yet his efforts to effect change were being systematically blocked by Congress because he didn’t have a majority. This led him to see the inherent limitations of a constitution which failed to represent the interests of all sections of Honduran society.
The coup was perpetrated by a group of elites from the transnational capitalist class, whose business interests were threatened by Zelaya’s programme of progressive reform. The US has substantial business interests in the country, as does Canada. Canadian mining company Goldcorp has been illegally polluting Siria Valley local water supplies and community wells with the byproducts of its activities, including arsenic, lead, mercury, aluminium, cadmium and other heavy metals. 80% of local inhabitants have suffered health problems as a result. Goldcorp’s right to exploit the country’s natural resources and ignore the human rights of its inhabitants would have been removed as Zelaya was planning to revoke all of the country’s fifty mining licenses, all held by Canadian companies. Employees of Goldcorp were witnessed advocating in favour of the coup government shortly after it seized power. Pharmaceutical industry profits were also under threat from Zelaya’s decision to embrace generic medicines. All business owners, including as the vast numbers of US textiles companies who use Honduras as a source of cheap labour, were affected by the 60% rise in the minimum wage level. There was concern, too, that the President’s choice to align Honduras with ALBA would alienate the US and lead to cuts in the level of aid the country received from the US.
Resistance to the coup arose all over the country. Despite heavy military roadblocks and the threat of arrest, abuse, torture and murder by the authorities, thousands of people poured into the capital, some on foot over the mountains, others by bus and then on foot when army roadblocks prevented their progress. They used strikes, roadblocks, graffiti, sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations which provoked a violent response from security forces. Although police have been filmed firing at random into the crowds, some doctors at Hospital La Escuela (meaning ‘The School’, the capital’s public hospital, where medicine often runs out and medical students practise on the poor) were reportedly refusing to treat people injured by the police and the army in demonstrations, saying they had brought it on themselves. From then on, military and police repression of the mass gatherings grew in force and brutality, until the coup government passed a decree limiting freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to gather in groups of over 14 people. A curfew was also imposed from 9pm – 6am. TV channels and radio stations that had been in any way critical of the coup or sympathetic to the resistance movement – including reporting human rights violations, were forcibly closed. Several judges and a public attorney have been dismissed from their posts for ‘offences’ such as criticising the coup, refusing to sentence resistance movement members to prison, and being present at a demonstration as an observer.
In a January report of recommendations to the new Honduran government, Amnesty International talks of the ‘severity of the abuses committed by police and military officials and the need for urgent measures to remedy those abuses’. It urges the new government to ensure investigations are conducted and those responsible are brought to justice.
According to independent journalist Oscar Estrada, blogging from a secret location three weeks after the coup, ‘what is going on in Honduras is the clearest possible expression of class war’. And from this struggle either something truly remarkable could bloom… or the authorities could brutally crush it. The FNRP are taking the risk. As Oscar observes, “being brave does not mean having no fear. It means having fear and going forth anyway.”
The elections were held without the presence of any outside observers, and the resistance movement and the majority of Liberals made the decision to boycott them in order to expose how little credibility this new whitewashed government has with its people. The majority of Liberal candidates withdrew from the running. It’s estimated that 65-75% of the population didn’t vote; the Electoral Commission took much longer to count the votes than normal. First it announced that 65% of people had voted, later revising that figure to (a still over-generous) 48%. Eventually they announced the victory of Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo of the right-wing Nationalist Party, but the resistance movement and the majority of the world are refusing to recognise this result. The elections were merely a way for the forces behind the coup to legitimise their power, and, to add insult to injury, the new conservative government has adopted a policy of ‘austerity’, raising taxes and slashing public funding.
Outrageously, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now arguing that the elections, which were held at the end of last November in an atmosphere of fear and repression under conditions of media censorship, were ‘free and fair’. The US and Canada are now lobbying for OAS, the Organisation of American States, to readmit suspended Honduras, something the majority of Latin-American countries are opposed to until they are satisfied that there has been proper investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses committed since the coup, and that Zelaya can be guaranteed a safe return to Honduras. In contrast, the United States has now renewed military aid to Honduras. 25 heavy army trucks worth $812,000 have already been donated, and $20 million is promised as part of the Merida Program to enhance ‘security’. A further £70 million will go to Honduras via USAID. Lanny Davis, a lawyer to Bill Clinton and campaign advisor to Hillary Clinton, has been lobbying in Washington for Honduran coup leaders and elites. Some of these leaders were invited to Washington to meet John McCain and other key Republicans just days before the coup.
In a letter to the Honduran people written by Zelaya on the anniversary of the coup, the ex-president states that “the intellectual authors of this crime were an illicit association of old Washington hawks and Honduran capitalists with their partners, American affiliates and financial agencies… Everything indicates that the coup was planned at the Palmerola military base by the US Southern Command.” Before the coup, Zelaya had been considering not renewing the US army’s contract for the Palmarola airbase, instead toying with the idea of turning it into a civilian airport. John Negroponte, former US ambassador to Honduras 1981-5, had made a special trip to Honduras to convince Zelaya to renew the contract, and during his trip he met with Roberto Michelleti, the chair of Congress and future de facto president following the coup.
Hillary Clinton’s position is that the new ‘national unity and reconciliation government’ has taken all the necessary steps to ensure the country’s return to democracy, which is laughable, considering that many of its key posts are taken by figures heavily involved in the coup. To fulfil US criteria for readmission into the neoliberal fold, on 5th May 2010 the Lobo government launched a state-appointed ‘Truth Committee’, which includes a lawyer who represents Canadian mining interests and members of the rightwing old guard. The US and Canadian governments appear to be accepting this committee at face value, despite its insistence that certain ‘sensitive information’ won’t be released for ten years. In defiance, the International Committee of the FNRP and the Honduran Platform for Human Rights have set up their own ‘True Commission’, which was formally launched this week on the anniversary of the coup. Unlike the government-sponsored commission, they have set it up according to the requirements of international law, and are undertaking its work at great risk to all brave enough to be involved.
27 Congress members have signed a letter to Hillary Clinton laying out their concerns about the violations of human rights which are continuing under the government of Porfirio Lobo. They expressed particular concern that ‘a number of Army officials suspected of being involved in the coup have been appointed to executive positions in the Lobo government. Most notably, General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, Commander-in-Chief to the Armed Forces at the time of the coup, is now the head of Hondutel, the national telecommunications company. The appointment of Velásquez, a primary actor in the coup, is troubling because in his new position he controls the country´s telephone, Internet and fax lines at a time when human rights advocates and political opposition leaders fear they are being persecuted for their activism.’
Following the coup, approximately 1,500 people have been jailed for political purposes, and the murder rate has risen by nearly 9%. Over 50 resistance leaders and trade union activists have been murdered, and another 60 people have been killed in ‘strange’ circumstances. Crucially, the murders have continued into Lobo’s presidency, if anything increasing in brutality. Since Lobo became president, there have been hundreds of human rights violations perpetrated. Unknown chemicals have been sprayed in people’s faces and the army have failed to notify hospitals what they are, making effective treatment impossible. The army have been throwing teargas canisters into crowds of demonstrators and into buildings, causing burns as well as respiratory problems, some of which have led to death. According to the Inter-American commission on human rights, “the sons and daughters of leaders of the Resistance Front are being killed, kidnapped, and threatened, as a strategy to silence the activists.” What has changed since the elections is that now the coupmakers are secure in the knowledge they have a four-year mandate, so they can afford to watch and pick off key resistance players rather than merely attacking crowds of people arbitrarily as they were doing at the start.
Ten journalists have been murdered in the last year in state-sponsored attacks, the majority under the new ‘legitimate’ government. Many journalists and other activists have been receiving threatening text messages saying they’re ‘on the list’. The LGBT community is suffering disproportionately, with 26 gay people having been brutally tortured and murdered, including the case of 25-year old activist Walter Trochez, who was kidnapped, beaten and told he was on the list to be killed. He then managed to escape from a moving van, only to be killed a week later. There have been dozens of documented cases of rape and sexual abuse by police of women while in custody (Honduras has had to introduce special women’s police stations specifically to tackle this issue in the past).
Thousands of people have experienced violence at the hands of the police, the army, and paramilitary organisations. Infamous murderer Billy Zoya, the former head of Battalion 3-16 which was responsible for many ‘disappearances’ in the 1980s, returned to Honduras to take up a post as special adviser to de facto President Micheletti, and there are rumours that the Battalion has been ‘reactivated’. Zoya, who had been wanted in connection with the deaths of six students, is now operating freely, training the paramilitary organisations whose employees are, for example, being used against the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), fighting an ongoing land dispute over 20,000 hectares of land which was bought illegally from under them by multi-millionnaire coup financier Miguel Facussé, Reinaldo Canales and René Morales. On 20th June a private guard killed an unarmed 16-year old land worker, Oscar Geovanny Ramirez, the third murder of a MUCA member this month. The killers are operating in a climate of impunity. Only one person is currently being held in prison for human rights violations.
The incredible fact is that by seizing power illegally in order to prevent constitutional reform, the right wing has in effect mobilised a coalition of thousands of activists, who might otherwise never have met and had a chance to organise and align so impressively.
The movement have set a ‘route to achieve social transformation’ with the following aims:
1) To ignore and denounce Porfirio Lobo as the President of Honduras.
2) To create a True Commission.
3) To seek popular support for a National Constituent Assembly, forming an authentic representation of the Honduran people.
4) To seek recognition for the FNRP as the political and social platform to oppose the regime.
5) To proclaim June 28th as day of the resistance, and this year as the beginning of the refoundation of Honduras.
According to Carlos H. Reyes, president of the STYBIS, the bottled drinks workers’ union, and one of the leaders of the FNRP, "at both national and international level they have tried to make the coup, the Resistance, and the crimes against humanity which have been committed against the Honduran people invisible… They have militarised the country because they are afraid of its people, a people who have become aware that this is a fight against a group of homicidal oligarchs… the most important thing in this historic moment is to work towards a new social pact, a new constitution."
They have so far collected 700 000 signatures in a petition demanding a national assembly to give a voice to the voiceless. But they have some powerful enemies, both nationally and internationally, and their lives are in danger. They deserve to be heard.
* See also Coup Blimey