Posts Tagged ‘Manuel Zelaya Rosales’

Honduras: Which Side Is the US On?

Dana Frank | May 22, 2012


Soldiers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Reuters/Edgard Garrido

In some ways, it was just one more bloody episode in a blood-soaked country. In the early hours of the morning on May 11, a group of indigenous people traveling by canoe on a river in the northeast Mosquitia region of Honduras came under helicopter fire. When the shooting was over, at least four persons lay dead, including, by some accounts, two pregnant women. In Honduras, such grisly violence is no longer out of the ordinary. But what this incident threw into stark relief was the powerful role the United States is playing in a Honduran war.

US officials maintain that the Drug Enforcement Administration commandos on board the helicopters did not fire their weapons that morning; Honduran policemen pulled the triggers. But no one disputes that US forces were heavily involved in the raid, and that the helicopters were owned by the US State Department.

The United States has, in fact, been quietly escalating its military presence in Honduras, pouring police and military funding into the regime of President Porfirio Lobo in the name of fighting drugs. The DEA is using counterinsurgency methods developed in Iraq against drug traffickers in Honduras, deploying squads of commandos with US military Special Forces backgrounds to work closely with the Honduran police and military. The US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, recently said, “We have an opportunity now, because the military is no longer at war in Iraq. Using the military funding that won’t be spent, we should be able to have resources to be able to work here.”

Missing from the official story—never mentioned by US officials, and left out of mainstream news coverage—is that the US government’s ally in this campaign, the Lobo regime, is the illegitimate progeny of the military coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at first criticized the coup government, led initially by Roberto Micheletti, but then legitimated it. After almost all the opposition candidates (as well as international observers) boycotted the post-coup election that brought Lobo to power, heads of state throughout the region refused to recognize his presidency; but the United States hailed him for “restoring democracy” and promoting “national reconciliation.” The State Department and Clinton continue to repeat both fictions, as did President Obama when he welcomed Lobo to the White House in October.

Meanwhile, US officials blame drug trafficking for almost all the country’s problems. “It may be gratifying to attribute Honduras’s problems to generals with sunglasses or to rigged elections,” former US ambassador to Honduras James Creagan insisted in a February 5 letter to the New York Times. “But it is not true. This is not the 1970s with Central American coups, contras and revolutionaries.” Rather, he asserted, the violence in Honduras “is caused by drugs, gangs and corruption…all driven by the market for coca leaf products.”

Only in the post-coup context, however, can we understand the very real crisis of drug trafficking in Honduras. A vicious drug culture already existed before the coup, along with gangs and corrupt officials. But the thoroughgoing criminality of the coup regime opened the door for it to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself—from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government, according to high-level sources. Prominent critics and even government officials, including Marlon Pascua, the defense minister, talk of “narco-judges” who block prosecutions and “narco-congressmen” who run cartels. Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7.

Far more than criminal gangs in the streets and drug traffickers acting independently, it is the Honduran state itself that has made Honduras, according to the Associated Press, “among the most dangerous places on earth.”

The administration argues that it is helping Honduras clean up its police by providing additional funding for “training.” But as former President Zelaya underscored in a conversation with me on May Day, “The police are the drug traffickers. If you fund the police, you’re funding the drug traffickers.”

* * *

When Lobo took office in January 2010, he reappointed to top positions the same military figures (sunglasses and all) who had managed the coup, including its leader, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, as head of Hondutel, the state-owned telephone company. Last summer, Manuel Enrique Cáceres, a high-ranking minister in the cabinet of Micheletti’s post-coup government, was made director of the aviation authority.

The coup, in turn, unleashed a wave of violence by state security forces that continues unabated. On October 22, an enormous scandal broke when the Tegucigalpa police killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the country’s largest university and a member of the government’s Truth Commission, along with a friend of his. Top law enforcement officials admitted that the police were responsible for the killings but allowed the suspects to disappear, precipitating an enormous crisis of legitimacy, as prominent figures such as Landaverde stepped forward throughout the autumn to denounce the massive police corruption. The police department, they charged, is riddled with death squads and drug traffickers up to the very highest levels.

“It’s scarier to meet up with five police officers on the streets than five gang members,” former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas declared in November. According to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (Cofadeh), more than 10,000 official complaints have been filed about abuses by the police and military since the coup, none of which have been addressed. Marvin Ponce, vice president of Congress, has charged that 40 percent of the Honduran police are involved in organized crime. The sheer viciousness of the police was laid bare on Valentine’s Day, when the worst prison fire in modern history claimed the lives of 361 prisoners in Comayagua in part because their guards—regular police officers—refused to allow firefighters to enter for thirty minutes.

Reform efforts have been promised by the Lobo administration and Congress, but they have gone nowhere. A top-level commission fell apart and a new one doesn’t yet function. Key figures involved in the “cleanup” include Eduardo Villanueva, one of Micheletti’s top ministers following the coup, and Héctor Ivan Mejía, the current police spokesman, who as chief of police in San Pedro Sula issued the order on September 15, 2010, to tear-gas a peaceful demonstration by the opposition, including a high school marching band.

In response to calls by human rights groups that non-Hondurans oversee the cleanup, Lobo on April 24 appointed to a new commission Gen. Aquiles Blu Rodriguez, himself accused of obstruction of justice and drug-related charges in Chile. The Honduran government admitted on May 1 that only eighteen cases against police officers had gone forward.

Unable to purge itself, the government has instead responded to the security crisis with even greater repression. Cofadeh and the Center for Justice and International Law have raised alarms over recent measures “that presumably are trying to combat criminality but that are restrictive of the human rights of the population,” including a law allowing wiretapping with few restrictions and another permitting inspection of the bank records of nonprofits. (The Honduran Congress is also considering the most repressive contraception law in the world, making it a crime to distribute the morning-after pill, even to rape victims.) On March 20 an “emergency” measure allowing the military to take on ordinary police duties, such as patrolling the streets, was extended for three months. Lobo has said he wants to make this measure permanent, in direct violation of the fire wall between the police and the military enshrined in the Honduran Constitution.

The Honduran military is corrupt, too. On November 1, 2010, an airplane used in drug trafficking was “robbed” from a military base in San Pedro Sula. According to La Tribuna, a right-wing newspaper, at least nineteen members of the army were complicit, including top- and intermediate-ranked officers. In August 2011, 300 automatic rifles and 300,000 bullets disappeared from a warehouse of the army’s elite Cobras unit. Despite this record of corruption, a new decree permits the military to accept no-bid contracts—a green light for even more corruption.

Most dangerous of all, since the coup, the government has attacked the opposition relentlessly and mercilessly. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reports “serious incidents of violence and repression” against demonstrations. At least twenty-two journalists and media workers have been killed since the coup, according to Reporters Without Borders; most of them were critics of the government. On May 16, the body of well-known radio reporter Alfredo Villatoro was found, dressed in a police uniform, a week after he was abducted. On May 7, Erick Martinez, a beloved journalist, LGBTI and resistance activist, and candidate for Congress with LIBRE, the opposition party, was found dead, strangled, by the side of the road. The AFL-CIO also reports “numerous murders, attacks and threats since 2009 aimed at trade unionists for their labor or political activities.”

Those who dare to document this are at tremendous risk. The United Nations reported in February that “human rights defenders continue to suffer extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill treatment, death threats, attacks, harassment, and stigmatization.” On February 22, for example, a paramilitary group called the CAM, linked to death squads during the 1980s, sent a text message to Dina Meza, press officer and co-founder of Cofadeh, that read: “We are going to burn your pussy with lime until you scream and later the whole squad is going to enjoy [you].” In late April, the same paramilitary group began sending death threats to two women, one British, the other French, who serve as “accompaniment” to protect those who have been threatened. Even when the government does promise protection, it’s rarely delivered, and victims are sometimes guarded by the very same police from whom they need to be protected.

Campesino activists have paid the highest price. In the lower Aguán Valley, at least 46 campesinos struggling over land rights have been killed since the coup, most of them allegedly by a combination of police, military and the private army of Miguel Facussé, the richest, most powerful man in the country and a key backer of the coup. The perpetrators enjoy near-complete impunity. On June 24, 2011, for example, seventy-five policemen destroyed the entire campesino community of Rigores, burning down more than 100 houses and bulldozing three churches and a seven-room schoolhouse; not one has been charged. At least ten security guards and others have died in the conflict as well. In an e-mailed response to questions for this article, Facussé admitted that in one incident four campesinos were killed in what he described as a “gun battle” with his security guards.

Overall, a Honduran man, woman or child is killed every seventy-four minutes. According to the UN, in 2011, the country had the highest murder rate in the world. Some of these killings are the kind that happen in a bar fight or domestic disagreement, when someone pulls out a gun or machete because they know nothing will happen to them in the dysfunctional Honduran judicial system. In February, the UN found “pervasive impunity” in Honduras. According to Human Rights Watch, women and LGBTI people have been particularly targeted for murder, including by police. In this free-for-all, gangs control whole neighborhoods in the capital, where they charge taxes on businesses and vehicles.

What difference does a coup make? Add up the rampant corruption of the Honduran state, the crime it unleashed and perpetrates, and its ruthless repression of the opposition, and it’s impossible to blame the crisis merely on drug trafficking and gangs; nor can organized crime and drug trafficking be separated from the criminal regime of Porfirio Lobo and the Honduran oligarchs.

* * *


Honduras’ President Porfirio Lobo waves in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14, 2012. Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

The propriety of a US alliance with such a brutal and undemocratic government is finally being challenged in Washington. On November 28, Howard Berman, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sent a letter to Secretary Clinton asking whether the United States was in fact arming a dangerous regime. Ninety-four members of the House, including many in the Democratic leadership, signed a March 9 letter sponsored by Representative Jan Schakowsky calling for the suspension of police and military aid, especially in light of the situation in the Aguán Valley. On March 5, seven senators signed a letter sponsored by Barbara Mikulski expressing concern over “the increasing number of human rights violations” in Honduras.

Congress didn’t just suddenly grow a spine by itself, of course. Activists in the Honduras Solidarity Network and their allies have hammered away for almost three years to build support at the grassroots level and translate it into power in Washington—and Honduras (full disclosure: I am a member). In response, the State Department has acknowledged the human rights issues and the security crisis but has yet to firmly denounce the Lobo administration for its repression and corruption. In response to urgent queries from US human rights activists concerned about death squad activities, the embassy replied that it had communicated its concern to the Lobo administration but had not requested an investigation into the CAM specifically, saying that, “unfortunately, the capacity of Honduran law enforcement authorities to conduct effective investigations is limited. The United States government is assisting them to improve this capacity.”

This idea that the Honduran government needs US help to fix itself—which critics regard as naïve at best, given the Lobo administration’s manifest unwillingness to reform itself—is how US officials justify support for the Lobo regime. Vice President Joe Biden flew to Honduras on March 6, promising that “the United States is absolutely committed to continuing to work with Honduras to win this battle against the narcotraffickers.” Biden promised increased military and police funds under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, to the tune of $107 million. Obama’s proposed budget for 2013 more than doubles key police and military funds to Honduras.

Biden’s visit came amid a growing chorus of criticism of US drug policy throughout the region. Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala have openly called for the legalization of drugs, repudiating what they charge are ineffective US-driven military solutions.

What’s driving the administration’s aggressive policy? The United States has long regarded Honduras, its most captive client state in Latin America, as strategically important. As in the 1980s, when Honduras served as the US base for the contra war against Nicaragua, the country is the regional hub for US military operations in Central America. It received more than $50 million in Pentagon contracts last year, including $24 million to make the barracks at the Soto Cano Air Base permanent for the first time since 1954. Soto Cano has great strategic significance as the only US air base between the United States and South America. Sixty-two percent of all Defense Department funds for Central America in 2011 went to Honduras.

Moreover, US corporate interests in Honduras are enormous, including mining and hydroelectric investments, Dole’s and Chiquita’s expansive banana operations (employing 11,000 people), and apparel, auto parts and other manufacturers that employ more than 110,000, including 3,000 at a Lear Corporation factory in San Pedro Sula that makes electrical distribution systems.

The military coup made possible what Hondurans call the “second coup”: the deeper economic agenda of transnational investors and Honduran elites, now given almost free rein to use the state as they choose. At the top of their list is privatization of basic state functions. Laws are moving through Congress privatizing the country’s electrical systems, water systems and ports. In an overt attack on Honduras’s powerful and militant teachers unions, Congress in March 2011 passed a law opening the door to privatization of the entire country’s schools.

Labor rights are under intense assault as part of this economic agenda. In November 2010 a law went into effect encouraging employers to convert permanent, full-time jobs into part-time and temporary employment—under which workers will no longer be eligible for healthcare and will lose the right to organize a union. A complaint to the US Labor Department filed by the AFL-CIO under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) this past March documents a sea of systematic violations of the most basic labor rights since the coup, including the firing of hundreds of workers for attempting to organize unions, failure of employers to pay the minimum wage and failure to pay workers altogether. Honduran workers “have seen little meaningful enforcement of their labor rights, as national labor laws are ineffective and violated with impunity,” the filing concludes.

Perhaps most extreme is a new “Model Cities” law, passed in July, which allows for autonomous economic zones in which the Honduran Constitution, legal code and most basic democratic governance structures won’t apply, and where transnational investors will be free to invent their own entire society.

Within the State Department, the policy train is being driven by Bush-era experts on Latin America, still in power, working hand in glove with the Cuban-American right, whose leaders have celebrated the Honduran coup as a successful pushback against the democratically elected left and center-left governments that have come to power all over Latin America in the past fifteen years. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, echoing their arguments, attacked Obama in December for allegedly supporting Zelaya during the coup: “When Honduras wanted to toss out their pro-Marxist president, our president stood with him.”

The ultimate responsibility, though, lies with President Obama and Secretary Clinton, who are using Honduras to reassert US power in the hemisphere.

* * *

Hondurans living under the US gun have denounced the increased militarization. In a scathing article in response to Biden’s visit titled “Obedience,” Cofadeh declared: “The drug war is only a pretext for a greater military occupation by the United States and to block the wave of political change driven by the national resistance.”

After enduring three years of repression, though, the people who make up the resistance wave are deeply exhausted. Nonetheless, they continue to pour into the streets—something that requires great courage, since the marches are often met with tear gas and beatings. In the last week of March alone, bus drivers, taxi drivers, lesbians and gays, electrical workers, teachers and students all demonstrated. Earlier in the month employees occupied the famous Mayan ruins at Copán, protesting a new law giving municipalities control over historical artifacts in their jurisdictions.

All the diverse elements that came together after the coup to form the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP) are still present, although the exhilarating coalition of the first two years after the coup is now in some ways disarticulated. These groups include the indigenous movement, the Garifuna Afro-indigenous people, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s movement, as well as Feminists in Resistance, Lawyers in Resistance, Judges in Resistance, and pretty much anything else in Resistance—all backed up by an extraordinary alternative media culture. Zelaya was allowed to return in May 2011; his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, is the presumed presidential candidate of LIBRE, a new political party founded by the FNRP. On May Day, hundreds of thousands filled the streets in marches organized by LIBRE and all three labor federations.

The resistance, moreover, still thrives in Honduran popular culture. To give just one delightful example: by tradition, Hondurans on New Year’s Eve construct and then ritually burn figurines representing the bad things that have happened to them in the previous year. The first year after the coup, dolls representing Micheletti, the dictator, were all over the place; last year it was Lobo. This year, protesters audaciously constructed a life-sized cardboard police car with two stuffed cloth bodies in the back representing the rector’s murdered son and his friend. Another group built a tank with Lobo and the head of the corrupt state-owned electrical company popping out on top. Honduran newspapers displayed photos of the figures all over the country.

* * *

For the Honduran people and their allies in the United States and beyond, the path forward is as tough as it gets. There are no easy solutions. Human rights defenders, from Cofadeh to the UN to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have all called on the Honduran government to implement immediate measures guaranteeing the most basic rights. These include the following demands: stop repressing the opposition with tear gas, wiretapping, harassment and extrajudicial killings. Enforce the law, including labor rights. Clean up the prisons. Purge the judiciary, the police and the military of known criminals. Enact real agrarian reform.

But who will do that when President Lobo and the Honduran Congress, themselves allegedly interlocked with the drug trade and organized crime, clearly lack the ability and political will to do so—and the United States supports them? Hondurans in the opposition underscore that the only way forward is a complete reconstitution of the Honduran state from below, through a democratically composed constitutional convention, like those successfully undertaken in other Latin American countries in recent years.

In the interim, Cofadeh and prominent voices in Honduran civil society are calling loudly for a suspension of US and other countries’ aid to the Honduran military and police. “Stop feeding the beast,” as Rector Julieta Castellanos famously demanded in November.

Alas, we’re in the 1980s all over again, when the United States under President Ronald Reagan favored right-wing governments over democracy movements in Latin America. The implications of the Honduran coup’s success are ominous. As Tirza Flores Lanza—a former appeals court magistrate in San Pedro Sula, who was fired with four other judges and magistrates for opposing the coup—put it: “The coup d’état in Honduras destroyed the incipient democracy that, with great effort, we were constructing, and revived the specter of military dictatorships that are now once again ready to pounce throughout Latin America.”

Weekend Edition April 25-27, 2014

Honduras: Gangsters’ Paradise

Nearly five years after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) first called on the Honduran government to protect Carlos Mejía Orellana, the Radio Progreso marketing manager was found stabbed to death in his home on April 11. “The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur consider this a particularly serious crime given the precautionary measures granted,” the Commission stated, assuming Mejía really was being guarded. But since the 2009 coup, asking the Honduran state to defend journalists is as effective as entreating a spider to spare a web-ensnared fly.

The coup, which four School of the Americas (SOA) graduates oversaw, toppled elected president Manuel Zelaya, and was “a crime,” as even the military lawyer—another SOA alum—charged with giving the overthrow a veneer of legitimacy couldn’t deny. A pair of marred general elections followed. Journalist Michael Corcoran recognized widespread “state violence against dissidents” and “ballot irregularities” as hallmarks of the first, in November 2009, which Obama later hailed as the return of Honduran democracy. And there was little dispute that the subsequent contest, held last November, was equally flawed. The State Department, for example, admitted “inconsistencies” plagued the vote, the same charge Zelaya himself leveled and an echo of the SOA Watch delegation’s findings, which identified “numerous irregularities and problems during the elections and vote counting process[.]” But while grassroots and governmental observers described the election in similar terms, they drew dramatically different conclusions about its validity. Canadian activist Raul Burbano, for example, acknowledged that “corruption, fraud, violence, murder, and human rights violations” dominated the situation. For Secretary of State Kerry, “the election process was generally transparent, peaceful, and reflected the will of the Honduran people.”

Kerry, to be sure, was referring to the class of “worthy” Hondurans, whose will was indeed reflected in the contest. One might be “a policeman, a lumber magnate, an agro-industrialist, a congressman, a mayor, an owner of a national media outlet, a cattle rancher, a businessman, or a drug trafficker”—all belong to this sector, Radio Progreso director Rev. Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J., known as Padre Melo, points out, adding that these “worthy” Hondurans use the state as a tool to maintain, if not enhance, their power. The results for the rest of the population are what you’d expect. The government no longer pays many of its employees, for example; Peter J. Meyer’s Congressional Research Service report on “Honduran-U.S. Relations,” released last July, cites “misused government funds” and “weak tax collection” as two factors contributing to the current situation, a kind of wage slavery sans wages. Doctors, nurses and educators toil for free throughout the country, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported last fall that over 43% of Honduran workers labored full-time in 2012 without receiving the minimum wage. That same year, nearly half of the population was living in extreme poverty—the rate had dropped to 36% under Zelaya—and 13,000 inmates now crowd a prison system designed for 8,000. In San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city after Tegucigalpa, some 5,000 children try not to starve to death while living on the streets; this figure includes 3,000 girls, aged 12-17, who roam the roads as prostitutes.

Confronting this reality—asking fundamental questions, like whose interests dominant Honduran institutions serve—“means living with anxiety, insecurity, suspicion, distrust, demands, warnings, and threats. It also means having to come to grips with the idea of death,” Padre Melo emphasizes, explaining that a reporter in Honduras “only has to publish or disseminate some news that negatively affects the interests [of] a powerful person with money and influence…for the life of that news reporter to be endangered.” Melo was making these points in July 2012, well before Mejía’s recent murder, but when it was already obvious that open season had been declared on Honduran correspondents. It’s likely that “few observers could have foreseen the deluge of threats, attacks, and targeted killings that has swept through Honduras during the last five years,” PEN International noted in January, highlighting “the surge in violence directed against journalists following the ouster of President José Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.” A great deal “of the violence is produced by the state itself, perhaps most significantly by a corrupt police force,” and now over 32 Honduran journalists—the equivalent U.S. figure, as a percentage of the total population, would be well over 1,200—are dead.

These killings are part of a broader Honduran trend, namely what Reporters Without Borders calls “a murder rate comparable to that of a country at war—80 per 100,000 in a population of 7 million.” One crucial battlefield is the Bajo Aguán Valley, where at least 102 peasant farmers were killed between January 2010 and May 2013. The conflict there can be traced back to the ’90s, when a “paradigm promoted by the World Bank” spurred “a massive re-concentration of land in the Aguán into the hands of a few influential elites,” Tanya Kerssen writes in Grabbing Power, her excellent book. These land barons, particularly Dinant Corporation’s Miguel Facussé, thrived as “the Aguán cooperative sector was decimated,” some three-quarters of its land seized, Kerssen concludes. Campesinos, suddenly dispossessed, first sought legal recourse, which failed. They subsequently “protested and occupied disputed land,” Rights Action’s Annie Bird observes in an invaluable study (“Human Rights Violations Attributed to Military Forces in the Bajo Aguán Valley in Honduras,” February 2013), prompting government authorities to review the legitimacy of World Bank-promoted territorial transfer. But the June 2009 coup ended this appraisal, and since then Honduras’ 15th Battalion, Washington-aided “since at least 2008,” has “consistently been identified as initiating acts of violence against campesino movements,” with police forces and Dinant’s security guards getting in on the kills, Bird explains

After Brazil, Honduras is the most dangerous place on the planet for land-rights defenders, according to “Deadly Environment,” a new Global Witness investigation, which notes that “more and more ordinary people are finding themselves on the frontline of the battle to defend their environment from corporate or state abuse, and from unsustainable exploitation.” At least 908 worldwide died in this conflict from 2002-2013, and Washington’s “counterdrug” policies in the region have helped raise the stakes, Dr. Kendra McSweeney’s research suggests. “In Honduras, the level of large-scale deforestation per year more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, at the same time as cocaine movements in the country also showed a significant rise,” BBC correspondent Matt McGrath summarizes her findings. “Once you start fighting” the traffickers, McSweeney elaborates, “you scatter them into more remote locales and greater areas become impacted,” as smugglers clear forests to build airstrips and roads, and “worthy” Hondurans in, say, the palm oil and ranching sectors capitalize on booming drug profits.

“Today it’s the same” as it was in the 1980s, Honduran activist Bertha Oliva remarked a year ago, referring to the decade when “the presence of the U.S. in the country was extremely significant,” and “it was clear that political opponents were being eliminated.” Obama’s Honduras policy is Reagan’s redux, in other words. The thousands of child prostitutes and street children, the prisons teeming with inmates, the scores of slaughtered peasants and dozens of murdered journalists—all indicate the type of nation Washington helps build in a region where it’s free to operate unimpeded, revealing which “American values” really drive U.S. foreign policy.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.

 

Padre Melo speaks to reporters at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa on Sept. 11, 2013.

Editor’s Note: Some of the challenges facing Honduras today are featured in the Feb. 10 issue of America. After the country held national elections on Nov. 24, America asked Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J., popularly known as Padre Melo, to reflect on the implications of the elections. Padre Melo is the director of Radio Progreso and of ERIC, a social research and advocacy organization in El Progreso, Honduras. Shaina Aber and Leticia Isasi translated this reflection from the original Spanish.

In an uncertain environment full of suspicions, the electoral results in Honduras on Nov. 24 gave the triumph to Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party, the incumbent party. Following the election, information surfaced that in thousands of the electoral boards the majority of the delegates of four of the small parties were substituted by members of the National Party. Also, evidence has emerged of vote-buying at some of these same electoral centers. Individuals willing to sell their votes were told to take pictures of themselves with their filled-in ballot, so they could collect a corresponding payment from the National Party.

The international missions of the Organization of American States, the European Union and the United States Embassy observed the environment outside the voting centers, but these missions failed to effectively monitor the management of the ballots and their transportation to counting complexes after citizens deposited them in good faith at voting centers. The missions never corroborated the various formally registered complaints of irregularities and inconsistencies. In light of these doubts, the international reports should have waited before giving judgment. However, these missions supported the report of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and hastened to ratify even those results where independent international observers and national human rights and alternative media institutions suspected vote manipulation and cited inconsistencies.

A person might argue that the practice of buying votes is not technically illegal, but nobody can argue that it is a service to democracy and to the rule of law. Yet the official international missions said nothing about this open practice. It is not about being in favor of or against one candidate or another. It is about contributing to an accountable democracy through respect for the rule of law.

The international missions have indeed failed in their efforts to support the democratic process. Instead of assisting Honduras to navigate an exit out of its institutional crises, the international missions have ended up supporting what they have rightly critiqued: the conditions of corruption and impunity that contribute the most to instability and deterioration of institutions supporting the rule of law. Instead of supporting the good, the official missions have blessed the foremost enemies of democracy and the rule of law.

What awaits us? Although the presidency was won by the National Party, the further deterioration of the Honduran society is expected. The creation of the new military police force a few weeks before the elections, combined with the creation of legal frameworks like the charter cities law or the mining law, the deliberate delay of the process of purging the police and the judicial institutions of corruption, the politicized elections of the General Prosecutor and Assistant Prosecutor, all under the leadership of the president-elect, represent dark clouds that foretell a phase of growing authoritarianism, impunity, corruption and loss of national sovereignty in the framework of a “totalitarian and exclusive democracy.”

The current political reality, which began the day after the election, will likely become solidified through a caucus process in the Congress among the winning party and the other contesting forces that participated in the electoral process. In the election, the president-elect was not so much the clear victor chosen by the majority to govern the state of Honduras, as the person and political party able to consolidate a new political pact in co-responsibility with the other political forces that sought to overcome and replace the traditional Liberal/Nationalist bipartite government that has dominated the political environment during the past three decades.

It is true that the traditional Honduran bipartisan model has broken down, but those who drove it for more than three decades remain very active and will continue to be the main conductors of the new political pact in which the leftist party, Libre, will have to play a counterbalancing role. Libre must discern ways to present the demands and interests of social sectors that do not fit in the plans and interests of the more powerful sectors of the countries. With the victory of Juan Orlando Hernandez, a new political chapter begins, but it is led by the same political, economic and business elites that have driven the political process since the coup of 2009. In the new political environment, there are no signs that the instability and the institutional deterioration we have faced are going to diminish.

Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J.

U.S. intervention in Honduras: From Negroponte to Posada Carriles

July 2, 2009

Tags: Manuel Zelaya, Honduras coup, John Negroponte, Luis Posada Carriles, Central America, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown in a military coup on Sunday, is irate about U.S. interventionism in his country. That’s not too surprising in light of the history. For years, successive U.S. diplomats in Tegucigalpa have cultivated close ties with right wing elements in Honduras while seeking to head off progressive change. If Zelaya is ever reinstated as President, the U.S. will have to work hard to erase Hondurans’ bitter memory of belligerent American ambassadors.Consider for a moment the case of John Negroponte, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. Negroponte worked in his post at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. At the time, Honduras served as a vital base for the Contra rebel army. Negroponte played a significant role in assisting the Contras, though human rights groups criticized him for ignoring human rights abuses committed by Honduran death squads which were funded and partially trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, when Negroponte served as ambassador his building in Tegucigalpa became one of the largest nerve centers of the CIA in Latin America with a tenfold increase in personnel.

The authorities built an airbase at El Aguacate for the Contras, which was reportedly used as a detention facility where torture occurred. The area also served as a burial ground for 185 dissidents whose remains were only uncovered in 2001. Jack Binns, Negroponte’s predecessor in Tegucigalpa and a Carter appointee, maintains that when he handed over power to Negroponte he gave the newcomer a full briefing about human rights abuses committed by the military. Negroponte denies having any knowledge about such occurrences.

But wait, there’s more: Negroponte also participated in a secret and possibly illegal quid pro quo in which the Reagan Administration bribed Honduran authorities with economic and military assistance in exchange for support for the contra rebels. Efraín Díaz, a former Honduran Congressman, remarked of Negroponte and other U.S. officials, “Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed.” As a result of its cooperation with the U.S. war on Nicaragua, Honduras was rewarded with tens of millions of dollars in American military aid. If Negroponte had actually reported to Congress that the Honduran armed forces were involved in human rights abuses, the aid would have been jeopardized.

By the time Manuel Zelaya was elected President in Honduras in late 2005 Central America had finally emerged from its war torn past and was seeking to forge a new and more peaceful future. But Charles Ford, the Bush-appointed ambassador in Tegucigalpa, seemed determined to continue in the footsteps of Negroponte by pursuing a belligerent foreign policy. Just a mere eight days after Zelaya was inaugurated, Ford asked the Honduran President to provide asylum to Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile linked to several terrorist attacks against the Castro government.

A former CIA agent, Posada’s crimes included the masterminding of a bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976 that resulted in the deaths of all 73 passengers onboard, amongst other brutal attacks. In 2003 Posada was arrested in Panama in possession of a large quantity of C-4 explosives. He intended to use them to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro who was in Panama to attend a diplomatic summit. Posada later escaped and fled to the United States.

Zelaya indignantly refused Ford’s request. “I told him [Ford] that it was impossible to grant a visa and political asylum to Posada Carriles because he was accused of terrorist crimes and they (the United States) defend this kind of terrorism; they defend it and I am sure of that,” Zelaya remarked. Speaking with journalists later, the President wondered, “Could it be the case that any Honduran is not aware that the U.S. Embassy here has always interfered with coup d’etats, promoting invasions in Latin America…and wars?” Throwing diplomatic caution by the wayside, the irate Zelaya continued “Were we note victims of the Cold War during the 1980s, when attacks were launched on Nicaragua from Honduran soil…and Honduras was lent out as a base from which to conduct war-like actions?”

Ford, a big booster of the U.S. free trade agreement with Honduras, apparently did not approve of such remarks nor did he warm to Zelaya after the Honduran cultivated a diplomatic alliance with leftist Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Just as he was about to leave Tegucigalpa after serving out his three year stint, Ford said that a large portion of remittances sent by U.S.-based Hondurans back to their home country were the product of illicit drug trafficking. Incensed, Zelaya charged that the U.S. was the “chief cause” of drug smuggling in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ford was being “belligerent,” Zelaya affirmed, simply because Honduras had pursued diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

As payback for Ford’s diplomatic insolence, Zelaya delayed accreditation of the new U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens out of solidarity with Bolivia and Venezuela which had just recently gone through diplomatic dust ups with Washington. “We are not breaking relations with the United States,” Zelaya said. “We only are (doing this) in solidarity with [Bolivian President] Morales, who has denounced the meddling of the United States in Bolivia’s internal affairs.” Defending his decision, Zelaya said small nations needed to stick together. “The world powers must treat us fairly and with respect,” he stated. To top it all off, Zelaya sent a letter to newly-elected President Obama in December. In it, the Honduran President urged Obama not to pursue “interventionist practices.” “Ambassadors should…avoid inappropriate public pronouncements…Meddling opinions are damaging and set the political climate on edge,” Zelaya wrote.

Llorens, who was formerly Director of National Security for Andean Affairs at the National Security Agency, doesn’t seem to share his predecessor’s penchant for diplomatic gaffes. Still, there’s nothing fundamentally novel to his approach to foreign policy in the region. A booster of the drug war and free trade, he offers up the same old and tired proscriptions of his earlier colleagues. If Zelaya is restored to power, Obama should make a clean break with the past and appoint a new ambassador. The new President has said he would like the U.S. to relate to Latin America as an equal partner and not simply impose its own will and dictates. Now is his chance to demonstrate that good will.

Left International Solidarity in Post-Coup Honduras[i]

 

"The poor are so many that they cannot be ignored."“The poor are so many that they cannot be ignored.”

Judging by the relative disinterest – in both the mainstream and left media in North America – towards the situation in Honduras, you would think that the crisis in this country was over.  Yet, almost everyone I have talked to in my most recent stay here has told me that the situation is grave; twice in one week alone, I was sitting with an activist in the movement when they received news of the assassination of one of their compañeros.  These moments – an absurd but real part of the daily routine here – provoke a particular kind of reflection among movement activists, who need to develop the emotional capacity to compartmentalize their grief and fear in order to stay in the struggle, while at the same time maintaining their ability to feel that very sadness and human compassion that separates them from the callous forces they are struggling against.  As I sat with friends one night in April 2012, a call came in that Erick Martinez, an LGBT activist and political candidate, had been killed; the one among us who knew him said that in spite of the danger and difficulty of the struggle, news of these assassinations “reminds you that you have to live well because you may not live long.”

I offer this as introduction in order to highlight the fact that while most international attention has turned away from Honduras since 2009, the low intensity warfare against the social movement in resistance has continued unabated.  The movement itself, however, has gone through significant changes, and in this piece I will outline the new contours of the resistance movement, summarize the forces that are stacked against it, and conclude with a call for increased international solidarity.  While this article is rooted in the immediate circumstances facing the Honduran social movement, there is an overarching purpose informing this piece, addressed to North American activists: it is to insist on a particular form of left international solidarity that supports principled and progressive forces within the Honduran movement, but leaves discussions of tactics and strategy to be determined by those forces.

Much of the critical writing in North America on the situation in Honduras begins with, and is focused on, centre-left president Manuel Zelaya Rosales, who was kidnapped on June 28, 2009 in his pyjamas and whisked to a U.S. military base[ii] – and then to exile in Costa Rica – provoking 161 days of uninterrupted demonstrations which marked the launch of the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP).  Zelaya briefly returned to Honduras in 2010, but was forced to hole up in the Brazilian embassy, guarded by the Honduran military in case he tried to leave, until January 2012, when he was granted passage to the Dominican Republic.  While Zelaya was under siege in the embassy, the de facto regime held elections that were widely understood in Honduras to be a farce – an illegitimate and fraudulent process designed to regain international recognition.  The elections were held in a climate of state terror and violent silencing of critical media and public protest that was manifest in hundreds of targeted assassinations, disappearances, detentions and all manner of violent assaults.  Meanwhile, liberal international organizations like the Carter Centre and the United Nations refused to send elections observers, and hundreds of political candidates withdrew their names after receiving violence and intimidation – including presidential frontrunner, Carlos H. Reyes, a union leader who was running as an independent candidate with Zelaya’s endorsement.

In the week leading up to the elections, the Resistance called for a nationwide boycott. Hundreds of thousands of Hondurans refused to cast ballots despite a campaign of state terror intended to coerce people into participating.  Since the military regime was relying on the election process to legitimate its rule over the country, it released fraudulent numbers inflating the total number of ballots cast, though it was patently obvious to anyone in Honduras that the boycott had been successful and the overwhelming majority of Hondurans had made it clear that they considered themselves to be living under a dictatorship.[iii] Nevertheless, a handful of foreign governments – with Canada taking the lead – ignored or denied the boycott, and instead used the opportunity to heap legitimacy on the coup government.  A new president, Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo, was inaugurated and soon recognized by Canada and the United States, while repression and violence continued alongside a rejuvenated neoliberal push.  Manuel Zelaya remained in exile until the signing of the Cartagena Accords in 2011, which gave him full right of return to Honduras and political amnesty, while, at the same time, cementing the international legitimacy of the coup government, a point to which I will return below.

Most North American analyses of the coup – left and mainstream – foreground the social-democratic reforms that Zelaya had put forward, between 2006-2009, and imagine that the coup was an interruption of Zelaya’s attempts to re-orient the country away from neoliberalism and towards the Bolivarian alternative.  Left and mainstream observers tend to disagree on whether that was a good or bad thing; but, either way, Zelaya is credited as the leader of a left populist project of reform, and the dramatic resistance movement that captured international headlines after the coup is read as a spontaneous response to the military’s move against a beloved leader.  Consequently, Zelaya’s return to Honduras in 2011 has meant that even less international attention and solidarity is directed at Honduras, since the struggle is imagined to be centred around Zelaya himself, who has been allowed to go home.  However, his term in office would much better be understood as the culmination – not the start – of a long period of reorganizing and rebuilding of social movements in this country that had, by the time Zelaya took power, already reached levels of mobilization not seen since the 1970s.

THE REBUILDING OF A SOCIAL MOVEMENT

The militarization of Honduras under the U.S. occupation in the 1980s, and the repression and death-squad activity that accompanied it, significantly weakened much of the radical left and the impressive campesino organizing that had characterized the period from the 1950s-1970s.  As a result, there was limited capacity to muster up opposition to the imposition of neoliberalism in the 1990s, especially as the Callejas government was setting up alternative parallel structures to existing social organizations in order to weaken and divide the movement.  So the hammer of structural adjustment, privatizations, foreign concessions, theft of campesino and Indigenous land, cuts to social and state services and infrastructure, and other austerity measures fell hard on Hondurans already reeling from the violence and insecurity of the 1980s.  The devastating consequences of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 – during which 11,000 people were killed and upwards of 2 million displaced, most of them suburban poor who had fled the countryside desperate for work in the city and were living in flimsy shantytown dwellings on recently deforested hills outside the capital – were as clear a signal as any that conditions in Honduras had become intolerable.

It is no surprise, then, that it was around this time that a new generation of social movements was beginning to consolidate itself, initially in regional activist organizations based loosely around the different departments, or provinces, of the country, from the Asamblea Popular Permanente (APP) in El Progreso to the Cansejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares y Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH) in Intibucá to the Bloque Popular around the capital region.  Many of these organizations began linking up in the late 1990s and organized coordinated actions in the early 2000s, including a dramatic blockade of the four main highways into Tegucigalpa in 2003.  The blockade was held from 4am until 2pm, at which point it proceeded to the National Congress to confront then-President Maduro directly.  The success of this demonstration encouraged further cooperation, and thus was created the Coordinadora Nacional de Resistencia Popular (CNRP).  If this sounds familiar, it is because it was precisely this structure that was converted into the FNRP in the months following the coup.

The CNRP rotated its leadership between its different member groups.  I spoke with Juan Barahona, who was the coordinator of the Bloque Popular and became one of the central leaders of the FNRP after the coup.  “The social movement was not born with the coup,” he explained, “but strengthened by it.  We had been mobilized for a decade, we had fought against Mel Zelaya for two years.”[iv] There were over two hundred strikes in the first year of Zelaya’s term, including impressive shows of strength by the teachers’ unions, and many of the gains won by the social movements during Zelaya’s term – from the significant raising of the minimum wage to the moratorium on new mining concessions – were products of the burgeoning strength of the CNRP and associated groups in the social movement.  This is a piece often missed by those who imagine that Honduras’ dramatic uprising began in response to the coup, or out of loyalty to Zelaya himself.  Quite the contrary, before the coup, Zelaya had been the target of social movement pressure, not the leader of it.

Nevertheless, there is quickness in some circles of the North American left to cast Zelaya as a bourgeois opportunist who switched sides and took on the role of the ‘socialist cowboy’ when he ran afoul of the oligarchy and was deposed in the coup, and this reading is similarly misguided.  While Zelaya was a traditional politician who emerged as part of the Liberal Party at the height of the neoliberal push, his presidency was markedly different from the outset because, as Honduran sociologist Tomás Andino explained to me, Zelaya came from a fraction of the Honduran oligarchy that was being left behind by the embrace of neoliberalism and transnational capital.[v] As such, he quickly established a government that had different priorities from his predecessors and, significantly, his separation from the most powerful elements of the Honduran oligarchy and transnational capital meant that he needed to cultivate relationships with other elements of Honduran society.  This would prove to be of critical importance, because it explains Zelaya’s openness to building a less oppositional relationship with the social movements that had coalesced into the CNRP.

The picture that emerges, then, is more complicated than a polarized debate about Zelaya’s role in the movement – radical populist vs. liberal opportunist – would allow.  The Honduran left is quick to remind that Zelaya was no hero to the poor – Gilberto Rios, founder of Los Necios, a Marxist organization that worked in the Bloque Popular, remembers that Zelaya cracked down on CNRP actions, especially in the first years of his presidency, explaining that in 2006 he was “totally right wing” and that he had repressed teachers’ movements without a second thought.[vi] But Rios, who has worked closely with Zelaya since the coup, also insists that his willingness to work with the left was the catalyst for some of his most important progressive steps during his presidency, from the raising of the minimum wage, to his joining of ALBA, to the move towards constitutional reform.[vii]

THE CARTAGENA ACCORDS AND ZELAYA’S RETURN

Even with that in mind, it may still come as a surprise that Juan Barahona, Gilberto Rios and many others who were active in groups like the Bloque Popular supported Zelaya’s decision in 2011 to sign the Cartagena Accords, come back to Honduras, and encourage the resistance movement to form a political party and pursue an electoral path to power in the 2013 elections.  After all, while Zelaya’s popularity soared as a result of the coup against him, many former and current organizers in the FNRP have insisted that he is fundamentally reformist, not revolutionary, and that his leadership drew the movement back at precisely the moments when it might have been able to storm the barricades and demand fundamental change.  Luis Mendez, longtime activist and poet in the movement, challenged Zelaya at a public forum on his socialist credentials, demanding an answer to the question, “will you nationalize the El Mochito mine?”[viii]

Eighteen months after the 2009 elections, Zelaya was back in the country after signing off on the Cartagena Accords with de facto president Pepe Lobo, in an agreement that changed very little with respect to the daily violence – to which I will return shortly – inflicted on Honduran organizers, activists, workers, peasants and campesinos, among them especially women, Indigenous and Garífuna, and members of the LGBT community.  The only thing Cartagena guaranteed was that Zelaya himself could return to Honduras and would be free to form a new political party while, in the meantime, the agreement served to legitimate the regime and paved the way for its re-integration into the OAS.  Since I am based in Canada, I should note that this country has been one of the closest allies of the golpistas (coup leaders), and also took the coup as an opportunity to hammer out the final details of a new bilateral free trade agreement which will no doubt please its significant business interests in the country, in the mining, tourism and garment industries.

Understandably, then, many in Honduras were suspicious of the Cartagena Accord and of Zelaya’s motivations in signing on.  Many others in the movement, however, considered the return of the man who became the symbolic leader of the Resistance, after the coup, a significant shot in the arm, especially at a moment when repression levels were high and international attention to those violations was low.  The crowd that gathered to greet Zelaya at the airport marked the largest single gathering of Hondurans in one place in the country’s history, and organizers in the FNRP had to take seriously the fact that – while he did not emerge from the social movement itself – the coup had made him, by far, its most popular figure and, indeed, the most popular figure in the country.  The movement had been fully mobilized for eighteen months and its organizers and supporters were exhausted and demoralized; if Zelaya could rejuvenate the movement, it would make a world of difference.

If the coup regime hoped to provoke division within the movement, then, the Accord certainly offered fertile ground for that project.  It was a complicated moment in Honduras, and shortly after Zelaya’s return, the movement was split between those who supported his bid to create a political party and pursue the 2013 elections, on the one hand, and those who wanted to keep the movements’ energy in the streets and in the communities, maintaining an Espacio Refundacional (refoundational space) to rebuild the country from the ground up.  Though most Hondurans got behind the electoral project, the organizers who became the Espacio Refundacional insisted that engaging in an electoral process would divert peoples’ attention into easily manipulated political channels and would raise expectations around a legal process that would likely be stolen or co-opted by the very powers that were behind the coup itself, potentially undermining the entire foundation of the social movement.

HONDURAS TODAY

There was, and is, good reason for their concern.  Rule of law and civil society in Honduras have, for all intents and purposes, broken down entirely under the combined pressure of political corruption and repression, the hyper-militarization of the country, the complete infiltration of organized crime at every level of the Honduran state and security forces, and the colonizing of the country by transnational capital.  The state and its armed forces act with total impunity on behalf of private capital, which encompasses both the expansive narcotics cartels and the transnational corporations that, together, make up the most powerful classes in Honduran society.  As Nectali Rodezno, a lawyer with the movement, put it, “narcos escape the jails by paying off the police, wearing police uniforms.  And when the people complain, the police set up bodies of police to investigate police.  They are a unit.  […]  We have no doubt that police are carrying out killings, that they are protecting the politicians but not the people.”[ix]

Not surprisingly, then, violence in Honduras is manifested often and in a variety of forms.  Rodezno links the rising levels of violence against women to the corruption of the police, and it is clear that domestic gender-based violence is reinforced by state and economic violence.  Maria Luisa Regalado, of the women’s organization Colectiva de Mujeres Hondureñas (CODEMUH), reports on the treatment of the mostly female workers in Canadian-owned maquiladoras, who often work eleven-hour shifts, who avoid getting up to go to the bathroom for fear of not meeting their quotas, who develop serious health problems and are injected with painkillers by company doctors in order to prolong their ability to work; as their bodies collapse, they are dropped into lower wage categories, and  when the painkillers are no longer enough, they are often fired for their lack of productivity.[x]

Meanwhile, violent repression continues – often in the form of paramilitary assaults – against campesino communities in the Valle del Aguán, who have been trying to take back land that has been siezed by large landowners for African palm plantations.  When a prison fire in Comayagua earlier this year killed 360 people, many of them were imprisoned without even having been changed with a crime.  Taxi cooperatives in the cities are forced to pay monthly war taxes to organized criminal gangs made up of heavily-armed police; when they don’t, they face violent retribution.

It is worth taking note of recent announcements – as in a laudatory piece in the New York Times in April 2012[xi] – that more U.S. and Canadian troops are amassing in this country under the auspices of ‘training exercises’ and ‘counter narcotics’ projects, while dramatic busts of police, military and state authorities involved in the drug trade go unpunished and well-known airstrips and ports for drug trafficking are left unattended (and supposedly unnoticed) by the high-tech counter insurgency forces arriving from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Small wonder that when a suspended police officer was recently caught in his second drug bust, he laughed it off in front of TV cameras.  The utter impunity with which the armed forces operate is widely understood and offers a chilling reminder to anyone who would take political action of any kind.

Of course, it would be misleading to suggest that the spiralling violence in Honduras is a simply a consequence of the increasing influence of narcotics cartels.  Bertha Oliva, director of human rights organization Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (COFADEH), offered me a brief checklist of politically targeted golpista violence in April 2012: since the coup, twenty-three journalists killed, with no investigation.  Some sixty campesinos in the Aguán, more than sixty people from the LGBT community, some forty-seven lawyers, never any investigation.  “Three, four, five, six or more youths killed every single day,” she concludes.  “It is impossible to keep track.”[xii] And these are the lowest estimates, counting only the assassinations that can be incontrovertibly and directly tied to political repression.  Gladys Lanza, veteran of many decades of feminist organizing in Honduras reports that, since the coup, there have been more than three hundred women killed every year, and far from being investigated by the police, the attacks are often carried out by them: “how can we trust the police?  Many times it is in police stations where [women] are raped and attacked.”[xiii]

All the while, foreign capital reaps the benefits of a social movement under siege.  Wealth is already deeply polarized in Honduras, where a handful of the richest families – Ferrari, Facussé, Rosenthal – control most of Honduran industry, often in partnership with foreign companies.  For instance, the details of Canada’s free trade agreement with Honduras are as yet unreleased, but it is reasonable to assume that it will follow the patterns established in Canada’s relationships with other Latin American countries: it will secure the highest possible freedom and flexibility for Canadian capital in Honduras, will offer incentives for Canadian businesses that choose to invest in Honduras, and will protect Canadian investments against disruptions to their profits by keeping labour and social and environmental codes minimal and guaranteeing a security apparatus that will insulate Canadian businesses from strikes, demonstrations, expropriations, occupations and other re-distributive measures.

Indeed, though it routinely presents itself as an innocuous force in international politics, Canadian investment in Honduras is significant and troubling.  It is the largest foreign investor in mining, where its operations are responsible for some of Honduras’ worst public health crises; the notorious Goldcorp has, in the words of one activist, “condemned the Valle de Siria to death” with its toxic contamination.[xiv] It has a strong presence in the garment industry; Montreal-based Gildan owns some of Honduras’ largest maquiladora sweatshops implicated in deplorable, sexist, violent and inhumane treatment of its largely female workforce.  And it is establishing a firm presence in the burgeoning tourist industry, where Canadian ‘entrepreneurs’ are snapping up traditional Indigenous and Garífuna land to turn it into highly exploitative resort hotels on Honduras’ Caribbean coast.  Most recently, it recommended a measure – already approved by the golpista regime – to allow for the creation so-called ‘charter cities’ in Honduran territory, which would give quasi-statehood to the owners of these territorial concessions which, to most Hondurans, amount to little more than foreign colonization.

PROSPECTS FOR THE ELECTORAL PATH

The severity of the crisis in Honduras and the total collapse of legitimate civilian government begs the question, posed by people in the Espacio Refundacional, how can engaging in a political process possibly hope to change the system?  It is the central question that has been debated in the movement since the signing of Cartagena.  Indeed, even the North American left has been engaged in the debate, writing back and forth in heated articles and blogs about the relative strengths or weaknesses of the decision to pursue an electoral process.[xv]

Over the past year, predictably, the context for the debate has become ever more complicated and at this point, just over a year before the scheduled November 2013 elections, there are plenty of currents within which one could swim.  Shortly after Zelaya’s return, a highly contested assembly of the FNRP chose to create a political party, the Partido Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE).  While many organizations chose to distance themselves and to continue their work in the FNRP, many others joined the party and, over time, there emerged five different currents within that party.  Four of the five come out of the traditional Liberal Party apparatus and draw not-unfounded criticism and scepticism from the social movement side of the FNRP.  The fifth, however, represents one of the most interesting elements of the current moment.

This fifth current is called the Fuerza de Refundacion Popular (FRP), and it represents those elements most closely connected to the social movements within the political party.  The FRP’s presence in the LIBRE party is what most distinguishes LIBRE from the traditional Liberal party and the question that is perhaps most important here is whether FRP and other candidates drawn from the social movement will be able to significantly influence the direction that the new party takes, which will be put to the test this November when the party holds its internal primaries.  Hope lies in the prospect of LIBRE putting forward candidates drawn largely from the social movements, who would stand a very good chance of winning in the national elections in 2013, assuming, for the moment, that a legitimate election process went forward.  Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, Mel Zelaya’s wife, will be LIBRE’s Presidential candidate and she is considered a front-runner.

Groups that have stayed out of LIBRE do not believe that the FRP (and other movement-based candidates) can control the direction the party takes, and that it will become co-opted into the social-democratic mess that characterizes the left wing of the Liberal Party.  But the majority of the movement has acknowledged that a continuation of the status quo cannot be sustained.  The prospect of putting people into office who would end the repression and give the social movement access to the mechanisms of the state is a tantalizing prospect.  This hope has galvanized people behind LIBRE, but the main concern within the party is that the coup regime will not allow them to win free elections.  After all, the oligarchy successfully deposed an elected president, defied half-hearted international calls to reinstate him, and then pulled off a sham process to install their own man as president.  What is more, given the regime’s commitment to ever-deepening neoliberalization of the country and the total infiltration of organized crime into the state apparatus, it seems likely that any threat to its uninterrupted progress would be targeted with violence.

For that reason, organizers in LIBRE have expressed serious concerns about the prospect of targeted assassinations and electoral fraud in the 2013 elections.  They are right to be concerned; as I noted above, journalist and LGBT activist Erick Martinez was disappeared and assassinated, not long after being put forward as a potential LIBRE diputado candidate.  It is for this reason that I will conclude with a plea for increased solidarity for the Honduran struggle, as it seems evident to everyone here that – for better or worse – a lot is riding on that process, and disinterest from the North American left will only make it easier for the regime to pursue its violent agenda with impunity.

PRINCIPLED LEFT SOLIDARITY

There is no question that Honduras needs profound, radical change.  So when Hondurans assert the need for refoundational change, for a struggle against the unholy alliance of imperialism and capitalism that has run roughshod over their country, they are surely right.  I do not believe that the role of left international solidarity is to pretend a kind of neutrality with respect to the movements we support.  My experience with and around this movement has convinced me that the need for radical change is real, so I will support the movement in seeking that change, especially insofar as the Canadian state that claims to represent me is so deeply complicit in these problems.

Nonetheless, I do not believe that the role of left international solidarity is to get involved in, or exert significant influence over, the strategic decision-making process of the movement it is supporting.  The difference may be subtle, but I would argue that it is crucial.  Refoundational change is a goal that I share with the Honduran movement.  I share it with respect not just to Honduras, but to every movement of which I am a part.  The struggle to re-found Honduras is a struggle against capitalism and colonialism writ large and, as such, it cannot be separated from these same struggles in the colonial metropole; fighting for justice for migrant workers – often Hondurans – on Canadian farms and orchards, for instance, is just one of the many intersections between our respective movements.

But whether North American activists, myself included, would have preferred an armed struggle in Honduras, or a non-violent social movement, or an electoral process, or any number of different strategic approaches, should not be of consequence and should have minimal effect on the choices the Honduran movement makes.  The social movement in Honduras grapples with these internal strategic questions vigorously and capably, just as we demand of our own movements in our own communities.  However, the assumption that the Honduran movement needs our interference in their strategic decision-making is rather misguided, at best, and a replication of longstanding colonial arrogance, at worst.  It is not our place to give or withdraw our support based on these questions; our role is to be in solidarity with the path to refoundation that the Honduran movement has chosen.

This necessitates a careful and complicated understanding of the dynamics at play in the Honduran movement and a thoughtful distinction between analysis and tactics.  That is, while we have a responsibility to develop rigorous left analysis in order to adequately assess the different currents within the social movements we are supporting and make certain we are supporting the currents that offer the most profound and emancipatory prospects, we have a similar responsibility to resist the colonial urge to tell those movements how we think they should proceed.

In the case of Honduras in this moment, that means supporting the movements’ decision to engage in the middle-term strategy of pursuing the electoral process.  This is a rather uncomfortable argument for me, personally, since I have been a strong supporter of campaigns for election boycotts in both Canada and Honduras in the past and have little faith in liberal parliamentary democracy as a way out of capitalist colonialism.  But my analysis – developed out of engagement with the analyses of countless Hondurans in the movement – is that the train has left the station; although many in the social movement have very legitimate reservations regarding the electoral path, they have determined that the circumstances they face make it the best strategic option at this point.  It is clear, then, that this process will go ahead, and the key role that the social movement has taken on, at least for now, will be to keep the LIBRE party on the side of the people.

For those of us trying to do international solidarity, then, our work seems clear.  We must first support movement-based candidates within the LIBRE party, such that the party can maintain a strong left position in the party that represents the movement itself.  Next, we must do everything we can to ensure that the LIBRE party is given a fair shot at the 2013 elections – this means working against the repressive terrorist apparatus of the Honduran state to try to minimize the effects of violence and intimidation on LIBRE candidates and the social movement that is supporting them.  Finally, and most importantly, it means strengthening our connections and our support for the social movement as a whole, to make sure that if LIBRE is able to win the elections, the social movement will be there to insist that it stay true to the course it is promising to take.  It was the social movement that pushed Manuel Zelaya to change directions in the first place, and as such, it was the strength of the social movement that provoked the coup itself.  Thus it remains the social movement that can demand radical, refoundational change in Honduras and as left activists in solidarity, it is our responsibility to support that movement not in the ways that we would like to, but in the ways that it has asked.  The analysis I’ve offered here best reflects what I have heard from the Honduran movement itself and, for that reason, it reflects the form that I believe our solidarity should take.


[i] The empirical work that frames the arguments contained in this paper is based primarily on interviews conducted in Honduras from 2009-2012.  As such, it is essential that I foreground this paper with a sincere acknowledgement to the people without whom this work would not have been possible.  First: Karen Spring, an activist with the organization Rights Action, who has been working in Honduras for over three years and who has built solid, trusting relationships with organizers from all corners of the country.  These organizers have good reason to be wary of foreigners who periodically parachute in and out of the country, benefiting from local analysis while avoiding the dangerous consequences of it.  Nonetheless, thanks to Karen, I have been able to connect with people across Honduras whose relationships to the struggle are many and varied.  My thanks, then, must be extended first to Karen, and then to the countless Hondurans in resistance, who have shared their insights with me despite having far more important things to do with their time and energy and despite their legitimate scepticism regarding the utility of spending that time and energy on talking to foreigners.  It is their insights upon which my work has been built over the years, and it is my hope that this piece will help to galvanize the solidarity that their struggle could desperately use.

[ii] Technically, Washington denies that Soto Cano is a U.S. base, referring to it as a Honduran base that the U.S. jointly uses, though there is little doubt in Honduras that the Americans run the show there.

[iii] I was in Honduras at that time and wrote about it extensively.  For more detail and documentation of the farce elections and the boycott, see Tyler Shipley, “Honduras: The Coup That Never Happened,” The Bullet, No. 290, Dec. 22, 2009.

[iv] Interview with Juan Barahona, May 10, 2012.

[v] Zelaya’s family is from the eastern department of Olancho and much of their wealth comes from logging and ranching.  But the structural adjustment policies imposed in the paquetazos of the 1990s had the effect of attracting more foreign capital and re-orienting the Honduran economy towards the production of exports, especially in industrial manufacturing.  In addition, Hurricane Mitch in 1998 hit the traditional landowner sector – of which Zelaya was a part – much harder than the growing maquiladora sector, since the latter was neither reliant on the natural environment, nor on local or regional patterns of consumption, which dropped off as the fledgling Honduran economy was flattened.  As a result, Zelaya came to represent a disaffected section within the oligarchy that was less connected to foreign capital and was not reaping the rewards of neoliberalism in the same way, especially under the government of Ricardo Maduro (2001-2005).

[vi] Interview with Gilberto Rios, May 8, 2012.

[vii] The immediate catalyst for the 2009 coup was Zelaya’s insistence on pursuing a referendum that, had it come back with a positive result, would have added an extra ballot in the 2009 elections asking voters whether they would support the striking of a national constituent assembly to re-write the Honduran constitution.  This had long been a demand of the social movements, who rightly insist that the current constitution, drafted under military rule and U.S. occupation in the early 1980s, was never a genuine social pact and offered little support to the vast majority of Hondurans being chewed up in the gears of capitalism and colonialism.  The Constituyente proposal was opposed vociferously by the oligarchy, which, naturally, feared that a genuinely democratic assembly would reconfigure Honduran law to undermine its complete dominance – with foreign capital – over the country.  With few allies left in the oligarchy, Zelaya committed himself to the Constituyente, throwing in his lot with the Honduran social movements, and was promptly ousted from power, by a military that sided with the oligarchy and demonstrated its continued control over the country, on the morning of the scheduled referendum.  The oligarchy trumped up a variety of charges against Zelaya, presented a fake resignation letter, and installed Roberto Micheletti as de facto President, as it initiated a full scale military crackdown on public dissent, all of which I document in more detail in Tyler Shipley, “Honduras: The Coup That Never Happened,” The Bullet, No. 290, Dec. 22, 2009.

[viii] El Mochito is a notorious Canadian-owned zinc mine in Santa Barbara department that is among the largest operations in Central America and has long been linked to uranium and cyanide poisoning in water and land nearby.

[ix] Interview with Nectali Rodezno, May 4, 2012.

[x] Interview with Maria Luisa Regalado, May 12, 2012.

[xi] Thom Shanker, “Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. Fight a Drug War in Honduras,” The New York Times, May 5, 2012.

[xii] Interview with Bertha Oliva, May 9, 2012.

[xiii] Interview with Gladys Lanza, May 7, 2010.

[xiv] Interview with Carlos Amaya, May 8, 2012.

[xv] An example of this debate can be found in this exchange between John Riddell and Richard Fidler, endorsing a Zelaya-led Popular Front, and Todd Gordon and Jeffrey Webber, rejecting the electoral process.  http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/honduras-accord-a-gain-for-ottawa/