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Honduran Activists Speak on Human Rights

In 2007, Luther Castillo was part of a team of Cuban-educated doctors who opened a hospital in Ciriboya, a community of Garifuna — the descendants of Africans and Arawak and Carib Indians that live on the Atlantic coast of Honduras.

Things went well for the first two years, as the hospital grew and treated 378,000 patients in the impoverished coastal area.

Then, a day after the June 2009 right wing coup in which the country’s military ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, soldiers broke down the doors of Castillo’s hospital, stole medical supplies and intimidated doctors, most of whom left.

Castillo, his remaining colleagues and the Garifuna people they serve all face daily the threat of violence under the current government, headed by conservative businessman Porfirio Loba Sosa.

In the first six months since the coup, there were 254 human rights violations, including the assassination of trade unionists and pro-democracy activists, detentions and acts of intimidation, according to the human rights group Amnesty International.

Last week, Castillo and human rights activist Juan Almendares visited Boston to talk about the human rights violations in Honduras and seek help from U.S. activists.

The driving force behind the militarization of Honduras, according to Almendares, is a move by corporations and wealthy individuals to expropriate land owned by subsistence farmers.

“Our soldiers, our army are the bodyguards of the oligarchy,” Almendares said during a meeting with activists at City Hall. “They’re the bodyguards of the corporations.”

There are more than 60,000 soldiers and private security contractors in Honduras, according to Almendares. That concentration of military personnel, along with long-simmering conflicts over land, have contributed to a murder rate of 68 for every 100,000 people.

“We’re now more violent than Nicaragua and El Salvador,” Almendares said. “But we, the people of Honduras are not violent. What’s violent is the capitalist system.”

Perhaps nowhere in Honduras is the struggle for land more contested than on the Atlantic coast, where Castillo’s Garifuna community is centered.

“We have been there for more than 300 years,” Castillo said. “We wake up one day and now there’s a new owner of the land. And it’s one man.”

That man, Miguel Facusse Barjum — widely seen as one of the most wealthy and powerful men in Honduras — owns thousands of acres of land that has been worked by Garifuna subsistence farmers for centuries.

President Zelaya had committed state resources to resolving disputes over the ownership of Facusse’s land, much of which had been re-settled by farmers. But after the coup, a series of assassinations of land reform activists has de-railed the movement.

The pace of killings and detentions of activists has continued steadily since the June 2009 coup. In January, a new government took power, after Lobo was elected president. In February there were more than 50 illegal detentions, eight cases of torture, two kidnappings and two rapes, all carried out against members of the coup resistance, according to reports.

Castillo and Almendares are hoping that by bringing attention to the political crisis in Honduras, they can help protect activists from further persecution.

“I’m a torture survivor,” said Almendares, who was tortured by the right wing Honduran government in the 1980s. “I’m alive because of solidarity work from the United States, Europe, Latin America and Africa.”

Castillo said that while the Obama administration has not been responsive to calls to sanction the Honduran government, the Congressional Black Caucus has been helpful.

“Their solidarity has helped protect us,” he said.