Disappearing Truth in Honduras: Commissions Cover Up Demands for New Constitution
Though the June 28, 2009 coup in Honduras caught the world’s attention, outside of Honduras little was said about the objective of the coup; to stop the proposal for a new constitution in Honduras. The terrible repression that followed the coup has also prompted international response, but the political proposal of victims of the repression has been made invisible.
The coup is now in its final phase, a phase that cannot be consolidated; the “disappearance” of the proposal for a new constitution. A two pronged strategy is being employed. On one hand, the creation of the appearance, without the actual reality, of national reconciliation processes, such as a ‘truth commission’ which for lack of participation of the human rights victims, among other problems, does not meet international standards for a truth commission. On the other hand, escalating violence and repression continues against the non-violent resistance movement, which continues to demand a new constitution and does not recognize the Pepe Lobo government, like many nations of the world since the elections he “won” did not fulfill most indicators for democratic elections. This phase in the coup is the most dangerous and prolonged.
While the US and Canadian governments, corporate lobbyists in Washington and even WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), a Washington based human rights NGO, assist the Honduran government in creating the illusion of “reconciliation,” death squads assassinate journalists, teachers and unionists.
The Frente and the Proposal
In Honduras, a massive and inspiring social movement has arisen, generating what University of California historian Dana Frank describes as “the most important moment in Honduran history, even more important than the immense general strike of 1954, from which all modern Honduran history flows.”
In the months prior to the coup, a massive alliance of most sectors of Honduran society, labor unions, students, indigenous organizations, women’s organizations, campesino organizations, LGBT organizations, and others came together to promote a proposal to draft a new constitution with broad civic participation. They proposed that a national opinion poll, which was to be held June 28, the day of coup. The poll was to ask Honduran citizens whether or not a national poll should be held during the November 2009 national and presidential elections. This initiative called the “fourth ballot box,” would have asked Hondurans if they want to convoke a constituent assembly. The proposal never claimed to create a legal obligation for the state; it simply sought to prove that most Hondurans wished to convoke a constituent assembly.
In the days following the coup, previously unorganized Hondurans came together with the “fourth ballot box” movement to form the Frente Popular Nacional contra el Golpe. As people across the country repeat, by overthrowing the president, the power structures in Honduras “removed the blindfolds” of the population and the people mobilized massively. Constant protests, at times of over half a million people, have occurred for over eight months. After the “new” government was installed January 27, 2010, the Frente changed its name to the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular. In practically every rural village, town, urban neighborhood there is a local committee, which then has representatives in committees in each of Honduras’ eighteen departments, which in turn have representation in the national committee.
A New Constitution and the April 20, 2010 National March
The objective of the Frente is to convoke a national constituent assembly with representatives from all sectors of Honduran society to write a new constitution for the nation. Currently, they hope to achieve this through participation in the 2013 national elections. The Frente has convoked a national march on April 20 to initiate the campaign to collect signatures on a petition that supports convoking a national constitutional assembly. They expect to gather a minimum of 2 million signatures, over half of the adult population of Honduras and twice as many people as allegedly voted for Pepe Lobo in the fraudulent November 2009 elections.
The current constitution, the latest of sixteen, was written by a constituent assembly convoked during a military dictatorship, approved by congress and adopted during a military dictatorship. There was no national debate in regards to its content. Over the past three decades it has become evident to Hondurans that this constitution does not adequately protect the rights of the majority of the population.
Military Coup to Stop the New Constitution
The possibility of changing the framework of government which has allowed a small sector of Hondurans, and their international business partners, to control the nation shook up the power structure to the degree that it brazenly carried out the most egregious violation of a peoples fundamental political rights, a military coup, on June 28, 2009. The strong arm of the shadowy military and economic forces that have retained the power they consolidated through massive human rights violations in the 1970s and 1980s reappeared briefly in the public eye.
Today, the death squad killings of Frente activists brings up horrific memories of massacres, torture, and forced disappearances from a generation ago that resulted in over 400,000 deaths across Central America. The authors of those crimes are still active and powerful today, thriving in the space the “democratic” government of Honduras, and the “international community” provide them.
When Zelaya proposed the controversial poll that prompted the military coup, he was simply properly acting as president in response to the request of a broad based social movement who demanded a constitutional assembly. Had the “fourth ballot box” poll taken place during the November elections, and the population had asked for a constitutional assembly, a new president would already have been elected to take over the presidency on January 27, 2010, and the Congress would have had the option to approve, or not, the proposal for a constitutional assembly.
Zelaya was not thrown out of power because there was any basis upon which to believe he intended to extend his presidency, he was overthrown because he was fulfilling his duty as a president in allowing a massive, grassroots political movement to take part in politics through legal mechanisms.
Consolidating the Coup
Initially the coup generated the international reaction it deserved. Never in history had a military coup been condemned by the General Assembly of the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Virtually every country in the world refused to recognize the coup regime nominally presided by Roberto Micheletti. However the initial diplomatic reaction was followed by de facto recognition. The US treasury allowed Honduras to access the foreign reserves on deposit in Washington that the Zelaya government had struggled three years to amass, providing them with ample resources to finance the eight months of diplomatic stand off. The US sent covert messages of support to the Honduran military by continuing the training of Honduran officers in the US. The US refused to classify the as coup a “military” coup, in spite of all reasonable legal analysis (including the State Departments own lawyers), so that it would not have to suspend aid. The World Bank nominally suspended disbursements of loans but made exceptions for key programs in the interest of economically and politically powerful coup supporters.
The US State Department immediately set about attempting to normalize relations with Honduras, lobbying the neighboring countries, maintaining constant communication with coup authors in Honduras while freezing out Zelaya and completely ignoring the existence of the Frente.
The challenge of the Frente and of Zelaya became keeping the massive rejection of the coup visible, both inside of Honduras and internationally. Alternative media and the internet played an incredibly important role, as did a series of actions and mobilizations, including Zelaya’s dramatic September 22, 2009 return to Honduras and into the Brazilian Embassy. The culmination of the coup consolidation effort was the recognition by the US of the November 2009 presidential elections, and the US State Departments international lobbying campaign for recognition of the newly ‘elected’ government of Pepe Lobo, even though the elections defied every standard that must be met to be called free and fair elections.
Making the Frente Invisible
On January 27, 2010, Pepe Lobo was sworn in as president of Honduras while over half a million people protested by marching to the national airport to wave goodbye to President Manuel Zelaya. The only Honduran television station that reported the true magnitude of the protest rented a helicopter to fly over the march, but was prevented from taking off.
While there is no doubt that President Zelaya was, and is, an important symbol for the Frente, it is key to understand that he does not represent the Frente, and the Frente does not consist of his “followers” or ”supporters.” The international press, and the press controlled by the coup supporting regime in Honduras, consistently refers to the massive movement as Zelaya supporters. This has the effect of invisiblizing the existence of the Frente as a clear, organized and representative political entity, distinct from Zelaya.
In the same way, as the same media outlets consistently and intentionally distort and reduce the massive movement for the new constitution to be an attempt by Zelaya to extend his stay in power, the proposal for a new constitution is invisibilized, disappeared.
This massive political mobilization threatens the consolidation of the coup. While outside of Honduras, the Frente is ignored, an intentional political action to neutralize their impact, inside of Honduras they cannot be ignored, for they are the majority of Hondurans. So the Honduran state has resorted to invoking fear –state terrorism- in the population as a mechanism of social control and to literally kill the proposal for a new constitution.
They Are Afraid of Us Because We Are Not Afraid
A refrain of the Honduran resistance has been “They are afraid of us because we are not afraid.” Invoking fear in the population is a longstanding tool for squashing movements for political change. The massive social violence produced by organized crime activity in the region is the organic outgrowth of the death squad networks of the 1970s and 1980s, and has served many purposes including maintaining a high level of immobilizing fear in the population. It is also easy to redirect that violence against political organizers when necessary.
A fundamental precept of non violent social change movements is that by refusing to submit the injustices of illegitimate structures that maintain power through violence, those powers are forced to either escalate violence to maintain control, and thus demonstrate their illegitimacy, or cave into the will of the majority. For this reason the security of the Frente directly corresponds to the degree to which the Honduran government can engage in repression and still retain a degree of legitimacy.
Hondurans have been very savvy and capable in avoiding an armed or violent response to the coup and the provocations of the anti-democratic forces. They know that an armed resistance movement would provide justification for even greater repression and even more pervasive de-legitimization of their political demands.
The response to their non violent stance has been attempts to invent a violent movement in Honduras. While the Honduran press invokes language of ‘terrorism’ and guerrilla movements, lobbyists in Washington argue that the demand for a new constitution is a Cuban-Venezuelan ploy and that Venezuela is building up ties with the Hezbollah.
Government of National "Reconciliation"
When Pepe Lobo was sworn in as President, he immediately advanced in two fronts, consolidating and strengthening the repressive military, police and paramilitary forces while creating the appearance of a “national reconciliation” process. The Government of “National Reconciliation” provides the legitimacy or political cover needed for the acts of repression with which they hope to extinguish the Frente.
The cabinet level positions related to the justice system and policing were given to hard liners with a history of human rights abuses, such as Minister of Government Oscar Alvarez, who held the same position under the president that preceded Zelaya, Ricardo Maduro. The cabinet positions on economic policy were given to the private sector supporters of the coup, whose grip on Honduran resources the Frente hopes to break through the creation of a new constitution. Three of the cabinet positions for social programs were given to figures associated with the “left,” though two of those have for many years been distanced from the social movement and one, Cesar Ham of the UD political party, has been completely ostracized by the Frente for accepting the political appointment.
The creation of the image of a ‘government of national reconciliation’ when in reality there is no real dialog or reconciliation with the vast majority of Hondurans who are the active base of the Frente, while backing hard line violent repression, is the strategy for consolidating the coup and “disappearing” the Frente.
Rejecting a Truth Commission!
The Truth Commission (TC) proposed in the failed San Jose-Tegucigalpa Accords is part of the “national reconciliation” process, and it has been rejected by both the Frente and the Human Rights Platform, a coordinating body comprised of all six of the principal human rights organizations in Honduras.
It is not easy to say "No" to something called a truth commission; it looks like the dissenting party may have something to hide. But, in the case of Honduras, what is being proposed cannot legitimately be called a truth commission.
Over the past couple decades a series of truth commissions have taken place around the world, and some general characteristics have emerged that define truth commissions. Generally truth commissions are established to investigate past acts of violence or repression, post-conflict after the worst violence has ended. Truth commissions examine a series of events and violations, not a single event. They normally work with, or at the request of, victims of violations. The proposal in Honduras fits none of these characteristics; it is not a truth commission.
Those who constructed the truth commission in Honduras, principally the US State Department and the Pepe Lobo government, never sought the opinion of the principal victims of rights violations that have occurred – the general population and, specifically, people who are members of the peaceful, pro-democracy Frente. The truth commission in Honduras is being convoked in the middle of an ongoing conflict, in the midst of grave human rights violations. At best, the Commission appears to be a platform for one sided political negotiation. At worst it is a vehicle to hijack a constitutional reform process that once again does not have the participation of population of Hondurans.
Observers have analyzed, based on statements by the Lobo government and the US State Department, that constitutional reforms may be among the recommendations of the “Truth Commission.”
Washington Chapter of the "Reconciliation" Government
Truth commissions are almost irresistible to the international human rights community, and the severe nature of the human rights abuses occurring provide a strong motivation to look for a quick solution to the ‘crisis.’ Unfortunately quick solutions will not help, they will not stop the violence, instead they will help consolidate the impunity that generates some of the highest levels of social violence in the world.
In the US, on Capitol Hill, the Frente has been invisibilized. Meanwhile, WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) - a think tank created in the 1980s to support human rights organizations in Latin America, and a group thought to be the voice in Washington of the human rights community - gave testimony in a House of Representatives hearing on Honduras of the International Relations Sub Committee on the Western Hemispheres, in which they requested that the US back the Honduran truth commission. WOLA also voiced support for police and military aid. They did not once mention the existence of the Frente. The opinions they have voiced to Congress are in line with other actions WOLA has been taking since the coup.
The next project appears to be a meeting WOLA is convoking in Washington between Honduran “civil society,” the Honduran government, international human rights organizations and embassies in Washington; it is scheduled to take place April 14. What appears to be the Washington chapter of the “Government of National Reconciliation” – in reality the disappearance of the truth - is sad and damaging; it helps to legitimize a government engaged in massive human rights violations.
The Frente in Honduras is massive and united. Whatever NGO shows up to the WOLA convoked meeting will undoubtedly be a small group representing nothing more then the international funders that support it. What the event might succeed in doing is creating the false image in the “international community” or “human rights world” that a neutral middle ground exists. The only agenda this serves is putting the Frente at greater risk.
A Moment of Truth and Justice
Honduras will have its moment of truth with justice, but right now is not the time for a truth commission, a truth commission is not the proper mechanism to mediate a complex conflict or to diffuse a political struggle; the role of a truth commission is to evaluate the conflict in retrospect.
Better international observation of human rights abuses is called for. Building mechanisms to confront impunity, rather then cementing into place the mechanisms that enforce it, is necessary, and is something the international community can contribute to only in coordination with the victims of violations.
Political interventions that invisibilize the victims of human rights and their political position does them no service, and will not stop the abuses, they will compound them.