Reports from Honduras under the golpe
Approaching the Honduran immigration stall I feel my heart rapping on my sternum. Honduras is on the fourth morning of a right-wing golpe de estado, and border-cops from here to Habana have always had a knack for pinching my nerves.
In a fit of paranoia I’d trashed my press pass, torn up the editorial letter on my behalf, and encrypted my contacts in Tegucigalpa by anglicizing the names and reversing the numbers. No signs of being a reportero. But the hard part would be convincing la migra, might they inquire, that I was just a gringo hippie in search of the big wave.
We’d awoken the previous Sunday to news that the Honduran Armed Forces, under secret orders from the Supreme Court, had overthrown Manuel Zelaya, the president who’d turned his back on Bush to befriend Chavez. Zelaya’s alleged crime was having initiated the “cuarta urna,” a non-binding plebiscite to take place on the day of his ouster, that would ask the people if they willed for there to be a referendum on whether to establish a constitutional assembly.
It was a classic golpe de estado (more fitting to use the Spanish than the French coup d’etat): accuse the leftist of evil, of ties with the red menace, and putsch! Zelaya asked a simple question, but was jetted to Costa Rica at gunpoint before the people could answer.
Alarmed by the first military coup in Central America in three decades, I’d come to Honduras as part of an emergency human-rights delegation including members of Nonviolence International, CODEPINK, Rights Action, and the National Lawyers Guild, to see and hear firsthand what was going on.
Now at the airport, the agent welcomes me into Honduras with but a snide observation that my middle name is Farabundo. If Honduras is under military rule, it won’t be until the p.m., when curfew hits, that we’ll see the signs.
Day next we hit the protest to hear what the people had to say. This is a battle between fascism and democracy, we heard time and time again, a movement of people ready to fight till the end to beat the golpistas.
Gloria Elia Hernandez of the FOMH, the Honduran teacher’s union, which has been on strike since the first days of the golpe, explained why they support Zelaya. “He’s the only one whose done anything for our people. He raised the minimum wage. Lowered our energy costs. Allowed for free access to the schools. We’ve never had a government as good as that of Zelaya, and the people aren’t moving from here until we bring back our president.”
According to an unnamed campesino from Yoro department: “We are denouncing that the government is recruiting children in the villages of Locote, Guajinal, Olanchito. 223 of us arrived today form Yoro, and three-hundred more on their way to Tegucigalpa.”
This allegation was echoed in the 3rd Communiqué of the National Front Against the Golpe de Estado. The “national army is forcefully recruiting youths of 15 years and older…entering homes by force and taking young men, for which we demand immediate investigation and the return of these youths to their homes.”
What started at 8 a.m. as a scarce grouping of protestors transformed into a mass of thousands, snaking from Obelisk Park to the headquarters of the Honduran congress, to the United Nations building and finally to the center of Tegucigalpa by late afternoon.
One student who preferred to remain anonymous, said “We are here in defense of our president, because the people are the only ones who can overthrow the president.”
The demonstration was at once festive and grave. Amidst the blaring of protest chants from pickup trucks, a Garifuna drum circle, a full band playing traditional Honduran songs, and, God bless his soul, a Michael Jackson impersonator, I spoke with people as we marched.
“We are oppressed by a government that has imposed on us the reign of private enterprise,” said Gustavo Valega of Tegucigalpa, “the powerful groups that have dominated us our whole lives…God willing, you will do good work here, tell the truth, tell that this is the people! And we will be here until we die. Believe me. Until we die.”
I crossed paths with Iris Mencía, an independent journalist from Tegucigalpa. “Had the people voted in favor of the constituent assembly, Mencía explained how, nothing would have happened: “The result of the cuarta urna would have gone directly to the National Congress, which would have decided whether or not there would be an assembly…Somehow this translated into a golpe and now a state of siege. As Lao Tzu said: ‘When a government militarizes, it’s a product of it’s own fear.’”
Gonzalo Valero, of the Association Amistad Cuba/Honduras, supported the so-called cuarta urna. “This was the first time that the people was asked if we agreed…This is what we need. For the popular organizations to participate, the campesino groups, the unions, the ethnicities, Garifuna and indigenous, the women’s groups, intellectuals, even businesses.”
Upon speaking with activists over the coming days, it became clear that they were suffering psychological warfare on the part of de-facto government. News of beatings, arrests, death-threats, and killings was mounting, as thousands across the country were being prevented from traveling to the capital to join the protests.
For four days we participated in the marches, and each day they grew larger.
Why all the fuss about Mel Zelaya?
Argentinean writer Gonzalo Sánchez has essentialized Zelaya’s offenses into three parts: the first was the entry of Honduras into both the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America, and Petrocaribe. Second was Zelaya’s desire to convert Palmerola, the US military base in Honduras, into an international airport. Third was the proposal of the Asamblea Constituyente that would include the “revocatory referendum,” allowing voters to remove any holder of public office.
In this Zelaya was following the lead of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, & for the Honduran oligarchy, the experiences of these countries have demonstrated the danger of popular constitutions, where gringo democracy is being displaced with more participatory, fraternal, and socialistic models. Zelaya was constructing an obstacle to Plan Puebla Panama, the US-backed development project that runs from the south of Mexico all the way to Colombia. That all this was being done democratically didn’t sway the aspirations of the owners of Honduras.
Though he came into power on a center-right ticket, Mel had come to vow no more mining concessions to transnational companies, & had pursued the nationalization of the energy plants of Honduras.
As for Zelaya’s alleged crimes, I would leave Honduras with the impression that the golipista’s charges of Mel’s constitutional violations don’t merit much discussion, seeing as the first act of the golpistas (and dozens more since then), was in shameless violation of that piece of paper. It’s hard to take seriously a man who, revving a chainsaw, yells “save the trees!”
At the basis of the conflict in Honduras is the same class war raging throughout Latin America, lest the golpistas have sown any confusion. As the old adage goes: “The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny.”
Repression of Free Speech
Thursday afternoon the delegation visited Radio Globo, an independent radio station that had suffered an invasion by the Armed Forces the day of the golpe. Subsequently their frequency was cut, then shut on and off, and now, though the reporters are being vicously persecuted, Radio Globo is back on the air. As the journalists and producers detailed the events of that day, we received a text messags about the gunning down of a radio station in the city of San Pedro Sula.
Luis Galdamez, who hosts Tras la Verdad, an a.m. talk-show on Radio Globo, explained how on the day of the golpe the military kicked down doors, destroyed cameras and other equipment, and put a rifle to the head of Alejandro Villatoro, Radio Globo’s owner.
For speaking against the golpe, Galdamez said, he has received a barrage of threats on his life, and on the lives of his children. On his iPhone Galdamez scrolled through dozens of sadistic text messages, invoking dark times in the history of these countries.
Galdamez’ colleague, David Romero, was horrified when the military raided Radio Globo. Romero was captured in 1980 by the 316 Battalion, Honduras’ notorious death squad, and tortured for five days. When the military arrived, he jumped out the back of the building from three stories up, breaking his hand and dislocating his shoulder. Standing in front of that window, Romero detailed the events. “I said to myself, ‘if they find me here, they’ll kidnap me, and I know what torture is, and I never wanted to live that again in my life’…For this fear I decided to escape.”
Days later, before Sandra Ponce, Honduras’ chief human rights prosecutor, Galdamez filed a formal complaint. Members of the delegation accompanied the journalist. “The soldiers came to intimidate us with orders that they were going to close the station…telling us that we had to shut up…that this was a democratic secession. They left that day, unable to access the satellite because of the steel gates, and we continued informing the people about what happened, how it was a golpe de estado…Then they started calling again. Even the Attorney General called David Romero…By night time ‘we’ve had enough,’ they said, and a military contingent arrived of more than fifty heavily-armed soldiers, beating us and arresting Alejandro Villatoro…They have commenced a psychological campaign of intimidation against the reporters of Radio Globo, especially David Romero and Jose Luis Galdamez. [Eduardo] Maldonado is in hiding, because he is sought by the military.”
On the eve of Saturday July 4th, Galdamez continued, “Heavily armed men arrived at my house, in a vehicle with tinted windows, saying they were going to kill us all if I didn’t shut up….They have been sending me text messages that they are going to kill me, that they’re going to carve me up because I have maintained the position that this is a golpe de estado.”
COFADEH, the Honduran Committee of Families of the Disappeared or Detained, has accused Ponce and Ramon Custodio, Honduras's human rights ombudsman, of “blatant disregard of human rights abuses” occurring under the golpe. When Ponce left her office, Galdamez whispered that he knew she wouldn’t do anything for him, but wanted to document his case regardless.
It seems Honduras is returning to the days where to be critical is to be criminal.
The White-Shirts and the ni gallo ni gallina
On July 3rd we attended a pro-golpe demonstration in front of the presidential palace. A lighter-skinned and overwhelmingly middle-class grouping, this demo was organized by the de-facto government. The crowd was surrounded by hundreds of soldiers, protecting the demonstrators and facing the anti-golpe march taking place on the next street over. It didn’t take a semioticist to interpret the symbols.
Many of the people we spoke with knew perfect English and their slogans were American-oriented, including quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and a massive banner reading “We Shall Overcome.” Who would’ve MLK and Pete Seeger sided with, I asked myself in sarcasm.
Asked how is it possible to support the democracy one minute and an unconstitutional golpe the minute before, the white-shirts spoke of how Mel Zelaya was violating the constitution. Then the conversation would tend invariably to the demonized Hugo Chavez, who seemed to be more of a concern than the deposed president. One angry gentleman who refused to give his name, accompanied by a proud veteran of the contra war in Nicaragua, asked accusingly if I had a passport and if I was a Venezuelan infiltrator.
A humble man named Santo Nuñez, concierge by profession, attended the pro-coup rally. “We’re here because we need peace, and so that every day our people live more united.” Asked whether or not it is just that the army removes the elected president from the country, Nuñez responded: “For us, the highest authorities are appointed by God.” What did Mel do to deserve his removal? “In this I can’t respond because I am a Christian, and I put these problems in the hands of God. May God solve our problems.”
Though I didn’t query Nuñez on his denomination, he had the cultish air of a midwestern evangelist. As for the Catholics, their cardinal Oscar Rodriguez has been denounced as Judas by the resistance. On the day of Zelaya’s return, Rodriguez pleaded for him not to do so, focusing his rage more on the Chavista menace than on the golpe de estado.
The third faction—for whom I’ve borrowed the Honduran term ni gallo ni gallina: “neither rooster nor hen”—are the acquiescent ones. Favoring neither group politically, they fear instability and want peace. I spoke with several Hondurans that fell into this group: taxistas, a tailor, a sandwich lady, a bookstore worker, and they all expressed this stance.
Israel Mesa, a tailor with a shop in front of his home, said he was of the Hondurans who didn’t stand to benefit from either government. “The people don’t want any of this. We want a government that speaks nothing but the truth.” Mesa explained how Mel had no authority over the institutions of his country. “The National Congress didn’t obey him. The Supreme Court didn’t obey him. The Public Ministry didn’t obey him.” The return of Mel would cause “chaos,” Mesa said, and for that it would be better if he stayed out of the country.
On their side the anti-golpistas have every government in the world except their own, and, according to a recent Gallup poll, 46% of the population. The golpistas, meanwhile, have every governmental institution in Honduras, most significantly the armed forces, in addition to approximately 41% of the people.
Back on the streets
“We will continue in resistance, in insurrection until the end,” said Isabel Elvin, a government employee from the city of El Progreso. Sitting next to her teenage daughter on a curb in front of the Pedagogic University, Elvin and hundreds more awaited the march to the Tocontín airport to welcome their president. Her daughter showed me cell-phone video of police repression in El Progreso, explaining that most of their people had stayed at home so the army couldn’t concentrate in Tegucigalpa.
Galdamez had warned us that today could be the Tiananmen Square of Honduras. Zelaya would be arriving, and the golpistas had vowed not to let him land.
Street artist Gorge Roberto Garcia, 36, a slight man with shiny eyes, recounted being mobbed by 14 people the previous night. The thugs, according to Garcia, were acting on behalf of the golpistas, and they’d hunted him down for having contributed to the infinite anti-golpe graffiti of the city. He was saved when the police came, which demonstrated that the unity between police and the army isn’t complete.
The “hundreds” who attended the demonstration (as reported by many mainstream media) turned into a crowd of two-hundred thousand, at least, a sea of bodies as far as my eye could see, in both directions. By leaps and bounds the largest one yet, this was like any march in Latin America—the same chants, the same people, the same demands.
The festive multitude confronted on three occasions the lines of shock-troops—police in front, armed forces in the rear—though the discipline of the leaders was enough to prevent people from breaching. One student leader recited section Article 3 of the Honduran Constitution in the face of a riot-cop:
"Nobody owes obedience to an usurping government nor to those who assume public functions or posts by the force of arms or by using means or processes that break or fail to recognize that which this constitution and the laws establish. Actions undertaken by such authorities are null. The people have the right to resort to insurrection in defense of the constitutional order.”
The Committee of Discipline arranged for several dozen men to clasp arms and prevent the mass from battling the police, whom the organizers saluted by calling for rounds of applause from the crowd. After two of these lengthy standoffs the troops retreated and the mass erupted in jubilation as it continued towards the airport.
What was the strategy of the police and the armed forces? Would they fold so easily as this? As the people reached the airport it became clear that the police wouldn't allow entry. We passed the troops blocking the entrance and joined a stampede of reporters to witness the rumored arrival of Mel. False alarm.
Then we got word of gunfire on the outskirts of the airport. By the time we arrived, two people had been shot dead: a boy of eight years of age and one of 21. The government only recognizes the latter. 30 more, according to the Red Cross, were treated for injuries.
For clarity's sake, the exchange between the demonstrators and the army went like this:
1) Uncontrollable elements among the resistance were attempting to enter the runway, where they would welcome Mel and accompany him on foot to the Presidential Palace.
2) The army began shooting tear gas at the crowd
3) The crowd responded with a rain of rocks, returning the tear-gas canisters to the army.
4) The army, for 11 minutes, responded with a continuous attack of seemingly indiscriminate machine-gun fire.
I was told this account by two eye-witnesses, one of whom proceeded to bring me to the place where a motorcycle had been blown up by what the people claimed was sniper fire.
Then we were shown the pool of blood where Isis Obeda Murillo, 19, a native of Olancho, had been shot dead. The next day, Helio Flores, an acclaimed artist and one of the leaders of the resistance, would tell me that he was watching the snipers through binoculars, and was positive Murillo’s death was by sniper-fire.
Surrounded by comrades, one man painted messages in the blood of the fallen Murillo, setting them amongst flowers and a small Honduran flag wedged into the ground. The messages read the names of the golpistas: Micheletti, the Cardinal Rodriguez, Carlos Flores, “and the whole bourgeoisie of Honduras.”
At ten minutes of six the Micheletti regime declared a 6:30 curfew, with thousands of people in the streets. According to local reports (our taxi driver) 500 people were rounded up in the night, though this is still unconfirmed.
“This movement is pacific,” said a middle-school teacher at the beginning of the march, “but if they force us to, we will take up arms.”
Is this how the golpe would unfold?
A great historical irony took place the previous night, the 4th of July, as leaders of Latin America met in Washington D.C. to unanimously condemn the golpe de estado in Honduras.
Cristina Kirchner said the following: “To reinstitute order will not just be an act of justice for the people of Honduras…but also the possibility to continue and profundicize a change that began in Trinidad and Tobago [with the lifting of the suspension of Cuba from the OAS] and the new air we began to breath in all of America.” Kirchner then invoked the common history of Latin Americans, the era of military dictatorships in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and many other countries, adding that “in the name of the decades during which we have been able to reconstruct democracy, we are here today.”
Never has a Latin American country, not even Cuba, been so isolated as Honduras is today. While Mexico, Argentina, and Spain have broken diplomatic ties, the countries of the ALBA, plus El Salvador and Paraguay have broken diplomatic and commercial ties with Honduras. Marcos, the EU, the UN, have all condemned the golpe, as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have halted loans totaling upwards of $200 million.
One might call this a Rip Van Winkle Golpe, for had it happened in the 1980s, the golpistas would have enjoyed the open support of the US government, along with the allied military rulers of the hemisphere. Since then times have changed. Where George W. Bush supported the ouster of both Aristide in Haiti and Chavez in Venezuela, Barack Obama has flatly condemned the golpistas and has called for the restoration of Zelaya.
But many say this isn’t enough. Though the State Department has cut (overt) military aid and some forms of economic assistance, activists maintain that the US must cut all diplomatic ties to Honduras. Others are urging for the US to freeze the bank-accounts of golpistas, denying them entry into the country and embargoing products associated with their enterprises.
School of the Americas Watch, which held vigil in front of the US embassy in Tegucigalpa on July 9th, is demanding the following moves by the US government:
Insist upon the immediate and unconditional return of President Zelaya
Recall the U.S. ambassador and embassy staff
Withdraw U.S. troops from Palmerola
Expel Honduran troops from School of the Americas/WHINSEC
SOAW brings to light that General Romeo Vazquez, one of the central figures in the golpe and Honduras’ highest military official, is a graduate of the School of the Americas in Bennington, GA, as is General Luis Javier Prince, the commander of the Honduran air force. The School of the Americas is notorious for training soldiers who would go on to overthrow democratic governments in Latin America, torturing, disappearing, and assassinating those who opposed them. “Can we really be living through a situation in 2009,” asks the SOA Watch, “when SOA grads are organizing coups and filling the ranks of new cabinets [?]”
While Obama weaves righteous words, an undergrowth of tax-payer-funded institutions have maintained supportive relations with the golpistas. While it is not the purpose of the article to detail these ties, it is the purpose to show that this is a crucible for our new president: one which will demonstrate his willingness to stand up to the beneficiaries, financiers, and enablers of the golpe, both in Honduras and in the US, and show them that the world will no longer tolerate such banditry.
Since 1898, by invasions guns or capital, the United States has overturned some 42 governments in Latin America, all in the interest of a handful of companies that wish to dominate the region. Will Obama end this trend and intervene for the better? Or will he allow for the return of this ugly specter, la dictadura militar, to the countries of Latin America?
While we await the answer, the resistance continues in the streets of Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, El Progreso... but so does the military repression. Now is the time for us to prove our commitment to that elusive notion, democracy, and demand its reinstatement in Honduras.
The danger of the golpe in Honduras is this: a stone cast into the pond that is Latin America—however small the country—will send ripples through the region. Here the “golpe-lite” model has been introduced: the oligarchy doesn't like a president? Kidnap him, appoint an ally, advance elections with candidates favorable to the elite. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, each of which is currently under a progressive government, the oligarchy is watching every move. Will they be able to repeat the successful Honduran model and know that, save a slap on the wrist, the United States will play along?
On my last day in Tegucigalpa I interviewed writer/documentarian Manuel Antonio Villa, 37, who for the last seven years has traveled through Honduras studying the conditions of the peasantry and proletariat. For Villa, Honduras has entered a new, revolutionary era, while the golpe against Zelaya has commenced a decisive moment for the history of Latin America.
Asked how far the golpistas would go, Villa said “Let’s divide the them in two: one, those that are in government, two, the entrepreneurs that don’t have government posts. When we speak of the first group, nobody will be able to take them from power. They will never, by diplomatic means, turn over the state. They will have nowhere to go. They know that the entire world has repudiated them, and that the Honduran people don’t like them.” So long as they have the support of the military, “the golpe will go until the last moment. And when they have no more hope they will propose to advance the elections, then call for social reconciliation that will be impossible because the social organizations…want justice.”
“The empresarios, and many have already left, miscalculated the political reaction of the world. The first three days of strike generated tremendous losses for them that would have been less had Mel carried out his term. The ones who have stayed are protecting ideology, and losing money. You see? The most wealthy will be able to survive this. But the less wealthy have huge debts to pay, & isolated, their businesses won’t survive.”
So how to stop them? “On the popular front,” Villa responded, “we have to take over the highways, especially the ones that are under construction, as this would screw up public investment in infrastructure. We also have to close the ports & borders.”
“The party who benefits most from the golpe in Honduras is the United States. What just happened in one swift blow was the weakening of the Organization of American States and of the ALBA. This, right when, for the first time in history, decisions were being made to escape the trap, telling the US, ‘if you don’t agree with us today, tomorrow we will form the Organization of Latin American States,’ which was promoted by Mel Zelaya. If anyone else from the ALBA was given this task they would have been run out of the meeting… Mel was the only one that could receive sympathy from all the leaders of Latin America to ensure that Cuba entered the OAS. This is what costs him his head. And so the overthrow of Zelaya works well for the USA, not the USA of Obama, but the transnational corporations that are owners of 68% of the USA’s GDP.”
“Listen clearly,” Villa added, emphasizing the dependency of Honduras upon the United States, “if today they announce an economic blockade, tomorrow the dictatorship will fall.”
As the golpistas had closed the Tocontín airport until further notice, I bussed to San Pedro Sula and caught a flight from there, a week after having arrived.
My hopes were that I’d witness the defeat of the golpe, like when Chavez was restored after 47 hours. The previous Sunday, the day of Zelaya’s return, there was a general jubiliation that this would come true. A Guatemalan cameraman repeated the rumors that all but one military batallion had retreated to their bases, which was so, but also that COEPH—Honduras’ private business councilm, recipient of USAID funding, and a chief golpista institution—had recanted its support for the golpe, which was false. “The golpe is going to fall and it makes me proud to see my people making it happen,” the Guatemalan said, sweating and nervous with glee. The next wave of rumors had it that there were gunshots, and that three people had been killed. Lamentably, this turned out to be true.
I ran to the scene of the crime to see the jubilee had withered into a general depression. Just as tragic as the skull fragments of Isis Obed Murillo, I saw the assaulted spirit of the people, dispersed, grave, vowing revenge and shouting “asesino!” at the soldiers behind the barbed-wire fence. The golpistas had won this battle, but the war was far from through.
On the airplane I listened back to my interview with Villa, who spoke of the historical battle being waged in Honduras. “Class consciousness has been sown. If you only saw this country two years ago! To see the graffiti in the streets. It’s incredible! Never, never, never would it have been like this. And this is just beginning. It doesn’t matter that it’s Mel Zelaya. What matters is that Honduras has already changed.”