Honduras: Civil Rights Still Suspended as Talks Stall (Again)
Peaceful Resistance Still Going Strong after “Dystopian” Crackdown
Tegucigalpa, Honduras – Martial law continues to exact an increasingly heavy toll on both human rights and the economy in this already impoverished nation. The de facto regime is still hedging on its promise to restore civil liberties, and in recent days has actually gone the other way, passing legislation that allows the permanent closing of independent media outlets that refuse to broadcast official propaganda.
“If this government had the social base to support it, they wouldn’t need to censor the media, or prohibit freedom of movement,” said top resistance leader Juan Barahona, in a cell phone interview yesterday. “The military-backed regime is trying to keep itself in power at whatever price.”
Martial Law vs. Nonviolent Resistance
Peaceful protests against the government are still being prohibited in the capital and elsewhere. Participants in the marches of the pacifist anti-coup movement are regularly gassed or sprayed down with powerful chemicals, rubber bullets, and even live rounds. Hundreds have been illegally detained, and scores more wounded. At least four unarmed civilians were killed by police and soldiers in the last month alone. According to human rights groups, about 16 people have died since the military-backed coup that deposed President Mel Zelaya on June 28.
Despite the smear campaign to discredit him, Zelaya remains an economic centrist who was ousted for taking on the far-right elements which have traditionally ruled Honduras. He returned to the country in a surprise move about three weeks ago, and has been sheltered since then in the Brazilian Embassy. Roberto Micheletti, a wealthy transportation magnate and the de facto president, has threatened Zelaya with arrest, and the Embassy remains heavily guarded. Food, water and visitors are highly restricted. Zelaya has given October 15 as the deadline for discussion, saying that if he isn’t restored by then, he and his followers will boycott the crucial presidential elections in November.
But the police in charge of the former president’s captivity don’t seem fazed by his machismo.
“We have 100 police officers, and 380 soldiers, ‘protecting’ Señor Zelaya,” said Inspector Molina, official spokesman of the national police, when I spoke to him in front of the barricaded Embassy. “His powers to disrupt the peace are very limited,” Molina said. In a recent cell phone interview, Zelaya had told me journalists were being deliberately kept away from the compound– and not for his protection. Micheletti himself had announced such allegations were false, and stated in public that anyone could enter the Embassy. Inspector Molina, after verifying my credentials, revealed that the truth was, as with so many things in Honduran politics, somewhere in between. “You can’t go in unless you’re authorized by the government,” Molina said. “You have to have President Micheletti’s special permission.” A number of calls and emails I sent to Mr. Micheletti’s office did finally yield permission for an interview – but with Micheletti himself, instead of Mel Zelaya.
Zelaya Delegate Resigns in Protest
On Tuesday of this week, Juan Barahona, one of Zelaya’s top three representatives at the peace talks, walked out of the meetings in protest, citing major philosophical differences with the nascent proposal.
“I can’t put my name on a document that would prohibit a referendum on constitutional reforms,” he said to the thousands of nonviolent demonstrators gathered in front of the hotel where the talks are being held in the capital. Barahona has a silvered beard and fiery eyes, and can be a vibrant speaker. He has been one of the leading figures in the movement to restore Zelaya to power, helping to lead protest marches in the street every day since the coup.
“We will never abandon our struggle for a better Honduras,” he told the cheering crowd, after announcing his resignation.
Amending the outdated Honduran constitution is a touchy subject, and was one of the main reasons for Zelaya’s ouster. When I spoke to him on the phone, Barahona, who remains a leading figure in the peaceful resistance, said that forming a more participatory national charter (and by extension a more democratic national government) are the touchstones of his movement. But so far, he said, the delegates had been able to make little headway in their negotiations with the Micheletti government.
“The coup plotters are not really interested [to negotiate]. And so we can’t find a solution to this conflict,” said Barahona. “There is a dialogue, yes. But there is not enough will power to resolve the conflict. There is no political desire for an arrangement.”
Another top resistance leader, Rafael Alegria, the director of the powerful farmer’s union Via Campesina, echoed Barahona’s sentiments, but said he still thought a diplomatic solution could be reached.
“If [Micheletti] wants to aid the immediate crisis … we’re ready to talk,” Alegria said. “Where there is a dialogue there is hope.”
Alegria also made clear that the resistance would continue its nonviolent marches and rallies, whether or not Zelaya was restored to office. “There is enormous discontent in various public sectors,” The cowboy-hatted union boss told me. “The people are unhappy with their government.”
“Dystopian” Crackdown on the Media
The suspension of civil rights and the new law limiting independent media are both of great concern to many advocates of free speech in Honduras. According to Rigoberto Paredes, a retired professor of literature, who had served as Minister of Culture under Zelaya: “A fundamental shift in Honduran society occurred after the coup. A truly healthy culture requires liberty. And we don’t have that now.”
Paredes, who was fired from his post by Micheletti, said that since the coup his articles and essays are no longer accepted by the reviews that used to publish him regularly. “This is a new sickness,” he said, when we met in the small bookstore and café Paredes owns with his wife. Speaking of the far-right philosophies that seem to have taken hold in certain sectors, he said: “A few families now control basically everything in this country. There is not room for articles or plays or paintings that contradict them. By censoring the media, they are seeking to control our very thoughts.”
Paredes said that after years of teaching books like Prision Verde and Brave New World to his classes, he now feels as though his country, “has become its own, unique dystopia.”
Paredes blames the people’s acceptance of such an undemocratic system on widespread poverty and poor educational opportunities. Not coincidentally, these two issues top the list of things Barahona and Alegria’s resistance movement would like to see addressed.
“What Kind of Democracy is this?”
“Many people believe [the de facto regime] wants a civil war,” said Pablo Diaz, 47, who owns a small welding business in Tegucigalpa. “A war would force the world to recognize the government,” Diaz said, “because they would be responsible for our safety.”
The welder offered dire prophecies for the future, if the tensions don’t ease. “The Honduran Army can field less than twenty thousand active soldiers,” said Diaz, himself a former infantryman, who wore a Chicago Bulls cap when we met. “But there are hundreds of thousands in the reserves,” Diaz said, “and almost all of them support Zelaya.” He went on to tell me that, although the reservists were not armed, an AK-47 costs only about 1,000 lempira (about 53 U.S. dollars) on the Honduran black market. The reservists, Diaz said, were all well trained. “So far, the resistance has been peaceful. And it should stay that way. But it’s a mistake to push the people too far.”
Among the leadership of the movement, however, calmer heads still prevail. Juan Barahona, like Alegria, stated clearly that the resistance movement will adhere to its nonviolent ethics. “For Micheletti to maintain power, he must try to silence the opposition,” Barahona said. “He has to crackdown on the country, to use weapons and arms to suppress the people, because that’s the only way he can remain in office … But what kind of democracy is this? In fact, it’s a dictatorship. Bloody and repressive.”
The political negotiations, currently being administered by the Organization of American States (OAS), have so far met with little enthusiasm from either party. Zelaya has repeatedly stated that he doubts the sincerity of the coup-plotters. For its part, the Micheletti government still balks at a central aspect of the accords – Zelaya’s return to a limited presidency.
That kind of hard-line stance has many wondering how free and fair the November presidential election could possibly be. When I spoke about the upcoming ballot vote with Rigobertes Paredes, the former Minister of Culture wasn’t very optimistic.
“This is a conservative country,” said Paredes, and again mentioned crippling poverty and the lack of education. “The people are not politically prepared for critical elections.” Paredes also cited control of the press, and the constant bombardment of pro-right propaganda, as inhibiting democracy in Honduras. “If elections do happen in November,” he said, “a great number of people will end up voting against their own best interest.”