Honduras: Three Months after the Coup
De Facto Regime Continues Reign of Terror
City under Siege
Tegucigalpa, Honduras – The Brazilian Embassy here is a surprisingly small, low-slung, stucco building, with sturdy, green-painted steel gates. The light-green and yellow Brazilian flag still flies above the electrified defense wires. Since last Monday, Honduran soldiers and police guard both ends of the street. All the houses and other buildings on the block have been commandeered – sometimes against their owners’ wishes – for surveillance and ops positions against the Embassy.
Deposed President Mel Zelaya was able to sneak back into the country last week, crossing through the heavily-forested border with Nicaragua, traveling overland by foot with a few companions. Since his arrival on Monday he’s been trapped inside the Embassy under threat of arrest, along with about 80 political supporters, family members, and journalists. Soldiers and police have kept up a steady state of harassment, including – according to CNN, as well as live reports on the ground – the use of chemical weapons.
The situation in the rest of Tegucigalpa isn’t much better. The formerly bustling capital has taken on the haggard aspect of a city under siege, including curfews and checkpoints. Hotels and restaurants are empty. In the streets, almost every available flat surface is covered with political graffiti. In the evening, after curfew, packs of dogs roam once-busy shopping centers and boulevards.
Since Zelaya’s return on Monday, the level of police repression against the civilian population has increased dramatically. There have been arbitrary arrests and detentions, numbering about 350 persons. Dozens more have been beaten, some while in custody. Police and soldiers have several times fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds into unarmed demonstrators. At least two people have died.
Attacks on the Embassy?
Perhaps most disconcerting of all are the reports of the government-sponsored chemical attack, said to have occurred at the Brazilian Embassy last Friday.
“They launched the toxic chemical from a tanker truck,” said Father Andres Tomayo, Zelaya supporter and Catholic priest, when I spoke to him in the Embassy via cell phone. I had been in there with him as late as Monday night, when I left to file a story; since the encirclement by police the next morning, no journalists have been let inside. But when I’d last seen Father Tomayo in person, a few days before, he’d been hopeful and proud that Zelaya had risked so much to come back. Now, on the phone, the priest sounded exhausted, even slightly dazed. Tomayo told me the gas or chemical attack came around six-thirty in the morning, just after the street was suddenly cleared of soldiers. “They made all the journalists leave as well.” Tomayo said that he and others in the compound suddenly began to experience, “headaches, cramps and vomiting, constriction of the throat, lightheadedness and even blood in the urine and stool”.
The lab results from the examinations done by doctors allowed into the embassy to treat the victims of the alleged attack were not available at the time of this writing. But it has been widely confirmed that Zelaya’s peaceful supporters were violently routed from in front of the Embassy early last Tuesday, and tear gas canisters were reportedly fired into the Ambassador’s courtyard. Authorities engaged in random beatings of people throughout the city that day – I personally witnessed several attacks – and a harsh crackdown followed.
“The de facto regime has no respect for personal liberties,” said Andres Pavon, President of the Committee for Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), when I met him at the scene of a warrantless police assault against a women’s shelter accused of “harboring dissidents.”
“With the recent violence they have committed,” said Pavon, “The authorities have made their intentions very clear. We are expected to accept their control, or suffer the consequences.”
Who’s Who in Honduras?
The civilian supporters of military-backed strongman President Roberto Michiletti tend to be the upper classes, and the far-right ideologues. Zelaya was a centrist, whose tepid economic and conservation initiatives made him the victim of a military-back coup, almost exactly three months ago. His gravest sin: answering the popular call to hold nonbinding poll about reforming the country’s outdated, Banana-Republic style Constitution. Various elite segments of Honduran society are well-served by the present draconian charter – as are many transnational corporations, especially mining, logging, and fast food outlets like Burger King and Wendy’s.
La Resistencia is a broad coalition of humanitarian organizations and interests, including human and women’s rights groups, conservationists, worker’s unions, teachers, and many others – all united in purpose to maintain a nonviolent state of civil disobedience, until democratic order is restored, and the population at large is allowed a referendum concerning constitutional reform.
Police Raiding Human Rights Organizations
The downtown headquarters of the Committee for Detained and Disappeared Persons of Honduras (COFADEH) was hit with tear gas on Tuesday, at the same time authorities were dispersing the crowd in front of the Embassy. On Wednesday, the office of Refuge without Limits (ASL) was also forcibly shuttered, reportedly for aiding the victims of police violence.
COFADEH Director Bertha Oliva was still red-faced and half-blind from tear gas when I arrived at the building, a few minutes after the police drive-by. Oliva called the attacks “completely unprovoked.” They were intended, she said, to send a message of who’s in charge. “Our door was open, and so they fired the tear gas at us,” Oliva said. “But, so long as the country needs my help, I will never close those doors.”
Anatomy of a Crackdown
The military and police intelligence, presumably at the instruction of the Micheletti government, have repeatedly blocked cell phone calls and attempted to shut down independent media. They’ve also militarized the capital. At the least sign of provocation, los federales will open fire with pepper gas, flash-bombs, rubber bullets, and live rounds.
The general level of aggression by the authorities is highest, however, in the poor barrios on the outskirts of the steeply-hilled city. At least two civilians have been confirmed killed at checkpoints since Zelaya’s return – apparently guilty of nothing worse than curfew violation. That brings the total number of confirmed deaths since the coup to more than a dozen, with several other reported fatalities still under investigation.
The authorities, however, continue to deny there is a problem.
“This isn’t repression, what we’re doing,” laughed Inspector Molina, the official police spokesman, during a press conference in front of the Embassy on Friday. “If you attack me,” Molina said, menacingly, to the journalist who had asked the question, “I’m going to attack you back. . .
“These people are nothing but vandals, that’s why we lock them up,” the Inspector went on, still chortling heartily. “They throw rocks and beg for money. They’re all telling lies. It’s a lie that we’re attacking people in their houses in the barrios. There are no deaths, no women being raped.”
It was also a lie, dutifully explained Inspector Molina, that people in the Embassy were sick, or vomiting blood. “We would never harm our fellow Hondurans,” he told reporters, smiling at us from under his reflective sunglasses.
On those occasions when police are busy “not harming” other Hondurans, even international journalists are given little quarter; more than once this reporter has had to dodge tear gas and live rounds, when the police opened fire on the press along with everybody else.
At least one periodista has not been so lucky.
“I was ten meters in front of the police when they shot directly at me,” said independent Honduran journalist Esteban Melendez, who was struck in the upper spine by a high-powered gas canister as the two of us ran for cover. “If it had hit me in the head, I’d be dead right now,” said Melendez, a wallet sized purple welt already risen between his shoulder blades.
Human rights groups have documented numerous other incidence of police violence – including death threats and systematic beatings of detained prisoners with nightsticks. “They’re not being tortured for information,” says COFADEH case worker, Mery Agurcia, “It’s just pain for the sake of pain.”
“Mel, Amigo, el Pueblo es Contigo!”
Authorities have repeatedly detained peaceful marchers, preventing the anti-coup demonstrators from getting within site of the Brazilian Embassy itself. Left to themselves, the marches are peaceful, even festive occasions, alive with chanting and songs. But, occasionally, when pushed or threatened, the protestors have resisted dispersal, always resulting in swift and brutal retaliation by police. During such emotionally charged moments, certain fringe elements of the resistance movement – acting against the explicit instructions of the leadership – have clumsily engaged with police. They’ve fought back against tear gas and pistols with stones and primitive, hand-made bombs. These few running clashes have all been one-sided massacres by the well-armed authorities.
“When Zelaya came back, we saw the size of the resistance almost double overnight,” said Gilda Velasquez, a teacher and activist based in the capital. We met in the only place open near the Embassy, a Burger King that the police had shelled during the raid last Tuesday. Repair crews scurried around as we drank bad fast-food coffee. (Burger King itself backs Micheletti, and workers are often ordered to attend pro-coup rallies.)
“It’s the new teens and young men who are really giving us a problem [in the resistance movement],” Velasquez said. Scion of a wealthy but conformist Honduran family, she herself has chosen to live la vida de lucha among the people. “A few of these young men are willing to risk violence – because they have no future,” Velasquez told me. “They know that, and they’re frustrated. Zelaya is back in the country now, and they don’t understand why he’s not in charge.”
The problem of rapidly swelling ranks is even more complicated because the movement’s leadership is in short supply. Many of the rallying figures, like Padre Tomayo, are holed up in the Embassy with the president. Others are casualties of previous police violence, like Independent Presidential Candidate Carlos Reyes, who was badly beaten last month, and is still recuperating after several surgeries.
One of the few leading figures of the resistance still able to take an active role is Rafael Alegria, Director of Via Campesina. “This began as a nonviolent movement, and that’s how it will continue,” said Alegria, at the conclusion of a peaceful march late last week. He acknowledged the lack of experienced leadership, but said the Resistance was working hard to avoid confrontation with authorities. “If there is any aggression it will not come from us,” said Alegria.
Solutions: UN and US Reactions are Critical
After more than six weeks in the capital, it seems ever clearer to this reporter that the San Jose Accords will not work. Even if the de facto government were to accept those terms, which itself seems unlikely, many resistance leaders see the Arias plan as selling out, because it would virtually eliminate the opportunity for the kind of widespread constitutional reforms they’re seeking.
Equally unwise, if Zelaya is not re-instated as President, would be to go ahead with the scheduled elections in November. A huge swath of the population would be likely to boycott; and, so far, no international bodies will even recognize such a vote.
If the violence continues, rapid US or UN intervention might be the only way to deter full scale civil war – it’s been rumored that some sectors of the military are still loyal to President Zelaya. In the streets, many people express their desire to see the UN’s “blue helmets” brought in. But, overwhelmingly, the one name that surfaces again and again, ringing out with hopeful fervor during the call-and-response chanting of the marchers, is that of President Obama.
“I don’t know what we’ll do if Senor Obama won’t help us,” said an elderly woman who carried an umbrella against the sun, during a recent rally in front of the US Embassy. Then, more puzzled than angry, she said, “Obama always talks about helping people. So how come he won’t help us?”
With or without Senor Obama’s help, the country is need of great political reforms and reconciliations, if peace is to be restored. The only solution would seem be allowing the people what they wanted in the first place, what Zelaya had tried and failed to bring about – a vote for a popular referendum on constitutional reforms.
“What Honduras needs is a more participatory form of government,” said COFADEH Director Bertha Oliva, on the morning of the gas attack against her office. “A new constitution could transform my country,” she said, and then paused to glance around at the room full of gassed and beaten people. “Unfortunately,” she said, “the opportunity for that may have slipped away.”
Jeremy Kryt is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His journalism is forthcoming in publications like In These Times, and Narco News.