I am an NLG-affiliated lawyer from Santa Rosa, California. I was part of a small delegation to Honduras over the week of Thanksgiving, 2009. The delegation was organized by Rights Action who expressly stated we were not to be election observers, because the elections were illegal and should not have happened. Instead, our job was to investigate and document human rights abuses in the days leading up to and immediately following the elections of November 29th.
A quick explanation of the background leading up to these elections.
On June 28th, the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manual Zelaya, was grabbed from his house at gunpoint, put on a plane in his pajamas and taken to Costa Rica. The Honduran Congress (controlled by the oligarchy who perpetrated the coup) then “elected” Micheletti president as Zelaya languished, despite the fact that there is no provision for a congressional election of the president in the Honduran constitution. But of course none of this took place under the constitution, but instead under a violently imposed military dictatorship.
Zelaya was not a Chavez (Venezuela) or an Evo Morales (Bolivia) – people who were elected because of their promises to move the country to the left. He was a rancher and one of the wealthy of Honduras, though not a part of the oligarchy itself. But when he got into power, he began to listen to the people and to do the right thing. In the weeks leading up to the coup, he raised the minimum wage; refused to accept the credentials of the U.S. ambassador because of his treacherous role in Central America in the past; joined in the Bolivarian alternative to the US policy of free trade in Latin America; and gave the people a chance to vote for an “asemblea constituyente;” i.e. a constitutional assembly.
The golpistas (coup leaders) say they removed Zelaya because he was trying to change the constitution so that he could remain president-for-life, trying to link him to Chavez. In fact, however, it wasn’t Zelaya who wanted to change the Constitution, it was the people, and the idea of allowing a president to run for a second term was not the point. Honduras is the only Central American government that hasn’t changed its constitution since the 80s when all the countries were ruled by military dictatorships.
There is a provision in the Honduran constitution for convening an “asemblea constituyente” to change the document that rules the country. This is what the people, not Zelaya were calling for. What Zelaya did was call for a straw poll – nothing that would even have any force of law – to see if a majority of the population wanted the constituyente. It was this straw poll that became the final straw for the military, and Zelaya was kidnapped and swept out of office. Later in the summer Zelaya re-entered the country overland and was installed in the Brazilian Embassy, where he continues to reside as a prisoner in his own country. You can’t even get within 2 blocks of the embassy – it’s surrounded by Honduran national police and military. At times they have blanketed the embassy with some sort of chemical, making everyone in the building sick with headaches, vomiting, and other signs of neurological poisoning. Also at times, the military has gone up and down the street all night with huge speakers blasting out the new “sound weapon” that’s being used on demonstrators in the U.S. – a high piercing sound that makes you want to run.
Honduras’s “Free and Fair” Elections
Honduras is not only a symbol of what’s wrong in the north-south relationship, it’s also a model of what a resistance movement can accomplish and inspire in this new global world. The movement has been in the streets every day since the coup – I think it’s 155 days now. At times they had 400,000 people in the streets of Tegucigalpa! They are organized, so far pacifist, and very savvy of the role their struggle plays in the north-south global dynamic. With these elections, the golpistas intended to whitewash the coup – turn it from a military de facto government into a “democratically elected” government. (As one Honduran put it, “They put clowns in office to cover the faces of the generals”)
Nearly every independent candidate (more than 100) removed their names from the ballot prior to the election because they didn’t want to be a part of the whitewash. So the only choice for the people was to vote for one golpista or another. Instead, they decided to boycott. Meantime, the de facto government imposed a curfew and called a state of siege for election day. They had put ads in the paper saying that not voting or encouraging others not to vote was treason and you could be shot or tried.
They sent a letter to the Minister of Health saying to empty the hospitals of unnecessary cases to make room for the injuries expected from election day. They had bought a $1 million tank stocked with water cannons and hundreds of tear gas canisters and promised to use them. They also wrote the mayors of all the towns asking them to prepare a list of the resistance leaders in their communities, saying they would come by and pick up those lists, clearly to intimidate the mayors. Resistance leaders were beaten, arrested or disappeared. People were terrified. It was this environment in which the “free and fair” elections of Honduras took place on Sunday, November 29th. The resistance urged people not to come into the streets so as not to give the military an excuse for a massacre.
The city of Tegucigalpa was eerily quiet. Voting places were empty, and the precincts I personally checked at the time the polls were slated to close showed from 30-40% turnout. (And this was Tegucigalpa where the highest turnout was recorded; in some parts of the country, turnout was at 20%) And at 9 p.m. that night, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, which conducts and certifies the elections, released the results showing that only 1.7 million Hondurans voted (of 4.6 million who were eligible to vote). Thus by their own count only 37% of Hondurans voted to whitewash the coup, AND NEARLY 65% BOYCOTTED THE WHITEWASH! (And this in a country where voter turn-out normally runs between 60 and 75%.)
Still CNN and other corporate media say there was a 70-75% turnout with no signs of violence or repression. Hah! My personal time in Honduras was filled with the faces and stories of the violent repression of a non-compliant people. A young man shot in the head by a military colonel; a 12 year-old child shot by national police; a feminist leader, Merlyn Aguigure, arrested after organizing a march and vigil for International Day Against Violence Against Women; a young man arrested for the crime of carrying a megaphone on election day (not using, but carrying), then beaten by police who, by the way, accidentally forgot to list him among the detained.
And since the delegation’s return to the U.S., we learn of a number of resistance members killed by Death Squads driving white pick-up trucks with darkened windows and no plates. I witnessed those very trucks repeatedly during my time there – photographed them at times. They were coming out of the Casa Presidencial, patrolling our demonstration at the U.S. Embassy, coming out of the jail where Merlyn Aguigure was being held. Those “Death Squads” were clearly connected not only with the coup regime, but also with the United States government.
I went on the delegation to Honduras because I had lived and worked in Guatemala and El Salvador in the late eighties. At that time, people in my own community were arrested and tortured, some with U.S. military personnel present. I know where this goes, and once again I cannot stay silent in the face of that.
One of my most memorable moments in Honduras was being at the hospital with the family of Angel Salgado, the young man who was shot in the head by a military colonel. As he lay dying, suddenly the international press flooded the hospital, demanding comment from the terrified family. The first to speak were clearly careful in their comments, fearing military reprisal against the family. But as Angel’s sister-in-law, Ana Alviro, took the mike, you could see the rage welling up inside her. To the national and international press, she said these words that will live with me always:
“This is how they kill people in my country – they shoot them in the streets like dogs! And they can do this because we, the Honduran people, stay silent. We can’t continue like this – we have to stand up.”
If Ana Alviro has the courage to stand up and speak out in the face of almost assured military reprisal, can you and I do any less? Please take the time to call Obama and your congressional representatives. Send them this e-mail and this video from Real News. Please tell them to demand the reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya as president of Honduras; to demand the nullification of the farse they called elections; and to afford Zelaya and the Honduran people the self-determination to at last re-write a constitution free from military dictators.