On June 27, the streets of Tegucigalpa were oddly quiet. The suddenly sparse police presence contrasted with the rest of the year, and reminded many Hondurans of the eerie calm preceding last year’s military coup.
The build-up to the anniversary of the June 28, 2009 military ouster of democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya has been the source of extensive public and private reflection in the country. Today—in stark contrast to previous years—human rights, militarization, the two-party system, neoliberal economic policies, and democracy are hotly debated in local and national meetings of the resistance, in mainstream and resistance newspaper editorials, in radio and television commentaries, in university conferences, bars, corner stores, and soccer fields throughout the country. The walls of nearly every town and city in the country are covered with anti-regime graffiti and demands for the refounding of the nation. The “Citizen Declaration” of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) calling for an inclusive constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution has garnered nearly 700,000 signatures, and is on track to surpass the number of votes officially received by Honduran President Porfirio Lobo in last November’s elections.
In deep contrast to this boisterous dialogue among the Honduran people, ongoing efforts—led by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—to secure Honduras’s reentry to the Organization of American States (OAS) and other regional bodies like the Central American Integration System, depend on a narrative of stability and reconciliation. This narrative argues that in contrast to last year’s de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti, the Lobo government is the outcome of a legitimate democratic election; has responded to human rights concerns by forming a human rights commission and promoting a “truth commission”; and has made notable progress in its goal of “national reconciliation” through reconstituting the fragmented Liberal Party of both Micheletti and Zelaya.
However Honduras is anything but “stable” and “reconciled,” and opposing narratives carry the weight of the bloody evidence accumulated in the months since Lobo’s inauguration. These tensions, and Honduras’s deep wound of conflict that persists, show much is at stake on this first anniversary of the military coup.
Those who oppose the Honduran state’s international recognition point out that Lobo’s presidency, which began January 27 following an election overseen by a repressive military and boycotted by a large majority of candidates and voters, has failed at reconciliation and justice. It has been marked on one hand, they say, by targeted, brutal violence against opponents of the coup regime including over 600 cases of cruel and unusual punishiment documented by the Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Torture, and (during the period between February 28 and May 15, 2010) 12 assassinations of resistance members and numerous additional human rights violations (CPTRT, personal communication; COFADEH, 5º Informe Derechos Humanos, Gobierno Porfirio Lobo, Febrero-Abril 2010, 28/05/2010); and on the other an increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the business and organized crime sectors that financed and promoted the coup, as is particularly clear in recent paramilitary attacks carried out on campesinos in Bajo Aguán and Zacate Grande in land disputes with multi-millionaire coup financier and large landholder Miguel Facussé.
Since January, nine journalists, most of them critical of the coup and its beneficiaries, have been killed in targeted assassinations. Military and paramilitary death squads, at least some of which are led by members of the 1980s Battalion 3-16 – responsible for nearly two hundred disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial assassinations in that decade – have disappeared, tortured, and killed dozens of resistance leaders and their family members. Photographic evidence of this circulates among the population, provoking widespread fear and fury. Now, pictures of the mutilated body of Oscar Geovanny Ramírez, an unarmed 16-year old land worker killed on June 20 in the ongoing land dispute in Bajo Aguán between indigent members of several land cooperatives and Facussé, are among those making the rounds. Police and private security guards working on behalf of Facussé killed Geovanny. Meanwhile, Lobo has placed high-ranking military officials in leadership roles in institutions like customs and the state telecommunications industry (Hondutel). The head post of Hondutel, for example, was awarded to Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the School of the Americas-trained general and main perpetrator of last year’s military coup.
One might think that acts of repression and military control over domestic affairs would lead the U.S. State Department to question the distribution of Washington’s economic aid. On the contrary, the U.S. government refuses to condemn the violent role of the military in Honduras and recently renewed full aid to the country with a donation of 25 heavy trucks for military use valued at $812,000; $75 million more through USAID for “development projects,” and $20 million as part of the Merida Initiative to enhance “security.”
On top of this, last year Honduras’s murder rate jumped from 57.9 to 66.8 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world. Lobo and his ministers have laughed off suggestions that violent crimes against members of the Honduran resistance movement and their families should be investigated as political. Instead, with the support of coup-backing human rights commissioner Ramón Custodio, they link such crimes to the massive increase in common crime that Honduras has seen since the coup, while denying a causal link between the coup and criminality. Lobo’s refusal to investigate the murders of resistance members as political killings, while granting amnesty for political crimes, reflect a coordinated strategy. The killings and media coverage of them are used to sow fear among active resistance members in particular, and to increase the fear of common crime among the entire population—a fear that has previously served to justify brutally repressive crime control policies like Mano Dura and Zero Tolerance, imported in 2002 by former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani (Pine, Adrienne. 2008. Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras. Berkeley: University of California Press).
The Truth Commission that the State Department and Lobo government have sponsored, meanwhile, is grounded on the acceptance of impunity for (ongoing) political crimes, starting from the absurd premise that a coup may not have taken place. Eduardo Stein, head of the Truth Commission, stated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on May 12: “. . . .We are calling it an alteration of political institutionality, and we will examine whether there was a constitutional framework and if rights were respected.” The Truth Commission will not release many of its results for ten years. It has been roundly condemned as a whitewashing operation, and Honduran human rights organizations have come together to create a competing “Commission of Truth,” which held its inaugural event in Tegucigalpa on June 28. The stated purpose of the Commission of Truth is to fight impunity, starting from a position of strongly condemning the coup d’état and the human rights violations that stem from it.
Honduran business elites and the U.S. State Department fear that the void created in Honduras’s traditional two-party rule by the coup could be filled by the resistance movement, with its demands for redistributive democracy. This concern has given rise to U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens’ frequent meetings with left-leaning members of the Honduras’s Liberal Party in an effort to bring about the “government of unity” that Lobo promised (which excludes the resistance movement that rejects the traditional party structure). It also reflects the efforts of the Washington Office of Latin America to do the same when Llorens’ efforts failed. This void could become even more vast as the remaining threads of institutional legitimacy have also unraveled since Lobo took office, with (among other things) the political firing of four judges and a public defender, in retaliation for their opposition to the coup. In May, the G-16, a group of donor countries and international financial institutions formed in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch to monitor Honduras’s progress in “recovery and reconstruction”, criticized the firing of the Supreme Court judges. On June 29, following a meeting with the G-16, Honduran Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí announced that the arrest warrant against Zelaya had been lifted, thus paving the way for OAS recognition.
On June 25, 27 U.S. Congressmembers sent a letter to Hillary Clinton citing murders of journalists and resistance members, the political firings of Honduran judges, the weak mandate of the Truth Commission, and the failure of Lobo’s “government of national unity,” and requesting that Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner “visit Honduras and make a prompt assessment of what is occurring there with regards to human and political rights.”
On June 28, protests and cultural events celebrated resistance to the continued violence of the coup throughout the country. Around the world, there were protests in Minneapolis, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and in cities throughout Latin America and in Germany, England, France, and Spain. The more than 700,000 people calling for a re-founding of Honduras is more than symbolic; it both powerfully repudiates the logic of the coup—carried out on the day that President Zelaya had scheduled a national poll to determine the feasibility of holding such an assembly—and gives the lie to Lobo’s claims of a democratic mandate.
Adrienne Pine teaches anthropology at American University in Washington. She is the author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (University of California Press, 2008). She blogs at quotha.net.