Dueling truth commissions, ongoing repression, and Canada’s role in the new Honduras
Source: The Dominion
Just over one year ago, renowned Garifuna leader Miriam Miranda was brutally assaulted and illegally detained by police. “I have a scar on my stomach from a burn caused by a tear gas canister fired at me at point blank,” said Miranda, in an interview with The Dominion. It was a peaceful roadblock in Triunfo de la Cruz — a Garífuna community on the north coast of Honduras — when Miranda was hit with the canister, beaten, assailed with racial slurs and jailed without explanation.
Miranda was the only person detained that day. As coordinator of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), she had clearly been targeted by police. She was detained more than two hours without receiving medical attention, only to learn later that she would be accused of sedition.
The roadblock where Miranda was arrested was part of protests across the country that were an expression of solidarity with the public school teachers’ union and their fight against privatization and repression. The Garífuna community was also calling for recognition and respect of their ancestral territories.
Miranda’s assault came more than 18 months after the 2009 coup d’état which deposed President Mel Zelaya and sparked sweeping civil unrest throughout the country.
A revived neoliberal economic agenda supported by Canada and the U.S., combined with brutal social repression, has plagued Honduran communities ever since. “With the 2009 coup d’etat, Honduras became a laboratory of political, social, and economic imperialism,” said Miranda.
Indeed, from signing a free trade deal to watchdogging the military and police, Canada has played a significant role in this neoliberal experiment, tinkering in legislative, industry, and security reforms that are defining the post-coup Honduras.
Early in the morning of June 28, 2009, Honduran soldiers forced a pajama-clad Zelaya onto a plane to Costa Rica. Congress Speaker Roberto Micheletti stepped in as interim President, though his appointment went unrecognized by the Organization of American States(OAS), who quickly suspended Honduras’ membership.
Micheletti’s tenuous reign was short-lived, however, as the November 29th elections ushered in the presidency of Porfirio Lobo, who was inaugurated on January 27, 2010. Despite the refusal of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) and many national and international organizations to recognize the elections, they were supported by numerous states, including Canada. Honduras was readmitted to the OAS on June 1, 2010.
Zelaya’s critics in the National Congress and military defended the coup as a preemptive measure to thwart an upcoming public poll on whether to convene a constituent assembly, framing it as an illegal attempt to open up the constitution to allow successive terms in office.
Many Hondurans saw the coup as “made in the USA,” as Miranda put it, engineered in North America in collusion with the local oligarchy, whose patience with the left-turning Zelaya had grown thin.
Zelaya had stirred up talk of agrarian reform, minimum wage increases, stiffer regulations on foreign industries, and, with the support of Congress, had recently signed Honduras on to ALBA — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian” alternative for Latin America.
“It’s clear that the US saw Honduras as kind of the weakest link in the ALBA block,” said Tom Loudon, Executive Secretary to Honduras’ alternative truth commission, in a phone interview from Tegucigalpa, calling the coup “a strike at Chavez’s block.”
The coup sparked widespread mobilization within Honduras, where daily demonstrations ensued for more than three months, drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country. This incited extraordinary repression perpetrated by the military, police and vigilante forces, including 4,234 human rights violations in the first 100 days following the coup.
Berta Cáceres, Director of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), describes “assassinations of Indigenous people, assassinations of people in the Honduran resistance, of journalists [and] lawyers, and all this in a state of impunity.”
Indeed, the Committee for Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) documented 54 political assassinations during Micheletti’s short rule, while The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports another 120 since Lobo’s inauguration. Cáceres situates this criminalization of social movements, social struggles, women leaders and social leaders of the country as part of a broader economic, political, and military strategy.
In response to rampant repression and violence, an “official” Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established under the auspices of the OAS as part of a 12-point resolution know as the San José Accord.
Though the Accord was meant to be diplomatic, mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the TRC was established under decree of de facto President Lobo, who also hand-picked the five representatives to lead it, including Canadian diplomat Michael Kergin.
Human rights organizations have criticized the TRC for failing to comply with international standards. Under the banner of the Plataforma de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Platform), these organizations launched an alternative commission, the “Comisión de Verdad,” on June 28, 2010; the one year anniversary of the coup.
Despite the constraints of a much smaller budget (estimated at about one sixth the official TRC’s rumoured $5 million), the alternative commission took its cues from a broader segment of society.
“Our goal has been primarily, from the very beginning, to give voice to the victims,” said Loudon, a long-time affiliate with the Friendship Office of the Americas.
The commission has been guided by of a team of nine human rights defenders — two Honduran and seven international — including Toronto-based lawyer, Craig Scott, who was elected as an NDP Member of Parliament (Toronto-Danforth) this past March.
Under their counsel, the commission sent two teams to collect testimonies across the country and opened offices in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. “We have a much more robust — evidentially, and just in terms of our method — approach to the human rights situation than the government commission,” said Scott in an interview with The Dominion. Scott has stepped down as commissioner since his election as MP.
In addition to financial barriers, security hurdles have also stalled the Alternative Commission’s work.
“The stress-levels of our staff — especially the Honduran staff — were through the roof,” explained Scott. “Our only two Honduran commissioners had to flee the country.” After receiving anonymous threats, Commissioner Padre Fausto Milla left for several months, and Commissioner Helen Umaña left in August 2011, with no plans to return.
Further, one of the staff suffered an attempted kidnapping, in which he was hauled from a taxi by police officers and pistol-whipped, before struggling free and escaping. “We’re sure if it had been successful, they would have killed him,” said Loudon. “As he was fleeing, they were shooting at him.”
The commission is planning to release their final report by the end of June. It will appear in the form of three volumes: cases, patterns, and an executive summary.
The first volume profiles twenty-four of the most emblematic human rights cases in chronological order. These include assassinations, the dismissal of four publicly anti-coup Supreme Court judges, and the ransacking of the offices of COMAL — a fair trade organization based in Siguatepeque, a small city in a lush agricultural region northwest of Tegucigalpa.
The second volume identifies patterns, including the massive repression of demonstrations, such as the mass arrest of 400 protesters near the Nicaraguan border on June 30, 2009, two days after the coup. Other patterns include the persecution of vulnerable social groups, and violations related to land and natural resources.
The executive summary is likely to be the only volume translated into English.
In August 2011, Prime Minister Harper became the first foreign leader to visit Honduras since it was readmitted to the OAS. It was during this visit that Harper and Lobo finalized a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
Canada had begun free trade negotiations with the “C4 countries” (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador) in 2001. But by the end of 2010, despite the post-coup climate of repression and human rights abuses, Canada decided to shed the collective and go bilateral.
“The idea of a Free Trade Agreement in that kind of context, was frankly almost obscene,” said Scott. “[Harper] probably sent as strong a signal as you could that the whole philosophy was one of economic trade and growth as the completely dominant paradigm for how a country like Honduras moves forward.”
A negotiating document acquired from the Honduran Secretary of Industry and Trade through an Access to Information request notes that over the course of 2010, Canada’s imports from Honduras had eclipsed exports by $20.9 million. Overall bilateral trade increased after the coup, showing a 9.3 per cent increase from 2009 to 2010, and a 22 per cent increase to $235 million in 2011.
Leading up to the FTA, Canadian companies already held 90 per cent of investment in Honduras’ mining sector, amounting to $146 million in total assets employed by Canadian firms by 2009. During a meeting with de facto President Lobo in April 2010, Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder suggested that with the FTA this number would balloon to $700 million.
As the FTA was inked, ten of the most prominent Honduran human rights organizations released a document rejecting the agreement. The “Pronouncement Rejecting the Extractive Policy of the Government of Canada and the Bilateral Trade Deal between Canada and Honduras” describes the detrimental impacts that Canadian investments have already had on the environment, health, and self-determination of communities and rejects the FTA for facilitating further exploitation.
“The Free Trade Agreement with Canada has opened more doors for Canadian transnational mining companies… Leading to the violation of labour rights,” said Cáceres, whose organization signed the pronouncement. “And still, even at the international level, there is a lack of justice against these Canadian transnationals.”
The coup was carried out less than three weeks prior to the final reading of a proposed mining law that would have demanded community consent, raised taxes, prohibited open-pit mining, and banned the use of cyanide in new concessions. It has since been substituted with a new law on mining and hydrocarbons currently before Congress, which would slacken regulations and leave the county vulnerable to even more extractive development.
An April 23rd communiqué put out by the Honduran National Coalition of Environmental and Social Networks against Open-Pit Mining and the Siria Valley Environmental Committee, denounced Congress for avoiding consultation with Honduran organizations on the new law, instead shopping it around to Canadian mining corporations and government officials.
The communiqué notes that Rigoberto Cuellar, Minister of Natural Resources (SERNA), and Aldo Santos, director of the Directorate for the Promotion of Mining (DEFOMIN), traveled to Canada to promote the proposed law at the annual convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada in March. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade sent two government representatives to attend, including International Trade Minister Ed Fast, who met with the Hondurans.
The proposed mining law represents just one of Canada’s efforts towards increased involvement in internal Honduran affairs.
Canada has provided one of two foreign advisors to a new, independent police monitoring body, known as the Commission for the Reform of Public Security. With an express focus on rural security, this body has also been acting as a key advisor to the proposed mining law. In November 2011, Honduran police took part in a training workshop on Military-Police Cooperation run by Canada’s Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Canada has also participated in anti-narcotics operations in the region, including Op Martillo.
With continued impunity for both local human rights violators and foreign perpetrators, hope is hard to muster.
“The train has left the station in so many ways; the government has been barreling ahead with its neoliberal and oppressive agenda,” says Scott. According to Scott, the test will be whether or not the Alternative Commission is found to be useful as a way for new political forces and social actors to try to take back their country.
Regardless, the Alternative Commission’s report is sure have local significance. “The report of the truth commission will be very important because it will vindicate situations that strip perpetrators of responsibility for their crimes,” says Cáceres.
Meanwhile, the movement presses on. In April, thousands of landless Honduran farmers occupied 30,000 acres of land across the country. Elections are on the horizon for November 2013, when the resistance movement will run candidates under the recently founded Liberation and Re-foundation Party (PLR).
Ongoing repression does not mean that the Honduran people stop fighting, says Cáceres. “Instead, we strengthen our struggles.”
Emma Feltes is a writer, researcher, and rights advocate based in Toronto and sometimes elsewhere. Her work centres on Indigenous-State relations in Canada and Latin America, land rights, cultural heritage, and urban issues.