Gathering in Bajo Aguán: Oligarchy and Human Rights Violations in Honduras

The objective of the recent International Human Rights Gathering in Solidarity with Honduras in the Bajo Aguán region was to give voice to the victims of the violence of the government, raise awareness of the political situation in the country, and share experiences, searching for common strategies at the national and international levels to check the repression.

Family members in Bajo Aguán hold pictures of victims.The International Human Rights Gathering in Solidarity with Honduras took place on February 17-20 in Tocoa (Bajo Aguán region), and was organized by the Permanent Observatory for Human Rights in Aguán and other organizations. The objective was to give voice to the victims of the violence of the government, raise awareness of the political situation in the country, and share experiences, searching for common strategies at the national and international levels to check the repression.

Although Honduras has been reinstated to the Organization of American States (OAS), with the resulting recognition of the government of Porfirio Lobo, it is one of the most violent countries in the world (20 assassinations a day), and the human rights violations are so common as to concern the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, itself an organ of the OAS.

Looking at the most recent laws passed by the National Congress, it is difficult to imagine that the violations will stop. Examples include the Anti-Terrorism Law, which criminalizes social protest on the pretext that “funds for subversive groups enter as remittances or via an NGO,” or the recent wiretapping law. Dina Meza, of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), said during the gathering, “They already listen to us, but they are so shameless that now they have passed a law.”

During the International Gathering’s inaugural ceremony, ex-President Manuel Zelaya perceived the existence of a government plan behind these laws: “It seemed that my return was going to diminish the human rights violations, whereas the repression against the Honduran people has continued in a shameful manner. Does the increase of these violations correspond to a random incident, or is it premeditated? I believe that I obey the laws and decrees of the same state that legitimize the impunity that remained since the coup. When impunity is widespread, it is part of a plan.”

The most clear case of impunity that reigns in the country is Bajo Aguán, venue of the International Gathering. Here the convergence of the interests of the national capital, drug trafficking, and neoliberalism-driven exports has created a situation of tension and violence that in only two years has claimed the lives of 54 people, all of them members of campesino organizations in the area. It is a horrific number, even in the one of the most violent countries in the world.

As well as passing agrarian reforms in the 1970s that benefited 60,000 campesino families with a total of 409,000 hectares, the Honduran government promoted a migration program to move families to sparsely-populated areas of the Atlantic coast, particularly Bajo Aguán. Vitalino Álvarez, Secretary of Public Relations of the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguán (MUCA), told me: “In the 1980s this department was considered Central America’s granary; the majority of production of staple grains came from here. Later a policy of planting African palm was implemented. Funding for the planting of grains was cut to persuade campesinos to cultivate palm, destined for the production of food and biofuels. Then in the early 1990s, the International Monetary Fund and the neoliberal Honduran government inaugurated an agrarian policy that gave a green light to the landowners to hoard the campesinos’ lands. Everyone began to sell their land under threats and blackmail; much of it was sold to Miguel Facussé. Those who refused were assassinated.”

When they discovered that the concessions to the landowners would run until 2005, the campesinos organized to recover their lands. In April 2010, the Honduran government promised 11,000 hectares to the campesinos of Bajo Aguán, as well as the construction of 500 houses, and education and health services. However, the agreement was not respected and it has sparked the repression by the hired guns of Honduran businessman Miguel Facussé.

Despite that betrayal, MUCA and the Authentic Peasant Protest Movement of Aguán (MARCA) signed another agreement with the Lobo government, while the International Gathering was taking place, which promised the exchange of land for money and that the palm oil will be sold to the firm Hondupalma. The following week, President Porfirio Lobo traveled to Bajo Aguán, where he promised to improve the conditions of health and education, implement a plan for housing and infrastructure, and to launch a number of social projects. However, at no time did he mention the subject of human rights, nor did he promise to punish those responsible for the committed offenses.

“Lobo is the president, but those in charge are the oligarchs,” said Wendy Cruz of the Women’s Commission of Via Campesina Central America. The Honduran oligarchy, to which the families of Porfirio Lobo and Manuel Zelaya belong, began to organize in the mid-twentieth century, when a handful of Jews and Palestinians migrated to Central America, attracted by the investment of foreign capital by transnational mining and banana companies. “Today these 10 families control industries, banks, the media, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the National Police, and the government,” said Miriam Miranda, President of the National Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH).

The family of Miguel Facussé is among the most powerful in the country. Among the many businesses that it controls, it owns many of the African palm fields in the country, of which 70% is destined for foreign markets. Miguel Facussé is the man who is unleashing most of the repression in the endless monoculture fields of Bajo Aguán.

“He took over the lands, the beaches and the rivers, he took over all the natural resources of Bajo Aguán,” said Vitalino Álvarez. And not only in Bajo Aguán: In Zacate Grande, on the Pacific coast of Honduras, Facussé is trying to take land from the campesinos in order to build tourist facilities. “Facussé is the person who arrived in the most despicable way,” said Miguel Angel Vásquez of ADEPZA of Zacate Grande. “He entered the community in the 70s, eating and coexisting with the campesinos, in such a way that they fell in love with him. Later he tried to lower the morale of the people, to persuade them to sell their lands.”