"I call myself a veteran Defender of Human Rights- it sounds better than old- and as I sit down to write this I feel ill at ease, perhaps because I have the idea that over the long process of the last few decades, we had achieved some small and relative advances in the area of Human Rights. Perhaps its because I always look towards the past in order to spy into the future and, of course, to check on the present ." -Bertha Oliva de Nativi of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras
"I call myself a veteran Defender of Human Rights- it sounds better than old- and as I sit down to write this I feel ill at ease, perhaps because I have the idea that over the long process of the last few decades, we had achieved some small and relative advances in the area of Human Rights. Perhaps its because I always look towards the past in order to spy into the future and, of course, to check on the present " -Bertha Oliva de Nativi
The history of Bertha Oliva de Nativi is the history of Honduras. If the storyline of the past one hundred years of this continent has been ‘so few with so much, and so many with so little’, then Bertha has been the fearless protagonist racing to rewrite the chapters that will hence come. In 1982 Berta’s husband, Professor Tomas Nativi disappeared. One of hundreds of Hondurans and tens of thousands of Central Americans to lose their lives to state sanctioned violence, Tomas and all of those who have disappeared remain the most terrifying and silencing bootprint of the military regimes of the 1980’s. The stories are all too common: "they came to our door in the middle of the night" or "he just never came home ever again." Their families must find ways to grieve, to cope, and to say goodbye to their loved ones without the benefit of closure or resolution. Some, however, began to demand answers. Shortly after Tomas’ disappearance Bertha and twelve other families also in search of their missing loved ones founded what would become the most well respected human rights organizations in the country, the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). Throughout the military repression of the last century, the banana strike of 1954 and the cold war proxy wars, Honduras has born infinite other protagonists as well, many of whom history will never remember their names or their faces. However, their collective effort to forge a better quality of life for themselves and their communities lives on in the heroes of today’s social movements. We can lend our ears to the testimonies of a handful of the tireless warriors that work day in and day out to lead their country towards a more just and peaceful place. Dina Mesa. Rutilia Calderon. Carmen Alvarado. Luis Mendez. Raul. Juliana. Edgardo. Anonymous, 51 years old. Anonymous, 28 years old. Anonymous, 23 years old. Among countless others, they work as journalists, doctors, educators, trade unionists, community organizers, mothers, fathers, grandparents. Here they trace for us the context of the current state of affairs in Honduras and speak to the most pressing issues at hand.
We the People of Central America
The history of repression in Central America has flown for centuries like a river into the sea of the impoverished masses. If we follow this flow upstream we see that it runs directly through the handful of local elite families to the source – the economic and military might of the United States. Luis Mendez, an organizer with the National Front of Resistance against the Coup D’etat, puts the June 28 military takeover of Honduras in historical context:
"We the people of Central America have tread through sad and painful processes. In Nicaragua, just as in Guatemala, and of course in El Salvador. Honduras, meanwhile, has been a strategic platform for the United States to install military bases, originally to support the counter-revolution in Nicaragua. This threw our country on it’s side. We have the most powerful people in the country lacerating the economy and abusing the people. In the context of all of the violence that we witnessed in Central America in the 80’s, the people of Honduras accepted it, paralyzed and silent. We tolerated the military and political powers, but the coup d’etat means that we have reached our limit of tolerance, a limit to the abuse that we have been subjected to for decades. We say enough is enough."
As the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, limited access to land, healthcare, education and basic nutrition have created an incredible gap between the few who hold economic and political power and everybody else. Two-thirds of the country live under-employed in the fragile informal economy, highly vulnerable to the current recession. These conditions are prime for the infectious growth of gangs, crime, violence and discrimination against minorities. The ‘cure’ for Honduran poverty has taken the form of World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank loans, mega mining, dam and tourism development projects, and a heavy reliance on the U.S. to buy it’s principal exports of textiles, minerals, coffee and bananas. Unfortunately, these trends which date back to the first days of the original Banana Republic and the United Fruit Company’s early monopoly of the region continue to hammer the country into imperial submission. This begs the question – what can be done?
"We wanted the constituyente so that the poor would finally have a voice with which to speak. In the past we were left on the fringe, not allowed to enter into society because if we ever tried they would break our nose with the door." -Juliana. Grandmother, Protestor. 80 years old.
"What does the ‘consituyente’ mean for the Honduran people? The country needs to recast itself. It needs to revise the constitution because it does not correspond to the needs of the Honduran citizenry. If elections continue with all of the blood and fire of this country, without the president who was forcibly removed, then these elections are illegal." -Dina Mesa, investigative journalist and recipient of Amnesty International’s ‘Special Award for Human Rights Journalists Under Threat’ (www.defensoresenlinea.org)
On June 28, the citizens of Honduras were slated for a non-binding vote to begin the process of Constitutional Reform. The ‘Constituyente’ (a Constituent Assembly) would allow for the creation of a body to rewrite the Honduran set of rules for government, written originally in 1982, after decades of military dictatorships. According to the United States Department of State’s human rights report for 1992, "although basic human rights are protected in the 1982 constitution, in practice the government has been unable to assure that many violations are fully investigated, or that most of the perpetrators, either military or civilian, are brought to justice."
"The constitution should be an expression of a pact between the different social sectors of a country. The Constitution, since it’s inception in 1982, has simply been a formality that is only invoked when a certain group or person is at risk. From 1982 until now, it has never been invoked for the common good, for the good of the excluded sectors of this country," explains Dr. Rutilia Calderon, epidemiologist, professor and veteran on the edge of social change for the last 35 years. "If we are therefore to give the Constitutional Reform process the characteristics of a social pact that will permit an inclusive society, real access to conditions of equality, in the eyes of the law and the justice system, then the Constituyente makes sense. But if it is only to become once again a measure for the powerful groups of the country to continue protecting their interests, under the delusion that the demands of the people will be attended to through elected representatives, then it will not be for the better. The construction of a reform process is not to produce a formal document that is called ‘The Constitution,’ it is to create new forms of relating between different sectors of society- to close the gap of inequality and to attain a just distribution of the wealth that this country has."
Culture of Fear
The ‘Constituyente’ referendum was interrupted by and became the commonly accepted motive of the kidnapping of the country’s currently elected President Manuel Zelaya, known as "Mel," on the very day it was scheduled for, over four months ago. In the interest of the most economically powerful families of the country, President of the National Congress Roberto Micheletti seized power. Thus faded hopes of constitutional reform began a stream of dictatorial repression. The atmosphere of human rights has been tenuous at best and deadly at worst.
"You don’t walk around alone. We walk in groups of three or four. I used to participate a couple times a week in the protests but I was let go from my job so now I am here everyday. You have to understand, the economy is terrible since the coup d’etat. Look, you see them (soldiers) over there taking photos. They take your photo and then they compare it to those in the Electoral Registry. They can find your identification number, and then for the love of god- your age, your address… do you know how many of us have disappeared? Yesterday another was found dead in San Pedro Sula." -Anonymous Protestor, 51 years old.
"Right now we have a National Congress that depends directly on the Executive branch. We have a Supreme Court that responds directly to the interests of the Executive branch. We have a Commision of Human Rights and a Public Ministry that respond directly to the Executive Branch. Now, for example, the Public Ministry denounces certain individuals who participate in peaceful demonstrations and accuses them of sedition. They become political prisoners. They are using our own judicial system to plant seeds of terror." -Dina Mesa, journalist.
"The spinal column of the repression is based in the criminalization of protest, the control, censorship and closure of dissenting media outlets, and the illegal suspension of constitutional rights," states COFADEH’s report "Statistics and Faces of the Repression – Violations of Human Rights in the Context of the Coup D’etat," presented at a Press Conference in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, on Oct. 22. The statement references the closing of television station Channel 36 and radio station Radio Globo. COFADEH, the leading human rights organization in Honduras, reports that in relation to the political violence ensuing after the date of the Coup, June 28, until Oct. 10, they have registered 21 assassinations, 685 injuries to person, 3,033 illegal detentions and 108 death threats on official record.
The Resistance: Diversity and Democracy
"My name is -anonymous-. I come here today to represent the Barrio de Kennedy…." "My name is -anonymous-. I was sent here by the people of the Valley of Amarateca…." "My name is -anonymous-. I come from Cerro Grande…."
Democracy begins at the ground level and is best carried out in circles. That’s exactly how the National Front of Resistance Against the Coup D’etat gathered this past Saturday morning in order to discuss the upcoming elections. Over 100 representatives from each of the neighborhoods surrounding the capital city sat in five separate discussion circles, each huddled around a giant white sheet of paper on the ground. An elected scribe perched over this drawing board in each of the circles, as each person took turns speaking to the demands and to the ideas of their home communities. Throughout the discussions a common thread prevailed that highlighted the necessity to abstain from the elections – to search out a deeper sense of democracy for this country. How to accomplish this was naturally up for hot debate and over the span of several hours each of the circles labored to work out the diversity of ideas in order to present them to the rest of groups. It proved to be an exemplary demonstration of democracy in action, putting the power to make decisions in the hands of the common citizens, sitting in circles, at the ground level.
Image: Students from the Revolutionary University Force celebrate resistance to the military dictatorship that has taken hold of their country. Their protests remain peaceful and dancing and cheering rock the evening on campus at the National Autonomous University. However the desperation for change is apparent as an effigy of de facto President Roberto Micheletti is burned and the symbols of fascism are sent ‘al carajo’ (to hell).
With Mel or Without Mel
"Why do I say the Resistance transcends Mel?," asks Carmen Alvarado, social justice veteran and organizer with ‘Visitacion Padilla: Women for Peace’ (www.laschonas.com). "Because we believe in democracy as a way of life. Democracy is a continual process in which many different people converge to share a diversity of ideas and ideals, a process that embraces tolerance and plurality, and that is open to change. Democracy should be a system that guarantees the rights of men and women, indigenous peoples, whites and blacks, homosexuals and lesbians, rich and poor, and in this manner we can construct a democratic perspective of life that transcends what the political parties are capable of thinking. Will the simple act of voting will take care of our lives? No. This is not a movement of Mel sympathizers, like the media outlets would have you believe. This is a social movement."
Dr. Rutilia Calderon further examines the situation of her country, "In a simplified analysis of the crisis of this country, there is a conflict between ousted President Zelaya and de facto President Micheletti, but in fact the crisis is far beyond individuals. Perhaps Zelaya, through his discourse of hope, came to represent for the excluded portions of society seeking any type of social opportunity, a chance that things could change. In this sense, the poor of this country, the people who live on less than a dollar a day began to organize, began to recuperate a sense of grassroots organization that was lost during the repression of the ’80’s."
Luis Mendez elaborates, "The strengthening of real democracy in this country has to do with the clear consciousness of the Honduran people that with Mel or without Mel in the presidency the struggle will continue forward. Farmers, laborers, young and old, a diversity of groups are working together. With Mel or without Mel, we need to clean up the politics, the administrative, justice and legislative systems, as well as reconstruct the media and the cultural and social aspects that have been invaded by the most powerful sectors and subsequently manipulated, abused, controlled."
Where do we go from here? The Resistance has marked 130 straight days of their continued presence in the streets. Months of stalled negotiations were superficially resolved last week with the less-than-punctual intervention of the U.S. State Department. The Guaymuras Accords signed between de facto president Micheletti and ousted president Zelaya will allow the Honduran Congress to decide whether Zelaya will be reinstated, although the amount of legitamite power he would assume is completely unclear. Constitutional Reform was officially wiped from the board and as the three short months left of Zelaya’s term dwindle, many are worried that after the elections at the end of November, the world will forget about the injustice of the Coup. Others suggest that if elections are not internationally recognized it will give Michelletti an excuse to continue his military reign indefinitly. Anonymous protestor, age 28, echoes the commentary heard all around this week’s demonstrations, "This agreement is a stalling tactic. The State Department is trying to eat up time by deceiving with false promises, right alongside the perpetrators of the Coup. If not this week, then next week "
COFADEH warns the world, "With documented proof in our hands we are affirming to the world that the country we live in is in a state of NATIONAL EMERGENCY. " There are, however, rays of hope to be found. In the context of the repression from the 1980’s, the situation here rings Deja Vu, but there are key differences between the two eras. Access to technology has given many organizations and independent bloggers the chance to have their voices heard. With high speed communication and cell phones present at every demonstration, disappearances and cases of violence are known about immediately. Moreover, the presence of international witnesses and journalists since the very beginning of the Coup has helped to increase accountability of human rights violators. COFADEH’s human rights report speaks to their ability to increase accountability, "Although the military dictatorship that we live under today has similar features to the situation that we suffered under in the 1980’s, one major difference is that the repressors of that age hid their faces and their names. On the contrary, the repressors of today have faces, they have names, they have uniforms."
The Resistance itself, largely characterized in the media as pro-Chavez Communists and demonized as extremists, does not go without critique from it’s own members. Carmen Avarado warns, "We are a heterogenous group. It is still up to us to internally discuss and debate the situation, decide where we go from here. The weakness of the Resistance is that it lacks a clear political vision, there is no common point, and this is why it has largely manifested in little more than street protests."
"The leaders of the Resistance," explains Dr. Rutilia Calderon, "who largely come from union backgrounds, have an enormous responsibility with the majority who do not pertain to unions or a particular patronage, but simply spontaneously began toorganize themselves, of their own accord. We can hope that these leaders steer the country beyond the Zelaya-Micheletti polemic. There are many doubts about their real commitments and we are going to have to be very attentive in the next several months to see if the loudest voices of the Resistance give in to personal interests, or truly assume leadership of this surging grassroots movement."