“Here the People Govern’: Autonomy and Resistance in San Francisco Opalaca, Honduras

Every day and night for four consecutive months, the Lenca people of San Francisco Opalaca have been maintaining a 24-hour blockade and vigil at the entrance to their Mayor’s office, thus preventing the ruling party-imposed candidate from taking office. The Honduran government claims National Party candidate Socorro Sanchez won the Mayoral race in Opalaca during last November’s elections. However,  the people of Opalaca know otherwise.

Every day and night for four consecutive months, the Lenca people of San Francisco Opalaca have been maintaining a 24-hour blockade and vigil at the entrance to their Mayor’s office, thus preventing the ruling party-imposed candidate from taking office. The Honduran government claims National Party candidate Socorro Sanchez won the Mayoral race in Opalaca during last November’s elections. However,  the people of Opalaca know otherwise. The fraud that occurred in San Francisco Opalaca – a remote Indigenous Lenca municipality in the Honduran state of Intibuca is a microcosm of the larger electoral fraud that many people believe occurred all across the country in November’s election as the ruling National Party consolidated power and prevented the widely popular LIBRE party from winning the presidency.

In San Francisco Opalaca, Socorro Sanchez came to power in the widely boycotted elections following the 2009 military coup in Honduras.  For the 2013 elections, he used his position to prepare a system of fraud to ensure he stayed in power. Residents of Opalaca report that people from La Esperanza, Azacualpa, Otoro, and other places were registered to vote in Opalaca ahead of the elections. Not only were these National Party loyalists from other places reportedly registered to vote in Opalaca, but they were also reportedly brought in to work the voting stations as table representatives. Community leaders contend that the National Party purchased 32 voting table credentials from the small political parties, as they in other voting stations across the country, stacking the table workers against the new LIBRE party when it came time to count the votes. Socorro Sanchez also bought votes, pressuring residents and offering money. If you were extremely poor, he reportedly offered 500 Lempiras; if you were a little better off the offer was 1,000 to 1,500 Lempiras. One man recalls how his brother had never supported the National Party before, but after being constantly pressured by the Mayor, he felt he had no other choice than to join the party.

Despite all of the manipulations to rig the elections, the people of San Francisco Opalaca say they have had enough of Socorro Sanchez’s corruption and alliances with corporations that want to privatize Opalaca’s resources, not to mention that he didn’t get enough votes to win. Even with the National Party apparently busing in voters from other places, buying credentials to manipulate the vote counting, and offering money, the outcome was a tie between Sanchez and Entimo Vasquez, a long-time community leader and the candidate for the new LIBRE political party. So what the National Party did to fix that problem, according to community leaders, was simply add eight more votes for Socorro to one of the tally sheets. In the community of El Naranjo, the table workers counted 80 votes each for Sanchez and Vasquez, but recorded 88 votes for Sanchez on the tally sheet that was transmitted to the Electoral Tribunal. This tally sheet was posted by the Electoral Tribunal and Socorro was declared the winner of the Municipality by eight votes.

But the people of Opalaca knew what happened; those who witnessed the vote count in El Naranjo knew the tally sheet was not correct and many voters had noticed people they had never seen before voting in their small communities. They also knew that these people were not residents of Opalaca. Vasquez and his supporters tried to challenge the results, but given that the National Party had carefully consolidated control of the Electoral Tribunal, Supreme Court, and Attorney General’s office before the elections, that led nowhere.

So on January 25, 2014 when Socorro Sanchez was to be sworn in as Mayor, person after person showed up very early at the Mayor’s office. Soon hundreds gathered and they blocked the door and the entire front of the building. They would not let Socorro be sworn in as their Mayor. They held an Assembly and declared that the Honduran government cannot impose a Mayor on them. They stayed there all day. All night. The next day. And the next. And they haven’t left.

The Indigenous Council developed a system of shifts, with people from across the municipality walking for hours to get to Monte Verde and to take turns guarding the Mayor’s office. They organized a community kitchen, with people contributing beans, rice, and tortillas, while others volunteered to cook. They set up a cleaning crew, which carefully sweeps and mops away all the mud each morning to keep the Mayor’s office – their Municipal Building – in tip top shape. In February, they held a huge assembly with direct democracy elections to declare themselves autonomous Indigenous people and without political parties that they would directly choose and vote for their leaders. People associated with many parties participated, because, as one woman explained, “we are tired of corrupt mayors.” Vasquez was elected the Legitimate Mayor of Opalaca and other community leaders were elected for to the different positions in the Municipal Corporation; they were sworn in in front of the Assembly by the Council of Elders and the Indigenous Council.

Well over 100 days after they blocked Sanchez from taking office, the people of Opalaca continue their round the clock vigil to stop him from taking power. They have demanded an audit of the financial accounts of his last term as Mayor, demanding to know what has happened to money destined for community projects. While the audit was carried out, they elected a team of young people to carefully watch every step.  And they continue to demand the state of Honduras stop imposing the ultra-right National Party on them and recognize their legitimate Indigenous Mayor and Municipal Corporation.

Opalaca’s History of Autonomy and Struggle

“Nothing has been given to us, we do not want nor have we asked for crumbs, nor pity, nor charity; we are actors and protagonists of this Indigenous and community construction… we are working to reach democracy, transparency, and the direct exercise of power in the administration and control of our municipality and territories.” -Declaration of the Lenca people of Opalaca, February 2014

San Francisco Opalaca was created out of struggle. The Lenca communities there were historically abandoned by the government, with no electricity, no running water, almost no roads, just a few schools. In the early 1990s they organized as part of COPINH to demand their own municipality to bring basic government services to their communities and defend their forests from illegal logging. They organized pilgrimages and walked for weeks from the mountains of Opalaca to Tegucigalpa, held protests and marches never giving up. In 1994 they won and the Municipality of San Francisco Opalaca was created. They also won 22 community land titles to defend their communal indigenous land and extensive natural resources.

The Lenca people of San Francisco Opalaca elected their first Municipal Mayor and Municipal Council in direct elections without the interference of political parties in 1994. Since long before the creation of the Municipality, the people of Opalaca were autonomous, governing themselves collectively, and choosing community leaders who carry out the mandate of assemblies, not politicians who steal money and attempt to sell off their natural resources to corporations. So when the Honduran State tried to impose Socorro Sanchez for a second term, they simply said ‘no’. Person after person explains, “If we need to be here for four years guarding the Mayor’s office, we will.”

At Stake in Opalaca: Natural Resources, Privatization, and the Lenca Territory

At stake in who occupies the mayor’s seat is who will control acre after acre of pristine forest, clean rivers, abundant water sources, and the Lenca’s culture and traditional way of life which depends on these resources. The people of Opalaca are well aware that multinational institutions and the Honduran oligarchy want to privatize and exploit their forests, rivers, minerals, and water. With their 22 communal land titles and energetic defense of their natural resources, they have repeatedly expelled companies that have sought to privatize and exploit their resources. Unfortunately, some of these companies and institutions do not understand that no means no. Imposing a Mayor who will sign on the dotted line to make way for corporations and multilateral financial institutions is part of the plan to privatize Opalaca.

In 2005, Terra Group, owned by Fredy Nasser one of the most powerful oligarchs in Honduras who is well-known for his support for the military coup received 40 river concessions in Honduras, including one for the Gualcarque River which runs through Opalaca. Despite much effort, Terra Group and its subsidiaries INERSA and Rios Power have not been able to build their planned complex of dams in Opalaca. The people of Opalaca have stopped them time and time again. They have said ‘no’ repeatedly in municipal-wide assemblies, including one in February 2013, when Socorro Sanchez tried to change the topic once he saw people were against the dam complex. However, the auxiliary community leaders demanded a vote, resulting in a resounding rejection of the dam complex.

Additionally, the World Bank has its eyes set on acre after acre of pristine forest in Opalaca. Opalaca is rich in forests, forests that the Lenca people have carefully used for hundreds of years, which now face privatization. The World Bank has identified the Lenca region of Honduras as a pilot site for REDD+, which privatizes the forest in the name of carbon trading and reducing carbon emissions.  The development of REDD+ in Honduras has been extremely problematic, with documents claiming the involvement of Indigenous Peoples, even reportedly mentioning Indigenous rights groups such as COPINH and OFRANEH as being involved when in fact those groups have been clear in their rejection of the UN’s carbon trading scheme. In February 2013, COPINH sent a letter to the World Bank, declaring:

We reject the fraudulent REDD+ process and the development of REDD+ in general. REDD+ is another trap for Indigenous Peoples, pretending that this is a compensatory mechanism for those who have been taking care of forests for centuries. But if that’s what it was really about, there would be other ways of protecting the forest, such as not allowing deforestation by large timber companies…REDD+ projects involve the loss of indigenous autonomy and community, territorial control, cultures and traditional forms of forest use that our communities have practiced for hundreds of years. Furthermore, we believe that REDD+ is a step towards intensifying land grabs in our territories and forests, and means more monocultures, and the eviction from, or limited access of our people to the forests, the loss of sovereignty, increased militarization, repression and occupation of indigenous territories and the territories of all our people.

In addition to forests, Opalaca is extremely rich in water, and residents of the Santa Maria area of San Francisco Opalaca also face the potential loss of their water source, which the Mayor of neighboring San Francisco de Ojuera is trying to take from them. The Winse River runs through that area and the people of Santa Maria have been defending the Winse River from dams as well as standing up for their water source. On March 23, 2013, Esteban Lorenzo, a COPINH member since its founding 20 years ago and staunch defender of the Winse River, was walking home from purchasing some things in San Francisco de Ojuera when a wealthy National Party activist hit Esteban with his truck, sending Esteban flying and leaving him on the side of the road unconscious.

Murder and Death Threats

Resistance in Honduras today is often met with violence and  the situation in Opalaca is no different. On February 9, the house of ‘legitimate Mayor’ Entimo Vasquez’s daughter Marta was broken into and her children’s clothing, school uniforms, diplomas, and school supplies taken and burned. Then on February 21, Entimo’s brother Justiniano Vasquez was murdered on his way home from the blockade at the Mayor’s office, when he was followed and killed by Juan Rodriguez, who had previously threatened to kill Entimo. Rodriguez is reported to be part of the National Party’s “mancha brava.” The people of Opalaca collectively detained him and turned him over to the police, but in Honduras today, prosecution is unlikely. Entimo Vasquez recalls the threats his brother had received, including being told they would each be given two shots in the head.  He and other leaders continue to face death threats and intimidation yet Vasquez insists, “we will continue in the struggle.” Government officials visiting Opalaca have even insinuated elected leaders of Opalaca could face legal charges such as sedition.

But the people of Opalaca recognize that they have too much at stake to back down. Their resistance continues, side-by-side with the construction of their autonomy and Indigenous government. The concept of authorities who will govern by listening to the will of the people pervades the resistance in Opalaca. Any important decision is brought to an assembly and discussion. Vasquez and others who have been elected in assemblies are conscious that “here, the people govern” and that it is the collective will that must be obeyed. This is part of their tradition of collective life and it shows in their community land titles, which require an assembly to decide to sell any Indigenous land. On February 15, at a major gathering the people of Opalaca declared:

Our community land titles, protected by Convention 169, are sacred and we will protect and defend them until the last consequences. In our territory, we are the ones who decide. We reject projects that threaten our natural resources, such as privatization of rivers and forests through REDD projects, mining exploitation, and hydroelectric dams for the powerful usurpers of this country…Energy is a human right, which should be a public good, based on the real needs and priorities of human beings and not for the hands of the exploiters and thieves who privatize with the only goal of profit and concentration of power and wealth. We will enter the debate about alternative forms of energy, ones that are ecological and under Indigenous and public control, without destroying our territories, biodiversity, culture, and life.

One member of the Council of Elders put it simply by saying, “We are defending the people, what belongs to us, because this Mayor’s office belongs to all of us…we are defending our territory because we don’t want it sold off.”