Honduras: Regime Says ‘Yes’ to Talks but Squelches Protests

(IPS) – While it publicly declares its willingness to continue to engage in dialogue, the de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti in Honduras is taking a hard-line approach to protests demanding the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya. So far three people have been killed, around 100 have been injured, and 150 have been arrested and held for several hours or days.

In the 36 days since Zelaya was hauled out of bed by soldiers and put on a plane to Costa Rica, the authorities say 260 demonstrations, roadblocks and public sector strikes have been held around the country by the president’s supporters.

High school teacher Roger Vallejo, who was shot in the head when the police broke up a roadblock on Thursday in the capital, died after two days in intensive care. Another teacher, Martin Florencio Rivera, was stabbed to death after leaving Vallejo’s wake Saturday.

Both deaths are under investigation. The teachers’ union, which has been on strike, demanding Zelaya’s return, blamed the police for Vallejo’s death and urged the prosecutors to carry out a swift inquiry.

In the same police operation, activist Carlos Reyes’ arm was broken. Reyes plans to run as an independent presidential candidate in the general elections scheduled for Nov. 29.

Vallejo’s wake is being held at a high school, and the burial will take place on Tuesday, to give relatives from outside the capital time to arrive.

The wake has drawn large numbers of teachers, students, social activists and members of the general public.

At the wake, the leaders of the Resistance Front against the Coup d’Etat announced a six-day march that will set out Wednesday from different parts of the country and converge on the two biggest cities: Tegucigalpa, and San Pedro Sula in the north.

The plan is to form two large groups of demonstrators to demand the restoration of the constitutional government.

The first protester to be killed was 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo, who was shot by the security forces at Tegucigalpa airport on Jul. 5 when Zelaya’s attempt to return to the country by plane was thwarted by the military.

A leader of the teachers’ union, Lina Pineda, told IPS that "we never imagined that the break-up of the roadblock (where Vallejo was killed) would be so violent. They surrounded the demonstrators and began to lob tear gas canisters at them and beat several leaders with their nightsticks, while others were taken to police posts, although they were released shortly after."

Pineda said that although the police had warned in a Jul. 29 communiqué that they would not tolerate any more roadblocks "because we were hurting the economy and the country’s powerful elites, we never thought that warning was going to end in tragic violent incidents like the death of our colleague Vallejo."

"We are going to use the authority given to us by law; people have the right to hold peaceful protests, but not to block other rights," police spokesman Orlin Cerrato told IPS, referring to occupations of buildings and traffic blockades.

Over the weekend, the de facto regime lifted the curfew in place for nearly a month, except along the border with Nicaragua, where a 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM curfew remains in place.

Hundreds of Zelaya supporters have crossed into Nicaragua, where the leader has spent much of his time over the last two weeks near the Honduran border.

Micheletti said Monday that "we are going to restore order and control; we will not allow the economy to be further damaged, and we will not permit violence on the part of protesters; we are going to enforce the law."

Local and international human rights groups have called for respect for constitutional guarantees in the border zones, and for measures to protect human rights defenders and social activists.

From his centre of operations on Nicaragua’s northern border, Zelaya lamented Vallejo’s death and announced that "peaceful people’s militias" have started to be trained by his supporters on several estates in the Nicaraguan region of Ocotal, 25 km from the Honduran border post at Las Manos in the southeastern Honduran province of El Paraíso. On Monday, Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, who has been brokering talks between Zelaya and the de facto regime, planned to meet with Organisation of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, and Enrique Iglesias, head of the Organisation of Ibero-American States secretariat.

Micheletti praised the meeting between Arias and Iglesias, and asked that the latter be sent to Honduras as a foreign envoy, to meet with different political and social sectors to discuss the crisis and Arias’s 11-point compromise proposal, which includes the return of Zelaya as president and a political amnesty.

In the meantime, Zelaya has begun to send out signals that he is interested in returning to the talks with Arias, after meeting last week in Managua with U.S. ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens and State Department officials.

Although the results of the meeting were not reported, remarks to the Honduran press by Zelaya’s foreign minister Patricia Rodas indicate that Llorens insisted on another round of talks mediated by Arias.

"The more time that goes by, the stronger we become," deputy foreign minister of the de facto regime, Martha Lorena Alvarado, told a local TV station Sunday night. "But we are willing to engage in any dialogue that respects our constitution, and we believe that although the international pressure has been strong, we have the unity needed to withstand it, without abandoning the negotiations."

The regime boasts that it has survived the first month, despite the international pressure and isolation: no foreign government has recognised the de facto government, the EU and Latin American countries have withdrawn their ambassadors, and the U.S. and EU have suspended millions of dollars in aid.

According to the head of the industrialists’ association, Adolfo Facussé, "things are settling down here, and we have begun to make contact with foreign investors who were not interested in coming to the country before.

"We are channeling investments of nearly 500 million dollars from Canadian and U.S. business interests, and I think Zelaya is waging a struggle that makes no sense," Facussé told IPS.

"From outside the country, they want to impose on us a president who is not popular domestically, and if he comes, he won’t make it, he won’t be able to govern, because no one is behind him," he argued.

Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who was elected as the centre-right Liberal Party candidate, veered to the left after taking office in 2006, alienating the country’s conservative elites, the military, the courts and the legislature.

The coup was precipitated by his attempt to hold a non-binding referendum asking voters whether they wanted to elect a constituent assembly to redraft the constitution. In the days leading up to the coup, the courts ruled that the referendum was illegal, Zelaya sacked the armed forces commander for refusing to distribute the ballot boxes for the vote, scheduled for Jun. 28, and Zelaya refused to reinstate the military chief after the Supreme Court ordered him to do so.