by Dana Frank
As we settle into our warm winter naps in the United States, a new wave of military repression is sweeping through Honduras, directed at the campesino movement. In December troops moved in and once again attacked the poorest of Honduras’ rural poor, who have been standing up for their rights with astonishing bravery since the June 28, 2009 military coup. Up here in the North we can turn cozily aware from their plight. But as we sleep, our tax dollars are at work funding the Honduran army, police, and ongoing illegitimate government.
For decades, the campesinos (peasants) of Honduras have been struggling for basic land rights, confronting a handful of elite oligarchs who have been gradually seizing their lands through extralegal means. And for decades, the campesinos have refused to starve, using collective action to demand meaningful land reform. The center of campesino struggle remains the Aguan Valley, in the Northeast corner of the country, where the country’s richest and most powerful man (and the most important figure behind the coup), Miguel Facussé, has taken over much of the land in the lower Aguan Valley and planted it with African palms. He has his own private army, works closely with narcotraffickers in the region, and in many ways is more powerful locally than the Honduran national government.
Beginning last December, 2009, almost 10,000 campesinos, organized in the Movimiento Unificado de Campesinos de Aguan (the Unified Movement of Campesinos of Aguan, MUCA) and other groups have been staging “recuperations” of lands illegally seized by Facussé. The resulting repression has been brutal: in the past year as many as 20 campesinos have assassinated by police, the army, paramilitaries, and Facussé’s private troops. In April, 2010, President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa sent in around 3,000 troops into the Aguan Valley to repress the campesino movement. Only after an international outcry did he pull out some of the troops and promise a small bit of land to the protesters.
Now a new wave of repression is terrorizing the region. On November 15, Facusse’s hired assassins shot and killed five campesino activists in the Aguan Valley community of El Tumbador. The government has made no attempt to investigate the crimes. Completely thwarted on the legal front, on December 7, 2,500 organized campesinos from three different associations began a sit-in blockading the main highway running through the Aguan Valley, to demand an end to the ongoing militarization of the zone and justice for those murdered.
The night of Tuesday, December 14, the government announced it was going to forcibly remove the demonstrators from the highway at 6:00 the next morning. Somewhere between 800 and 1,000 troops poured into the area, surrounding the campesino community of Guadelupe Carney next to the highway. But just as the eviction was to begin, the protesters chose to voluntary leave the road.
When I arrived four hours later, the area remained completely militarized in a terrifying show of deliberate intimidation. On the way into the zone we passed two tear gas tanks containing tear gas and eight huge troop transport vehicles. As we entered the community we saw hundreds of police, army soldiers, special forces, private thugs, and troops in civilian clothes, walking in groups throughout the community and surrounding it completely. The residents told us they had not been allowed to leave since the evening before. I saw groups of officers search cars and houses, surround the local independent radio station, Radio Orquidea, for twenty minutes, and occupy the community-owned cafe. We could see snipers on the hillsides around the town. A helicopter circled round and round, low, with no apparent purpose except intimidation.
As time passed more and more troops began to show up and walk onto the grassy field in the center of town next to the church. They sat down with their backs against the few trees, sprawled across the lawn, or came in and out of a big grey-green military tent erected in the middle. Residents told me they’d seen several of the soldiers urinate in the church. That morning, I was told, the military had halted a bus of campesinos arriving to show solidarity, seized their cell phones, taken out the batteries, and hit two people.
The government’s pretext for all this is to somehow show that the campesino movement is armed–and therefore justify the military occupation of the entire country. In a coordinated media campaign, it has alleged that arms are pouring in from Nicaragua and Venezuela and that human rights observers have come to the Aguan Valley only to lie about human rights abuses.
But the campesinos are unarmed. Desperate repeated searches of campesino homes, cars, and community buildings, the government has yet to find guns, and the protest movement remains astonishingly nonviolent after a year and a half of brutal repression. It’s the government and its private allies that have the scary armaments. I saw hundreds of assault rifles and other weapons in the hands of the troops, in contrast to the campesinos’ empty arms and empty stomachs. Moreover, the government is countenancing, indeed closely cooperating with an array of private armies that are proliferating in Honduras, especially Facusse’s.
That same morning, on the opposite side of the country, in the community of Zacate Grande, the same array of private forces and government repression brutally attacked campesinos also challenging Facussé, in a campaign clearly coordinated with the actions in the Aguan Valley. Police, army soldiers, and the private police forces of the HSBC bank–suddenly claiming a different, unpaid mortgage on lands long owned by a local campesino family–attacked a group of campesinos refusing to leave their own land, launched tear gas and live bullets, and beat people brutally. Two people were hospitalized and twelve have been detained, including two journalists covering the attack.
Since the June 28, 2009 coup, as many as 200 people have been killed for their work opposing the regime, including trade unionists, gay rights activists, and ten journalists. Over 5,000 have been illegally detained. Women have been gang raped in custody, one of them gang raped again after she denounced it publicly. On September 15, in San Pedro Sula, the city’s second largest city, troops tear gassed and invaded Radio Uno, an opposition Radio Station, and then broke up a concert, and tear gassed and beat up protesters at a large, peaceful demonstration by the opposition.
Yet in the entire year and a half since the coup, almost no one has been charged or prosecuted for any of this. Complete impunity reigns. In the words of Eduardo David Ardón, writing in the Honduran daily El Tiempo last week, “State terrorism has a green light, to exercise every kind of violence and commit crimes of every sort from right to left, without being judged or investigated.” Meanwhile, five judges and magistrates who protested the coup remain fired, despite outcries by the international justice community.
And our United States government is paying the bills. U.S. aid to the Honduran military and ongoing coup government, only briefly and very partially curtailed after the coup, now flows freely. The Honduran military continues its training programs in Fort Benning, Georgia–where officers remain undisturbed in their classes the very week after the coop. The Honduran police also receive generous and regular training from the United States government, including a “rigorous, seven-month course” at the National Police Academy, according to a recent press release from the U.S. -Honduran Joint Task Force-Bravo. “The goal is to provide assistance to the academy on a more regular basis.”
As the campesino movement illustrates, though, despite all this hideous repression the Honduran people are still pushing forward with their vision of a new Honduras based on social justice and democracy. The resistance movement, uniting the women’s, gay, labor, campesino, indigenous, and Afro-indigenous movements, the human rights community, and the progressive wing of the Liberal Party, continues to strengthen itself, now building a neighborhood-by-neighborhood structure in preparation for a National Assembly on February 26.
In January, the opposition’s Alternative Truth Commission (not to be confused with the government’s bogus Truth Commission, which is going nowhere fast), is sending out a team of investigators to verify post-coup human rights violations throughout Honduras, collect new testimony, and correlate the information from all the country’s human rights groups. In contrast to truth commissions launched in other countries, though, it is operating under very dangerous conditions, as the conflict is by no means resolved and the commission, despite a prestigious international composition, has no governmental powers.
Meanwhile, at home, a newly empowered congressional Right is ready to pounce. Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is about to control the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and her Cuban-American ultra-Right ally, Rep. Connie Mack, will head the Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs. They have already announced they plan hearings on Honduras with which to attack Obama from the Right.
As we awake from our holiday naps and begin the new year, Progressives need to demand, instead, that Congress challenge Obama from the Left, for his ongoing, overt support for the illegitimate coup regime in Honduras. But Congressmembers and Senators will only challenge the administration if we continue to build a grassroots movement, district by district, state by state, to pressure them from below–so that we can stop our US-funded military repression in Honduras, and help make it possible for the Honduran people to move toward the new, democratic society of which they dream.