Years from now when participants on the SOA Watch delegation to Honduras look back on this visit, I´ll wager to bet that the ten of us will most remember one vivid moment: standing on a dusty road bordered by fields of African palm on a steaming hot tropical afternoon. Given all we experienced those nine days in travels from coast to coast – jails, strikes, marches, land occupations, conversations with persecuted fishermen, farmers, teachers, journalists, union leaders, human rights workers, and more – this tiny memory bite sounds uneventful. But on that road in the lower Aguan valley we personally experienced – for perhaps thirty minutes – what many Hondurans face daily: the power of fear, the weight of decision.
We came from ten different cities to stand in solidarity with the people of Honduras who had been resisting the June 2009 coup that toppled President Manuel Zelaya. Two of us had been in Honduras in May 2009, just weeks before a referendum that would consult voters on whether to hold a constitutional assembly. The mood of the country then was electric. Honduras’s hour of hope seemed imminent and change just around the corner.
Change did arrive that June 28th. Only not in the anticipated form but in one that was all too familiar – at the barrel of a gun and on the orders of School of the Americas graduates. President Manuel Zelaya was picked up from the presidential palace in his pajamas and deposited on the runway of San Jose, Costa Rica. What followed was familiar script:a swell of resistance brutally repressed, media voices of truth silenced, and an “election” conveniently held to whitewash a coup (never mind that there were few electors and no observers). End of the story, according to the State Department, time to move on.
To what? To business as usual, albeit at a cost of some 80 deaths. As our delegation arrived in Honduras, so did 350 businesses from around the world, including some of the globe´s biggest billionaires. A conference convened by “President” Lobo called “Honduras is Open for Business” was taking place at the same time.
I couldn´t help but feel the contrast with another presidential conference in Honduras two years previous, that Father Roy Bourgeois and I had attended. President Zelaya´s invitees were not international billionaires but Honduran peasants, teachers, indigenous, human rights workers, union leaders. The discussion was also how to open up Honduras. But the answers were: to Hondurans! Its land to the landless, its US military base to a civilian airport, its schools to the children, its waters to its fishermen.
The stark contrast between these two conventions graphically highlight the motives behind the coup, to no one´s surprise. Exhibit A: Honduras for Hondurans, and sovereignty over their natural resources, government, security forces. Exhibit B: Honduras for the world´s corporations: its trees, oil, palms, fruits, fish, even people, auctioned out loudly and swallowed whole.
Though the conference was taking place in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, our delegation sampled the response by Hondurans as we sat under a thatched roof in a volcanic island at far south corner of Honduras. Some fishermen were looking at a newspaper photo taken at the conference of a smiling “President” Lobo as he triumphantly embraced a group of international businessmen. “What a wolf!” they commented. Fittingly, the translation of President Lobo is President Wolf.
These fishermen of Zacate Grande understand, in their own skin, the meaning behind this exuberant embrace between president and businessmen. For Franklin Melendez it meant a bullet hole through his leg. For Ethel Corea Posadas, it meant a gash to her head. For both it meant being hauled to jail and facing possible prison time for “land usurpation”. The bullets and billy club were delivered by hired hands of Honduras´s wealthiest man, Miguel Facusse. The violent arrest by Honduran security forces. But for these fishermen, the business mogul and government security forces are one and the same.
Their crime was building a tiny radio station on land that had been farmed and fished by generations of their families. Though the land seems almost inhospitable with rocks covering every imaginable spot, the view is stunning: beaches and coves of the Pacific Ocean bordered by green mountains and distant volcanoes in a corner of the country that converges with El Salvador and Nicaragua. The island of Zacate Grande had become the playground of Honduras´s wealthiest families. Franklin and Ethel consider themselves lucky in some ways, though. Ten journalists have been killed since the coup, earning Honduras the undesirable title of most dangerous place on earth for journalists.
On the complete opposite end of Honduras, in the lower Aguan valley, the name Facusse punctuates almost every conversation. Through years of complicity with a changing set of corrupt officials, Facusse has amassed titles to almost an entire valley that is able to produce five types of oil-rich African palm. The titles to some of this land are disputed by campesinos organizations who have been farming the same land for years. To these small farmers, Facusse and government security forces are not only connected, they often literally are often the same forces. They trade guns and ammunition, and sometimes uniforms and tasks. A combination of these two forces has killed at least 34 campesinos in the area since the coup.
This dynamic duo of government leaders and business moguls is using murder and repression to try to hold a growing resistance movement at bay with fear. All this, however, would not be possible without a third player: the U.S. government. Funds from our government´s coffers continue to train many of their military and police and provide them with helicopters, tanks, guns, tear gas and more. This point was made graphically at a meeting that our delegation held with families of victims since the coup. Mery Agurcia, a human rights activist with COFADEH, held up a tear gas canister, “made in the USA”, collected at the same site of where teacher Ilse Velasquez died after a similar one hit struck her violently in the head. Ilse fell unconscious to the street where she was then run over by a vehicle escaping the police-produced frenzy.
This flow of U.S. military and police aid is quite literally fueling the horrific repression. Dana Frank states this with a compelling voice in a recent article in the Nation: Hondurans in the opposition are using one of the few remaining weapons they have: their own unarmed bodies, placing themselves in the path of the regime, quite literally. In response, the regime is now using lethal force over and over and over again, all over the country, hoping to tear gas its own citizens into submission.
Ilse was one of 14 teachers killed since the coup. Her daughters – also teachers – explained to us that she didn´t have to be at the protest that morning. She had a good job as the director of a local school. But in the face of government efforts to privatize aspects of the education system, she made a decision to take a stand for an education system that was her children´s livelihood. And, the family´s inheritance was the struggle for justice. Ilse´s brother Manfred Velasquez had been murdered at the hands of the Honduran government 30 years previously, leading to a landmark international human rights case and the founding of COFADEH.
Thoughts of Ilse ran through our minds as we stood on that dirt road in the Aguan valley. We had been asked by a group of campesinos who heard about the presence of international human rights activists in the area, to accompany them to a recent land occupation in La Trinidad. Members of their community were being menaced by armed private security forces as they attempted to retake land that they claim title to under land reform agreements. Shooting had taken place the previous night. The campesinos had been there for three days, and none could come nor go. Water and food were being snuck in, at risk, via back paths and forests. The desperate campesinos in our car hoped that the presence of an international group would allow us to reach the group.
As we approached the area our driver indicated that he should stop the vehicle, as it would be shot at if it arrived unannounced. After a brief discussion, we decided that the Hondurans should remain in the vehicle and that we, the ten U.S. citizens, would approach the guards, some 300 meters ahead, armed and blocking the entrance to the disputed land. We let each other know that it was fine for any one to stay behind, and gave some time for decisions. One by one each of us in the delegation announced that we had decided to go forward.. As we took our first steps down the road and towards the guards we knew that at this distance we were indistinguishable from Hondurans. But each of us felt a personal conviction to embark on this walk for justice.
At that moment, a cell phone call came from Bertha Oliva, the director of COFADEH. Learning about the tense situation and our decision to walk, she implored us to stop. “If you go forward, they will shoot. We don´t need heroes, we need people willing to do the long and hard and work that will bring us justice.”
I’m not sure if I should say there ended our brave stand for justice in Honduras, or there it began. We returned to the van, turned around, and headed back down the road. I do know that each of us had acquired – in an instant – an unerasable understanding of the implications of taking a stand, in Honduras, for justice.
I would like to say that the situation in La Trinidad came to a peaceful resolution. But, two days after we turned back down the road, Roney Díaz, a 34-year-old father of two was killed by a combination of private guards and naval commandos. Just as I finished the first writing of this article, I received news of another death in the Aguan at the hands of private security guards. He was Pablo Lemus, from the Guadalupe Carney community where we visited five widows. Now, there are six.
The Road to La Trinidad
we are ready to go
all ten of us
having been called upon
to use our privilege
to accompany those with none
with the hope of offering some hint
of protection, of “the
whole world is watching” kind
watching the old
yet again, still, right now
of the poorest of the earth
driven off their ancestral land
by the insatiable barons
of plantation mentality
in all of its forms
from hunger to homicide
we are willling to go
to be with those who have
“taken back” their own land
stealing in by night
to occupy, to resist
only to be encircled and trapped
by the hired guns of the
we want to go
but wait…word comes…
the heavily-armed, drugged up
men in black
have orders to shoot
and respect no “privilege”
not even that which we
suppose to possess
so we find ourselves
for a moment in time
running the same risk, facing the same fears
as those who resist
weighing our solidarity
against our own lives
we are willing, ready and wanting
yet “reason” prevails
as we turn our bewildered faces
drag our sorry hearts behind us
and we do not go
on the road to Trinidad
Mary Anne Perrone
May 10, 2011
SOURCE: School of the Americas Watch