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Zelaya supporters

On July 11, supporters of toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya pay homage to 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo, who was killed on July 5 when soldiers fired upon demonstrators.(Photo by:Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images )

No Such Thing as a Free Putsch

Lies, violence and the fight for freedom in Honduras.

BY Jeremy Kryt

‘If this were happening in the United States it would spark global outrage. But since it’s happening down here, nobody seems to care,’ says Honduran Congressman Marvin Ponce.

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS—The military junta in Honduras has failed to achieve international recognition, and is unable to win the hearts of la gente at home, but it does seem to have one great talent: arresting and torturing unarmed, peacefully demonstrating civilians.

The Committee for Detained and Disappeared Persons of Honduras (COFADEH) has so far documented more than 9,650 illegal detentions. Hundreds of people have been beaten with about 60 requiring long-term hospitalization from their wounds. Some female protestors have been gang-raped by police and soldiers. And there have been at least a dozen deaths, including a journalist, a teacher and a syndicate leader.

Several of those murdered in the name of “protecting democracy” are the country’s youngest citizens. Nineteen-year-old activist Isis Obed Murillo was killed on July 5, when soldiers fired on a crowd awaiting the arrival of deposed president Manuel Zelaya’s plane at Toncontin airport. More horrifying still was the death of Pedro Magdiel, 24, who on July 26 was accosted by soldiers raiding a nonviolent protest along the frontier with Nicaragua. While Zelaya strolled the border, Magdiel was tortured to death. The young man’s body was found the next morning, riddled with 42 bayonet puncture wounds.

But it’s not only the young who have suffered. On Aug. 12, Honduran Congressman Marvin Ponce was attacked during a rally. “About thirty soldiers attacked us,” says Ponce. “There was no provocation, but they beat everyone in sight, including women, children and the elderly.” Ponce was trying to help an old woman when the cops fell on him with their batons, breaking ribs and shattering his arm in three places. “There is great oppression,” says Ponce. “If this were happening in the United States it would spark global outrage. But, since it’s happening down here, nobody seems to care.”

And strangely, even after Zelaya’s surprise return to the country, seeking asylum in the Brazilian embassy, and the subsequent suspension by the government of the right to freedom of assembly and expression, many in the U.S. Congress and the mainstream media still don’t seem to care.

Banana Republicans

“The real reasons behind the coup were, of course, economic ones,” says Dr. Juan Almendares, a Honduran physician and internationally renowned human rights activist who’s been a leading figure in the resistance despite having received several death threats.

“Zelaya had dared to help the poor by raising the minimum wage, offering social security, even subsidizing electricity,” he says. According to Almendares, none of that sat well with the country’s elite. “He also refused to privatize Hondatel [the national phone company] and he challenged Texaco and Standard Oil by using state power to negotiate lower oil prices.” Further, Zelaya had restricted the exploitation of Honduran natural resources by transnational mining and logging companies (Home Depot is a major buyer of timber) “which is why those same companies backed the coup” says Almendares.

“It’s impossible to think certain conservative elements in Washington didn’t have prior knowledge of the takeover,” he says. “Honduras is, basically, a U.S.-occupied colony,” referring to the U.S. airbase at Sato Cano that Zelaya had wanted closed. “Could there be, for example, a successful coup in Iraq without U.S. approval? It simply isn’t possible.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. response seems self-contradictory. While the State Department has loudly trumpeted punitive cuts in funding to the de facto regime totaling about $33 million, the Millenium Challenge Corps (a tax-payer funded organization under the State Department) is still slated to dole out about 100 million to Honduras through 2010. When similar coups occurred in Malaysia and Madagascar in recent years, the State Department severed all aid immediately.

According to Almendares, the most important thing for people in the United States to realize is that “the resistance is not really about Zelaya. What the people truly want is a new constitution,” he says. “They dream of a government that allows democratic participation. That is why they have taken to the streets.”

Paolo Carozzo is the U.S. delegate to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), who visited Honduras in mid-August. Carozzo, the former president of the IACHR, says he found the situation in Honduras to be both “moving and disturbing.” “Whether one agrees with ousted President Zelaya’s politics or not, nothing justifies this kind of violence,” he says.

Bertha Oliva, the coordinator general of COFADEH, counts herself a proud member of the resistance. “Whatever good Zelaya did is being reversed,” she says from her office, every wall of which is covered with photos of disappeared or murdered Hondurans. “Even our civil rights–like the right to assembly, or freedom from search and seizure–have been canceled. This in itself ought to be proof as to the motives of those behind the coup.”

The new regime is not the problem, says Valerio Gutierrez, the Honduran secretary of state, who prior to the coup was secretary of energy. “The only ones abusing human rights in this country,” he says, “are the teachers who aren’t holding classes, because they’re marching in the streets.”

When asked about the decisions of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States and the EU, all of which have said they won’t recognize Honduran elections in November, Gutierrez scoffs. “Their decisions are absurd and illogical,” he says. Besides, he says they don’t really matter anyway, because “groups like the OAS have no real power. The international businesses will still recognize us. They’ll still invest. The banks will not turn us down. The institutions that really matter–they make their own decisions. These so-called government bodies have no power over them.”

Guitierrrez believes, like Almendares, that the United States had probably given tacit approval for what he terms the Honduran “change of government.” U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens probably knew, says Gutierrez. “I believe he did.” As for President Obama: “He is so busy, it’s hard to tell.” Gutierrez mimes picking up a hotline in the White House. “A coup in Honduras?” he purrs into the imaginary handset. “Okay. Fine. Thanks for telling me.”

Putsch and consequences

While it is unclear who knew about the coup as it was being planned, none of the plotters imagined a response like this. The military coup in Honduras has produced a fraternal, visionary resistance movement, successful in uniting disparate parts of the population–farmers and workers’ unions, feminists, the elderly, teachers and students. These groups have joined forces to organize massive nonviolent protests and rallies every day since the coup, coordinating only by word of mouth.

Just such a protest came in the form of a festive march of several thousand people that wound peacefully through the heart of the city, marching bands playing and people dancing.

There were the ever-present armed police and soldiers shadowing the demonstrators, but this day, on signal as the march turned onto a broad thoroughfare lined with shops, 100 or so cops in full riot gear suddenly cordoned off the street. Lowering their face plates and brandishing their batons, they joined their crowd-control shields and advanced in lock step upon the protesters. As the wall of shields approached, the civilians formed a line of their own, holding hands like so many school children, determined not to be dispersed. The stand-off lasted for maybe 10 minutes, until the police brought up a tank equipped with a long-barreled water cannon.

Other days, on other marches, I saw this same kind of scene degenerate into violence, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds into the crowds. I was in the embassy with Zelaya and heard him beg his supporters to maintain a peaceful resistance. Later that day, in an attempt to break the stalemate in the street, the marchers simply changed course, pouring down a nearby side street. Soon word came that another column of the riot squad was stalking up from the other direction. They met in front of the American Embassy, as thousands of marchers converged on the building, daring the gendarmes to attack them there.

As the cops blocked off the street again, the people began singing the national anthem of Honduras. While the demonstrators waved flags and sang on the steps of the Embassy, Abel, a protester and high school student, looked on. His family’s small grocery store was foundering since the coup because most people no longer had money to shop.

“In my school, we are not allowed to talk about these political problems,” he says. “This new government, they have stolen my dreams. But even to speak of it to other students is forbidden.”

The singing in front of the embassy gave way to a chant of “O-bama! O-bama!”

“The government of Micheletti, they just want more and more money,” Abel says, raising his voice to be heard above the crowd. “They do not understand the thinking of the poor. That is why we are here for our rights. It doesn’t matter if we die,” says the boy, “but we will give our sons and our grandsons a better country.” 

Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.

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