TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS – It was all supposed to be different once Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo took over as the new president of Honduras. Human rights crisis finished. Dictatorship deterred. Even after a highly-contested election in November – which most of the world refused to recognize and more than half of Hondurans didn’t participate in – many both here and abroad still clung to the hope that a new executive officer might resolve what some experts have called a “one-sided civil war” because only the military-backed régime has employed violent means.
The diverse anti-coup resistance movement has maintained a nonviolent stance, refusing to respond even when authorities have attacked peaceful marches and gatherings with chemical-based crowd control weapons, rubber bullets and live rounds. Dozens of peaceful resistance members have been killed by soldiers, police and government-funded paramilitaries since the armed coup against democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya in June 2009. Even more worrisome, local human rights groups report that clandestine death squads, reminiscent of groups that terrorized the country in the 1980s, are once again roaming the streets at night.
During a heavily-militarized inauguration ceremony in this capital city on January 27, Lobo – whose last name means “wolf” in Spanish – signed an amnesty agreement for those who had perpetrated the coup against Zelaya. The move was seen by many as confirming his pro-coup stance and furthering his attempts to white-wash the military takeover. Lobo urged Hondurans to “forget the past,” saying, “We have proven that we are a peace- and freedom-loving nation.”
But despite Lobo’s rhetoric, there seems to be little peace or freedom in Honduras these days – and many critics say the situation seems unlikely to change under the fledgling Lobo administration.
Human rights situation worsening
“In terms of the human rights situation, our overall impression is that in some ways it’s worse since the [presidential] elections [of November 29] than it was before,” said Victoria Cervantes, coordinator of the Chicago-based human rights organization Los Voz de los de Abajo. Cervantes met with In These Times in the capital of Tegucigalpa last week, at the conclusion of a fact-finding trip that combined several international human rights delegations from the United States and European Union.
“What we’re seeing now is a violence that’s very selective against people and communities in resistance,” Cervantes said. “But violence that is very much the style of the death squad and paramilitary violence [of the Cold War era]. In other words, resistance people are found in their closets with their hands tied, ropes around their necks. People have been found with their tongue cut out. Decapitated bodies. [Others have been] raped and tortured.”
According to Meri Agurcia, a human rights worker with the nonprofit Committee for the Families of Disappeared Persons in Honduras (COFADEH), the numbers support Cervantes’ theory. COFADEH has confirmed the deaths of seven resistance members in January alone. In the previous six months, COFADEH reported a total of 28 politically-motivated killings of nonviolent resistance members.
“The military is starting to assert itself,” Agurcia said. “All of these recent victims were members of the resistance – we haven’t seen that kind of targeting before.” COFADEH also reports more than a dozen other incidents of authority-backed violence against pacifist activists in January, including beatings, detentions and one disappearance.
But, even as casualties rise, the eyes of the world seem focused elsewhere.
“What concerns me most is that human rights abuses – including murders – could continue with little international attention,” wrote Dan Beeton, a Honduras expert with the Washington D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, in an email to In These Times. “Most of the media has ‘moved on’ from the Honduras coup story, and killings that have occurred since the elections…have received very little attention in the foreign press. Meanwhile, the Lobo government – aided by the U.S. – will continue to lobby governments for international recognition while these abuses are ignored.”
Exit Zelaya, center stage
President Zelaya emerged from the Brazilian Embassy shortly after Lobo’s swearing-in ceremony last Wednesday, and was taken to the airport in a heavily-armed motorcade. It was his first time outside the embassy since September 21, but the former president spent less than an hour on Honduran soil before being flown into exile in the Dominican Republic.
“For us, it is a great insult, this expulsion of our president,” said top anti-coup resistance leader Juan Barahona, in an exclusive interview with In These Times. “And it is a victory for the putschists, who would have everyone forget what happened last June.”
During his time in office, Zelaya had initiated reforms aimed at increasing quality of life for the more than 70 percent of Hondurans who live in poverty. (More than half of the people in this small textile- and coffee-exporting nation get by on less than a dollar a day.) Zelaya had raised the minimum wage and provided primitive social security and financial aid for students. Then, last spring, when hundreds of thousands of Hondurans petitioned Zelaya to hold a nonbinding referendum on changing the draconian, outdated Honduran Constitution, in favor of a more democratic and participatory national charter, the president agreed to a public opinion poll on the issue.
But the oligarchic Congress, the Supreme Court, and the dozen or so wealthy families who have traditionally ruled Honduras, fearing Zelaya’s reforms would endanger their control over the Honduran economy, aligned themselves with the country’s military to stage a putsch. Zelaya was kidnapped in his pajamas around dawn on June 28, and flown into exile in Costa Rica. The official excuse: that Zelaya had sought to re-write the constitution to extend presidential term limits. But, even after months of searching, there is still no evidence for this, and Zelaya himself had never mentioned it.
“He was the president, and the military attacked him for political reasons,” said Barahona, who was also one of Zelaya’s chief negotiators during the embassy siege. “He never committed any sort of crime.”
But Zelaya’s ouster sparked hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in peaceful, near daily marches and assemblies for months after the coup, despite the violent repression by police, soldiers and private paramilitaries. After two unsuccessful attempts, Zelaya returned to Honduras by hiding in the trunk of a car and took up refuge in the Embassy. In a previous interview with In These Times, Zelaya acknowledged that sonic and chemical weapons had been used by police and soldiers against those trapped inside the embassy, and that food and other basic commodities were in short supply.
“Everything [the pustschists] have done has made an impression on us, the people of Honduras,” said Barahona. “The way they sacked our president. The way they treated him in the embassy. The way they tortured him there… All of this has generated great solidarity between Zelaya and the people.”
That solidarity could be the reason for such a big turnout of resistance activists at the airport; estimates of the crowd that turned out to see Zelaya off range from between 300,000 and 600,000. Carrying signs and flags and chanting Zelaya’s name, the crowd faced off with troops guarding the runway at the airport. It was a scene eerily reminiscent of July 5, 2009, when thousands gathered to see one of Zelaya’s aborted return attempts at the same tarmac and soldiers opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, resulting in several deaths, including a nineteen-year-old activist named Isis Obed. Many in the crowd last Wednesday carried signs bearing Obed’s likeness, and his name was scrawled in several places on airport buildings and walls.
For many in the crowd, the departure of Zelaya – who before boarding his plane pledged to return to Honduras – was a profoundly emotional moment.
“I could not believe how many people I saw weeping,” said Ena Lopez, 22, a student from the capital who attended Zelaya’s farewell rally. “There were grown men crying like frightened children,” Lopez said. “It is a sad day for my nation. And for all those anywhere in the world who love freedom.”
A young girl holds a flag with Mel Zelaya´s picture on it as soldiers guard the runway where the ex-president´s plane took off moments before.
Livin’ la vida Lobo
Many in Honduras believe the Lobo administration to be little more than an extension of the military-backed régime of Roberto Micheletti, which swept Zelaya from power, rolled back his social programs and imposed martial law for weeks at a time in order to smother dissent. Lobo, who is 61 and backed the coup last June, is widely seen as politically identical to the far-right oligarchs who traditionally hold power here.
“Lobo has inherited a political climate marked by very strong and vibrant social movements that organized in opposition to the coup, and that show no sign of slowing down,” wrote Honduran expert Beeton. “They question the new government’s legitimacy, since it was elected in a process completely overseen and controlled by the coup régime, and of course so far most of the international community has not recognized Lobo’s government.”
The Lobo administration refused several requests for interviews for this article.
Lobo is a wealthy rancher with strong ties to the timber trade. As head of the Honduran Forestry Department (COHDEFOR) in the early 1990s, Lobo was accused by the Public Ministry of abusing his authority and misusing public funds. Lobo lost to Zelaya in the presidential race in 2005, running on a far-right platform that included the death penalty.
“More than half the people in the country did not recognize the November elections. And neither do we recognize the man who assumed the presidency on January 27,” resistance leader Barahona said. “Why don’t we recognize him? Because he was elected under an illegal coup régime, and so he cannot be a legal or legitimate president. Even worse, he was elected under brutally repressive conditions. How can we recognize a president like that?”
The United States – which maintains close economic ties with Honduras and has been one of the few governments in the world to unequivocally recognize the elections – sent a large delegation to attend Lobo’s swearing in. On Saturday, U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens met with Lobo and afterwards declared that Honduras‑U.S. relations had been “normalized.”
But the EU, as well as regional powerhouses like Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil, have yet to recognize the Lobo government. Bolivia even went so far as to officially label the new régime a “dictatorship.”
There are also pressing internal problems, as the military coup has left Honduras’ economy in tatters; the day after being sworn in, Lobo was forced to declare national bankruptcy.
But the most pressing and dire challenge to reconciliation in Honduras seems to be accusations of ongoing human rights abuses leveled at the government.
“The burden of proof is really on Lobo to communicate to the military and the police that human rights abuses, as have occurred over the past seven months, will no longer be tolerated,” Beeton wrote. “But Lobo…will probably receive little pressure to do anything about this from the Obama administration – which otherwise could be very important – since the U.S. said almost nothing about the murders, rapes and disappearances that occurred under the coup régime.”
In fact, it seems unlikely that those responsible for the civil abuses over the last seven months will ever be brought to justice. In addition to the amnesty that Lobo signed last week, the highly-corrupt Honduran Congress also voted to award lifetime appointments to more than 50 government workers, making permanent what were once elected positions. Among those so honored was de facto president Roberto Michelletti, who became an official congressman for life.
“[His appointment] is an offense to the intelligence of every Honduran, and makes a joke of democracy,” Barahona said. “But that attitude is typical in dictatorships.”
(Story continues below.)
Honduras special forces stand at attention during the swearing-in ceremony for Pepe Lobo, the disputed president, in the national soccer stadium in downtown Tegucigalpa on Wednesday, January 27.
Death squads or ‘random violence’?
On Wednesday, January 27, at 10:30 a.m., as Lobo was preparing to deliver his speech about loving peace and freedom, trucks carrying heavily-armed police officers and privately-contracted paramilitaries opened fire on a group of peaceful, anti-coup activists in the Department of Colon, several hours away from the capital. The demonstrators were poor farmers to whom Zelaya had promised land reform; the Micheletti régime instead sold their land to an outside corporation. The farmers had been living on the land for weeks in primitive conditions, but when In These Times visited with them a few weeks before the attack, they were cheerful and said they did not intend to resist violently if the police came for them.
Three unarmed farmers were wounded in the police crossfire last week, one of them shot critically in the face. When In These Times visited the First Metropolitan Precinct in Tegucigalpa to hear the police version of events, Inspector Carlos Delcid, the chief officer there said, “What happened in Colon was that the farmers were on private land, and that is prohibited… We have the instruments to use in the necessary cases. If everything is calm, we don’t use our instruments. But if they want a revolution, they will get a revolution.”
Not surprisingly, Delcid denied the existence of death squads or political killings. “Yes, there is random violence,” he said, shrugging. “But there is always much random violence in Honduras.”
But Victoria Cervantes, of La Voz de los Abajos, disagrees: “These victims are all resistance people… This is not random violence. They have tried to make some of the deaths look like suicide, but the problem is that they’ve beaten the people so badly before they [fake] the suicide that it’s not very convincing.”
“They are targeting the resistance leaders,” said COFADEH’s Agurci, “holding them in special, clandestine locations, and interrogating them brutally. They are after information. They torture the prisoners, and treat them as if they were not human.” Her organization has documented a number of cases of police beating, suffocating, starving, dehydrating and sleep depriving various prisoners, she said.
Agurci said the most common questions asked during torture sessions are about the whereabouts of other resistance leaders, and whether or not the resistance is armed.
But the resistance has no plans to change its peaceful methodology. “We are mobilizing the country,” said Barahona, “in the hopes of organizing to participate in the next election. [The putschists] need weapons, but we do not need weapons. Because we are the majority in Honduras.”