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US Embraces Honduran Thugocracy
On June 28 President Obama officially accepted the credentials of Jorge Ramon Hernandez Alcerro, the new envoy to the U.S. from the post-coup regime in Honduras. At the ceremony Obama gushed effusively about the new Honduran government’s deep love of democracy, freedom and human rights, and about all the wonderful values Honduras shares with the United States.
Barely 48 hours later the Tegucigalpa police abducted Edwin Robelo Espinal, an active member of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), off the streets of the Honduran capitol. They blanketed him with pepper spray, tasered him repeatedly, beat him up and hauled him off to police substation #4 in the capitol city.
At the time I was in Honduras with a Quixote Center delegation, and the morning after Robelo was arrested I went with two other delegation members to Police Substation #4 to see him, but we were not allowed in.
The treatment Robelo received at the hands of Honduran police was nothing new. In the year since the June 28, 2009 military coup Robelo had been detained a dozen times, and he had witnessed the regime’s murder of FNRP activist Francisco Alvarado. On September 26, 2009 Edwin’s wife Wendy Elizabeth Avila was murdered by the coup regime during a protest in front of the Brazilian embassy, where ousted President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya was holed up inside.
"I was asking the police for a doctor because I felt like my skin was on fire, and I could barely breathe, but they just laughed at me," Robelo said after the ordeal. "They kept putting the taser gun to my ear, asking if I wanted to feel the shock again. It sent shivers through my entire body thinking about how it would feel."
"The first thing they did to him was throw (tear) gas on him to detain him," said Bertha Oliva of the Honduran Committee of the Families of the Disappeared (COFADEH). "This is a form of psychological and physical torture, as it was (tear) gas that killed his wife months earlier."
But as much as Robelo has endured at the hands of Honduran police, it pales in comparison with the fate of others the post-coup regime doesn’t care for. Members of the resistance continue to be murdered, and while the government blames common street "delinquents" for the deaths, members of the resistance we met with blamed the deaths on the post-coup government. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently reported that at least seven Honduran journalists were killed between March and June of this year in what the CPJ calls "a climate of impunity."
But journalists and resistance figures aren’t the only ones being killed. Violent crime is exploding in Honduras. While I was in Honduras newspapers announced that the country had surpassed Iraq and Afghanistan and had laid claim to the highest murder rate in the world. Daily the papers were filled with stories of gruesome murders in a country of barely eight million. On average 30 buses a week are attacked by robbers who often murder the drivers. One gets the sense of a country falling apart, and the government seems utterly powerless to address the problem, in large part because it has so little credibility among the populace.
Time and time again resistance members I spoke with cited the widespread post-coup loss of faith and confidence in the government and other institutions in explaining the meteoric rise in crime since the coup. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even Church attendance is down because of the Catholic church’s support for the coup.
There is also precious little faith in the judiciary, which sanctioned the coup. A graffito on a wall in San Pedro Sula reads: "The law is like a snake, it only bites the shoeless."
The government’s blatant corruption doesn’t help matters. It was widely reported that post-coup President Porfirio Lobo traveled to the World Cup in South Africa, and brought no less than 80 of his best friends with him, all at state’s expense.
In the wake of the June 2009 coup many foreign investors pulled out, which hit government revenues hard. The post-coup government has responded by slashing social service and education budgets, by burning through foreign currency reserves, and by taking out loans with front-loaded structural adjustment requirements.
The government is in a very weak position. In the Bajo Aguan region campesinos are taking over land that formerly belonged to them and now belongs to at least two of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs. One can only imagine that the government, accustomed as it is to doing the oligarchy’s bidding, would love to move militarily against the campesinos, but it hasn’t yet, presumably because it is afraid of sparking open rebellion.
Members of the Honduran congress would also like to roll back Zelaya’s considerable increase in the minimum wage, but here too they fear to tread.
It’s hard to see Obama’s acceptance of the new ambassador’s bona fides on the exact date of the first anniversary of the coup as anything short of a dagger thrust right at the heart of the resistance. This fits squarely into an Obama/Hillary Clinton policy that never wanted Zelaya returned to power, and it fits with the decidedly tame U.S. sanctions imposed on the coup regime in the immediate wake of the coup. It also fits with Clinton’s fantastically arrogant statements to the effect that Zelaya’s two 2009 clandestine returns to the country that had democratically elected him president were reckless and unhelpful acts.
Canada recently recognized the post-coup regime, and Secretary of State Clinton has been lobbying hard to get the Organization of American States to re-admit Honduras. The Honduran press is reporting that an OAS deal is imminent. This may legitimize the post-coup regime in the eyes of those who want it legitimized but it will do nothing to mollify the FNRP, which refuses to go away.
While Obama was posing for photos with the new Honduran ambassador and his family, the FNRP was marking the first anniversary of the coup by marching in the streets of every major city in Honduras. I was in the capitol of Tegucigalpa for the June 27 and 28 marches, and the mood was militant. At one point the march stopped in a large intersection and effigies representing the troika that runs Honduras – the oligarchy, the military and the church – were tied together, doused with gas and torched while a man dressed as a cardinal stood by and mockingly blessed the burning ensemble.
My delegation was repeatedly told by various sectors of the resistance that the movement was committed to non-violence, but at several points in both marches protestors chanted "Asesino!" at soldiers lining the march route, and individuals went right up to soldiers and screamed at them. I asked a resistance figure about this. "Well, when you have a family member or loved one who has been killed by the military you get angry."
The resistance is clear about what it wants. It wants the people of Honduras to have the right to decide whether they want to rewrite the country’s constitution in a constitutional convention. This is exactly what ousted President Manuel Zelaya wanted, and it is exactly what the Honduran people were going to vote on the day Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and expelled from the country. Clearly someone does not want a new constitution.
Contrary to the mantra of coup apologists, there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about this. As is the case with the U.S. constitution, the Honduran constitution contains provisions for, and outlines the process for, calling a constitutional convention and for rewriting the country’s constitution. And this is nothing new. Honduras has had no less than three constitutions since 1956.
To this end the resistance is gathering signatures on a petition calling for a constitutional convention. They say they have more than 600,000 signatures, and their goal is 1.2 million by September 15, Independence Day in Honduras.
The government is almost certain to ignore the petition. I asked several resistance figures what they will then do, and while no one had an answer, it was amply clear that the resistance is very much alive, it is strong and determined, and it is not going away.
LAWRENCE REICHARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org