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Repression’s Reward in Honduras?

Why is the U.S. still supporting a repressive regime in Honduras? While Secretary of State Clinton continues to insist that democracy is marching forward in Honduras, President Porfirio Lobo’s ongoing coup government has been escalating its violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators, opposition radio stations, and critics. Repression under Lobo has now achieved levels equal to those after Roberto Micheletti took power in the June 28, 2009 coup. Lobo’s reward: dinner at the White House this week.

The details are chilling, and bald. On Wednesday, September 15–Independence Day, for Hondurans–police and the military brutally broke up an opposition demonstration in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city. First troops broke into the entrance to Radio Uno, the only opposition radio station in the city, lobbed tear gas into its windows, trashed its offices, and very deliberately destroyed a popular statue of deposed former President Manuel Zelaya. Ten minutes into a concert in the Central Park, police suddenly stormed the stage and destroyed the instruments of all three musical groups ready to perform. At the same time, amidst clouds of tear gas and other chemicals, troops turned viciously on the peacefully gathered demonstrators, grabbing people randomly and beating them with batons. Officers beat up teenagers in a high school drum corps; they smashed all the windows and lights of a union-owned pickup truck parked nearby; an elderly man selling lottery tickets died of the tear gas.

Ever since Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo came into office as President of Honduras in January, after a fraudulent election from which opposition candidates withdrew, he’s been testing what he and the nation’s elites can get away with, gradually unleashing more and more violence against the opposition. On August 13 police violently attacked peaceful demonstrators in Choloma with tear gas, brutal beatings with batons, and further beatings while in detention. When teachers marched in the capital, Tegucigalpa, on August 26 and 27, they were met with tear gas, batons, and even live ammunition.

Paramilitary-style assassinations and death threats against trade unionists, campesino activists, and feminists active in the opposition continue unabated, with complete impunity. Last Friday night, September 17, gunmen shot and killed Juana Bustillo, a leader in the social security workers’ union. Nine journalists critical of the government have been killed since Lobo took office. On September 19 in Tegucigalpa, unknown assailants shot at Luis Galdamez, a prominent opposition radio and TV commentator, as he entered his home with his young son. The police wouldn’t even show up for an hour and a half.

Although many in the U.S. press still cast the Honduran opposition as merely supporters of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, they are united by a far deeper vision that hopes to address the country’s overwhelming poverty and break the lockdown of the oligarchs on its political system and economy. The resistance has so far collected 1,346,876 signatures (out of a country of 7.8 million) calling for a constitutional convention through which to refound Honduran society.

The opposition is also trying hard to stop a wave of economic aggression against its already impoverished working people. It is demanding that Lobo finally declare a new minimum wage, as he has been legally mandated to do for months now. It is also trying to stop a draconian reformation of the country’s basic labor law, that will not only destroy full-time, permanent employment–which in turn, is legally necessary for workers to form unions–but allows employers to pay 30% of what they they owe employees not in actual money but in company scrip–with its value set by the company.

President Lobo persists in cloaking his repressive military-led rule by calling it a “government of national reconciliation.” All the repression, in his fictional world, is just common crime. Yes, common crime, much of it gang-led, is hideously rampant in Honduras. But it flourishes in the ripe climate of mass poverty the Honduran oligarchs foster; and it doesn’t account for the selective assassinations of opposition activists and journalists, over and over. And Lobo, of course, not the gangs, is the one ordering the police to attack demonstrations and countenancing paramilitary assassinations.

The Obama administration supports this chilling regime one hundred percent. Military aid has been fully restored. The International Monetary Fund on September 10 announced an additional $196 million loan to Honduras. Preposterously, just Lobo launched the tear gas on Independence Day in Honduras, Hillary Clinton praised once again its “resumption of democratic and constitutional government.”

Rather than extol Lobo, send him more and more guns and funds, and invite him a gracious dinner with other presidents visiting the United Nations, Obama should cut all ties with the regime and stop pressuring the Organization of American States to re-admit Honduras. The White House should heed a letter currently circulating in Congress, sponsored by Representative Sam Farr, and cut all military aid. And please, no dinners legitimating repressive, fraudulent thugs.

DANA FRANK is a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz specializing in Honduras. Her books include “Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America.

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