It’s 9:24 (now 10:37 s i edit) and i’ve been up since 6, so i’t been a very full and wonderful day, accented by possibly the creepiest experience of my life. Election polling seems to have gone smoothly throughout the country, certainly in Tegucigalpa. The biggest complaints have been funny business getting identity cards to voters. I was the leader of one of the 9 observer teams in our delegation, and i worked today with 2 partners. Since we all speak Spanish, we didn’t have to worry about translation delays, and were able to talk with a wide range of people.
We went to 3 polling places in a working class neighborhood, and there was a carnival-like atmosphere throughout the day, with much good will expressed by everyone we met, regardless of party affiliation. We encountered support and gratitude for our presence throughout the day, as we have the entire trip. I got a big ego stroke from the first person we met, a very emotional LIBRE voter who heard me on the radio on Thursday. She expressed concern that many LIBRE voters would not vote today out of fear, and that many people could not vote for LIBRE, because they would lose their jobs. We later learned that a notice came out in a newspaper Saturday that any state worker who voted for LIBRE would be fired.
Three parties participated in these primaries – the National Party, their equivalent to our Republicans, who currently hold power and support the coup; the Liberal Party, which we learned was founded in 1908 based on the principles of the French Revolution, and roughly coincides with the Democrats, although even more heavily linked to the oligarchy; and LIBRE, the electoral arm of the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (the Popular Front of National Resistance) which grew out of the resistance movement to the 2009 coup. We interviewed people from all 3 parties, the armed soldiers watching the polling stations, official election observers (we’re unofficial,) and poll workers who brought in and will carry out the ballots with the army. I asked each person we met from the Liberals and Nationals their occupation, and the class division between those two parties on one hand and LIBRE on the other became quickly apparent. LIBRE people approached us all the time to talk, but we had to approach the others, although we had some excellent conversations with all kinds of people.
All three polling stations were in schools, and each party had 1-3 classrooms assigned for their voters. Early on we started talking to a man in front of one the National Party rooms. He was expensively dressed, and when i asked his occupation, he identified himself as Luis Antonio Lopez, the chief of security for Juan Orlando, one of the 2 main National Party candidates for president (out of 7,) who is currently leading in the latest vote count. Lopez went on to say that he had been a member of the 316 Brigade, the notorious death squad during the contra war period in the 1980’s, when civil wars were raging in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and that the CIA actively collaborated with 316. I asked him if he supported death squads, and he said they were necessary, but there weren’t any now. I asked him about the candidates being killed, and he said only “gangs in marginal neighborhoods” were being killed, as if that were fine.
Then he proudly stated that he owns an original Nazi swastika worth a lot of money. I asked him what he thought of the Nazis, and he said he “admired their discipline, but didn’t agree with all of their programs.” He also said he has many friends who are professionals who support the Nazis. I decided to see how far i could push him to talk, so i asked him what he thought about torture. He said it was necessary to use it, especially against leftists to make them talk. I asked what kind of torture was best, and he said “medieval methods worked best” indicating the pulling of arms, but it was important to “hurt where it doesn’t show.” He said psychological torture was best to use with young people, by keeping them isolated from their families.
Then he asked us if we wanted any cocaine, and offered to buy us some (not sure of amount) for 100 lempiras, about $5. Then he said he had friends in the gangs. My group partner and i were somewhat in shock, and had no idea what to think. As soon as he left, a woman from LIBRE ran up to us and said, “Do you know who you were talking to?” Then she proceeded to tell us she was a neighbor, that he is a killer and he “mistreated” his wife so badly she had to go to the hospital and then left the country to the US. Once she heard gunshots in the house. We had two more conversations with him outside the polling place, and the last time he offered to help us get 2 kilos of cocaine to take back to the US from the Bajo Aguan area (where more than 70 peasant farmers have been killed.) Everything he told us coincides with the commonly held belief that it is indeed the military and police in this country that are driving the drug trade. He had a matter of fact coldness about him that made my skin crawl, and he was such a braggart that i’m not sure i would have believed him had it not been for the woman from LIBRE adding credence to everything he said.
Some interesting observations:
election officials, the police, and the military are not able to vote in Honduras.
900 identity cards requested in the zone where we were by LIBRE never arrived.
400 identity cards were supposedly found in the possession of an Orlando official
Many people voted for the National Party to protect their jobs – to vote one has to declare which primary they are going to vote in. LIBRE people believe many more people will vote LIBRE next November in the general election when it’s a secret ballot.
We met a woman member of the Chamber of Deputies representing the National Party who supported the coup and gave us her email address. She said that 50% of the National candidates for Deputy are women.
We met at least 2 women from the National Party who opposed the coup, one of whom had a very thoughtful and to me sincere platform to improve education, which included a heavy concentration on teaching English.
Each presidential candidates selects 3 vice presidents, and we met one of them, a wealthy woman formerly with the Nationals who is the owner of a pharmaceutical company. She was followed by a lot of media, one of our 3 interviews today.
In the final polling station we had a long conversation with a woman soldier who had been in the army for 13 years, was a “second sargeant” and was in charge of the military presence at that poll. She was a paratrooper who had jumped 4 times with US troops at Soto Cano/Palmerola and 9 times with Honduran troops. “Anyone who doesn’t feel fear when they jump is lying if they say they don’t.” She’s a single mother with 2 children who was barely making ends meet economically. She said there aren’t a lot of women in the army (although we saw one other.) I asked her about sexism, and she said she was always having to prove herself, and seemed very proud she was able to do it. I asked her about rapes, and she said it wasn’t an issue.
We spent the last 2 hours with this smart and impassioned woman, Lillian, who was a LIBRE poll watcher. Almost all of our 9 teams observed the following:
Very few people voted for the Liberals in the poor neighborhoods where most of us went. They got more votes in one wealthier neighborhood. Lillian said they were being punished for selling out Zelaya and taking over the government after the coup.
Large numbers of people voted enthusiastically for LIBRE in the morning, and large numbers voted for National late in the day. Lillian said that although registered, they were driven to the polls, paid 500 lempiras ($25) to vote, and we observed bags and bags of food in plastic containers coming in. A National poll worker overhearing the conversation denied the voters were being paid, but many of the later voters did not look as affluent as others we had seen earlier in the National lines. Although the polls were supposed to close at 4, they were kept open until 5 to allow all the late entries to vote, almost all National, and eerily enough at the National table outside the polling stations, they had told us much earlier the polls wouldn’t close until 5, so they knew, and it definitely smells like something fishy was going on.
So now we wait to see who will win these primaries and move on to the general election next November, 2013. We’re supposed to have provisional results Monday. Our delegation has 4 meetings scheduled, including one with the LIBRE party members who invited us here, and one with Erick Martinez, the gay man running for deputy with LIBRE who recently visited SF. I’m exhausted, but also exhilarated. It was an absolutely wonderful experience to be able to spend so much time with ordinary Hondurans (and a few not so ordinary) and participate in this process. LIBRE voters are so proud they have been able to build this party in such a short time, and everyone we asked expressed confidence the 5 ideological tendencies will be able to unite after the primaries. They are ready for a new kind of government, and say that people will be in the streets immediately if the oligarchy tries to prevent the victory of their presidential candidate, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the overthrown president, through fraud or violence.
What a great trip we’ve had so far. I’m looking forward to returning next year for the general elections. I keep comparing Honduras with Haiti, where the Lavalas Party, the Haitian equivalent of LIBRE, is not even allowed to participate in elections, because everyone knows they would win every office. I fervently hope this kind of voter suppression doesn’t happen here, that the election takes place, and with the same level of peace and enthusiasm as today.
Charlie Hinton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org