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Honduras on the Brink of Change

It is hard to imagine right now that Honduras is on the brink of change after all the post-coup challenges that remain. Crime rates are high–a reported 88 murders per 100,000- making Honduran cities some of the deadliest in Latin America. Employment rates are at an all time low, labor laws are weak, and wages are among the lowest in the region. It seems that lawlessness controls all sectors of society. Hondurans frequently do not trust the police or local and national government. Just a week ago the Honduran Congress created a military policy, harkening back to the times of military rule and strong man politics of the past.

The governmental response to these serious issues has wavered from a National Day of Prayer for peace to the “installation” of Congressional representatives that would not have won under any normal electoral conditions.  This “democracy” rules only because of the great illegality that was Pepe Lobo’s election, so sanctioned by the United States.  That is how a national military police comes into being: with US Embassy support. Increased “policing” notwithstanding, the egregious 200-plus human rights violations affecting the Honduran public today have not been addressed and continue to grow in prevalence. Americans seeking to understand how odd Honduran public life is these days might try imagining the regular presence of armed military personnel on highways andintersections, outside of malls, as well as check points that stop you on your way out of one neighborhood and upon entry to another.  Aside from the threatening nature of encounters with soldiers wielding high caliber weapons in your face, they are most inconvenient for the free transit around your city or town.

So why is Honduras on the brink of change despite the violence, despair and rampant human rights violations?  For one, this year’s election has nine candidates running for president, including one woman, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya. Castro is the candidate of the new party LIBRE (Freedom and Refoundation) and has a great potential to win. Change comes in that the biggest contender for the president is a woman and from a new party, breaking the 100 year old bipartisan ring of rule (between the Liberal Party and Nationalist Party) that has ensnared Honduras for most of the 20th century and nearly strangled is democratic potential. The opportunity to destroy bipartisanship and to choose a new option for a new era is a change in itself. A woman president at the same time would also break with the old, as women have historically occupied low places in the Honduran political system.  Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, the new party proposes a new set of social and economic policies that look to the future with a progressive and modern agenda, bringing Honduras current with the modern world. The new agenda marks the beginning of democratization and progress that has only just begun.

I grew up with stories of the much-reviled dictator Tiburcio Carías Andino, who ruled for 16 years in the 1930s. Many of my family members were exiled to El Salvador and Guatemala, and others, including my great-grandfather, faced years in jail for the simple fact that he was a Liberal Party activist. Carías Andino’s small town military men, armed with rifles and handmade sandals, combed the countryside hunting down Liberals or anyone who dared to challenge Carías Andino’s authoritarian rule. The threat: fair elections. Carías Andino’s army hunted down all dissenters that threatened to vote for the Liberal party and not him. This era marked our grandparents and our parents; years later the stories of strife and repression were often told in the kitchen, at night and with low voices for fear of being overheard.  The legacy of this persecution is still palpable even in 2013. In the 1950s, despite the fact the Carías Andino was no longer president, his effect and rule was still powerful. In my manuscript I detail the ways in which banana workers who happened to belong to the Liberal Party were thrown in jail for the mere mention of the Liberal Party, often labeled Communists or sympathizers.

For much of the 20th century the Liberal Party was seen as the oppositional party to the more conservative Nationalist Party.  These two parties were cemented into people’s minds as the only potential for change.  All this would change forever when the Liberal Party technocrats ousted their own party’s President Mel Zelaya Rosales on June 28, 2009.  The coup d’état instigated by the Liberal Party, the historic underdog or so the story is told, forced a response from a conscious people. For over 365 days after the coup, Hondurans protested every single day and demanded the return of their president. The movement just as powerful as the event seen in Egypt, a Spring of protest, generated the social movement known as the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) and later the LIBRE party as a people’s representative. The Liberal Party made itself irrelevant by utilizing Nationalist Party political tactics of the times of Carías Andino’s era: they blocked all media, instituted martial law, committed over 3000 civil rights violations on people’s freedoms, and called special elections boycotted by over 60% of the population. Anyone that was not in line was targeted, hunted, , and killed–leading to the over 200 human rights violations that include attacks on teachers and the teachers’ union, labor leaders, journalists, lawyers, LGBTI community members, women and the list is growing.

From these ashes, however, the FRNP voted in 2011 to form LIBRE, an alternative party that would encompass the masses that protested the coup. It is important to note that people of all parties protested the coup, not just Liberal Party members. LIBRE amasses, then, the majority of the Honduran population that opposed the coup and the repression in its aftermath. The most significant portion is young people and women who have been marginalized in the previous political parties and not a priority of governing bodies.

LIBRE breaks the bipartisanship of the two old political parties but also positions itself as a frontrunner in perhaps Honduras’ most important election in history.  At the same time, LIBRE proposes a new way of doing government, one that involves empowering civilians to access and weigh in on their government, a democratization process from the constituents to the top.  One proposal from presidential candidate, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, is the Constitutional Assembly to modernize the Constitution, a process that would engage all civilians and members of government. The idea is to refound Honduras and bring to the present many of its antiquated laws. For instance, a referendum law that would allow Hondurans to vote on changes and also challenge their elected officials that may not be doing their jobs well. A comparable domestic example is the California recall election of Governor Gray Davis or even the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton; we hardly consider those leftists tactics in the US.

LIBRE also proposes to promulgate a set of laws that protects indigenous people, Afro-descendants, and Garifuna communities, long time marginalized groups that rarely figure into political party politics except to perform dances of rituals as a spectacle for national holidays and special occasions. Now important members of The Resistance, these groups would have a voice and legal protections. Similarly, there are hopes for protections of the environment and natural resources, a national patrimony? eroding under hydroelectric plants construction and resorts and villas for tourists, as people are caught in the middle between protest, death or migration.

The third break with the old comes with LIBRE’s running of a woman candidate for president. In a country where in 2012, 606 women were killed and none of the cases were investigated or processed?, this is big news. While the National Police lists mostly young men as the most common victims of crimes, women’s murders are seen a crimes of passion and often invisibilized as legitimate violence in a deeply sexist country.Feminicide is hardly a crime of passion but rather a result of generalized violence against women, which includes machismo and male supremacy in all aspect of a society and government. A woman president would surely take these heinous crimes more seriously than previous rulers. A few weeks ago, candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya launched her campaign to great expectations in Honduras and internationally. Internal polls show her at the top, rivaling the old political machines, despite less campaign funds than the more established parties. Her campaign logo says more about the Latin America reality of today: “Ser LIBRE es Mejor” (To be free is better) and resembles the marked enthusiasm of the youth and the new. It is because of their respect for history that they demand a new way of doing politics.

Suyapa Portillo Villeda is an assistant professor in the Chicana/o Latina/o Transnational Studies Field group at Pitzer College. Since  the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009, Portillo Villeda has served as a country expert in the media and for immigration asylum cases to attest to conditions in Honduras and Central America. She provides historical analysis of Honduras, its trajectory during the 1980s Civil Wars in the region, updates on the current state of growing militarization, and Human Rights violations against the Honduran people in resistance. As a part of her community work, Portillo Villeda documents violence against the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transvestite, and Intersex people in Honduras and works closely with groups to promote investigation and denunciation. Bringing these issues to the local and national LGBTQ movement of today, she works closely with local groups to find points of intersection.

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