Notes from Tegucigalpa
I came to Honduras for two critical weeks in August as part of a delegation of concerned activists to witness and accompany the daily protests, monitor human rights violations, and report back to the international community on conditions since the June 28 military coup. On that day, democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from office by the Honduran military and expelled from the country. In the aftermath, there was an immediate popular uprising in his support, which was met with many instances of severe police and military repression that continue today.
As I pack my bags to go, I hear that the military repression is getting worse—150 arrested, many wounded. In the airport waiting room I scan CNN, but there is no mention of this on the world news. When I get to my hotel room in San Pedro Sula, I’m still looking for news. In the middle of channel-surfing, all stations go black for ten seconds and over an image of the Honduran flag a voice pleads for the Honduran people to be patient as democracy is restored. The exile of the president comes off as nothing more than a necessary inconvenience, its opposition a mere nuisance.
Later, I sit on the steps in front of the hotel and speak to a man passing by on a bike who is clearly in favor of the new government. "Zelaya. He’s friends with Chavez," he says disgustedly. And Chavez? "Well, he’s a dictator who wants to take over the world." I ask him to elaborate and he rephrases. I can’t get any details out of him, just a vague dismissal of Zelaya’s policies.
Just a few minutes earlier, I had been watching ten second clips of Hugo Chavez’s speeches, followed by President Zelaya’s own speeches, with "similar phrases" extracted and highlighted. The implication was that they were in bed together with a socialist agenda destined to destroy the average Honduran. It’s a massive campaign, which I see multiple times in an hour.
At about 9:00 AM, a taxi drops us off in front of a small crowd of people gathered to attend the march in Tegucigalpa. Several people are carrying a giant Honduran flag, under which some seek relief from the sun. The mood is light, some people are in costume, friends are meeting up, people are passing around water and sandwiches, and everyone seems geared up for at least a few hours of walking. After a while, the crowd has grown by several hundred and we begin to march. Immediately I hear a megaphone blare, "¡En filas, en filas!" (In rows! In rows!) In a very short time the protesters drop off into three neat lines, a display of spontaneous organization which I’ve never seen in a protest before. It is a show not only of order, but of solidarity—a united front.
As the morning goes on, the crowd gets larger and soon I can’t see a beginning or an end. Some are branching out to tag walls with slogans ranging from general ("¡Fuera golpistas!" "¡Urge, Mel!") to specific references to the CIA and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Graffiti covers almost all corners. We pass several lines of police armed with riot gear, shields, batons, guns, and, most crudely, large sharpened branches from trees. Still, the mood is celebratory. As we enter the center of the city, the crowd begins to splinter and the anarchists emerge. They smash several windows and tear down street cameras. Their behavior will later be attributed by almost all major media in Honduras (and worldwide) to the other 95 percent of demonstrators who have been consistently urging disciplined non-violence. At the central plaza, it begins to rain heavily. We duck into a café and the march is over, for now.
The next day, we travel about an hour to an abandoned schoolyard in Savanna Grande. The premises are being used as a campground to re-energize, restock supplies (small plates of rice and a tortilla for each person, along with endless plastic bags of fresh water), and rest for the night. The group is part of the process in which thousands of rural demonstrators simultaneously walk across Honduras to converge on its two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, on August 11.
This particular group of about 75 people is from Choluteca. They are poor, determined, and happy to be there. They range from young children to several elderly women and everyone in between. The first person I speak with at the campesino camp is a woman whose brother had been disappeared by the Honduran military in the 1980s.
I am at Sábana Grande with a delegation of human rights observers that I am assisting through Global Exchange. The delegates are given the opportunity to interview the demonstrators and to hear about why they leave their homes and towns. When it grows dark and the delegates are ready to head back, I ask if I can stay the night with them and am immediately welcomed into the fold. The night passes quickly after someone takes out a guitar. What has been a solemn and tired group promptly turns into a jubilant dancing mass, sound-tracked by fiery protest songs.
I wake around 6:30 AM to trucks pulling into the courtyard with fresh supplies for the marchers. A large pot of sweetened coffee is brought out and someone greets me by name, thrusts a cookie in my face and a small plastic cup of coffee in my hand. Ten minutes later we are back on the main road, walking along the highway in the direction of the capital. Again, spirits are high. The three straight lines are enforced, providing fodder for one elderly marcher to joke about organizers’ discipline. But unlike the demonstrations in the city, no one is watching along the sidelines. Several trucks accompany us to provide water. A couple of guys run ahead of the marchers to monitor and direct incoming traffic. As we continue down the highway, we pick up more people. The chants grow more intense, as if daring fatigue. We finally make it to the city.
The anarchists are kicking me out of Pizza Hut. They storm in, teenagers wearing bandanas over their faces, and announce that anyone who doesn’t leave immediately will be deemed a golpista, a person who is with the coup. The restaurant is located across the street from the convergence point for the marchers coming from across the country. Thousands are present. For many, the location of the demonstration has become, in part, a referendum on capitalism.
The walls of Pizza Hut are covered with anti-corporate graffiti, as are the outsides of Burger King, McDonalds, and many other fast-food corporations, which represent to many Hondurans the dark side of globalization. A select few individuals and families own the vast majority of businesses in Honduras, as well as almost all major print, television, and radio media. These large business interests are widely known to be helping fund and otherwise support the military takeover.
Down the block, trucks with speakers blare protest songs and are also equipped with megaphones. Padre Andres Tamayo, a leading environmental and social justice activist, speaks fiercely against the coup while emphasizing the need to remain faithful to social justice and disciplined nonviolent action. Later, one of the Global Exchange delegates, Allan, is on the truck/stage and the crowd is responding wildly to his suggestion that a U.S. banana workers union in Mississippi boycott shipments of Dole and Chiquita products from Honduras by refusing to unload cargo.
Next, the coordinator of the delegation takes the megaphone. I climb up to film his speech and stare down at the crowd of thousands as he begins. He angrily explains how just that morning President Obama called critics of the U.S.’s handling of this situation in Honduras "hypocrites," despite his own rhetoric about the new face of Latin American policy under his Administration. Soon the crowd is fully engaged in a call-and-response deeming Obama as the true hypocrite.
Convergence point blocked, Tegucigalpa
Later that afternoon, the rally is still going on when a police barricade forms, blocking the marchers from heading to the President’s house. After a few hours, the protest leaders convince the demonstrators to back away before things get ugly. We head for the hotel to rest, satisfied that at least for the day, the action is over. We are wrong. Two blocks from the hotel we see a cloud of smoke rising into the skyline. It appears to be coming from the area of the mall where we are headed. As I round the corner, I see a burning bus and people fleeing toward us. Past the bus is a line of riot police marching in step. Looking left, I see that a few blocks down people are running in all directions and it appears a large group has been split apart by the tear gas the police are dispensing. I see that a Popeye’s restaurant is on fire. The entire lower floor is in flames. There’s no sign of fire trucks or ambulances or even police. Only the riot troops are on the scene and they’re ignoring the fire as they storm past Popeye’s toward the crowd. Over the next few days, it is suggested more than once that the arson is the work of provocateurs, made to look as though demonstrators had gone wild. This is the way the story was framed in almost all international news reports, particularly during the few seconds it is on CNN that night.
As we begin videotaping the scene, a woman runs alongside the police, tearfully pleading for them to not kill people. "We’re all Hondurans," she shouts. "Please don’t hurt your own people." We make it clear that we are international media. We get within a few feet and extend our arms with the cameras to get as close as possible to make it known to the police that their actions will be watched around the world. The police continue on, ignoring both the woman and us. Following, we see that they are headed in the direction of an even bigger mass of people a few blocks away. The protesters must have migrated here and things are going to get bad fast as the riot police continue spraying tear gas in the general direction of the crowd. Another woman, seeing us filming, grabs my arm and we listen carefully as she says she just saw five young men being cornered and detained by the police. Reports of detainees and missing people increase and become a central focus in our work in the next few days.
The following afternoon, the offices of the Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) smell of tear gas. Normally the place is full of a very different kind of energy, several floors of people rushing around, displays of hundreds of photos of missing and deceased allies, incredible art work, and notices of ongoing events related to the resistance movement against the coup. COFADEH is a leading human rights organization in Honduras and a regular meeting place for much of the community affected by police repression in the past and now. As we walk in, the floor is strewn with bodies, all young people. They’ve just come from another demonstration and the repression has worsened. People are lying down, nursing wounds, clutching handkerchiefs soaked in water and pressing them to their faces to quell the sting of the tear gas. A few reporters are milling around, some are interviewing them about the attacks. New reports are rapidly coming in about similar unprovoked attacks all over the city. The police are using a "catch and release" strategy, grabbing demonstrators, beating them, and letting them go before any paperwork can be filed.
Even more disturbing are the reports of missing children. At the police station later, we’re told that there are at least 14 underage people missing on this day alone, on top of the estimate of about 40 from the previous day. We help facilitate contact between a human rights lawyer and relatives of those detained or missing.
The coup resistance is a network of spirited camaraderie unlike anything I’ve imagined. However, there is one organization, which is consistently in the eye of the storm and should be heralded for having the courage to speak the truth to the people of Honduras throughout this crisis. That is Radio Globo, an independently owned and operated station based out in Tegucigalpa. It is the primary source of information for anyone involved in resisting the coup. Their transmitters were sabotaged in mid-August and they recently received notice of a pending removal of their broadcast license.
On the last day, our group was invited to speak on the air at Radio Globo about our thoughts and impressions. The format was a roundtable discussion. We ended up being interviewed for almost an hour. The host was gracious, inquisitive, and genuinely curious as to our perceptions of the political crisis. Our reception at Radio Globo, as well as at the demonstrations and on the street, is a testament to how vital it is for an international presence inside Honduras.
At the time of this writing, it is almost two months since the coup. The de-facto government is increasing pressure through countless fear tactics. Despite limited global support, thousands of Hondurans are in the streets every day to show their opposition, but as one person from the Center for Women’s Rights put it, "We’re getting tired." For their struggle to continue to be virtually invisible in the U.S. is another example of the public apathy that world leaders, aided by the blind eye of mass media, are able to generate in conflicts where they sense no immediate personal stakes.