In 2009, the first time Gerardo Torres and Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle met, Torres had come to the United States representing the National Front of Popular Resistance that came together in Honduras after the coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya. Today Torres serves as Vice Foreign Minister of Honduras and international liaison for the LIBRE Party. LIBRE—Libertad y Refundación (Freedom and Re-foundation)—grew from the post-coup resistance and took power when Xiomara Castro de Zelaya won the 2021 presidential election. Ginsberg-Jaeckle interviewed Torres for Convergence.
Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle: Recently we saw each other again in the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa. This time we weren’t in front of it being gassed and I wasn’t there to document any human rights violations. Instead, I was accompanying a delegation of leftist Congressmembers from the U.S. visiting you and President Xiomara Castro. We arrived just before the extradition of the ex-dictator Juan Orlando Hernández and a few days after this new government had taken power.
So what happened between those two moments? How is it possible that now we are talking about a Honduras filled with hope when in that first moment everything seemed so difficult and dark?
Gerardo Torres: Well, thanks so much for this interview. Really you gave a good summary of what happened. A month after the coup d’état I was delegated by the new Front Against the Coup d’état to go to the U.S. to make known what had happened in Honduras. I had been working around international representation and communications in two formations, the National Coordinator of Popular Resistance and the Bloque Popular (Popular Block). These were spaces for coordination amongst the social movements that were confronting the impacts of neoliberalism, specifically the struggle against the Free Trade Agreement, which was impacting everything related to our agricultural capacity.
Small and mid-sized Honduran producers had no possibility of competing against the big North American companies who were subsidized by the U.S. government and who generated a completely asymmetrical and unjust competition amongst producers. We signed this free trade agreement with the U.S. not to sell our products in the U.S. but to be crushed and made subservient to the U.S. producers, who found in Central America a giant market and in addition very cheap labor.
So we came from those social, grassroots, organized sectors. At the beginning of the government of President Zelaya, we were against his positions because he came from the Liberal Party. The Liberals and the National Party had always alternated in power, except during interruptions by the military dictatorships. When the coup d’état happened, we came together with the people from the Liberal Party who decided to support President Zelaya and declared themselves “Liberals in Resistance.”
The first trip when we met in 2009, everything was very new. We had a Resistance Front without resources, a population that was not prepared for taking on a commitment like that. Twelve years later it is organized as a political party and a people’s government of solidarity. Receiving you here in Tegucigalpa was a pleasure and an honor. It marks two moments in a process that was long, that was hard, and that thankfully was victorious thanks to the organizational capacity and will of the Honduran people to change more than 200 years of history and get behind a new party, put a woman in the presidency, and put an end to more than 200 years of conservative two-party rule and give space to a political initiative that openly calls itself socialist and democratic.
Tensions of Building A Broad Front
MGJ: What was the political vision of the social movements, of the Left in Honduras, in 2009 as it started to ally with or at least find spaces in common with the “Government of Citizen Power” under Manuel Zelaya? What was it about that vision that threatened both the oligarchy in Honduras as well as its allies in other countries, in particular the U.S.?
GT: Well, I think the first thing that brought us together was the rejection of the military dictatorship. Even those of us who were very young or who hadn’t been born during the military governments already had knowledge and were clear that a military dictatorship was not what we wanted for the country. The other thing is that also, as I mentioned to you there was a left social, grassroots, organized movement that was confronting neoliberalism above all and we were very clear about that.
We believed President Zelaya’s proposal precisely because he spoke about a more participatory economy and democracy, more grassroots, not so concentrated in big capital and in the political elites. The poorest, who are the majority of the Honduran population, could have direct participation in the economy and in making decisions.
We who come from the Left and who are socialist came to agreements with the Liberals. We built a party that takes up many of the historic values of liberalism, Republican Liberalism, based on quality education and equality of opportunities, and adds our values, which have to do more with more equitable distribution of wealth and of the economy, a bigger share of participation for the peasants and workers of the country.
Until now there had never been a party that was able to bring together all of those sectors, the progressive, socialist, left, anti-capitalist. Now LIBRE under President Xiomara Zelaya and with a candidacy as strong as hers has been able to put an end to that historic hegemony of the conservatives and make way for the progressive forces. For the first time in Honduras there is a party that is not capitalist in character and that is historic. And in addition, it’s a party that declares itself anti-patriarchy, anti-colonial, and that proposes a development from and for the localities.
Building a Political Instrument for Governing Power
MGJ: Talk to me a little more about the formation of the LIBRE party, because it hasn’t been easy at all. It took place under a military dictatorship, repression, waves of assassinations, and also in a context of a lot of debate within the movement itself, no? There were those who believed conditions existed for party-based political participation and those who didn’t. There was also all of the difficulty of how to build something that both breaks with the two-party system but also brings along an important part of their base, that part of the traditional parties that was separate from the party elite. Talk to me a little about that process.
GT: Well, I think we proved the belief that the conditions weren’t wrong. The conditions were there because we put it to a test and we have taken power via elections. But those who said the conditions weren’t there also reflected an historic lack of confidence in the political parties. It wouldn’t have been the first time that the social and popular sectors by falling into the logic of elections lost their principles or diluted their political formation.
Conditions for creating a political party were generated also by the organizational capacity of the people. In 2013 we won an election, but they stole it from us, and they stole it from us because we didn’t have the knowledge and preparation to defend the triumph. In 2017 we won again, and they stole it from us by killing a lot of sisters and brothers.
And in 2021 they didn’t steal it from us not because they didn’t want to but because they couldn’t. Because we had a much greater organizational capacity, because we had been able to build a popular backing that was overwhelming, with a difference of over 21%. In a country where more than 50% of the population never voted, that day 68% voted, and despite the fraud that we know of in inflating and buying votes, we still won by over a half million votes over the next candidate, who was the ruling party candidate. So taking political control in Honduras through elections was a job of over 12 years of work without rest.
The party is socialist. It is democratic. And our idea is to create those values through collective construction of those values. We don’t have a manual that we brought from another country to say, this is socialism. We are building our own version of it, understanding that we have a pretty conservative and gringo-leaning, liberal DNA, and to sew in values like solidarity, like anti-imperialism, like social justice, requires a process of consciousness-raising and collective work.
The Challenges of Governing In a Moment of Crisis
MGJ: This is not an easy moment to be able to carry out a transformative vision. There is inflation in all countries, the wars, the rise in the price of everything. The judicial power in Honduras is still controlled by people from the ex-dictatorship. There’s a need to build, to assure that everyone is moving together, and the Party doesn’t run too far out in front of people nor wait too long to be able to satisfy the major demands of the sectors of the population who have been the pillars of the resistance. So how can you take on the challenges of this very difficult conjuncture in a way that keeps the coalition intact that allowed LIBRE to take power?
GT: Look, the easiest way to say this to you is to say in this moment this country is an absolute disaster. Totally, everywhere you look it is a disaster, because it was held hostage for far too long by a group of people that was never interested in the country, just in enriching themselves and their families. This government that we took over was made for corruption. It was made to strengthen the most powerful, and if we wanted to make money here, we just have to go talk to the sectors who have always had power, come to an agreement, they pay really well, and call it a day.
This country doesn’t have a minimal level of education, this country doesn’t have quality healthcare, it doesn’t even have healthcare in some of its states. Here poverty is at 74%, three out of four Hondurans don’t earn enough to cover their basic necessities. Here, there isn’t electricity, there isn’t water, there isn’t food, there isn’t work.
Xiomara Castro ended the Special Development Zones (ZEDEs) [areas designated for control by foreign corporations that had become a flashpoint of popular protest]. They are annulled, prohibited, and anyone can come and sue, it doesn’t matter, the decision has been made. Xiomara Castro decided that energy is no longer a business for a few private companies but a public national good that has to be guaranteed to all Honduras. She also decided to raise the healthcare budget by a billion, the education budget by a billion, and she didn’t increase the armed forces spending but instead increased schools and hospitals.
Xiomara Castro is talking about a new agrarian reform like what this country lived through in the 1970s, which the CIA pointed as a communist project in disguise. She is talking about 1.7 billion Lempiras [Honduran currency] for small producers, she is talking about immediate urgent assistance for the 2,000 poorest villages in the country, regardless of which political party controls them. Xiomara made a state decision based on social indicators and not political favors, which is what had always happened in this country, the mayor who was a friend of the ruling party got the support.
This is a poor country, a hungry country, held hostage by violence. We already captured the head of the cartel, [ex-dictator] Juan Orlando Hernández, and we have now sent him to New York to face trial for links to drug trafficking. Why can’t we do it here? Because the Supreme Court and the Attorney General have not changed, it is still the same apparatus for justice and criminal investigation that was part of the old regime. We cannot trust that apparatus until there is a change, as there has been in the executive and legislative branches.
But we captured the head of the cartel, and now we have to advance in the area of security. We have spoken with the armed forces and the police. We told them, ‘For 12 years, your main job was to persecute and repress the people who were seeking change in this country. Not to combat crime or drug trafficking. Now your priority is not to persecute or repress or torture the people, but your work now is to take care of the forests, take care of the rivers, take care of our sovereignty, combat drug trafficking, fight extortion, and bring calm to the Honduran people.’
That’s why we are in the government, because the people want a change. And sometimes the people criticize us because we aren’t bringing the change fast enough and that’s good. As a public official your role isn’t to make excuses for yourselves but to seek solutions, and if they talk shit about us 24 hours a day that’s OK, because that’s the job for those of us who stepped up. We’re not here to get rich or for personal benefit but to put forth our best energy and efforts to make changes for Honduras.
Lessons for the U.S. Left
MGJ: To close, what is your call to the social movements here in the United States? If you were the Commander in Chief of the progressive forces of the U.S., what recommendations would you make? What would be the primary task you would propose, thinking about what would most benefit the possibility that the dreams of that noble people in resistance in Honduras are able to become reality?
GT: I think the best way of doing this is to have coordination with a series of clear principles. I think that every portion of power that we can have is important as long as we don’t lose our principles. We started with 30 congresspeople, that’s what we started with, and with 25 mayors.
And sometimes they have criticized us, those of us who have taken up positions in the state, in NGO’s, in foundations, obviously there is a difference, because if you’re in that role you have some possibility and if you don’t you have limitations, but if the person in the role is in collective communication with their sisters and brothers and there is a common project, I think any position of power is important.
I think that the universities, the unions, organized women, organized youth, every space of organization should have debates but should be unified in some part. If we hadn’t had the National Front of Popular Resistance or the National Coordinator of Popular Resistance, this would never have been possible. If we didn’t have a party where, despite our differences, we can debate together, it wouldn’t be possible. Because the atomized struggle, in individual nuclei, may be faster but it is weaker.
So our party is trying to stay in permanent communication with the social sectors of the country, because it is very simple: We as a government can’t change this country ourselves, we as a party can’t take the power of the country ourselves. We sit down – even with those who swore we were their enemies, some sectors in the center, who are on the right, who saw LIBRE as a socialist threat, repeating all of the lies and prejudices of the Cold War that I mentioned before. If we are the political structure that wants a change, we have to demonstrate it by talking with people and reaching agreements.
Politics, at the end of the day, is portions of power. If you become president of your grade, that’s a portion of power, if the other one is president of the union and the other president of the party, all of them have a portion of power and all have to be able to understand that portion of power as a bigger project.
The problem with portions of power is if you start to fight with your comrade over that portion and you forget who your true enemy is. The enemy is the system of exclusion, the system of poverty. If, in the U.S. you came to the agreement that the enemy is the system of exclusion, I think it will be possible to find a point of coming together.
Here there are anarchists, socialists, liberals, conservatives, but we were all clear that we had to defeat the regime of Juan Orlando, and that’s what we did. And now we agree that we have to get this country out of poverty. So I can’t nor do I try to have my criteria be imposed on others. I have to know where to pressure and where to stop pressuring out of respect and care for the collective project, which is the most important thing that we have – the collective space of construction.
Gerardo Torres is Vice Foreign Minister of the Government of Honduras and International Liaison for the LIBRE Party. He was an activist throughout the whole process of resistance after the coup d’état of 2009, and part of the process of forming the LIBRE party and the various alliances against the dictatorships that followed the coup. He served in the International Commission of the Resistance Front, and later in the leadership of LIBRE’s youth front. For the last seven years he has been the party’s International Secretary and director of its institute for political and ideological development.
Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle is a Chicago-based organizer, translator and interpreter. He is a member of La Voz de los de Abajo, one of the founding organizations of the Honduras Solidarity Network. He has been accompanying Honduran social movements for over two decades, doing support work alongside assassinated indigenous leader Berta Caceres and her organization COPINH, leading human rights observation and electoral monitoring delegations and organizing speaking tours and solidarity efforts in the U.S. in support of Honduran social movements. He is also the translator of 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance, a book of short stories by feminist writer Melissa Cardoza about women who joined the resistance to the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras. In Chicago, he serves on the board of the grassroots organization he co-founded, Southside Together Organizing for Power, though most of his current political work is helping build the left independent political project United Working Families in the largely immigrant and refugee neighborhood where he, his wife Victoria and their one-year-old son Harvey live.