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Repression Intensifies, Resistance Deepens, and Washington Promotes Recognition of the Post-Coup Regime

Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens

February and March have been especially brutal months in the state-sponsored repression of the popular resistance in Honduras. In just the past two weeks, three journalists have been assassinated and numerous activists have been detained, tortured, and raped. This repression comes in as the National Front of Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) pushes for the organization of a national constitutional assembly to “refound” Honduras, while the United States, international lending institutions, and countries participating in the regional economic development plan known as the Plan Puebla Panama extend recognition to the government of President Porfirio Lobo, restoring loans, and renewing plans for economic and security integration.

On March 14, journalist Nahúm Palacios Arteaga was gunned down in Tocoa, a city in Honduras’s Atlantic region. Two cars pulled up next to his vehicle and opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles. A companion traveling with him was also injured. Palacios, who covered the demonstrations organized by the resistance to the coup that overthrew former president Manuel Zelaya on June 28, had suffered death threats in the past. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) appealed to the state of Honduras to protect Palacios, following a military raid on his home June 30. During that raid, IACHR reported, the military confiscated work equipment, held Palacios’s children at gunpoint, and seized his vehicle. More recently, Palacios was covering an agrarian conflict in Aguán, where the United Farm Workers Movement (MUCA) has been protesting massive displacement by large landowners. On March 12, just two days before Palacios’s murder, resistance activists Front denounced the killing of two MUCA leaders, Ramón Ulises Castellanos and Miguel Sauceda.

Palacios is the third journalist to be killed in the past two weeks in Honduras. On March 11, radio reporter David Meza Montesinos was murdered in La Ceiba, which is also on the Atlantic coast, under similar circumstances. [CIDH March 16, 2010] On March 1, reporters Joseph Hernández Ochoa and Karol Cabrera, who was known for her pro-coup stance, were shot to death in Tegucigalpa. Kabrera’s pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Katleen Nicole Rodríguez Cabrera, had been murdered in virtually the same spot on December 15 (her child survived). Manuel de Jesús Murillo from Globo TV and Ricardo Antonio Rodríguez from Noticiero Mi Nación were reportedly detained on February 2 by plain-clothes men who identified themselves with police badges. In a telephone interview, Andrés Pavón, executive director of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), said the detainees were taken to a house, tortured, and interrogated about arms possessed by the resistance and told their families would be killed if they denounced the abuse.

Journalists are far from the only recent victims of repression under the “democratically” elected Lobo government. In February, the IACHR reported that three people active in the resistance to the coup d’état were also murdered. On February 2, Vanessa Zepeda Alonzo, an active member of both the resistance movement and the Union of Social Security employees, was found dead in Tegucigalpa. Two weeks later, on February 15, two men on a motorcycle shot and killed Julio Funez Benítez, another active member of the resistance and member of the Union of Workers of SANAA. On March 3, Olga Laguna, a Judge for children in Honduras, was killed by unknown people in Tegucigalpa.

Nor have the Honduran forces of repression limited their attacks to activists. The children of the resistance movement have also been targeted. On February 24, Claudia Maritza Brizuela, daughter of union leader and community radio host Pedro Brizuela, was shot to death in her home in front of her children, ages two and eight. On February 9, seven armed men dressed in military uniforms intercepted the car of a family whose members were active in the resistance. Among the passengers was a girl who had denounced the police for raping her after arresting her at a protest march. The seven armed men forced the girl, her brother and sister, and the two other passengers at gunpoint to walk to another area, where two of the women were sexually assaulted and the men tortured. Honduran journalist Arturo J. Viscarra reported that on February 11, the 14-year-old daughter of Elizabeth Gutiérrez Reyes, coordinator of the FNRP, was attacked as she boarded the bus that she takes home from school. A man armed with a handgun pulled her aside, where she was attacked by a group of adults deriding her mother’s activism and severely bruising and scratching the adolescent girl. On February 17, Dara Gudiel, the 17 year-old-daughter of the director of a radio program that broadcasts on the resistance movement, was found hanged in the city of Danlí, in the department of Paraíso. Days before she was found, Guidel had been released after having been kidnapped and assaulted. This attack was one part of what IACHR has denounced as eight cases of torture, two kidnappings, two sexual violations, and a house raid during February. [Washington March 8, 2010, EFE]

IACHR and Human Rights Watch have demanded an “immediate, exhaustive, and impartial” investigation of these attacks. IACHR reported that in the month of February there were more than 50 detentions, eight cases of torture, two kidnappings, two rapes, and a house raid against activists. On February 17, the Spanish Deputy of Europe for the Left United, Willy Meyer, also denounced that “the Honduran people continue to suffer as victims of violent repression initiated by the coup d’etat.” The Committee for the Families of Disappeared Persons in Honduras (COFADEH) reported 28 politically-motivated killings of nonviolent resistance members in the sixth months following the coup.

Despite these conditions of repression, Gilberto Rios of “Los Necios” (The Troublemakers), part of the Honduran exiled community in Nicaragua, suggests that the coup against Zelaya has created an opportunity. People from the “old Left” of orthodox Marxists affiliated with revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a younger generation raised in what he describes as an “Ecumenical Marxism,” and feminists and members of the LGBT community have joined forces in the National Front in Honduras. Participants maintain distinct views of Zelaya, who some on the traditional left still mistrust because he was historically a right-wing business leader who, through his participation in the political process, came to recognize that Honduras was being hijacked by a small group of national and international elite. Yet, Rios suggests that what made leftists suspicious, also represented the greatest threat to the more traditional powers and the reason for Zelaya’s overthrow. Namely, that Zelaya “was a president from the right who began taking leftist measures. That could invite other presidents to do the same.” That, concluded Rios, “was the sin of Zelaya.” [Transcript of Interview with Exiled Los Necios Militant Gilberto Ríos]

The FNRP, which began as a protest movement has been transformed into a movement for change. From March 12–15, some 800 people, according to organizers’ estimates, gathered in La Esperanza, Honduras for a national assembly to discuss the future of the country and to plan a constitutional assembly to “refound Honduras.” Representatives of popular organizations from Honduras’s diverse population participated: Indigenous, afro-descendent, peasants, and feminists who have played a crucial role in the struggle for democracy made their voices heard. Carlos H. Reyes, the presidential candidate who withdrew from elections in November to condemn the farce of a democratic process in the context of the military coup against Zelaya, was among the keynote speakers. Bertha Oliva of the Committee of Families of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH) was as director of the National Constituent Assembly.

Yet, while popular organizations work to promote a broad transformation of Honduran social and political structures, the forces seeking to promote regional free trade agreements founded on joint development of hydroelectric dams, mining concessions, maquiladoras, roads and infrastructure, and security agreements are rapidly moving to reassert control. On February 11, Honduras discussion to develop a new Law of Mining to facilitate the movement of $350 million in new mining projects that had been on hold because of the absence of a law controlling mining exploitation in the aftermath of the coup. Zelaya had restrictions on mining that included mandatory citizen participation in approval of mining projects; social responsibility toward communities by mining interests; and no permission to mine without guaranteeing the protection of natural resources that could be effected by mining operations. Zelaya also suspended open-sky mining.

The United States has a keen interest in these developments and is actively promoting recognition of the Lobo regime and the restoration of plans for the Plan Puebla Panama, now called the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Nonetheless, on March 3, the EFE news service reported that the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa expressed “grave concern” for the recent violent acts against people who expressed their opinions about the June 28 military coup. The document recognized that “activists opposed to the coup have recently been victims of violence and intimidation because of their political beliefs.”

Despite those grave concerns, on March 5, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with leaders from Central American countries and the Dominican Republic to encourage a regional integration that would be allied with Washington and include Honduras. Following the meeting, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes appealed to have Nicaragua, the last Central American country withholding recognition of the Lobo government, and “the rest of the South American countries and especially the members of UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) and the ALBA group (Bolivarian Alliance for the People of our America) to recognize the government of Honduras.” There is, said Funes, “no reason why Honduras should not return home to” the System of Central American Integration (SICA) and the Organization of American States. On March 6, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, following a meeting with leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama, announced that Washington would restore aid to Honduras, which had been suspended following the coup. On March 15, there was a meeting between El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with the business leaders of the three countries.

President Lobo returned to Honduras reporting that he was “very satisfied” with “the extraordinary support” given by Central America, the Dominican Republic, and the United States to Honduras. This show of support and the cast of political actors present should not be surprising given the regional economic development plans being promoted by CAFTA and the Plan Puebla Panama, which promote a trade corridor from Mexico to Colombia. As if cementing this regional integration Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was the first to visit Porfirio Lobo in Honduras following his election. The two presidents signed a security agreement that went into effect February 15.

On March 9, the International Monetary Fund recognized Porfirio Lobo’s regime, releasing $160 million in loans that had been frozen following the coup and providing an additional $90 million in new loans. The IMF is directing a mission to Honduras to evaluate the economy and will conclude its work on March 25. The World Bank had already recognized the Lobo government in February, restoring $270 million in loans and providing an additional $120 million in new loans. The Inter-American Development Bank was the last hold out. It restored lending just a few days ago, on March 16.

While regional agreements are being rapidly affirmed externally, inside Honduras there are also changes developing to promote both trade and security. On February 25, President Porfirio Lobo relieved General Romeo Vásquez, who directed the coup against Zelaya, of his post as head of the Honduran Armed Forces, naming Carlos Antonio Cuellar in his place. Vásquez has been identified by CODEH’s Andres Pavón as the central figure behind the intelligence operations being used to identify, find, and assassinate prominent members of the resistance. Less than a month later, on March 9, Vásquez was named director of the state telecommunications company Hondutel. He noted that his military experience would aid him in directing the telecommunications company, which has been implicated in wiretapping. [Tegucigalpa, 9 mar (EFE)]

On February 4, reports EFE, Porfirio Lobo created a working group coordinated by former vice president of Guatemala, Eduardo Stein, to form a Truth Commission to clarify what really happened in the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya. Stein observed that the commission would “have to be autonomous, absolutely independent” and that it “could not be transformed into a source of conflict” or “persecution” or “inquisition” in the sense of legal punishment. Lobo will reserve the ultimate authority to determine the structure of the Truth Commission and the participants in the process. There will be no interviews with Zelaya, interim president Micheletti, nor “with any of the political actors involved in the crisis.” The goal of the commission will be to promote reconciliation. The United States has praised the commission as part of the process of restoring democracy to Honduras.

Hardly two weeks after the Commission plans were announced, on February 24, Honduras made effective an amnesty decree for all coup actors and backers who were required to go to court to request amnesty. The amnesty, which includes not only those who took part in the coup, but also people who committed other crimes like abuse of power and neglect of duty, will remain valid for 40 years.

In the face of the combination of internal violent repression and external restoration of international aid and recognition of the Lobo regime, conservative columnist Álvaro Vargas Llosa denounced Zelaya, claiming that he was responsible for the coup. According to Vargas Llosa, Zelaya assumed the presidency as a supporter of CAFTA, the United States, and big-business interests, but midway through his term became a “political cross-dresser” allied with Hugo Chávez. In this context, the military had little choice but to eliminate a leader who was part of the “gravest threat to liberty. . . elected populists seeking to subject the institutions of law to their megalomaniac whims.” Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Chilean José Miguel Insulza, writes Vargas Llosa, played into the hands of these populists by acting “like Venezuela’s poodle.”

On February 27, Washington threatened to block Insulza’s re-election as Secretary General of the OAS. Venezuela and Nicaragua have been silent about supporting him because he failed to restore Zelaya to the presidency following the coup.

The coup in Honduras and the subsequent “democratic election” of Porfirio Lobo thus continue to have broad repercussions inside of the country and throughout Latin America. Even though Zelaya clearly “lost” his bid to remain in the country through the end of his term, the movement his overthrow promoted continues to raise questions about the dominant economic policies being imposed in the region. It does so in the context of extreme repression, where reporting on the issues at home in Honduras may be fatal, and reporting abroad in the United States barely exists in mainstream press.