By Alexander Rubinstein, Mintpressnews.com
TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — MintPress News went to Honduras and spoke with a number of leaders of the Honduran resistance amid a 66-day uprising over a neoliberal austerity deal reached between the government as the country marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup d’etat.
Last Thursday, the Honduran government passed a privatization law, the run-up to which had triggered uprisings challenging the mandate of President Juan Orlando Hernandez and protesting the implementation of a privatization deal reached with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — a deal kept secret until this week. The battle against it was fought tooth and nail, with average Hondurans following the lead of healthcare and education activists.
MintPress has obtained a copy of the law. The document details the government’s plan to sever 6 billion lempiras ($242 million USD), and includes instituting a maximum wage on public sector contract “technical and professional” workers amounting to $2,426 a month, but promises not to cut healthcare and education. An agreement with the IM F over the state-run electrical company remains in question.
What is known is that the deal consists of more of the same neoliberal remedies that have already devastated Honduran civil society. One person interviewed by MintPress called the approach “neoliberalism on steroids.” And she would know: her husband is a political prisoner sitting in a U.S.-designed maximum security facility. The prison was paid for under the Honduran Security Tax, a program backed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that bankrolls the military and police while the rest of the government is gutted.
Adrienne Pine, a Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington and expert on Honduras, told MintPress:
The fact that education and healthcare were left out is a pretty big win for the movement because that is what they were planning to cut, and the healthcare and education workers who have led this struggle against this have prevented those cuts even though there has been this very radical reduction in public spending.”
On May 6, the IMF announced it had reached a “staff level agreement” that was believed to be targeted towards healthcare, education and more. That same day, protests started breaking out.
But as news emerged on Tuesday of the deal becoming law, the IMF also announced its approval of a plan to restructure the public electric company and said it would give the Honduran government $311 million in loans over the next two years. Around the same time, a fresh corruption scandal was unfolding at the electric company. Professor Pine explained to MintPress:
ENEE [the Honduran public electric company] has already been subject to privatization measures over the past few years that have significantly weakened it. Problems in the ENEE have to do, at their root, with the privatization itself, but right now it looks like the IMF and the U.S. are justifying the privatization by using examples of corruption at the agency rather than addressing the underlying structural issues.”
The resistance in Honduras fought off further privatization of health care and education in a struggle that left piles of students shot and scores of people killed, as well as resulting in the political imprisonment of a young man who is accused of fueling a fire at the U.S. Embassy in the capital. Romel Valdemar Herrera Portillo, 23, sits in a military-run prison, designed by the United States, called La Tova alongside political prisoners Edwin Espinal and Raúl Álvarez.
In this article, MintPress will feature exclusive interviews not just with leaders of the Honduran resistance but also with people who have been directly affected by the coup and all that it has brought.
Ten years of resistance
The history of the past decade in Honduras is among the most telling examples of U.S.-backed regime change in the Western Hemisphere. A powder keg for the migrant crisis that popped up under Barack Obama and worsened under Donald Trump, the military operation that deposed leftist reformer Manuel Zelaya from the presidency informs Honduran life at every level today.
MintPress News traveled to Honduras around the 10-year anniversary of the coup d’etat, speaking to a range of leaders of the resistance against the National Party, which has dominated politics in the country since the coup. The National Party is led by President Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH), a widely reviled neoliberal leader believed to be involved in drug trafficking, electoral fraud and death squads.
The post-coup neoliberal policies ramped up under JOH’s reign have rendered Honduras a playground for the business elite and drug cartels and brought the poverty rate to levels unrivaled in the region. Disappearances and lethal violence from police, private mercenaries and drug cartels have also skyrocketed.
Revelations that JOH has been under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) since 2013, according to U.S. federal court documents released this year, came as little surprise to many in the resistance; JOH’s brother is himself in prison in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. But it did pour salt on fresh wounds, as the United States backed JOH’s re-election in 2017, even though the Honduran constitution explicitly forbids second terms.
While in Honduras, MintPress examined the effects of the coup from multiple angles, including: cuts to education; repression against students and teachers; cuts to the healthcare sector; the political development of Hondurans; electoral fraud; death squads linked to big business; the conditions of political prisoners and the plight of human rights workers; and the effects of neoliberalism on the healthcare sector. MintPress also looked at the role of creative culture in the resistance.
As MintPress previously reported, staff journalist Alex Rubinstein was detained immediately upon landing in the capital, Tegucigalpa. It was “a testament to the government’s unease” around the anniversary of the coup and in the face of more than 50 days of active uprising.
I was just let out of detainment at the airport in the capital of Honduras. They didn’t explain why the detained me, just asked a bunch of questions.
— Alex Rubinstein (@RealAlexRubi) 26. juni 2019
MintPress spent nearly a week in the capital, Tegucigalpa, a city that is both militarized and yet ruled by crime at night, a dynamic that makes the often cozy relationship between the state and organized crime palpable throughout much of the city. The prevalence of anti-JOH and anti-National Party graffiti appears as a glimmering of an uprising in a city otherwise divided into quarters of poverty and opulence: from poor, Libre strongholds like El Carrizal to areas where Burger King and Little Caesar’s are second and third only to Juan Orlando. United States colonialism is, basically, omnipresent. American fast-food restaurants, mostly a luxury for the country’s tiny middle class, operate tax-free in the country, while those who can’t afford a Big Mac get squeezed on their electricity, for example.
The streets of Tegucigalpa tell the story of the resistance, to a degree. One tag in the city refers to the use of graffiti as a means of communicating a message: “When justice is silenced, the walls speak.”
What follows are excerpts of MintPress News interviews from a range of leaders of the resistance against JOH.
Pledged to a political prisoner
Karen Spring, a Canadian citizen and member of the Honduran Solidarity Network, is imminently familiar with repression by the government. Her husband is veteran human rights defender Edwin Espinal, who was arrested during protests against Juan Orlando Hernandez’ unconstitutional re-election. The circumstances around Raúl Álvarez and Espinal’s arrests are startlingly suspicious — as were those of Romel Valdemar Herrera Portillo. Professor Adrienne Pine has characterized the incidents as potential false flags.
MintPress spoke at length with Spring about the situation of her husband and other political prisoners. She described Espinal’s past work as an activist: being close with Berta Caceres; having witnessing a murder with his previous partner, who herself was later killed during a protest; being tortured by police; and eventually being held at a military-run prison designed by the United States, without trial and without a date set for it.
“Edwin and Romel share a cell in the third cell block inside La Tova, a U.S. style maximum security facility,” Spring told MintPress News.
Spring has seen what she described as “neoliberalism on steroids” in her 10 years in the country. One measure that she highlighted was the “security tax” that was implemented with backing from Hillary Clinton. It’s a tax on transactions and businesses and funds JOH’s “security model.”
It’s “a semi-private security tax that is controlled by the government but can receive international funding from the development banks. All the remittances that are sent from the United States to Honduras, there is a percentage that is taken out of that.”
In other words, migrants who come to the United States to send money to their families in Honduras even pay a price through the security tax, which has fueled the “militarization of Honduras and the construction of the prison where Edwin is being held,” Spring said.
Spring described La Tova, where she said medication is hard to come by and food is scarce. Sunlight can be allowed for one hour every two weeks. No books, no pens; one television for maybe 200 people.
The prison, Spring says, is designed to provoke conflict. And “because Edwin and Raul and Romel [are] associated with the opposition,” prisoners are “blaming them” for the protests, increased prices and roadblocks over the course of the current uprising, Spring says. While the government has taken away privileges and “basic rights” of prisoners during the uprising, Spring thinks that attacks against the three are being encouraged:
They are facing serious death threats. They’re in a prison that was built to hold and imprison the most dangerous people in Honduras, so people linked to organized crime… in the harshest conditions that you can place anyone in pre-trial detention… We believe that the fact that they’re in there and the authorities won’t move them even though they are aware of the death threats is because the orders to keep them there are coming from the highest level of the government — Juan Orlando Hernandez.”
Spring also told the story of another prisoner by the name of Gustavo Caceres. He sits in what Spring described as a “normal Honduran jail.”
His case is probably the best example of the cruel nature of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. He has a developmental disability and he can’t read, he can’t write and he can’t speak.
He’s not able to learn how to talk because of his developmental issue. He can say words here or there. He can say ‘comida’ [food]. But he can’t form a sentence, let alone defend himself. When he was arrested, they picked him up in a police patrol car and they took him to the station and they laid out a police shield and bags of marijuana and put it in front of him, and accused him of having police gear and having drugs when he was arrested even though they planted it on him.”
When Caceres was arrested, he “was selling bags of water to support his family,” around a protest taking place on a bridge, Spring said, adding:
They were just arresting people in massive numbers as part of a fear and terror campaign… Because he couldn’t defend himself properly, he has been in jail. He’s the longest imprisoned political prisoner.”
Today, Gustavo “washes clothes” for other prisoners for a small amount of money, which is sent to his family to help pay for food.
First Lady of the Resistance
MintPress News first covered a conference held by the Liberty and Refoundation Party, popularly known as Libre, on June 27, just one day prior to the anniversary of the coup. The party emerged in the wake of the coup, with Manuel Zelaya as its figurehead. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the First Lady of Manuel Zelaya, is herself a force in Honduran politics: she was neck-and-neck with JOH in polls leading up to his first election in 2013, an election also mired in fraud allegations. She told MintPress at the conference:
At the exact moment when we were beginning a process… of reforming and transforming our people and our countries, giving citizens a real opportunity to participate, to feel they’re a part of the process and not just a tool — that’s when the U.S. got scared.”
She continued, on the topic of the U.S.-backed coup:
Today the Honduran people are stronger. Today we understand — along with many sectors that were indifferent to the coup but are now with us in this fight — that on that June 28 when they perpetrated the coup d’état, taking their president out of the country, along with everything else we’ve lost, the people understand that the coup d’état wasn’t done so everything would remain the same. They did it to harm the vast majority of the people.”
Xiomara Zelaya spoke at length with MintPress about the significance of Libre in the struggle in Honduras, and about the debt she personally owes to the people of her country.
Libre comes from the streets. Libre comes from a fight. Libre comes from men and women who — many of us had never really had the chance to come together and truly see each other.
Libre comes from the blood of martyrs; from the men and women that died by our side, who we saw fall, who were assassinated. Libre comes from a popular demand, it comes from the need for a political space that makes possible an electoral fight that can bring us to power. Libre stands for the hope of Honduran people. Libre stands for the unity that will allow us to reach a better future for ourselves. As a member of Libre, there is a huge commitment — and it’s a commitment that we can’t put aside, because we feel the pain of our people as if it were our own. The support that we’ve received — and the blood that’s been spilled — what that tells us is that we have a duty to repay the people for everything they’ve done.
In particular, I say this as Xiomara Castro, as someone whose husband was forced into exile, whose husband was forced out by a coup d’état, and has confronted military forces. But, right alongside me, there were people I’d never met. Men with no shoes, housewives who came out to show solidarity with us, who came out to feed my family, who came out to protect us as we slept, in those few moments we could rest. You can’t put a price on that. There is no way to give back to the people all that they’ve done for us, and that’s why we’re here. And that’s why we keep fighting.
Because we know we have a commitment, and we won’t give up until we achieve the real change that our society and our people are demanding.”
Berta Cáceres’ daughter calls for international solidarity
At the Libre conference, MintPress News spoke to the eldest daughter of Berta Caceres, Oliva Caceres. As MintPress has previously reported:
Over 120 Honduran activists have been killed since 2010, making the small nation the world’s deadliest place to protect the environment. Berta Cáceres, one of the slain activists, was the winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.”
Leaked court documents prove three of the eight men arrested for the murder of Berta Cáceres are linked to the School of the Americas (now rebranded as WHINSEC), a U.S.-run military training academy and breeding ground for human-rights abusers throughout Latin America. One of the graduates accused of murdering Caceres was the head of security from 2013 to 2015 for the company behind the dam she was opposing. An international conspiracy “to control, neutralize and eliminate any opposition” was uncovered in connection to her murder. Olivia Caceres told MintPress:
The men who killed her were gunmen, former army captains, guards from DESA, and high-ranking soldiers like Major Mariano Díaz Chavez. Soldiers, like the ones who shot her, are hitmen that are linked to organized crime in our country.”
Olivia Cáceres continued:
My mother was murdered by state-backed killers who were protecting the energy company DESA. The company directly ordered Berta Cáceres’s murder. Its board of directors — we all know it’s made up of members of the Atala Zablah family, whom we can mention by name. It’s a very powerful family, both politically and economically powerful here. It’s among the 17 Most Powerful Families in Latin America according to a survey by Forbes magazine. And that was who gave the order to murder Berta Cáceres.
They used soldiers and national police who persecuted, harassed and finally murdered Berta Cáceres in a major operation that was carried out on January 1st and February 22nd. However both attempts failed. And on the third try they managed to kill her on March 2nd at 11:45 at night. They entered her room while she was sleeping.”
Olivia Caceres was careful not to isolate her mother’s murder from the political context in the country, telling MintPress:
We believe there won’t be justice for Berta until the criminal structure that assassinated her is dismantled…She was murdered by a whole criminal structure that we…have decided to expose for criminal conspiracy.”
She went on to call for international solidarity with the struggle in Honduras:
We’ve been knocking on every door in this country for more than three and half years and we still haven’t gotten justice. We believe that what the Honduran people need, and what Berta’s cause needs, now more than ever, is international solidarity.
We’re calling out a murder that reflects the whole situation — the social injustice and inequality, the violence, repression, the targeted assassinations by a dictatorial regime that’s involved in drug trafficking. Berta’s murder reflects the whole catastrophe: the poverty, the impunity.”
Washington’s other armies
The National Party of Juan Orlando Hernandez has been in power since the coup d’etat. Carlos Eduardo Reina, Secretary of Popular Power in the Libre party, talked to MintPress News about how the coup reshaped the government.
The coup first took out the president, but then installed a coup regime that makes electoral fraud, that takes away the votes, the energy, different things from the government and the people; they privatized it. A huge oligarchy wants to own the country and take the country’s riches from the people.”
“The thing is that in Honduras — it’s a very little country — and the only thing that supports the government is the army. And the army receives orders from the north.”
Eduardo Reina argued that if Honduras was given the opportunity of free and fair elections, it would also give them “the opportunity to take away the dictatorship.”
Menders of the Movement
Dr. Marco Girón, a member of the “movement for the defense of health and education,” explained the neoliberal process in depth:
In Honduras, when neoliberalism was introduced no one believed that water would be privatized, that our electricity would be privatized, Or our healthcare, or education. But all of that changed… They’ve privatized and diminished state institutions. They also got rid of the Honduran Institute for Families and Children, IHNFA, which was in charge of child welfare, including providing homeless children with food, and a roof over their heads. This is how neoliberalism has progressed, steadily shrinking the state, although we still need all the things it provided.
First went the custodial staff at hospitals — which, before, were state-run — but since they were custodians, no one cared. Then they started privatizing different sectors. They started privatizing the medication; then came fake orders, empty boxes that never made it to the hospital. The Anti-Corruption Council states that the health budget is approximately $14b lempiras [$572m USD]. It’s one of the lowest in the world. And 50 percent of it is stolen. These are preventable deaths to our population. It’s the same with the education system.”
Dr. Girón argued that the pro-public healthcare and education marches will continue until “these executive and legislative decrees are rescinded:”
That’s where the genesis of the problem is: the privatization laws. That’s the neoliberalism they’re imposing on us. It’s all there, that’s why the struggle continues, and that’s why the education and healthcare workers stay in the streets. And they’ll stay until the repeal of these awful privatization laws — which are imported from abroad, and which will only bring us more poverty, illiteracy, diseases, and even death.”
Raising a resistance
Andrea Chavarría, an 82-year-old former teacher, is known popularly as the “Grandmother of the Resistance” in Honduras. She spoke to MintPress News about what the presidency of Manuel Zelaya meant for organized educators.
When Commander Manuel Zelaya Rosales took power, teachers got our first victory — after it was taken from us. Here in Honduras, struggles are won in the streets. When teachers started taking to the streets, our president Mel Zelaya — who has been one of the best presidents who we’ve ever had — he received us in the Presidential Palace. He let us right in through the front door. And we were going to take it by force, right? He received us, he opened the gates. And we formed a commission, then he hopped on a truck and said, ‘It’s approved.’”
We were demanding a permanent contract, health insurance, vacations, a bonus… They approved them, we finally had benefits.
They’ve taken all that from us. Now the students are sitting on gravel, the parents have to pay for cleaning services, for security, for learning materials, because the government doesn’t provide anything…The teachers, as we say here in Honduras, are cornered. We have no privileges. The privileges we had earned in the streets were taken from us. Same goes for the doctors.
Since I was a young woman, I’ve always defended my rights because I thought of myself in the present, not the past or the future. Today’s youth are the present of Honduras. Despite my age and health problems, I stand with them and support them because they tell me ‘grandma, you give us strength. If you can do it, why not us?’ I applaud those youth, those college students from MEU (University Student Movement) because they’re valiant, and to me the youth is the present.”
Students stand for their rights
On June 24, some 40 military police invaded the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), which is supposed to have “autonomy” from the military since 1957, meaning it can’t be raided. Police had claimed that students had kidnapped a soldier, but activists say the students were just planning protests. Five students were shot with live rounds and eight students were injured in total. One professor also had a cardiac episode because of the tear gas, activists said.
In front of a defaced entrance sign at the university, MintPress spoke to Dorian Alvarez Reyes, a sociology student who witnessed the chaos. He explained that the sign — covered in bullet holes painted in red, and with the word “autonomous” crossed out and replaced with “military,” so that it reads “National Military University of Honduras” — was a symbol of the blood spilt by students and a protest against the infringement on the university’s autonomy.
Moments before, protesters set fire to a paper mache casket with the word “autonomy” written on it.
Teaching through tear gas
Luisa Cruz, a teacher at UNAH, spoke to MintPress at a concert held on the night of the coup anniversary. She said it made her feel “terrible” that her students were unsafe:
Even as a mother of university-aged kids. It’s really a terrible issue about human rights…
It also has happened at public high schools and public universities as well. We are a country that is living a really bad time in regard to the human rights issue. The United States is supporting a corrupt narco-dictatorship in Honduras. Why? Because they need a government that says ‘yes’ to anything the U.S. government says because they are interested in having us as a military platform so they can invade whoever they want — Venezuela and Nicaragua.”
Cruz continued to explain the raid on her university:
There was a protest by the students out on the street, and with a very ridiculous excuse…that the students got ahold of a policeman or soldier…they shot bullets and of course tear gas all over; there was about eight students wounded and I guess two of them were very badly wounded.”
Cruz said it wasn’t the first illegal invasion by police, while the university “has hired people to go in and kick students asses inside the university campus.” That’s why, she said, the university authorities “are really a shame.” Cruz went on to discuss why the government cracked down so harshly on students:
The government knows that the student movement is really hard; they’re really tough and they’re really numerous — there’s a whole bunch of them. And these guys have lived a coup d’etat and they know what it is to be living under dictatorship.
That’s why they really are afraid of these students and it’s the only thing that has dignity at the university. Not even the professors are dignified. I really feel ashamed of where I’ve been working for so many years.”
The rising costs of education, which are correlated with the increased influence of gangs and cocaine trafficking since the coup, have led many students to eschew education and turn to drug use and dealing. In order to improve the situation of the youth in Honduras, Cruz told MintPress it would require “hands off by the U.S.” as a first step:
They have us like this. We are on our knees in this country. I don’t know if you know about all those migrants heading off to Mexico and the U.S. border. Well, it’s no wonder. I mean there’s a whole bunch of people here that don’t have anything to eat or that live on a dollar a day. What are you going to eat with a dollar a day? Not even in this country can we eat with a dollar. So there’s a lot of people leaving the country because they have no hope.”
Dancing as resistance
Walking through the crowd at a resistance concert on the 10-year anniversary of the coup, a man went from trash barrel to trash barrel picking through them for food. After Univision (a news station deeply distrusted by the Honduran resistance) broadcast footage of Venezuelans picking through garbage earlier this year, it sparked an international incident. Yet establishment media has almost entirely ignored the plight in Honduras, which has become the poorest country in the continental Americas since the U.S.-backed coup.
And on the night of the anniversary of the military operation that changed everything, the Honduran resistance was celebrating with a concert at the center of town. The band Café Guancasco played their anti-JOH anthem, which translates roughly to “The place you’re going is out, JOH!”
In an effort to understand how Hondurans could find joy despite the neoliberalization of their economy and incredible repression, I asked a translator recommended by an expert to MintPress News how it was possible:
This band is called Café Guancasco. Café Guancasco is a word that means gathering — to celebrate something. And we’re celebrating that we’re still alive…We are celebrating that we are doing a resistance against JOH and we’re celebrating that he is going to get the hell out of here.”
Defending human rights in Honduras
Pedro Joaquin Amador, a human-rights worker in Honduras, talked to MintPress News about what it’s like for human-rights workers in this country. “It’s very difficult,” he said:
You have a lot of obstruction of justice in Honduras, and the military and police. We have a lot of difficulties getting information about all the victims of this country — when it happened, the coup, to right now in 2019 with the protest against Juan Orlando Hernandez.”
Amador went on to discuss the repression tactics used by the government during the current uprisings. He decried the use of tear gas and chemicals. “They shoot us with military weapons and there’s a lot of people killed,” he said, adding that international bodies should focus not only on Venezuela and Nicaragua but also Honduras.
Poetry and resistance
Edgardo Florián, a poet and author of seven books, told MintPress that he doesn’t really get involved with politics anymore because of how much it has taken from him, and was driven to tears remembering those killed by the Honduran government in the 10 years since the U.S.-backed coup.
“I’ve been beaten, hit by the gases. But basically the economy of the country is not the same,” Florián said, telling MintPress that it has made it hard for him to get by. JOH “must leave power. People don’t want him,” Florián said. “The only people that want him are the people who receive a bag of food, or maybe some bread, 50 lampiras just to go out with a flag [and wave it.]”
JOH has been so desperate for support that the National Party has been caught handing out 50 lempiras ($2 USD) to desperate citizens to protest on his behalf. “We are people who don’t sell out their ideas just for 50 lempiras,” Florián said. Ironically, the JOH supporters participating in what was billed as a pro-peace march wound up viciously beating a student journalist.
Florián said that JOH promises good things but “inside he’s another kind of person. He’s something cold, a dark soul.” He went on to talk about the first person killed in protests against the coup — “our first victim,” as he describes it. “And now it’s a lot of people. Some, we know them. Others we don’t even know.”
The ramifications of the coup and the neoliberal policies that upheaved Honduran society are felt in each and every sector of it. The business class and organized crime are flourishing, and will soon reap the benefits of yet another law that will come into effect in November, which further criminalizes activists and media while lessening penalties for drug trafficking.
The middle class, the creative class, the working class and poor; the women and LGBTQ citizens; the elderly and the human rights workers; the left-leaning political class and the families of environmental protectors: all of these groups have had their livelihoods devastated by the coup, and the politically savvy blame Washington.
Ten years after the coup changed everything, the Trump administration is cutting funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — a U.S. soft-power institution that helped foment the coup in the first place and spark the migrant crisis.
In response to the crisis that was designed to stoke Trump’s base and assert a cold-hearted foreign policy, the White House diverted funds earmarked for Central American countries to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. Presumably, the United States wants to back a successful coup d’etat there and begin an even larger-scale privatization process, following in Obama’s footsteps in Honduras.