Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Welcome to the New Honduras, Where Right-Wing Death Squads Proliferate

Welcome to the New Honduras, Where Right-Wing Death Squads Proliferate

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Things are back to normal in Honduras.

At least that's the message of right-wing president Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa and much of the international community. Several U.S. and international agencies are in the process of restoring aid to Honduras. U.S. biofuels, mining and other businesses are ramping up for increased investment in the impoverished Central American country. The massive repression of public protests, curfews and censorship that followed last summer's coup d'etat have abated.

But this image ignores a new reality in Honduras: the emergence of what many are calling death squads carrying out targeted assassinations, brutal attacks and threats. They have created an extreme climate of fear for the campesinos (peasants), teachers, union members, journalists and other community leaders involved in the resistance movement that continues to oppose the coup and Lobo's election.

Dozens were killed in street violence between the June 28 coup and the November 29 election, with the deaths largely attributed to police, military forces and other coup supporters. Lobo has tried to distance himself from the coup regime, but since the election, at least a dozen people have been killed and others beaten or raped in attacks with clear political hallmarks. The victims include a teacher shot in front of his students; a young union leader whose body was found with signs of torture after she disappeared; the daughter of a prominent anti-coup TV reporter shot in her home; five journalists killed in March alone; and a TV reporter killed April 21. In December, well-known gay rights activist Walter Trochez was kidnapped in Tegucigalpa and interrogated about the resistance while being pistol-whipped in the face. He escaped, but was murdered a week later. In February, a woman who was raped after a post-coup protest was kidnapped and terrorized by men including the rapist, who said "Pepe says hi," a clear allusion to the president.

Authorities have largely attributed the murders and attacks to random crime and gang violence. Street crime has been at epidemic levels in Honduras for years, and has reportedly increased since the coup. And a few prominent victims of attacks or threats have been coup supporters. But international rights groups say a trend of violence and threats against community-based resistance leaders is undeniable and part of a highly orchestrated campaign to tamp down the popular resistance movement which continues to call for a new constitutional assembly and a reshaping of Honduran society, including the restoration of worker protections and social policies instituted under deposed president Manuel Zelaya but terminated since the coup.

"They've pulled away from the mass repression in the streets and gone for individual assassinations," said Victoria Cervantes of the Chicago group La Voz de los de Abajo, who met with resistance groups in Honduras after the coup and the election. "You don't look like a military regime, and it's cheaper than sweeping up people in the streets. But it terrorizes large groups of people, perhaps more effectively than the mass repression."

This spring at least one campesino has been murdered and at least four shot in a land struggle in the Bajo Aguan area, where campesinos are trying to reclaim land from wealthy palm plantation owners. Campesinos who occupy and lay claim to unused land have long suffered violence from police and hired guns. Zelaya was largely supportive of such campesino movements, which are legal under agrarian reform laws, but the conflicts have escalated since his ouster.

In the Bajo Aguan area, locals say, former Colombian paramilitary members have been hired to terrorize campesinos. And Billy Joya, a notorious member of the "Battalion 316" death squad during the 1980s military dictatorship, has reportedly returned to train militias to fight drug traffickers and "guerrillas," which is taken to mean the resistance movement. Post-dictatorship, Joya was charged with illegal detention, torture and murder of opponents. He has since lived in Spain and the U.S., continually pleading his innocence while working as an international businessman and security adviser. A 2006 report by the Mesoamerica Institute for Central America Studies says Joya worked as an adviser to Zelaya’s security secretary Alvaro Romero. Another of Zelaya’s cabinet ministers, Milton Jimenez, was among the six students Joya was charged with illegally detaining and torturing in 1982.

While the land struggles Joya was hired to fight predate the coup, campesino and resistance leaders say they are integral to the larger struggle over Honduras's political and economic future which has driven the past year's events.

In light of the violence and human rights abuses, Honduran and international rights groups have decried Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's move to restore more than $30 million in aid, including military aid. After the U.S. announced on March 4 that it would fully restore all aid to Honduras, the Inter-American Development Bank agreed to release half a billion dollars suspended since the coup. The International Monetary Fund has committed $160 million in new funding, and the World Bank also recognizes the new government. The Organization of American States is considering re-admitting Honduras, at Clinton's behest. Many Latin American governments have likewise recognized or promised to recognize Lobo's regime. But governments including Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua still refuse.

The restoration of aid, while theoretically a boon to the poor, is crucial for the Lobo administration and business interests that backed the coup as a symbol of legitimacy.

"The main lobbyists for lightening the sanctions from the U.S., the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank were coming from the business sector," said Alex Main, a policy analyst with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "They were very worried about the economic effects [of the coup] and since they themselves were involved they had to defend it."

Cervantes and Alexy Lanza, a Honduran now living in Chicago, said during October and January visits resistance members told them they want aid withheld regardless of the economic impacts, to avoid legitimizing the coup and elections.

"The resistance is worried about normalization of this new golpe (coup government), where death squads, privatization and intimidation become the new normal," said Lanza.

Main pointed to Lobo's appointment of former military commander and coup leader Romeo Vasquez Velasquez to head the Hondutel telecommunications agency as a prime example of coup plotters profiting from the new regime. Vasquez has said he will use his authority over telecommunications to do surveillance on drug traffickers and others; many take this to include the resistance.

"That's ugly stuff, and it didn't even merit rebuke from the U.S.," said Main. "The U.S. could have crippled Honduras with trade restrictions, the U.S. was in a position to change things in a matter of days, but they chose not to."

Honduras has relatively little trade with countries other than the U.S. and its small Central American neighbors. And its maquiladora sector, producing textiles largely for the U.S. market, has been hard hit by competition from Asian producers and the economic downturn.

Hence the political situation in Honduras would seem to have little impact on the U.S. or regional economies and to be of relatively little interest to other governments. But Honduras's economic and political symbolism has far exceeded its actual economic impact since the coup. All sides see it as a symbol of the tension between an increasingly integrated and powerful Latin American bloc excluding the U.S. and based on the social democratic Bolivarian ideals advanced by Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador…or the previously dominant neoliberal model characterized by the influence of the U.S. and multinational companies.

"Honduras can be seen as a test case -- people in the State Department are nervous about what they see as the [Venezuelan president Hugo] 'Chavez menace' and the growing left in Latin America," said Adrienne Pine, an assistant anthropology professor at American University and senior research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). "Honduras would seem like a weak link easy to pick off. If they can succeed there, similar coups can be carried out in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela."

COHA executive director Larry Birns noted that the symbolism is so important, the U.S. has been willing to alienate powerful trading partner Brazil -- which vehemently opposed the coup -- with its stance. "Washington almost made a calculated decision that Honduras was more important than Brazil, it was a decision which country the U.S. will identify with," said Birns.

Under the brief reign of coup leader Robert Micheletti, the Honduran Congress voted to withdraw from ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, in Spanish) the Latin American trade and support bloc that had provided low cost or free medical care, tractors and other necessities to Honduras. The prime feature of ALBA is the PetroCaribe alliance wherein Venezuela had provided Honduras oil on generous credit terms: 20,000 barrels of crude a day, 40 percent of it paid at just a 1 percent interest rate over 25 years. The Honduran government is still technically party to the PetroCaribe arrangement, but since Venezuela does not recognize the Lobo government, no oil is forthcoming. The Lobo administration has reportedly engaged Zelaya's former UN ambassador, Jorge Arturo Reina, as an ambassador to ALBA to try to restore oil assistance.

"Lobo would be happy to keep PetroCaribe and even go into ALBA and get all of the member countries to recognize his administration, but he knows it is impossible for him to do so and not alienate his allies, the Honduran business elites, conservative political groups, the military -- all of whom orchestrated, funded and backed the coup -- and of course the U.S.," said Rodolfo Pastor de Maria y Campos, Zelaya’s deputy chief at the Honduran embassy in Washington through February. He now works with the advocacy group Hondurans for Democracy. "He depends on all of the above to remain president and has been warned to behave if he wishes to prevent being kicked out like Zelaya."

Any aid is sorely needed in the country known as Latin American's third poorest after Guyana and Nicaragua. But Hondurans say the economic impact of the coup and subsequent repression paired with the economic effects of stepped-up privatization and neoliberal policies mean increasing poverty, rural migration to already overburdened cities and migration to the U.S. and other countries.

"There are people leaving daily, much more than before," said Luther Castillo Harry, a doctor in the Atlantic coastal communities of Garifuna, African-descended Hondurans considered indigenous. "Many of them are dying on the way to the U.S."

Since government funding was revoked after the coup, Castillo has seen 11 local community clinics with live-in doctors shuttered, and the hospital he runs struggles to secure basic necessities and medications. This is just one example of how conditions for Hondurans living outside the elite business and military class have deteriorated since the coup. A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that after healthy economic growth under Zelaya, the economy contracted since the coup, and the coup regime's curfew alone cost about $50 million.

"Tourism has been crushed, really large sectors of the economy are just not functioning, the whole public sector has just been devastated," said Pine, author of a book about maquiladoras, violence and alcohol in Honduras. "At the height of the massive repression there were almost constant curfews, so people were forced to stay inside their homes and weren’t able to go to work. Many lost jobs, businesses folded, people who survived by selling things on street had no way to maintain themselves."

Lobo's proposed new budget won't help. It raises taxes but cuts spending on most social, education and health programs, while increasing budgets for the military by 23 percent and expanding subsidies to promote business by 15 percent.

Honduran and international rights groups say the U.S. must reverse course to suspend aid and otherwise pressure the Lobo government to stop human rights abuses and allow the peaceful resistance movement to follow its course, including the call for a popular assembly to vote on drafting a new Honduran constitution. It was exactly this proposal, which, contrary to propaganda would not have extended Zelaya's term, sparked the coup in the first place.

Honduras is one of few Central American countries that has never had a powerful united leftist movement. Hence during the civil wars that wracked the region in the 1980s, Honduras was not at war itself but served as "an unsinkable aircraft carrier" for the U.S., in Birn's words, to carry out its proxy wars. Honduran residents and U.S. analysts say events of the past year may have galvanized a new level of political resistance and coordination in Honduras.

"Honduras will become a tinder box," said Birns. "That was one of the great things that happened under Zelaya – he set forth a chain of events to create a new country no longer willing to tolerate receiving miserable handouts from society."

Since its days as a banana republic run essentially as a huge plantation for foreign companies, Honduras has been economically enslaved by foreign interests who capitalized on its resources and labor pool giving little in return. Many critics say this pattern was furthered across the region with the adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which was signed by Zelaya and originally shepherded by former president Ricardo Maduro.

Opponents say CAFTA has already increased poverty, economic inequality and displacement in Central America.

"The recent surge in violence in Honduras -- like last year's coup -- has its roots in the country's profound political and economic polarization, brought on by decades of failed trade and economic policies," said Todd Tucker, research director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. "Honduran leaders should have long ago cultivated an economic development strategy with substantial yet targeted state involvement and a focus on value-added manufactures and the domestic and regional
market. What Hondurans got instead was a series of governments that did the opposite."

Main thinks if the targeted attacks, threats and murders continue without censure from the U.S. or international agencies, the resistance movement faces a dim future.

"They're picking off resistance activists from different sectors," he said. "If they can keep doing it with impunity, I don't see how the resistance can survive."

But Juan Almendares, a Tegucigalpa-based doctor well known internationally for his public health and human rights work over three decades, is confident the resistance will bear fruit. He sees it as the convergence of long-time campesino struggles with a growing awareness of environmentalism, labor rights, LGBT rights and other issues among the Honduran public.

"The resistance is the most beautiful experience of my life," he said. "It's transformative. The spirit of the people has been released. This is a pre-revolutionary process, with solidarity and unity. It's a new pueblo, a new people."

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