Scenes of Resistance: Notes from Tegucigalpa
August 29, 2009 § 2 Comments
By Joseph Shansky
I came to Honduras as part of a delegation of concerned activists who went to witness and accompany the daily protests, monitor human rights violations, and report back to the international community on conditions since the June 28th 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 has been an immediate popular uprising in his support, with many instances of severe police and military repression which continue today. The following is a reflection on time spent in and around Tegucigalpa during two critical weeks in August.
Last night as I was packing my bags to go to Honduras, I heard that the military repression was getting worse. One hundred and fifty arrested, many wounded. I sit in the airport waiting room and scan CNN. Not a mention on the world news.
In 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 deep 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.
When the broadcasts return a few minutes later, the main news stations are simultaneously showing groups of people in the street, supposedly supporters of the de-facto government. Curiously, every other shot has a CNN sign buried somewhere in the background, amongst anti-Zelaya slogans. It is as if they are trying to subconsciously link the de-facto government with the international media’s approval.
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.
I’m thinking of how just a few minutes earlier, I was watching ten second clips of Hugo Chavez speeches after the news followed by President Zelaya’s own speeches, with any remotely similar phrases extracted and highlighted. The implication is that they are in bed together with a socialist agenda destined to destroy the average Honduran. It’s a massive campaign; I see it multiple times in an hour. It’s no wonder much of the country equates the two very different politicians.
Tegucigalpa. At about 9 a.m., a taxi drops us off in front of an admittedly small crowd of people gathered to attend the march. I later learn these things never start on time. 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 straight walking. After awhile, the crowd has grown to at least 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. This is not a chaotic mass- they are dedicated to a united front. I’m impressed. It’s a sight I will grow very familiar with during the next few weeks.
The chants are upbeat, some are singing protest songs. They seem accustomed to it all, and I remember it’s a daily occurrence here now. The majority of the people are holding umbrellas and somewhat foolishly, I ask a guy I’m walking with if they are for the sun or the tear gas. He laughs. “Both.”
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 the general (“¡Fuera golpistas!”, “¡Urge, Mel!”) to specific references to the CIA and Hillary Clinton. Graffiti covers almost all corners.
We pass several lines of police on both sides, armed with riot gear and shields, batons, guns, and most crudely, large sharpened branches from trees. Still, the mood is celebratory. The police seem to be more menacing than threatening, and I can’t resist posing in front of them with the Honduran flag.
As we enter the center of the city, the crowd begins to splinter and the anarchists emerge in the wake of the real activists, a familiar sight to anyone who’s attended similar protests. They smash several windows, and tear down street cameras. This 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 tactics at every gathering. At the central plaza, it begins to rain heavily. We duck into a cafe and for now, the march is over.
She is the mother hen here, the director of a local NGO. It’s her house I’m staying at. We are sprawled around the house, laptops humming, writing, making phone calls, monitoring the news. She interrupts us only when the food is ready, then goes back to her own work. She is clandestina (in hiding), in her own words. All three floors have televisions and radios buzzing with the latest news. From morning until night, they are tuned loyally to Radio Globo (88.7 FM) and Canal 36, the only stations broadcasting information against the coup and with the resistance movement.
Late at night I hear grateful testimonies on the radio, thanking the station for having the courage to be the only voice speaking out. In the house, people are huddled in corners, sitting on steps, talking about nothing else. I hear whispering of military actions, of the disappeared, of Tuesday’s big march, of arrangements to meet the President or his wife. Every few minutes there is a shout as someone demands the rest of the house pay attention to a particular radio or television transmission. Every time I look up, I see new faces arriving.
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. Everyone has their own reason for being here. We are about an hour outside of the capital, at 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 one cog in the machine which is thousands of rural demonstrators simultaneously walking across Honduras to finally converge on its two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, on August 11th.
This particular group of about 75 people is from the town of Choluteca. They sleep on thin bedding, laid out on the floor in a few rooms clearly designed to hold far fewer people. They are poor, determined, and happy to be there. The group ranged from young children to several elderly women and everyone in between.
I had come to Sábana Grande with a delegation of human rights observers, which I was assisting through Global Exchange. The delegates were given the opportunity to interview the demonstrators and to hear about why they had left their homes and towns to show their opposition to the dramatic changes their country was going through. When it grew dark and the delegates were ready to head back, I asked if I could stay the night with them, and was immediately welcomed into the fold. The night passed quickly after someone brought out a guitar and the kindness with which I was welcomed was humbling. What had been a solemn and tired group promptly turned into a jubilant dancing mass, sound-tracked by fiery protest songs, as well as a birthday serenade for me.
I slept in someone’s car that night and woke around 6:30 am to trucks pulling into the courtyard with fresh supplies for the marchers. A large pot of sweetened coffee was brought out, and as I squinted out into the morning sun over the mountains, someone greeted me by name, thrust a cookie in my face, and a small plastic cup of coffee in my hand. Ten minutes later we were back on the main road, walking along the highway in the direction of the capital. Again, spirits were high. The three straight lines were enforced to an almost militaristic degree, providing fodder for one elderly marcher (who appeared as though she’d have problems walking across a room, much less the four straight hours I would watch her do that day) delighting in making fun of the organizers’ discipline. But unlike the demonstrations in the city, no one was watching now along the sidelines. Several trucks accompanied us to provide water when we needed to rest. A couple of guys ran ahead of the marchers to monitor and direct incoming traffic. As we continued down the highway, we picked up more people. The chants grew more intense, as if daring fatigue:
“¿Están cansados?” (Are you tired?)
“¿Tienen hambre?” (Are you hungry?)
“¡ADELANTE! ¡ADELANTE! ¡QUE LA LUCHA ESTA CONSTANTE!” (Forward! Forward! The struggle is constant!)
I’d see these same people a few days later. They’d finally make it to the city after staying in the next town over. That day I left awed by their perseverance and dedication, and thankful for the chance to be a small part of their community for a short time.
From the 1982 Honduran Constitution, Article 3:
“No one should obey a usurper government nor obey those who take on functions or public positions through armed force…The acts endorsed by such authorities are null and void. The people have the right to resort to insurrection in defense of constitutional order.” (Translated by Andrés Thomas Conteris)
The anarchists are kicking me out of Pizza Hut. Though I’m one of only a few there, we are being forcibly ejected. 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 wall of Pizza Hut is covered in anti-corporate graffiti, as are the outsides of Burger King, McDonalds, and many other fast-food corporations which to so many Hondurans represent the dark side of globalization. A select few individuals and families own the vast majority of multi-national businesses in Honduras, as well as almost every major print, television, and radio media. These large business interests have been widely known to be helping to fund and otherwise support the military takeover. One way is through a virtual media blackout of the demonstrations, as well as coverage designed to reduce Zelaya supporters to a few isolated, violent nuts. One common chant amongst protesters is:
“¡No somos cinco! ¡No somos cien! ¡Prensa vendida, cuentanos bien!” (We’re not 5, we’re not 100! Sellout press, count us right!”)
Later that day, Popeye’s restaurant will be set on fire, and in the evening I’ll drive by a circle of military troops protecting Quizno’s from further harm.
Down the block, trucks with speakers blaring protest songs are also equipped with megaphones. President Zelaya’s wife, First Lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya has just stepped down from another eloquent and impassioned speech. She is immediately swallowed up by reporters and supporters. Before she spoke, she was introduced by Padre Andres Tamayo, a leading environmental and social justice activist who led an outdoor mass the previous night in the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. He spoke fiercely against the coup while emphasizing the need to remain faithful in social justice and disciplined non-violent action. Our delegation was able to attend, and there was a profound significance to watching this community meet on the hill before the grand march into the city the next morning.
Back to Pizza Hut. The condemnation is understandable, and I don’t mind hastily shoveling down the last of my pizza in a deep display of solidarity. A few minutes earlier, I was sitting at the table watching the rally on television, despite being able to also watch it in person across the street from the large window. One of the Global Exchange delegates, Allan, is sitting with me and I’m talking to the waiter (who shamefully confesses that he wished he were across the street, but doesn’t want to lose his job) when my cell phone rings. Allan, who is a labor activist, is being asked if he wants to address the crowd. I answer that we’ll be there in a few minutes. As we finish eating, the kids burst through the door, and I tell the waiter to keep an eye on the television as I shuffle out.
Twenty minutes later, Allan is on the truck/stage and the crowd is responding wildly to his suggestion that a US banana workers union in Mississippi boycott shipments of Dole and Chiquita products from Honduras by refusing to unload cargo. Next Andrés, coordinator of the delegation, takes the megaphone. I climb up with him to film his speech and stare down at the crowd of thousands as he begins. He whips them into another frenzy by angrily explaining how just that morning President Obama called critics of the US’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 himself as the true hypocrite. Is it possible we will be seen as outside agitators? Too late. Andrés caps it off by announcing the beginning of an International Fast for Nonviolent Insurrection in Honduras, and people don’t know how to even respond. When I get down from the truck, I’m mobbed by a group of grateful demonstrators. I hadn’t said a word, yet people are throwing their arms around me, crying, and thanking me for just being there. One woman hands me her baby and shyly asks if I will pose with the baby in a photo. It is in that moment that I’m struck by just how critical it is for outsiders to be present, not just as witnesses but as emotional support at this historic moment for the country.
Later that afternoon, the rally was still going on and a police barricade had formed, blocking the marchers from heading in the direction of the President’s house. After a few hours, the protest leaders had convinced the demonstrators to back away before things got ugly. We went back to the hotel to rest, satisfied that at least for the day, the action was over.
We were wrong. A leisurely walk to a nearby shopping center to get some supplies is suggested. 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. The first thing I see as I round the corner is a burning bus, with people fleeing directly 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 mass group has been split apart by the tear gas the police are liberally dispensing at will. As my periphery comes back to the foreground, I see that Popeye’s is on fire. The entire lower floor is in flames. There’s no sign of fire trucks or ambulances, or even regular police. Only the police riot troops are on the scene and they’re ignoring the fire completely as they storm past Popeye’s toward the crowd. About fifteen minutes later, a small fire truck will show up almost reluctantly. Over the next few days, it is suggested more than once that the arson was the work of provocateurs, made to look as though demonstrators had gone wild. It may have worked- this is the way the story was framed in almost all international news stories, particularly during the few seconds it was on CNN that night.
As we immediately begin videotaping the scene, a woman runs along side the police, tearfully pleading for them to not kill people. “We’re all Hondurans!” she screams. “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 hysterical 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 canisters 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. With the violence around us increasing to a chaotic point, we decide that maybe we can be more helpful to these individuals. We follow her onto a bus, but are not able to locate the men. Reports of detainees and missing people will increase in the aftermath of the next few days and will be a central focus in the work we will do.
The following afternoon, the offices of the Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) smell of tear gas. It’s my third time there this week. The first two times were under much less stressful conditions. 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 throughout the week for much of the community affected by police repression in the past and now, again in the present.
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 since even the day before. The kids 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 a using “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. When we go the police station later, we’re told that there are at least fourteen underage people missing on this day alone, on top of the estimate of about forty total from the previous day. At the station, we are able to help facilitate better contact between a human rights lawyer and relatives of those detained or missing. I look over someone’s shoulder at a list of names and ages of those detained or missing- twenty-one, twenty-four, eighteen…All are within a few years of each other.
Our work continues throughout the week. I spend each day dividing time between attending demonstrations and delegation meetings with a variety of people and organizations involved directly in opposition efforts or some other political capacity. They include the Center for Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Torture (CPTRT), the Women’s Rights Center, Carlos H. Reyes (Independent Presidential candidate in the November 2009 elections), U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens, and President Zelaya’s wife, First Lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya.
I could devote many more pages to each of these honors. The coup resistance is a network of spirited camaraderie unlike anything I’ve imagined. However, there is only 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, and that is Radio Globo.
Radio Globo is an independently owned and operated station based out of Tegucigalpa, and broadcast nationally. It is the primary source of information for anyone who is involved in resisting the coup. They have recently received notice indicating a pending removal of their broadcast license. It’s safe to say the majority of taxi drivers (who are always a good indication of the layman’s taste) were listening to Radio Globo, both in the capitol and around the country.
On the last day of the delegation, our group was invited to speak live on the air at Radio Globo about our lasting thoughts and impressions. The format was a roundtable discussion. We ended up being interviewed for almost an hour, around noon, on a moment’s notice. The host was gracious, inquisitive, and genuinely curious as to our perceptions of the political crisis. Later that day, I had two random people on the street say that they heard us on the radio.
Our reception at Radio Globo, as well as at the demonstrations and on the street, is a testament to how vital it is for a worldwide presence inside of Honduras. Sadly, there are very few international observers on the ground right now, and the de-facto government counts on this void to continue. It is critical for international human rights organizations to make this crisis a priority.
At the time of this writing, it has been two months since the coup. The de-facto government has only been increasing pressure through countless fear tactics during this time. Despite limited global support, thousands of Hondurans have been in the street every day since June 28th to show their opposition, but as one person from the Center for Women’s Rights put it simply, “We’re getting tired.”
For their struggle to continue to be virtually invisible in the U.S. is not just devastating to Hondurans. It is another example of the public apathy that world leaders, aided by the blind eye of the mass media, are able to generate in conflicts where they sense no immediate personal stakes.
 Just prior to publication, I received notice of transmitters being sabotaged at both Radio Globo and Canal 36. As of August 24th, the latest attacks have left these stations with only partial transmissions.
Joseph Shansky works with Democracy Now! en Español, and was an assistant coordinator with the recent Global Exchange human rights delegation to Honduras. A full delegation report is now available to the public. He can be reached at email@example.com.