By Joseph Shansky
Since the few days of renewed excitement around the “secret” return to Honduras of democratically-elected President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, there has been a disturbing omission of the Honduran political crisis in the international news. It would be reasonable to think that with each passing day an exiled president was camped in a foreign embassy (as Zelaya has been in the Brazilian embassy since September 21st), tensions would rise and all eyes of the world would be on that lone building. Instead the opposite has occurred and it appears as though the international press had lost interest without action to follow. The subsequent collapse and renewal (and collapse again, etc.) of ongoing “negotiations” with Roberto Micheletti’s coup government did little to breathe life into this story.
Here in Tegucigalpa, life continues under subtle siege for ordinary citizens. The city gets dark faster at night now and the people seem more frightened in general. The curfew remains. Small groups huddle together and glance around anxiously, couples hug closer, young girls grasp hands tighter and walk faster. Militia is everywhere of course, made up of young, mostly uneducated kids who twirl their guns with abandon, dig their batons into the dirt and wait for a notice for action. It can come at a whistle’s call here, and sometimes it feels as though the entire country is poised, frozen in battle.
The most recent momentous note in this political standoff occurred when Micheletti declared an impromptu State of Emergency following the massive street rallies on the day Zelaya returned. He then imposed a “decree” which stripped Hondurans of almost all basic civil liberties, including the right to assemble freely and access to media outlets which did not strictly toe the coup government line. He also imposed a continuous and rather vague curfew, allowing open interpretation for street police to constantly monitor and harass citizens. After a brief but immediate international outcry, Micheletti apologized and promised to withdraw the decree, but has done no such thing. Instead, he’s used this legal loophole to clean house by first attacking the primary ingredient of a democracy: the free press.
The studios of Radio Globo and Channel 36 were assaulted in the middle of the night and their transmitters were sabotaged and taken, thus leaving the majority of the country without access to the few independent news sources they had depended on for so long. He then forcibly evicted 55 local farm workers who had occupied the headquarters of the National Agrarian Institute for months since the June coup. According to Honduras Resists, a leading online source for Resistance support, the Institute “houses the land titles that had been attained by small rural farmers and communities through years of struggle, many of which were finally granted under the Zelaya administration, angering the powerful landholders who are responsible for the coup and now want to halt and reverse the process of land reform in Honduras.”
One major effect of this curfew and the violations that it brings is that Micheletti has unwittingly drawn people to the resistance movement against the coup government who may not have otherwise been involved. The demonstrations have continued daily for four months now, sometimes taking on different forms.
An example of the varied support for Zelaya’s restoration (and against the coup in general) has been factions of the religious community. A few days ago, a group of Evangelical Christians gathered together in front of the abandoned Channel 36 television station. They planted themselves there to sing and pray for the station, for the resistance, and for Honduras. Several speeches were also made by organizers and religious figures, including priests.
When they had completed the blessing of this censored independent media outlet, they continued making the rounds, next going to Radio Globo to perform the same songs, the same prayers. It was a striking image, the Bible lying on the table next to the microphones in the studio. It conjured up big notions of God and Information and Truth and good people who believe that these ideas are not mutually exclusive.
Under the decree, the military domination has also expanded into lesser populated areas. The police have stormed neighborhoods ranging from inside the city center all the way to Greater Tegucigalpa and its outskirts. The same has happened around the country. In turn, these remote and generally much poorer neighborhoods have begun organizing independently, as they now feel the effects of constant police raids on houses and communities. These barrios, usually ignored and left to their own devices, have begun to take action.
I recently traveled one night with several other foreign journalists to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Arriving amid mountains of trash, I immediately heard a cacophony of homemade percussive sounds, people drumming on whatever was freely available. We came upon hundreds of people of all ages marching in the dark together – families shouting, singing, chanting, blowing whistles, banging on nearby doors to rouse their neighbors. Along the sidelines, others watched from windows and front steps, staring fearfully and somewhat enviously at their neighbors’ courage in defying the curfew. This was just one of many similar nightly neighborhood rallies since the decree banning such gatherings.
The crowd surged up a hill and turned into an alley where a car was parked with a film projector sitting atop. After a few minutes, the organizers were able to project the image onto the side of a nearby house. The video was a compilation of homemade footage documenting many of the recent abuses their peers had suffered at the hands of the police. In one scene, the camera followed a single police officer from behind as he ran with his gun drawn directly at group of demonstrators nearby, shooting wildly and recklessly. Others showed the police randomly isolating and dragging non-violent protesters out of the street and into unmarked cars.
The images were designed to enrage the crowd, and it worked. Cries of “¡Asesinos!” (Murderers!) rang out in the night, the excitement and anger grew to a palpable climax, and for a moment I was sure that we’d soon be experiencing our own live replay of the scenes in front of us as soon as the local police took notice. These people were loud.
But aside from provocation, the video was also used as a tool to educate people who live in outlying areas to the realities of what much of the city was going through on a daily basis. It was a form of the news which had been missing from the public since Radio Globo and Channel 36 were taken off air.
This kind of sudden unity is not a novelty limited to one area of the city. The day after the decree, twenty four separate neighborhoods were listed as openly defying the curfew to protest the coup d’état. The resistance which has held steadfast for almost four months now has grown in true grassroots style. Like a domino effect, as the coup’s fear tactics increase, the opposition grows tremendously.
Regardless of what happens from the top-down politically, it would be wise to take note of the remarkable manner in which these communities have come together at ground level. On a very fundamental level, this is innovative democracy in action. Using any means possible, these citizens are courageously breaking through the information blockade that has paralyzed so much of the country and isolated much of the world from the events taking place in Honduras.