Charlie Updates from Tegucigalpa

Hola Everyone,

Well I made it to Tegucigalpa, after a flight as awful as I anticipated. I don’t sleep on planes, so arrived pretty draggy after an all night flight, and we’ve been non-stop ever since. Our delegation is part of the 162 member Honduran Solidarity Network contingent, the largest observer group in the country… Here’s what I’ve found so far:
A few signs of the times:
Before we arrived, the Election Council refused to certify Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu and Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon, (who indicted Pinochet, among other war criminals) as official election observers.
A delegation of US and Canadian people was detained at Rio Blanco, a battle scene over a dam construction, (see below) for 4 hours, and they had to spend a night sleeping on the ground before being allowed to move on.
As we arrived a planeload of young Honduran soldiers went through immigration in a line next to ours. We learned they had just returned from paratrooper training  at Ft. Benning School of the Americas, famous for training dictators and death squad leaders throughout Latin America (and the site of a large annual demonstration this weekend.)
On our way in, we stopped at a grocery store to buy anything we might need. I was standing waiting for the rest of our group and noticed a cab driver, handsome with his shirt off, making somewhat suggestive motions in the back seat of his cab with the door open. I thought he was cruising me, so I went over to talk to him. Turns out he had been sitting there since 9 am that morning. He pays the cab owner 300 lempiras a day ($15 US), but the car wouldn’t start, and the owner hadn’t shown up to deal with it. He has a 3 month old daughter he can’t afford to feed, and he hadn’t eaten all day. I offered him my bread and cheese, but he wouldn’t have any of it. I asked him if he was going to vote Sunday, and he gave me a wilting look as he said, NO, they’re all thieves. He said there are no jobs here, and he wants to emigrate to the US.
I gotta say most of the news is bad, but I encourage you to read this to see how our tax dollars are being spent. Whereas last year the mood was celebratory, with the LIBRE political party emerging as a major electoral force, this year the mood is more cautious, and many people seem to expect the elections to be stolen. The police and army are out of control, and total impunity seems to reign as I will describe below. I can feel the frustration of people, and don’t know what I would do if I was in their situation, because so many feel they have no place to turn. One thing they do rely on is international support, and one woman told us straight up she’s not in jail because of it. We will be going to her court appearance next Friday.
BACKGROUND: I’ve pasted below the background to these elections from an email I sent on October 28 for those not familiar with these elections or who would like a refresher.
It’s clear that either the new radical LIBRE Party or the current governing National Party is going to win, and if the Nationals win, people fear the security situation in the country is going to go from bad to worse quickly. In the last 4 years a new Mining Law has basically given away the country, leading to more than 100 murders of peasants defending land from palm oil plantations, dams and mining concessions. Repression is terrible now, but they’re still holding on. The militarization is increasing dramatically, with the addition of several US military bases “to fight the war on drugs” and a new 1000 member “Military Police” that is already wreaking havoc.
We’ve had 4 meetings and a press conference so far, but instead of detailing each one, I’ll just talk about 2 themes – the first the situation of LGBTI people here, and the second the general level of repression, with many examples.
The situation for LGBT people:
Last night we met Erick Vidal Martinez, an LGBT activist here who visited SF last year, and today we had a long meeting with several people from APUMIVEH, an organization that works with people with AIDS and sexual minorities. Each one reinforced what the other said, and the situation is not getting better, with a possible disaster looming if the National Party candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez (whose fascist security chief I wrote about last year) is elected. They have now documented 115 LGBT murders since 2008 – 9 lesbians, 53 gay men, and 53 trans women, including 7 the last 3 months. Bodies have been found strangled, stabbed, and mutilated. A Garífuna journalist (Hondurans of African descent) was found dismembered with body parts in several locations the day he came out for LIBRE on his TV program, and a young man was recently stoned to death in a rural community. Of these murders only 35 have been investigated, only 6 have been charged, and none have gone to trial. A policeman known to have stabbed a trans woman 39 times in 2009 (she lived) walks free. Very suspiciously, we learned today, they have made arrests in the cases of the 2 most prominent murders, Walter Trochez in 2009, and Erick Martinez #1 in 2012, and both the accused are ex-lovers of the victims, which is a little hard to believe.
In January this year police raided a gay bar. They held 84 people, arrested 3 people, including Erick #2,  tore up the bar, supposedly because the bar owner hadn’t paid a bribe. LGBT had a meeting with United States Ambassador Kubiski, and partly as a result of this meeting, and after 2 1/2 years of effort, the Honduran Congress added LGBT people to Honduras`s anti-discrimination law in February this year. We visited a gay bar last night and the police made sure to stop in and let their presence be known.
As a result, an Evangelical preacher, Evelio Reyes, began a vicious anti-gay campaign in the media, telling people not to vote for LGBT candidates. Erick and others took him to court under the anti-discrimination law, but he was cleared. He met with the president and other governmental officials, demanding the new law be overturned, and Orlando Hernandez, currently head of the Senate, is poised to overturn it if he’s elected, even though he said “Hondurans must make progress” when he voted for it originally. This strikes terror among LGBT people, as if there isn’t enough impunity now. They fear it will become open season on them, with many forced to leave the country and organizations forced to close down.
This has had an effect on the presidential campaign, because raising the issue of marriage now in Honduras is like raising it in the US under George Bush. LGBT leaders have had meetings with LIBRE leaders to make clear that jobs, housing, safety, access to the legal system, protection, and an end to impunity are priorities over marriage, giving Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, LIBRE’s presidential candidate, the OK to say she’s not campaigning for marriage equality.
There are signs of hope. Erick says people feel they have access in LIBRE, and sexual diversity has become integrated in the human rights discussion in the country (but there are increasing attacks also against human rights workers.) They are making themselves visible, and denouncing crimes against LGBT people, but this will only make them bigger targets if the LGBT anti-discrimination clause is rescinded.
Repression:
Last night we had a meeting with Berta Cáceres, co-founder of COPINH, an indigenous rights group who we also met last year, and today we met with 4 people from COFADEH, the committee for families of the disappeared. Together they paint a grim picture. There is no other way to describe it. The new mining law has given transnational corporations rights over 17 rivers that COPINH claims as indigenous land. There is an ongoing occupation of the land to try to stop a major dam project being constructed by a Chinese company, and the whole region is crawling with military forces and private security. This is where the delegation was detained yesterday, and one can only guess what will happen to the people who live there if they’re detaining US and Canadian citizens with international press all over the country.
Berta was arrested on fraudulent weapons charges (the ownership of the supposed weapons hasn’t even been traced), and her case has become internationally known. The govt. is starting to back down and trying to force a plea bargain, but she’s refusing. There’s another hearing next Friday that we will probably attend. Incidentally, we learned today that it’s legal for Hondurans to have up to 5 firearms, making these charges even more ridiculous. These folks are fighting the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, and governments and transnational corporations from the US, Europe, Canada, and China – an uphill battle so to speak. She says that if Orlando Hernandez wins, word is they will be forcibly removed shortly after the election. She also says the forces behind the coup did not pull off the coup with the idea of yielding power 4 years later.
Today we met a teacher whose mother was killed with a tear gas canister in a demonstration in 2009. Her uncle was also disappeared in 1981. She’s been trying to have her mother’s death investigated ever since and been stonewalled ever since. Since teachers were the backbone of the post-coup uprising, repression against them has been fierce. The various teacher’s unions used to have their own bank for retirement funds and low-interest loans to members that was closed and the money put into a bank whose owners are close to the National party. When teachers die, their remaining funds no longer go to their children and families.
Another woman’s son was found tortured with a big gash in his head, also in 2009, and she’s had no success getting the case investigated.
Then they started talking about the repression against LIBRE, that makes them fear the worst this Sunday. One man, Edwin Espinal, has been part of the uprising since the beginning. He witnessed one friend being murdered in 2009, and then his  asthmatic  girlfriend was hit with tear gas and died a few days later. He organizes for LIBRE, and a few weeks ago started to receive death threats. He and his family moved out of their neighborhood, but 2 weeks later the police ransacked his house looking for “grenade launchers.” A soccer field was the only public space around, used by the entire community. It’s now been taken over by the city, fenced off, astroturf and showers installed at taxpayer expense, and will be sold off when renovation is complete, thus removing the area’s one public meeting space.
Another man from Olancho department in the north hosted a daily TV program paid for by a LIBRE party member. He’s been beaten, arrested, his motorcycle destroyed, and forced to live in Tegucigalpa, which he hates, but he’s afraid he’ll be killed if he goes back.
In addition the government is handing out food baskets to families they think will vote for the national Party, and has developed a system of “bonuses” for the same reason. In the country, Libre/FNRP supporting people are being arrested arbitrarily, and you can’t vote if you have an arrest record or charges pending against you. There has been public documentation of National Candidates telling the police to arrest all 80-some of a group of people, because those are 80 votes for Libre. The police listened and these folks have effectively lost their right to vote.
So we have heard outrage after outrage, with people being killed and threatened who feel they have nowhere to turn – total impunity. The militarization of the country escalates, precisely to control the popular movement, but in the name of fighting the “war on drugs” as drugs and drug violence only escalating instead.
Tomorrow we have an all day training with the Electoral Tribunal, then Sunday are the elections. Even if Xiomara wins, she will face a Congress where she won’t have a majority that will be trying to undermine her every move. Tonight we got a report that two more of our Honduran Solidarity Network delegations have been intimidated. Honduran Migration officers showed up twice to check the documentation of one group and gave them orders to go to court for having a tourist visa when they are election observers, and the driver of another was questioned by a strange man. A hotel of like minded foreign election observers was raided. Things are tense.
So that’s it for now. I’ll report back tomorrow with live updates about the elections.
Best to you all,
Charlie
BACKGROUND: On June 28, 2009, a US supported military coup overthrew elected president Manual Zelaya, kidnapping him and flying him into exile in Costa Rica. A wealthy land owner representing the traditional Liberal Party, Zelaya betrayed his class and supported policies that supported poor, landless, and working class people in Honduras as well as environmental protection from logging, mining, and agribusiness. He also was drawing Honduras into Venezuela’s orbit with the goal of joining ALBA, the regional cooperation alliance founded by Hugo Chavez.. Most importantly, he was supporting a process that could lead to rewriting Honduras’s reactionary 1982 constitution, bequeathed to the populace by a military dictatorship exiting power, at least in name. This was too much for transnational corporations, the Honduran elite, and the US government, resulting in the 6/28 coup and a subsequent corrupt election that perpetuated the power of the coup makers.
Infuriated, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans protested this coup and demonstrated throughout the country for 100 straight days afterwards. This led to the formation of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), a nationwide grassroots organization to institutionalize this new movement. In mid 2011, the FNRP voted to create a political party to contend in elections, and formed the LIBRE Party. LIBRE means “free” in Spanish, but stands for Libertad (Liberty) and Refundación (the refounding of the country with a new constitution.)  LGBT people rose to the barricades with the majority of the population, and have become increasingly integrated into this revolutionary movement, including Erick Vidal Martinez, the first openly gay man to run for the the Honduran Congress, who visited San Francisco in  2012.
The LGBTI movement, as well as LIBRE and the FNRP have paid a great price. There have been at least 111 LGBTI murders since the coup, including 22 so far this year, 5 in August. More than 100 peasants protesting the taking over of their land for biofuel plantations, 35 journalists, and teachers, union leaders, and grassroots organizers have been murdered since the coup, some in death squad executions. Police raided a gay bar in January and arrested 3 who protested, including Erick. In August a transexual who had been interviewed on a TV program was beaten up going home and stripped of every sign of female identification down to her shoes. The Honduran government recently created a 1000 strong “military police” force, many believe to put down protests against election fraud.
Last November, 3 parties participated in primary elections, LIBRE being one of them. Since this was their first foray into elections, they invited international observers to attend, and i was able to go. LIBRE chose as their presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of overthrown president Manual Zelaya. The general elections take place on on November 24 with 8 parties participating. The highest vote getter will become president – there is no runoff, which means 30-35% of the vote probably will be enough to win. Xiomara has been leading in the polls, creating the strong possibility of fraud, and/or violence, to keep her out. The level of violence has been increasing, with a LIBRE candidate for Deputy killed on 10/16 and a well known photographer who recorded Zelaya’s kidnapping in 2009 found dead in a ditch with 3 bullet holes in his face on 10/24.
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