I traveled to Honduras as an international human rights observer to document rights violations during the November 26, 2017 national election.
As a labor, peace, human, and civil rights organizer in the United States, I’ve seen a wide range of elections and political assemblies. The level of fraud, conflict, and intimidation I have seen across the United States for the past twenty years is nothing compared to the degree of political conflict I witnessed in eight days in Honduras.
After a 2009 coup de eta, congressman, Juan Orlando Hernandez or JOH, and his National Party voted to remove elected President Manuel “Mel” Zayala from office after the left learning President planned a referendum to ask voters if he should run again. After replacing key members of the judiciary as the majority party’s leader in Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez’ hand-picked election tribunal declared him President in 2013, an election marred by assassinations, kidnapping and disappearances, intimidation, and attacks on opponents.
JOH appointed General Julián Pacheco defense minister in 2014, the same year Barack Obama approved a Central American child refugee program after Immigration and Customs Enforcement captured over 50,000 unaccompanied young children trying to cross the border into the United States. In 2015, gunmen assassinated internationally renowned indigenous environmentalist Berta Carceres, who had lead protests a major hydro-electric project that would displace indigenous communities. In January this year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency charged a Honduran congressperson with international cocaine trafficking.
Despite the Constitution’s indicating otherwise, The new Supreme Court ruled that JOH could run for a consecutive term in the November 2017 elections.
On election night that Sunday, all three Presidential candidates declared victory. Tuesday morning, with 57% of votes counted, opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla led by 5%. But a technical delay followed by a suspiciously high margin of victory in the remaining ballots led to the incumbent’s victory.
I personally witnessed polls closing early at 4 pm with voters waiting outside and saw evidence of national party partisans paying voters to support the government. I also witnessed military police dispersing crowds and teargassing both protesters and opposition party election observers during in the contentious vote count. The following day after widespread protests, our human rights delegation documented dozens of cases of protesters, including children, critically injured by gunfire after soldiers used live ammunition on Hondurans who had shut down and barricaded streets and highways across the country, and watched media reports of a Catholic Priest who “disappeared,” his car found abandoned on a rural road.
Two and a half months before this election, Donald Trump announced that he would strip legal status for 700,000 U.S. residents protected under DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Two and a half weeks before the election, Donald Trump’s State Department announced the end of the Central American Minor refugee program, which had resettled 1,500 of the 13,000 unaccompanied Central American children who had applied since the program’s inception during a mass wave of child migration to the United States. Two days after the election, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified that Honduras was making progress in Human Rights.
Despite the Organization of American States announcing that widespread irregularities made the Honduran elections illegitimate, the United States recognized the victory of the incumbent President in late December. In January, the Donald Trump announced he would end Temporary Protected Status for an additional 325,000 U.S. residents of Central American and Haitian origin. While meeting with Democratic Party leaders shortly before they withheld votes to briefly shut down the government over immigration, Donald Trump referred to the U.S. residents he wanted to strip of legal status as coming from “shithole” countries.
Since 2009, the United States has provided Honduras $115 million dollars in military aid. The United Nations reports that cocaine trafficking in Honduras rapidly increased since the coup and has estimated that eighty percent of cocaine traveling to the United States by air passes through Honduras.
In eight days before, during, and after the 2017 Honduran elections, Chicago based La Voz de Los de Abajo, met with nine civil society organizations and traveled to seven different locations across the country to document and hear testimony about human rights violations.
La Voz de Los de Abajo has monitored human rights in Honduras for more than 15 years. After paramilitaries murdered indigenous leader Berta Carceres in March 2016, La Voz organized fact-finding missions and publicized documented rights abuses. Berta was a leader of COPINH, the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, and she had led a campaign against the construction of Auga Zarca, a hydro-electric project whose financers, FMO, the Netherlands Development Finance Company, and FinnFund, a Finnish international sustainable development finance company withdrew after widespread publicity of her death.
The project would dam the Gualcarque river, Displacing farms of the indigenous Lenca, and despoiling the sacred river’s path. Soldiers had killed Berta’s comrade and lover Tomas Garcia three years prior, but COPINH had continued to march, protest, and blockade roads to oppose the project. They built a formidable national coalition, uniting farmworkers, landless peasants, Catholic priests, the urban poor, teachers, students, and indigenous communities from the highland Lenca, to lowland Miskito, and Caribbean Garifuna of African descent.
November 25, 2017
After arriving in Honduras, we first met with the political opposition; the Alliance Against the Dictatorship, or Alianza. Left leaning political parties from across Latin America were meeting in a hotel for a conference days before the election; the hotel lobby had white chairs with wooden armrests and thick, plush white cushions. The sound of small fountain tucked into the side of the room, with water cascading down white tile into shallow catch-basin soothed the senses. They had gathered there to plan, coordinate, and share best practices in a year that will see major elections cross the hemisphere, from Mexico to Brazil. Honduras was the first.
We took an elevator to the 4th floor where we entered a conference room with clear glass walls. Gerardo introduced himself and began to tell us about the nation’s political situation. There will be 60,300 mesas, each corresponding to a political precinct located within the various polling places, where Hondurans can vote tomorrow, he began to explain. Polls will close at 4 or 5 pm, an hour earlier than the last election. In 2013, he continued, we believe they stole the election when poll officials transmitted the tally—the results from each precinct—electronically to the national election tribunal headquarters in Tegucigalpa. The data was manipulated enroute.
The Alianza expected media outlets, controlled by corporations owned by the handful of powerful oligarchical families who supported JOH, to announce that JOH was winning mid-day, to control perception and discourage people from voting.
In 2013, officials quickly certified the election and announced the victor only a few hours after polls closed, long before all the votes were counted. After four years of election manipulation, the opposition party did not trust the transmission of precinct vote tally data. Party volunteers had been instructed to watch each polling place, observe the vote counts at each location and take pictures to safeguard the democratic process. He expected that they would continue to observe the manual tallying of votes into Monday, the day after the election. In 2013, the Alianza published their report on election irregularities 2 weeks after Juan Orlando declared himself victory.
This time, their plan will be to demand to count all the ballots and strictly enforce the legitimacy and transparency by tabulating tally sheets manually.
Gerardo stopped, and picked up the phone. It had been ringing off the hook. He said a few words and hung up, apologizing to us. Things are tense, he continued. There are election observers in detention. A contingent from neighboring Guatemala was stopped at the border, fifty Guatemalans turned away. There is an alliance between progressives and supporters of good-government. The left, embittered by the coup, championed labor and environmental rights, and opposed both land privatization, and dwindling government support for healthcare and education. Good-government supporters wanted an end to the endemic bribery, corruption, cronyism and graft of government officials.
There have been threats made at schools where polling places will be housed. We are going to make sure there are enough ballots at those locations, there has been fake information circulated as to where people can vote and where the mesas, or precinct polling locations are. We anticipate violence around polling locations, and many party activists have faced threats. Our strategy, Gerardo continued between interruptions of individuals walking into the room to whisper in his ear and constant phone calls, is to get all our supporters to vote early, and to hope that the people will overcome their fear, and will go to the polls to vote their hopes, for a Honduras where youth can grow up, a place where children have food to eat, where they can learn and develop and stay with their families instead of worried mothers and fathers selling them to smugglers, praying for their safety as they slip into the black of night to migrate north.
“Thank you, Vicky,” He concluded. “I want to thank each one of you who traveled here from Chicago, and la Voz de Los de Abajo for doing this important work to observe Human Rights in our country. It is important that you return to the United States to report back what you have seen here.”
The meeting abruptly ended, as Gerardo had another appointment next door and he returned to join the election-eve conference.
We boarded the van; the door closed, and our driver accelerated, swinging through crowded narrow streets of the evening’s traffic, passing graffiti sprayed in red and black on faded yellow stucco walls. I caught the glimpse of an anarchist A, a sprawling No a la Repression: No to repression, and Fuera JOH, the slogan that has become a watchword for the resistance, calling for deposing the dictatorship and the narco-state.
The van stopped suddenly in the middle of a narrow street. Horns of cars behind us honked furiously. Someone slid the back door open, and our carload of stiff legged foreigners slowly exited. My legs were cramped from hours in a confined airplane seat. Outside a poster wheat-pasted onto a peeling off pastel green dirty wall read, “Abortion: Free and Secure!” We entered a hip coffee shop and bar where we were to meet leaders of Honduras’ public University. We picked up several student activists and two feminist Honduran artists to meet with them at a private location.
We all sat down to hear the testimony of the students. I was told not to video or audio record anything. Five youth, all no more than 25 years old, sat on one side of the table, four boys and one woman.
On the left the first began to speak. He was the oldest, and the others looked up to him. His black grizzled facial hair had been neatly trimmed, and he wore a loosely fitting collared flannel shirt, one button undone. He began to speak eloquently in Spanish, offering his testimony. He had been one of a dozen students expelled from Tegucigalpa’s main public university. He was in hiding, off the grid, underground, staying at a different place every night. After the University identified him as a leader of the student movement, and targeted him with expulsion, masked gunmen threatened to kidnap and assassinate him. The called it “to disappear” someone. The police, paramilitaries, and drug cartels worked side by side.
The University students had just concluded a six-month strike that shut down the campus. They had many grievances; the student movement was at the forefront of the nation’s fight against dictatorship and repression. University officials had been cutting course offerings in history, philosophy, and the humanities, and raising the cost of tuition, fees, books, labs, and other incidental charges.
After student protesters occupied the administration building to protest rising fees, the supposedly “autonomous” University, a sacred space of learning, inquiry, and debate where soldiers could not enter, called in the military and police. Uniformed officers beat and jailed student demonstrators.
The administration filed criminal charges against the movement’s supposed leaders, expelling 13 from the University. After being singled out, these students received threats on lives and they fled their homes. One fellow pupil was “disappeared,” his body never found. His mother held a press conference outside the rector’s office to demand they give her back her son’s body. The next day, the grieving mother was charged with libel for leveling false accusations against the University’s president.
The second student began speaking, a skinny lanky kid, he wore a t-shirt with broad white and blue horizontal stripes, and blue jeans. His arms were thin and dangled off his shoulders. His face looked smooth, like he hadn’t yet started shaving. The University represents knowledge. Families sacrifice so much so their children can attend. And they have been raising prices and dumbing down the quality of education. They don’t want youth to learn. Repression has been fierce. They have beaten and arrested us. But we don’t care. We care, but we don’t. We will continue to protest, so that those who died did not die in vain, so that other parents don’t have to work so hard their entire lives to save to send their children to school.
The other kids, there was one woman, they were young there were three guys a woman and the older student who had been expelled. They were just kids. They were afraid but determined. Was that Courage? One was talking about the repression, the violence, his friends who had been jailed, disappeared. He started crying. The boy couldn’t have been over 21. His comrade the one with the baby face and blue striped shirt got up and started rubbing his shoulders. He was trembling. The older student, the one who had been expelled, continued where he left off. Repression against the student movement was fierce. Students have always been at the vanguard of resistance. The resistance to the coup, to the dictatorship. The students are radicalized. They learn, and educate themselves, and it liberates them. They bring it back to the people, in the city colonias, the slums on the hillsides, the countryside and villages. The bring this libratory education and it opens the people’s eyes. That is why they are privatizing education, and dumbing down the curriculum, and making education harder to access. It costs more, it is more career and technical vocational training then well-rounded thought. The University teaches us to think and through thinking we can open our eyes to the injustices of this country and the world and realize that it doesn’t have to be like this and another world is possible, and we have the means to make it a reality. The University opens our eyes and allows us to open the eyes of others. That is why we continue to fight for public education, at the risk of being tear gassed, of shot with rubber bullets, hit by batons, being disappeared, kidnapped, assassinated, our bodies never to be found. This is why we continue.
The boy who started crying had regained his composure. The kid with the blue stripes had returned to his seat. The young woman on his right had her hand on his back. We continue to protest, to speak out, and to fight against the privatization of the University to continue to the struggle that our friends have martyred themselves for. We have to. We remember them. He began listing their names. Erick Josué García. Marvin Israel Campos. Moisés Cáceres. Sergio Ulloa. Cesario Padilla. Jersi Francisco Aguirre Rivera. Abiezer Zabdiel López Bonilla. Engels Bladimir López Sánchez. Sergio Luís Ulloa Rivera. Miguel Ángel Mendoza Díaz. Fausto Manuel Cálix Márquez. Edwin Robelo Espinal. Ebed Jassiel. Those names. They kept repeating them, who was it who was jailed, who was disappeared, beaten and shot. One name escaped their memory, they stopped, and another said his name. Roberto Gómez. The names to remember them their lives snuffed out too young. They had courage. They were afraid, terrified really, but they kept going.
I asked them what the privatization of the University meant. The woman told me they were increasing fees. They increased the cost of labs, of books, of supplies, there were all these additional fees and costs that made it almost impossible for a Honduran family to afford to send their children to the University, even if they passed the admissions test. The other way was that they were changing the curriculum, dumbing it down, tailoring it vocational and career training rather than providing a liberal arts education where students are taught to ask thought provoking questions and engage in critical thinking.
The group left. Vicky called them cabs. The three boys and the girl were headed back to the neighborhood around the University. The older youth would go separately. Just to downtown he said. He was in hiding. The military wanted to kill him. They smoked cigarettes nervously in the corner of the hotel’s courtyard. The cabs came, and they left.
We had one more group of speakers. Karla Lara and Melissa Cardoza. I was drifting off, but they began to speak about themselves, and about Honduran feminism.
Karla Lara and Melissa Cardoza traveled to the United States in the spring on 2017 to both promote and perform a theatrical rendition of their book, “13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance” that documented the love and courage of Honduran women who lived under the dictatorship.
I kicked my left calf with my right heel to stay awake and alert and listen to what these renowned artists had to say. Karla Lara was a singer whose songs of resistance, of beauty, poetry, dignity, determination, and love stood counterpoised to the macho sexual power of the male rock and roll artist, the soldier and the strong man, the coup and its military dictatorship, the lies and doublespeak of order and faith and development. Her rendition of the Honduran national anthem became a theme song a battle cry to the popular resistance to the coup in 2009.
Melissa Cardoza was a lesbian poet. She spoke how the coup signified the worst cruel and dehumanizing aspects of machismo, patriarchy, and the objectification of women as “the other.” To counter the masculine, sadistic, domination and oppression of military rule, demonstrators who spoke out and resisted the dictatorship infused their movement with feminist practice, and interpersonal relations that respected each other, supported the validity of each voice, and cared and loved one another.
The resistances’ slogan: “Ni Golpe de Estado Ni Golpe de Mujer,” against the coup and domestic violence – stood up against dictatorship and violence both in our interpersonal relations and on a national basis. This cry opposed the sexualized violence of the soldiers of military boot camp indoctrination their homophobia their fetishization of dominant masculinity of power. The prowess the resistance was a counter narrative to that ideation; contrasted to the sexualized violence of military occupation, the movement fostered a climate of support and respect, of the dignity of each person. In the face of low-intensity warfare where human life was cheap, feminism stood opposed to the senseless violence, proclaiming the worth of all, that we all have intrinsic value.
We were not objects to be used for sex or exploited for profit but ends in ourselves. This was Honduran feminism; it is a feminism of gender equality, of respect for humanity and for mother earth. It is a life of balance, to tone down the aggressive anger of the soldiers obeying and commanding obedience through fear and pain. This is a supportive loving movement, a sheltering caring family, growing, sheltering, and tending the seed of hope to bloom at night, a night of death squads, narco-traffickers, and uninspired televised politicians with civilized speeches invoking god, country, and disfiguring both.
The dictatorship was infused with the military culture of the strong man, of keeping women in their place—the dictatorship just as it raped the earth, our mother earth, diverting rivers for hydroelectric projects like the one Berta Carceres died fighting or raping the Honduran people’s psyche with the brutality of disappearances terrorism the narco-state the state violence covered in a façade of Christianity order progress and development that those who opposed state terrorism humiliating degradation and the emotional psychological and physical rape perpetrated by the military dictatorship, that we were insurgents, were terrorists, were less than human so Latin American feminism was a response to that to the brutality and rape of state terror.
Our feminist movement stands as another ideal, another set of values, for love, respect, truth, that everyone was human we have an equal voice and who’s opinion values and is given careful consideration on its own merits. That women and men, urban and rural, mestizo, Garifuna, indigena, coastal and mountain dweller, plantation and maquila laborer, shopkeeper and peasant farmer, we are equal we are human, and we all matter.