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.
Despite the widespread media coverage of Central American refugees and Latin American immigration in the United States, few reporters discuss the reasons migrants venture north. Rather than Donald Trump’s policies of immigrant roundups, tough border security, harsh detention center conditions, and hateful rhetoric scapegoating refugees, perhaps it is the United States military and economic support for corrupt authoritarian governments that enables a crisis of instability and violence that compels refugees to flee to the United States.
In 2009, the Honduran military kidnapped the elected President of Honduras, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, and flew him to a US military airstrip on Honduran territory, and then out of the country; it was a Coup d’état. Congressman Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH), leader of the Nationalist Party, which held a congressional majority, voted to remove “Mel” Zelaya from office. Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the move. Coup supporters argued that the military dictatorship had to step in to restore Democracy; Zelaya had proposed introducing an advisory referendum on whether the law should be changed so he could run for President again—the Honduran constitution limited second terms. After the military consolidated its rule, JOH used his legislative majority to replace the members of the Supreme Court. He ran for President in 2013, and was quickly declared winner by the hand-picked officials of the supreme election tribunal. Human rights organizations condemned as hopelessly compromised, an election marred by assassinations, kidnapping, disappearances, and political violence.
JOH appointed General Julián Pacheco defense minister in 2014. As reported in early 2017, cartel kingpin and DEA informant Leonel Rivera testified drug cartels paid off Pacheco, along with Antonio Hernandez, the brother of Juan Orlando Hernandez, to allow Honduran air space to be used to ship cocaine from Colombia to the United States. Last year, the United States provided Honduras $128 million dollars in foreign 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 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 after the polls closed, 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 vote count at the remaining precincts led to the incumbent rapidly catching up, and eventually winning.
In opposition neighborhoods, polls closed as early as 4 pm, with voters waiting outside. The ruling party paid and bused in supporters to vote for their candidate. Police presence was heavy, and at a crucial time as the votes were counted, the military police dispersed a crowd with teargas, teargassing both protesters and opposition party election observers during the process. The following day after widespread protests, human rights observers documented dozens of cases of police repression, including shooting protesters and crowds of bystanders, critically injuring children. Observers witnessed dozens rushed to a hospital after soldiers used live ammunition. Demonstrators erected barricades throughout the country, and the police smashed them one by one. Watching TV from the hotel, that day, the media reported of a Catholic Priest who “disappeared,” his car found abandoned on a rural road. Honduran Jesuits recently journeyed to Washington to call on Congress to end U.S. aid.
Two days after the close of polling in Honduras, 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 JOH in late December.
A Refugee Crisis
In 2014 Barack Obama approved the Central American Child Refugee Program. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had captured and detained over 50,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly young children from Central America. This program resettled 1,500 of the 13,000 unaccompanied minors who had applied since President Obama first authorized it. Spiking in 2013 and 2014, ICE detained tens of thousands of child refugees from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Many languished in private prisons waiting quasi-judicial hearings, others were quickly returned to their country of origin, or back to Mexico. Since the great recession wrecked the US job market, 160,000 Mexican immigrants have returned to their country of origin. But the U.S. Central American population has increased by 25%, as immigrants flee gangs, cartels, police, and poverty. The population of Honduran immigrants in the US has grown by 32% since 2007.
Two and a half months before the 2017 Honduran 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 Honduran national election, Donald Trump announced he would end the Central American Minor Refugee Program.
The #Resistance Capitulates
In January 2019 Donald Trump announced he would end Temporary Protected Status for refugees from El Salvador, as well as Nicaragua, Haiti, and Sudan—over 300,000 U.S. residents, many in the United States for decades. Huddled with Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin in tense negotiations over the federal budget and immigration, Trump called the U.S. residents he wanted to strip of legal status as coming from “shithole” countries. After two government shutdowns in January and February, and an eight hour speech by California Representative and Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrats signaled Democratic Party House Members could vote for the omnibus budget bill even if it didn’t include immigration reform.
Instead of opposing the status quo, 73 Democrats voted for Trump’s budget, and were complicit in the government stripping a million immigrant families of their legal rights to residency and personhood. One media report indicated that “The members who voted “yes” effectively had Pelosi’s blessing, as she did not make a significant effort to whip against the bill. Many members say she wanted the bill to pass, despite her push for an immigration commitment, and that her public comments showing support for the spending part of the deal reflected that.” Trump has his way. In the next few months, he would continue his hardline anti-immigrant agenda. He would end Deferred Action for Childhood rivals and Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and other nations, effectively stripping legal protections for well over a million long term U.S. residents, plunging their families into uncertainty and fear.
In the budget deal the Democrats agreed to increase military, as well as domestic spending by ten percent, ending the 2013 sequestration negotiated after a government shutdown. In the sequestration, any future increases in spending had to be within certain limits, and apply to military and domestic programs equally. The deal struck in February would increase the United State military budget will increase by $165 billion dollars over the next two years. Domestic spending will increase by $131 billion.
This fiscal stimulus may extend the U.S. economic recovery – perhaps through the mid-term elections, benefiting Trump, the Republican Party, and their control of the House, Senate, and Presidency. While the U.S. stock market began to dive in February, multinational corporations used their windfall profits from recently passed tax cuts to buy back stock shares; Apple bought $100 billion, Cisco, $25 billion, Wells Fargo, $15 billion. This move stabilized their stock prices and further consolidated ownership of large multinational into fewer hands.
Rather than make a principled fight to defend the legal rights of over a million people, Democrats capitulated. So much for the Democratic Party establishment’s #Resistance.
As Trump continues to clamor to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico, stepping up immigration and customs enforcement raids, roundups, and continues his bellicose rhetoric against immigrants, calling Mexicans “rapists” and Central American immigrants, “animals,” I learned that much of the recent immigration from Latin America is a direct result of U.S. foreign policy and its role in deteriorating human rights conditions in Honduras and Central America.
La Voz De Los De Abajo
In the days immediately prior and following the 2017 Honduran election Chicago based La Vos 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.
The organization has monitored human rights in Honduras for more than 15 years. In 2015, gunmen assassinated internationally renowned indigenous environmentalist Berta Carceres, who had lead protests against a major hydro-electric project that would displace indigenous communities. She was an internationally recognized figure. La Voz organized a fact-finding mission in March 2016, and publicized Berta’s assassination, and the repression against her organization CPINH, the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. COPINH had led a campaign against the construction of Agua 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. In March of 2018, two years after her murder, and after widespread international pressure, the Honduran government finally arrested the head of the Dam construction company and an ex-military intelligence official, among others, who had conspired to assassinate the indigenous leader.
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 farm workers, 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.
In this context, I traveled to Honduras to observe the 2017 national elections. Seeing the courage, hope, and solidarity of the Honduran people through years of intimidation, violence, and state terror was truly inspiring. If they can continue, so can we.
Day 1: La Alianza de Oposición Contra La Dictadura
I arrived in Honduras November 25th, 2017, the day after Black Friday. After arriving, we first met the political opposition, a coalition of left forces including Libre, backed by the ousted former president Mel Zelaya, and traditional political parties sick of narco-trafficking and political corruption. Together they formed the Alliance of Opposition Against the Dictatorship, or Alianza- it presidential candidate was celebrity host, “Mr. Television,” Salvador Nasralla.
After picking up a dozen American human rights observers, we eventually arrived at our first stop. Leftists political parties from across Central and South America huddled together in a new hotel with bleached stucco walls in the city center, strategizing and sharing best practices.
The fraud and violence plagued election in Honduras would precede seven other national elections in Latin America over the next year; Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, El Salvador, Colombia, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Representatives of progressive and socialist organizations—the mass electoral and popular political parties of the Latin American left—stood in stark contrast to the military dictatorships, disappearances and assassinations of the 1970’s and 1980’s. These leftist parties advocated government shifting investments and expenditures to economic development, healthcare, education, and rising standards of living. rather than focus on military training, surveillance, and weapon systems to fight the war on drugs, terrorism, and communist insurgency. They proposed regulating and taxing the multinational corporations and local oligarchs who control nations’ economies.
We entered the hotel lobby and exhausted from a long flight, I plopped down into white chairs with wooden armrests and thick, plush snowy cushions. The sound of small fountain tucked into the side of the room. Water cascading down cream color tile into a shallow catch-basin soothed my nerves and lulled me towards slumber.
The conference proceeded upstairs.
We took an elevator to the 4th floor where we entered a conference room with clear glass walls from floor to ceiling. Gerardo sat in the middle of room at a long narrow table. He dressed impeccably with a suit and black tie, his black hair slicked back, his bleached white shirt almost glistening. We sat down and introduced ourselves. “I am Gerardo,” he said. “Welcome to Honduras.”
He began to brief us on the nation’s tense political situation.
“There will be 60,300 mesas, each corresponding to a political precinct located within the various polling places open tomorrow,” he began to explain. “This year polls will close at 4 or 5 pm, an hour earlier than the last election in 2013,” he described. “We think the election was stolen last time—in 2013—when officials electronically transmitted each precinct’s vote tally to the national election tribunal in Tegucigalpa where officials certify and tabulate the official results. In transit, the data was manipulated.”
Alianza expected the media outlets—owned by powerful landowning and politically connected families—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, we don’t trust the transmission of precinct vote tally data. Party volunteers have been instructed to watch each polling place, observe the vote counts at each location and take pictures to safeguard the democratic process. We will continue to observe the manual tallying of votes into Monday—as long as it takes. Last time, Alianza published its report on election irregularities two weeks after JOH declared victory; it was too late.”
“This time, our plan is 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. This will drive turnout, and in building momentum with the possibility of winning, people will overcome their fear. They 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.
Day 1: Movmiento Estudiantil de La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras
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 red graffiti on a cemetery wall writing “No a la Repression”-no to the batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, kidnapping, disappearances, and murders. “Fuera JOH!,” read another sign spray-painted across the city—the slogan that has become a watchword for the resistance; that the nightmare of dictatorship end; that human rights and justice be restored.
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.
“I was one of a dozen students expelled from Tegucigalpa’s main public university. I am in hiding, living off the grid, underground, staying at a different place every night. After the University identified me as a leader of the student movement, they targeted me with expulsion, I found out that masked gunmen were asking my whereabouts. If they find me they will kidnap and kill me. The called it ‘to disappear’ someone. The police, paramilitaries, and drug cartels worked side by side.”
“The University students have just concluded a six-month strike that shut down the campus. We have many grievances; the student movement has been at the forefront of the nation’s fight against dictatorship and repression. University officials are 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 administration called in the military and police. Uniformed officers beat and jailed student demonstrators. We are supposedly an ‘autonomous’ University. Autonomous because it is supposed to be a sacred space of learning, inquiry, and debate with its own self-governance, where soldiers cannot enter.”
“University officials levelled criminal charges against the movement’s supposed leaders and expelled them. 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, 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 and hit by batons, to be 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. Everything stopped; they had to remember. 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 who had been consoling her comrade who broke down weeping began to speak—clearly and calmly.
“They are increasing tuition and fees. They increased the cost of labs, of books, of supplies; there are all these additional fees and costs that make 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 is that they are changing the curriculum, dumbing it down, tailoring it vocational and career training. A liberal arts education is dangerous,” the student explained. “With philosophy, sociology, and history, students are taught to ask thought provoking questions and engage in critical thinking. When people know how to think, they realize that things don’t have to be the way they are; that there is a better way to live.”
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.
Day 1: Feminismo en Honduras
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.
Karla Lara was a singer with songs of resistance, beauty, poetry, dignity, determination, and love. Karla Lara’s rendition of the Honduran national anthem became a theme song, a battle cry to the popular resistance to the coup in 2009, a cry that pierced the fear and doubt in the dark years after the coup. Equality to Honduran feminists, was compassion, love, mutual support and respect. It stood out against the blaring bravado of the nation’s macho military culture, its celebration of potency, power, dominance, and sadistic violence. The soldier, the strong man, the coup and its military dictatorship, the lies and doublespeak promising social peace, to have faith that the government will make the country safe for development.
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 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. It rapes the earth, our mother earth, diverting rivers for hydroelectric projects like the one Berta Carceres died fighting and rapes the Honduran people’s psyche with the brutality of disappearances, terror, and the constant violence of the narco-state. Through the fear, the regime tells us it is our own fault, that we need to accept the soldiers on the corner that protect order, progress, Christianity, and economic development.
State repression and terror humiliated and degraded communities; the dictatorship and its soldiers perpetrating emotional psychological, and at times physical rape. “They said we were insurgents, were terrorists, were less than human, that we are nothing. Latin American feminism is a response to that to the brutality; the rape and violation of state terror.”
“Our feminist movement stands as another ideal, another set of values, for love, respect, and truth. Everyone is human; we have an equal voice and our opinions and values are given careful consideration on their own merits. Women and men, urban and rural, Mestizo, Garifuna, Indigena, costal or mountain dweller, plantation or maquila laborer, shopkeeper or small farmer, we are equal. We are human, and we matter.”
Day 2: Centro Nacional de Trabajadores de Campo (CNTC)
The next morning, we rose early, boarded our van, driving into the commercial heart of Tegucigalpa, and drove in heavy traffic down a street lined with peddlers and small shops. Women and men sold fruit, clothes, both machine and hand-woven items, TVs and DVDs along a four-lane road. We took a left and rocked slowly down a steep dirt road where fresh rain had carved small ridges, gorges, and uneven bumps into the narrow street. We took a right and rose up a hill past blue shuttered storefronts and houses behind mesh metal fencing and barbed wire.
We entered the offices of the National Center for Rural Workers. Two men greeted us. One, wearing blue jeans and an untucked neatly ironed checkered collared shirt, the middle-aged man with short greying hair welcomed us, offering hot coffee, bread, and little bean and potato burritos. I was hungry. After eating two, I took a few extras burritos with me, stuffing them into my green grey oversized backpack.
The CNTC is an organization of over 11,000 dedicated cadre. At one point there were as many as 40,000 families. Members organize in rural areas and remote villages, often fighting off large landowners working with corrupt officials to chase communities off their land. The organization engages in political work in every district and department of the nation.
“The privatization of land, and the corrupt exchange of hard currency for tithes and land titles, the criminalization of utilizing national forests, or even allowing one’s horse to graze on the side of the road, these actions have led to the evictions of entire communities of rural workers. Indigenous and mestizo Honduran have fled villages and fields that they have cultivated for generations. They go and look for work in the cities or in Mexico or the United States.”
“The CNTC has been at the forefront of efforts of landless peasants to retake their land that had been seized by the government on behalf of private interests. We organize communities to participate in tomas, where the community strikes, protesting on the rural highways, blockading the rural roads that connect mountains, countryside, oceans, cities, and international borders.”
“We have been at the vanguard of resistance to the military coup; many members have faced repression. They were driven into hiding, or to immigrate as refugees. Others were jailed, beaten, assassinated, and disappeared.”
The Centro Nacional de Trabajadores de Campo operates a small office a block away from the busy open-air market in the heart of Tegucigalpa. We were meeting in a sparse living room space in this converted storefront, with a concrete floor and metal chairs arranged in a circle. Posters covered the lime green painted walls. One poster displayed a collage of pictures of different actions and projects that the organization engaged in.
One section of the collage showed the work of the farm workers union, organizing secretly among those who labor in Honduras’ massive coffee, banana, and African palm plantations. The CNTC organized these workers to engage in strikes and other actions to demand fair wages, payment for work, basic sustenance, and public health for farm worker communities. Another section showed the CNTC’s work reclaiming land. Communities would organize to take back land they had been evicted from. They would improve it with machetes, picks, and hoes. They would cultivate beans, corn, coffee, and other crops. Another committee worked supporting economic development, environmental sustainability, and public health in rural communities—a picture showed workers smiling with pick axes and shovels before a long trench; they were bringing clean water to a small village. The social committee planned cultural and educational events. A fifth display showed the work of a committee focused on growing the organization’s geographic reach and capacity.
On another wall a poster displayed pictures of past central committee members of the organization. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights hung in the corner, proudly displayed on a long multicolored blue, purple, green, and black poster. A fading black and white advertisement publicized an event commemorating the life of Edickson Lemus, a regional general secretary of the CNTC who was assassinated while riding the bus in El Progresso; he had been living there organizing indigenous communities in the surrounding countryside. A third poster made for the seventh international conference of farm workers featured a woman, her mouth open, fist in the air, with mountains in the background, and displayed a slogan in large black block letters. “We feed our people and construct movements to change the world.”
It was getting late; time to go to La Paz. We boarded the van, and drove out of town, over a mountain, down a valley, and up again, to where the hillsides were full of coffee plantations dotted with scattered compounds—one story concrete structures with shiny metal roofs, bright garments swinging on clotheslines in the mountain breeze. We turned up a dirt road and stopped after a while. Coffee trees and leaves lay in heaps. A small structure lay in ruined remnants on the ground. We walked down to a clearing overlooking the main paved road. Here a group of 20 campesinos, mostly skinny young men. Standing around with machetes, blue jeans, shirts and baseball hats, they gathered, waiting for us, a few texting on their smartphones.
A man in his thirties, older than the rest of the group, began to speak. He introduced us to each other.
“This is a group from the United States, we’ve known them, Matt has been bringing groups here for many years. They have their own organizations and struggles where they are from too, and are here in solidarity, to help spread the word about what has been going on here. These folks here are the real heroes who were evicted from their land about a month ago from right here, where the police and military came to evict them; I will let them tell the story.”
A short dark-skinned man began speaking.
“How good that we are here with you all, with Vicky and others who are familiar with our struggle, and fighting alongside us, because the injustice that is visited on the poor happens all over the world, there is repression everywhere, though in different forms, and this is what people suffer, and it is because we are all from the same class, the poor and working people struggling just to live for a scrap of land to call their own.”
“It’s good that you are here to hear from us, because we have been fighting and we believe our struggle is just, to have land, it is our life source, our mother, our means of survival, so we can raise our families. Hopefully you can learn something too, about the CNTC, and the fight for agrarian reform. We have been fighting a long time, and don’t have it yet, but we have to continue moving forward.”
Another man, skin darkened by the sun, wearing a pale green collared shirt and blue jeans, spoke next. He held a calendar or notebook in his hand.
“This community is called Fuerza Unidas, United Force. We have representatives of eight other groups as well. As you can see from the destroyed farmland here, thirty-five days ago the police came in. They destroyed this farm. But we won’t give up and we aren’t alone. We have this international commission; other people are on our side. There are seven million poor in Honduras, and they are completely marginalized. But we believe in a different world where people will be able to provide for themselves and their families. All the people you see before you, they all have arrest warrants for helping farmworkers take back land they were evicted from,” he motioned to the group of young men. “We are all wanted men, as a member of the CNTC here in La Paz, the district commissioner has a bounty on my head. But this isn’t about me, it is for the millions of Hondurans without land, without shelter, and without jobs, or a means to grow their own food.”
His phone rang constantly, and between turning off the ringer he used his arms expressively, orating a speech. “There are five million Hondurans living hand to mouth off the land. There is a small group of rich landowners who want everything. They are crowding us out, so we cannot go here or there. If the government wins tomorrow, we will all have to go to the other side, or the mountains. But we will not give up the struggle.”
Another continued. “All any of us wants is a little bit of land to work, to support ourselves, and grow a few beans. But we have no land, so this is how we ended up in this struggle. That is all I have to say.”
Another woman began to speak. “I am the CNTC recording secretary for this area.” She was wearing a stripped blue and white shirt, a purple hat, armed with a ringing black cellphone and a notebook. “Let me tell you about the eviction that happened here. They started firing at us, teargassing us. One woman fainted, children who were here, including my own, had trouble breathing and might have asthma, all just to have a bit of land to farm. That is all I have to say.”
Another man picked up where she left off. “I am president of a sister organization. We are a group about a kilometer away, and the same thing happened to us. We were expelled from our land. I am glad to be here with you Isabel, to listen to your story, and to tell you here that we are going through the same thing too. It is great to be here with all of you.”
“Why in our tiny country is there so many soldiers and police everywhere. It is better to have less police but have them on the side of the people. Right now, they are attacking children and families who are farming land for themselves. Four people were killed not far from here and another two in the next area over. What are we going to do, we are peaceful farmers, they beat us, tear gas us and shoot us. I think a day will come when we will have to arm ourselves, where we will have to burn down the patrol convoys, they are pushing us towards that.”
We left after taking a group picture and saying good bye, walking back over the fallen palms, burned ground, and crushed plants. The van arrived, and we continued up a dirt road to a small community radio station at a fork in the road. Children played on the grass out front, and a few chickens strutted past.
The radio station and community center included several rooms, one with bunk beds and mattresses. They used another green painted room as a classroom; pictures from a class that taught organic farming techniques at nearby villages decorated the wall. In the office next door, a portrait of Che Guevara hung on the wall opposite a wood desk and ancient desktop computer; stacks of browning paper rested on top of the monitor.
On a light brown wall, colored cardboard was taped up in a flower shape, with a different question for each petal; props for a women’s empowerment class. In the center someone had written “Female Leadership.” Along the petals other questions; “What does it take for a woman to be considered a leader? Why are there no women heading companies? Does female leadership have a limit? In what spaces should female leadership exist?” Each petal posed a discussion question designed to allow participants to reflect on one’s self worth, and the value of women in our patriarchal society.
Outside, on the side of the building, a bright intricately painted mural showed a family holding hands, their silhouettes shining in an ear of corn harvested from the earth. The recording studio featured a microphone, a mixer and a small room with broadcasting equipment. They were forced to play music most of the time, and could not broadcast overtly political programming, or they would get in trouble with the government.
We eventually left, heading down the steep rural mountain roads of the region of La Paz. Eventually we stopped for gas and a bite to eat. Outside the restaurant, a line of young women sold baked goods, cookies, tea, and coffee. Another had woven bracelets and charms. As I looked around, I asked her, motioning at the clouds in the distance. “Do you think it is going to rain?”
“Not tomorrow,” she replied. “They are just threatening, but it will go away. The sun will shine through.” I boarded our vehicle, it was time to return to Tegucigalpa to prepare for tomorrow. Election Day.
Day 3: Election Day in Colonia San Francisco
We drove up a winding road to the Colonia, a house with a giant Libre and Alianza flag on the front patio. As we exited the van women stood waiting for us at the home’s entrance. One woman approached us as we opened the van door; her face lit up in a huge smile; she gave me an embracing hug. Inside the home’s living room, they provided us coffee and home-made pancakes hot off the griddle, asking us if we wanted sugar, cream, honey or syrup.
Our host rose to welcome us. A single mom of three adult children, she was a small petite woman, in a pink hoodie and hair slicked back in a ponytail with amber glasses perched on her nose.
“The group formed a collective to give water and food—little burritos—to those who arrived to protest in the streets. We met in secret to provide people water, food and other things for those who came in from the countryside. We have been repressed, but our conviction hasn’t changed. We want that there is justice, health, education, food for all not just the few, and to stop corruption in the country. Through our efforts and idealism, we organized a political party in the last election. We are sure we won, but it was stolen.”
“We are going to have faith in god. This is a collective of fifty people. There are others already out, participating in the election tables at the polling places. Thank you for being here.”
It was her house. Her children were grown up, she showed me a beautiful wooden table from a furniture shop in the countryside where her daughters’ husband worked.
The women who had given me a gigantic hug wore a tan brown vest that read anti-corruption collective and a white hat bearing the same insignia, a picture of a hand dropping a ballot into the outline of the country Honduras. She began to speak.
“I was kidnapped when the coup happened. Every day there were fifteen deaths; we couldn’t go out into the streets at night. I want to give a testimony the necessity of this work and the insecurity. Supposedly we have a secure country.”
“We live the consequences of insecurity. I have survived through volunteer work. I am only able to find paid work for 2 hours a day. A friend called me to help her. I clean clothes. I have some basic things to eat, to buy beans it costs five Lempira, and I eat beans and tortillas. I started to work in the collective,” she stuttered, and tears welled up in her eyes.
“I entered a taxi and they took me, kidnapped me, for four hours. I received the light bill, 300 Lempiras for one debt, 8,000 Lempira for another. They assaulted me. Please don’t take my life, I cried. Have mercy. They took my cell phone, the only thing I had. I didn’t do anything. I am a single mother of three kids. Because I owe 8,000 Lempira, they put the gun to my head. Your mom thinks you are working and are not a delinquent (criminal), I told him. After four hours driving around, they said to each other. Where are we going to kill this person? They hit me in the head. This woman does not want to give us anything.”
“I don’t have anything! I pleaded with them, sobbing and crying. I have 70 lempira nothing else.”
“His mom called. I said let me out, and I managed to escape—my kidnapper did not want his mom to hear me. The man’s mom had 10 or 15 purses. I wonder if they were from people who her son killed? That call is the only reason I am alive… I don’t know why. I couldn’t leave the house for a week afterwards; In our country our lives are disposable – but we can’t give up.”
A hunched older woman with a bright wrinkled face began to address us.
“I am 72 years old, a retired nurse. I am here because we want change there is no work, only three hours here and there for most people in this neighborhood, the Colonia on the hill. I see so much pain, I am on social security these are no doctors or healthcare. It costs 1000-lempira, 500 lempiras for a private doctor, for medicine. No one can afford that.”
“How can people afford that when there is no money for electricity water and gas, not to mention food? You board a bus, next thing you know you are assaulted. There are no schools or universities, and only a single hospital. People come from all over to use this one hospital. There are no doctors. We are receiving treatment, but the doctors are on strike.”
“I have 72 years of age on this earth. This is the fight for the youth. I have a cane, but I still go to the protests. It costs 7000 for a prosthetic! This is why we need a change. I have faith that god in heaven is the only one who can make the change so that we can be free. The dictator, the president, he’s bought off the media, everything. There are people who for an iguana or a chicken for eating, will do anything. Then they are in jail. What about the police? This is the center for drugs, it is damaging the youth, taking our voice. We are the voices of those who cry out in the silence.”
Another began to speak. I would talk more with her and her husband later. Her husband worked as a computer programmer; she was a teacher.
“I will continue to protest and speak out. My son is a volunteer. He is working on a document. He is studying at school, and at Santa Clara de Assis to assist those of low economic means.”
“I came here to assist Alianza in this election. We face fraud, violence, and fear. That is why I want to do something. I have a 15-year-old son, here he is.” She showed off her son, presenting him to the group. The lanky teen looked down at the ground and waived, introducing himself as she coaxed him to speak up.
I saw him outside later. He sat hunched over a Mac Airbook laptop, designing a pamphlet in Adobe InDesign, a sophisticated graphics design software. His template was sketched on paper. It was a tri-fold pamphlet denouncing the corruption of President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
I stepped outside for fresh aid as I drank a third cup of coffee. Military police passed winding up the hill on that steep neighborhood street in a grey pickup truck. A man sitting in the back of the truck was wearing army camouflage and shouldering a long automatic weapon. He looked at me, his face covered in a black mask; I could see his brown eyes staring at me.
Another woman inside who had been in the kitchen cooking pancakes on the griddle entered the home’s living room to speak. “We are afraid,” she confessed. “Not now, but for what will happen when the polls close, after dark.”
“Thank you,” she continued, “for being here.”
We re-boarded the van and arrived at a grammar school with about 30 different classrooms. Each room corresponded to a precinct with between 200 and 300 registered voters in each, their names and pictures displayed on colored posters outside each door. The first disturbance occurred at 10:26 am: reports of death threats at the school. Instituto Superacion San Francisco, Mesa 09282.
I met an Ecuadorian election observer named Francisco Zavala. He wore a vest and pins; the words Derechos Humanos Sindicales emblazoned on his jacket. Human Rights for Labor. He was part of a group of election observers from across Latin America. They arrived and quickly departed, hailing from countries such as Argentina, Ecuador, and Brazil. They were video recording everything. The media also showed up taking pictures of the busy neighborhood polling location. This was a big voting site in a strong Alianza neighborhood. More than 11,000 were registered to vote at the school.
Official poll workers and partisan election monitors from both the nationalist and opposition Alianza parties loitered standing and pacing outside the various classrooms, some sitting down inside to work the mechanics of the vote.
Other Honduran men and women dressed wearing the white uniforms of election workers, stood erect by the door watching the crowd enter to help the disabled, holding elderly individuals’ hands, and enlisting others who came to vote to help carry one frail chair-bound man up a flight of stairs to the polling place.
Other supporters of the opposition party wore hats and shirts emblazoned with the words “Anti-Fraud.” Additional poll-watchers and party workers helped individuals find their polling place.
A fat man leaned against a metal rail buttressing a set of steps that divided the courtyard patio into two terraces studying a piece of paper. He wore a half tucked pink short sleeves polo shirt a size too small. Rolls of naked skin and blubber drooped out over his belt at waist level. Surrounded by teenage girls, he sported a flashy gold watch that dangled from his left wrist. In his left hand his hand he gripped folded pieces of paper, lists of voters’ names; with his right he made calls and sent texts from a black smart phone. Vicky approached me while I watched. “He is from the Nationalist party, supporters of Juan Orlando Hernandez,” she mentioned to me discretely. “Supporters of Libre, the left party of the Alianza are also present, carefully watching the poll and election workers of the Nationalist party.”
The atmosphere seemed festive. The cool breeze of early afternoon brought the sounds of music playing softly in the crowded street, friends and family chattering, laughter, smiles, and salutations. Young women held their grandmothers’ hands, escorting them along the walk to vote. Mothers cradled their infant babies, breastfeeding their newborns. Young men walked together in small groups through the archway flanked with soldiers; Couples, strolling in to vote, held hands, their arms swinging back and forth. Voters wore baseball hats emblazoned with the logos of the New York Yankee, Miami Heat, LA Dodgers, and Atlanta Braves. Several young women, strutted through the crowd to vote, dressed in stylish Sunday summer dresses. One raised her hand to her head, brushing her hair back and tilting her head ever slightly.
We left to grab coffee and let one of our delegation members rest. Irene had been detained for 12 hours at the San Pedro airport, questioned about her purpose for visiting the nation, her background as a journalist, as they interrogated her for hours, about supposed leftist ties—to Cuba, or Venezuela. Exhausted and weary, she had been kept up all night by questioning soldiers before her release and early revocation of her Visa. Irene lay down on a black couch in the living room of a family that served us coffee and bean burritos. She quickly fell asleep.
The house was a half block away. A man and his wife worked in the kitchen, their children running outside carrying food to hungry neighbors who had just returned from the polls.
Walking back to the polling place, I notice three soldiers flanking either side of the school’s entrance. They wore black combat boots, green military canteens labeled ‘U.S. Army,’ and dark green suspenders with a space for their gun holsters. Each carried multiple weapons, fingers lightly caressing the triggers of M16 and AR 15 assault rifles. The two civilian police in light blue uniforms also stood with black automatic rifles slung over their shoulders pointed downward.
The mood, otherwise, seemed festive. Teenage girls and a few men working for the nationalist party ran around about their paid tasks. They were happy, at least from the smiles on their faces; they had been paid for the election work that day. A cool and refreshing breeze rushed past. It soothed my skin from the heat of the mid-morning sun. A large tree in the school courtyard swayed in the wind, its leaves rustling and shimmering against the backdrop of light blue sky. It was in the high 70s. The sun was hot, but I stood there in the shade in the corner of the plaza of the school.
The courtyard echoed chatter of youth, their parents, and extended families. Everyone smiling and greeting each other as if at church or at the market, walking by excitedly for the opportunity to vote. Most of the press and international observers had left by the early afternoon. Election workers arrived with large cardboard boxes of food for those working inside. Pigeons flew above and landed on wrought iron gates. A scrawny black dog lay in the front of the entrance to the courtyard, as a steady stream of voters passed through between the doors flanked by soldiers, stepping carefully over the dog, and looking up to find which of the classrooms was their voting location.
It was time to leave. We departed for another polling location, exiting and turning up a street and hanging a right. An older woman, with grey hair and bright brown eyes gripped me by the arm. “The Dead! The Dead!” she screamed. “They are voting. We will all be dead. Open your eyes, wake up! Why won’t the Honduran people wake up? They are asleep. People don’t vote. We are already all dead. Help us,” she pleaded.
I turned to face her, “Did you say dead people are on the voting rolls and are voting? “
“Yes,” she replied, “and people who have immigrated to the U.S., al otro lado, years ago. This country is full of dead bodies don’t you see,” she grasped my shoulder, when I turned to walk back. “People have to vote! They have to open their eyes!”
I left, after a sheepish, “Thank you for telling me.” Our group of three had to keep together. We walked up the crowded street, past a line of small taxis covered in different color schemes matching their affiliated political party. The scooters, motorcycles, and small cars were being used to transport voters to their polling place.
We walked through a black metal gate and joined other human rights observers at a different school. Groups of nationalist supporters had been involved in verbal altercations with supporters of the Alianza. At four o’clock in the afternoon, shortly after we arrived, a soldier clanged the doors shut, barring other voters from access.
Waiting voters began banging on the door. He looked at us and opened it; letting in a final stream of people waiting in line, then closed the door behind him. A woman who I had seen at the other school two blocks away was sitting in the bleachers, singing benedictions in a rhythmic mantra while praying to god for peace and love. There had been some trouble before, and now it was around 4 pm and the polls were closing. As I approached her and sat down, I looked out at the courtyard. The other members of our international contingent congregated in small groups, wearing bright green vests with the words ‘Derechos Humanos,’ Human Rights, on the back. Soldiers loitered, a commander and his entourage entered. The soldiers quickly stood up straight, picking the up their assault rifles that had been hanging off shoulder straps, and saluted. Groups of election workers clustered together talking excitedly in hushed tones wearing white shirts and lanyards. A man who had been talking to the soldiers approached me as I sat down on those bleachers, observing.
“Berta Carceres was assassinated, have your heard of Berta?” he asked me. “The supreme court is paid off by President Juan Orlando Hernandez, and the constitution the re-election is illegal,” he continued.
He began to explain that the military’s justification or the 2009 coup was that Mel Zelaya wanted to be re-elected. Conjuring up the specter of communist totalitarianism and the idolatry and power of maverick Hugo Chavez, the army intervened, deposing Zelaya before he could consolidate power.
But somehow it is legal now for Juan Orlando Hernandez, as the Honduran presidential incumbent is referred, to be reelected. “He installed his own supreme court justices, and they said it was ok, imagine that?” the man chuckled.
“For four years there has been a lot of corruption,” the man continued to tell me. A crowd of onlookers watched by. A police officer stood near, stomping his foot down on a concrete stoop as if to make his presence felt. I continued to write, and the man continued to explain. “JOH is afraid of the press. There are a lot of deaths. The government is corrupt; the Supreme Court is bought by the president illegally to support an illegitimate regime. The death of Berta Carceres—do you know about that?” I shook my head, affirming for the second time.
“They took all the money from our social security system. They stole it and put it in the coffers of the nationalist party for this re-election campaign. The national electoral board overseeing this election is paid off to hand the election to the current president. Paid for by US dollars.”
“The government is giving money so people vote the way they want them to. 100 lempiras for each vote.” (About 5 US dollars). “The government takes money out of the bank, every election, there are these election observers, and they observe, and everything is supposedly fine, but afterwards nothing will change,” he grimaced, shaking his head.
He leaned in closer, taking out his android smart phone, and showed me a video of people entering a bus to take them to vote, presenting their IDs, a man checked their names off a list, and handed them cash.
“The government takes the money and buys the election,” he continued. “This is the way it is. Take that back to your country and to your human rights report.”
The man started chatting then with police, with the soldiers, and with other election workers. He was well known, and quite friendly with all. I thought it strange he would openly discuss this corruption with me in front of the police, election workers, and military. Maybe he had some clout and no reason to be afraid. Maybe he just didn’t care anymore.
After some time, we decided to leave the voting location. We filed out, the soldier, a young man wearing dark sunglasses, he had dark brown skin and was dressed in green and black camouflage with combat boots and AR-15 slung around his shoulder, the soldier opened the door to let us through.
I was the last one to leave. Suddenly, a young woman with long straight black hair and a thin fleece blue sweater grabbed my shoulder tightly, in desperation as if to stop me right then and keep us from leaving. “Can you tell this police officer that this is a public place and they should not lock the doors, but to let people come in to vote,” she asked, pleaded.
I could sense the fear in her eyes as she gripped my shoulder to turn me around and look at her. I remembered what I was supposed to say and replied in Spanish. “I cannot tell the soldier to do anything, I said, but I hear what you are saying.” My colleagues motioned to me to quickly exit as they entered a waiting van. I turned my head and walked away, to board the blue van and leave.
A pickup truck passed full of soldiers’ in the back seat, cradling their automatic weapons, their fingers tapping the metal near the trigger. Those fingers moving ever so slightly—tap, tap, tap—as if practice shooting, killing, murdering, extinguishing life. We bounced back a forth with every indent and curve, stopping for a pickup truck which roared through the streets screeching its breaks as an elderly couple jumped out of the way.
Day 3: COFADEH: Comite de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Honduras
The Committee of Families of the Disappeared was organized by family members of victims of those killed by government kidnapping and assassination squads in the early 1980’s. Amnesty International documented over 182 cases that decade, less than the death toll of dirty wars in nearby El Salvador and Guatemala. For over thirty-five years the organization survived to bear witness, continuing to document human rights violations even in difficult circumstances.
We sat down with a grey-haired duo, a man and woman, in a room flanked with tiny framed portraits of young Honduran men and women disappeared by the military death squads. Hundreds of young men and women, most in their teens and 20’s stared down at me, their eyes watching us. The portraits covered the walls from ceiling to floor on three sides of the room. The representatives of COFADEH began to speak.
“Before this election the situation was bad, but there were certain appearances that were kept up. Now after this, well, we are about to have difficult moments ahead. But we are on the right side, Alianza won in the national tribunal, but it was stolen from within. Marco Ramiras Rola, he’s detained now so he can’t talk to the media, was going to blow the whistle. Another member of the national election tribunal has been murdered. The rest can’t say what is actually happening, they are scared. Marco Ramiras Rola. We are concerned for his safety.”
“The dictatorship. We can’t think any more that things will be different. The signs are clear; the assassination of Berta Carceres was not accidental, it was not just an attack on COPINH, but all of us—all of Honduras, the whole planet. We are being attacked; this is the truth. After this election, they once again give all the power to the military. This is what is happening.”
“We are going to the tribunal tomorrow to see what the environment is like, the national tribunal. It is the custom in Honduras in these recent political process, 2009, 2013, was that the final vote count of each precinct will be recorded on a tall sheet. This document is then passed on to the national supreme election council, and the parties look at what is happening, to vouch that everything has been recorded correctly. But theory is different than practice. In reality, when the precinct election officer writes down the tally, it goes to an intermediary. If that person sees that JOH is winning, he passes the results on, but if the President is losing, another system is used. The tally sheet doesn’t get published. At 7:30 or 8:30 all these tally sheets were stored away, guarded by the army, to review them and correct them, so the right person ends up winning.”
“This evening all the political parties said no, we are going to not recognize preliminary results, the difference in total votes between JOH and Nasralla is very small. When Joh followed previous practice and declared himself president, Alianza also declared victory, refusing to concede. A third-party candidate also claimed he had won. We have three presidents, and they have only counted a fraction of the ballots. Alianza will be trying to prevent the election from getting stolen. We are going to the election tribunal at 2 pm tomorrow.”
“These aren’t normal times first we have an illegal candidate. Never in the history of the country have we reelected a president. The only way you could run again would be a national plebiscite. He violated the constitution. Whatever candidate who runs, has to step down from other roles six months before. But he never did that! The fundamental point is that he can’t run for reelection. He has absolute power, that’s why he can do it. His parents are head of the armed forces.”
“This is an illegal election already. Now, that armed forces have gone out of their barracks to do operations in the neighborhoods, with jackets armor and weapons, there are a lot of military and police out right now. The streets are full of soldiers and police. The political crisis is here in Tegucigalpa, people from throughout the country will be heading to Tegucigalpa to protest. It’s better to be in the city when things get worse.”
“Right now, we have to unite ourselves with everyone to stop the violation of human rights, murders, and attacks against women. Some are higher up who are repressed; it has a big impact on the entire population.”
“They are using the same tactics they did in the 1980’s when they assassinated people. We are very afraid. This is a dictatorship; the attacks have been clear. The assassination of Berta Carceres was an attack not just on her, on COPINH, but on the entire planet. A clear signal, the course of action is that they are willing to attack all of us. After this, I heard the talk on TV of the need for social peace and lack of tranquility.”
“The armed forces are out there tonight, dressed for combat with armor, helmets, and automatic weapons. Be careful going wherever you are going.”
Day 4: COPINH – Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indigenas en Honduras
We are driving to Esperanza. Vicky is talking on the phone with the indigenous leaders we are to meet with this afternoon. We roll through the countryside, around hills and down valleys, curving on a four-lane highway. We pass dynamite blasted limestone hills as we hurtle up and down the earth covered by a canopy of green pine trees growing on layers of brown pine needles carpeting the forest floor. The underbrush is relatively clear, with a few shrubs and small bushes under the ceiling of pines. One could start walking and keep hiking in those woods for miles.
We are on winding two-lane road. As the van turns on tight curves, we sway back and forth, from side to side. Our driver steers the blue metal van from the front, passing over the mountain tops, hurtling downwards, wheels turning, rubber cushioning the friction between axle and pavement.
The grey sky seems ever darker out the black tainted windows. The hills look like they were recently clear cut—maybe 20 years or even two generations ago. At the pavement’s edge the curb descends into shallow gravel ruts off to the side, peppered with bright plastic trash and aluminum cans the rock under the layers of sediment and earth. The white and red limestone rock, the flaking red boulders crumbling to dust, and fading into the distance. A lone wide winged bird slowly circles high above a red and white cell radio tower that sits prominently on the mountainside. A few road signs advertise electric construction tools and restaurants that weary Honduran travelers stop for a good meal. We pass a few concrete buildings, small shacks with tin roofs, bright woven garments clothes hanging out to dry alongside embroidered towels and shirts hang on clothes lines, peppered amidst the green expanse of rolling hills, mountain ridges, and farm field valleys.
As we ride through the countryside Vicky and Matt discussed the politics of the courageous opposition; the Alianza and Libre parties. Both included students, farm workers, unionists, and even Marxists. Now, however, a few members of the oligarchy along with liberals and social democrats also oppose Juan Orlando Hernandez and his dictatorship.
We passed a blue, white, and red station wagon tilting forward, with a picture of Che Guevara spray painted on the car’s hood. To the left is a long concrete cinderblock wall that extends for miles, topped with rows of barbed wire in concentric coiling circles. “It is the U.S. military base in Honduras,” someone said. I caught a glimpse of a radar tower, the large red painted metallic antenna wide and long turning in the distance. Layers of barbed wire flanked the gates and checkpoints. We are descending in the valley, the straight away along the long flat surface. Cement trucks and earth moving machines work behind the barbed wire fences on my left. In the distance, the expanse of earthen green spreads its horizon before the black line of the road before us. We begin to climb a mountain out of the valley. Passing a green dump truck, I look out to see a hooded soldier wearing a black mask and combat fatigues. He pokes his head out the back of the vehicle. The deep back used to carry dirt and rocks is full of masked soldiers. Vicky told me to sit down. We drove quickly past.
“Why were they not traveling in a military vehicle?” I thought. We continued.
Children sat on the side of the road selling bright yellow bananas and plantains, one could see intricately painted ceramic tile sculptures displayed for sale, fruits and vegetables, and bottles of thick honey in clear glass bottles that at first sight looked like whiskey. Firewood sat for sale in neat square piles on the road’s edge as we passed by.
After another few hours we arrived at lunch. Just in time to use the bathroom and quickly eat. I spoke to two men. They were in a van driving from San Pedro de la Sula. As I walked to stretch my legs, I encountered two different armed security officers, police armed with pistols. A group from the Organization of American States also had stopped at the restaurant. At least two cars marked OAS sat outside in the parking lot. They were election observers. A lot of people stood around the rest stop, watching.
One police officer gave me a bit of ginger; he says he rubs in on his sore shoulder. The other showed me his police id badge, I asked him what he thought of the election. How nice that everyone voted he grinned, Honduras is a democracy, he looked up at me and smiled. I could see his gold filling and a few other acts of haphazard dentistry. We respect human rights.
We turned off a road to La Esperanza climbing into the fog that shrouded the mountains, passing over the forests and tiled and ridged tin roofs that covered concrete and peeling stucco shacks, people’s homes, many open to the elements to let in the rain, the mist, and the cool mountain breeze. A child played outside one structure. The pine forests their steep slopes, and expansive vistas teemed with vegetation and life.
We arrived in La Esperanza in the mid-afternoon. As we approached town, a procession of cars, motorcycles, and pickup trucks blocked our path. Passengers wove red Libre and Alianza flags out the windows as they drove slowly along the main road in and out of the city of La Esperanza. The crowds of supporters stood on the beds of Toyota and Izuzu pickup trucks, cheering and celebrating, proclaiming victory for their party, the Alliance of Opposition to the Dictatorship. The voters were still being counted, but Alliance was up by 5% so far, with over 60% of the votes already counted.
We took a sharp turn on the bumpy dirt road. plastic debris, bags, bottles, empty chip bags, and a few discarded aluminum cans littered the side of the road. A small black bag full of trash plastic bags sat in the ditch. Brownish red dirt and muddy water flowed down shallow trenches flanking the bumpy dirt road. Electric power lines hung by polls with street lights. Bright red blinking cell phone and radio towers sat prominently affixed on top of hills and mountains in all directions, with a clear view in all directions across all vistas. Reaching several stories tall into the sky, their red and white painted structures glistening in the reflection of the sun.
We passed an army barracks and a platoon of soldiers standing outside in their trucks and on the street, wearing black masks that covered their faces, green camouflage fatigues and camouflage caps, black laced black combat boots their pants tucked inside with large automatic weapons slung over shoulders.
My friend Matt was in the front, sitting next to the driver. He told us that the military base was new. A scribbled black spray-painted slogan on the back of a street sign read JOH Assesino! JOH murders, assassinates, with a swastika painted underneath, to insinuate he was a mass murderer too.
Five minutes later we took a right down a narrow road the width of an alley lined with cement blocks fences topped with barbed wire someone congratulated Matt for steering us the right way, remembering where the office of COPINH, the council of indigenous organizations of Honduras, after not having returned in so long. It was too soon, however. We ended up at the office of a church. Above its entrance it read “The Church of Judas, with an insignia of white hands pressed together in prayer wrapped in barbed wire.
We turned around at the dead end and went back. COPINH was the dead-end street on the following block. After nine months in the U.S., Matt was one street off. The office of COPINH’s was enwrapped in a tall concrete wall with a metal door and a two-layered barbed wire fence. A video camera was placed on the corner, recording all activity around the compound’s perimeter. This was new, Matt explained to us. It must have been installed after gunmen assassinated Berta Carceres, COPINH’s dynamic internationally recognized leader. As soon as we pulled up, we exited the van, and the grey metal door opened. A young man with dark brown skin, a short indigenous looking man, wearing jeans and a hoodie greeted us, shaking all our hands in earnest. Behind the entrance was a yard, which was full of trash, a metal oil drum and a half broken cardboard box were both overflowing with cardboard or Styrofoam boxes from a recent meeting. We went inside the office and pulled up chairs. Since Berta Carceres was assassinated a year and a half ago, her younger daughter, a skinny woman with a pony tail, was elected to lead the organization. She sat sunk back in a chair in the center of the room, wearing blue jeans and a hoodie. Next to her an older woman sat, the head of the organization’s committee of elders. One or two other young men came and left.
Walls of the pink meeting rooms were covered in posters, many adorned with the smiling face of Berta Carceres, the former leader. A large yellow paper banner was taped across the center of the room, with two flowers, each with seven petals. On one flower, the words Love, Brotherhood, Hope, Happiness, Charity, Faith and Strength, were written on the petals, next to the words Lesbians and Berta, we are resilient, and always will be with you. The other flower’s petals displayed Respect, Dignity, Liberty, Justice, Conscious, Unity, and Integrity. Next to that the words written in calligraphy, Nelson Garcia your fight has not been in vain.
We all introduced ourselves, and they began speaking, as everyone had, about the election, how no one still know who won. I walked outside and looked at additional posters that lined the wall. One in large white type on a black background condemned the repression of the student movement. It read we are not insurgents, we are not terrorists, we are not criminals, it is us, students, organized and conscious; Honduran People Fight against Criminalization. Another advertised a conference on social-environmental conflicts in Tegucigalpa, in mid-July. A large poster showed a map of Latin America, and every gringa U.S. military base, including the air base in Honduras, the only in the region, stationed with 1,300 U.S. troops.
Another sign advertised a different conference, on water rights. It read without gold you can live but without water, no. A final poster announced the program of the Tomas Garcia Political Education and Leadership School, in red green and blue letters fixed in front of orange sun rays.
We were going tonight, to visit a community close by, who were due in court the next day for trespassing charges. After eight years cultivating land on the side of a mountain road, they were arrested, their homes destroyed, and crops raised. Over a year later they were finally due back in court tomorrow. We all piled in to the van to drive into the mountains.
It was getting dark when we arrived, parking, disembarking, and walking up a steep incline to a path and a line of small huts with mud walls and thatched roofs.
Six or seven adults, along with two dozen small children, sat bunched along a wooden bench in the dimly lit room with mud walls and a dirt floor. One mother nursed her infant, cradling the baby rocking it back and forth. Children sat along the wall, in each other’s laps, and on the dark brown and red dirt. We entered. Ducking my head to avoid hitting a wooden beam, I sat down next to my companions, wearing our florescent green vests and laminated badges.
The first woman began to address us.
“Thank you to you all for coming to meet us, and to COPINH, and to Berta, who is here with us. She fought with us to defend our land, and the ancestral home of the Lenca people. We are a small community here, less than a dozen families. We have been working the land, cultivating it, to grow a bit of corn and beans, and food to sustain ourselves and our families. We have been here eight years; then the soldiers came, a man came and said he owned the land, and the soldiers came in the middle of the night; they arrested us, and destroyed our homes, and took all we had—our chickens and livestock and food—they took it for themselves. But thanks to COPINH, we are here alive today, able to work the land. We plant seeds in the earth, and with the power of the sun and the nourishing water from mountain streams, our crops grow. We can eat and feed our children. Thanks to Berta and COPINH and the forests and mountains that sustain us. Yes, they killed her. But Berta didn’t die, she multiplied. Her spirit lives. She beats in the hearts of each of us. She is that spirit inside each of us. That fire inside, in our chests; it is our will to survive, to overcome. Berta with us, her spirit is inside us, in our blood and our soul. She is with all people who fight to live free; raising our families to work in peace and harmony with our mother earth.”
After everyone spoke, we got up and stepped outside. We walked through the dark to where the other homes had stood, now a pile of dirt and a few wooden beams cast about on the hillside. A mother picked up her son, then almost three feet tall, and just beginning to walk. She recalled what happened that night. “I was still nursing him, and they arrested me. I was in jail for three days,” she recalled. “What will happen tomorrow, only god knows. I hope I can stay free, to care and provide for my family.”
The next day I woke up and went outside, the first light had begun to illuminate the earth and I drank some water. The rooster began to crow. A truckload of workers started their pickup, drank coffee, loaded their supplies and let the engine idle. The light and heat of the sun brightened and warmed the earth. A lone bird, its wingspan more than six feet wide coasted low over the curved amber tile roofs.
We arrived at court wearing our green vests and laminated badges, and marched past two security guards cradling shotguns and AR-15s. Armed with a letter hastily written the night before, we asked which way to the court- we wanted to drop the letter off with presiding Judge who would decide the case of the evicted families later that day. To our surprise, after a few minutes waiting in the hall, we were allowed into the courtroom, where a panel of three judges entered, and sat down on their podiums to hear the case of the American human rights observers who had barged into their provincial courthouse. Matt got up and read the letter, arguing the case for mercy, and for respect for their human rights. The older judge, the one in the middle sitting higher that the rest, gave a few remarks when Matt concluded. Very complicated, a very difficult situation, he muttered. On the one hand we are a nation of laws, and of property rights. On the other, these families are part of a special protected minority. Thank you for addressing us, you are welcome to stay for the trial later today. We had to go, but we found out that evening that while the community’s eviction would stand, the parents of the small children we visited the night before would face no additional jail time.
When we stopped for breakfast after court, I got in line was in line for the bathroom. It was a fried chicken place. A man waiting behind asked me, “You are not from Honduras, I can tell. Where are you from?”
“The U.S.,” I replied, stating the obvious.
“I lived in the United States 10 years,” he smiled. “My 4th wife was American.”
“Where about,” I asked.
“Virginia,” he said, his chest puffing out on his built frame. He wore a blue sweatshirt. “I lived in Vienna, do you know it?”
“Vienna!” I declared, my cousin lives there. “Right in northern Virginia, twenty minutes from the end of the blue line, or maybe it’s orange line, by I-95.”
“Yeah, I worked construction there many years. I still have a work permit, a green card, but I don’t want to go back, my whole family is here. Life is slower, people are poor, but at least I’m here with family. And the U.S. is so expensive.”
I remember a man like him. When I worked construction in northern Virginia in 2001, I met several Honduran and Salvadoran carpenters, most in their mid-20’s. They worked 12 to 14-hour days building the homes and apartments in the August heat. Those structures housed many of the civilians moving to the sprawling region for jobs at defense and other government contractors. They were always hiring.
We left it there. A kid got out of the bathroom. It was my turn. The bathroom was incredibly dirty, a layer of brownish black dirt muddied the white tile floor. I peed and left, wiping my hands with the sanitizer I had brought with me.
Leaving the restaurant, I took a deep breath and walked around the stores on the perimeter of Esperanza’s bus depot. The air was clean and skies clear. One could see the green tree covered hills in the distance rising above the small city a few miles away despite the vans and their thick black smoke. Men, women, and children entered and exited the van, the luggage racks crammed full of produce, products to sell in town, suitcases and trash bags full of belongings. The bus terminal was lined with stores and small shops. We finally figured out what we were going to do.
Irene had to return to San Pedro Sula. After questioning her for 11 hours and googling the stories she reported on as a journalist for The Nation Report, immigration officials cut short her Visa. She was released on the condition that she quickly leave the country, so she needed another ticket. We left town, leaving the trash strewn streets and water filled ruts that lined the dirt roads, climbing into the mountains on a two-lane paved road, our driver steadfast and calm, his eyes focused. We climbed the hills of lush vegetation, limestone encrusted by the organic sediment of eons of vegetation growth, breathing, dying, and decomposing on edge of the earth’s crust touching the beginning of the sky.
As we descended, we approached a military convoy, there must have been over 1,000 soldiers, thirty to a truck, at least twenty trucks. They stopped on the side of the road at a small restaurant, the leaders stepped inside, the soldiers milled about in and outside the green vehicles, with their metal hats, dressed in green fatigues carrying assault rifles. As we passed several of our colleagues held their cameras outside the window, videotaping the scene as we passed by, carefully and slowly, to upload and distribute on face book and social media later in the United States.
Day 4: Café con el Sacerdote
We stopped to get coffee. The members of a church delegation had also stopped at a local coffee shop that sold bags of beans they roasted onsite grown by farmers in the surrounding areas. A member of the church questioned me, asking my name, who I was with, where I was from, and my purpose in Honduras. After I answered a few questions to his satisfaction, we sat down. He began to speak in earnest. I took out a pad of paper and furiously scribbling what he told me.
“We don’t trust the government nor the political parties, at least the established Nationalist Party and parties from before. We all believe in the Alliance, in Salvador Nasralla, but they don’t want to let him win.”
“At first the election, it was normal, but now it is not normal. The supreme election tribunal doesn’t want to tell us the truth. The media is owned by only two people. It is owned by two people. We are a poor country. And no one trusts what they are reporting on tv. On Facebook, everyone is asking and talking about what is happening, but the media acts like everything is normal.”
“We are from Lempira the city where the president is born. If you talk bad about him, if you talk bad, they will kill you, or at least not give you the opportunity to work and be part of the community. People don’t like to talk about it. Normal people aren’t going to talk because they feel you are going to get them in trouble. We work with the Catholic Church with the pastor, he supports a lot of people. He teaches them how to eat healthy. We love everything here. We teach how to plant food to eat, and how to eat well.”
The Priest, Padre Fautisto, an older man with whisky white traces on his thinning head joined us. “It is illegal to think in Honduras,” he said.
“The telephones are controlled. They can listen to everything we say. If a person says something bad or different, they are called a rebel. Now they call you a terrorist. How are we able to say things when in the last five years there have been 25,000 assassinations? They’ve assassinated more people than any other country on earth. Do you know about Berta Carceres? They assassinated her too, for defending nature, for defending our rivers.”
“80% of those killed are youth less than 18 years old. Here in Honduras, of all the crime, not one is investigated. If a man is killed in the street, only one is brought to justice. They blame one of the gangs. Mara or 18, it is their fault. It isn’t true, there is never anyone who is caught! It is on the news and that is that. Someone has to investigate who is assassinated, and who is killing. It is people within the government. If you aren’t with them, they will kill you. Or they won’t let you have any economic opportunity. That is why there is no freedom to think.”
The first man continued.
“Imagine a world where in a small country of not more than nine million people, families are terrorized by this. When their sons and daughters leave the house, they do not know if they will return alive or they will find their bodies dead somewhere, or never even find their corpse at all. This is Honduras. There is also beauty. The natural resources, pastor teaches people to eat with the proper form using no pesticides or chemicals, only with organic products. He has 45 people working with him to teach tens of thousands. All the seeds now are owned by Monsanto, by Asian and European and other countries. Berta Carceres is a heroine and a martyr of this cause. She defended the environment. We are an amazing people spiritually, but we are losing trust in institutions. I know many countries; I don’t know any that are as pretty as Honduras. Maybe Switzerland, with its mountains, has a natural environment that is almost as beautiful.”
“This is a country with future,” he continued. That future will come the day Hondurans are owners of their land, mines, country, forests, and waters. The last fight of Berta was to defend the water of the people. The water is life.”
Day 4: San Pedro Sula y la Union de los Maestros
That evening we arrived in San Pedro Sula, the industrial center of Honduras. The city was peppered with red painted cell phone transmission towers. We first went towards the airport, to the border and customs enforcement office, for our companion to leave the country, or see if she could stay an extra day.
We passed large white stucco structures five stories tall; the factories and maquiladoras that manufactured the bulk of knit apparel and sneakers exported to the United States from Honduras. The bumpy streets were half paved and seemed in a perpetual state of construction, worn down by large trucks with their cargo of export goods. The streets were lined with ditches half filled with dark brown standing water in what seemed like an open sewer. The air smelled of sulfur and smoke; I could see the shanty towns and slums. I caught a glimpse of children playing amidst the sewage and trash as we passed large warehouses and factories; the manufacturing compounds surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire. The streets were dirty. The wind would periodically kick up the dust, plastic, and other trash, blowing it around. Everywhere I looked I saw trash strewn about and discarded.
The maquiladoras provided hazardous low-wage jobs. There was a strong stench of pollution; air choked the breath. I tried to cough without losing my balance in my seat as we clamored down the bumpy roads. We finally arrived in a condensed downtown area and stopped at the hotel where we would spend the night.
When we exited the hotel, a group of students, maybe 200, were marching down the street, jumping up and down, chanting, and waiving the red flags of the Libre party. They believed their candidate had won, and Honduras was now free.
We went to a fast food chicken restaurant, where we were to hear from the former secretary-treasurer of the Honduran Teachers Unions, and recent candidate for congress. The chicken was good. Rather than eat it all together and share, we bought food separately.
We all sat down to eat, and the high school and university teacher began to address us. He wore a plaid flannel shirt, dark jet-black hair he looked in his late 30’s or early 40’s and he spoke quietly and calmly, after Vicky introduced him.
“There is a crisis in Honduras. They are taking away labor rights, privatizing our natural resources, and making the country poor. There is so much corruption. They’ve been using government funds to buy food and give money to the poorest people in exchange for their votes, and to pay for radio, TV, and social media advertisements for the President’s reelection. Elections are very expensive. We are close to electing Salvador Nasralla President of Honduras. They are having discussions among themselves now because they want to commit fraud.”
“People are going to Tegucigalpa. This is a moment of tension. We are trying to calm folks; the people want to take to the streets. We want to watch, and to make sure it is peaceful for them. The current government and the military wants to stay in power to continue to privatize, and to continue to traffic drugs. But Honduras has awakened. A lot of people went to vote in my area. There were 22 voting areas and Salvador Nasralla won them all by a lot. The government didn’t expect this. At least they didn’t plan for it.”
“There is a secret project to get rid of all progressive governments in Latin America. Fear has paralyzed people. Only 56% of registered voters voted. Some of these who voted are dead. Others are in the United States. A lot of youth have lost their fear. A majority are still paralyzed by fear, but the youth have lost their fear. People are beginning to mobilize. Thursday the results will be announced, they say. There will be a large mobilization both here and in Tegucigalpa.”
“Tim Kane was here, and you can contact your congressperson, so you can tell them to get JOH, the president, to respect the results. Otherwise there will be a dictatorship, and this will continue throughout Latin America. The military, people see, they will have to act differently if Nasralla wins. We are right on the edge of change.”
“I am a member of the teachers’ union, I was the vice president of the teachers’ union in Honduras for two years, I lived in Tegucigalpa then, and we are ready to take the streets. The teachers were the backbone of resistance to the coup. They arrested many. They killed many. I was in jail, but we continued to struggle. We are on the precipice of victory.”
“A lot of people are afraid of Trump. People have family who are undocumented in the United States and are worried about what will happen to them. San Pedro Sula is the 3rd largest province in Honduras.”
“I have a wife. She is a mathematics professor; I have three kids in school. We are partners fighting for justice; we met while attending the university. You see, 17 families have accumulated all the economic power in Honduras; they are corrupt. They want to privatize healthcare. People are poor, they can’t pay for private services; they can’t even eat. They want to privatize mountains for mining, dam up rivers for hydroelectric power, charter new privatized cities. They call themselves Christians, but it has nothing to do with Christianity or humanity. All they see is money. We are going to Tegucigalpa. We are going quietly.”
“Honduras has gone through different periods. In the days of the Spanish conquest, they focused on mining the mountains for gold and silver; in the 20th century it was agriculture, banana plantations, and others. Now it is back to mining. That is why you see landowners buys up mountains and kicking indigenous farmers off the land.”
He mentioned he was a sociologist who worked on a collaborative project evaluating the secondary and higher education system in Central America, collaborating with professors at Universities in Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, and Guatemala City. “It was a five-year study,” he explained. “Published last year in 2016. The other major research study I have done was of a mining project where I studied the impact of the operation on the indigenous people who lived in that area. Things were bad. We never published this study to protect participants safety.”
He then went on to mention his campaign for congress. “I put up 30 banners. The opposition candidate, the incumbent, put up over 1,000. I got one advertising spot in the media,” he explained, “at half price. That appeared 15 times over 6 days. On social media I paid 50$ for an ad. My message was public health, public education, and labor rights for teachers and all other workers.”
“But I wasn’t able to go out to other locations beside in this area, because my mom became very ill during this time. I really had to cut my campaigning short for that, and to attend to her.”
The time was getting late. We were going to Trinufo de la Cruz early in the morning, and then back to Tegucigalpa the same day. We shook hands and said goodbye. We’d see each other soon in the capital. “That is where people are going,” the teacher explained. “Quietly, and deliberately, to defend the vote count and win democracy and freedom for Honduras.”
Day 5: La Garifunas de Triunfo de la Cruz
We entered Triunfo de la Cruz, passing acre after acre of African palm plantations. Supposedly, Vicky explained, they decided to grow these because the fruits of the trees could be used as biodiesel. The trees were all the same size, the same distance apart, in neat rows stretching as far as we could see along the road between the coast and the mountains which were capped by large red cell phone transmission towers, everywhere within sight. They ruin a good view all over the world, I thought. A bright light flashed at the top of each one, casting shadows across the valley below from their commanding height above the landscape. We passed the African Palm plantation. “After they are cut down, not much can grow,” Vicky explained. “People can’t grow beans or corn, or much other food to eat. The palms suck up all the nutrients in the soil.” Eventually we turned down a dirt road to the community of Triunfo de la Cruz.
The Garifunas are Hondurans of African descent. They have lived together on the Caribbean coast since well before Honduras’ independence and the end of slavery in 1824. They had their own language and their own culture. The houses as we passed were made of concrete cinderblocks. We finally arrived and exited the van. The sun shined bright that morning; I started applying sun screen. A man came to meet us. He was a leader of the community. He looked at me applying sunscreen and smirked, his dark skin did not need daily application of the greasy white cream. I grinned and shrugged. Another man approached me.
“Welcome! Good morning!” He greeted us in perfect English.
I replied, “Hello,” puzzled at his perfect American accent.
“You seemed surprised I speak English,” he guessed correctly. “I lived in Houston for 30 years, working construction. I returned here to retire and be closer to family.”
“Good that you that you are back with your family,” I replied. “It is beautiful here. Thank you for your hospitality.”
We entered the meeting hall, a large hall of concrete and stucco, wooden rafters supporting a slanted tin roof, a long open building where the sound of waves from the Atlantic beach next door could be heard crashing rhythmically. We were on the beach.
We moved some benches and chairs, and all sat around a group of four tables bunched together. First, our hosts introduced themselves, then we did.
Torres, who had poked fun of me lathering my body with sunscreen earlier, introduced himself as President of the committee of defense. Others, Salvador Martinez, Ramon, and others who started to trickle in, were members of the community’s governing body.
“The law? Torres began grumbling a list of complaints as he spoke to Matt. They had met before. “There is no security. They want to take our land, and say we have no rights, we Truinfeta.” He turned to us. “I am part of the community council. We have many problems, but welcome.”
After a brief silence as we all sat down, a woman introduced herself. She rose from her seat at the end of the table on my left. She wore a simple blue dress with gold earrings, her black hair slicked back. “I am President of the community council. Welcome to Triunfo de La Cruz.”
A man with large muscular arms wore a grey shirtless sleeve t-shirt, he stroked his chin with his thumb and pondered in thought. A woman rode in on a bicycle as we were introducing ourselves, she wore a blue and white dress with large gold hoop earrings. Our hosts’ face was all smiles. She slapped her hands together, clasping them to begin the discussion.
“Let us begin with the main context and history. One is what we need as Garifuna people. In the 1990s there was serious persecution. We want to defend our territory, and to live in peace. But we’ve been prevented from this because of candidates and politicians. We are cautious how we live with our neighbors. To defend ourselves we need documents. Once we get that we take care of ourselves. They want to displace us from the land, change our social status. They promised good jobs, but all they want is to displace us from our land.”
“It is difficult for companies to get to the beach. But not here. Big companies are going to get us out of poverty, they said, from Spain, or San Pedro Sula, the large town with its international airport. We have land and self-government. We have public health. We are recognized as people. We have vital records. We belong to the municipality of Tela. They said they wanted to develop us. First to expropriate and to take the land we lived on. Then they sold it. They did what they wanted to us, extending the urban space of the city past the community of San Juan all the way to the valley of Tela. That is where the struggle of Triunfo de la Cruz is.”
“The beautiful beach, Playa Escondido, now they are putting hotels and other stuff there. It is the local authority and state municipality which started to sell the land. It is national land, but they sold it to people who said they were supposed environmental protectors. They are really financed by Canadians who want to build hotels and expand tourism.”
“They don’t want us to use these resources; they are saying we are destroying the environment. They have fomented internal fights within our community. There were deaths, persecution, and we started looking for allies. The only way to protect our territory is to sue the government. Internationally people know what is happening. The government of Honduras is under a consent decree. It has a time limit, 10 years. They must fulfill their obligations under the law, under “treaties”. The fight hasn’t been easy, another man spoke. Two people killed, financed by the nearby city to divide us. Thanks to god we had the support of the black fraternal organizations and others like COPINH indigenous organizations from the highlands, Berta Carceres.”
“We sued under section 169 of the International Labor Organization, on the rights of Indigenous and Tribal people. Honduras signed the treaty that is how we move forward. It will be hard for the government to comply with our rights as Garifunas. They want all of Honduras to plunder it of its beauty and natural resources.”
“Indigenous people asked what we can do we have to wait, hoping the government does what it needs to. We had a strike, we took the strike and stopped traffic on the main road, demanding the state comply with what they should do and their promises. We wrote a report to the court that they have now and protests, now they have been criminalized. The state didn’t do anything they knew there would be consequences. We want court observers to figure out what to do and to see if the government is complying with the consent decree. The highway takeover lasted three hours. The same day, the governor of this province arrived to meet with us, and according to her asked why we did what we did.”
“There is the tourism law, we are protecting you, she said, we enacted the tourism law. Yes, we said, very good. Solve the land problems, we said. You sell our land for money. We want to talk to the president. We are sick of it. They meet with us promise us, and don’t follow through. They said she would see when she could meet with us again, and she hasn’t come back.”
Another woman sat up in her chair she wore a turquoise towel on her shoulder and spoke quietly, her round face and simple hoop earrings and blue and red circle pattern dress, she began to speak.
“This is our ancestral territory. We need a way to protect our land, to improve sanitation and public health.” I asked a question regarding economic development. She responded, “They just say that they want to meet with us. We are still waiting. The state wants to create a conflict, and an excuse to respond forcefully. They have land titles and the threats arguing at the community, which still waits for answers. Illegal land sales, they gave individuals titles we have collective ownership. The mafia gave thousands, they forged their own land titles, the court is investigating this. They say we are a racist community. There is not much space, we have a small section of all the land and they want to take that away from us, they make us risk our lives to have a little land to live. The same problem, the illegal sale of land, that is happening everywhere. They want to displace all of us. We aren’t racist. Everyone can live with us, but we have our own language and culture and concept of community. They should respect that.”
“They’ve come with land privatization followed by weapons to stop our access to the ocean. They build hotels, and new development. They build their lands and close themselves in walls. They don’t respect our lives. We won’t sign a co-existence treaty, to give money for the community. We say we want them to return the lands they stole. They thought they’d give us money and we’d be ok. It has been two years, and they haven’t followed through. We want to live in peace.”
“They foster division within our homes. It starts with our kids. The education they give has changed them. When that happened they now create divisions within our homes, and with our community council where we have governed ourselves here since Independence. They create parallel councils, now a change is happening within this. They didn’t follow through and return us our land. They fenced off the land and when we tried to take it back the state comes with the military. Their promises are worthless; these setbacks put us as leaders in limbo. We want to work but we can’t.”
“They say we are destroying forests, but we are here to work consume and protect the forests, we’ve changed our system of construction, they try to divide us, so we fight amongst ourselves. Mental control. You care! It’s those others who are the bad ones, they say, they want to get support to help them achieve their aims. Micro-enterprises, all the money goes to the millionaires. The American Dream, well our education system and agriculture are failing us. We are nothing. We have to go the U.S. to send back money. We don’t have support of technology for our other problems. There are people who are planting monoculture African palms, ruining the land. There are new hotels and development. Average people are leaving, migrants, they go learn another culture. We aren’t saying immigration is bad necessarily, but we need knowledge of what we are. We come back with a different culture. There are no laws, they violate the laws.”
A man wearing a sleeve-less shirt, and a tan hat stood up. “I grow cacao, yucca, plantains, someone paid off people who killed three animals of mine. They try to take our land, what little we have they destroy.” We are in a large hall of concrete and stucco, wooden rafters supporting a slanted tin roof.
“I don’t have money to work,” he continued. “They paint a picture of this country; it makes a person want to relocate to the United States.”
“We know our culture and land,” said another, the veins and muscles of his arm popping out as he quietly and eloquently spoke. “The hospitals, schools, are poor quality. The hospitals—you have to buy medicine; for schools, parents have to pay the cost of education. We want to live in peace like our ancestors did, to live in our land and respect our rights.” He speaks animated, holding the idea in his grasp waving his hands grasping the air clutching the energy from the earth, and wielding his own dignity. “It seems,” he continued, “when we lift up our voices, they threaten us, to shut us up. Miriam, a leader of the Garifunas has threats against her from business people. She was close to Berta Carceres.”
They pass along a sign in sheet for us all to sign our names. A man wearing a black digital watch with a black band and looks down to search through and touch the screen of his cell phone, a smart phone with a touch screen protected by a large orange case.
“The Canadians don’t have to go to court,” he said, wearing black shaded knockoff Ray Band sunglasses and a grey tightly fitting sweatshirt with the words 84 lumber emblazoned by his chest. He held the thick cell phone case as he spoke waving it around.
“The government wanted to give Miriam, to give her a prize on the one hand, and kill her on the other. We are fighting narco-traffickers. She’s raised herself up. They want to kill her. She isn’t just the leader of the Garifunas, but of all Hondurans.”
I stepped out for a bit. Ocean waves crashed rhythmically against the beach a stone throw away. The inside of the building had wood rafters holding up a tin ridged roof. The walls were made of concrete cinder blocks. A red pick-up truck passed by, rocking side to side down the uneven dirt road. The back of the truck was full of bananas, along with two teenagers, both in their late teens, a black skinned and brown skinned boy. I waived, and they smiled at me, gripping the black railing fixed to the truck bed’s edge for support. The car wobbled forward slowly down the brownish red dirt path. I returned to the table where we were meeting.
The man at the end of the table, seated to the right of the woman president, grasped his large muscular arms like he was hugging himself, and kept speaking calmly and deliberately about Miriam, the leader of the Garifunas.
“We don’t have weapons,” he noted. “We have our Congo drums, we bring them with us.”
Fresco, a fellow human rights observer, asked whether they were considered indigenous. “Do you fight for your land under the same international human rights treaties as the indigenous people we visited in the mountains?” she asked. “In the United States, black people have been fighting for the right to land as well,” alluding to both the farms and countryside in the U.S. South, and rapidly gentrifying urban centers.
She continued, “Also, what religion do you practice and how is it incorporated in your organizing?”
“We have a group of spiritual practices. The drums call up the spirits to protect us when we move and go out to protest. We bring drums. We don’t move alone, but with our ancestors.” Someone asked about the recent election.
“We don’t care about it,” another said. “It is English, not Spanish, that is the language of power, and the ones who give us work.” As the man spoke he pounded his staff on the floor, a long thick and sturdy yellow wooden stick. He stood up. “It doesn’t matter who is in power,” he continued.
A woman to his left stood up abruptly and continued, as if finishing his sentence, waiving her hands up and out and up again, as if she was channeling the energy of the earth and sea, forming the idea with her hands through her mind, and conjuring it out of the ether into material form.
“Language,” she mused, pausing briefly.
“For ethnic Hondurans, the language of power is English. The Spanish language. We have no care for it. Who is in control of the Honduran state is inconsequential. What really mattered is who controlled the White House. For the youth, there is nothing useful, no future here in Honduras. Maybe sports, we have a lot of people here who excel at sports, but besides that, nothing. But we are human. Since 2006 the have done nothing but repress us. We are sick of lies there is no trust and the entire country is sick and tired of false promises and lies. They say they will finance what these….” She stopped her sentence short. “They don’t even follow their own laws.”
“This will be the last time this state election, there will be no more elections, we are headed to a dictatorship, like Cuba like Fidel in Cuba or that guy in Venezuela. People are so tired. Juan Orlando controls the entire justice system. No one is sleeping. They keep postponing the announcement of official election results, just because they want to take points away from Salvador Nasralla. Tonight, you guys are here, tomorrow there. There may be a revolution. Can you observe that?”
“Honduras deserves better than the supreme court which his has handpicked. What gives us hope, is not government, but the system of international human rights.”
“Our language,” another continued, “these languages. Many indigenous people have lost them. Those we’ve lost, we want to recover. We want cultural and bilingual education. We need to be clear about where we are and where we come from, and where we are going. Migration, well we want to be able to read and write in our own language. We have to resurrect democracy. We always fight against the government and we always will. But it is important that we have democracy, with democracy we have a chance.”
My mind drifts to thoughts of the cell towers raising themselves up on every hill and mountain top in that green lush land recording every electronic signal passing through its antennas, every human interaction.
Another spoke, “There is limbo and discussions among the ruling class who came to power. We’ve never lived in a process where we have waited four days to have the election results the people are not going to allow them to steal the election what is most important is to reestablish democracy. Before the coup they started bilingual education, since JOH, nothing.”
My mind drifted again to the crash of waves on the beach less than 30 feet away out the door to my left, in and out in constant consistent rhythmic rush of water washing upon the land and receding, back and forth every ten seconds, as it has for millions of years.
“This is abnormal,” another continued. “Normally by seven at night the day of the elections they finalize the vote count. The country is not prepared for another coup de eta.”
“The struggle continues, but it is easier under democracy. We don’t struggle for us but for other communities they say they don’t struggle for themselves, but for us. We haven’t been sleeping because they keep saying they are going to announce the election results. They are going to declare a winner, no one has been getting sleep, they say they are going to announce it at 1 am, 2 am. But we didn’t know, now it’s been four days. There are two official languages, but English is the real language of power.”
“Alright now. We have to know who each other are. The first step is understanding each other in order to respect each other’s lives. We have to know each other. We have to know about each other.”
“We have two options. Salvador Nasralla or Juan Orlando. But how much does electric energy cost, it was very expensive, even before the coup when Mel was in power. It is even more expensive now. Clearly they are trying to steal the election.”
The waves crashed outside back and forth in constant cycles. A sign on a plaque commemorated the building of this community center. It was built in 1993. The names of the community leaders were listed, the president, the councilmen, the individuals who made the decision to erect this building.
“We went to the InterAmerican court,” they discussed upon my return. In January 2016, after over 20 years, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights ruled that Honduras violated the Garifuna’s collective rights, winning a consent decree. Vicky started to discuss what we were doing as international observers. The man with the stick was sitting, his face looking at the ground, his staff pressed against his forehead balanced there, holding up the weight of his head his fingers pressed against each other in an open clasp moving ever so slightly opening and compressing, he was concentrating and thinking, pressing his fingertips against each other.
“We are Afros, another said, they want to call us afro-Hondurans, we want to call ourselves Garifuna. We are 218 years here, we need this alliance.”
I asked a question, someone said they wanted to trap them by instituting private property, forcing the community into the wage system.
One man began to speak. “I got a job at a garment factory they built around here. At first, they would pay 13 lempiras every day. Then they started to fire us, then it was 13 lempiras a week. If I go fishing I can earn 20 lempiras a day. The French factory is now empty. The owners were fighting among themselves, and they closed it. We aren’t welcome at the hotels. We are construction workers, they pay us when they want, they replace us with other workers. It’s like slavery, they pay us by the day and by the hour, and when we are no use to them, they fire us.”
Eventually our meeting ended. We stepped outside, and onto the beach. The white sand was warm on my naked feet, I rolled up my pants and stepped into the ocean, letting the water’s edge lick my ankles and caress my calves. A few of us stood in a circle, watching the seagulls drift into the distance where the line of white sand blurred into the ocean’s blue, the earth’s canopy of green vegetation, and light grey clouds that cloaked the horizon in a protective mist. “Working for wages,” a man mused. “They keep us so busy working for them, sucking up all of our energy so we don’t have time to think for ourselves, to learn other ways to survive and prosper. And when they don’t need us we are discarded like trash.”
“That is why we need our land, our means of sustenance. We want to live like our ancestors did; to live with our families under this sky, where this ocean and this land meet together.”
It was time to go. Right before we left town, the aroma of baking bread stopped us. A mother, with her children helping, baked coconut bread in small loafs in a clay chimenea, logs burning underneath. Each of us bought a loaf, and we broke bread together, savoring the fresh coconut bread, still warm from the fire. Our van traveled down the highway; headed back to Tegucigalpa. One could smell the acrid stench of burning plastic, the fumes and smoke of a hundred smoldering piles next to homes along the lush green mountainside. In Honduras, Vicky mentioned, if waste doesn’t decompose, it is burnt.
Day 5: Instituto Nacional de Formacion Profressional (INFOP)
Arriving in Tegucigalpa later that evening, we disembarked a few blocks from Instituto Nacional de Formacion Profressional, or INFOP, where crowds of youthful protesters gathered to await the final vote count. The mood was tense; it relaxed a bit as we walked up. Young demonstrators waived flags and chanted in front of a two story black metal gate, protected by a triple line of police in riot gear. Inside the guarded compound, the Nation’s ballots were stored. Election officials had been slowly counting the votes; observers from both political parties stood by watching. As the hours passed, the mood outside became rambunctious and festive. Teenagers lit fire crackers, running away and returning after they exploded, jumping up and down like at a concert. A truck’s stereo played salsa music, a young man asked his partner to dance; he lifted his hand and she spun around. College and high school aged youth waived red flags of the opposition Libre and Alianza parties. A group of teenage boys clutched the corners of a giant blue and white Honduran flag, running through the crowd, stopping suddenly to lift the flag up and down, chanting and singing. One girl, about four feet tall, clutched the flag’s fabric tightly in her tiny hands, as they careened through the assembly.
Families gathered. Salvador hugged his mother Michelle, wrapping his tiny hands across her waist, gripping the red fabric of her dress; he was cold, hungry, and getting sleepy, he complained, his face pressed against her navel. Michelle, her son, and younger sister lived nearby. “Under Juan Orlando Hernandez, health insurance premiums have skyrocketed,” she explained. “The doctors are on strike because they haven’t been paid. Tegucigalpa only has two hospitals.” We took selfies. She asked what the U.S. was like. “My cousins lived in Sacramento and Houston. I have a good job, and want to stay here, but….” Michelle’s sentence trailed off as she looked down at her son. It was Salvador’s bedtime. It was time to go.
We eventually left too. Tomorrow would also be another long day. Filing through the crowd, our florescent green vested contingent packed in two approaching cars. Minutes after our cabs departed, the military police teargassed the assembly. We returned to see protesters running, clutching their faces with garments, crying and screaming. The stench of tear gas overwhelmed the senses and burned the eyes. Young men called out excitingly, waving flags on wooden sticks. The military police advanced, gripping shields to form a wall and clutching metal batons.
As we approached we announced ourselves and took pictures. We were wearing florescent yellow vests emblazoned with the words Derechos Humanos. I saw the wide-open eyes of Honduran police encased in plastic goggles. They seemed afraid, bewildered, and excited, just like those they teargassed. Suddenly they retreated. One protester approached me, yelling in English, “Do you see what they are doing to us? Human rights? This is not democracy, this is dictatorship,” he cried.
We returned to the plaza where the crowd assembled before. A military tank sprayed chemicals on a crowd to our right. One could see the red light of burning tires and thick black smoke. My colleague snapped photos within feet of the soldiers. One approached, raising his baton, his superior called for him to return to their defensive perimeter.
A semblance of calm descended. A few brave protesters faced off with the soldiers. The streets were full of burning trash piles and discarded silver tear gas canisters. A woman walked calmly through the smoke, selling gum and cigarettes out of an open suitcase strapped around her neck.
Heading to the hotel, we stopped and showed our human rights observer badges to a young protester guarding a hastily constructed barricade that blocked the street. He moved cinder-blocks and we drove on.
As they were tear gassed, election observers also fled. Only the government controlled the ballots.
Day 6: Resistance and Repression
For five hours Tuesday morning when it seemed that the Alliance of Opposition Against the Dictatorship was winning, the vote count suddenly stopped at INFOP, central location where the Supreme Election Tribunal officials counted the ballots. When the “technical difficulty” had been fixed, the vote count restarted, with President JOH rapidly gaining. With 60% of the votes counted, Mr. Television, Salvador Nasralla led by five percent, and seemed poised to make history. One election official said it was a statistical impossibility that he would lose at this point. But as we crisscrossed the country, one way or another the election was being stolen, the night after the military police teargassed the crowd gathered outside INFOP where ballots were being held, it was clear that the Honduran electoral process was hopelessly compromised.
Across the country citizens blockaded streets and highways. I sat in the hotel that next day with a group of Mizquite educators from the southern coast. They were meeting together to write an elementary school Mizquite textbook, huddling in a hotel conference room for eight days. They looked up at the TV, where a man from the election commission rattle off numbers that had already been listed on the agency’s website, mumbling about the reasons for the technical difficulty and blankly reciting the percentages and manufactured vote counts from various regions. People looked at him with blank stares in recognition, but with disbelief. Whereas on Tuesday it seemed Nasrala would win, today on Thursday JOH and the nationalists were winning. Everyone is saying that has been manipulated.
A young boy wearing a clean white collared shirt with bright buttons, white sneakers with blue stripes sat his feet dangling in the over-sized chair his back facing the TV. On his left wrist he wore a metallic chain and blue fabric bracelet as he speared his lunch with a fork, stabbing the cucumber in his salad with precision. The man next to me wore a bright pink shirt, pink sunglasses sat on his head and grey suit jacket. He huffed, “I don’t want to listen this.” Exasperated by the televised farce, he turned the channel in frustration.
A woman shouted from across the room, a school teacher also working on the first-grade textbook that would teach children their own indigenous language. She wore a black blouse with red roses. “We have to watch it, it is too important to look away!” Reluctantly, the man flipped the channel back to the news.
The boy finished his food, his feet swinging back and forth in the chair brushing against the grey and black spotted tile floor.
People watched TV and ate lunch. Their faces emotionless faces concentrated on the television, eyes peering intently at the screen as a man in a suit dryly rattled off numbers to explain why Juan Orlando Hernandez would win a second term.
I started talking to the man with the pink shirt. “Ehtlen Erlinda Wood Flores, from the anti-corruption party in the state of Gracias y Dios, wrote a letter of protest to the election tribunal. Her election observers and poll watcher credentials had been illegally sold to the incumbent nationalist party.” My new friend showed me other videos, one was a man on a bus, distributing packets of money. “They say it costs 50 lempiras a vote,” he explained. That is about two dollars, less than what the other man told me Sunday. In the video, people boarded the bus and were given money, their names checked off. Another video showed ballots being stamped en masse for the nationalist party, over a thousand, one after the next after the next. “People said that the dead were voting, my new friend explained. “They continue to be registered to vote.”
We changed the channel, it was HCH TV, Honduran and international news. A reporter announced that Father German Flores is missing. The camera pans to a catholic bishop, standing expressionless in the middle of the screen. “The Catholic Church implores the police and all people of god to help find this priest. His car was found abandoned near the city of Danli.” He has been disappeared, most likely; kidnapped and assassinated.
The nation is in chaos, smoke can be seen from the roof of the hotel in the distance where people are burning tires. The people have set up barricades throughout the city and throughout the country no one can get through. The streets are eerily quiet. The television shows a man in a hat his face covered in a towel throwing rocks at the police. Finally, hours later, we heard word from outside. A few of fellow human rights observers arrived back from the streets.
Diane, a short, retired woman with a bob of silver hair, traveled to Honduras with Code Pink, a feminist peace and human rights organization from San Francisco. She sat down exhausted and explained what she saw. “We went to where the ballots were being counted last night. Someone was arrested. This kid, he was born in 1987, he was being detained. He was skinny and trembling. He was beaten and threatened with death. Vicky got him released and took him to COFADEH. A film crew gave us a ride from INFOP to a restaurant. He got a cab after that. We lost touch with Matt and Chris. Vicky and Julie went to COFADEH, and three of us came home. There were tires burning. The crowd moved up and retreated in a tango with the riot police; the protestors would advance, then the soldiers would approach shoot tear gas and rubber bullets, and the crowd would retreat again. Back and forth, back and forth.” Diane was exhausted. She went upstairs to sleep.
The streets were eerily quiet. We heard gunshots, and the occasional bark of dogs in the distance. Not a single car passed by. At 11:45 pm my colleagues Matt, Chris, and the woman I recognized who had hugged us and fed us pancakes the morning of election day. She had cried in front of us then, with the story of her kidnapping. They arrived almost at midnight, eyes red full of tear gas and tears. She was crying again too, but said she was happy, she told me as we sat down and she began to catch her breath and drink water; they had been running all day.
“A boy we thought was disappeared had reappeared. We thought he was kidnapped, murdered, but he had been hiding in a house of a friend and reappeared.”
“At one location where we were, youth and the military clashed. The military police chased the youth, pursuing them to kill them. The young protesters ran, entering a privately guarded property and fled, jumping a chain-linked fence. The military police followed, chasing them. When they got to the property’s entrance, they wanted to disarm the private security forces and continue chasing the young protesters. I spoke to the commanding officer,” she recounted, “saying, ‘You can’t do this, they are just doing their jobs.’ I convinced them not to disarm the guards. I was wearing a bright neon green human rights observer shirt, but I had nothing to protect my face from the tear gas, just a water bottle filled with vinegar and this red Alianza shirt, which I used as a bandana to breathe through my mouth and nose.” As she told me this, she carefully folded up the t-shirt in neat triangles, as if folding a flag to be placed on the casket at a funeral. “The youth in the street today were eight or nine years old when the coup of 2009 happened,” she related. “They want to fight. They have no fear.”
“Today has been horrible. At least ten were seriously wounded and brought in to the public hospital. We think there may be some killed. Many were wounded in the Colonia, the neighborhood you were in the other day. Our collective, all the people, are indignant. They want justice and an end to the dictatorship, that democracy and our votes are respected.”
Vicky finally returned. As she sat down to upload the photos on her camera, she told a story.
“A journalist saw a soldier was injured in the street by himself, he was left their by his fellow soldiers, protesters and bystanders forced an ambulance passing by to stop when they stopped the ambulance it was full of tear gas canisters, a fake ambulance, instead it was delivering tear gas to gas protesters, disguised to avoid the protesters and get through their barricades and blockades set up throughout the city all over the street. Then we left. Someone mentioned that three were detained at CORE 9 police station.”
“All the streets and highways have been blockaded. Protesters set up barricades; no one is getting through. Protesters burned down the toll booths; the roads are closed. The protesters, mostly youth masked in bandanas, threw rocks at police who responded with tear gas and bullets. On television religious figures are appealing for calm, calling on people to be peaceful. Things are anything but.”
At night outside the hotel we heard nothing but silence; no cars drove past. Gunshots punctured the eerie quiet of the night; the sudden traumatic loud bang nearby, in rapid succession, within a few city blocks. The faint sound of chanting drifting over the hill. Shots were loud and pierced the silence. Car alarms would go off, beeping loudly for a few minutes before the silence returned. This continued all night.
The next morning my flight departed.
Day 7: Leaving Honduras
In the morning we left at 9:30 am. The streets were clear; the normal day’s business seemed to be occurring as we took a circuitous route up a hill and through winding back roads and alleys to the airport. Trash was piled in corners; I recoiled after inhaling a whiff of smoldering plastic. Dogs lazily strolled across the street without care for onrushing cars. At the entrance of the airport, there were Hondurans and foreigners. A white guy wore a florescent bright yellowish green shirt that read, “My shirt is brighter than your future.” In Houston, he would later say he had traveled from China, Korea, Europe and then Honduras before arriving back in the US.
‘Maybe CIA,” I thought. Who knows.
I sat in Tegucigalpa’s departure zone, waiting at the gate for my flight to leave. A Honduran couple sat to my right. The man next to me was wearing a bright purple dress shirt and matching purple baseball hat, a shining silver watch glistened on his left wrist. I said, “Hello. How are you. Como esta usted.”
He replied in perfect English, “I’m well, how are you?”
“I’m good.” I smirked embarrassed at my thick Spanish accent compared to his perfect English. “It has been something else this week.”
Our eyes connected. We know what was left unsaid. Moments earlier a woman turned on the volume of her cell phone in the airport’s otherwise routine normality—passengers waiting in Tegucigalpa for a flight to Houston. Through the Facebook video played on her cell phone one could hear the sirens, screaming, and chants. The military police were continuing to attack the people’s street blockades and barricades.
“Despite what they say, things aren’t so differed in the United States,” I sighed, referring to the police brutality and stolen elections. The man smiled, nodding his head. “Excuse me, my flight is about to board.”
“Take care,” the man said. “We are on this other flight to Boston.”
We shook hands. His wife smiled at me. I boarded. As our plane rose into the sky above Tegucigalpa’s airstrip, plumes of smoke could be seen on a hillside neighborhood, signaling the burning tires of a street blockade. The roads seemed clear of traffic in the nation’s capital, by and large. Another plume of smoke could be seen drifting from around a corner. There a road intersected with four lane highways that led out of town into the blue green mountains covered with vegetation that reached up into the white opaque clouds. As we flew up and out, I could see the rolling hills; the tightly packed houses clustered together, their earthen reddish tan concrete cinderblock and brick structures packed in dense neighborhoods on the hillside. The city’s main roads and arteries seemed empty; there was surprising few cars and little traffic. As we climbed above a Colonia, the houses packed on the side of the hill were separated from nature by a thick white wall. On one side of the partition, open green yellow field and miles of forested mountains stretching up into the distance, on the other, clustered small boxes arranged in zigzag curved narrow streets. We climbed into the clouds, leaving the city behind. After a few minutes, a break in cloud cover showed a long valley with bright shining roofs reflecting the sun, and a sea of dark green hills rolling outward and onward across the earth.
Los Angeles Immigrant Rights Rally – January 2018
As I returned to my life in the United States, working in the heavily Central American immigrant neighborhood of MacArthur Park, Los Angeles, I could not help but think of the courage and love Hondurans felt for each other as they persisted in fighting for human rights, and dignity.
On a sunny January afternoon, as it seemed as the Democratic Party congressional leadership would force a second budget showdown over immigration, I waited for the train at a Los Angeles red line metro stop to head to union station and join an immigrant rights protest.
Trump has insulted the world. In a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats days before in negotiations over immigration and raising the United States’ debt ceiling, Trump called people from developing nations shitholes; that they come from shithole countries. The normative violence is overt, clear, and definitive. The violence no longer needs to hide behind the facade of liberal democracy, or the rule of law, or human rights. The power is overt. It is in our faces screaming, degrading, and humiliating us.
But we still have life and dignity and truth and honor and faith and trust in each other.
Staring at our personal screens, our information devices, we are constantly bombarded with fear and worry, hopelessness, anxiety, pain and the specter of death, humiliation, abuse, and destruction. We are powerless and ground down, beat up, beat down, and trampled.
But that day will end. We have to ignore those voices calling, the false desires, the creature comforts, the seductive mirages, the mediums of despair, and the emotional manipulation. We must love each other. We must wake up to look out and up from our screens, our devices, our moods, our hell, our isolation and despair and humiliation and self-loathing.
We are human. We can do it.
Before Obama renounced his pastor, before the slogan “A Change We Can Believe In,” and “Yes We Can,” became jaded, empty platitudes accompanying endless war, and declining living standards, millions marched to “Si Se Puede!” Before them, they chanted “Books not Bombs!” Before that still, it was “We Shall Overcome!” and before that, “Solidarity Forever!”
But yes, in fact, we can do it. It is possible if we want it. I heard a man walking down the walkway in the subway station, playing the guitar, strumming the steel strings with his calloused fingers. I looked up. Here is the train. Here we are. People get ready. All aboard.
I got off at union station. On the way there, an elderly Latina and her male companion entered the train; a young woman was seated in a handicap spot next to her two Latina friends. She jumped up from her seat as the elderly couple boarded the train. Another man also rose to give up his seat; he was a short Central American looking man with a dark red complexion. He moved aside to let the woman sit down. The man, wearing a Dallas Cowboy’s hat and a silver metallic watch stood with the support of a cane. Later, the young man who had moved aside stood up and exited; it was his stop.
I sat down. The woman to my right had a button on her green bag, she also carried what I imagined a birthday cake on get lap in a cardboard box wrapped in plastic
The button was against child trafficking. Another young lady with a short thin tan dress entered a few stops after the elderly couple left.
She had a bag with a red star and letters reading EZLN, Ejercito Zapatista para Liberacion Nacional. The Zapatista Army for National Liberation, which had organized an insurrection of Chiapas peasant farmers the day NAFTA went into effect, invalidating land rights enshrined in Article 13 of the Mexican Constitution.
We both got off downtown and I joined the rally. The crowd was ringed by vendors with hot plate carts piled with peppers and bacon wrapped hot dogs. They smelled so good for some reason I didn’t want the bacon.
We listened to the speaker among the crowd one could see the distinctive t- shirts worn by members of their respective unions, each with their own colors. Janitors and home care workers wore the purple and gold of the Service Employees International Union. Hotel housekeepers sported red UNITE-HERE T-shirts; others carried the orange cloth of the United Food and Commercial Workers—supermarket grocery store cashiers. Teamster truck drivers huddled on the outskirts of the rally catching up with each other.
Others carried Blue and White Salvadoran flags, waving them to the edge of the sun filled sky and back. The group prepared to march, exiting the grassy park, its plaza, and lining up on the street.
Temporary Protected Status, (TPS) was a program for refugees of the U.S. funded dirty wars that ravaged Honduras, El Salvador, and other nations during the 1980’s. To counter the supposed threat of Communism in Latin America, the CIA, Military, and State Department supported counter-insurgency campaigns that terrorized Central American rural and urban communities.
As congressional investigations revealed in what would be known as the Iran-Contra scandal, the CIA brokered a deal with Iranian Islamic Clerics to sell them weapons in exchange for freeing American hostages captured at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The hostage crisis made America look impotent; it doomed the Carter Administration as it dragged out like a slow-motion train wreck in the months leading up to Ronald Regan’s election. Iran needed the weapons to fight its war with Iraq. Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, used chemical weapons and heavy armaments against Iran, bought from US weapons manufacturers with oil revenue. Using the funds from the weapons deal with Iran, the CIA armed and trained the Contras, a guerilla army fighting Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government, which had taken power in a popular uprising toppled the Somoza dictatorship. Working with the CIA, the Contras used their newly won territory to traffic cocaine from Colombia, flooding America’s black inner-cities with cheap crack-cocaine and using the proceeds to finance its campaign of counter-revolutionary insurgency, terrorism, and economic sabotage.
In addition to its efforts in Nicaragua, the Regan administration trained and supported military dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala, who kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated communist insurgents and sympathizers, and ordered troops to massacre indigenous villages. People of Mayan descent – Lenca, Quiche, and others, were suspected of sympathizing with the guerillas. One of the most prominent martyrs of the dirty wars was El Salvador priest Archbishop Oscar Romero—who was shot to death on March 24, 1980 delivering a Sunday sermon preaching of the sanctity of all life, derived from the creator, and asking God to forgive the souls of the generals, soldiers, and death squad commandos who killed with impunity. In Los Angeles’ heavily Salvadoran MacArthur Park neighborhood city officials dedicated a statute in Romero’s honor in 2013. Underneath the life-sized statute, displaying the humble priest holding his palms together praying, a plaque bears a quote. It reads, “If god accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
A woman marching in the crowd wore a hat with Romero’s picture. A community health clinic and community center in Los Angeles also bears his name, one of her companions wore a shirt emblazoned with the words; Clinica Centro Romero. Another man wore a black shirt with red letters; families over fascism. People spoke and chanted in English and Spanish. Defend DACA. Protect TPS.
In the plaza to the west across the street, Aztec dancers burned incense and tap danced with bells on their feet, wearing feather crowns. To the north couples danced Cumbia to a band with a loud lead singer belching out the song’s words off-key.
We chanted, marching down Broadway; Education not Deportation! Education not Deportation! The mood was different from a rally to save the Dreamers I attended in September. Faces showed worry, but people were laughing and singing. Sin Fronteras and Sin Miedo!” Without Borders and Without Fear. Unlike the rally before, there were no Breitbart news crews. White flags waived in the afternoon sun. Protect TPS! Protesters unfurled the banner of CARECEN, formerly the Central American Refugee Center, founded in 1983 by those fleeing the war in El Salvador. Protesters waved Salvadoran flags, blue and white.
The march stopped by the immigrant detention center in Downtown Los Angeles. a man began singing as he strummed the guitar. The song was Sombrero Azul. It began, “The Salvadoran people the sky is their sombrero, how tall their dignity, looking for a time when the earth blooms, an earth to which many have fallen. Here comes happiness, to wash away our suffering.”
The musician wore a faded flannel shirt. Strumming a few last strings, he addressed the crowd. We are people. We are human. We aren’t small. We have dignity. Long live El Salvador! Long live Honduras!
This song is for you, the Latin American people! It’s called a little thing called liberty.
I noticed the crowd, made of mostly women. The songs’ chorus and words were slogans of fighting back; the melody was of love and hope.
“Brothers give me your love. Will your spirit and my love; this is my life.”
People sang together in unison clapping in rhythm the music uplifting supporting each other. The song ended, and another speaker took the microphone.
“Trump is a symptom of the system, of capitalism. We have endless war. Refugees are here from the last two wars. We have the power to make real sustainable change. We marched together, in 2006. It wasn’t in the legislative chambers, but it was in the streets. We demand protective status instead of deporting immigrants and refugees. Maybe TPS was reparations, for killing Archbishop Romero. The speaker continued, concluding. Yes, we can! I am from the International League of People’s Struggle. Time is up for racism, for sexism, we need justice at home, and justice abroad; international solidarity between black and brown workers. The only shit hole I know is playing golf at Mar Lago.”
A man in the crowd listened intently wearing a backwards tan hat, his shirt read unidos contra cancer. The crowd was 60% women, maybe even two thirds, mostly youth in their teens and 20’s, with a few men sprinkled throughout. Latina mothers stood with their daughters, wearing blue shirts, ball hats, dresses and pants, carrying bags on strings and black bookbags and multicolored woven fabric satchels.
A man walked in the crowd with his young son, his shirt read street dreams in large red type. Men held the hands of their wives and girlfriends. A man approached the stage, his hair was balding. He spoke quietly and clearly, softly, but audible.
The children and daughters of those who fled the civil wars and dirty wars in Central America, they stood in the street, between the concrete fortress of Los Angeles’ immigrant detention center and the freeway below, a canyon of speeding cars and concrete.
To my right a child held up a Salvadoran and American flag. A woman wore a shirt, it said Stronger Together. Together we can make the difference, the speaker orated. He didn’t use a lot of fancy words and turns of phrases, his voice barely projected, but he spoke clearly, defiantly, and calmly, without a hint or tremble or hesitation.
A woman with a shirt tied up at her midriff walked past with another teen who had wrapped herself in the Salvadoran flag. Another woman passed me wearing a shirt that read, “immigrants and refugees welcome, love is love, water is life, and black lives matter.” Her friend stood next to her, her tight jeans hugging her wide hips. She wore a butterfly imprinted sweatshirt tied around her waist. The Monarch butterfly, they say, migrates from Central America in the winter to Canada in the summer. No one generation completes the journey more than once, but even though they have never flown before, the magnificent orange and yellow and black butterflies travel together to the same place every year.
One college-age woman wore a blue denim shirt with the iconic symbol of Rosie the Riveter, and the words, We Can Do It! A man looked off into the distance, beyond the concrete walls and black tinted window slits of the immigrant detention center; he wore dark sunglasses blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Another listened to the speakers, a white man with an Adidas hat, black sunglasses, a black hoody, and black sweatpants. He sipped an iced coffee, maybe a Frappuccino or another frothy Starbucks drink, out of a green straw, standing next to two women he had accompanied to the rally. A woman stood on her tip toes communicating in sign language with someone locked up in a concrete cell four stories up above who waived and gestured back from those narrow window slits.
The detention center in downtown Los Angeles was where those rounded up are first taken after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has raided, kidnapped, and captured individuals, often at school, home, work, or out shopping.
These California residents are first processed at the Detention Center downtown, then shipped to the Adelanto Detention Center, a jail with more than one thousand beds two hours east of downtown Los Angeles. Operated by the private prison firm GEO group, its tall fences are capped with barbed wire reflecting the bright desert sun, not far from Highway 395, and the George Air Force Base in Victorville. Since it opened in 2011, over 73,000 deportees have passed through the prison. 2017 was a particularly rough year; with a spate of suicides, unexplained deaths, and a series of inmate hunger strikes at the detention center protesting brutal conditions.
GEO group operates over 141 correctional facilities around the country. With over two billion in annual revenue, and 7% profit margin, shares of the publicly traded company are held by leading Mutual Fund Indexes, such as Vanguard, and private equity monolith Blackrock. Between the two investment groups, Blackrock and Vanguard manage over 11 trillion dollars of assets. Blackrock has made headlines through its rapid expansion; crunching massive data sets with predictive analytics to maximize profits, the corporation has used an artificial intelligence program named Aladdin to displace many of its human traders.
Behind me, two teenage girls were jumping up and down, waiving their hands frantically. Their arms stretched above their heads. They waived to those held captive inside the concrete prison, waiting for their turn to be shipped off to Adelanto.
I turned back around, a man stood before me with a blue LA dodgers hat and a clean white t-shirt. A woman next to him wore a shirt with the words Guatemala printed in blue. Her long black hair dangled from their roots on her head, to the middle of her lower back.
A woman spoke from the podium; she got help adjusting the microphone downward, but even still, she raised herself on her tip toes to press her lips against the mic, and to amplify her voice. “The economic situation in Latin America, the white house, the lack of jobs and opportunity…”
A Bruin dad, a proud father of a college alum, wore his blue and gold UCLA t-shirt. I saw a professor of Occupational Health who I knew from UCLA in the corner of my eye on the other side of the crowd. A black woman approached the microphone and began to speak in Spanish.
“We have to speak out and raise our voices,” she began, raising her sunglasses to rest above her forehead so we could see her eyes white with brown dots and black pupils wide open; “We are human beings. We belong in this country. I am not going anywhere. I am here to stay. It’s not just me, we have our families, our communities, our homes and businesses, our lives; our lives. I am happy to be here. We are here united together in this struggle.”
Behind her a group of Afro-Salvadorans and Central Americans held a banner. The crowd began to chant. “Legalize LA!”
The sun was setting. It reflected a pale orange light on the mountain behind me; the ridge line of the Angelos National Forest in the distance. The sun cast a pink hued light on the white concrete columns of the Metropolitan Water District Headquarters across the street from the detention center, which looked similar, except for its narrower window slits and barbed wire standing upright on its gates.
We want to be a sanctuary city. Call the mayor and city council and the state, ICE out of our community! The speakers continued. I am a program coordinator with Immigrant Youth United, DACA immigrant youth, young people. It’s about all of us. It’s about all of you.
I looked out at them. They waived back at the speaker. There I saw Miriam, a friend of a friend, an immigrant rights lawyer looking forward straight ahead, cheering her colleague who spoke from the podium. They were there. Outside the jail, the concrete fortress; cheering, screaming, yelling, fighting for their lives, and their communities.
The story is more than this, I reflected. It is the retired teamster in Elgin, Illinois who told me why he supported Donald Trump. “Wages are going down; unions got greedy; factories moved to China and Mexico; immigrants compete for too few jobs.” It is the foreclosure and for sale signs that line the streets of Fostoria, Ohio, the crumbling former factories, the declining incomes. It is U-Hauls packs and moving to Dallas. Liberal platitudes and tents lining the street sidewalks, people living on the subway and on the side of the freeway.
“It is an attack on all brown people,” another speaker continued.
“Shithole countries? Not just that, but everyone who isn’t rich and Anglo. In 2008 we elected Barak Obama President. They could have passed immigration reform without a single Republican vote. We know what Obama did for our people and for deportations. We have to organize to defend our communities. Our ancestors fought against the empire, to defend our people. The Democrats didn’t do anything. We have to keep marching, and organizing, block by block, in every neighborhood. We have to organize. Not just to vote for one racist or another, one capitalist or another, but for real change. Don’t not vote, voting is important—but it isn’t our salvation. The solution is revolution. Beautiful people. I am a proud immigrant from a shithole country called Haiti. We have to fight for our freedom. Not just for us, but for all Latin America, for all Venezuelan, Caribbean, and all people.”
“I am not free until each and every one of us are free. I am standing here to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. I speak for Salvadorans, for Sudanese people; people from every nation. I come from New York state, home of the statue of liberty; give me your poor, your tired those yearning to breathe free air, those who crossed the waters or deserts. Stand up! We only want to allow our people the peace to live and raise their families. We want permanent residency. We don’t want to hide in fear. We have to organize and unite. We put our hands together. We are stronger together. Three million Haitians. After the earthquake eight years ago, millions were left homeless. It is time that we as a people get our power back. Black or brown, our lives all matter. Our future is at stake. Asian, African, Latin, we have to unite and be in this together. We have to fight for our rights. It is time we sit at the table and eat our own cake, the one we baked.”
A Salvadoran teen behind me, jumped up screaming as if at a rock concert, waiving her arms wildly towards the speaker. The speaker waived back.
“I love you, beautiful people. We are Asian, Latin American, and African. We are a peaceful people. We will prevail. We are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. You are the future of Los Angeles, and of this country. Keep fighting! Respect each other. Stand up for your rights. Love each other. Thank you.”
As the sun set on the concrete and asphalt city and the rally dispersed, a constant stream of cars honked from the 101 freeway below. The youth waived Salvadoran flags and a large banner that read La Union Hace la Fuerza—the Union Makes Us Strong. I left the rally to head to the Union Station Metro stop, serenaded by the constant honking of supporters driving past, and the cheers of the youth waiving their flags at the traffic below. They pressed up against the chain link fence that separated the sidewalk from an embankment that sloped downward to the four-lane freeway. Cars crawled past along that asphalt ribbon as dusk settled, their headlights shining as they drove past the barbed wire tower of the Los Angeles Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Center.
A lone cop car parked across the street. Two Latino officers sat inside observing patiently, waiting.