Saturday, September 26, 2009

Our Person In Tegucigalpa: Zelaya Returns to Tegucigalpa, Honduran Police Violence Escalates

As the Obama administration clicks its worry beads over Iraq, Afghanistan, and the potential for a nuclear Iran, threats to democracy in our own hemisphere fight for attention as they often do. I call your attention to the fact that political violence in Honduras has escalated this week. Crowds gathering peacefully to demand that the President they elected be restored to office are being assaulted; some protesters have been killed, and many others have been arrested. The photo at left, taken in Tegucigalpa this week, is of a police surveillance helicopter. With new elections coming up in late November of this year, the stakes for democracy in Honduras are very high.

Many of you may recall that Manuel Zelaya was arrested by the military last summer, flown out of Honduras in his pajamas, and dumped like a bag of laundry. Roberto Michiletti, the choice of the country's oligarchy, assumed the presidency. While Michiletti has been strongly rebuked by the United States and the United Nations, pressure on the de facto regime has been feeble and ineffective. One possible reason that the Obama administration is not being more forceful is that Zelaya's regional allies include socialists like Venezuala's Hugo Chavez and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, who have worked effectively to counter US policy and corporate influence in the region.

On Monday, it was revealed that Zelaya had re-entered Honduras successfully (possibly with the aid of a military faction loyal to him) and sought sanctuary in the Brazilian embassy, which has launched the current wave of demonstration and violent repression.

Regional military intervention to end the violence and restore the regime does not seem to be an option, given a US attitude towards its neighbors in the Americas that has not progressed far beyond the principles of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) and the Roosevelt Corollary (1905). The propaganda campaign being waged by the regime against Zelaya this week (which highlights allegations of corruption and incipient terrorism) is calculated to make any intervention by the Obama administration on Zelaya's behalf politically costly, but it is also a calculated attempt to fill the US media market with stories that falsely portray Zelaya supporters as the kind of dangerous rabble that Americans have historically believed ought to be repressed, both abroad and at home (witness the lack of curiosity in the media about the police violence in Pittsburgh this week at the G-20 demos.)

Fortunately, Tenured Radical has an excellent and well-placed correspondent on the scene (who also contributed the photographs in this post.) On Tuesday, September 22, this dispatch arrived from our person in Tegucigalpa:

"Things here in Honduras have gotten very bad very quickly. As you may know, the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown on June 28th, returned to the country yesterday and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy. He gave a speech anouncing that he had returned to open a dialogue with the de facto authorities, since they had failed to participate succesfully in the negotiations sponsored by the president of Costa Rica and backed by the entire international community.

"The de facto regime, rather than deal with this unexpected development peacefully, has reacted with great force. The authorities have spoken primarily in hyperbole and lies, pretending that the constitutional president has made statements about retaking power and revolution, none of which are true. They have shut down the entire country. We are on indefinite curfew, meaning anyone outside of their home is subject to immediate arrest. They have cut electricity to various parts of the city. They have closed the borders and airports. They have forced the opposition media outlets off the air and off the web. They have ordered the military and the police to attack the several thousand people who were peacefully camped out in front of the Brazilian embassy; they used pepper and tear gas, fire trucks and what appear to have been rubber bullets. Casualty totals are unknown at this point.

"I think the authorities´ willingness to shut down the entire country reveals more than anything the dictatorial nature of this regime. Their ham-handed response to a peaceful political development they cannot control reflects their willingness to stay in power no matter what the costs to society. They would rather the entire country grind to a halt than engage in dialog. They have no problem using force against people who exercise their constitutional rights in a way they don´t like. The elections they have scheduled for November 29th are just a manner of ensuring the continuity of their regime, as they have made clear their willingness to take any measure to prevent change of which they do not approve."

On Friday, September 25 we received the second dispatch:

"We're disappointed to report that the security forces today failed to respect the law and attacked unarmed protesters without provocation or legal justification. Thousands of marchers gathered on the Boulevard Miraflores for a peaceful march toward the Brazilian Embassy to express their support for the overthrown president, Manuel Zelaya. At the corner of Avenida Jerez and the Primera Calle of Colonia Palmira (the traffic light a block from the United Nations building) the marchers were stopped by a line of police and a line of soldiers, backed by two police anti-riot vehicles, a police helicopter, and a military helicopter. Prevented from reaching the Brazilian Embassy by these forces, the march continued peacefully toward the Parque Central. There was no conflict between marchers and security forces at that intersection. The march arrived in the Parque Central around two.

"The marchers entered the square and remained there chanting slogans and singing. There was no vandalism and the atmosphere was festive. Marchers were not blocking traffic, as all of them were able to fit within the square, and none spilled out into the adjacent streets.

"Several dozen police deployed across the street leading into the south side of the Parque Central at two forty-five. At three precisely, the police launched tear gas into the crowd and launched a baton charge into the park, hitting any number of people within their reach. They also trapped a number of men - I counted at least twelve - against the fence in front of the Cathedral, handcuffed them, and loaded them into two or three waiting patrol cars.

"As I mentioned, the police had no legal motive to do any of this. The marchers were not blocking traffic, nor were they failing to follow a curfew order, since the curfew didn't start until five and the police attacked at three. The marchers had no weapons (you can see from the photographs that they carried in their hands only parasols, if anything - no weapons or even stones) and were not engaging in any criminal activity nor were the police preventing any crime.

"Subsequently, as the marchers and everybody else who found themselves anywhere near the Parque fled north and west away from the tear gas, the army launched a sweep on the street westward leading to the Chile Bridge. Several dozen soldiers deployed across the street and walked toward the bridge hitting anyone they reached with wooden clubs. I also saw two people seized and detained. Again, these people were not committing any crimes nor violating any orders - indeed, they may not even have been marchers, since the area was already crowded with people returning home from shopping during the brief window in which the curfew was lifted. (I have to apologize that the picture of the bridge is so bad, but you can see the line of green-uniformed soldiers with riot gear just below the El Chile bridge sign in the photo).

"In addition, we just received news from Choloma, Cortés, that Carlos Turcio, the neighborhood association president of Colonia López Arellano in that city, was arrested at four o clock. Eyewitnesses said the police explained he was 'violating curfew' - again a legal impossibility, since curfew hasn't started yet - and 'lacking respect for authority.' He is currently being held in the Jefatura Departamental (número cinco) in Choloma."

Our correspondent, and Tenured Radical, ask you to contact the State Department and your representatives in Congress to express your concern at the de facto regime´s violence. Ask them to do everything they can to ensure that constitutional rule is restored in Honduras. The State Department´s number is 202-647-4000. You can also send emails to your senators and members of congress. Addresses of the Congress can be found here and here.


antropologo said...

An interesting perspective, but it appears to be one that provides little in the way of objective analysis. Although the author’s source accuses the interim government of speaking in hyperbole, the source itself engages in exaggeration when discussing the government’s response to Zelaya’s return and his subsequent behavior that essentially incited a riot.

Furthermore, the source would appear to conflate multiple instances of protest/government response into a single event. There have been cases of violence with protesters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, in addition to destroying property and looting private businesses. In these instances, the police forces have responded in force with tear gas and truncheons. However, there have also been peaceful marches by the Zelayistas, which have been permitted with no disruption.

I encourage you to take an objective perspective on the situation and view the crisis in terms of its legalities. A basic summary of the events that caused this crisis is:

- Zelaya attempts to place a fourth ballot box for his referendum to have a constitutional assembly.
- This action is ruled unconstitutional because under Honduran law, the executive branch may not initiate the process for constitutional amendment.
- Zelaya continues with his effort to hold a referendum in spite of a Supreme Court order to desist.
- The Honduran Supreme Court issue an arrest warrant for Zelaya (voting unanimously 15-0).
- The warrant is executed by the military, who then take it a step further and deport Zelaya.

The legal ramifications are: 1) Zelaya was removed from office for unconstitutional activities, 2) The Honduran Supreme Court’s action to remove Zelaya from office was constitutional and legal, 3) The military’s decision to deport Zelaya was not a condition of the arrest warrant, it was illegal and unconstitutional and thus gave the removal of Zelaya the unfortunate and erroneous appearance of a “coup”. While it is true that Zelaya was democratically elected, he also broke the law, and was thus impeached and removed from office.

My opinion is that we allow the Honduran government to follow their constitution, to maintain their democracy, and to have free & fair elections in two months. If they continue to feel a need for constitutional reform, then they should follow the proper channels (i.e. through the Congress) rather than using unconstitutional channels (i.e. the executive branch). In the end, the Honduran crisis is about trying to maintain limits on executive authority, which I think is a good thing for just about any country.

Anonymous said...

The Honduran coup regime, which antropologo is at pains to defend, seems to be descending into outright state violence:

PS: Zelaya's "referendum" was, in fact, a nonbinding poll, and perfectly legal. The notion that it somehow constituted a putsch by Zelaya is a pure coup-mongering invention.