Las Antorchas Mass Protests & Hunger Strikers – Honduras Demands an End to Corruption*
After spending my first week in Honduras mainly in the countryside with the COPINH indigenous movement (see blog 1), I have now come to the capital, Tegucigalpa, as COPINH has sent a delegation to join a burgeoning “Antorchas” protest movement. This movement started to organise mass demonstrations only two weeks before my arrival, and it represents the broadest resistant front – and the strongest hope for an end to corruption – that the country has seen since the 2009 military coup.
The “Antorchas” movement, named after the torches people carry on the marches and also known as Los Indignados (just as in Spain), started late 2014 as a youth movement in Tegucigalpa. Frustrated with the lack of real change offered by the political parties, young people came together in a non-partisan movement against corruption. The theft of state money (both money from taxpayers and international aid) by the powerful families associated with the political parties has become so endemic as to be almost accepted. Whole shiploads of food have gone missing, leaving rural Hondurans without vital aid. Every part of the state apparatus has been affected.
However, in recent weeks the movement has taken off. Revelations have made clear both the scale and the human cost of the corruption. It has been shown that the IHSS – Honduran Institute of Social Security – has been systematically robbed by sham companies, which have charged – and charged a lot — for services that they have not even delivered. Medicines have even been produced without active ingredients. For many years, the health system has been desperately underfunded and understaffed, with huge waiting lists; in order to treat patients, hospitals has been forced to ask the families to buy the equipment and the medicines that are needed. All this has hugely damaged the country’s public health service.
In the last few weeks, Honduran journalists have discovered cheques from the IHSS and the sham companies implicated in this fraud, which show that part of the stolen money went directly into the accounts of Honduran political parties, particularly the ruling National Party. The 2013 elections brought to power the current president Juan Orlando Hernández, and cemented the power of his right-wing National Party, which has ruled since the military coup in 2009. The elections were full of irregularities, with busloads of voters being brought in to shore up the National Party, and gifts such as roofs and food being used to buy the votes of poor Hondurans. The cheques show that much of the money for this election fraud was stolen from the IHSS money. Journalists have calculated that almost 3,000 people have died – and thousands more left without proper treatment – as a result of these thefts.
These revelations have turned the Antorchas protests into a mass popular movement, uniting the middle classes and previously apolitical masses with the left-wing resistance that came into being after the 2009 coup. The movement is heterogeneous, but its main demands are for the resignation of Juan Orlando Hernández, and for the establishment of an international Commission against Corruption and Impunity (CICIH in Spanish) to punish the miscreants. The movement’s leaders say that the courts and government are so riddled with corruption that only an external international body can fulfil this task. The idea is modelled on the UN commission that recently led to the imprisonment in neighbouring Guatemala of the vice-president and many other politicians for similar crimes.
The movement has been growing, with the Guardian newspaper reporting on the thousand-strong protests in Tegucigalpa and other cities on 29 May, shortly before I arrived. The Antorchas have been marching every Friday since then, but recently there has been a new push. Starting on Monday 22 June, six young members of the movement have been staging a hunger strike in the road adjacent to the Presidential House, which has become a focus for the protest movement. The police have set up a cordon, isolating the main core of the strikers from their supporters. Human rights observers and Amnesty International representatives are denouncing this as a breach of the strikers’ human rights and an attempt to break their will. In their turn, the strikers have vowed to maintain their strike until the CICIH is formed, dying if necessary.
An important part of the resistance, COPINH has maintained a presence in Tegucigalpa since the Antorchas movement began, and was invited to come to support the hunger strikers. I travelled with them last night, and today we spent the day at the site, talking with the hunger strikers and other protesters who are not trapped behind the police line. The indigenous Lenca of COPINH performed a spiritual ritual to invoke ancestral support for the strikers, and I met the journalist who broke the story on the IHSS cheques.
The anger of the masses is palpable – they no longer shrug their shoulders at the inevitability of poor public services but increasingly feel anger and indignation at the depth of the lies and the scale of the crimes of the people who claim to represent them. For those involved in the long-term resistance, there is also huge excitement: they feel that the winds of change may finally be coming to Honduras after six years of sham democracy and repression.
But it is far from certain that they will win. The support for the hunger strikers has led Juan Orlando Hernández to announce today a national version of the CICIH. This is an utterly hollow gesture. In an overnight judicial coup in 2014, he illegally replaced three hostile Supreme Court judges with his own hand-picked people; as as result the national courts are effectively owned by his party. Moreover, even an international CICIH has possible pitfalls. The Guatemala process has taken years to have an effect, and many consider it to have been possible only because of the support of the United States. Juan Orlando Hernández has long been in bed with US corporate interests, and the USA (as well as the European Union) has closed its eyes to the repression in the country, declaring it “open for business” in 2011.
However, it is possible that the popular movement may now force the US to look for other partners, and they may find them in the newly created Anti-Corruption Party (PAC). Although the Antorchas movement is non-partisan, many of its supporters see PAC as the political wing of the movement. But PAC does not promise the radical systemic change that those involved in long-term, left wing resistance are demanding. PAC’s leader, Salvador Nasralla, popular from his career as a TV sports commentator, is a decidedly right wing candidate, with support mainly from the middle classes. He is unlikely to champion the rights of the poorest campesinos and indigenous – including COPINH and the Lenca – except where it suits his political campaign.
Tegucigalpa is certainly full of energy, hopeful that some sort of change may be coming. Tomorrow (Friday 26June), the Antorchas/Indignados movement is organising another of its marches for the afternoon, and is predicting that it will be the biggest yet. Up to half a million people are anticipated, attracted by the bravery of the hunger strikers and the effrontery of the authorities in blockading them in. However, Orlando’s National Party has called a counter-protest and, in a spectacular show of desperation and irresponsibility, has called it for the same time and place – a blatant bid for violent conflict. The Antorchas movement and the resistance are unarmed and non-violent, and the hunger strikers draw inspiration from Gandhi’s non-violent protests, but the ominous shadow of violence is always present.
Meanwhile, this evening at least seven military units have declared that they won’t fight the Antorchas protesters tomorrow – that they won’t protect those who have been stealing from the country. This unexpected rebellion shows just how strong the winds of change are blowing in Honduras this week.
Tomorrow COPINH is remaining in Tegucigalpa in solidarity with the protesters, and I will provide more reports on these exciting movements very soon.
* This article was written on 23 June 2015.