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The Largest Antorchas March Against Corruption so far, and the Struggle Continues – Please Act to Support Honduras’ Demands for Justice*
The Antorchas Hunger Strikers and Mass Mobilisations
On Thursday 25 June I reported on the Antorchas movement – also known as Los Indignados – who are demanding an end to the corruption rife in Honduras. Honduran journalists have revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars were embezzled from the Honduran Health System, and supported the election campaign of president Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party. At least 3,000 people have died as a result and many more are suffering from lack of health care. A mass movement bringing together all sectors of the population is demanding the resignation of Juan Orlando Hernández (known as JOH) and the creation of an independent International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH) to root out all the country’s corruption.
That day I visited a new incarnation of this movement – a group of young hunger strikers near the Presidential House, who say they will stay until the CICIH is established or they die. The first strikers started on Monday (22June) and they are still refusing food today. More have joined them since. On the following day the hunger strike site became the end point for the largest Antorcha demonstration yet – and the largest demonstration the country has seen since the 2009 military coup which brought the current repressive regime to power.
As I reported on Thursday, there was a great deal of anxiety about the possibility of violence on this march. Although the Antorchas movement is peaceful (the hunger strikers cite Gandhi as an important influence on htem), the Honduran authorities and JOH’s National Party are known to use violence. It was rumoured that the party was going to stage a counter-demonstration at the same time, in the same place, in an attempt to foment discord and turn the protest into a disaster. More worrying still had been the authorities’ response to the strike: within a day of it starting, the police had blockaded the first three strikers behind a fence and police line, preventing anyone making contact with them. Amnesty International representatives have described this as a breach of the strikers’ human rights, and an attempt to crush their spirit in their peaceful and legitimate protest. On Friday the police blockade continued but over the week more hunger strikers and their supporters had set up outside but behind them were fences and lines of armed riot police.
Friday – Thousands March in Tegucigalpa
Together with COPINH – an indigenous organisation and part of the resistance since 2009 – I joined the demonstration from its start, at 5pm on Friday 26 June. The grand highway we were on filled with people carrying burning torches, the symbol of the Antorchas movement. When the crowd moved, we were like a river of burning lights that stretched into the distance both in front of and behind us. The march snaked for an hour and a half through the wide streets back to the area of the Presidential House, with music and dancing from trucks laden with speakers, and animated with chants of “Fuera JOH” (Out, Juan Orlando Hernández!), and “Que es la ruta? Saca a este hijo de puta!” (“What is the pitch? Get rid of this son of a bitch!”). There was no official count, but reports estimated there were between 120,000 and 400,000 protesters, and they completely filled the highway. Everyone agreed that it was at least comparable with the biggest protests ever held in Honduras, back in 2009.
As we got close to the hunger strikers, I could see the dark shadow of army snipers on the corners of buildings above us. The crowd filled the space in front of the police blockade and the air reverberated with the demonstrators’ anger. Looking through the police fence I saw dense lines of riot police reinforcements who stood, shoulder to shoulder, for about 30 metres back from the fence. Climbing a wall on the other side of the road block, I was amazed to see that this 500 strong police force wasn’t alone; behind it were twice as many soldiers, in their own lines, and with them the hulking shape of one of the eight water cannon trucks that the Tegucigalpa units have. People at the site were excited at their success and amazed at how they had managed to pack the streets, but the atmosphere was tense – it seemed violence was inevitable.
But despite the size of the crowd, the organisers and protesters demonstrated remarkable self-control and determination, and the protest remained peaceful. A rope held the main crowd back from the police fence as well as preventing the hunger strikers outside the fence from being crowded. No mass counter-protest emerged to confront the Indignados. As night began to fall after several hours, the crowd started to thin out. It was with a sense of relief – but no small amount of surprise – that I saw the army lines march away as well. The protest had been completely successful and almost completely non-violent.
The day afterwards I discovered there had been a few incidents. Two tear gas bombs had been thrown into the crowd, including one very near the roadblock, but thankfully no one had been seriously hurt. At the tensest point, two drunk men got into the crowd clamouring to storm the roadblock, and started throwing objects towards the police. The crowd in general remained unperturbed, and the Indigando organisers chased them away – later telling me that the agitators had had a gun. Earlier, they had caught people spreading petrol on one of the bus stations along the route – booby-trapping it to catch fire when the burning torches passed. Everyone said that these actions were undertaken by National Party or military saboteurs, who were attempting to foster violence and give the authorities an excuse to crack down on the protest.
In the end, the day was a demonstration of the incredible willpower of the Honduran people: their ability to demand real change and to do so in a peaceful way, despite the violence used against them. What has been the response of the authorities? So far, silence. As I reported on Thursday, president JOH has attempted to placate the protests by offering a national version of the CICIH Commission. This is a completely hollow gesture – corruption is endemic and only an international, independent commission stands any chance of cutting through it.
Yesterday (Saturday 27th June), the three hunger strikers remaining inside the road block were forced to leave. After almost a week without food, two instigators of the strike, Ariel Varela and Miguel Briceño, said that in their weakened state and isolation they had been assaulted by police. Government-owned newspapers such as El Heraldo have reported that they have called off strike, but I can confirm that this is not the case: the three strikers have merely moved to join those outside. In fact, more strikers have been joining them – there are now at least eight people on hunger strike.
The Antorchas’ fight and demands should not be seen as a merely Honduran affair but one that demands an international response. The International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH) that they demand would be a Honduran version of Guatemala’s CICIG. The CICIG is an on-going and unique in being backed by the UN. It is the result of a similar story of corruption, repression and popular demand that has played out in Guatemala. It was formed in 2007 and has resulted in the resignation of Guatemala’s ex-vice president, among others.
The Honduran people’s demands also need international support to press the UN to set up the CICIH and to demand that Western states hold the Honduran government to account. Until now, our governments’ record in Honduras has been shocking: the current Honduran regime came to power in a military coup, which was then given a whitewashing of democracy in elections in 2010 and 2013; EU observer missions first reported that the elections were fair but then individual members broke ranks and reported numerous instances of National Party vote buying and intimidation, and their complete saturation of the media with their political broadcasts. Moreover, the new revelations which ignited the Antorchas march demonstrate that the funds the party used to pay for these undemocratic practices were stolen from the public health system.
And yet, within a year after the coup, the USA, Canada and the EU pushed ahead with economic agreements with the corrupt government, which has declared the country “open for business”, a model of low taxes and lax regulations to attract investors. These deals have done little for Honduras, for the international companies have gained access to cheap resources, while leaving almost money in the country – just money in the bank accounts of the government officials brokering the deals. While the military threaten the peaceful demonstrations, the US continually increases its military support to the country as part of its completely ineffective regional “war on drugs” and to maintain in power the “business-friendly” government.
Demand Change from Your Country
It is important that people abroad put pressure on the authorities to change the situation in Honduras. For details on how best to do this, go here on the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA)’s website.
*This blog was written on Sunday 28 June 2015.