My Journey Ends but the Fights Continue – Connecting Local, National and International Struggles in Honduras and Beyond
13 August, 2015
My short time in Honduras has come to an end, but I have been privileged to be a part of several struggles of life-changing importance for the Honduran people both at local and national levels, as they fight against the corruption and injustice in their country. I have been able to maintain contact with COPINH and their partners, and here I finish my blog series with an update on two of the main issues that I have been following: the San Juan farming cooperative’s continuing struggle for their land; and the national Indignados anti-corruption movement. Together they provide an excellent overview of the issues facing Honduras.
Local Struggles – San Juan Farmers Struggle On
I visited San Juan several times, and stayed with the members of a co-operative that has faced intimidation, sabotage and murder for their attempt to protect their farmland from private sale. As I reported on 3 July, the 26 families in the co-op had been evicted from their land by the Rios family, which was previously part of the co-op but has broken away and is now supported with money and guns from Mario Pérez, the Secretary of Congress. This is a high position in the corrupt national government, and Pérez now has designs to use the Rios family get hold of the land to add to his private estate. In May of this year, men from the co-op re-occupied the land to prevent it being sold to Pérez. In response, the Rios maintained a campaign of intimidation, and on 20 May they attacked the co-op and shot dead Moisés Durón Sánchez. Since then, the men of the co-op have remained on the parcel of land to prevent it from being taken back by the Rios and to turn it into a productive source of food and economic independence.
When I first visited them, they had just found that their drinking water supply pipes had been defaced with machete cuts and that some parts had been stolen, so we went to the local city of Santa Bárbara to file a police report on this crime, and to put pressure on the public prosecutor to proceed with the on-going case of Moisés’ murder. The day seemed a success – despite a history of indifference to the small community’s problems, the police and public prosecutor made promises to arrange visits to collect evidence for both cases. This may have been helped by the presence of myself and another COPINH volunteer as European observers. As I reported on 6 July, when I returned a second time I found co-op leaders Abener and Melvin Jimenez disheartened – none of the authorities’ promises had been fulfilled and, now the pressure was off, they were ignoring them once again.
On 12 August I talked to Abener and Melvin on the phone and was pleased to hear that the week before the police had finally come to take photos – the cases are at least moving forward. A COPINH land rights lawyer is trying to help, although he has a huge number of cases to deal with. But progress is very slow, and the co-op has suffered a severe setback with their crops: a very dry summer has killed off the maize and yucca that were sprouting when I visited. On top of the on-going threats from the Rios, the co-op is now in an extremely precarious situation, without the food or income they were banking on. They are now preparing for the next planting season, while looking for cattle-ranching work to supplement their income; Abener and Melvin are even asking COPINH and their local town halls for food donations.
Talking to Melvin, I admired the positivity and the resilience of the co-op members. When I was there, they had been working non-stop to prepare for cultivation 60 hectares of neglected and over-grown land. At night they were sleeping in shifts in palm-roofed tents and open-sided cabins, to be ready for attacks. Melvin told that they had started building more permanent housing on the site. Using earth from the site to make adobe bricks, he told me they could make a tiny house in just a week. The co-op is fiercely determined to stay and defend their rights to land and an independent livelihood.
San Juan’s struggle has been made particularly difficult by the apathy and disregard of their local police force and the public prosecutor. The Honduran police force is widely regarded as corrupt and ineffective, and in Santa Bárbara it is under the sway of Mario Pérez. Meanwhile, since the military coup in 2009 and the collapse of the local economies and the job market, violent gangs and drug smuggling have proliferated. The government has used this to justify deploying the military as a means of exercising civil control. While crimes against poor campesinos are ignored, machine gun-carrying soldiers are now in every town controlling protests, carrying out evictions, and protecting big business. After the co-op reoccupied their land, the Rios family arrived to take back the cattle that they had been rearing there – and they were escorted by a squad of soldiers. The militarisation of the country has become a tool for the corrupt oligarchy – made up of a few rich families and their business and government allies – to violate human rights and to repress social organisations that get in their way.
The National Fight – The Indignados Make Progress
In this wider political context, Melvin told me that the best news for the cooperative was not local but national — the advances being made by the popular “Indignados” protest movement. As I reported previously, this new movement ignited in the weeks just before my arrival in Honduras. The catalyst for the protests was evidence that President Juan Orlando Hernández’s ruling National Party had received money from a multi-million dollar fraud against the healthcare system, which resulted in thousands of deaths. Tens of thousands of people have been marching every single Friday since then, demanding an end to the country’s corruption and Hernández’s resignation.
While in Honduras I visited the capital Tegucigalpa several times with COPINH to support Indignados marches, and I visited a camp near the Presidential House where dedicated protesters had established an Indignados hunger strike. This Saturday I talked by Skype to two important members of this strike: Ariel Varela was one of the first hunger strikers and has since become part of the political leadership; and German Ayala started a few days after Varela, but became the longest-running individual on the strike, and he remains heavily involved in the organisation of the Indignados’ grassroots.
From the beginning the Indignados have called for an independent International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (“CICIH” in Spanish), a demand that requires support from international bodies like the UN and Organisation of American States (OAS). The very day I talked to Ayala and Varela, a new OAS delegation had arrived in the country and OAS Secretary General Luis Almargo had presented Chilean lawyer John Biehl del Río as the facilitator in the political crisis. After a fact-finding visit in July, the UN has now also agreed to send a facilitating team, due to arrive on 17 August.
But the ongoing issue – as I wrote on 7 July – is whether these international efforts will remain independent from the systemically corrupted legal institutions of Honduras and the influence of the president. The latter’s response to the Indignados so far has been to initiate what he calls a “National Dialogue”, supposedly to find the basis of a non-binding agreement with the Indignados and civil society organisations. The protesters consider Hernández’s “dialogue” to be directed by him and to be deeply entangled in the corruption they want to tackle. In this tangle, they have refused to step into what they consider a sham process, and are holding out for the more radical CICIH.
The biggest worry is that Hernández could use his rather empty dialogue to bypass the opposition, by claiming that those who refuse to “dialogue” are refusing to negotiate to reach a resolution. According to newspaper reports on Saturday, del Río stated in his opening address to the Honduran that it was very important for all sides to join in the dialogue — which isn’t reassuring in this regard. However, according to Varela, who was among the first group to talk to the OAS delegation, del Río and the others seem to understand the ubiquity of corruption in the Honduran political and justice system, and the need for an independent CICIH.
German Ayala told me that the Indignado hunger strike had finally ended a week before on Friday 31 August, after some of the participants had taken part in it for more than a month. At the same time the group announced the formation of a National Indignado Board, to de-centralise the movement. The decision was mediated by Wilfredo Méndez, the director of CIPRODEH – the Honduran Centre for Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights. Even though Méndez had been closely involved in the strike, he had brought the dissolving strikers an invitation to join the Dialogue process. According to Ayala, however, the strikers have remained sceptical and few if any in the Indignados movement have joined President Hernández’s process. What they want is to maintain the momentum of the protest and its engagement with the broader population, and to press on with the demand for a genuine process. The hunger strike now continues elsewhere – with new groups now striking in the smaller cities of La Ceiba, Santa Bárbara, Colón and San Pedro.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel in Honduras?
The involvement of delegations from the Organisation of American States and the UN demonstrate the success of the popular Indignado movement in bringing international attention to the Honduran crisis. The pressure may be starting to tell on President Hernández and his government: in a statement on Saturday he said that he would follow the conclusions of the Dialogue, whatever they are, and for the first time conceded that they could include a decision to set up a CICIH. The presence of the international groups may be forcing him to allow some degree of genuine negotiation. Then, this Monday, 10 August, the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, Jorge Rivera Avilés, also came out in support of setting up a CICIH or a similar international process as the solution to the problem.
These small statements may finally suggest that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Indignados – maybe even of the long dark tunnel that Honduras entered with 2009 coup. Organisations such as COPINH, which fight against the repression, certainly hope so. Hondurans like Melvin and Abener Jimenez hope this light will herald a break in the corruption that blocks their aspirations and keeps them in poverty and hunger. But so far it remains only a tiny light – a glimmer in the distance. Derailment is still a strong possibility for example through political decoys such as a unauthentic “Dialogue” process. Until now, this word has been redefined by Hernandez to mean “Monologue” – a process that precludes any real dissent or progress. This Orwellian co-opting of the political vocabulary may bring the OAS and UN their biggest challenge – taking the word “Dialogue” back from the Presdient and redefining it again as a truly independent process that the Honduran people can trust. If they don’t do this, the delegations risk creating an insuperable barrier between themselves and the people.
Conclusion – Voices Join Across the Atlantic
My main aim in writing this blog has been to bring some of the struggles I have seen in Honduras to international readers. Just as the indigenous, farmers and the poorest are marginalised within Honduras, so Central America in general tends to be marginalised and ignored in the developed world and our media. As with many of the issues I have discussed in this blog, San Juan’s cooperative’s complex problems can be seen in terms of both local struggles and much broader national and international contexts. San Juan, and COPINH in general, face a profound lack of resources, political interference from, and exploitation by, the rich, and racism and indifference from the police. The oligarchy protects itself with violence and corruption that further oppresses the poor. Meanwhile, the oligarchy’s international business and government allies support them materially and ideologically. Presenting itself as the bearer of economic “development”, the oligarchy constantly resorts to repression and the inequality it imposes ensures that economic benefits flow to it alone – further marginalising the rest of the country. I hope these articles have helped to show just how complicated and interwoven the barriers to true local development and empowerment are in this corner of the “developing” world.
But I also believe that I have demonstrated the vibrancy and hope that the resistance maintains in Honduras. The grassroots culture of the indigenous, and the peaceful determination of the country as a whole to stand up to the challenges, was truly inspiring. This is possibly the thing I love most about Central America, and what has drawn me back there repeatedly – its capacity to keep fighting and to keep generating ideas for change from below, with the plethora of voices that rise up against the concentration of money and political power, repression, corruption and poverty. I’ve heard this voice most loudly in COPINH, San Juan and the Indignados.
Just as their struggle continues to demand an international response, their call is an international one that we need to hear in our own countries. While we enjoy relative comfort, freedom and wealth, the same pressures towards inequality and marginalisation are very much present here. The voices of Central America’s resistance call on us to continue with our determination to combat exploitative, unjust and callous economic and social policies. It’s a voice that comes from the grassroots up, and it simply says:
“THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE – WE ARE THE ALTERNATIVE”
International support is still needed to maintain the pressure on the UN, OAS and Juan Orlando Hernández, to help Honduras achieve real change. Please visit our Act Now page and see how to join our petition in support of the Indignados. And to stay connected to the struggles in Honduras and the inspiring voices from the region, please consider becoming a part of the solidarity network ENCA – the Environmental Network for Central America. For a tiny £8 per year you will receive our four-monthly newsletter – a rare source of English-language news from this inspiring area. Thank you for reading my blogs!