A State of Siege in Northern Honduras: Land, Palm Oil and Media*
By Peter Lackowski
Palm oil is a convenient source of biodiesel, and oil palms grow very well in the valley of the Bajo (Lower) Aguan River of northeastern Honduras. This valley is the home of some of the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the Americas. Their poverty is due, in large part, to the fact that most of the land in the region has been appropriated by powerful corporations controlled by members of the Honduran oligarchy, led by one of the richest and most ruthless of them all, Miguel Facusse.
Facusse owns massive tracts of land throughout the country, much of which he has obtained by fraudulent deals made possible by the corruption of government officials. In the early 1990’s, 5000 acres in the Bajo Aguan was awarded to peasants after the closure of a military base on which personnel were trained by the USA in the use of torture and other methods of repression. Facusse bribed “community leaders” to make deals to sign this and other land over to him for bargain prices. He also employs hundreds of heavily armed “security” personnel who are used to intimidate and murder those who stand in his way, so any peasants who objected to this process were “neutralized.” (resistenciahonduras.hn November 16)
Zelaya’s Land Reform
One of the reasons that President Manuel Zelaya was deposed on June 28, 2009 was the fact that he was actively carrying out a program of land reform, implementing laws that were on the books but never enforced, actively investigating and rectifying cases of fraud and corruption that had deprived campesinos of their land. Miguel Facusse was a prominent supporter of the coup, along with other members of the oligarchy who opposed Zelaya’s land reform, his raising of the minimum wage, and various other things he was doing to benefit and empower the popular classes. Zelaya’s ouster put an end to these efforts.
With or without the help of president Zelaya, the peasants of the Lower Aguan were living in such extreme poverty that they had no choice but to continue with their struggle for land. Around the beginning of 2010 they began invading the land in question and planting subsistence crops. Facusse’s thugs moved in and began killing and beating peasants and destroying their property. But the current president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who came to power in an election tainted by repression, censorship, and massive abstention, was faced with the task of obtaining diplomatic recognition for his post-coup de facto government, and this did not look good to international observers. So Lobo began negotiating with Facusse and the campesinos to use public funds to buy him off. Meanwhile, he moved thousands of Honduran troops into the region to set off fears of a massacre that might be carried out under the cover of clearing out “illegal squatters.” The clear intention was to motivate the campesinos to accept the terms of whatever deal he struck–or else. Of course the troops were said to be there in the interest of public safety, to prevent acts of “terror” by those lawless, land invading peasants. In April 2010 Lobo announced a deal according to which the campesinos would get a lot less land than they were demanding, with the added requirement that half of that land would have to be used to grow palm oil, and that the palm fruits would have to be sold to Facusse for processing.
But Facusse was not satisfied after all, and things went back to where they were, with steady pressure on the campesinos in the form of property damage, physical attacks, and occasional murders (3 on August 17, another one September 10.) Then on the morning of November 15, after peasants occupied a tract of land that Facusse illegally occupies in the “El Tumbador” section, approximately 300 of Facusse’s guards tried to evict them. An exchange of gunshots followed, lasting four hours, resulting in the deaths of five peasants and the serious wounding of four others.
Lobo Sends in the Troops
President Lobo decided to take action–he sent in thousands of army personnel. But he did not disarm Facusse’s private army, since they are licensed to carry weapons. Instead he had the army set up checkpoints throughout the region to confiscate any unauthorized weapons that people might be carrying. This is in response to a huge propaganda campaign that the corporate press has been carrying on all along, but which has now reached a fever pitch: they have claimed that all of the problems in the Bajo Aguan are caused by outside agitators, from Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela–wherever. Now they are saying that “insurgents” have been trained in Nicaragua, and that thousands of assault rifles and heavier weapons have been shipped to the peasants. They have presented no evidence of any of this, but they constantly repeat the same claims. The one relatively balanced and honest large daily newspaper, El Tiempo of San Pedro Sula, reported on November 25 that after the massive crackdown the net result was 27 miscellaneous undocumented firearms carried by random citizens, mainly revolvers and automatics, with one 12 gauge shotgun. Apart from confident assertions from members of the oligarchy (including Facusse), there has been no concrete confirmation of either arms or foreign “advisors.”
One very worrisome aspect of this claim that the area has been “militarized” by “outside forces” has been the the fact that it is the pretext for the occupation of the offices of the National Agrarian Institute in the town of Tocoa. Word came from the president’s office that there are boxes of assault rifles stored there, “up to a thousand.” The police raided the office, supposedly to search for these weapons, and the campesinos who are involved in the legal dispute with Facusse are very concerned. Records that are pertinent to their cases are stored in that office. The employees of the Institute have not been allowed to enter to see what the police are doing, and there is serious concern that the records will be destroyed, stolen, or altered. Karen Spring of Rights Action reports that there is also concern that there will be “an attempt to frame the state institute for providing arms and supporting the campesino struggles in the region.” (http://quotha.net/node/1399)
It happens that the building of the National Agrarian Institute has been serving as an emergency shelter for 60 families who are victims of the disastrous hurricane Matthew last September. The more than 300 troops and police who invaded the building destroyed all of their belongings and their meager furniture, stole their money, and threw them out. They are appealing to international agencies for assistance and justice (ellibertador.hn Nov. 26, 2010.)
The role of the Honduran corporate press is interesting. Their reporting has constantly referred to the peasants as the instigators of violence. Whenever leaders of the Resistance (which includes far more than the peasant organizations) are murdered, they pass it off as some kind of personal affair, sometimes even suggesting darkly that unspecified criminal activity might have been involved. When Nahum Palacios, the only journalist who actually reported the peasants’ side of the story, was murdered they denied that it had anything to do with his work–it must have been a mysterious personal matter. Similarly, they suggest that the killings of campesinos could be due to internal dissension. The press simply accepts the fact that there is rarely even a superficial investigation, and the killers are never found. Recently there was a report by journalists from La Prensa of San Pedro Sula who were traveling with police and encountered some campesinos with automatic rifles. Their take on this was that the campesinos were attacking their “freedom of expression,” since they felt threatened by them. (laprensa.hn Nov. 26, 2010)
It should be mentioned that not all of the media in Honduras are so one-sided. The newspaper El Libertador appears monthly in print, but maintains an active and informative website at elibertador.hn. (It’s personnel have been threatened and tortured.) Radio Globo and TV Channel 36 reported honestly on the coup, and as a result had their equipment destroyed and were off the air for a time. El Tiempo of San Pedro Sula (tiempo.hn) often reports points of view that differ from the standard propaganda. But these are a relatively small part of the media.
The power of the corporate media was demonstrated at the time of the coup that deposed Zelaya, when the corporate newspapers constantly ran stories about how he wanted to change the constitution so as to be president for life. While this could conceivably have been in his mind, what he was actually calling for was a poll to ask whether the country needed a new constitution. The possibility of his being re-elected was no more than a hypothetical proposition, and it would only have been possible after a new president and a new constitution would have been in place. But by constantly repeating the claim that he wanted to be re-elected for life, they introduced enough confusion so that people who didn’t like his policies had a superficially plausible reason to accept a blatantly illegal military coup.
One of the secret diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks was an analysis of the legal basis of the coup sent to Washington by the US ambassador, Hugo Llorens, in July 2009. He described it as illegal and unconstitutional, saying that “…the actions of June 28 can only be considered a coup d’etat by the legislative branch, with the support of the judicial branch and the military, against the executive branch.” The revelation of the ambassador’s honest (though secret) assessment of the coup has caused quite a stir in Honduras.
The media campaign to blame Nicaragua for the problems in the Bajo Aguan is following a pattern similar to the campaign to get rid of Zelaya. The ugly facts of Facusse’s terroristic attack on his impoverished victims is being smothered in a froth of indignant condemnation of foreigners for being at the bottom of it all, implying that the campesinos of Baja Aguan would be perfectly content if it were not for those evil agitators.
There actually is a lot of foreign interference in the affairs of Honduras, but it is coming from the United States, and it is likely to be even more intense now that Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will be the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Ros-Lehtinen is famous for her extreme views, including advocating the assassination of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and support of terroristic attacks on the people of countries she looks upon as enemies of the US. She has traveled to Honduras to offer her support for the coup, and she is likely to join in the condemnation of Nicaragua and other “enemies” for their supposed interference in Honduras. But even before the midterm election the Obama administration went out of its way to try to get other countries to recognize the de facto government, and enabled the World Bank to loan Facusse $30 million to finance biofuel production.
Another foreign presence was reported in the Bogota, Colombia newspaper El Tiempo on September 14, 2009. It seems that dozens of paramilitaries who had been working for Colombian drug lords were being recruited by Honduran landowners to work as security guards on their plantations. These men are experienced in assassination and violent intimidation, and the monthly salary of $750 plus living expenses was attractive by Latin American standards.
The situation in Bajo Aguan has been described as a “state of siege” (El Libertador, September 22) The roadblocks and arrests continue, and campesinos are being driven out of the plantations they have accupied. President Lobo announced on November 29 that he would soon visit the region himself to “move this process of dialogue ahead and to bring closure to this problematic situation.”
Meanwhile, Karen Spring reports that, “In an outcry against the killings and in an act of solidarity, campesinos from six departments of Honduras (Atlantida, Colon, Olancho, Santa Barbara, Cortez and Choluteca) began land occupations shortly after the November 15th murders. To pressure the government and demonstrate their force, campesinos will be arriving in Tegucigalpa on Thursday [December 2] for a gathering outside of the National Congress.” (http://quotha.net/node/1399)