Elections in Honduras: Pantomime Democracy and State Terror

By Tyler Shipley

December 4, 2009

On my way home from Tegucigalpa I met Edward Fox, an elections observer sent from Washington to participate in the project of legitimating the June 28th coup and paving the way to a comfortable re-entrenchment of the Honduran oligarchy and the North American interests it protects.

When I asked him about the 32 people killed by police and military since the coup, he scoffed and told me he didn’t have any ‘verifiable’ evidence of that. So I asked him where he was the day before the elections, when the five biggest and most respected human rights groups in Honduras presented an official complaint to the Electoral Tribunal, complete with the documentation of not just the 32 deaths but also the countless instances of repression, detention, beatings, rapes, kidnappings and other forms of state terror. He said he “hadn’t heard about that.”

Instead, his report on the election said that “without exception, [Hondurans] expressed confidence in the electoral system, pride in exercising their right to vote, and a profound hope that their election is a decisive step toward the restoration of the constitutional and democratic order in Honduras.” Such is the level of misrepresentation being perpetrated by the coup regime and its allies.

The U.S.S. Honduras

Hondurans haven’t had it easy. In the 1980s, they were able to get out from underneath a series of military dictatorships only to find that their ‘democratic’ governments were every bit as brutal as their predecessors. The country was nicknamed the “U.S.S. Honduras” because it was the base of American operations in the region, used as a launch pad for attacks against Guatemala, El Salvador and especially Nicaragua. But in spite of the consistent and intimidating presence of U.S. helicopters, social movements in Honduras built themselves up steadily and, especially in the 2000s, began to bring serious pressure against the state to re-found the country on more equitable lines.

The centerpiece of the project was the constituyente, an assembly that would be struck to re-write the constitution in a way that would be more responsive to the needs of the vast majority of poor Hondurans. After many years of tireless work, it appeared that the constituent assembly might finally happen when President Manuel Zelaya agreed to hold a non-binding referendum on whether the people would like to see a fourth ballot added to the usual three in the Nov. 29 elections. If the response had been positive, the Nov. 29 elections would have seen people vote for each of the three levels of government and also answer the question “do you support the striking of a national constituent assembly to re-draft the constitution?”

But that non-binding referendum never happened because, of course, the President was flown out of the country in his pyjamas and the vote was cancelled. In the weeks following the June 28th coup, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans took to the streets in protest, only to be met by violence and repression. Tear gas and sonic weaponry were deployed against crowds, individuals were beaten and sometimes shot with rubber bullets and even live rounds. As the resistance began to take shape and formed into an organization, the Frente Popular de Resistencia, its leaders were targeted and harassed; many were followed and detained, beaten and raped in prison. Others were kidnapped from their homes, never to be heard from again.

The police and military were given a free hand to terrorize people with impunity and, in the meantime, any criticism of the coup or its leaders was deemed to be ‘sedition,’ even if it came from the supposedly ‘free’ press. Those media outlets that refused to tow the coupist line were shut down. Radio Globo, Radio Progreso, TV Channel 36 and El Libertador newspaper, among others, were harassed relentlessly. Equipment was stolen or sabotaged, individuals were arrested and beaten, signals were interrupted or taken off the air – in the end, many of the directors and editors fled the country, one giving in only after his daughter and son-in-law were brutally murdered.

Una ‘Fiesta Democratica’ / A ‘Democratic Party’

In that context, it is hard to imagine how anyone could believe, even for a moment, that free and fair elections could possibly take place in Honduras on November 29. Certainly very few in Honduras are under that illusion; even according to official statistics, only 1.7 million people voted in a country of almost 8 million. Of those, only 1.3 million actually voted for one of the candidates and less than 0.7 million voted for the winner, Porfirio Lobo.

A day that is normally as busy and boisterous as the world cup was powerfully silent. Civilians at polling stations were considerably outnumbered by soldiers carrying automatic weapons. All of the independent candidates in the election, including Presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes, withdrew from the farce knowing full well that they could not possibly be guaranteed a fair election.

And now, our government is rushing to recognize the results. Though it is deeply disheartening, it should not come as a surprise. After all, the coup was very much in the interests of Canadian and US enterprises in Central America. Earlier in his term, President Zelaya had ordered a moratorium on any further mining concessions to foreign companies in Honduras. He had raised the minimum wage. And his endorsement of constitutional reform could have begun the process of breaking the stranglehold on power held by the ten or fifteen familes that dominate Honduras, whose names – Facussé, Ferrari, Michelietti – are graffitied next to the words “golpe” (coup) and “asesino” (assassin) on walls in every barrio in Tegucigalpa.

A re-writing of the constitution might have been a tool in the hands of people trying to insist that workers be given a fair share for their labour, that violence against women be challenged, that human rights be respected, that foreign companies be forced to pay taxes – none of the many dozens of fast food chains operating in Tegucigalpa pay any corporate taxes whatsoever. They simply suck as much capital out of Honduras as they can, set a little aside for the local oligarchs, and take the rest back to Wall Street.

The Ongoing Struggle

And so it shall be under Pepe Lobo (Pepe ‘Robo,’ as the graffiti in Tegucigalpa calls him) the winner of last Sunday’s ‘elections.’ The leaders of the coup, and the overwhelming majority of the international media, have called the event on Sunday a solution to the political crisis in Honduras. Quite the contrary, they have only ensured that the crisis will continue – the Resistance in Honduras is steadfast. Thousands of people took to the streets on the day after the elections to wave their un-inked fingers, demonstrating that they had boycotted the vote, and although they will surely face further repression, it is clear that they will continue to struggle for a re-founding of their country.

In the meantime, it is incumbent on activists elsewhere, and especially in North America, to support them in that struggle. In the short term, we must demand that the Canadian government withdraw its support for the coup, reject the legitimacy of the elections (even the liberal Carter Center refused to participate in the observation process) and insist upon the reinstatement of the democratically elected president. To that end, the petition located here is a good starting point.

But we must also recognize what Hondurans themselves have long acknowledged: that this is going to be a long struggle and it will require a sustained push in the face of a great deal of opposition. In Canada, we are deeply complicit in the destructive politics and state terror of post-coup Honduras. Most Canadians probably couldn’t place Honduras on a map, let alone explain our role in encouraging and supporting the coup. Raising that level of consciousness is probably the most important work we can do right now.

My own personal reflections on the week of the elections can be found here and additional resources in Spanish and English are available here or here or from COFADEH, one of the leading human rights groups in Honduras. It is also likely that Rights Action, a North American human rights group, will be organizing another delegation to Honduras around the week of January 27, the date when power is to be transferred to the newly ‘elected’ government. Details will be posted here .