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The Urgency of Restoring Democracy to Honduras -- and What You Can Do to Help*

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I just returned from a trip to Honduras where I was part of a delegation of seven U.S. citizens, including two Catholic priests, concerned about the coup in Honduras and its aftermath. While in Honduras, we met with numerous civic groups, including unions, human rights groups and peasant associations. As the press has reported, the ousted President, Manual Zelaya, who was kidnapped from his home and forced into exile, has great support among the poor, the unions and the indigenous groups of Honduras -- that is, the most under-represented and repressed portion of the society.

And, given that, according to U.S. AID, over 65 percent of the population of Honduras fall below the poverty level, on average making $750 a year or less, this means that President Zelaya has broad support in his country. And, indeed, a Gallup poll taken in recent days shows that Zelaya has much broader support in Honduras than the coup president.

President Zelaya, or Presidente "Mel" as he is affectionately known, was engaged in a process of democratization and social change when he was violently removed from office by the military. Once a rich rancher, President Zelaya was elected as a candidate from the Liberal Party (despite its name, a very conservative party aligned with the elites in Honduras). At first, Zelaya turned to the elites to ask for help in making modest policy changes. However, he found that they were not interested in any change at all.

So, he turned to the groups who were willing to lend a hand -- the unions, human rights groups, indigenous groups and peasant associations. He began to regularly consult these groups on the issues affecting the working and poor people of Honduras. As a consequence, he began to make changes which improved their lives -- for example, raising the minimum wage by 60 percent, providing free school lunches, lowering the price of public transportation and passing legislation to protect the forests from logging.

Zelaya also began to address long-standing human rights issues, such as the problem of those disappeared by the prior military regime of the 1980's. In consultation with the human rights group representing the families of the disappeared (COFADEH), he passed a decree pursuant to which the government promised to help find these disappeared. Quite tellingly, the chief security adviser to the coup government which deposed Zelaya is Billy Hoya -- an infamous human rights abuser responsible for many of the disappearances of the 1980's.

While in Honduras, we spent a lot of time with Bertha Olivia, the founder of COFADEH. She founded this group after her own husband was disappeared in 1981. At the time of the disappearance, Bertha went to her priest to ask for help in locating her husband. The priest refused, telling Bertha that, as a Christian, she should just resign herself to her loss. That priest is now the Cardinal who is siding with the coup in Honduras. However, the Cardinal is in opposition to much of the rank-in-file of the Catholic Church in Honduras who are demanding the return of President Zelaya, including the Dominican, Claretian, Jesuit and Maryknoll orders. Meanwhile, the Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist churches of Honduras are also calling for Zelaya's return.

Bertha now fears that, if this coup is not overturned, Honduras will return to a period when disappearances and arbitrary arrests of those willing to speak out against injustice were common place. Her fears are not unwarranted.

Thus, the coup government, confronting the non-violent movement calling for the return of Zelaya with violence, has been responsible for the targeted killing of at least four individuals, including two trade union leaders. Meanwhile, 86 people have been assaulted or beaten by the armed forces and over 1,000 people, most associated with the social movements, have been illegally detained. In addition, numerous press and media outlets have been shut down, while journalists have been arrested and detained. One journalist openly opposed to the coup, Gabriel Fino Noriega, was among those murdered.

Close to home here in Pittsburgh is the case of Dr. Luther Castillo, an altruistic doctor who runs a clinic in the poor community of Ciriboya, and who is assisted in this project by Pittsburgh-based Global Links which regularly sends his clinic medical supplies (as it does to clinics in eight other Latin American and Caribbean countries).

Like many others who have been outspoken against injustice in Honduras, Dr. Castillo is now on a long list of people for whom the new regime has issued arrest warrants. Dr. Castillo has been on the run as a consequence. Yet, he continues to minister to the sick and to those injured by military assaults. He has communicated to Global Links that he desperately needs supplies and medicines to continue his work in Ciriboya, and Global Links is seeking monetary donations to answer this call. If you wish to donate to this effort, you can go to Global Links and make a donation, specifying "Honduran Emergency Aid." To support the non-violent, anti-coup movement in Honduras, go to Rights Action.

Finally, we need to call upon our own government to do more to pressure the Honduran de facto regime to allow President Zelaya to return to his office as president. Specifically, the U.S. must remove the 500 to 600 U.S. troops from Honduras -- troops who continue to be located alongside the Honduran military forces on a Honduran air force base; cease the ongoing training of Honduran troops at the School of the Americas in Georgia (two of the key generals involved in the coup were trained at that facility); freeze the assets of the coup leaders who seized power in Honduras and of their supporters in the Honduran oligarchy; revoke the visas of the coup leaders; and withdraw the U.S. Ambassador just as all of the EU nations have.

Quite tellingly, what the supporters of Zelaya and indeed Zelaya's diplomatic corps itself, are not calling for is the cessation of purely economic and development aid to Honduras. As Honduran Ambassador Eduardo Enrique Reina explained in a meeting I participated in yesterday, if that aid is cut off the only people who will suffer are the poor, and they don't want them to suffer. In short, even in exile, the Zelaya administration continues to try to operate in the interest of Honduras' poor. That says much about what that administration is about.

*A version of this story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.