Our emergency international delegation to Honduras, organized from the United States by CODEPINK, Global Exchange and Non-Violence International, began its fact-finding mission in the wake of the June 28 coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.
We started out with a briefing by the Network of Sustainable Development (Red de Desarrollo Sostenible) a 15-year-old organization devoted to the exchange of information about sustainable development. It has now become a center for exchanging information about the coup. Using Blogspot, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, flickr and YouTube, the Network's network is abuzz with hour-by-hour accounts of political developments. Their communication system has become a critical way for Hondurans to get information, since the coup leaders have muzzled the press.
The Network has a history of being objective and staying above politics, but the staff is outraged by the coup. "This was just over the top," said National Coordinator Raquel Isaura, who is being targeted by the right for some anti-coup internet messages posted under her name. "A military coup in this day and age must be condemned by all sectors of civil society."
Like many Hondurans, Network Director Candalario Reyes Garcia is deeply worried about the future. "In the 80s we were terrorized by the death squads called Batallion 316. These same death squad leaders are still in the military today and if they take control of this country, we're in for some truly dark days ahead."
Demonstrations against the coup have been taking place all over the country, but they are not reported in the news and protesters are beaten and tear-gassed by the military. Some movement leaders have been arrested, others are in hiding. The military has also prevented demonstrators from converging on the capital, Tegucigalpa. We met Juan Amilcar Colindres, a professor at the National University of Agriculture in Catacamas. The day after the June 28 coup, he helped organize 8 busloads of people--students, professors, community members--to go protest in front of the Presidential Palace. They were stopped enroute by the military, who insisted that they turn back and ended up shooting at the bus tires to disable the vehicles. "When the soldiers started shooting, people ran into the woods, terrified. The military destroyed 13 tires and we had to pay over $1,500 to repair the buses. Worst of all, we were never able to reach the capital to demand the return of President Zelaya. The same thing has happened to groups all over the country."
When I asked Colindres why his group supported Zelaya, he said that for the first time in decades, the government of President Zelaya increased the budget for public universities and increased scholarships for the students. "We have a lot of poor students who were helped by this government. We don't want the elite to take back the government and use it, as they have in the past, to enrich themselves and impoverish the people."
Our last visit of the day, which went on for hours, was a fascinating gathering with members of the indigenous community, Lencas and Garifanos. This group was lucky to have made it to the capital, where they are camping out in a school auditorium. Entire families, from babies to grandmas, participate in roving protests every day. They keep moving so the military doesn't know where they will be from one day to the next.
One by one, these very humble and poor people told us about their situation, their beliefs, their fears and their dreams. Valentina Dominquez, a primary school teacher, said, "Our people are suffering from poverty, and President Zelaya tried to help. He raised the minimum wage and in the schools, he made sure that all the children were given snacks. He made school registration free and increased programs to help the 20% of Hondurans who don't know how to read or write. That's why we made our way to Tegucigalpa to defend his government and overturn the coup. But we are repressed by the military and have no one to defend us but God," she cried. "That's why we need help from the outside community."
Teresa Reyes, with the organization of black Hondurans called OFRANEH, said this new regime was terrorizing the people. "On the day of the coup, they cut the electricity, blacked out the news, and told us not to leave our houses. We were scared, we are scared, and we're exhausted--some of us have been walking for days to get here. But even so, we were determined to keep protesting."
Salvador Zuniga, one of the heads of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), talked about the extreme poverty and illiteracy in Honduras, and the desire of poor communities to participate in determining how the nation's resources are used and distributed. Honduras is notorious for a small group of families controlling most of the resources, from the media to the mines. "With the vote that was supposed to take place on Sunday, President Zelaya simply wanted to ask the people if they liked the idea of rewriting the Constitution, of setting up a new legal framework for determining how decisions get made. The powerful elite in this country was terrified that this process would result in a new economic model at the service of the people, as we have been seeing in other countries of Latin America. That's why they organized the coup, to maintain their stranglehold on the economy."
Melicio Intibuca, an elderly farmer, was terrified that Honduras would revert to the past days of military dictators. "If Zelaya doesn't return, the repression will get worse. These people don't respect the life of the President, so do you think they'll respect the life of us poor people? Already our people have been killed, wounded and are in hiding. That's why we're appealing to you, in the international community. The United States should cut off all aid to this government and demand the return of Zelaya. Please, don't let us return to those dark days of death squads and violence."
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK.