Last Summer’s Right-Wing Coup in Honduras Still Threatens Human Rights and the Environment
Jeremy Kryt photo
The farmers had been barricaded inside the National Agricultural Institute, in the heart of downtown Tegucigalpa, Honduras, for more than three months. There were almost a hundred of them, including women and children, sleeping in the offices and cooking on wood fires in the courtyard. When I visited, in September of 2009, a spokesperson for the Workers Union of the National Agricultural Institute (NIA) said they had peacefully occupied their own offices as an act of protest against the military coup that toppled the government last June. The farmers hoped to protect ownership titles and other important paperwork against what they called “a land-hungry illegal regime.” And so they had camped out in their makeshift bunker, taking turns with the chores, and guarding the gate against police and soldiers – determined to hold out until the nation’s democratically elected president, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, was returned to office, and Constitutional order was restored.
“We are struggling for the heart of the country,” said Ramon Navarro, leader of one of the farmers’ unions, after telling me that authorities had already cut off water and electricity to the building. “In these central offices are located more than 700 files with documents belonging to farmers and small business owners.” Navarro wore boots and jeans, with a knife and cell phone in twin holsters on his belt. “We know the putschists have the power to void these documents. We’re here to find a solution, and to protect the only proof of ownership we have.”
The farmers had called a press conference that morning because they feared police were getting ready to storm the institute. A harsh, nationwide crackdown was underway, and several trucks filled with heavily armed officers had been spotted near the compound. A few blocks away, the riot squad had detained a peaceful, anti-coup protest march.
Someone Must Defend the Earth
The trouble in Honduras started when President Zelaya was kidnapped by soldiers and flown into exile on June 28, 2009 – a move backed by local business and political elites, but condemned unanimously by the international community. Under threat of arrest, Zelaya had slipped back into the country in late September, taking refuge in the Brazilian Embassy. But by then his role in the anti-coup resistance had become largely symbolic. Under the auspices of a controversial US-mediated peace plan that went into effect on October 30, the coup-regime was granted political legitimacy. The previously scheduled presidential elections were authorized to go forward, with far-right, coup-friendly candidate Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo ahead in the polls. Meanwhile, Honduras continued to devolve into a police state.
According to the Committee for the Families of Disappeared Persons in Honduras (COFADEH), hundreds of peaceful protestors had been beaten and thousands more detained under the martial law that was in effect periodically during 2009. Police and soldiers regularly used crowd-control chemicals, rubber bullets, and even live rounds to attack groups of unarmed demonstrators in the streets of the capital. Occasionally, journalists were caught in the middle, and some had been injured, their cameras smashed. COFADEH reported at least 21 people killed by authorities.
I spent several weeks in Honduras this fall, reporting for various US media outlets, including this magazine. And wherever I went, people said much the same thing: Local assets had been made more vulnerable to exploitation since the coup. Democracy had been stamped out or rendered meaningless by corruption. Workers were getting paid less, while natural resources were ransacked at a faster rate. Scores of thousands of jobs had been lost. Yet the prices of food and other basic commodities were higher than anyone could remember. Meanwhile, small farmers were being forced from their land in a manner reminiscent of the US Midwest during the Great Depression. And anybody who didn’t like it, and decided to march around chanting about how they felt, was liable to get beaten up, jailed, or shot at.
“The de facto regime must behave like this, because they don’t have the support of the people,” said Rafael Alegria, director of the large farmers’ union Via Campesina and a leading figure in the resistance movement. “Like all military coups throughout history,” Alegria said, “this was less about ideology, and more about financial profit.”
In Honduras, the original Banana Republic, the agricultural sector is still highly profitable. Including fishing, it employs about 40 percent of the population. Logging brings in a tenth of GDP. Famous Mayan ruins and world-class scuba diving in the Bay Islands make Honduras a major tourist destination – accounting for about another tenth of GDP in 2009. Honduras also is a major player in the precious-metals market, and hundreds of millions of dollars in gold are extracted here each year. All of these industries were deeply impacted by the coup. The resulting economic crash, coupled with the worldwide economic slowdown, paralyzed this already impoverished country. The Tegucigalpa Chamber of Commerce estimates that 100,000 jobs were lost in the first four months of the coup, and unemployment climbed to about 30 percent.
“What we’re afraid of, specifically, is our land rights being seized,” said farmers’ spokesman Navarro during our meeting in the barricaded NIA building where, in spite of provisions being scarce, everyone I met offered me coffee or a cigarette. When the coup occurred in June, Zelaya had been just a few days away from signing a bill that would have granted land to about 300,000 small farmers who had been seeking private ownership for more than 40 years.
“The impresarios who can lobby Congress – they want the small farmers to fail,” Navarro said. “Then they can buy up the land on the cheap.” Navarro also said Zelaya had provided free seeds and natural fertilizer. But all that had changed after the military takeover.
“Under Zelaya we could get credit, and low interest rates,” said Elena Garcia, a slender woman in her sixties, who heads up a rural women’s rights group. “Now many small farmers can’t afford loans.” Garcia was sweeping the courtyard, and put down her broom to talk. “We are only protecting what is ours,” she said, referring to her group’s decision to take over the compound. “Someone must defend the earth.”
As it turned out, the farmers were right to worry. The day after I visited, armed riot police stormed the compound. A few of the high-ranking leaders, like Navarro and Garcia, and some of the younger children, had slipped out before the dawn raid. But 55 people were arrested, including minors, women, and the elderly. One of the union men was badly beaten, apparently for wanting to bring his suitcase with him. The minors and women were released the next day, but 38 of the men were to be tried for sedition, a charge that had become common since Zelaya snuck back into the country.
Yet the authorities continued to insist the situation was under control.
“What’s happening in Honduras is all completely normal,” said Lieutenant Inspector Rivera, of the First Precinct in Tegucigalpa, when I stopped in to check on the imprisoned farmers, who had by then begun a hunger strike to protest their “illegal” captivity.
“We cops are professionals,” Inspector Rivera assured me, after a quick visit to the rear of the station, where the 38 NIA union members were being kept in a fetid, overcrowded cell. “We’re going to take good care of those farmers. You don’t need to worry about us.”
A Putsch Stranger than Fiction
“This is a movement against slavery,” said Rafael Alegria, when we met for coffee one morning before a protest in front of the Pedagogical University in Tegucigalpa. Alegria is short but sturdy, about 55-years-old, with a farmer’s frank mannerisms. During the daily marches – in which he speaks calmly to the crowd on a P.A. system mounted on the back of a pickup truck – Alegria wears a sweat-stained leather cowboy hat against the sun.
The director of Via Campesina described the resistance as a loose coalition of human rights groups, environmental NGOs, feminists, and workers’ unions. When I said that seemed like an odd mix, he corrected me. “We are all united against various, but similar, forms of exploitation. And we draw strength from our unity.”
But for much of the outside world – and even in outlying areas of Honduras itself – the coup and anti-coup movements remain a confusing tangle of accusations of Constitutional violations by both sides. From the start, the de facto regime coordinated an expensive PR campaign, both in the local media and in Washington, to obfuscate its actions. The junta’s talking points have been regurgitated as fact by many international news organizations.
And, compared to similar recent crises in other parts of the globe, there has been remarkably little coverage of the coup in the United States. Last June, when a 16-year-old philosophy student named Neda Soltani was killed by a sniper during the election protests in Iran, images of her death circled the globe in hours. Millions took notice and were outraged. A few weeks later, a teenage demonstrator named Isis Obed Murillo was killed under almost the same circumstances in Honduras, but there was no uproar – even after Obed’s father, a pastor and conservationist, was jailed for inquiring into his son’s death. The Honduran resistance movement at least equaled that in Iran, and it had sustained itself for almost four straight months. There had been peaceful marches every day since the coup, and near-constant violence from police and soldiers. But you would hardly have known it from watching CNN or reading The New York Times.
“The putschists say they acted to prevent Zelaya from extending his term limits, as Hugo Chavez did,” Alegria said. “But there was never any evidence of this.”
Although the nonbinding poll to gauge Honduran public opinion about constitutional reforms did not mention term limits, the de facto president, political veteran Roberto Micheletti, is known to have voted in favor of extending presidential limits back in 1985. But if it wasn’t about term limits, I asked Alegria, why had the president been sacked just six months before the end of his term?
Once again, Alegria said it all came down to economics. Zelaya’s human development initiatives – like social security, student aid, food aid for poor families – had threatened the economic power of traditional Honduran elites. And his progressive environmental and labor regulations caused him to fall out of favor with big, transnational logging and mining companies. Zelaya had passed a Forestry Law in 2007 that severely limited the exploitation of timber resources. Then, a few weeks before the coup, Zelaya introduced legislation to curtail multinational mining interests, raising taxes and forcing expensive, post-extraction cleanup costs.
“He tried to help the poor, as well as the environment,” said Alegria, whose Via Campesina office had received pistol fire a few weeks before, during an evening curfew, when only police were allowed on the streets. “President Zelaya raised the minimum wage by 60 percent. Imagine: 60 percent! But of course that threatened the factory system, and it threatened the giant landowners like Chiquita and Dole, both of which depend on peasant labor.”
According to Alegria – and many others – Zelaya’s boldest move had been to suggest broad scale reforms to the “outdated and draconian” Honduran constitution, which dates from the US-backed military dictatorship of the 1980s. “Just look at the timing,” Alegria said. “The president was kidnapped on the day before we were to have the first popular Constitutional consultation in our nation’s history.”
During a cell phone interview in late October, Zelaya confirmed that there was great support among the population for holding a Constitutional Assembly, but was careful not to take responsibility for the reform movement. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Zelaya said. “When the electorate decides the time for an assembly has come, the voice of the people will be heard.”
There is No Problem Here
In order to understand the crisis from the coup’s perspective, I went to visit Dr. Valerio Gutierrez, the Honduran Secretary of State and Natural Resources. Like Inspector Rivera of the First Precinct, Gutierrez tried to assure me I shouldn’t worry about anything I saw in the streets. “There is no problem here at all,” Dr. Gutierrez said when we met in his heavily guarded office. “This ‘resistance’ is composed of a few minor dissidents, and nothing more.”
As secretaries brought us first ice water, then iced tea, the Secretary of State described his ambitious plans to bring in funding for the cash-starved government. “There is great potential for increased mineral wealth,” said Gutierrez, a former Energy Secretary who had been promoted by Micheletti after the putsch. “Especially from gold.”
Due to toxic levels of pollution, and the abuse of Indigenous communities located near excavation zones, Zelaya had banned the sale of future gold mining concessions in 2006. He’d been about to regulate the existing highly toxic, almost tax-free mines when he was ousted. “Over three hundred planned excavation sites had been frozen by Zelaya’s law,” Gutierrez said. “But there is a bill right now before Congress that will change all that.”
Later in the interview, Gutierrez admitted that there were grave problems related to deforestation in Honduras. National forest cover is down from 80 to 50 percent, with about two percent more being lost each year. Gutierrez, who earned a PhD in engineering in Japan, said forest monitoring and education projects were languishing due to recent aid cuts by the US State Department.
Although he did say the problem of deforestation in Honduras was “frighteningly” severe, Gutierrez made it clear that, in order to grease the wheels of commerce, the de facto regime was considering opening up previously protected land to logging. He also revealed plans he had negotiated with some of his old Japanese classmates to drill for oil in the Caribbean basin.
“Conservation,” Gutierrez said, “must always be balanced with development.”
When it came time to discuss politics, the Secretary of State told me that Zelaya had been removed from office legally, for defying Congress and the Supreme Court. “The Constitution exists to protect the government,” said Gutierrez, who had gone to university with Zelaya, and accused him of being an arrogant student. When I pressed him on the regime’s poor human rights record, Dr. Gutierrez looked uncomfortable, and ran a nervous hand through his pomaded hair. But his answer was defiant, and he mentioned Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as evidence of my own country’s checkered human rights policies.
“Honduras is in the midst of a terrible crisis. It is already like a civil war. In such times of stress, police and soldiers sometimes use excessive force. Surely, as an American, you should understand that.”
Mine and Yours
There are three gold mines in Honduras, all of them owned by North American companies. The largest of these, Canada’s Goldcorp, earned a profit of about $23.6 million in 2007. Two out of three Hondurans live in poverty, with more than half getting by on less than a dollar a day – yet mining giants like Goldcorp pay only about one percent in taxes to the communities they displace. Under Zelaya, the mining industry had come under fire for providing few jobs or benefits to communities, paying next to nothing in taxes, and causing widespread pollution of lakes, rivers, and aquifers.
Due to geological conditions, the preferred method of extraction here is called heap-leaching, which involves spraying ore with a powerful cyanide mixture to separate out the gold – a practice outlawed in the United States and Canada.
“First, the fish die. Then the cattle drink the poisoned water, and they die as well. When the buzzards eat the cattle, they too are found dead,” said Catholic Bishop Luis Santos, a leading proponent of mining law reform in Honduras, when I met with him in the food court of a mall in downtown Tegucigalpa. An anti-coup march was happening outside, and several of the food court employees had their noses to the glass to watch. The street beyond was filled with protestors, many of them carrying Honduran flags or banners, others dancing to one of the more popular protest songs, which goes: Nos tienen miedo / por que no tenemos miedo. – “They are afraid / because we are not afraid.”
Jeremy Kryt photo
The bishop had just come to the capital from the Department of Copán, where he said whole villages had been abandoned due to cyanide poisoning. Other chemicals released during the mining process include arsenic and lead. “Further downstream, of course, the people drink the same water that killed the fish and cows,” the Bishop said. “And their hair falls out from contamination of the blood. Lesions appear on the skin. Brain damage and schizophrenia have been reported. And at least four women have lost their babies,” he concluded, as if quoting from some Old Testament tale of plague and punishment. “And scientists say it’s all from contaminated water.”
In May of 2009, just a few weeks before the coup, Zelaya had proposed legislation that would have forced mining companies operating in Honduras to safeguard natural resources, and to share a portion of their profits with local communities, as well as shoulder post-excavation cleanup costs. But, as Gutierrez had told me, all of that was off the table after the putsch. “They treat us worse than animals,” the bishop said, and showed me a photo of a cyanide spray cannon set up about a hundred meters from an elementary school. “The only hope this country has is the resistance,” he said, and gestured to the crowd outside.
Goldcorp, which also operates a controversial mine in Guatemala, has been accused of directly supporting the Honduran coup. “That’s not the case at all,” said Tanya Todd, Manager of Corporate Communications for Goldcorp, in a phone interview. “We would not be involved in activities of that sort.”
But at least one independent investigator disagrees. “Goldcorp workers were bused in at least twice,” said Grahame Russell, co-director of Rights Action. “We heard it from the workers themselves. They brought in about 40 or 50 people each time, and paid them 400 Lempira [about $20US].” Russell said it was quite possible the executives back in Goldcorp’s Canadian office didn’t know what was happening to their workers in Honduras.
“This is an abusive regime,” said Russell, a Canadian who lives in Connecticut. “It’s made up of a few very wealthy individuals who are trying to protect a certain way of life.”
If, as Secretary of State Gutierrez suggested, Honduras does open up protected lands to mining, the recent history of human rights abuses might backfire, scaring off potential investors. In fact, Goldcorp is already pulling out. It recently closed its largest mine, and has begun the required cleanup process. Goldcorp’s Tanya Todd told me the company “has no plans to invest further in Honduras at this time.” When I asked why not, Todd said she couldn’t comment in detail. “It’s just not an area we’re going to continue to do business in,” she said.
Wasting Away in Margaritaville
Another area where almost no one has continued to do business since the coup is the beautiful, tourism-dependent Bay Islands. Located on the southern tip of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, this scuba hot spot has been hard hit by the current political crisis, especially after the US State Department issued a warning against unnecessary travel to Honduras. When I visited the island of Roatan, in late October, many restaurants and hotels were still shuttered.
Jeremy Kryt photo
It had been the country’s main economic driver, but since the coup the Honduran tourist industry – which had grown by 9 percent in 2008 – had declined by 70 percent, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
“Slow season is even slower this year,” said Grazzia Matamoros, the Executive Director of the Roatan Marine Park. Widespread unemployment had led to a rise in crime, and the usually tranquil Caribbean hideaway had been rocked by a string of violent robberies and killings, many of them against American ex-pats and tourists. Matamoros also said that events in Tegucigalpa were having a direct effect on the Marine Park’s conservation efforts.
A biologist originally from Tegucigalpa, Matamoros said the government was “failing” to protect the delicate coral reef. Even out here, far from the capital, there was a heavy police presence, and officers with machine guns were seen lumbering along the sandy streets. Zelaya had made Roatan and the rest of the Bay Islands a “free zone” in 2007 – meaning all tax revenue from tourism now went directly to local municipalities. But after the new regime came to power, the island’s funds had been held up at the national level, forcing the Marine Park to cut back on anti-poaching patrols and alternative-livelihood programs for fisherman.
Overfishing in the Bay Islands is causing lobster, conch, and grouper stocks to plummet. Those collapses, along with runoff and sewage pollution from unsustainable development, have reduced the reef’s coral cover from 36 to 19 percent. Cruise ships, which can generate up to 2,000 gallons of oily bilge water and one megaton of trash each day, are also seen as a threat to the reef. Due to a combination of poor regulation and corruption, locals receive little dinero from all the tourism. In the fall of 2008, angry protestors on Roatan kept several cruise ships from docking, or forced them to leave early.
“Before the coup, we could count on a certain amount of international funding,” Matamoros said. “But nobody wants to invest here now.”
Well, maybe not quite nobody. Carnival Cruise Lines opened a massive new port on Roatan in November, making this 49-square-mile island second only to Mexico’s Cozumel for number of annual cruise ship visits in the Caribbean. Perhaps not coincidentally, the owner of the land on which the new port was built is Honduran Congressman Jerry Hynds, who also happens to be a supporter of junta-backed strongman Micheletti.
“About five percent of the cruise ship revenue actually goes to the islanders themselves,” said Nick Bach, an English conservationist who heads up educational and anti-poaching programs for the Roatan Marine Park. Bach said this creates a kind of love-hate relationship between tourists and locals. “The tourists come here and pollute, they break coral and disturb the tranquility,” he said. “They’re all in a little bubble, sitting on the beach with their margaritas. They don’t want to see the reality here. They’re on holiday. There’s no time to think about the maid cleaning your room.”
The Masters of Honduras
Deep in the forests of the Honduran highlands, in the tiny town of Salama, Olancho, there are very few tourists to worry about. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Some call President Zelaya’s home state of Olancho the logging capital of Honduras, and its once-rich pine forests are beginning to show signs of decline.
“We want tourism,” said Rene Wilfredo, 27, a coordinator for the Environmental Movement of Olancho (MAO) “Especially eco-tourism that can be sustainable. Right now the only way to make money from the forests is to cut them down.”
Wilfredo and I drove several hours in a battered, four-wheel-drive truck, climbing the switchback logging roads into the high pine forest, looking for signs of legal and illegal logging. The Honduran timber industry is a $1.3 billion a year business. A 2005 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency estimated that 50 percent of pine lumber and 80 percent of mahogany coming out of Honduras was illegally cut. “There are black market trucks carrying logs on the roads every night now,” Wilfredo said, as the pickup jounced in the ruts. “The local police are easily bribed. A few months ago, we had federal troops guarding the forests. Now Micheletti is using those soldiers against the resistance, and the loggers know they can get away with anything.” Looking back down the twisting mountain road, I could see the logging scars, like so many open wounds in the rolling green of the canopy below.
Back in Tegucigalpa, a few weeks before, I had met Father Andres Tamayo, co-director of MAO, and Goldman Environmental Award winner. The first time we met was in an unmarked office that I had trouble finding; the de facto regime had ordered his arrest for spreading “sedition.”
“Mel Zelaya sought practical solutions for protecting the forests,” said the priest, who is small and humble, with an infectious smile. “He was the first president to do this, and it was very brave. But it may also have been his political undoing.” Like the proposed mining reforms, Zelaya’s 2007 Forestry Law had mandated community participation in industrial decisions and established protected areas in the forest watersheds. It had also set sharp fines for illegal logging, including prison sentences of up to 15 years. Even more important, Zelaya had answered Tamayo’s call to send the Honduran army into the forests, authorizing it to sidestep corrupt police officials and enforce the new regulations itself.
“But it was too good,” Tamayo said. “The new rules were so effective. Suddenly the timber barons were losing money. That is why they have all backed the coup. They want to show they are the masters of Honduras.”
Two MAO activists were murdered in the winter of 2007, shortly after Zelaya’s law passed. According to MAO reports, Father Tamayo also received death threats from local logging giant Sansone. Tamayo is Salvadoran by birth, and a naturalized Honduran citizen. A few weeks after the coup, the Micheletti government – which has close ties to the timber industry – revoked the priest’s citizenship, and issued orders for his deportation. The last time I saw Tamayo, he had taken shelter with Zelaya inside the Embassy, unable to leave without facing arrest.
On the mountain in Olancho, when the logging road gave out, Wilfredo and I abandoned the truck and hiked up into one of the last remaining stretches of virgin timber in the state. The uncut forest was visibly different, the trees spaced widely as in a park, with little undergrowth; long beards of moss grew down from the pine branches.
Earlier that day, a source in the capital had told me that peaceful marchers had once again been violently repressed by the authorities. Presidential elections were a few weeks away, but many Hondurans, including Rene Wilfredo, believed that – regardless of who was elected – the coup regime’s economic agenda had already been achieved.
“They think they can do whatever they want,” Wilfredo said. “Why not? If you stand up to them, you’re dead.”
When we stopped to rest beside a fast-moving creek, I asked Wilfredo, who had joined MAO when he was 18, why he thought the post-coup government was neglecting both environmental concerns and human rights. He answered right away. “Greed,” he said, standing on a moss-covered log and looking down over the hillside. “That’s what holds the resistance together – We’re all struggling against the exact same thing.”
Jeremy Kryt is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in In These Times, Alternet, The Narco News Bulletin, and other publications. He is currently working on his first novel.