In Honduras, the conflict between the coup regime and supporters of the ousted president Manuel Zelaya remains at a standstill. Talks broke down last week after the coup regime refused to drop its objection to Zelaya’s return to office. Zelaya has accused the regime of trying to drag out negotiations until the presidential elections it plans to hold next month. Zelaya’s supporters are boycotting the elections, and the international community has refused to recognize them. The Canadian journalist and Al Jazeera English correspondent Avi Lewis recently traveled to Honduras for a rare look at the grassroots movement against the coup regime. This is an excerpt of his report, which aired on the Al Jazeera English program Fault Lines. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We turn now to Honduras, where the conflict between the coup regime and supporters of the ousted president Manuel Zelaya remains at a standstill. Talks broke down last week after the coup regime refused to drop its objection to Zelaya’s return to office. Zelaya has accused the regime of trying to drag out negotiations until the presidential elections it plans to hold next month. Zelaya’s supporters are boycotting the elections, and the international community has refused to recognize them.
Well, the Canadian journalist and Al Jazeera English correspondent Avi Lewis recently traveled to Honduras for a rare look at the grassroots movement against the coup regime. In this report, Lewis finds that Zelaya supporters aren’t just mobilizing for Zelaya’s return to office, but to support his effort to rewrite the Honduran constitution and create more equitable social conditions. Although the constitutional demands may have been lost in the diplomatic wrangling behind the scenes, it’s been kept alive in the Honduran streets. This is a truncated version of Avi Lewis’s report "100 Days of Resistance," which aired on the Al Jazeera English program Fault Lines.
AVI LEWIS: Every morning since the coup more than three months ago, people gather in the streets to protest. Sometimes it’s tens of thousands, sometimes just a few dozen, but this movement, which calls itself simply "the resistance," absolutely never misses a day.
ZELAYA SUPPORTER: [translated] We’re here on our ninety-fifth day in the streets to let the coup government know that we are not afraid.
AVI LEWIS: In the international media, the crisis here has been portrayed as a showdown between Zelaya and Micheletti, a dramatic chess game between political rivals. Spending time with the people in the streets, it becomes clear that much more is at stake for them. Of course the protesters want Zelaya back in power, but they also want to return to the project that the coup interrupted: the Constituyente, an assembly to write a new constitution for Honduras.
We meet a young woman named Daysi. From beneath her witch’s hat, she gives us her version of why a proposal to change a dusty document sparked a coup, a crisis and a social movement.
DAYSI FLORES: So our constitution is something that is made — it’s a decree made from all the oligarchies in this country. So it’s made after a coup, actually, in 1982, and it’s made to embrace the power of the ones that have the companies. So that’s what is so important, and that’s why everybody is so willing to fight for a Constituyente, because with that assembly, that implies the participation of all sectors in this country. So we have the hope.
AVI LEWIS: Hope is what brought Edwin Espinal home to Honduras. After nine years of working construction jobs in the US, he came back to be part of the Zelaya era. He and his wife Wendy are famous in the protest movement, known for showing up at every march on their green motorcycle. The day that Zelaya returned to Honduras is a day Edwin will never forget. He took us to the Brazilian embassy, where Zelaya sought refuge and told us his story.
EDWIN ESPINAL: When he got here, the whole country, you know, wanted to celebrate that. This area was crowded, you know, chanting, dancing, singing. Around 4:30 a.m., police and the army, they came from everywhere. I saw a huge cloud of smoke around us. We couldn’t see where to go, you know. And Wendy Elizabeth, she couldn’t breathe. She got — you know, I had to get her out of here, you know, as soon as I could. Her respiratory system gave out, just, you know, collapsed. And she didn’t make it.
AVI LEWIS: Wendy Elizabeth Avila was buried at the age of twenty-four. She suffered from asthma. The hospital told Edwin that she died of swine flu, and no autopsy was performed. While the cause of her death is disputed, Edwin has no doubt about who is to blame.
EDWIN ESPINAL: It’s these guys, this guy here behind me. They killed her. They killed her. And she was always, you know, trying to cheer the rest of the people, you know, with her smile. “Come on, we got to keep going! Let’s go!” You know? And everybody misses her. Everybody misses her. Nobody can believe it, what happened to her, including me.
AVI LEWIS: COFADEH, the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, is one of the country’s foremost human rights groups.
BERTHA OLIVA: [translated] What we have documented is a national emergency in human rights. It’s a war, of armed men in uniform against civilians who have decided to protest and demand, without violence, the return of constitutional order and the return of President Manuel Zelaya.
AVI LEWIS: Since the coup, COFADEH has documented thousands of alleged human rights violations, from beatings and arbitrary detentions to kidnappings and torture.
DELMER MEMBRENO: [translated] They threw me on to the floor and stomped on my head, took out a cigar and started burning me on the face, the arms and the chest.
AVI LEWIS: Delmer Membreno is one of those cases. He’s a young photographer with El Libertador, a monthly newspaper fiercely critical of the coup. He says he was kidnapped by masked men in a pickup truck with no license plates, that they took him to a field outside of town and forced him to kneel in the dirt.
DELMER MEMBRENO: [translated] One of them said, “Take off his hood. I want to see this Commie’s face when I kill him.” So he stuck his pistol in my face, and the other one said, “No, don’t kill him. Better to send a message to the editor of the paper that he will face something worse.”
AVI LEWIS: So how do you respond to the fact that Amnesty International has said, just in the past few days, that Honduras risks spiraling into a state of lawlessness, where police and military act with no regard for human rights or the rule of law?
GEN. ROMEO VASQUEZ: [translated] We have nothing to hide from the world. This information comes from a point of view. But the coin has two sides. You have to look at both sides. We have rules of engagement. Soldiers carry them in their pockets. They also carry cards that detail basic human rights.
AVI LEWIS: Exactly three months after the coup, de facto president Roberto Micheletti changed the rules of engagement, declaring a state of siege. The decree suspended freedom of speech and movement. Public meetings were banned. Police were given the power to arrest anyone without charge. And it became illegal for any media outlet to offend public dignity or government functionaries. The main television station critical of the regime was yanked off the air in the middle of the night. Radio Globo, the primary source of information for the daily protests, was also shut down. Though it managed to start up again online, its role in mobilizing opposition was ended.
AVI LEWIS: What happened here today?
ZELAYA SUPPORTER: Well, the Radio Globo, you know, they took away Radio Globo.
AVI LEWIS: They took away Radio Globo.
ZELAYA SUPPORTER: Yes.
AVI LEWIS: Why is that so emotional?
ZELAYA SUPPORTER: Because it was the only voice we could have here in Honduras.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: "100 Days of Resistance," a report by Avi Lewis, host of the program Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English. When we come back from break, we’ll bring you part two of that edited version of the report.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Stay with us.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:
We return to part two of the report on Honduras, "100 Days of Resistance," reported by Avi Lewis, host of the program Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English. Part two of this edited version begins with Avi Lewis interviewing a Honduran business leader who’s among the group of elite families that control much of Honduras’s wealth. Honduran business leaders have backed the coup regime and opposed Zelaya’s return.
Adolfo Facusse, a leading member of one of those families, is holding court in an emergency meeting of the country’s private sector roundtable. He’s presenting his plan to break the impasse. Like most other proposals, it has Manuel Zelaya returning to the presidency for the final weeks of his term, but stripped of most of his power. With the international community back on board, November’s elections would remove the stain of the coup, and business as usual would resume.
Visiting Facusse at his home, it’s clear that the country’s most powerful have little interest in changing the status quo.
ADOLFO FACUSSE: We don’t have a dictatorship. We don’t have a military coup d’état. There is no military running the show.
There was a process under Mel Zelaya where poor people were getting some small reforms and some voice in the political process, arguably for the first time ever. What is wrong with allowing those people to have a little bit more power in a desperately unequal society?
ADOLFO FACUSSE: Well, I think that it’s — it’s a good question. Zelaya wanted to do some changes, and to do that, instead of convincing us that what he was trying to do was good, he has tried to force us to accept his changes with the support of President Chávez of Venezuela.
The Micheletti government justified its takeover by claiming that Zelaya ,coached by Chávez, was trying to change the constitution to stay in power. In fact, evidence for this theory is hard to find. The day Zelaya was removed, he was going to hold a nonbinding public consultation on whether to have a vote on electing an assembly that would rewrite the constitution, which would then be subject to another vote by the whole electorate. A debate about presidential term limits was many steps and months, if not years, away.
So how did the power-grab story become so widely accepted, even in the international media?
RICK SANCHEZ: Because this guy was trying to pull a fast one. I mean, he was trying to stay in office à la Chávez, wasn’t he?
SEN. JIM DEMINT: Zelaya’s term is coming to an end next year. Chávez convinced him to do as he himself had done in Venezuela.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: This guy is acting extra-constitutionally. Yes, he was elected, but Hitler was, as well, and Chávez also was.
The Micheletti regime and its backers have spent at least $400,000 US dollars on PR and lobbying in the United States. Their allies are both Democrats and Republicans, some with a controversial history in the region:
Roger Noriega, former Bush administration official, hard-line anti-Castro voice.
Lanny Davis, friend and one-time advisor to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, lobbying for the de facto government.
Otto Reich, a key figure from the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
And José Cárdenas, former head of the largest Cuban American lobby group in Washington.
JÓSÉ CÁRDENAS: I think Hugo Chávez understands, if he fails in Honduras, that is going to be a mortal blow to his regional leadership aspirations. If it can happen in Honduras, then it can happen in El Salvador, it can happen in Nicaragua, and then it can happen in South America.
The Obama administration, for its part, has laid off the Cold War rhetoric and called for Zelaya’s return, though its diplomatic measures against the coup government have been largely symbolic. More importantly, the endgame the White House has endorsed is much the same as the one backed by both lobbyists in Washington and the business elite in Honduras.
P.J. CROWLEY: We’re not taking sides against the de facto regime, per se, versus Zelaya. On the other hand, we want to get Honduras to a free and fair election so that you can get past this crisis and get back to solving the problems of Honduras. That is the focus that we have.
Back in Tegucigalpa, if you look carefully, you can see what will be lost in this scenario. The movement’s core demand, hidden in plain sight: the Constituyente, a new constitution, a re-founding of the country on more equitable terms.
ALFREDO LÓPEZ: With the president in the presidency, or without him, no matter what, we need a new constitution. That’s the fight. That’s the main key.
It’s a fight that Manuel Zelaya dropped shortly after being removed from power.
For days, we’d been negotiating with the police to talk to Zelaya, but a face-to-face meeting was not going to happen.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:
"100 Days of Resistance," a report by Avi Lewis, host of the program Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English. It’s produced by Avi Lewis and Andrea Schmidt, with assistance by freelancer Tim Russo.
We’re going to go now to Toronto, where Avi Lewis joins us now on the telephone.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Avi. Can you talk about this trip that you took to Honduras? We’ve seen in the media in this country a portrayal of Zelaya and Micheletti as the two prime players, but you paint a more nuanced political narrative. Can you talk about that?
Well, in — Sharif, that was one of our motivations for wanting to go to Honduras, to try to get beyond the easy political narratives that have dominated the coverage of the issue. And as we started this show, with talk of how Iraq has disappeared from the front pages, you know, we’re dealing with only the second military coup in the hemisphere since the end of the Cold War. And as it grinds on, and the Micheletti regime is really trying to run out the clock to the elections at the end of next month, this story has disappeared again. And it’s clear that the negotiations are more or less a sham; they’re not really going to go anywhere. And so, we wanted to get beyond the sort of surface level of reporting that we’ve been getting.
And what we found was, first of all — I mean, we went straight from the airport to a funeral of that young woman who died after exposure to massive teargas in a demonstration. So we found a tremendous amount of sadness, but extraordinary resilience in the number of people who are going out day after day to the streets.
It’s clearly about something more than calling for the return of Zelaya. Zelaya, his term is over in January, regardless of whether he’s returned to power or not. He was a lame duck president when he was ousted. So, this sort of notion that the whole movement against the coup is for the return of Zelaya is a really shallow assessment.
Of course, constitutional order must return in Honduras. And there’s a powerful symbolic value in a coup government not being allowed to stand and the effects of that coup being reversed. But that doesn’t address the deep inequalities in Honduran society. And it doesn’t address the tremendous difficulties they have with their constitution, which Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, who is, you know, not exactly — he’s known as a diplomatic guy; that’s what he got his Nobel Peace Prize for. He called the Honduran constitution the worst in the world.
So that process of opening up the constitution to include indigenous rights and rights for women and really address the deep inequities in a country which is really controlled by just a handful of families, the oligarchs, that’s what this was all about. That was the threat to the established order, not Zelaya himself, not the red herring of whether or not he was trying to stay in power.
None of that stuff was actually defined in the process. They were opening a process where people could storm the gates of power in a democratic, constitutional process, and that was threatening to the people who hold power in Honduras. That’s the project that will — could lead to a rebalancing of power in society. That project, unfortunately, is off the table right now.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:
And Avi Lewis, we just have a minute, but the role of the United States in these talks and in the region?
Well, the United States imposed $33 million of sanctions and took away some passports of the coup supporters. That was months ago. The United States could do all kinds of things, including playing a much more robust role in the OAS process. And there just hasn’t been real international pressure.
Interviewing P.J. Crowley at the State Department, I heard very clearly the United States — the Obama administration is happy for elections to play out at the end of next month and to cleanse the stain of the coup. They just need some sort of — they need some sort of excuse to legitimize those elections.
But everybody on all sides, except for the people in the streets, are saying — and a number of — many, many candidates who are now going to boycott the election, which must be reported on more, most of the powerful forces want the elections to go ahead and give an excuse for the status quo to return. So the United States is doing nothing in its power to really stop that, and that’s where Americans need to take more of a voice.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:
Avi Lewis is host of Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English. We want to thank you very much for being with us. His piece, "100 Days of Resistance," is available in full on Al Jazeera English’s YouTube channel. We’ll link to that at democracynow.org.