Program on the Americas director for Nonviolence International. He also works at Democracy Now! en Español.
In Honduras, ousted president Manuel Zelaya is due to leave the country today after President-elect Porfirio Lobo is sworn into office. Zelaya has taken refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa since returning to Honduras in September. On Tuesday, the Honduran Supreme Court dismissed all charges against six military commanders involved in the June 28th coup that removed Zelaya from office. We go inside the Brazilian embassy to speak with Democracy Now!’s Andrés Conteris. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re in Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival headquarters. In our next segment we’ll be talking about a new film and also how it relates to the issues of today — it’s called Casino Jack [and] the United States of Money — and looking at the Supreme Court decision that opens the floodgates for corporate money in politics.
But right now we’re going to Honduras. Ousted president Manuel Zelaya is due to leave the country today after the President-elect Porfirio Lobo is sworn into office. Zelaya has taken refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa since returning to Honduras in September.
Lobo was elected last November in a race boycotted by Zelaya supporters. Zelaya plans to travel to the Dominican Republic today under the terms of an agreement signed by Lobo and the Dominican President Leonel Fernández. Zelaya still faces treason and abuse-of-power charges, although Lobo has indicated he supports granting him amnesty.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court in Honduras dismissed all charges against six military commanders involved in the June 28th coup that removed Zelaya from office. The head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vásquez, air force chief General Javier Prince, and the navy commander General Juan Pablo Rodríguez were among the officers being prosecuted. They were accused of abuse of power for ordering soldiers to storm into Zelaya’s house, arrest him, and fly him to Costa Rica at gunpoint. Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera said in a statement that, quote, "prosecutors failed to prove the military chiefs acted with malice."
For more, we go right now inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, where Manuel Zelaya has been holed up for the last four months since returning to Honduras. We’re joined by Democracy Now! audio stream by Andrés Conteris, Program on the Americas director for Nonviolence International and works with Democracy Now! en Español. He has been with President Zelaya for that four months inside the embassy.
Tell us what’s happening there right now. Is the President, Zelaya, preparing to leave? What’s going on inside the embassy, and how was this deal negotiated, Andrés?
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: Yes, Amy, President Zelaya is in fact preparing to leave today. This accord was negotiated between Pepe Lobo, the incoming president, and President Leonel Fernández from the Dominican Republic. President Zelaya is in agreement with that accord that was reached. He said that it expressed goodwill on part of the incoming president, Porfirio Lobo. And it means that the President will finally leave the embassy today, after 129 days. He will have a safe conduct passage from the embassy to the airport, and from there the President Leonel Fernández will accompany him to the Dominican Republic.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the guarantees that have been made to, well, President Manuel Zelaya? And what happens to everyone inside the Brazilian embassy, including you, Andrés? You’ve been there now for 129 days.
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: The guarantees that have been offered to President Zelaya include the fact that when the actual inauguration takes place, the very first act, I believe, of Porfirio Lobo will be to sign the order allowing safe passage. There are some right-wingers in the Congress who have protested this, saying that there is no treaty that should allow a safe passage for someone who has criminal violations. And the amnesty will in fact cover President Zelaya; however, it is not yet a law. So President Zelaya is counting on the international community’s support, with the accompaniment of the president from the Dominican Republic and the fact that he is agreeing to leave the country, which will leave Porfirio Lobo with a brand new start for his government.
In terms of those of us in the embassy, it has been quite an ordeal. The very first morning that we were here, on September 22nd, we were greeted with a very severe attack of tear gas, which was directed toward the thousands of protesters in the streets. In fact, one woman, Wendy Avila, was killed as a result of that tear gas attack. And those of us here in the embassy could feel it very, very strong. The treatment by the both military and the police during these last four months has involved basically psychological warfare operations against us. Very loud shrieking noises have been used as weapons against us, as well as lamps, very strong lights during the nighttime. Also interfering with our communications. We have a photograph of a birthday cake that was bayoneted as a symbol to us, those inside the embassy here. So those kinds of messages have been loud and clear by the coup regime, and it will be really a big relief for myself, as well as for my six other colleagues — there are seven of us who are accompanying both President Zelaya and his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Honduran Supreme Court decision?
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: The Supreme Court made a decision to basically throw out the charges against the military high command. The military high command was charged with a very low-level crime, which is violating Article 102 of the Constitution, which says that no Honduran citizen can in fact be expatriated. They cannot be forced into exile. And so, this minor criminal charge was brought against all of the military high command as a symbolic gesture so that they could benefit from the amnesty, because if they’re not officially charged, they would not benefit from the amnesty, for one.
But even though amnesty was adopted, the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday was totally in line with their complicity all along with the coup itself, because they ratified the coup very shortly after June 28th, the day of it, the day of the coup itself. And now this throwing out of the charges against the military high command once again shows that they are perpetrators, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Andrés Conteris, about the background of the military officers who were responsible for ousting President Zelaya?
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: The chief general, whose name is Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, he is someone who has been known to be involved in repression, and he is trained at the School of the Americas, this infamous institution that has trained coup leaders throughout the Americas, torturers, those who are most well known for their repressive histories. And Romeo Vásquez Velásquez is no exception whatsoever.
Under his repressive rule during the coup and in the months afterwards, human rights violations have just skyrocketed. President Zelaya has documented the attacks against 4,000 people in some form or other of a human rights violation. This includes political prisoners. It includes rapes. It includes torture, disappearance, and it includes the murder and assassination of nonviolent supporters of the resistance. So this military, which is really the power behind the throne, is very, very much responsible for the coup itself, as well as for the repression that has followed.
And we have to point out the US involvement in this, because the Southern Command of the US Pentagon is very much close to the Honduran military, given that they trained the key leader, as well as the chief of the Air Force, General Prince. He was also trained at the School of the Americas. So the training of these coup leaders creates the relationship for the complicity, for the United States Pentagon to be very closely associated with the Honduran military.
This was shown in some military exercises that took place off the coast of Panama in these exercises called PANAMAX. Honduras was initially invited; however, they were not disinvited after the coup, even though the State Department was saying that military relations were cut with Honduras. So that invitation remained as a sign that the US continued with military relations. They also continued training soldiers at the School of the Americas, which is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, even though, as I say, the State Department said that military ties were cut with Honduras after the coup.
AMY GOODMAN: The US delegation that is going to celebrate the inauguration of President Lobo, who are they and what’s their relationship with Manuel Zelaya?
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: The head of the delegation from the United States is the Assistant Secretary Valenzuela. This man was — his confirmation was held up in the US Senate by Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina. Why was his confirmation set up? Because the United States policy under the Obama administration had not come out saying that it would support the election of whoever would be elected on November the 29th, whether or not President Zelaya was restored to power.
When this took place, when the US declared itself in favor of the elections, whether or not President Zelaya would be restored to power, this was a complete act of sabotage of the accord that was signed between the United States and — I’m sorry, between the coup regime headed by Roberto Micheletti and President Zelaya and his negotiating team. That accord was signed on October the 30th. And very immediately after it was signed, the predecessor of Arturo Valenzuela, who was Thomas Shannon, he returned to Washington. He had an interview on CNN, and on that interview is when he said that the US would, in fact, accept the results of the sham election, which is what President Zelaya calls it, in spite of the fact that the President would not be restored.
And so, the spirit of the accord included the return of President Zelaya to power, which means a return to democracy. It means returning President Zelaya as the elected leader of this country by the majority of the people four years ago. And the US complicity in subverting the accord shows also their complicity in the coup itself and in the repression that has followed.
AMY GOODMAN: There will be a very interesting picture today, Andrés, of Manuel Zelaya being escorted to the airport — is this right? — by, well, who will be the President, Lobo.
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: Yes, that is right. We do know, in fact, that President Leonel Fernández from the Dominican Republic and President Colom from Guatemala will come here to the embassy. This is the plan. We don’t know exactly if President-elect Lobo, soon to be inaugurated as president, will in fact come to the embassy and escort President Zelaya to the airport. That is yet to be seen. But you are absolutely right, that would be a very interesting picture.
And we have to note the involvement of the resistance. This nonviolent resistance that was born on June the 28th has grown incredibly, with daily protests for many, many months until the election. They were in the streets. They faced severe repression. They continued to be creative with their artistic expression and with showing that they believed in democracy and they were willing to put their lives on the line. The resistance today will be at the airport to bid farewell to their president, Manuel Zelaya Rosales. And that will be the picture that will be most important to show around the world, that this democratic movement that has survived the repression, in spite of the coup and in spite of US policy, they are alive and well, and they are growing. They are the ones who are asking for a new constitution that will respond to the needs of the people and not to the military, economic and political elite of this country, which currently benefits from the Constitution that exists.
AMY GOODMAN: And the human rights record in Honduras during the time that President Zelaya was ousted?
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: Yes, it’s very clear that the repression escalated enormously after June 28th coup. President Zelaya clearly stated there were over 4,000 human rights violations. These included 3,000 illegal detentions, 114 political prisoners. It included 130 killings. That is outright political assassinations. And many of those bodies were tortured, decapitated. And they included Wendy Avila, who was killed right here outside the embassy as a result of the tear gas attack, and over 450 wounded and hospitalized.
We also have to point out the rapes. The political-motivated rape of women has also been a very severe form of the repression caused by the coup regime.
Also the attacks against the Afro Caribbean people, the Garifuna people. They have faced decades of repression by the economic elite and military elite of this country, and recently they suffered an attack on their community radio station. It’s called Sweet Coconut. It’s located up in Triunfo de la Cruz on the coast of Honduras. And these Garifuna people are part of the nonviolent resistance that will be going to the airport today to bid farewell to President Zelaya.
AMY GOODMAN: Where will President Zelaya live? He’s going to the Dominican Republic, but where will he then reside? And he — can he ever run for president again in Honduras?
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: The plans of President Zelaya are, after he leaves Honduras, he will be either a few days or up to a week or, at most, a few weeks in the Dominican Republic, but then his plan is to go to Mexico. He will reside in Mexico for as long as the foreseeable future.
But his intent is to return to Honduras, not to run again as president, because that is barred in the Constitution, but he wants to continue to be a political leader of the people and of the resistance movement that has been born as a result of this coup. And President Zelaya has clearly declared his allegiance to the people and to the process toward a constituent assembly.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrés Conteris, finally, you and the others, how many are there outside of President and Mrs. Zelaya? And can you just walk outside the embassy once he has left, the Brazilian embassy, where you, too, have been holed up for four months?
ANDRÉS CONTERIS: On the 28th of — I’m sorry, on the 21st of September was the day that President Zelaya arrived here to the embassy. And there were over 300 people who spent the night that night, and the next morning was the very repressive morning with the tear gas attack and the shrieking, shrill noise. And then, slowly, over time, these hundreds of people have left the embassy. There are now only seven of us who are accompanying the First Lady Xiomara and President Zelaya. So there are nine of us here in total.
Our plans are to leave the embassy. Some of those who have left over the past few months have faced political charges, we believe, because they have deep — dug deep into their records and found practically expired warrants. So there have been those who have been interrogated by the police after leaving the embassy. Some of us who are left, the seven of us, may face that, as well. But basically, there will be a lot of attention on us, as well, so it’s very likely that any repression against the Hondurans who have remained this long will not happen today, but it could happen very much in the weeks and months to come.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrés Thomas Conteris, thank you very much for being with us, speaking to us from inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucagulpa, perhaps for the last time, as he heads out, as well. President Zelaya will be leaving Honduras today — that’s the plan — going to the airport and flying to the Dominican Republic, as the new president, which Zelaya supporters boycotted, didn’t participate in the election in November, is escorted to the airport.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Best of luck, Andrés.