Sunday, November 29, 2009

Empty Streets on Election Day

by Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

Tegucigalpa woke on ‘election’ day to eerily quiet streets. The few taxis working this morning cruised easily through roads normally congested with traffic. The great majority of stores and business (excluding the fast food chains) kept their metal shutters tightly secured. Driving through this sudden ghost city, the few areas that showed some signs of human activity were the capital’s high schools as they transformed themselves into polling stations to host the activity so important to representative democracies: voting.

The number of Honduran citizens that went to the polls today is certain to be a hotly disputed issue. The National Resistance Front estimated this afternoon that 30-35% of the populace placed a vote. Porfirio Lobo of the National Party, proclaimed the winner of the elections, announced during his victory speech that 80% of Hondurans filled in ballots. A quick examination of recent electoral trends (in 2005 56% of Hondurans voted) makes this number sound incredulous.

A woman places her vote at  a polling station in Tegucigalpa

A woman places her vote at a polling station in Tegucigalpa

Visiting polling stations throughout Tegucigalpa today, the number of people in attendance seemed scant. Police and soldiers manned the entrances to the schools and occasionally strolled through the voting stations themselves.

Soldiers at a polling station on Sunday

Soldiers at a polling station on Sunday

But voter turnout will probably not be the deciding factor as the United States makes a final determination about recognition of today’s event. The reports of the approximately three hundred election observers in the country over the weekend (including representatives chosen by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute) will weigh more heavily in that decision.

Interactions with these electoral observers today left little doubt what their final say would be. Bosco Daniel Mayorga, an observer representing the Conservative Party in Nicaragua, noted that “Honduras has the strongest democracy in all of Central America. For those of us in Nicaragua, Honduras is an inspiration…we will recognize these elections.” These statements were made at 2:30PM, a full two and a half hours before the polls officially closed.

International election observers flirt with two young women at a polling station in the capital

International election observers flirt with two young women at a polling station in the capital

An observer from the United States commented this evening that the head of the de facto regime, Roberto Micheletti, is one of her “personal heroes” and that he showed great courage in pushing forward when the “entire world was against him.” With this sort of observation impartiality, the final judgment isn’t hard to imagine.

Election details aside, the question at the heart of the matter is whether or not elections overseen by a coup regime should be recognized as legitimate by other governments. On the morning of the elections, the human rights group COFADEH reported approximately 30 cases of illegal detention from the previous day. When that coup government maintains itself through violence and intimidation during the campaigning period, the fairness, freedom and transparency that are foundational to democratic elections are called into deep question.

When a coup regime presides over elections, do those elections mark the end of a coup? Depending on the recognition they receive, they could mark its victory.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tragedy and "Tranquility" Reveal Dual Realities in Honduras

by Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

On the eve of Honduras’ “elections,” Angel Sagrado lays in critical condition in a hospital bed in downtown Tegucigalpa. After nearly twenty-four hours of delicate surgery during which doctors attempted to remove the bullet lodged in Angel’s head, he was transferred to the recovery room late this afternoon.

Angel Sagrado lays in critical condition after soldiers fired on his car on Friday night.

According to witnesses’ reports, the bullet that penetrated Angel’s skull was just one in a hail of gunfire that soldiers unleashed on Angel’s car on Friday night. As his car took a turn near the neighborhood La Granga in Tegucigalpa, Angel was surprised to find himself rapidly nearing a military barricade constructed alongside the road. He apparently attempted to slam on the breaks, but his vehicle scraped the cement barrier. At that point uniformed soldiers open fire directly on the car, putting a bullet into the back of Angel’s head. It is unclear whether he will recover from the shooting.

As Angel’s car approached the barricade, M.H. was selling food at her nearby stand. Hearing the squeal of tires and the first shots fired in the barrage of bullets, she attempted to crouch down for protection. At that point it appears that a stray bullet grazed the left side of her head. After he was shot, Angel’s unmanned car swerved in the road, smashing into a taxi. The impact of the vehicles sent them spinning onto the sidewalk, crushing M.H. and causing serious injury to her lower abdomen. She is also in critical condition in a Tegucigalpa hospital.

M.H. was injured in the same incident, likely by a stray bullet.

M.H. was injured in the same incident, likely by a stray bullet.

O.H., the sister of M.H., gave an interview on Saturday under the condition that only her initials be printed. Why does she feel the need to protect her identity? “We are afraid of the people that did this,” she says. “How can we file a complaint if it is the police, if it is the soldiers that fired the shots? My sister has three children. What will we do? She was both mother and father to these children…The police cleaned up the whole area, cleaned up all of the blood, collected the bullets.”

O.H. feels that the only place she can turn to for help in an investigation are independent human rights organizations. This is the atmosphere of terror that innocent victims of police and military violence are living under the day before the “elections” that have been much celebrated by the coup regime as a way to solve Honduras’ five-month old crisis. Those that have suffered repression or violence at the hands of soldiers know they cannot turn to the official legal institutions for justice. Indeed, filing claims could lead to harassment, threats, or much worse.

A group of election observers whisked off on a Supreme Electoral Tribunal retreat this morning were presented with a markedly different picture of pre-“election” Honduras. In Valle los Angeles, a small tourist hub forty minutes west of the capital, the officials strolled leisurely down closed-off streets and bought memorabilia at cigar and souvenir shops. Other observers paused to examine paintings at the town’s small museum. One Costa Rican delegate noted that, though he has only been in the country for two days, the atmosphere appears to be quiet and normal.

Election observers in front of a souvenir shop in Valle los Angeles on Saturday morning.

Election observers in front of a souvenir shop in Valle los Angeles

When asked about their strategy for monitoring tomorrow’s elections, delegates replied that they had not yet been informed where they will be stationed. A patrol of soldiers was assigned to secure the town while the observers were present. The de facto government has promised that Honduras’ armed forces will “ensure tranquility” during the electoral process tomorrow.

Armed Forces patrol Valle los Angeles

The heavily armed troops might signify comfort and tranquility to election observers, but tomorrow will be anything but a tranquil day for the Sagrado family.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Will Election Observers Understand the Context of the "Elections"?

by Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

“The three emotions you will see most prevalently this weekend are fear, uncertainty and happiness,” says Felix Molina of Radio Progreso, an independent radio station in northern Honduras. This is a strange mixture to be sure, but one that reflects the bizarre conditions under which this weekend’s elections will be held.

“Happiness will be seen on the faces of those that supported this coup and look at what they call the 'election party' as a solution to our country’s crisis.” This is the narrative that Micheletti’s regime has been urgently presenting to the international community and that Honduras’ mainstream media has been pushing on the population over the last five months.

“Uncertainty is the emotion that will be seen most generally.” No one knows exactly what this weekend will bring or what the reaction to the elections hosted by the coup regime will be. The narrative of a crisis resolved by the electoral process has not taken deep root here in Honduras nor is it gaining much weight internationally. Molina notes that the most optimistic estimates suggest that of the approximately 4.6 million Hondurans registered to vote on Sunday, 1.5 million or so will turn out. This would be a drastic drop in voter turnout from the 56% that went to the polls in 2005. Despite the U.S. drive to legitimize the elections by sending observers and reneging on earlier commitments to condition recognition of the elections on Manuel Zelaya’s reinstatement to the presidency, few other nations seem to be ready to accept Sunday’s outcome.

Fear is the emotion that will be haunting those who have taken an open stand against the June 28th coup this weekend. To understand the extent to which the coup regime has been able to instill fear in its population one only has to attend an even hosted by the resistance movement in these days before the election. The attendance at marches that one month ago would draw out thousands of people has greatly dwindled. Ramon Espinoza, a student at the National Autonomous University, explains why people are staying inside. “Our original idea was to take over the university in the days before the election to protest the farce, but we hear in the media and through rumors that soldiers have orders to shoot on sight if they see disturbances. We have to make a decision about whether to face that.” With the human rights organization COFADEH now recording thirty political assassinations by police and military forces in the last five months, Hondurans know that these rumors have teeth.

However, it is not only fear that will keep members of the resistance off the streets on Sunday. It is also part of the strategy being adopted by the National Resistance Front. The movement refuses to recognize the “elections” as such, referring to them simply as “the event.” A call has been put out for people to stay at home. Let the show take place – the thinking goes – and then we will resume the struggle against a new government equally as illegitimate as the current de facto one.

Meanwhile, election observers began arriving yesterday to the Marriott, Clarion and Intercontinental hotels here in Tegucigalpa. They will participate in orientation sessions organized by the Supreme Electoral Council over the next two days. As the website of the National Democratic Institute, which is sending twenty observers, notes, “severe time constraints precluded sending long-term observers, a pre-election mission to assess thoroughly the campaign period, or a large-scale deployment of observers throughout the country.” With such little time and scant presence on the ground, one must wonder how accurate any analysis of the fairness and transparency of these elections by the observers can possibly be. Which of the above emotions will they be able to detect? We certainly know which one the coup regime will be fiercely trying to portray.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Pre-Election Environment in Honduras

by Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

Hondurans light candles

Young girl lights a candle at a vigil for the International Day Against Violence Against Women near the barricaded Brazilian Embassy. Honduran human rights organizations have recorded twenty nine cases of rape by the military and police since the June 28th coup.

On the walls and street-signs of Tegucigalpa, graffiti proclaiming “Yes to the Constituent Assembly!” and “Go Home, Coup-mongers!” is juxtaposed with posters advertising the presidential candidacies of Elvin Santos and Porfirio Lobo. With just four days remaining before the November 29 elections, which Micheletti’s regime has been adamantly advertising as a solution to the five month-old political crisis in Honduras, the red and blue colors of the two main political parties have consumed the city. Despite the fanfare, the prospect of elections hosted and strictly controlled by a repressive coup regime - with the democratically elected president barricaded in the Brazilian embassy, independent candidates boycotting the electoral process, and independent media outlets being shut down - doesn’t seem to all Hondurans to be any solution whatsoever.

“It’s not even worth the effort to go out and vote on Sunday,” says one taxi driver in the capital. “These elections are illegal. The candidates are not concerned about the people of Honduras.” Indeed, “No,” has been the most common answer to the question, “Will you vote on Sunday?” in the streets of Tegucigalpa.

This sentiment on the part of a significant portion of the Honduran citizenry (not to mention the example set by the Organization of American States, the European Union and the United Nations not to send election observers to Honduras this weekend) has been ignored in Washington. Newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, announced two days ago that U.S. election observers from the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute will be present in Honduras on Sunday. This announcement comes on the heels of comments from the State Department that the election results will be recognized by the United States whether or not Manuel Zelaya is previously restored to the presidency. With these assurances coming from Washington, Micheletti’s government has pushed ahead with the election proceedings.

For the coup regime, pushing ahead includes committing human rights atrocities. Unconfirmed reports of the political assassination of yet another professor in southern Honduras are circulating today. Cases of arbitrary detention continue to flow into the offices of the human rights organization COFADEH. The independent television station, Canal 36, is off the air and the screen reads only, “Our signal is being blocked to prohibit us from distributing information.” These are the conditions that, for the U.S. State Department, constitute ‘free, fair and transparent elections’ in Honduras.

Monday, November 9, 2009

U.S. Hands Victory to the Coup Regime in Honduras

by Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

Last Friday Manuel Zelaya declared from his refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa that the U.S.-brokered deal signed on October 30th was dead. This declaration was prompted by Roberto Micheletti’s appointment of a “unity and reconciliation government” that does not include a single Zelaya-appointed representative, just as the Thursday evening deadline approached.

It is certainly an embarrassment to the U.S. that the deal it pushed through has fallen apart. But what should be more embarrassing, and is certainly not lost on the population of Honduras, is that Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon set the stage for the deal’s collapse. Though it was assumed that the deal would restore Honduras’ constitutional president to power, Mr. Shannon announced just days later that the U.S. would recognize the November 29 elections whether or not Zelaya was reinstated. The coup regime has quite obviously taken this as a pledge of support from the United States government, and in this context the return of President Zelaya seems far from likely.

The great embarrassment and tragedy here is the blatant disregard for democratic processes and constitutional order in Honduras on the part of the U.S., whose goal of legitimizing the November elections at any cost is now all too apparent. Meanwhile, the U.S. has remained inexplicably mum on the burgeoning number of human rights violations perpetuated by the coup regime: 21 murders, over 800 beatings and physical attacks, over 50 acts of media repression, and over 3,000 arbitrary arrests (see the full human rights report here).

Honduran social movements have said “enough is enough.” In a communiqué released this morning the National Resistance Front announced it would not recognize of the November 29 electoral process. With only twenty days remaining before the elections they do not believe that fair and transparent elections can be held, even if Zelaya is reinstated during that time. Carlos H. Reyes, an independent presidential candidate, also announced his withdrawal from the race so as not to legitimize the process.

U.S. citizens must now ratchet up the pressure on the Obama administration urging them not to recognize the November 29 elections. Our officials must understand that elections held by a coup regime do not signify the end of a coup. They signify its victory.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More Delays in Honduras

by Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

The initial optimism inspired by last Friday’s announcement of an agreement signed between the Micheletti and Zelaya camps is starting to dwindle. It is becoming increasingly clear that Micheletti’s government - in a continuation of the foot-dragging tactics characteristic of this coup regime - plans to utilize loopholes in the agreement in order to delay Zelaya’s return to office. The Honduran Congress, which must make a final decision on whether to reinstate Zelaya, is currently in recess. As of yet no announcement has been made as to when Congress will convene to vote on Zelaya’s return. It appears that they will likely stall until the Supreme Court of Justice issues an opinion on the matter.

What does this all mean? Despite the fanfare and pretty words surrounding the signing of the agreement, constitutional order has net yet been restored in Honduras. The coup regime continues to buy time as the elections inch ever closer.

On Tuesday, Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, announced that the United States is ready to recognize the November 29 elections whether or not Manuel Zelaya is restored to the presidency beforehand. Though disheartening, this statement by Shannon is not surprising when the U.S. reaction to the coup d’etat over the last four months is considered. The U.S. approach has from the start been dangerously ambiguous. Rather than standing with the rest of the hemisphere in calling for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Honduras’ democratically elected president, Hillary Clinton and the State Department drew up plans for negotiations between Zelaya and the de facto regime. This provided a legitimate international forum for a coup government they claimed not to recognize or consider legitimate. This ambiguity has been a key factor in permitting the coup regime to maintain their violent grip on power. Shannon’s statement underscores a point that many Hondurans have known all along – the U.S. has been content to watch democracy be trampled in Honduras.

Whether or not the United States recognizes the upcoming elections, it is clear that many Hondurans courageously struggling for the restoration of constitutional order will not accept them so easily. Berta Oliva, director of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained in Honduras (COFADEH), spoke of the possibility for fair and transparent elections on November 29 as a “sick joke.” Over the past four months freedoms of expression, assembly and the press have been consistently and brutally violated. Without the guarantee of these freedoms, Olivia notes it would be impossible for alternative candidates to hold an electoral campaign. She suggests pushing the elections back three months after Zelaya’s hopeful return to office.