Friday, October 30, 2009

Is the Honduras Agreement a Breakthrough?

by Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

Out of Honduras today come reports that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and representatives of the de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti have signed a deal that could lead to the restoration of Zelaya to office. The deal stipulates the formation of a “unity government,” the establishment of a “verification commission” composed of two international representatives chosen by the Organization of American States and two national representatives to ensure that the deal’s guidelines are upheld, and a final vote by the National Congress on whether or not to restore Zelaya to power.

Response to the news of the deal has so far been mixed. A communiqué released earlier today by the National Resistance Front, which has organized daily protestsagainst the coup regime over the last four months, celebrated the “people’s victory” represented by the deal, the expected “restoration of President Manuel Zelaya,” and the symbolism of the deal as an “explicit recognition that in Honduras there was a coup d’etat that should be dismantled in order to return to constitutional order.” However, for many that have been involved in the struggle for the return of democracy in Honduras, questions abound surrounding the true intent of the deal and what its results will ultimately be.

Betty Matamoros of the National Resistance Front expressed concern today that the last-minute deal will serve first and foremost to legitimize the November 29 elections. The ability of the Honduran people to vote freely and fairly in the wake of four months of repression and violence on the part of the de facto government is highly questionable. She also noted that the deal’s signing does not mean an immediate return of Zelaya to the presidency. “First a verification commission needs to be composed, then the Congress has to sign off on the deal, which could be a slow process, and the Supreme Court of Justice might even be involved. We don’t know how long this might take.” The coup regime’s strategy thus far has been reliant on delay-tactics to block Zelaya’s return. If Congress is slow to sign off on the deal, it could mean that the de facto regime retains power in these crucial days and weeks leading up to the elections.

Nectali Rodezno of the Association of Lawyers Against the Coup expresses similar unease with the deal. “This deal will legitimize the elections, but that doesn’t mean it will restore democracy in Honduras.” He also questioned the role of the U.S. government in formulating the agreement. Assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon and two other government representatives have been in Tegucigalpa in recent days and were influential in brokering the agreement. After four months in which ambiguity on the part of the U.S. allowed the coup regime to maintain power, Mr. Rodezno is wary of a deal that makes the U.S. negotiators out to be “saviors.” The coming days will reveal how serious a push for the restoration of democratic and constitutional order in Honduras this agreement truly constitutes.

Meanwhile, the violent repression of protests in Tegucigalpa continues, with military and police firing tear gas on demonstrators in the capital yesterday.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Colombia: Mass Graves and Military Aid

by Jess Hunter-Bowman, WFP Associate Director

Sooner or later the truth has a way of showing its face. Recently, an important sliver of truth came out of Colombia.

In 1999 and 2000, the Clinton Administration and key congressional offices were wringing their hands over how to convince skeptical figures on Capitol Hill and across the U.S. that funding the Colombian Army—the army with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere—was a good idea, or even legal. Since every single Colombian army brigade was too dirty to fund, the Pentagon’s brilliant solution to the impasse was to create an entirely new brigade—a counternarcotics brigade with only “clean” soldiers hand picked out of dirty units.

$1.3 billion dollars soon began to flow from Washington to Putumayo, ground zero for Plan Colombia. Witness for Peace staff with a member of the Colombian military

Soon thereafter, Witness for Peace staff in Colombia took a delegation to Putumayo to assess the situation and stand with the conflict’s victims. During our time there, the group visited the Santana military base and spoke with a Colombian Army Colonel—the commander of a battalion in the counternarcotics brigade. The delegation had been told of countless people killed at the hands of paramilitaries and guerrillas in the area. The paramilitaries were particularly vicious as they moved into the area, brutal massacres being their calling card. Thousands were killed.

On our way to the military base—just a few miles outside of town—we passed Villa Sandra. This farm, we were told time and time again, was the operating base for the paramilitaries in the area.

This paramilitary headquarters was just minutes down the road from the Santana military base—now home to the U.S.-funded counternarcotics battalion.

When the WFP delegation asked the Army Colonel about the paramilitaries in Putumayo, he downplayed their presence in the area and denied the military had any relationship with them. That was before he told the group about his training at the School of the Americas.

WFP took what it had seen and heard to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and was told the billions in U.S. military aid was only flowing to vetted units—army battalions with no relationship with the paramilitaries, much less involved in human rights abuses.

We took what we’d learned to Washington and were told that the Colombian military was an important ally in the drug war and couldn’t be involved with death squads.

Now, years later, the truth told to us by brave farmers, priests and community organizers in Putumayo has been confirmed by the paramilitaries themselves.

Thanks to our colleague Adam Isacson at the Center for International Policy, we recently learned that John Jairo Rentería Zúñiga, alias “Betún,” a demobilized member of the paramilitaries Southern Front of Putumayo has begun to talk.

“At that farm (Villa Sandra) we had a permanent group, and that is where (paramilitaries) from town brought the people they were going to kill, they handed them over, they executed them and they buried them over there. There are a lot of people in graves, I believe some 800 people,” said alias “Betún”.

He indicated the decision to stop killing people in town was due to a request from the police force. “They asked us not to kill any more people in town, because it created problems for them, so (the police) gave the order that anyone they wanted to kill should be brought to the farm and buried there.”

He testified that the police, the army and the navy worked closely with the paramilitaries.

“We decided to coordinate with (the army). Initially, they told us to stay on the edge of town, later they told us that we could stay in the town, and we came in uniform. Also, they came to our base and rode in our vehicles, and we rode in their vehicles too.”

"When we needed some support, they were there, and when they needed support they’d ask it of us. Meetings were held with their commanders and our commanders, and we had our radio frequencies coordinated.”

To date, no one knows exactly how many people were killed in Putumayo in Plan Colombia’s early years. By 2002 the homicide rate in this part of Putumayo was 123 times the rate in the U.S. during the same year. The Attorney General’s office estimates at least 3,000 people killed by the paramilitaries in Putumayo were buried in mass graves such as the one estimated to have 800 bodies, buried right under the nose of the U.S.-backed Colombian military.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

International Fast in Honduras

The International Fast for Honduras began its water-only phase on October 6th, 2009. One core faster, Andrés Thomas Conteris, is fasting inside the besieged Brazilian embassy with the elected President of Honduras.

We are calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Honduras, the cessation of human rights violations by the de facto regime, and the immediate return to Constitutional order. More information about the fast can be found at

The sign in one of the first photographs in this video says in Spanish, "So there haven't been murders, murderers?" It is followed by the graphic photos (sorry) of three of those already confirmed dead at the hands of the coup regime by the time of my visit, September 5-12th. I took all of the photos in this video during that period, while in Honduras as part of a rapid response delegation with the human rights group Witness for Peace.

I intend now to fast a day for each of those confirmed dead at the hands of the coup regime thus far. Though a difficult number to pin down, I am using the figures of trusted authorities whom I had the honor to meet in Tegucigalpa, such as Bertha Oliva of COFADEH (The Committee of Families of the Disappeared in Honduras). Today is already my eighth day without food, and I plan to go at least a few days longer, and possibly more. Sadly the death toll keeps rising as more politically motivated deaths are confirmed.

If you are in the United States, please call the State Department (202-647-4000) and demand a more coherent US policy toward Honduras. Tell them to stand firmly against the illegal coup regime and their planned elections (which will be far from free or fair). Tell them to freeze bank accounts, impose sanctions, and encourage much-needed investigations in The Hague. Tell our government not to be afraid to stand clearly and openly with the strictly nonviolent resistance movement which has sprung up since the coup (the worst violence they can be accused of is vandalism), and which seeks the same stated goal as the United States government: the return to power of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and thus the return to Constitutional order in Honduras.

We cannot let this coup stand. It sets too ugly a precedent for the hemisphere and for the world. The era of coups and military dictatorships must not begin again in Latin America.

In solidarity (and hunger),

Nate Kleinman

Monday, October 12, 2009

Give Hondurans Time for Free and Fair Elections

by Roxanne Hanson

The June coup overthrowing Manuel Zelaya, the democratically-elected president of Honduras, may soon reach a resolution. With constant pressure from the US, European Union, international institutions like the UN and Organization of American States, and international mediators like Jimmy Carter, the de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti has finally agreed to come back to the negotiating table. But they have yet to say that they will agree to any proposed solution.

The Obama administration has spoken out against Micheletti’s recent executive decree suspending constitutional rights that coincided with the repression of peaceful protests and raids pulling independent media off the air. In a visit there last week, I saw hundreds of soldiers and police in full riot gear surround protesters and use tear gas to break up peaceful groups of less than 200 people. Illegal detentions, assault, and even political assassinations have chilled the voice of Hondurans struggling for their democracy.

Despite the documented human rights violations of the de facto regime, Republican Senators and Representatives have flown to Honduras to show their support for Micheletti’s coup. The State Department has tried to isolate Micheletti, and currently backs the proposed San Jose Accords brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to resolve the three-month-old crisis. The Accords call for President Zelaya’s return to office, amnesty for all parties, and elections to be held at the end of November. By all accounts, the accords, which Micheletti has so far refused to accept, offer him and the de facto regime a great deal.

The rule of law and civil society in Honduras have been greatly damaged by the coup and ongoing repression. The only way to insure that democracy is not permanently crippled is to send a clear message that the U.S. does not recognize the demands of bullies who throw democratically-elected leaders out of the country in the middle of the night in their pajamas. Obama and his administration have the opportunity to demonstrate strong support for a nonviolent movement for democracy in Latin America, instead of military dictators.

With constitutional rights restored only a few days ago and continued media censorship, it is hard to understand how negotiators can expect Hondurans to get a free and fair election in less than 60 days. So far, the US, along with the rest of the world, has said it will not recognize the November elections. However, the administration’s push for the San Jose Accords indicates that were Zelaya to return to office, even for a few short days, they might support the fast-approaching vote.

Once the constitutional leader of the country is returned to office Hondurans must be given the political time and space they need to make an informed decision. While the coup regime may leave the presidential office, the lasting effects of this crisis will be with the country, and the region, for years to come. After such a polarizing and divisive time, the people of Honduras deserve more than a few days to decide their future.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Honduran Economy and the Coup

by the Witness for Peace Staff in Honduras

In San Pedro Sula we met with several union leaders to discuss the impact the coup has had in the industrial capital of Honduras, San Pedro Sula. Nora, a union leader, told us about her personal experiences with organizing in northern Honduras.

Union organizer Nora

Nora and her sister started working at a maquila when they were only 15 and 17 years old, though Honduras labor law states that 18 is the minimum age for employment. The young women sewed clothing for Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney for eight years until the factory closed in 2001. After that, Nora couldn’t get a job because she had been blacklisted for her union organizing. Her sister still works in a maquila six days a week.

There are an estimated 130,000 jobs in the textile assembly sector, with 69% of them held by young women. In 2001, Nora began working full time as an organizer for a federation of unions in the maquilas, helping thousands of women fight to get healthcare for themselves and their children. She said it is very difficult for women to get time off from their typical fourteen-hour days to go to the doctor, even though it is guaranteed under the labor code.

Nora was also part of the struggle to change standard company policies on obligatory overtime to make it voluntary by law. Even though it is not always enforced, Nora notes it was a major victory. Unfortunately, production quotas are often so large that women are required to stay at work or run the risk of losing their jobs and workers still face challenges getting companies to pay overtime wages.

In March 2009, the Inter-American Committee on Human Rights (CIDH) held hearings in Washington on the working conditions at 229 maquilas in Honduras. They called upon the Honduran government to investigate what it called, “typical examples of the exploitation of poor people”.

Demand for Honduran exports has decreased sharply – down 15% in the first quarter of 2009. Due to the current global crisis, 29 maquilas have shut their doors since 2008, sometimes closing in the middle of the night and leaving workers with no notice or severance pay. An estimated 100,000 workers in the maquila and private sector have been laid off since last year. The coup has exacerbated the economic downturn. Nora told us that companies are delaying or cancelling orders.

The coup has hit essential services. We heard stories of healthcare, education and social services resources stretched thin. Public hospitals and clinics are also short of supplies. Some have run out of necessary vaccinations. Nora told us of a friend who had complications while giving birth. She had to buy her own re-hydration salts and other supplies, because the hospital didn’t have them.

We were later joined by a university student who is actively organizing at his school. He told us many of his friends who had once wanted to join the army have now changed their mind and he knows military deserters since the coup. He shared his dreams of opening his own business in the future, but he worries that a military draft could take his life. “I would rather be killed then be one of them,” he said with much conviction. “The resistance movement has had a large impact on the younger generations. Almost all of my peers have signed onto a petition denouncing the coup and a military draft.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"They are afraid of us, because we have no fear."

by the Witness for Peace Staff in Honduras

This is the mantra of the resistance movement in San Pedro Sula. After meeting many leaders and demonstrators here, we discovered that no solution to this crisis will gain popular support while the military and police repression continues, despite the media’s assertions that a peaceful resolution is near. Protestors are incensed by Micheletti’s actions and decrees including the decree banning constitutional rights and the push for elections in November.

Women from area churches gather for community and action

Women from area churches gather for community and action

On Saturday morning, we participated in an ecumenical meeting, in which people of different faiths came together to share their experiences and ideas for taking action against the injustices they have seen. Thirty women sat together in a circle. They shared how the occurrences of the last few months have taken over their lives – changing their communities, congregations, work and home life. Some cried as they talked about the internal conflict they face deciding to speak out against the coup, but not wanting to put their children in harm’s way. They strategized together on ways to engage their church communities and bring a new image to the resistance to show the world that their struggle is not about Zelaya or any political party.

Over lunch Gladys told us about her eighteen year-old son. He fled to Nicaragua after police showed neighbors a picture of him at a demonstration and asked for his whereabouts. The women confirmed that they are killing young people and then claiming they were gangsters. Soldiers boast that they are “cleaning up society” with these suspicious deaths. Police took a picture of one young man holding an empty tear gas canister in his hand and changed it to a Molotov cocktail. They then put the photo on the news as a wanted terrorist.

Carolina worries about the future Carolina worries about the future

Nelly told us about a young woman who, while running from tear gas at a protest, found shelter in a nearby house with a family not participating in the demonstration. The police busted in and found the woman wearing a shirt with a resistance slogan. They pulled the young women out by her hair and beat her, as well as accosted a member of the family who gave her refuge.

Later, we met with Onelia, Idealmy, and Ernesto who were exhausted after a long day of marching. They have each received death threats, but remain committed to their cause. Idealmy calmly pulled a red resistance shirt from her purse that she said she can’t wear and walk alone in public. She has seen the police taking pictures of her at the demonstrations.

Onelia lives in a secure, middle class neighborhood. On Wednesday, a curfew was in effect but her colonia decided to have a party inside their gated community, complete with volleyball, barbeques, and sparklers for the children. Their festivities were interrupted by 200 police shooting tear gas into the peaceful crowd of families, including grandparents and children. Chaos broke out. Gerald, Onelia’s son, said he was nearly shot when the police told people to go into their homes.

Onelia shares her story Onelia shares her story

While these stories were difficult to hear, we found a spirit of resistance in San Pedro Sula. They are struggling for peace, but this situation does not seem to be on the verge of resolving itself anytime soon. Political repression continues. Now is the time to stand in solidarity with the masses of Hondurans fighting for a return to democracy and their constitutional rights including freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

New Perspective

by the Witness for Peace Staff in Honduras

As the demonstrations in Tegucigalpa have continued to diminish, protesters from other parts of Honduras began to return home late this week. Our contacts in northern Honduras invited us to see another side of this country, and hear from people outside the capital.

San Pedro Sula San Pedro Sula

We took the four hour bus ride to San Pedro Sula, the industrial heart of the country. Located only miles from the Carribbean coast, the city of over 1.6 million people, is surrounded by rain-forest covered mountains. It is also home to the maquilas that produce the majority of Honduras's non-agricultural exports. The economic impact of the coup has hit this town, stalling or cancelling new contracts for businesses already downsizing due to the global crisis.

We were welcomed to a reflective weekend for union organizers, workers, activists and people of faith here. Throughout the week, they have held demonstrations and marches in different neighborhoods, and kept a constant presence in the central park, Liberty Plaza. While the police and military are not visible in the same way that they are in the capital, the stories of repression and police violence have been the same. But, the international media has not been here to capture it.

As we arrive, they all seem to be asking "What next?"

Protesters chant in San Pedro Sula's central park

Protesters chant in San Pedro Sula's central park

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Restore Civil Liberties, Protect Human Rights

Witness for Peace joined human rights organizations and faith groups to sign the statement below.

Honduras: Restore Civil Liberties, Protect Human Rights

September 29, 2009

We call on the de facto government of Honduras to restore constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, respect human rights and freedom of expression, accept international monitoring and mediation, and establish dialogue with the constitutionally elected administration of President Manuel Zelaya. We call on all parties in Honduras to resolve this conflict through peaceful means.

We are greatly concerned about the Micheletti government’s decision to suspend constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties through the decree published on September 26th, 2009 in the official government newspaper. We are also concerned about the violations of human rights and freedom of expression that have taken place since President Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras on September 21st. We call upon the government to immediately cease excessive use of force by police and military directed at peaceful protestors; arbitrary detentions; and harassment, surveillance and attacks against human rights defenders. We urge the government to cease acts of hostility and harassment directed at the Brazilian Embassy. We are gravely concerned about restrictions upon the freedom of the press, including the suspension of guarantees of freedom of expression included in the September 26th decree and actions to cut off power to, occupy and close media outlets.

We urge the de facto government to immediately accept Organization of American States mediators, and call upon the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress to accept the request of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to conduct a visit to verify the reports of human rights abuses since September 21st. We further call upon the government to provide access to other UN and OAS special rapporteurs to monitor the human rights situation.

Finally, we urge the U.S. State Department to advocate strongly for protection of human rights and civil liberties, and to use all diplomatic means to restore constitutional order in Honduras and support, in conjunction with Organization of American States, a process for national dialogue.

Jean Stokan
Institute Justice Team, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Reverend John L. McCullough
Executive Director and CEO
Church World Service

Vicki Gass
Senior Associate for Rights and Development
Washington Office on Latin America

Robert E. White
Center for International Policy

Jennifer Atlee
Quixote Center

John A. Nunes
President and CEO
Lutheran World Relief

Viviana Krsticeviv
Executive Director
Center for Justice and International Law

Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, Executive Minister
Michael Neuroth, Policy Advocate on International Issues
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries

LaMarco Cable
Program Associate for Advocacy and Education
Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ

James E. Winkler
General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society
United Methodist Church

T. Michael McNulty
Justice and Peace Director
Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Sara Stephens, Executive Director
Bart Beeson, Program Associate
Center for Democracy in the Americas

Mary B. Campbell
Associate Director for Companionship, Advocacy and Education for Latin America and the Caribbean, Global Mission
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Erin Kliewer
Executive Director


Amanda Martin
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA

Eric LeCompte
National Organizer
SOA Watch

John Lindsay Poland and Susana Pimiento Chamorro
Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean

Marie Dennis
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Nan McCurdy
CEPHRI, Ecumenical Committee of English Speaking Church Personnel, Nicaragua

Stephen Coats
Executive Director
US Labor Education in the Americas Project- USLEAP

Kristen Moller
Executive Director
Global Exchange

Dave Robinson
Executive Director
Pax Christi USA: National Catholic Peace Movement

Rob Dzelzitis
Executive Director
May I Speak Freely Media

Laura Carlsen
Director, Americas Program
Center for International Policy

Sharon Hostetler
Executive Director
Witness for Peace

Barbara Mecker
Staff Liason, Latin America/Caribbean Committee
Loretto Community

Mary Ellen McNish
General Secretary
American Friends Service Committee

Sarah Aird
Board Member
Amnesty International USA

Fear and Intimidation of Women

by Rachel Anderson

Micheletti’s decree last weekend stripping Hondurans of their constitutional rights is rapidly shrinking the massive marches and protests that have taken place here over the last three months. With the ever-present threats of violence and jail, many people now fear talking about the resistance in public, walking the streets, or even “looking different”. Leaders have left their homes, fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Most of our partners have changed their daily routines to avoid being detained by the military or police.

Strong police presence at a peaceful protest

Strong police presence at a peaceful protest

Alba, coordinator of the Committee of the Politically Persecuted, was at the demonstration on September 22. As she was fleeing the tear gas released on the peaceful, joy-filled crowd, she saw a policeman grab a young man randomly from a crowd and start beating him with a baton. She started to take a picture and yelled, "Don’t hit him!" Police then grabbed her, hit her, and stole her camera. She was detained for hours, enduring verbal and physical abuse. Now Alba feels she can no longer go to public demonstrations. She knows she is blacklisted and will be targeted by the police.

Blanca, Celeste, and Gabriela from the Collective of University Feminists (COFEMUN) told us their ongoing experiences of intimidation. Since July 2nd, COFEMUN staff members have noticed an omnipresent vehicle with tinted windows outside their offices and homes watching them. A pre-school opened up across the street this summer, but no children have ever been seen entering or leaving the building. There have only been security guards and other adults filming people entering and leaving COFEMUN’s offices.

Recently, as one woman left the COFEMUN office, she passed an armed soldier. He quickly blocked her way and said, "We are going to get you soon". Overnight on September 30th the power was cut to their offices and their internal security camera damaged, after capturing an image of a dark silhouette.

Finally, the women shared the chilling tale of three staff members being chased after meeting with a Witness for Peace delegation on September 6th. As they left the office at 8:30pm, a private power company vehicle without plates drove onto their bumper, trying to push them into a corner or off the street.

COFEMUN is not aligned with a political party nor is it a registered partner of the resistance. The women we met do not see Zelaya as a hero. They have simply participated in peaceful marches protesting the violation of the Honduran constitution. COFEMUN promotes women’s rights, including educating woman about birth control options and providing support for gay and lesbian groups. Earlier this year, they helped win the battle to make emergency contraception legal, which several members of Micheletti’s coup regime fought.

We continue to hear stories of women singled out by the police and military with verbal abuse, physical abuse on their breasts and backsides, and cases of rape. Another woman speculated on the sudden failure of her car brakes, right after she took it to a private auto-shop for unrelated repairs.

Blanca noted the psychological and emotional damage this intimidation has caused. “Yesterday was the first night they didn’t announce a curfew in weeks and it was the first night I was able to sleep. During the curfew the military could come and do anything they want. They could rape or kill you and no one would know. That sort of systematic intimidation takes away one’s voice and feeling of worth. It kills you on the inside.”

She despairs of the success the de facto regime has had in so quickly stripping the citizens of their rights and voices. "We are a nobody in the grand scheme of things – just a small country, with no power, economically or politically. Now that all of our constitutional rights have been stripped from us, we feel completely impotent.”

But we have not found a powerless citizenry in Honduras. In just under a week, we have met many organized, intelligent, and incredibly strong people. From this crisis, some veteran human rights organizers have noticed an ¨awakening" in a historically poor and repressed country. Over the last three months, Hondurans that have never rallied together before have united in their efforts to protect their democracy. This massive uprising was not for a politician, but for their shared country and constitutional rights.

Many leaders are especially inspired by the huge influx of young people taking an interest in their government for the first time. The older generation, organized since the 1980s, had worried about the lack of youth interested in most human rights causes. Alba noted that her organization "had a small membership made up of mainly people in their forties and fifties. Now we have many youth as young as 13 years old participating in events."