By Lisa Sullivan, SOA Watch, July 11, 2009
My plane has just lifted off from the Toncontin airport in Tegucigalpa and I look down on the runway that five days ago was blocked by army tanks and soldiers, prohibiting the return of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, ousted 12 days ago in a coup. Hundreds of thousands of people had swollen the roads leading to the airport to receive “Mel”, as the president is affectionately known. One 19-year old who came from the interior of the country, Isis Obed Murillo, was shot in the head by soldiers trying to disperse the crowd, his brains literally blown apart.
One of those present on Sunday was our taxi driver, who - on our half-hour winding ride to the airport - gave us a colorful report of what he thought of the new president, punctuated by sweeping arm gestures that frequently took his hands from the wheel. “Goriletti! Pinochetti! For 36 years he’s been robbing the poor as a member of Congress. He’s always wanted to be president. Now, he’s stolen the position! Our president is Mel! The soldiers are against us. They have the guns. But we are together, we are with Mel. If he can’t come back by plane, he should return on horseback. We will join him!” Like a Honduras made-to-order Hollywood backdrop to the driver’s passionate soliloquy, we passed street after street covered with graffiti: “fuera golpistas!” “Queremos al” “Pinocheletti fuera!”
As I boarded the plane, my mind swam with images of faces of Hondurans in their cars passing by our little vigil outside the U.S. embassy yesterday. The slow traffic of the busy road gave people pause to read our signs, calling on our country to match their words with actions: to insist upon the immediate and unconditional return of Zelaya, to recall the ambassador and U. S. troops at Palmerola. Many honked in support, flashed a peace/victory sign, and many smiled broadly calling out “gracias!”. Even the Honduras guards at the embassy shook each of our hands when we left. What they couldn’t say was silently passed on in the firmness of their grasp.
If ever there was a time for a solidarity moment, this was it. Just one month earlier, I had gone to Honduras with a small SOAW delegation, and had asked our partners there to help us organize around this issue. How could we not go at this moment, when their very democracy was at stake? When we learned that two of the key coup leaders were SOA graduates, the need for the visit was sealed.
Six other activists made the snap decision to come down as well, and a small SOAW delegation was formed overnight. We came from California, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Washington . All of us were trying to get to Honduras on Sunday, and all were blocked due to the closing of the airport in anticipation of Zelaya’s attempted return. No one gave up, however, and we each found alternative ways to get there, arriving, miraculously, within hours of one another on Tuesday.
I rerouted through San Salvador and arrived to a sea of enthusiastic Salvadorans, awaiting Zelaya whose plane was diverted there after landing rights were denied in Honduras. The mood was electric as planes landed on the runway, shortly after my plane, carrying the presidents of Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay and later a car bringing Salvador’s president Funes to meet Zelaya. A powerful and extraordinary display of Latin American solidarity.
After finding our way to Tegucigalpa by land, we were welcomed in Honduras by Bertha Oliva, director of COFADEH. It was Bertha who had brought us some weeks previous to a meeting with President Zelaya. It was not just an ordinary meeting, but one in a series of gatherings between the president, some of his ministers, and leaders of most of Honduras’ social movements. It was a 6-hour, heart-to-heart, head-to-head real dialogue on deep issues such as whether to continue with CAFTA, to keep Palmerola open to U.S. soldiers, how to create a sustainable water system, whether to pull Honduran troops from the SOA. I have been in Latin America for 32 years, but this kind of president-to-the-people consultation was a first. And, it made me realize that something very interesting was happening in Honduras.
Since the issue of the SOA had been raised by the social movements, I approached the president as he was leaving, and told him that the purpose of our visit was to request that he withdraw troops from the SOA, a school we hoped would soon close. He looked at me squarely and said “That’s Obama’s problem”. I was a bit put off by the terse reply and said “actually, if you care about the sovereignty of your country, it’s your problem too”. He paused and looked deeply at me and said, “get me the information”. That night he called a friend and said “tell them that I agree, but at this moment I can’t do this. I need the military on my side”.
I wonder if Zelaya remembered any of this conversation when a few weeks later, soldiers - sent by their SOA-graduated commanders, roused him at gunpoint and forced him on a plane and to Costa Rica in his pjs. While US media flashed that the ouster was provoked by an illegal push from Zelaya to get another term of office, I knew differently. But, only because I was in Honduras recently. Living in Venezuela, and seeing how U.S. media portrays that country, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to really know what is happening in another country from the U.S. mainstream media, unless you actually go there.
Like the rest of the continent, Honduras had lived the failed experiments of the neoliberal model, (or Washington consensus, or free trade model, whatever you like to call it) over the past decade and more. Violence, poverty, unemployment, migration and despair were the result. But, winds from the south were blowing, and Honduras began to open its windows, wide. The concept that change could come via a move towards participative democracy, and via constitutional reform, like several South American countries, was beginning to take shape. On June 28th a non- binding consultative vote was to take place, known as the “cuarta urna”. Urna in Spanish refers to ballot, and cuarta refers to the idea that it would be the 4th ballot in November, added to the votes for president, congress and mayors. It was hard to miss the sense of enthusiasm running through the country.
Those who had held power in the country were fearful of these winds of change. Congress and the Supreme Court tried to block the consultation, and the Army Chief of Staff refused to have his soldiers guard the vote, leading to his dismissal by Zelaya. All these events cascaded together, only days before the coup . One question worth asking is why the old guard politicians, along with military leaders, risked staging a coup and possible international condemnation, had they really thought that Sunday’s vote was going to win. If so, wouldn’t it have been best to let it fall on its face? If our earlier visit was any measure, it seemed poised to win, and in a big way. Therefore, it seems, it needed to be stopped before happening.
The initial idea for the consultation came not from Zelaya, but from the social movements, beginning some five years earlier. These were not the groups with whom Zelaya was accustomed to rubbing elbows, as a member of the landed elite. But, as he told us at the meeting, his fellow elites refused to collaborate when he asked them to lend a helping hand to their country. And so, he turned to the social movements. And apparently, they responded, but so did he. He raised wages significantly, paid attention to the needs of poor urban and rural communities, brought doctors and teachers from Cuba and cheap oil for public transportation from Venezuela. Mostly, the poor felt that they were taken into account, that they mattered.
During the past days in Honduras, we joined the people on the streets , which is where this political battle seems to being waged. At a road block along the southern highway, Hondurans came up to us to shake our hands and thank us for being there. Some had been on the streets for 10 days. Despite the blazing sun and the many days into the coup, their spirits seemed intact. Later, we were invited to a meeting of the newly formed Frente de Resistencia Contra el Golpe en Honduras. I found many of the same leaders of the social movements whom I had met at the meeting with the president. Labor leaders, campesinos, indigenous groups, taxi drivers, teachers and artists were planning the next day’s strategies. People were tired but determined, amazingly united and efficient in their planning. As time was dedicated to determining who would offer the sound system, provide buses, water, etc, it was clear that no one was bankrolling this operation.
While I never actually saw pro-coup marches in the streets, the local t.v. stations looped the same scenes of them repeatedly. What called my attention was that everyone was dressed in white, and signs were professionally printed. This was a contrast to the motley crowd and creative colorful hand-made signs of the pro Zelaya crowd.
As I head to Venezuela I know that I will not leave Honduras behind. Just days ago (though it feels like months), when I asked the taxi driver taking me to the Caracas airport how he was doing, I expected a reply about the traffic or weather or local political scene. His response was “Worried. About Honduras”. The reason for this response is likely both one of solidarity – never has Latin America looked more towards one another than now. And, it is one of survival: There is a sense that this battle in Honduras is larger than Honduras. It is a push-back against a new model, or new models, arising from the South.
Please keep the people of Honduras in your thoughts. And please keep tuned in. And call your member of congress to ask him/her to vote to close the School of the Americas. Their graduates have lead 2 coups in 7 years in Latin America. We can’t afford to let them lead another.