I was last here in Honduras only about 6 weeks ago. I was totally taken off guard by the energy of the country, the hope that something new and different was emerging, the belief that luck had come their way, that unity that I found among the social movements around a goal that seemed to actually be within reach (the constitutional assembly). How quickly things can change in a country. This is perhaps one of the things that has most impacted me as I prepare to leave Honduras tomorrow.
But I also am struck by how much things don’t change. Can we really be living through a situation in 2009 when SOA grads are organizing coups and filling the ranks of new cabinets. Really?
This sense of incredibility about current events was what marked our attitude as we headed to the U.S. embassy in the morning. There, we met with Ambassador Hugo Llorens, and two of his political staff. In spite of the delicate moment, with mediations just underway in Costa Rica, they gave us an hour of their time.
We asked Ambassador Llorens to clarify U.S. policy and relationships with Honduras at this time. According to Llorens, it was a “black and white situation.” A coup had taken place, and therefore the U.S. neither recognizes nor has contact with the de facto government. He also told us that all military aid had been suspended between the U.S. and Honduras. While this was breaking news to us, and welcome news at that, he indicated that this situation had been the case since the moment Micheletti swore himself in as president.
However, three of our delegation members had stopped by the Palmerola military base, where over 500 U.S. soldiers are based, and witnessed an apparently normal buzz of activities, including helicopter flights and interchange of Honduran and U.S. soldiers. Ambassador Llorens insisted that everything had come to a standstill, and that perhaps the soldiers were interchanging on such normal day-to-day affairs such as the administration of water and electricity and routine training exercises.
The ambassador told us that Honduras was an extremely polarized society. According to him, President Zelaya had been doing what many in the country considered illegal. He reiterated Obama’s position that no matter how much the U.S. may be in disagreement with internal issues of another government, nothing justified a forceful removal from office. He also indicated that most of their contacts in the country (acknowledged later by an aide to come mostly from the upper crust) were outraged at the U.S. position. However, he noted that “other political leaders and business leaders were beginning to 'calm down'" in the past four. My guess is because it now looks like they are here to stay, for at least quite a while.
We then shared our series of concerns. We noted that while most countries had pulled their ambassador from the country, that he and his staff remained. He told us this was because the president had asked him to do so, since he could be “useful.”
We also shared our concerns that about the mediation process in Honduras. Had it been Obama who was abducted by force by armed soldiers and taken against his will to Mexico, would we support a process in which Obama and his usurpers sat down at a table together, while the usurpers remained in power? The ambassador replied that Secretary Clinton felt that the the U.S. no longer should be in the role of solving problems, and that she wanted this to have a Central American solution. He said that, given the exteme polarization, that there needed to be certain guarantees for Zelaya’s return. Among things that are being talked about are issues of amnesty, a truth commission and a national unity government.
We also questioned other aid into the country, and the ambassador clarified that this aid is contingent on just how this coup will be classified. Apparently, there are different categories of coups in the U.S. (sounds like the Washington Post editorial staff!) and until this is determined, the exact kinds of aid to be cut are in question. Among the $50 million of U.S. aid slated for Honduras, that which goes to “democratic programs” is still in force, as well as health and education programs that don’t deal with the government. He belittled the impact of U.S. aid, indicating that the bulk of aid came from the IDB, and this was suspended when Honduras was cut from the OAS.
We shared our concerns for human rights abuses since the overtake of the government, and the three embassy members agreed that this was the case. We gave them a copy of COFADEH’s human rights report since June 28th. The ambassador told us that they were in regular contact with the Attorney General Luis Rubi and Ombudsman Ramon Custodia, since neither were from the executive branch. We shared that many human rights groups had grave concerns for Custodia, who has turned a deaf ear to many of the abuses and seemed supportive of the coup government in his declarations. We also indicated that several human rights leaders are concerned for their safety, and he indicated that they should be in touch with the human rights coordinator, Mike Gorman.
We also shared our concerns for the fact that two of the key leaders were graduates of the School of the Americas, as well as several current cabinet appointees. He asked the aides to note the names.
We had decided the previous day that we felt it was important to publically show our support for Honduran democracy, and call upon our government to be more consistent with their actions. Immediately after the meeting, we flew into preparation mode for an action in front of the embassy, and with the help of Honduran allies, made signs and banners and a cross with the name of the 19-year old who was gunned down at the airport. We also sent out press releases widely.
From 2 until 5 we stood vigil in front of the embassy, which is on a busy street, with signs that shared our concerns. They said, in English and Spanish, thank you President Obama, for your words. Now, we need actions. We called upon our government to:
* Insist upon the immediate and unconditional return of President ZelayaWe were overwhelmed with press from both Honduran, Latin American and international sources and did dozens of interviews. After the first hour, we were joined by leaders of the resistance movement, who stood by us, shook our hands and thanked us, and brought us juice and sandwiches.
* Recall the U.S. ambassador and embassy staff
* Withdraw U.S. troops from Palmerola
* Expel Honduran troops from SOA/WHINSEC
What was most touching were the hundreds of passengers in cars that passed by who showed a look of great surprise and a huge grin. Many held out their hands in a peace, or victory sign. Many called out to thank us. It was clear that being there in Honduras, at this moment, in solidarity, was the right thing to do.