I came to Honduras with the School of the Americas Watch/Quixote Center Accompaniment Delegation to participate as a human rights observer of the electoral climate in a delegation organized by the Quixote Center. Several delegations converged, connecting some 30 US citizens with dozens more from Canada, Europe and Latin America. In the days prior to the elections we scattered to different cities, towns and villages, meeting with fishermen, farmers, maquila workers, labor leaders, teachers and lawyers, as well as those who were jailed for carrying spray paint, hospitalized for being shot in the head by the military and detained for reporting on the repression. It was, most likely, a bit off the five-star, air-conditioned path of most of the mainstream journalists who were filling your morning paper with the wonders of last Sunday’s elections.
But by the evening of the day of the elections, what we had witnessed in previous days pushed those of us from the US directly to the doors of our embassy in Tegucigalpa. We realized that this place, not the polling stations, was where this horrific destiny of Honduras, and perhaps all of Latin America, was being determined. And so the US citizens among us took our statements and signs and determination there.
We were, indeed, greeted by many: dozens of guards with cameras, some 30 journalists, Honduran police with guns and also cameras, as well as a low-flying helicopter that at least made us feel important. While the journalists let us read our entire statement of why these elections should not be recognized by our government because of the egregious repression, the embassy guards wouldn’t even let us leave our slip of paper. That, in spite of the fact that the embassy’s human rights officer, Nate Macklin, told our delegation leader to make sure to let him know if there were any human rights abuses.
Any? In each of the many corners of the country visited by the 70-plus international observers, we witnessed the fear, repression, intimidation, bribery and outright brutality of the government security forces. (Note: we were there to observe the electoral climate, not as electoral observers, since we consider the elections to be illegal. Likewise, the United Nations, Organization of American States and Carter Center and other bedrock electoral groups boycotted “the event” as many Hondurans called the day.)
As elections were in full swing in the morning, our delegate and nurse-practitioner, Silvia Metzler, visited Angel Salgado and Maria Elena Hernandez, who were languishing in the intensive care unit of the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa. Both had been shot in the head at one of the many military checkpoints, no questions asked. Doctors give Angel a zero possibility of survival and he leaves behind a 6-year-old son. Maria Elena has a better chance of recovery, but it will be a long road. She was selling snacks on the side of the road to support her teenage children when caught by a military bullet.
Tom Loudon was on the streets of San Pedro Sula when police tanks and water trucks and tear gas canisters attacked a peaceful march of the resistance movement. It took him a long time to find other members of his delegation who had scattered in the frenzy, but they were luckier than two observers from the Latin America Council of Churches who were detained or a Reuters photographer who was injured in the massive display of repression. Dozens of cell phones captured the police beating anyone they could catch with their billy clubs.
The first person I thought of as I awoke on Election Day was Wilmer Rivero, a fisherman in a small town with the big name of Puerto Grande. I kept thinking of the fear in his eyes as he relayed how the police have been visiting his house and asking for him, ever since he trekked six days on foot to greet a returning President Manuel Zelaya. Each local mayor has been asked to put together a list of resistance leaders, and his name was one of 22 from his town. We suggested to Wilmer that he not sleep at home during the electoral days. He called the next day to thank us for our advice. The police had ransacked his home, and those of many of his neighbors, the night before elections, threatening his life. But, he wondered, what will he do now?
I also thought of Merly Eguigure, whom I had visited two days earlier in a cold and crumbling jail cell reeking of human waste. She had been captured for having a can of spray paint in her car. Though she was released shortly before elections, she will face trial and probably prison for defacing government property. Merly claims that the spray paint was to be used in an activity to raise awareness of violence towards women. Perhaps authorities worried that the paint was destined to add a new message to the city walls. Every square inch of blank wall space in the city is covered with powerful graffiti against the coup. In spite of government attempts to whitewash over it, the blank spaces are filled in again within hours.
So, now I wonder what the Honduran people will do to overcome the massive whitewash that just took place in their country. Not of walls, but of coups. The military coup led by School of the Americas graduates Generals Vasquez Velasquez and Prince Suazo first had a quick bath of whitewash by placing a “civilian” leader as the figurative head of government: President of Congress and business mogul Roberto Micheletti. The whitewash used at the moment was mixed ahead of time, and quite abundant. It was the excuse that Zelaya was preparing a vote to call for his re-election and had to be removed quickly. (Never mind that the consultative vote actually had nothing to do with a re-election. It was a consultative vote to ask Honduras whether they wanted to vote on convening a Constitutional Assembly.) I call this first whitewash the “transformation from military coup to civilian coup.”
And now, the second bath of whitewash was even more challenging, especially since the first whitewash proved to be kind of thin and exposed the words from below. Thus, it didn’t really convince many. As a matter of fact, it didn´t convince anyone except the United States government (or woops, maybe they actually helped to stir the first batch), Now, the challenge of the November 29 whitewash was to transform the civilian coup into a shining electoral display of freedom, fairness and grand participation so that all the world would say, “wow, that Honduran coup is gone. Now Honduras has a real and wonderful democracy, End of story.”
Except that it´s probably the beginning of a story. One that we thought had been left to rest in Latin America years and years ago. One of fear and repression and deaths and disappearances. We know the litany all too well, and we remember the names of its thousands of victims each November. This year we had to add too many new names from Honduras. And, if our government chooses to recognize these elections, this massive whitewash, I fear that many more names will be read from the stage in front of Fort Benning next year. And perhaps not just from Honduras.
So, when I said that I wonder what Hondurans will do in the face of this whitewash, what I really wonder is what I will do, what we will do as US citizens. Because this whitewash will only have the formula to whiten and brighten this military dictatorship if our government chooses to accept the results, as they have indicated that they will likely do.
Today the headlines in most of the US media reiterate the official Honduran statistics that 60 percent of Hondurans went to the polls. Our delegates visited dozens of polling stations, finding them almost empty, in most places counting more electoral monitors and caretakers than voters. The resistance movement puts abstention at 65-70 percent. Which statistic do we prefer to believe?
I have lived in Latin America since 1977. I was called to stay in this land when I saw how young and idealistic youth, such as myself at the time, were being taken from their homes, never returned. Somehow, I felt called to continue the steps they would never take. And so I stayed 32 years. I have witnessed hope rising from the South in the past ten years, in ways I never dreamed. I have seen efforts of building dignity and sovereignty rise high, inspire millions and make a difference.
And so, maybe this explains the anger that rose from within me in front of the embassy. That anger surprised even me. I am ashamed of our government. Ashamed that we are in great part to blame for pushing this country back 30 years into dark and deadly times. And I worry that Honduras is just the beginning.
Lisa Sullivan is Latin American coordinator of School of the Americas Watch.