For Some Hondurans, Elections Change Little

On the eve of Honduras’ “free and fair” elections, a handful of men and women from the community of Guadalupe Carney, Honduras, held a silent vigil. Earlier that day, someone in a neighboring community had received a call from a family member in the army: troops were surrounding Guadalupe Carney on all sides, in preparation for an “arms raid.” A call was put in to Guadalupe Carney’s local radio station, and word spread quickly through the community grapevine. In a small, bare, concrete room lit by a single candle, these residents waited in fear into the next morning – Election Day.

Fortunately, no soldiers were seen in Guadalupe Carney on November 29, and people went about their daily business. Posters hung on walls throughout the community urged members not to participate in the electoral process. Very few did, in conjunction with a nation-wide resistance campaign that boycotted the elections, demanding that Roberto Michiletti’s de facto government reinstate deposed president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, and that the country continue with the “constituyente” – a process that, many steps along the line, could lead to the rewriting of the Honduran Constitution.

Even if residents of the collective farming community had wanted to vote, many are afraid to leave its confines to travel to the nearest polling site. A lengthy land dispute between the small farmers, or “campesinos,” and nearby landowners has aligned the powers that be – the local business elite and the state forces that their money controls – against the community. This means that leaving the village comes at the risk of legal persecution and even death.

“It is impossible for us even to go to the hospital,” said Jose Jeremias Hernandez. “If we are wounded and dying, they will turn us away.”

Guadalupe Carney lies a few miles inland from the Northeast coastline of Honduras in the municipality of Trujillo. In 2000, hundreds of campesino families displaced by Hurricane Mitch came to occupy the land, which was still private property at the time.

“We came with our animals, our machetes, and our backpacks,” said Donaldo, a farmer who preferred not to disclose his last name. “We came through the mountains, to build a life here for our families.”

In the nearly ten years since, the 800 families of Guadalupe Carney have built for themselves comfortable homes, most outfitted with running water and electricity. They raise livestock and cultivate vegetables on shared land. They have built schools and churches. They do their business with 45 collectively owned empresas, including a creamery, bakery, agricultural supplier and microcredit bank. Residents limit most of their commerce to the community partly out of collectivist idealism, and partly due to their fear of leaving it.

When the campesino families came here in 2000, their extenuating circumstances and the fact that the land had lain fallow and unused by the proprietor did not stop violent reprisal from private landowners; the ensuing contest over the area has so far claimed the lives of 29 campesinos. The conflict peaked in July of 2008, when mercenaries allegedly hired by one of the community’s primary antagonists, the infamous former colonel and local landowner Henry Osorto Canales, shot up a house in the community in the predawn hours. One campesino was murdered and another was injured.

This bloody event, bitterly remembered by the people in Guadalupe Carney, turned out to be a watershed moment for them. Three weeks later, then-President Manuel Zelaya, recently having taken up the mantle of land reform in Honduras, bought much of the land in question and gave the rights to the people of Guadalupe Carney. One of the few adornments in Donaldo’s family’s home is a series of photographs showing Zelaya, in his signature ten-gallon hat, personally delivering the land rights to the community.

But heedless of Zelaya’s reconciliatory move, the persecution from private interests continued unremittingly. The community, its leaders in particular, is haunted by rumors that another large landowner, Oscar Félix Sosa Vargas, has also placed a price upon their heads. The same summer that Zelaya visited Guadelupe Carney, local leader Irene Ramirez-Troches was killed by an unknown shooter after publicly denouncing the situation and the Trujillo Chamber of Commerce on the local Catholic radio station in June. His grave lies a little ways outside of the community proper, nestled between neat rows of commercially grown palm trees – a five-minutes’ trudge along a swampy path brings you to an open field where shallow furrows are all that mark several mass burials dating from the country’s civil conflict in the 1980’s.

After the events of the summer of 2008, the army and national police drew up a list of 32 men who are to be arrested on site if seen. These 32 are mostly members of the Movimiento Campesino de Aguan – a well-known peasant activism organization. Since the June 28 coup, two people have been killed on the highway leaving the community. These people were not on the army’s black list, and their assassinations have produced a fear throughout Guadalupe Carney. Now, residents only leave if it absolutely necessary, to buy food or sell agricultural products or crafts. The 32 men do not leave the community at all.

In their confinement some members find an affinity with their deposed president.

“We are not free Hondurans,” said Francisco Ramirez. “We can’t leave the community, just like Mel can’t leave the Brazilian Embassy.”

Though the November 28 phone call proved to be a false alarm, Guadalupe Carney has lived in constant fear of a military raid for more than a year. The Honduran military supposedly suspects the community of harboring arms and supplying them to the resistance movement.

“They say we have weapons, but where are they?” said Dario Mencias Oriellana. “We are farmers. All we want to do is work, and be left in peace.”

As for Honduras’ new president, Porfirio Lobo Sosa – known as Pepe Lobo – the residents of Guadalupe Carney see little reason for hope in the new administration.

“The country will have more problems now,” said Fredis Vinodiez. “Mel (Zelaya) raised the minimum wage. He was trying to help the poor. For this, they took him out of the country. For defending us, the peasants, he now sits in the embassy. Pepe Lobo will just be more of the same. There will be no solution to our problems.”

Lobo’s election last week to the presidential seat may help to rid the country’s reputation of the stain of the June coup. But residents doubt that it will bring peace to the community of Guadalupe Carney, where Lobo’s win is viewed as a harbinger of harder times ahead – the new president, said Hernandez, is the uncle of Sosa Vargas, the landowner whose threat hangs heavy over the village.

Still, community members continue to listen each day to Radio Globo and Radio Progresso, two stations that carry news of the resistance in Tegucigalpa and elsewhere. Many say it gives them hope. But in this community, listening and hoping remain the only options.

“At least in the capital, they can protest, they can struggle,” said Ramirez. “Here we are defenseless. We are living the truth in this country, but we can’t speak it. We have no one to tell it to.”