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A Chance for Real Democracy in Honduras

Honduras is changing. In 1981, Ronald Reagan imposed democracy from the outside, yielding a constitution that minimized the participation of the citizenry in the decisions of their government and a process that repressed and decapitated the social movements—led by workers, peasants, and students—who sought to have their voices heard. Nearly three decades later, as President Manuel Zelaya made marginal steps toward reform, by raising the minimum wage from about $0.50/hour to about $1.20/hour and attempting to create a mechanism for the people’s participation in their government, the previously fragmented Honduran elite united to overthrow him.

That same elite and a deeply colonized Honduran middle class thought that the United States and other conservative members of the international community would embrace this undemocratic step. That was their first miscalculation. Their second misstep was to assume that the historically acquiescent Honduran people would shut up and accept the dictates of their social and economic superiors. The complete opposite has turned out to be true.

Huge masses of Hondurans are responding with outrage and indignation, refusing to accept the lies of the coup leaders and their propagandists. With cowboy hats and varied skin tones, they have marched. With music, theater, and banana chips, they have protected the few journalists and media outlets that have remained independent in spite of the threats and intimidation. For example, Natalie Roque, a young historian in charge of the National Newspaper Archive, scanned old newspapers and posted them on Facebook for her friends to learn about Roberto Micheletti’s attempt to convoke a Constituent Assembly—the very crime that he accuses Zelaya of—back in 1985; that Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez has been receiving a monthly allowance of $5,000 from the Honduran government since 2001; and that military chief Romeo Vásquez Velásquez was convicted of leading a group of car thieves in February 1993. After releasing several embarrassing moments in the coup leaders’ past, including the time when Micheletti was arrested for ripping off passengers on his buses, she was fired. And when internationally renowned cartoonist Allan McDonald was arrested after protesting the coup, cartoonists from around the world rallied in support, satirizing in their local papers the undemocratic transfer of power that had taken place in Honduras.

When the coup government cut the power of the poor rural communities of southern Honduras, the campesinos (peasants) tuned in their AM radios to broadcasts from Nicaragua and El Salvador, getting around the Honduran media’s assault of soap operas, old soccer games, and sermons about the “peace” and “democracy.” Or, when agents from the police Criminal Investigation Unit (DNIC) photographed demonstrators from an unmarked car, the demonstrators stopped the car and pulled out their own digital cameras to photograph the effort to intimidate them. Photography can be used as a means of domination and a way to naturalize socially constructed inequalities, but it is also being used here to document repression, making visible what the coup government would like to hide from the world.

We are witnessing a democratic awakening of the Honduran people. This time, if democracy is restored, it will come from the bottom up, from university students camped out in stairways to protect journalists, from workers with cheap digital cameras, from campesinos hiking through mountains and flouting curfew to say to elites: “Hello! This is not how a democracy conducts itself.”

The new liberal Honduran political culture that is being fashioned at this moment is not emerging from empty space. Its elements were there from the beginning. From 1837-1849, following independence from Spain, the indigenous Lencan of Texiguat fought in Francisco Morazán’s army for a united Central American Federation of States. In 1954, as workers and artisans, women and men, refused to load bananas onto boats now owned by the Chiquita and Dole Fruit companies, a new Honduran political subject was brought into being. In the 1970s, as campesinos struggled for land reform and dignity, a vision of Honduran democracy was being formulated. This vision was not of unlimited freedom for the few and a mockery of the principle of equality for the many. Instead, campesinos were insisting that freedom and equality could not be brutalized by the elite and their U.S. backers. And now, in 2009, after a military coup orchestrated by the commercial elite, blessed by the leaders of Honduras’s evangelical churches and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, embraced by much of Honduras’s small middle class, and only tepidly denounced by the United States, the ghosts of the indigenous of Texiguat, the banana plantation workers of El Progreso, and the campesinos of Tocoa, are coming back to haunt the present moment.

If the Honduran people manage to oust the coup regime and to reinstitute their democratically elected president, this will be the moment when Honduran democracy is born. But this time, the people are fighting not for plutocracy hidden behind a fig leaf of “democracy,” but for a system of government that is of, for, and by the people.

But this is not a struggle easily won. The elite and its coup government have their guns pointed at those who oppose them. Curfews are being imposed throughout the country, restricting people’s ability to move freely within their own country. Nonviolent demonstrators against the undemocratic regime are being beaten up, intimidated, and in some cases killed. On July 2, journalist Gabriel Fino Noriega was first threatened for having reported on the popular resistance to the coup; then he was gunned down. On July 11, Roger Iván Bados González, a member of the leftist party of Democratic Unification (UD) was executed in his own house by a group of ununiformed men. One day later, another leader from the UD, Ramón Garcías, was returning from a demonstration against the coup when he was kidnapped from a bus and then killed. On July 5, I heard the gunshots that took the life of nineteen-year-old Isis Obed Murillo Mencías. I photographed the pool of blood that he left behind. And when a Honduran newspaper, La Prensa, published a photo of Murillo Mencías being carried away, they airbrushed out the fountain of blood that poured from the back of his head; but in a public sphere that is now international in scope, viewers in other parts of the world saw the life dripping from the boy’s head. Each day, the killings, physical and symbolic, continue.

In Honduras, the rightwing has kept the masses of poor people at bay not through indiscriminate killing but through carefully targeted repression designed to decapitate social movements. Throughout the late Cold War, elite squads in the Honduran military, with direct assistance from the United States, gathered intelligence and tracked down leaders of groups clamoring for justice and systematically eliminated them. This surgical repression often fails to spark the moral outrage of the international community and allows the Honduran elite to continue ruling the country with little regard for the poor and less regard for the country’s democratic institutions.

As the ghosts of those fallen in the long struggle for a more just Honduras come back to haunt the present moment, the Honduran elite must be worried that this time they may have overplayed their hand. As defenders of the coup invoke Gandhi, M.L.K., and Israel in their piously absurd attempt to hold on to power, they increasing sound like cartoons themselves. This time the Honduran people are not so easily bullied. This time they are not accepting the emaciated and exclusionary form of “democracy” that they are being offered by the Micheletti regime. This time they are demanding not only the restitution of their elected leader but a participatory democracy that responds with concrete action to their long forgotten plight.

But in the all-too-likely scenario that the coup government is able to hold out till the elections in November, the social wound inflicted on the Honduran body politic will only grow deeper. The main candidates—Elvin Santos and Pepe Lobo—will go forward with their campaigns, attempting to “put the coup behind them” as they seek the legitimacy of elections. Meanwhile, the current government will continue its acts of targeted repression, quelling dissent, and disarticulating the broad opposition movement that is congealing around the demand to restore democratic rule in Honduras. This unexpected opening in Honduran political culture will be nailed shut.

Yet hopefully, this time, at this defining moment, the United States will be on the side of the poor Hondurans struggling for a democracy based on principles of liberty and equality. This could give substance to President Obama’s pledge to forge a new relationship with Latin America.