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October 1, 2009

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CoDev calls for action on Honduras

EDUCATOR HIT LIST—CoDevelopment Canada program director Steve Stewart (right), attending one of many rallies held in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa and around the country since the June 28 coup. Teachers and other unionized education workers, among tEDUCATOR HIT LIST—CoDevelopment Canada program director Steve Stewart (right), attending one of many rallies held in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa and around the country since the June 28 coup. Teachers and other unionized education workers, among tVANCOUVER—Despite international condemnation of the interim Honduran government since the June 28 coup d’état — even from the World Bank, which has cut off aid—the government of Canada continues to support the coup leaders with an engagement policy that ignores flagrant human rights abuses, says CoDevelopment Canada (CoDev).

CoDev program director Steve Stewart was one of three Canadians in a nine-member international delegation to Honduras from September 5-10. During a presentation about his visit, held at Britannia Community Centre on September 28, Stewart provided an update and overview of international response to the coup, a summary of Canadian policy, and some of his own impressions from this month’s fact-finding mission, which ended with his and another activist’s arrest and brief detention by Honduran security forces.

Stewart, who works with teacher groups in Latin American countries where CoDev has projects, visited Honduras with a seven-country delegation as part of the Initiative for Democratic Education in the Americas (IDEA). The IDEA Network is a continental alliance of civil society groups that have an interest in protecting and enhancing public education as a basic institution of democratic development and human rights. It works in conjunction with other civil society groups concerned about the impact of trade agreements on public education.

Last month’s delegation was planned after reports of beatings, arrests, killings, and other human rights abuses in the wake of the coup that ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya.

During their visit, said Stewart, the delegation heard many testimonies from students, teachers, community groups, and local media of beatings and arrests suffered under the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti. According to human rights groups in the country, there were 9,000 detentions in the first two months following the coup and at least ten extrajudicial killings related to the coup—not including those killed in the ongoing military and police crackdown since Zelaya’s return to Honduras on September 21.

Angering the elites

On June 28—the day Zelaya was deposed—Hondurans were supposed to vote in a non-binding plebiscite organized by the president on whether the November 29 general elections should include a referendum question asking voters if they supported elections for a Constituent Assembly that would develop and propose a new constitution for the country. Coup plotters saw this as a power grab by Zelaya.

Zelaya had also angered future coup leaders by raising the minimum wage by 60 per cent, from about $6 to $9.60 a day. Honduras is the second poorest country in the Americas, with a 50-per-cent poverty rate and 36 per cent of the population living on less than $2 a day. Zelaya’s modest reform was evidently too much for the Honduran establishment.

Stewart cited three other reasons the coup leaders wanted Zelaya gone.

First, Zelaya angered political elites by entering Honduras in the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, a regional cooperation agreement of nine Latin American and Caribbean nations that calls for reduced economic dependence on European and North American nations. Zelaya also angered Catholic church leaders with his support of an initiative by the Honduran women’s movement to propose the legalization of the “morning after” pill. Finally, he angered the business establishment by entering Honduras into Petro Caribe and thus breaking the monopoly of existing oil refineries in the country.

Echoes of Chile

Zelaya’s support of public education, in particular, appears to have enraged forces loyal to the Micheletti coup leaders. Zelaya abolished user fees for public education, allowing more children to attend school and more teachers to be employed. Since the coup, teachers in particular have been targeted for human rights abuses.

For example, among the ten extra-judicial killings high school teacher Roger Vallejo was shot in the head during a march, and another teacher died after suffering 27 stab wounds shortly after leaving Vallejo’s wake. A third teacher, a key witness to the murder of Vallejo, was killed on September 17 after leaving a meeting of the pro-democracy movement.

The president of the Honduran Teachers College, who Stewart interviewed, suffered spine fractures after being badly beaten following his capture by police on August 10. Meanwhile, the College’s International Secretary provided the delegation with photos of his beating by five riot police.

Stewart’s reference to detained activists being held at a sports stadium in Tegucigalpa was, for many at the September 28 presentation, eerily reminiscent of the post-coup police strategy in Santiago, Chile in 1973.

“That’s no accident,” said Stewart, “because this government does not care about its international image.”

Getting the story out

With mainstream media and cell phone networks owned entirely by corporate interests loyal to the coup, there are few independent news sources to broadcast what’s really happening in Honduras. In recent days, the two remaining independent media sources, Channel 36 satellite TV and Radio Global (Channel 11), have both been shut down by the de facto government.

Marches and rallies remain the most effective form of resistance, as they provide visible evidence of dissent that is not available in the media. Stewart said that rallies occur throughout the country on an almost daily basis, with unannounced march routes snaking through residential neighbourhoods to attract more participants and create more awareness among the general public. The battle for public opinion means that police officers are frequently discovered trying to infiltrate the resistance by joining these marches, while pro-coup rally organizers boost their ranks by pulling maquilla workers off the job and forcing them to march in pro-Micheletti rallies before returning them to the factories to finish their shifts.

Stewart and another delegate experienced the coup government’s repression and censorship mentality firsthand while attempting to leave the country. While he was at the airport, Stewart noticed that his briefcase was missing. After reporting the “theft” with security, he and his colleague were told to report to INTERPOL. When they showed up, INTERPOL officers had possession of Stewart’s missing bag and were examining its contents—which included photographs of teachers being beaten by security forces.

The two were turned over to Honduran security forces and taken to a local police station, where they were questioned by agents of the Honduran Special Intelligence Forces (Cobras). The agents were planning to transfer the two to their base for further questioning, but the timely intervention of a human rights lawyer prevented their transfer and eventually won their release.

Canada’s shame

While the Canadian government has criticized the coup, it has not followed the rest of the world in imposing sanctions on the de facto regime and maintains development and military assistance to the coup government. A number of statements by Canadian officials tacitly support Zelaya’s ouster.

Although human rights abuses in Honduras since the coup have been well-documented by activist blogs, human rights watchdogs such as the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, and through international observer reports such as Stewart’s, Canada’s is one of the only governments in the world trying to justify the coup. Canadian investment in Honduras is the second highest in the world, after the U.S., and Canada is negotiating a free trade agreement with Honduras as part of a broader pact that would include Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Canada’s support of Honduran coup leaders even extends to military aid. As a measure of how significant they regard our country’s support, coup leaders are calling for an international force to be sent to the country that would be made up of soldiers from Colombia, Panama and Canada.

CoDev has issued an urgent action alert on its website where visitors can phone or send an e-mail to Canadian Minister of State for the Americas Peter Kent, calling for the unconditional immediate reinstatement of President Zelaya and pressuring the Honduran military to stop the violence against the people and Zelaya.

“Canada should also make clear that it will not recognize the November elections and announce further sanctions against the coup regime and its leaders,” said Stewart.

For example, he said, supporters of the Honduran resistance movement could also pressure the Harper government to call for international arrest warrants against the coup leaders and for countries everywhere to revoke their visas.

In a more recent development, adds Stewart, the business sector of the coup coalition has issued a proposal calling for the reinstatement of Zelaya under very limited powers —but with the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, awarded a life-time seat in the Congress. But the most disturbing part of the plan, he concludes, is the call for an international force to Honduras that would include soldiers from Canada.

“This indicates how great an ally the coup leaders see in the Canadian government,” said Stewart.

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