The U.S. State Department is leading an effort to readmit Honduras into the Organization of American States (OAS), which suspended the country shortly after the June 28, 2009, military coup that overthrew its elected government. More than a year later, Honduras is now well on its way to stability and reconciliation, argued Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the annual OAS meeting in June. Clinton note that Honduran president Porfirio Lobo came to power in November through a “free and fair election,” and has formed a commission to deal with human rights abuses and has promoted a truth commission to investigate the coup. Clinton also argued that the Lobo government has made notable progress in achieving “national reconciliation” through reconstituting the fragmented Liberal Party of both coup leader Roberto Micheletti and ousted former president Manuel Zelaya. “This has demonstrated a strong and consistent commitment to democratic governance and constitutional order,” Clinton said.
But after a series of high-level protests, the OAS tabled the U.S.-led proposal to readmit Honduras. Twenty-seven U.S. Congress members sent a letter to Clinton on June 25 citing the ongoing killing of Honduran journalists and anti-coup resistance members, as well as the political firings of judges under the Lobo administration, the truth commission’s weak mandate, and the failure of Lobo’s “government of national unity.” Around the same time, the Honduran National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) sent a strongly worded statement to the OAS, the OAS itself issued a report acknowledging the human rights violations in Honduras, and numerous OAS member states made clear their opposition to Honduras being readmitted.
As these protests made clear, Honduras is anything but “stable” and “reconciled.” Targeted, brutal violence against dissidents has escalated under the Lobo government—which began January 27, following an election overseen by a repressive military and boycotted by a large majority of candidates and voters. More than 600 cases of cruel and unusual punishment have been documented by the Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Torture, and at least 23 politically motivated killings of resistance members and numerous additional human rights violations have taken place, according to Honduran human rights groups. Meanwhile, there has been an increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the Honduran business and organized-crime sectors that financed and promoted the coup, as is particularly clear in paramilitary attacks carried out on campesinos in Bajo Aguán and Zacate Grande in land disputes between indigent members of several land cooperatives and multimillionaire coup financier and large landholder Miguel Facussé.
Since January, nine journalists, most of them critical of the coup and its beneficiaries, have been killed in targeted assassinations. Military and paramilitary death squads, at least some of which are led by members of the infamous 1980s Battalion 3-16—responsible for nearly 200 disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in that decade—have disappeared, tortured, and killed dozens of resistance leaders and their family members. Photographic evidence of the violence has circulated in Honduras, provoking widespread fear and fury. Pictures of the mutilated body of Óscar Geovanny Ramírez—an unarmed 16-year-old land worker killed June 20 by police and private security guards working on behalf of Facussé—are among those that have made the rounds.
As the violence continues, Lobo has put high-ranking military officials in charge of civilian institutions like customs and the state telecommunications company, Hondutel. The head post of Hondutel, for example, was awarded to Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the School of the Americas–trained general and coup leader. And on top of all this, Honduras’s murder rate jumped from 58 to 67 per 100,000 in 2009, making it one of the highest in the world.
One might think that acts of repression and military control over domestic affairs would lead the State Department to question Washington’s economic aid to Honduras. Yet the U.S. government has refused to condemn the violent role of the military in Honduras and in March renewed full aid to the country with a donation of 25 military trucks valued at $812,000, $75 million more through USAID for “development projects,” and $20 million as part of the Merida Initiative to enhance “security.”
Lobo and his ministers have laughed off suggestions that violent crimes against members of the Honduran resistance movement and their families should be investigated as political. Instead, with the support of coup-backing human rights commissioner Ramón Custodio and Lobo-appointed Minister of Human Rights Ana Pineda, they link such crimes to the massive increase in common crime that Honduras has seen since the coup, while denying a causal link between the coup and criminality. Lobo’s refusal to investigate the murders of resistance members as political killings, while granting amnesty for political crimes, reflects a coordinated strategy. Violence and media coverage of it are used to sow fear among active resistance members in particular, and to increase the fear of common crime among the entire population.
The Honduran Truth Commission, sponsored by the State Department and the Lobo government, is grounded on accepting impunity for ongoing political crimes, starting from the absurd premise that a coup may not have taken place. As Eduardo Stein, head of the Truth Commission, told the Los Angeles Times in May: “We are calling it an alteration of political institutionality, and we will examine whether there was a con¬stitutional framework and if rights were respected.” The Truth Commission—which will not release many of its results for 10 years—has been roundly condemned by the Honduran resistance movement as a whitewashing operation. The country’s human rights organizations have come together to create a competing “Commission of Truth,” which held its inaugural event in Tegucigalpa on June 28.
On the “reconciliation” front, Honduran business elites and the U.S. State Department fear that the void created in Honduras’s traditional two-party rule by the coup could be filled by the resistance movement, with its demands for redistributive democracy. This concern has given rise to U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens’s frequent meetings with left-leaning members of the Liberal Party in an effort to bring about Lobo’s promised “government of unity,” which excludes the resistance and embraces the traditional two-party structure. (When Llorens’s efforts failed, the human rights group Washington Office of Latin America attempted to do the same, thus far without success.) This void could become even more vast as the remaining threads of institutional legitimacy have also unraveled since Lobo took office, with (among other things) the political firing of four judges and a public defender in retaliation for their opposition to the coup.
After the failed effort to readmit Honduras into the OAS, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs María Otero made an official visit to Tegucigalpa in early August to show support for the Lobo administration and address the issue of human rights. In an interview with Telesur, Otero said improving the human rights situation in Honduras was a concern, but added: “I think the problem of human rights is not a condition for reentry [to the OAS].”
Whether the efforts to recognize Honduras will ultimately prove successful or not remains to be seen. What is certain is that Honduras is a country transformed. Today—in stark contrast to previous years—human rights, militarization, the two-party system, neoliberal economic policies, and democracy are hotly debated in local and national meetings of the resistance, in mainstream and resistance newspaper editorials, in radio and television commentaries, in university conferences, bars, corner stores, and soccer fields throughout the country. The walls of almost every town and city in the country are covered with anti-regime graffiti and demands for the refounding of the nation.
As of August 22, the FNRP’s “Citizen Declaration,” calling for an inclusive constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution, had garnered 944,330 signatures. This, according to a source within the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, is more than the number of Hondurans who voted in the 2009 presidential election.
Adrienne Pine teaches anthropology at American University. She is the author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (University of California Press, 2008). She blogs at quotha.net. This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared June 30 at nacla.org.