Saturday, July 18, 2009

Back from the Honduran Coup

Finally I've had a little bit of time to gather my thoughts, reflect on everything that happened the during our time in Honduras and contemplate how I would ever be able to fully describe the things we saw and participated in.

If we rewind to June 28th when President Zelaya was kidnapped and removed from office I decided that I couldn't stay in the U.S. and just passively watch what was occurring back in Honduras. It was tearing me up watching my people take to the streets and demand a return to democracy and for me to just sit behind a computer screen and do nothing would be unthinkable.

So Wednesday afternoon I buy a ticket to Tegucigalpa. President Zelaya was scheduled to fly from DC to Honduras Thursday so I picked up the earliest leaving ticket so I could have a chance to arrive with him, or be there for his arrival.

So I clear things with work, I'll be back Monday, quick trip to see whats going on, participate in some protests and fly back. Sounds simple right? If only.

I fly into Tegucigalpa Thursday to find out that Zelaya and the OAS met and decided to give the acting government 72 hours to return Zelaya to power. Putting him in on Sunday instead. I arrive to stay with an old old friend from Honduras Diana and her husband Patrick their adorable newborn baby Benny. They were excellent hosts, and put me up for a night before Dani arrived. We had never discussed politics before and so I was a little surprised to find that they were extremely conservative and actually supporters of the coup. It worked out great though, as I was able to get a variety of perspectives on the situation and Patrick even set it up to get me out to the first protest taking place inside the gates of the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa since the coup.

The night before the protest we were watching TV and I noticed that all the local channels were running pro-military propaganda, I asked Diana about it and she said that the old channels were running "gossip" about the coup and so they took them off the air. The other thing that I noticed was that whenever CNN or any international news networks began showing a report critical of the Honduran coup it would be quickly interrupted by a pro-coup broadcast that I became ever too familiar with. The military propaganda would cycle through a timeline of why it was important and constitutional to remove Zelaya from power. It would call all opposition "undemocratic, radical, foreign, communist..." the typical things. But the key words through the entire time were "Paz y Democracia." Like, "Are you going to the march for Peace and Democracy or the violent one?" Very Orwellian... Its also worth noting that the whole country was on indefinite lockdown under a sunset to sunrise curfew the entire trip.

The following day Patrick dropped me off early in the morning, Dani was flying in around noon so that gave me most of the morning to see what was going on. Patrick made sure to make me change out of my black guayabera shirt, because as he put it: "You look like a Che-ist and will get beaten up." Apparently all those supporting the coup were wearing white t-shirts. (The rest of the trip I packed one around with me just in case I ran into a bad situation I could disguise myself!) As I walked along to the march I encountered a heavy military presence, instead of confronting protesters they were escorting everyone into the grounds near the Presidential Palace where a massive stage was set up. Everyone was dressed in white, and obviously from the middle-upper class. Designer jeans and sunglasses were everywhere, an odd sight for most of my travels in Honduras. Giant commercially manufactured vinyl signs denouncing Zelaya, Chavez, Ortega, Morales and CNN were everywhere.
As noon approached I made my way through the fairly large rally to and picked up a cab to the airport. As we made our way through the cab driver explained that the military had been shutting down anti-coup marches, shooting the tires out of buses coming to Tegucigalpa, and arresting and shooting people wearing shirts for "La Cuarta Urna" the constitutional referendum Zelaya was hoping to make to allow presidents to serve two terms instead of just one.

I picked up Dani and we made a dash to the hotel, and dropped our gear off. I did however make time to give her a proper welcome to Honduras. We stopped in a dirty, smelly market where real people can buy any piece of a cow you wish... and we ate delicious baleadas, the Honduran specialty.

We grabbed a cab and our only instructions were, take us to the pro-Zelaya protest, he looked at us wide-eyed... who could this stupid gringos be wanting to go to the "violent" protest. After a quick trip (regardless of what happened in Tegucigalpa, I still maintain that the most dangerous part of the trip were the cab rides, seriously Honduran cab drivers should all be in Nascar) we pulled up to a large demonstration. The first thing I saw was a plume of smoke and immediately assumed they were burning tires or something... but as we approached I found it was an indigenous woman burning incense at the front of the protest to ward off evil spirits.

The drastic difference from the two protests was immediately apparent. These were REAL people, working class people, farmers, students, teachers, indigenous people. The real soul of Honduras was in these protests. People had made signs from everything. Flags weren't vinyl copies made in china shipped to Honduras through some twist of free trade exploitation. Honduran flags here were hand stitched in someones house out in the pueblos.

Talking with Anti-Coup protesters
Anti-coup Protest-Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Despite all the warnings about these protesters being violent and angry, we found them to be extremely welcoming and kind. Everyone asked who we were, why we were there and asked us to take lots of pictures because their voices were being silenced by the military propaganda. Everyone was so enthusiastic, and had huge grins on their faces. Music, drums and dancing were everywhere. It truly was an amazing thing to behold. A typical rainy season Honduran storm rolled up and the people began chanting, "Only the rich fear the rain!"


This was our introduction to countless protest songs. The most prolific being "Yo quiero a Mel, es mi presidente yo quiero a Mel," (I want Mel, he is my president, I want Mel," which would inevitably give way to "Viene Mel, Urge Mel, Viene Mel." (Mel comes, we need Mel). As we began marching a Honduran singer Polache climbed ontop of a truck and sang a beautiful song to President Zelaya asking him to return.


As the protests died down we made our way to Patrick and Diana's house for dinner and back to the hotel for an early night. The next day, Saturday, would be the first day since the coup that people would have off and protests were supposed to be massive. We spoke to so many people about their difficulties coming into the city as the military was trying to block protesters from making it downtown, and even met a group of indigenous farmers who had walked 3 days because the military shot out the tires of their bus.

Here is video of the military shootings out the tires of people coming from Limones to Tegucigalpa:


That night we were awoken to a very loud explosion that shook our hotel. Come to find out the military had bombed Channel 11's studio (DemocracyNow report).

From the DemocracyNow report:
There was a journalist on Friday murdered after leaving Radio America in San Juan Pueblo in the rural area in the north. Then there are two journalists who are in hiding. One is the head of channel 36 and the other is the director of Radio Global. Other journalists who have decided to continue their programming are facing death threats. And fear and intimidation tactics. One journalist jumped three stories when the soldiers came to get him in Radio Global on the day of the coup. And the reason he did so is because he had been tortured in the 1980’s and he feared this would happen once again. Another journalist had his family threatened and just two days ago, his two sons on the street were threatened with a revolver a car with darkened windows on the street. Also a bomb exploded at Channel 11 in Tegucigalpa. The material damage was severe, there was no one else hurt. Other channels closed, I said channel 36, also channel 45. In terms of radio, Radio Global in Tegucigalpa is the station that is most been under attack. I mentioned a man who jumped three stories, the director is in hiding. Other journalists are under life threats. One of the radios stations in the countryside, Radio Progresso, this was shut down. Radio Progresso is a very, very progressive voice run by the Jesuit community. One station here in Tegucigalpa that carries the headline news of “Democracy Now!” was clearly forced to take headline news of “Democracy Now!” off the air because we have been reporting on the coup. So the press censorship has been very, very severe and intimidation and terror tactics against journalists have been in incrementing.
This really was the beginning of some nerve racking situations for Dani and I.

The next morning we woke up early and made our way to the beginning of the march up by the University. We started taking lots of pictures and meeting so many interesting people from all over Honduras. The protest was massive. I have no idea how one would even calculate the crowd, but at one point I climbed an overpass overlooking Tegucigalpa and it was wall to wall as far as I could see in both directions. It was such a powerful sight, the crowd was so energized and happy.


I never once saw any violence or felt threatened in any way. Dani stood out a bit more than I did and she never felt any threat from any of the protesters. Everyone was in it together watching out for each other. I cant count the number of free bags of water I was given or how many times people told us they were grateful for us being there. Everyone had a story and wanted to share it with us.

As we made our way through Tegucigalpa we entered some pretty narrow streets and the military began flying helicopters extremely low at the crowd, it was very unsettling seeing how crowded we were and everyone was worried they would open fire from the helicopters into the crowd.

We made our way past the Supreme Court and Armory, and both were heavily guarded, but protesters formed a wall separating the crowd from the military and told everyone to not do anything to provoke the military. Through the whole thing the protesters were extremely friendly with the military and police and would constantly shout "Pueblo Unete!" People Unite! Asking the military to join us.

Reliving history

We finally reached the airport, and Dani and I made our way to the very front where the crowd and military met. There was a small gap and an indigenous woman had a bucket with incense she was burning and walked back and forth between the protesters and the military. The protests remained peaceful and we made our way up to the top of the airstrip looking down where it was announced that tomorrow Pres. Mel Zelaya would be returning!

The protests had been growing exponentially each day, and by Sunday the crowd was massive. They were very well organized and disciplined when dealing with the police and military. Sunday afternoon things really came to a head as the peaceful protest marched on the airport to demand the return of President Zelaya who was scheduled to return in the afternoon. The protest was peaceful and attended by large numbers of women and children, as well as indigenous groups from across the country.

As the protest neared the airport it was met with heavy military road blockades. Protest leaders worked in cooperation with the military and the military retreated peacefully three times, allowing the people to proceed to entrance of the airport and eventually to the far side of the runway.


And the protesters move forward after the military retreats:

There was open dialogue between the protest leaders and military. As we reached the far side of the runway I was about three people behind the fence and a man on the loudspeaker began begging the soldiers to not fire on their fellow Hondurans. He explained that we would be entering the airstrip to escort the president off the plane when he landed, so he would not be kidnapped by the military.

People began cutting the fence and tearing down sections. There was no violence directed to the military at any point, and they were repeatedly told not to fire because we were peaceful, and there was a heavy presence of women and children in the large protest.
People tearing down fence:

Suddenly without notice the military fired teargas and simultaneously open fired on the crowd. Everyone began screaming and running for cover but we were initially pinned against a wall. As we made our way around the wall I tripped over three women who were being run over by the large number of people trying to escape, and I was unable to help them up as the force of the crowd pushed me. As I glanced back I noticed that a small number of brave souls actually were throwing rocks at the soldiers as the soldiers were indiscriminately shooting into the crowd. Rocks vs. bullets. It was a powerful moment.

My eyes and chest were burning, I couldn't see but made my way around behind a fast food restaurant which was being riddled with bullets. As I made my way around, you can hear in the videos the sporadic gunfire at the crowd. Dani and I hid behind a car for a minute, which you can see in the video, and then grabbed each others hands and fought our way over a small wall and around to a neighborhood a block away from the shootings.

Here is video Dani shot of us fleeing the gunfire:

As the shooting died down we made my way back to the fence and found a man next to me had been shot and killed, there was blood all over the streets and a motorcycle was full of bullet holes. We also spoke with a man, in the videos, who was covered with blood.

The buildings were covered in bullet holes, and rock retaining walls were torn apart with bullets. The military has been claiming they were shooting rubber bullets, but as far as I know a rubber bullet shot from 50 yards away doesnt put a 2 inch hole in someones head like we witnessed.
The military has been releasing propaganda on local TV, the only source of news we have, claiming that Mel Zelaya was circling above giving orders to the protesters to attack the military, Zelayas plane did not arrive and begin circling the airport until far after the shootings took place. Also the military is saying protesters attacked the military, We were on the very front of the protest against the fence when the shooting took place and no such provocations ever took place.

Yes, teargas is pretty painful:

Man washing teargas from eyes:

After the shooting died down the streets were eerily silent and the mood had so quickly shifted from lively happy protesters dancing in the streets, to complete chaos and fear, to shock and disbelief. We sat and watched the military for a while, trying to understand how they could shoot their own brothers in sisters on the streets. When you looked into the faces of the military they all were so young and innocent looking. Its unbelievable that they could consciously fire into a crowd filled with children.
We slowly made our way back, thinking we would return home and try to process what had just happened. We ran into a large crowd who had moved from the end of the airport to the entrance where they were singing the Honduran national anthem, everyone with a fist in the air.

Suddenly a plane began circling above the airport and the atmosphere became electric. Radio was turned on the loudspeakers and the Honduran President Mel Zelaya addressed the crowd as he circled above the airport. Zelaya condemned the coup, the violence taken against the peaceful crowd and promised to return.

That night we returned to our hotel unsure what to think about the past few days events. It was time for us to make our way out of Honduras, little did we know the difficulty we would have trying to leave. The Tegucigalpa airport was indefinitely shut down, reports were saying at least until the end of the week. So we opted to try to make our way to San Pedro Sula.

We took the earliest bus, but in between Siguatepeque and Comayagua were met with roadblocks set up by farmers who had come down from the mountains to support President Zelaya. It was truly impressive how much they were able to do with such few numbers and small resources. They put a few sticks across the road and promised not to move until the president returned. After some serious negotiating we finally made our way past the roadblocks and eventually to San Pedro Sula.

Dani stuck at the roadblock

Dani booked the first flight out leaving a day before me. The situation was deteriorating, it was getting progressively more dangerous to be a foreigner as the military had been deporting and interrogating foreigners from Venezuela and Nicaragua.

My last day I went to a protest in San Pedro Sula that marched on the town center in front of the catholic church. After much dancing and music and speeches we were told that although the church supported the coup, there were several priests who did not, and they would be holding a mass and vigil for the protesters that evening.
I had my serious doubts about my sanity for showing up to the airport, thinking it was a suicide mission. I spent the last night barricaded in my room, with the back window open and my bags stashed ready to make a run out the window, over the roof and into a back alley. I had it all very well planned. Fortunately nothing happened and things went smoothly at the airport and I arrived home in one piece.

Sadly things still seem to be spiraling out of control just yesterday two members of the opposition political party, Unificacion Democratica, were assassinated. And over the weekend Honduran police detained six employees of the regional television network Telesur and Venezuela state-run station Venezolana de Television.

I am uploading video to=

and pictures to=

Dani has video here:

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