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“They Are Afraid of Us, Because We Are Not Afraid!”

November 25, 2009

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they are afraid of us, because we are not afraid!
posted by Tyler Shipley

November 25, 2009

→Dominion Stories

Posted by Tyler Shipley on November 24th 2009 at 8:51pm

It is with excitement and apprehension that I prepare for my arrival in Tegucigalpa, from where I will be posting reports this week in the lead-up to the boycott of the Nov. 29th elections. I am excited by the prospect of meeting people like Berta Caceres, an indigenous leader of the resistance whose incendiary speeches in the streets of the capital have stirred me with admiration for the bravery of the Honduran people facing daily repression and violence but refusing to back down from the project of building a new country. I am apprehensive at the prospect of meeting any one of the 2000 soldiers, 15,000 police and 5000 reservists that have been mobilized by the Micheletti regime to ensure “free and fair elections.”

As Honduras lurches towards confrontation between the perpetrators of electoral farce and the people who are demanding that their voices be heard, it seems instructive to revisit the moment that, in many respects, set the scene for the current crisis. Indeed, what is perhaps most striking about the struggle for constitutional reform in 2009 is the similarity it bears to the context that led to the signing of the 1982 constitution that the resistance is seeking to reform.

The 1980s were not a pleasant time in Central America. The revolutionary social movements that had achieved some success in the 60s and 70s were in the process of being ‘rolled back’ by the United States and its local allies in what amounted to a low-intensity war; a truly terrorist campaign that left thousands of bodies in its wake. The political Left in Honduras, perhaps best represented by the National Federation of Honduras Peasants (FENACH), had not been able to achieve the kind of military and political success that characterized the guerillas in Guatemala or the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. As a result, Honduras became a primary base from which the United States launched its campaigns of terror against those neighbouring countries. In addition to the 18 military bases it established and the 10,000 American troops stationed there, the U.S. also provided the Honduran armed forces with over $100 million between 1980-84.

This infusion of money and technical support to the military and business elite reinforced the strength of the oligarchy in Tegucigalpa and led to dramatic increases in poverty, inequality and political repression. The 1982 constitution was written after decades of military dictatorship while Honduras was playing host to a US-led paramilitary contra force of over 15,000 soldiers trained in what we now call ‘counter-insurgency’ – specializing in campaigns of terror against primarily poor and ill-equipped guerilla forces and their supporters. In the period 1981-84, when the new constitution was being written, ratified and established into political order, the regime carried out 214 political assassinations, 110 ‘disappearances,’ and 1,947 illegal detentions. Given that context, calling that constitution ‘representative’ of any but the most elite strata of Honduran society would be patently absurd; the vast majority of people in the country were living in abject poverty and ceaseless fear of their own soldiers and police.

Fast forward to 2009, and the struggle for a re-opening of that same constitution. The Honduran oligarchy wasn’t happy when Manuel Zelaya refused to grant new mining concessions, or when he raised the minimum wage, or when he vetoed a new law prohibiting birth-control pills (which has subsequently been passed under the coup regime.) But the proposal to open up the 1982 constitution for reform was, evidently, the last straw. Despite the rhetoric so happily repeated for North American audiences, the constitution was not being re-opened in order to keep Zelaya in power; the vote that was to happen on June 28th, the morning of the coup, was a non-binding referendum to determine whether there was, indeed, an appetite to re-write the constitution. A strong ‘yes’ vote would have prompted Zelaya to form an assembly to evaluate and re-constitute the nation’s most fundamental code of laws. That assembly would present its efforts to the congress, where the new constitution would have to be accepted. This complicated process could never have taken place in the few months that remained in Zelaya’s term.

But the Zelaya-as-Chavez story has played perfectly in the United States and Canada, where leaders have stubbornly refused to condemn the coup and have recently claimed that they will support the results of the Nov. 29th elections despite the fact that hundreds of candidates at various levels have withdrawn in boycott. And sure enough, as Hondurans have struggled in the streets for the right to write a new constitution that truly represents their needs, the repression has looked exactly like that of the early 1980s. Just as Hondurans could not possibly expect a legitimate constitution to be written for them in the context of assassinations, disappearances and 15,000 contra soldiers in 1982, the resistance of 2009 knows that it cannot expect free and fair elections to be administered by a regime that has killed people in the streets for daring to believe that their most basic democratic processes would be respected.

“The elections,” says Berta Caceres at a speech in early November, “would have to be between the resistance and the coup-makers” in order to be legitimate. That clearly is not the way things are going. But the project of reforming the constitution that was forced upon Honduras in 1982 will not go away. Says Berta, “I’ve been to those marginal barrios in Tegucigalpa, to those neighbourhoods at night, and you see and listen to the strength with which people propose that national constituent assembly. We should learn to define, to build collectively the nature, the concepts, the content of that assembly. We shouldn’t wait any longer.” As the speech finishes, the crowd chants “they are afraid of us because we are not afraid!” Perhaps my apprehensions were misguided.

Tyler Shipley is a graduate student and activist from Toronto, Canada. He is in Tegucigalpa with a delegation organized by Rights Action reporting on the resistance to the coup and the Nov. 29 elections.

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