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SOA Grads Continue to Make Headlines Throughout the Americas February 28, 2015

Posted by rogerhollander in Chile, Foreign Policy, Genocide, Guatemala, Honduras, Immigration, Latin America, Peru.
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Roger’s note: Another is my series: your American tax dollars at work in Latin America … to aid and abet murder.

In just the first two months of 2015, we have been horrified, though not surprised, to learn of the continued repression by SOA/WHINSEC graduates against their own people. As the US continues to secure economic and political interests by utilizing military solutions to social and political problems, SOA/WHINSEC graduates continue to make headlines in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Peru and Chile, underscoring the importance of continuing the struggle to close the SOA/WHINSEC. While some graduates have yet to be held accountable due to the high levels of impunity in their country or in the US, they are all directly responsible for committing grave human rights violations, which include murder, torture and genocide.

As we continue to highlight these atrocities, we invite you to join us in Washington, DC for our Spring Days of Action this April 22-25, Growing Stronger Together: Resisting the “War on Drugs” across the America.

in solidarity,
SOA Watch
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Lt. Pedro Barrientos Nuñez – Chile

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In 2013, a Chilean Supreme Court formally requested the extradition of former Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos from the United States to Chile to stand trial for the 1973 torture and murder of folk singer Víctor Jara. Barrientos moved to the US after the Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990. While the US government has yet to respond to this extradition request, a trial in a Florida court was set to begin on February 23. Though the trial has been postponed, Barrientos, who currently resides in Deltona, Florida, could potentially lose his US citizenship and later extradited to Chile where he would stand trial. In the US, Barrientos has been accused of immigration fraud, as he concealed his participation in human rights atrocities during the dictatorship in Chile. Joan Jara, widow of Víctor Jara, filed the case against Barrientos and has been seeking truth and justice for over 40 years.

General José Efraín Ríos Montt – Guatemala

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On January 5, the retrial against SOA grad and former dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez was set to resume following the annullment of the historic May 10, 2013 sentence condemning Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide against 1,771 Ixil Mayans. He is the first former head of state to be put on trial for genocide. On the morning of the retrial, the defense motioned for a postponement of the trial, using Ríos Montt’s deterioating health an excuse for not being able to present himself to the courtroom. Through stalling tactics by his defense, including attempts to seek amnesty, the retrial has been postponed once again despite international criticism. Ríos Montt came to power after a coup on March 23, 1982 and remained in power until August 1983. He is 88 years old.

Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra – Honduras

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In January 2015, 2011 SOA/WHINSEC graduate Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra got off scot free for his role in the murder of 15-year-old Ebed Yanes despite the judges’ finding that “it has been proven Josué Antonio Sierra and Felipe de Jesus also fired their weapons at young Ebed Jassiel, which makes them participants in his death”. Sierra was in charge of the patrol, part of a US-vetted unit in charge of the US-donated vehicle used to chase down and kill young Ebed at a military checkpoint. Conveniently, Honduras’ Public Ministry solely accused a low-ranking solidier who was not part of the US-vetted unit of murder, while accusing Sierra and Rodríguez only of abuse of authority and cover-up. Human rights organization COFADEH had previously tried to include murder charges against them but the government Special Prosecutor for Human Rights decided against it. Now, the US can conveniently report that nobody from the vetted unit, much less a WHINSEC grad, has been found guilty of murder in the case. Click here to continue reading…
Col. Jovel Martínez – Honduras

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Meanwhile, in the northern part of the country on the night of January 29, 18-year-old campesino leader Christian Alberto Martínez Pérez was riding his bike near the entrance to Paso Aguán Plantation, which is controlled by security guards for Dinant Corportation and soldiers from the Xatruch III Task Force, commanded by SOA graduate Jovel Martínez. Christian went missing, his bike found at the entrance to the Paso Aguán Plantation. Campesino and human rights organizations proceeded to search for him, finding his shirt on the Paso Aguán Plantation. Over 200 people combed the area for him, until finally on the third day of searching, he was found, blindfolded, barefoot, hands and feet tied up, left in a field. Once rescued, he told how a Dinant security guard approached him with a gun and together with a soldier put him in a vehicle, blindfolded him, and interrogated him about the leadership of the Gregorio Chávez campesino movement. Click here to continue reading…
General Daniel Urresti Elera – Peru

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Yesterday in Peru, prosecutors requested 25 years of prison for SOA gradaute, retired General Daniel Urresti Elera, related to the 1988 murder of journalist Hugo Bustíos. As head of the Intelligence Section of the Countersubversive Military High Command Battalion at the time, Urresti is accused of masterminding the ambush and murder of Bustíos. Up until last week, Urresti was in charge of Peru’s police as Minister of the Interior and also made headlines as police repression was unleashed on protests against a law that would eliminate labor benefits and rights for young workers. Twenty thousand young people took to the streets, protesting neoliberal reform.

On January 15, 2015, police unleashed tear gas and detained protesters, and violence was reported between infiltrators and police. Soon after, on January 26, Urresti publicly boasted to the media that the young people would not be able to reach Congress and sent ten thousand police to block them. Nevertheless, the Peruvian youth and social movements prevailed and Congress was forced to repeal the law. Just last week, Urresti apologized for the February 11, 2015 death of 25-year-old Ever Pérez Huaman during protests against a petroleum company in Pichanaki, Peru. Amidst mounting criticism, Urresti admitted political responsibility for the use of firearms by police during the protest, and stepped down as Minister of the Interior.

SOA Watch

 

Not Forgotten: Street Art to Remember the Victims of the School of the Americas May 31, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Latin America.
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Roger’s note: If you watch the short video at the end of this posting, you will see a group of young people breaking the law by affixing posters on private property.  Someone obviously called the cops, and you will see them being arrested and taken away.  I don’t know how things turned out, but I suspect they were processed by the criminal justice system and will pay a price, perhaps even a large one, for their “crime.”  The object of their action, their protest, their civil disobedience, i.e., the U.S. government School of the Americas, is responsible for wholesale murder throughout Latin America.  They (the American politicians and military and the Latin American soldiers they train) will not be brought to justice for their deeds, they will literally get away with murder.  This is the world we live in, supported by our tax dollars.

 

by Nick Alexandrov

Víctor Jara was an internationally-acclaimed Chilean singer-songwriter, a theater director and activist. When General Augusto Pinochet took power on “the other 9/11” in 1973, his troops forced Jara and thousands of other political prisoners into Santiago’s Chile Stadium. After a group of soldiers recognized the artist, they tortured him in the arena basement, and then—before the crowd of detainees—cut off his fingers, mocking him as they demanded he perform something, perhaps a composition in the “New Song” genre he’d helped pioneer, and which Pinochet had banned. Witnesses recall that Jara sang “Venceremos”—“We Will Win”—before the guards dragged him away. He was shot 44 times.

Jara is one of the people School of the Americas Watch’s (SOAW) current poster campaign, developed with street artist César Maxit, commemorates. Others include El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel when assassins gunned him down in March 1980; Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi, one of the main figures behind the crucial human rights report Guatemala: Nunca Más!, whose killers pummeled his face with a concrete slab, mutilating it beyond recognition; and Natalia Tuberquia Muñoz, who was only six in 2005 when massacred—along with three men, two women and another child—in the Colombian village of San José de Apartadó. What the musician, the bishops and the child have in common is that they are just four of the thousands of Latin Americans murdered by School of the Americas (SOA) graduates.

The SOA, located at Fort Benning, Georgia, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, 70,000 of whom have studied counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare there since the institution’s 1946 founding. Training manuals the school used for at least a decade recommended extortion, torture and execution as effective means of dealing with the state’s enemies. And the SOAW posters also feature eight of its alumni, including Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who died last year in jail, incarceration his punishment for committing crimes against humanity, including disappearances, torture, and the killing of 15,000-30,000 dissidents; Guatemalan military dictator Ríos Montt, whom a Guatemalan court last year found guilty of genocide against his country’s Ixil Maya; and Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, a key official spearheading the country’s 2009 coup, which even the military lawyer—himself an SOA alum—charged with giving the affair a veneer of legitimacy admittedwas “a crime.”

SOA complicity in the recent Honduran coup reveals the institution’s continuing relevance. Its 2001 name-change—it’s known now as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)—was merely cosmetic, and “there are no substantive changes besides the name,” one of its former instructors testified shortly after the rebranding. The school’s consistent aim, in the past and today, has been to facilitate Latin American militaries’ wars of repression against their own people. Describing Washington’s support for dictators like Videla and Montt as stemming from its “anti-Communism,” or as related to the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, misses the point. The term “Communist,” for example, was always incredibly elastic, used to refer to illiterate peasant farmers, church officials, university instructors, women in areas considered guerrilla territory—the label could be affixed to whoever was slated for execution. “The army is not killing guerrillas, despite what is reported,” a U.S. mercenary in 1980s El Salvador explained. “It is murdering the civilians who side with them. By terrorizing civilians the army is crushing the rebellion without the need to directly confront the guerrillas. Attacking civilians is the game plan.” The SOAW posters remembering some of the victims—bishops, young girls, a musician—help capture this reality, still very much a part of Washington’s Latin America policy, as ongoing U.S. support for the repressive Mexican, Colombianand Hondurangovernments makes clear.

To help draw attention to the beneficiaries and victims of U.S. training and aid, nearly a dozen activists gathered on May 14 in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, where they pasted up a mural composed, in part, of the SOAW posters. “Though the activists were peaceful in their actions,” SOAW reports, “D.C. police decided that political art was unacceptable in the district.  After the artwork was completed, four of the activists”—Dominique Diaddigo-Cash, Gail Taylor, Maria Luisa Rosal, and Nico Udu-gama—“were handcuffed, arrested and held for 6 hours before being charged with ‘defacing public or private property.’ The charge carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in prison and a $1,000 fine,” and those detained “will be arraigned in the D.C. Superior Court on June 5, 2014.”

But the police intervention in the Adams Morgan art action hasn’t had a deterrent effect: in the last few weeks, SOAW activists have taken posters to other District neighborhoods, as well as the streets of Los Angeles and the UC Riverside campus. “The best way to stand in solidarity with the targeted activists, and to push back against the criminalization of dissent,” SOAW reminds us, “is to keep up the resistance!”

This video, by Beth Geglia, shows footage of the May 14 action, as well as the subsequent arrest of four SOAW activists:

And go here for more information on the SOAW poster campaign. You’ll find the full series of downloadable posters on the website, as well as step-by-step wheat-pasting instructions.

School of Assassins Faces Protest, Congressional De-Funding November 21, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Latin America.
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SOA-protest

The US Army School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia is a notorious training operation for Latin American officers and soldiers. It’s associated with some of the worst dictatorships and human rights violators in the hemisphere. For over 20 years, the grassroots School of Americas Watch (SOA Watch) has grown into one of the most dynamic, multi-generational, cross-continental movements against militarism in the Americas.

This weekend, November 22-24, will see thousands gather for a massive rally at Ft. Benning in the ongoing campaign to shut down the school. Vans from colleges and universities will make the trek with students who’ve studied the grim history of U.S.-sponsored military coups and U.S.-friendly dictators, many of whom got their inspiration and training at the SOA (now renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC).

Among the more infamous SOA graduates are Gen. Jose Rios Montt, who was convicted May 10th of committing genocide between March 1982 and August 1983 during his Guatemalan military dictatorship; death squad leader Otto Perez Molina who under Rios Montt directed massacres of Maya people, and who recently maneuvered Guatemala’s high court to reverse Rios Montt’s conviction; Gen. Manual Noreiga of Panama, who moved from dictatorship via SOA to the BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons that is) on drug charges; Roberto D’Abuisson, leader of El Salvador’s death squads in the 1980s; and Gen. Hugo Banzar Suarez of Bolivia who seized power in 1971 and who jailed, disappeared and assassinated suspected political opponents for eight years. SOA graduates led military coups in Venezuela in 2002 and the 2009 coup in Honduras.

For more background, “Somos Una America” — a new documentary that focuses on the campaign against the Pentagon mindset that promotes U.S. domination and ‘military solutions’ in the Western Hemisphere — is available online for free (visit: soaw.org/somos).

This past April, the SOA Watch campaign won a long-sought court victory over the U.S. government’s refusal to release the names of the trainers at the SOA/WHINSEC. Federal Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton in Calif. ruled that the Pentagon has no grounds for refusing to release these names. President Obama has OKed the Justice Department’s appeal of this ruling, protecting the Pentagon’s effort to keep the information secret. As SOA Watch points out, this is because instructors there have coached “torturers, death squads and military dictators throughout the Americas.” The president’s decision to appeal puts the lie to his claim that his administration would be the most transparent in history. And you thought after his persecution of whistle blowers Julian Assange, Pfc. Manning and Edward Snowden that Obama could not get more cynical.

Teaching Torture the World Over

The SOA burst into the news in 1996, when the Pentagon released copies of its torture training manuals. The Sept. 21, 1996 Washington Post, in “U.S. Instructed Latins on Executions, Torture; Manuals Used 1982-91, Pentagon Reveals” by Dana Priest, notes that the manuals promote the use of “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum.” By 1996, 60,000 military and police officers had been through SOA training.

The torture manuals were distributed to thousands of military officers from eleven South and Central American countries, although the actions advocated in them violated U.S. Army law at the time. The Pentagon ordered the manuals destroyed, but only a few thousand were ever recovered. They have doubtlessly been reproduced and employed by militaries and counterinsurgency forces the world over. U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be direct beneficiaries, considering the torture regimes conducted at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq (2004) and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Afghanistan has become a torture regime too — first under U.S. forces and now by their Afghan trainees (See “U.S. Practiced Torture After 9/11, Nonpartisan Review Concludes,” NY Times, Apr. 16, 2013, and “Government Panel in Afghanistan Confirms Widespread Torture of Detainees,” Jan. 21, 2013).

Demands to abolish the SOA/WHINSEC now come from across the political spectrum. From the point of view of the victims, more than 300 human rights defenders have employed nonviolent direct action at the base, and as a result have collectively spent over 100 years in prison and served additional years probation. (Disclaimer: I did 6 months in the Duluth prison camp for trespassing at SOA back in 2006. My cellie R.J., who was doing eight years, put me straight when he announced, “I see him doing his exercises, his yoga. He’s just here for an oil change.”) From officialdom, the Latin American Military Training Review Act of 2013, H.R. 2989, would suspend operations at the school. It also mandates an investigation into SOA’s connection with abuses of human rights. It’s got 40 co-sponsors but needs more.

If you’re not heading down to the Georgia for the rally, at least push your Congressional Rep’s to join the shutdown effort.

John LaForge

John LaForge is on the Nukewatch staff and edits its Quarterly.

Our Struggle Continues! Venceremos! November 28, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, Latin America.
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From November 16-18, over two thousand students, prison abolitionists, teachers, nuns, immigrants, musicians, farmers, activists and workers from across the Americas mobilized to the gates of Fort Benning, to once more express our humanity and solidarity against the school of death and destruction. This year, we were fortunate to have so many activists from Latin America and the Caribbean who shared their stories with us and walked with us. It was a true manifestation of the saying: “Somos Una América! We are One America!”
On Sunday, November 18, we called out the names of our martyrs, including Ebed Yanes, 15, who was assassinated by SOA-trained troops in May, 2012, in Honduras. From left: Fr Ismael Moreno Coto of Honduras, Fr Roy Bourgeois, Adriana Portillo-Bartow, Dr. Martin Almada of Paraguay.
Thousands came together, including many for the very first time. This year, the names of people who died crossing the US/Mexico border were read along with those of SOA victims.
Expressing a vision of the world through puppetry is an integral part of the SOA Watch movement. On Saturday, the puppetistas brought out the USS Empire, representing the 520 years of oppression… which was later overwhelmed by our collective resistance!
Nashua Chantal, 60 years old, from Americus, Georgia, as he climbs the ladder over the fence at Fort Benning, to carry our protest onto the base. He faces 6 months in prison. Nashua will be in federal court in Columbus on January 9, 2013 to put the SOA/ WHINSEC on trial.
Fort Benning military police arrest Nashua for crossing the line.
Hundreds watch as Nashua is taken away. Our resistance transcends borders and fences, and we will not stop until they do!


Click here to see more photos from Tom Bottolene. If you have any pictures you took and would like to share them, you can upload them to the SOA Watch Flickr page.

 
Special thanks to the Mobile Broadcast Network who livestreamed the Vigil. Check out a clip of Rebel Díaz and Fr Roy here, and of the Puppetista pageant and interviews in Spanish here.

 
Also, check a report back from Father Melo about his experience at the gates. Nina spoke of her first trip to Fort Benning, as did Dominique, who rode on the Veterans for Peace bus from Minnesota. From Ft Benning to Cairo, Eva reports on her views of militarism. Also, Rebel Diaz rapper Rodstarz wrote of his encounter with undercover police. Check the reports out!

 
We marched to the Stewart Detention center to protest unjust immigration laws; we connected our issues during caucuses and workshops; we remembered the names of the victims; and one of us took our collective message over the fence. We left with the renewed knowledge that our struggle did not begin or end at Fort Benning, but that we will continue to build a just and peaceful world in our communities every single day of the year!

 
Thank you to all of you who participated in the Vigil weekend and we invite you to stay connected and continue to spread the word through talks in your communities, video-showings, house-meetings, dances, theater, and legislative work (see you in DC April 8-10, 2013!). Take a rest, and get ready for a rebellious and transformative 2013!

 
In struggle,
SOA Watch

 
PS: In the coming weeks, we will be delivering a letter to Congress urging them to include SOA/WHINSEC in their mandatory budget cuts. If you haven’t done so, please ask your local, regional or national organization to sign on to the SOA Watch Congressional letter.

Theresa Cusimano Sentenced to Six Months in Federal Prison for Crossing the Line to Speak out against the School of the Americas January 13, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Imperialism, Latin America.
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“There is but one law for all: the law of humanity and justice” – Jimmy Carter.


Those words adorn the wall inside the courtroom of Judge Stephen Hyles at the Columbus courthouse. And there they remain, strong words that ring hollow in face of injustice, merely adornments. http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/dia/track.jsp?v=2&c=6IFWaPWtGcR2p6UO9EtZpUFQQv4DyJmrFor her act of peacefully crossing the line at Fort Benning, Georgia – a misdemeanor offense – a 6-month sentence was imposed on Theresa Cusimano. Those who train men with guns at the SOA/WHINSEC, those who created those torture manuals, have never had to defend their actions, yet Theresa is being sentenced to six months in prison for nonviolently calling attention to the US military’s role in the violence carried out against her sisters and brothers in the Americas.

Theresa Cusimano wrote the following statement to Judge Stephen Hyles before her sentencing, telling him that his complicity goes on record today as obstructing international justice and U.S. Rule of Law, and that she wished that he had the courage of Father Roy and the honor of being a subversive.:

“22 years ago, Father Roy Bourgeois played a recording of Bishop Romero’s final homily from the day before he was assassinated by School of the America graduates. Romero was labeled a subversive for identifying with the poor. Roy was so sure that once Romero’s community heard this homily, their hearts would be changed. So he climbed a tree with his friends, replaying Romero’s words to Salvadoran soldiers who were being trained at the School of the Americas to kill their brothers and sisters. Roy wore a Navy uniform representative of his military service in Viet Nam. Because of this action, Roy and his friends joined this circle of “subversives” by shining light on the truth of how the U.S. was spending our tax dollars on its gambling game known as U.S. foreign policy. In this dirty war business “subversives” become fair game for U.S. trained and financed militias while the U.S. continues to profit, sitting back and watching the body count grow, with mass graves filled with hundreds of thousands of mutilated children, raped women and countless, faceless corpses of unknowing communities. Who are we?

Columbus is a proud community that does not deserve the stain that the Schools of the Americas brings. The Fort’s barbed wire fence was not built to aid and abet the U.S. from international accountability for the human rights crimes facilitated by the SOA, violating U.S. statutes requiring transparency, not to mention military ethics. Yet you handcuff, videotape and fingerprint me as a criminal.

It seems we are in a bit of a stalemate. Our prisons are over filled, and our courts underfunded. Yet, you, Stephen Hyles, allow this expensive stalemate to continue. You pretend we are here for trespass, wasting precious resources, ignoring talent and idealism that could be put to better use. Because the Columbus magistrates do not recuse themselves despite their conflicts of interest, because you continue to deny defenses that would allow this debate to come to light. Since international law experts are not granted admission to this hearing, you and I are here today on Friday the 13th… you forced to listen and me sentenced to your prison, as a peaceful protestor. Nowhere else but in Georgia can such extreme sentencing be found to protect a base with a tagline, Maneuvers in Excellence. Is this what you call excellence? I want my tax dollars back. I suppose I should be grateful to make use of my tax dollars in another boondoggle economy that lacks accountability, the U.S. prison system.

I beg your pardon while you make a mockery of justice and we pay the price. General Eisenhower warned us of this stalemate as he left the White House. He warned that the military complex would suck all of the resources our country needed for its people, our schools, our hospitals to fuel its addiction to war. Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu begs Americans to, “Stop exporting U.S. warfare.” My witness today Judge Hyles, is to hold you accountable, for the schools that will close this year, the veteran benefits that will be too expensive to make good on, the national service programs like AmeriCorps that will be threatened because you sat silent as precious resources fund the renamed School of the Americas in its latest Honduran coup. You may not hold a machete, or ask children to detonate the landmines used in U.S. financed coups with the protections of a soldier trained here, but your complicity goes on record today as obstructing international justice and U.S. Rule of Law. You have other choices. I only wish you had the courage of Father Roy and the honor of being a subversive.

With employment at an all-time low, who are we to challenge Georgia’s largest employer? We are 300 prisoners of our conscience who have served more than 100 years in prison, collectively. We are supported by hundreds of thousands of protestors. Our legislative campaign with no real funding comes within ten votes of inviting accountability. Today you could choose justice, Judge Hyles… it’s well within your reach.”

Theresa Cusimano, SOA Watch Prisoner of Conscience, January 13, 2012


Before carrying her protest onto the base in November 2011, Theresa addressed thousands of human rights activists at the gates of Fort Benning with a request:
“…Our message is not being heard in Congress, our lawmakers have been purchased by other priorities, so youth and students in the movement ask for you to help us in the Court of Public Opinion and go online to the Daily Show’s Facebook page, register in for their Forum. Request that Father Roy be invited onto the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report. Don’t stop until we get Roy’s voice into the media mainstream, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and the Sunday morning circuit. Don’t let my civil action go to waste.”

To read her full speech from the stage and for contact information for some of the media outlets that Theresa mentioned, click here. To send a message to the media through the SOA Watch webpage, click here.

Showdown in Honduras: The Rise, Repression and Uncertain Future of the Coup June 30, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Foreign Policy, Honduras, Latin America.
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Published on Tuesday, June 30, 2009 by Toward Freedom by Benjamin Dangl

Worldwide condemnation has followed the coup that unseated President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras on Sunday, June 28. Nation-wide mobilizations and a general strike demanding that Zelaya be returned to power are growing in spite of increased military repression. One protester outside the government palace in Honduras told reporters that if Roberto Micheletti, the leader installed by the coup, wants to enter the palace, “he had better do so by air” because if he goes by land “we will stop him.”

On early Sunday morning, approximately 100 soldiers entered the home of the left-leaning Zelaya, forcefully removed him and, while he was still in his pajamas, ushered him on to a plane to Costa Rica. The tension that led to the coup involved a struggle for power between left and right political factions in the country. Besides the brutal challenges facing the Honduran people, this political crisis is a test for regional solidarity and Washington-Latin American relations.

Manuel Zelaya Takes a Left Turn

When Manuel Zelaya was elected president on November 27, 2005 in a close victory, he became president of one of the poorest nations in the region, with approximately 70% of its population of 7.5 million living under the poverty line. Though siding himself with the region’s left in recent years as a new member of the leftist trade bloc, Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), Zelaya did sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2004.

However, Zelaya has been criticizing and taking on the sweatshop and corporate media industry in his country, and increased the minimum wage by 60%. He said the increase, which angered the country’s elite but expanded his support among unions, would “force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair.” 

At a meeting of regional anti-drug officials, Zelaya spoke of an unconventional way to combat the drug trafficking and related violence that has been plaguing his country: “Instead of pursuing drug traffickers, societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand.”

After his election, Zelaya’s left-leaning policies began generating “resistance and anger among Liberal [party] leaders and lawmakers on the one hand, and attracting support from the opposition, civil society organizations and popular movements on the other,” IPS reported.

The social organization Via Campesina stated, “The government of President Zelaya has been characterized by its defense of workers and campesinos, it is a defender of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), and during his administration it has promoted actions that benefit Honduran campesinos.”

As his popularity rose over the years among these sectors of society, the right wing and elite of Honduras worked to undermine the leader, eventually resulting in the recent coup.

Leading up to the Coup

The key question leading up to the coup was whether or not to hold a referendum on Sunday, June 28 – as Zelaya wanted – on organizing an assembly to re-write the country’s constitution.

As one media analyst pointed out, while many major news outlets in the US, including the Miami Herald, Wall St. Journal and Washington Post, said an impetus for the coup was specifically Zelaya’s plans for a vote to allow him to extend his term in office, the actual ballot question was to be: “Do you agree that, during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?”

Nations across Latin America, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, have recently re-written their constitutions. In many aspects the changes to these documents enshrined new rights for marginalized people and protected the nations’ economies from the destabilizing effects of free trade and corporate looting.

Leading up to the coup, on June 10, members of teacher, student, indigenous and union groups marched to demand that Congress back the referendum on the constitution, chanting, “The people, aware, defend the Constituent [Assembly].” The Honduran Front of Teachers Organizations [FOM], with some 48,000 members, also supported the referendum. FOM leader Eulogio Chávez asked teachers to organize the expected referendum this past Sunday in schools, according to the Weekly News Update on the Americas.

The Supreme Court ruled that the referendum violated the constitution as it was taking place during an election year. When Honduran military General Romeo Vasquez refused to distribute ballots to citizens and participate in the preparations for the Sunday referendum, Zelaya fired him on June 24. The Court called for the reinstatement of Vasquez, but Zelaya refused to recognize the reinstatement, and proceeded with the referendum, distributing the ballots and planning for the Sunday vote.

Crackdown in Honduras

Vasquez, a former student at the infamous School of the Americas, now known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), went on to be a key leader in the June 28 coup.

After Zelaya had been taken to Costa Rica, a falsified resignation letter from Zelaya was presented to Congress, and former Parliament leader Roberto Micheletti was sworn in by Congress as the new president of the country. Micheletti immediately declared a curfew as protests and mobilizations continued nation-wide.

Since the coup took place, military planes and helicopters have been circling the city, the electricity and internet has been cut off, and only music is being played on the few radio stations that are still operating, according to IPS News.

Telesur journalists, who have been reporting consistently throughout the conflict, were detained by the de facto government in Honduras. They were then released thanks to international pressure.

The ambassadors to Honduras from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were arrested. Patricia Rodas, the Foreign Minister of Honduras under Zelaya has also been arrested. Rodas recently presided over an OAS meeting in which Cuba was finally admitted into the organization.

The military-installed government has issued arrest warrants for Honduran social leaders for the Popular Bloc Coordinating Committee, Via Campesina and the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, according to the Weekly News Update on the Americas.

Human rights activist Dr. Juan Almendares, reporting from from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, told Democracy Now! that due to government crackdowns and the electrical blackout, there is “not really access to information, no freedom of the press.” He said, “We have also a curfew, because after 9:00 you can be shot if you are on the streets. So we have a curfew from 9:00 to 6:00 a.m.”

In a statement on the coup, Via Campesina said, “We believe that these deeds are the desperate acts of the national oligarchy and the hardcore right to preserve the interests of capital, and in particular, of the large transnational corporations.”

Mobilizations and Strikes in Support of Zelaya

Members of social, indigenous and labor organizations from around the country have concentrated in the city’s capital, organizing barricades around the presidential palace, demanding Zelaya’s return to power. “Thousands of Hondurans gathered outside the presidential palace singing the national hymn,” Telesur reported. “While the battalions mobilized against protesters at the Presidential House, the TV channels did not report on the tense events.” Bertha Cáceres, the leader of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares y Indígenas, said that the ethnic communities of the country are ready for resistance and do not recognize the Micheletti government.

Dr. Almendares reported that in spite of massive repression on the part of the military leaders, “We have almost a national strike for workers, people, students and intellectuals, and they are organized in a popular resistance-run pacific movement against this violation of the democracy. … There are many sectors involved in this movement trying to restitute the constitutional rights, the human rights.”

Rafael Alegría, a leader of Via Campesina in Honduras, told Telesur, “The resistance of the people continues and is growing, already in the western part of the country campesinos are taking over highways, and the military troops are impeding bus travel, which is why many people have decided to travel to Tegucigalpa on foot. The resistance continues in spite of the hostility of the military patrols.”

A general strike was also organized by various social and labor sectors in the country. Regarding the strike, Alegría said it is happening across state institutions and “progressively in the private sector.”

The 4th Army Battalion from the Atlántida Department in Honduras has declared that it will not respect orders from the Micheletti government, and the major highways of the country are blocked by protesters, according to a radio interview with Alegría.

The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), condemned the coup, media crackdowns and repression, saying in a statement: “[T]he Honduran people are carrying out large demonstrations, actions in their communities, in the municipalities; there are occupations of bridges, and a protest in front of the presidential residence, among others. From the lands of Lempira, Morazán and Visitación Padilla, we call on the Honduran people in general to demonstrate in defense of their rights and of real and direct democracy for the people, to the fascists we say that they will NOT silence us, that this cowardly act will turn back on them, with great force.”

Washington Responds

On Sunday, Obama spoke of the events in Honduras: “I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

But the US hasn’t actually called what’s happened in Honduras a coup. Hillary Clinton said, “We are withholding any formal legal determination.” And regarding whether or not the US is calling for Zelaya’s return, Clinton said, “We haven’t laid out any demands that we’re insisting on, because we’re working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives.”

If the White House declares that what’s happening in Honduras is a coup, they would have to block aid to the rogue Honduran government. A provision of US law regarding funds directed by the US Congress says that, “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available … shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

“The State Department has requested $68.2 million in aid for fiscal year 2010 [for Honduras], which begins on October 1, up from $43.2 million in the current fiscal year and $40.5 million a year earlier,” according to Reuters.

The US military has a base in Soto Cano, Honduras, which, according to investigative journalist Eva Golinger, is home to approximately 500 troops and a number of air force planes and helicopters.

Regarding US relations with the Honduran military, Latin American History professor and journalist Greg Grandin said on Democracy Now!: “The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government. Honduras, as a whole, if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it’s Honduras. Its economy is wholly based on trade, foreign aid and remittances. So if the US is opposed to this coup going forward, it won’t go forward. Zelaya will return…”

The Regional Response

The Organization of American States, and the United Nations has condemned the coup. Condemnation of the coup has come in from major leaders across the globe, and all over Latin America, as reported by Reuters: the Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba have been outspoken in their protests against the coup. The French Foreign Ministry said, “France firmly condemns the coup that has just taken place in Honduras.” Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said, “I’m deeply worried about the situation in Honduras… it reminds us of the worst years in Latin America’s history.”

Even Augusto Ramírez Ocampo, a former foreign minister of Colombia told the NY Times, “It is a legal obligation to defend democracy in Honduras.”

Only time will tell what the international and national support for Zelaya means for Honduras. Regional support for Bolivian President Evo Morales during an attempted coup in 2008 empowered his fight against right wing destabilizing forces. Popular support in the streets proved vital during the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Chavez in 2002.

Meanwhile, Zelaya supporters continue to convene at the government palace, yelling at the armed soldiers while tanks roam the streets.

“We’re defending our president,” protester Umberto Guebara told a NY Times reporter. “I’m not afraid. I’d give my life for my country.”

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Taking Action:

If you are interested in rallying in support for the Honduran people and against the coup, here is a list of Honduran Embassies and Consulates in the US.

People in the US could call political representatives to denounce the coup, and demand US cut off all aid to the rogue government until Zelaya is back in power. Click here to send a message to Barack Obama about the coup.

Visit SOA Watch for more photos and suggested actions.

© 2009 Toward Freedom

Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website covering activism and politics in Latin America. Contact: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com