After almost a century of rule by military dictators, Honduras has had seven consecutive democratic electoral transitions since its 1982 constitution change. However, on 28 June 2009, the country experienced the militarily enforced ousting and exile of the sitting President Manuel Zelaya Rosales, with the full knowledge of Congress and the Supreme Court. The ensuing crisis served to delay efforts aimed at bringing about lasting social, economic and political change that could have benefited marginalized African descendant and indigenous populations.
Manuel Zelaya of the centre-left Liberal Party was elected president of Honduras in November 2005. Among his close advisers were human rights activists and lawyers, with roots in the country's small radical left that fought against the dictatorships of the 1970s. Of particular interest to indigenous people and African descendants was that the president had increasingly begun to respond to criticism from grassroots movements, such as the independent National Coordination of Popular Resistance (Bloque Popular-Coordinadora Nacional de Resistencia Popular) and other social activists.
The Popular Resistance, consisting of opposition politicians and members of various workers and indigenous peoples' organizations, such as the Centro Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo (CNTC), which is involved in land reclamations, had been increasingly voicing concern about the lack of progress in dealing with issues that affect traditionally marginalized groups. They demanded measures and resources to increase opportunities in a country where 40 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Among their main concerns were the negative effects of the US-sponsored Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the socially and environmentally destructive operations of multinational mining companies, and the efforts of real estate developers to fragment and expropriate the communal beachfront lands of African descendant Garifuna communities. These areas were being redefined as Areas Under Special Management (ABRE) and then opened up to large-scale tourism projects.
In August 2008, amid criticism from the business community, right-wing political groups and many in Congress, Honduras joined the anti-CAFTA Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), citing supposed US apathy toward Honduran poverty. In early 2009, Zelaya pushed through controversial measures such as a 60 per cent rise in the minimum wage. This alienated the powerful business elite who complained that it would increase operating costs as well as restrict employment growth.
Zelaya's relationship with Congress grew decidedly worse after October 2009, when he sought to hold a plebiscite to determine whether there should be constitutional reform. The reforms would have allowed for more direct citizen input into decision-making at all levels, via plebiscites and increased local-level governing initiatives, similar to those being instituted in Ecuador and Bolivia. The proposed reforms were appreciated by many African descendant and indigenous communities, who saw it as a chance to end their own political marginalizaton. They therefore welcomed signals to that end, such as a televised speech given by Zelaya the day before his ouster, when he reiterated that Honduras 'was in the process of change [and] of transformation'. However, such hopes of change disappeared, when, on the following day, the president was placed on an army aircraft and sent to Costa Rica.
Human rights abuses
The internal political disruption led to serious reported human rights violations, including against African descendant and indigenous protesters. In August 2009, the IACHR conducted an on-site visit to Honduras to observe the human rights situation and confirmed a pattern of disproportionate use of force, arbitrary detentions and the control of information aimed at limiting political participation. The IACHR also recorded that demonstrators were experiencing harassment and having their free speech rights curtailed through the placement of military roadblocks and the arbitrary enforcement of curfews. They also received reports of arbitrary detentions of between 3,500 and 4,000 people by the police and the army during the demonstrations, and of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in poor detention conditions afterwards. According to testimony provided to the IACHR, those who were detained were subject to beatings, threats at gunpoint and verbal abuse, and in the case of females, sexual abuse. At some police posts, judges who appeared in response to petitions for habeas corpus were also mistreated, threatened at gunpoint and verbally abused.
As events unfolded, information was censored by military-enforced news blackouts. Media efforts considered supportive of the opposition to Zelaya's ouster were routinely disrupted by state agents as well as by private individuals. This affected the operations of a range of local and international media services, including CNN en Español, Guatevisión (Guatemala), Cubavision International, Ticavisión (Costa Rica) and especially the Venezuela-based Telesur news network, which is supported by regional governments including Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela. The regime also especially targeted local community broadcasters that cater to indigenous and African descendant audiences.
The IACHR also received testimony about the harassment of prominent public figures who publicly showed support for, and demanded restitution of the deposed president. Among those affected were governors, members of Congress including ministers, mayors, as well as indigenous and African descendant community leaders. State functionaries reported that, in addition to personal threats and acts of violence, they also were subjected to budget cuts and military occupation of the public buildings in which they worked. A number of them fled the country for their own safety. Among these was the respected young Afro-descendant Garifuna physician, Dr Luther Castillo, who learned that the Honduran army had reportedly received orders to arrest him and shoot if he resisted. Castillo had only recently been appointed Director of International Cooperation in the Honduran Foreign Ministry.
Impact on African descendants
Castillo's departure had a particularly direct effect on the Afro-Honduran Garifuna community. For the past decade, he had been serving as director of the Luaga Hatuadi Waduheñu Foundation ('For the Health of our People' in Garifuna) and with community support had established in 2007 the first-ever Garifuna Rural Hospital and outreach centre. The facility is supported by a number of international aid organizations and medical schools, such as those connected to the US Johns Hopkins University and the University of California (San Francisco), and serves some 20,000 people in the surrounding communities. It is considered vital to these communities as studies have determined that the Honduran population has among the worst access to health services in the region, with a nationwide average of 8.7 doctors and 3.2 nurses per 10,000 people.
Concerns over the legitimacy of the new regime also caused international financial institutions, such as multilateral banks, and aid agencies to freeze the transfer of funds to Honduras. These sanctions led to an immediate downsizing or halting of a number of much-needed social and economic development projects, many of them in marginalized areas where African descendant and indigenous people make up the majority of the population.
In November 2009, the country held its scheduled elections. The presidency was won by the centre-right National Party candidate Porfirio 'Pepe' Lobo, a rancher and farmer who served as president of Congress from 2002 to 2006. Also at the end of 2009, the military leaders involved in the presidential ouster were themselves arrested. However, they are likely to be pardoned by the new administration before ever having to face trial.
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