In Honduras, it’s come to this: when 90 percent of the city’s 68,000 public schoolteachers went out on strike in March to protest the privatization of the entire public school system, the government teargassed their demonstrations for almost three solid weeks, then suspended 305 teachers for two to six months as punishment for demonstrating, and then, when negotiations broke down, threatened to suspend another five thousand public schoolteachers. The level of repression in Honduras, after a nationwide wave of attacks on the opposition in March and early April, now exceeds that of the weeks immediately following the June 28, 2009 military coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya, as current President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa wages war on entire swaths of the Honduran population.
Ilse Ivania Velásquez Rodríguez was one of those striking teachers. A 59-year old elementary school teacher and former principal in Tegucigalpa, she rushed to the Presidential Palace to defend Zelaya the morning of the coup. She was one of hundreds of thousands of Hondurans who took to the streets for weeks to protest the new coup government of de facto President Roberto Micheletti–who Honduras’ oligarchs hoped would roll back Zelaya’s mild leftward moves and resistance to further neoliberal privatization. Last summer she was one of thousands in the Honduran opposition who circulated petitions–eventually signed by 1.25 million people, roughly one in three adults–demanding a Constitutional Convention to re-found the country from below. "My sister wanted to retire this year," her sister, Zenaida, who lives in San José, California, told me. "But they told her she needed to be on a waiting list," behind two thousand others, because the teachers’ government-managed retirement fund was bankrupt–looted by Micheletti’s post-coup government.
The morning of March 18, 2011, the second day of the strike, Ilse joined other teachers at a demonstration in front of the Tegucigalpa office of their state-run retirement agency, to demand her pension and protest the privatization plan. As police and soldiers stormed down the streets and aimed tear gas at the demonstrators, the teachers, to signal their nonviolence, raised their hands up high. The police started rapidly launching tear gas anyway. At 10:44 a.m., as Ilse tried to run away, one of them deliberately shot a tear gas canister directly in her face at close range. She fell to the ground, unconscious, into an asphyxiating cloud of gas. The driver of a passing television truck, himself affected by the fumes, ran over her right side. She lay face down in a pool of blood seeping out from her body. Three hours later, she died in a hospital.
Teachers like Ilse have been the shock troops of resistance to the coup. During the 1990s and 2000s, teachers deployed regular mass mobilizations to increase their salaries and pensions under legislation that granted them special labor protections at a national level. With the military coup, they were the first to take to the streets. "From the beginning, we felt obliged to defend democracy against a government imposed by force," emphasizes Jaime Rodriguez, president of COPEMH (Colegio de Profesores de Educación Media de Honduras), the Honduran middle-school teachers’ association. "That united almost all the teachers, apart from what the government did to the teachers themselves."
By this past March the teachers’ grievances had become enormous. Not only was their pension fund gone, but they are also owed six months’ back pay. At least twelve teachers in the opposition have been killed or disappeared since the coup. Last August, the government of Pepe Lobo–himself placed in office during Micheletti’s reign, in a fraudulent November 2009 election boycotted by international observers and most of the opposition–promised to pay them back. But the money is still nowhere to be seen.