On September 15, social media accounts showed images of armed forces advancing on protesters with machine guns and tear gas. Youths with T-shirts wrapped around their faces hurled rocks at the security forces deployed in cities throughout the country. In the capital, police attacked the podium as speakers and the crowd shouted for an end to the dictatorship.
The mainstream press, on the other hand, recounted the day’s activities with color spreads of “The Prettiest Baton Twirlers in the Parade” and glowing accounts of skydivers floating onto the field during official festivities in the National Stadium. The president’s speech—received with great applause, the media reported—ended with his arms benevolently outstretched and the words “God bless this prodigal land where I was born.”
Welcome to Independence Day 1984—uh, 2019—in Honduras.
Weeks earlier, President Juan Orlando Hernández, or JOH as he’s commonly known, had issued Decree #35024: obligatory attendance of all teachers, students, and public employees at the official Independence Day event; strict prohibition of signs, clothing, slogans, accessories or any other shows of political or party content outside that of the “Patriotic Parade.” And insults or attacks on the image and honor of the authorities (especially the ubiquitous cry of “Fuera JOH!” or “Out with JOH!”) would be banned and punishable by a one-year suspension of salary, mandatory transfer, or firing.
“This is a dictatorship with no compassion that savagely represses all social expression,” Rafael Alegría, peasant farm leader, former congressman, and a founding member of the National Front for Popular Resistance, told Radio Progreso as he wiped tears from his eyes. “What we want is real independence, tranquility, democracy, and development in the country, but the dictatorship absolutely doesn’t allow any social and popular mobilization of the people.”
Grassroots resistance in Honduras has flared at each new step toward authoritarianism and the private takeover of public goods. Hondurans have survived a coup regime perpetuated through electoral fraud and exclusion, as well as some of the world’s most extreme experiments in neoliberalism, like the introduction of “Special Economic Zones” that exempt investment areas from legal protections against corporate plunder. The country suffers savage forms of extractivism that take water, land, and territory and assassinate defenders. Opposition at the polls has been met with fraud, as in the reelection of Hernández in 2017, and opposition in the streets faces repression by brutal security forces and a criminal justice system that punishes those who stand up against the interests it serves.
This is why thousands of Hondurans leave every day, risking the dangerous trek to the United States—they see no future in their own country. For decades, Washington has pulled the strings in Honduras, and now those strings are strangling its citizens. More than 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, and thousands face persecution. The Trump administration has used their exodus to fuel a racist crackdown on immigration at the border.
The Rise of the Platform for the Defense of Health and Education
I’ve been covering the country since 2009, tracking events from abroad and on the ground as each crisis has led to the next. Ten years later, I traveled to Tegucigalpa to look at the latest resistance movement, the Platform for the Defense of Health and Education. Throughout the year, the Platform has organized demonstrations, assemblies, work stoppages, and public-policy forums involving thousands of Hondurans.
“The appearance of the Platform has been a really important moment in the nation’s movement, because we were running out of hope,” says Yessica Trinidad, director of the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras. “Mobilization was down, after the activity of the student movement and the Convergence [Against Continuity], which didn’t ever get much backing in rural areas.”
Following the stolen presidential election of November 26, 2017, massive, nationwide demonstrations were called to remove Hernández from office. The movement staged protests across the nation, but the high cost of repression—more than 30 protesters killed by security forces—and the impossibility of mobilizing indefinitely weakened it and the demand failed to reach a tipping point.
The Platform arose after JOH issued a series of decrees, beginning in June 2018, aimed at privatizing Honduras’s social safety net. The net had worn dangerously thin—hospitals have little medicine or equipment, and public education operates on grossly deficient budgets. The decrees threatened to remove it altogether.
This catalyzed a new phase in grassroots protests.
“I think that it wasn’t just one thing, but the sum of various situations,” Dr. Suyapa Figueroa, president of the Medical College and a leader of the Platform, says. “We’re not just talking about the privatization of health and education, we’re talking about the fact that the Honduran people have seen just about all basic services privatized: They’ve privatized electrical energy, telecommunications, roads—in a country where there’s no other way to get around. This has meant an exponential rise in the cost of living for the population, and wages haven’t gone up.”
In her office overlooking Tegucigalpa, Dr. Figueroa describes the movement’s timeline: In 2014, an investigation revealed that some $200 million had been siphoned out of the Social Security Institute, much of it to the National Party to fund Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign. The scandal sparked weeks of “torchlit marches” led by Honduran youth to protest corruption and call for Hernández’s resignation.
In 2015, with the social security system in ruins amid an ongoing investigation, Congress passed a law that allowed private and mixed capital in public health care. The Medical College filed a constitutional challenge to the law. After Congress approved the law, the government published a significantly altered version that granted even more far-reaching powers to control and privatize public services.
Manipulation of the law by fiat has become common under JOH. When you ask a Honduran “But how could they get away with that?” you get a resigned sigh, and some version of the phrase “This is Honduras.”
The Medical College filed another constitutional challenge to annul the law, which, among other aspects, declared a “state of emergency” that authorized measures with little to no oversight and legalized many of the ploys used to divert public funds that were under investigation.
Dr. Figueroa explains that when the court challenges got nowhere, the next step was to organize. Public pressure prevented Congress from implementing the legislation, so the president began to issue decrees.
“The population was very indignant because the absolute abandonment of health care really affected them. We’ve always had shortages in the hospitals, but not continuous shortages like this. We think they’re purposely causing deterioration in the health system to justify handing it over to the private sector,” says Dr. Figueroa.
The National Anti-Corruption Council, a civil society watchdog to prevent and combat corruption, found that 49 percent of the public health budget had been diverted to other purposes in recent years, and the nation’s head of finances reported that the health ministry underspent its budget in 2018 by 800 million lempiras, or about $33 million, as surgeons operate by cell-phone lanterns on patients sharing a single bed.
By mid-2019, the Platform for the Defense of Health and Education had brought together two of the country’s most powerful labor groups, doctors and teachers, along with other health workers, students, scientists, feminists, opposition parties, and farmers, in a sustained campaign of resistance. Land defenders and rural and indigenous communities fighting extractive projects also participate. In recent weeks, demands have coalesced around the call for the president to step down.
Rodolfo Alonzo, a spokesperson for the University Student Movement, explains the critical role of students. “The university student movement is fundamental, since it’s the general opposition in all the sectors. As students, we’re charged with the future of the country. It’s our job, and as part of society we’ll always be with the people.” Alonzo notes that the government has been eliminating departments in the public university to drive students into private schools and eviscerate public higher education. On June 24, the military police opened fire in the Autonomous University of Honduras, wounding at least four students. Many more face criminal charges for protesting.
“All these sectors got together and formed regional platforms, and this created a lot of force until there came a moment when the Platform managed to back the government into a corner. Even though the government said it would never withdraw the decrees, it ended up withdrawing them,” states María Elena Méndez of the Center for Women’s Studies-Honduras and a member of the Convergence Against Continuity. The movement now pushes to end the privatization drive altogether and strengthen public services. But they’re convinced that first, the president has to go. “People identify the president as their main problem, since his office runs the corruption that’s taking place. We’ve seen so many government officials directly involved in these acts of corruption,” Dr. Figueroa notes.
On August 2, an unexpected event nearly 4,000 miles away added fuel to the movement. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York directly implicated the Honduran president in the drug trafficking case of his brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández. In the case filing, the court cites the president as a “co-conspirator” under the code name “CC-4,” claiming that JOH received drug money to finance his presidential campaign and that the Honduran president, his brother, and former president Pepe Lobo used illicit drug money to maintain political power.
President Hernández vehemently denies the charges, but many Hondurans see the accusations as proof of what they already knew: They live in a narco-state where corruption is the law of the land and hypocrisy the language it speaks. The court’s accusations energized the movement. After the US charges, there was widespread public belief that the country would never be able to reduce corruption or protect public goods and services as long as Hernández remained in office.
The Coup Legacy
For former president Manuel Zelaya, the roots of the current crisis go back to the 2009 military coup. “There’s a rupture in the democratic order from 10 years ago. The Constitution was broken, and instead of restoring the social pact, instead of seeking common ground between the opposing sectors, they imposed a single idea—a tyrannical, dictatorial form of running the country,” he tells me in his office in the headquarters of the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), of which he is general coordinator.
Zelaya sees the problem as much broader than health or privatization. “The people’s interests have been stolen, captured, and are now in the hands of a small oligarchy, including US and European transnationals that operate using puppets, by controlling politicians,” he argues.
The relationship between his left-wing party and the Platform has settled into one of both mutual respect and calculated distance. The right wing has consistently attacked the Platform by claiming that it’s a front for left-wing political interests, especially LIBRE. This is a common tactic to question the authenticity of grassroots movements. While LIBRE members have joined the protests in large numbers, the movement is neither a product nor an instrument of party politics. Dr. Figueroa established her leadership in part because she has no ties to party interests or prior movements and has gained public trust based on her positions and the moral authority of her position as a leader in the medical profession.
The US Role
On August 10, Nancy Pelosi and a group of mostly Democratic members of Congress visited Honduras to “explore the roots of migration” and promote security. After Donald Trump announced in March that his administration would cut off aid to Central American countries for not stopping migration, many progressives have called for the restoration of aid. The proposed United States–Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, for example, would authorize $577 million for the region.
This knee-jerk response to defend US aid ignores two critical facts: first, that US aid in the region has historically been an instrument, along with military presence, of intervention and control. In the 1980s, US aid supported death squads, military dictatorships, and genocidal counterinsurgency wars that led to the slaughter and exile of thousands of people across the region.
Second, many of those calling for the restoration of aid are not looking at where it goes. Most US aid is plowed back into the US foreign-intervention economy—to government agencies, private contracts, and US NGOs. This explains in large part why these organizations lobby so hard to continue failed policies like security “cooperation” in Central America.
In fact, despite Trump’s bluster, aid continues to flow to Honduras, much of it to the military. The US government has provided more than $75 million to the Hernández government since 2014 in security aid alone, not counting Honduras’s part in regional security funds of $529 million during the same period. Now that Hernández has been named in a major drug-trafficking case in a US federal court, you’d think that would lead at least some in Congress to pause, but there has been no response.
Honduran grassroots leaders and human rights organizations are nearly unanimous in asking the US government to stop funding the dictatorship. Dr. Figueroa and Platform representatives met with the Pelosi delegation. “We told them that they had to change their policies toward us, on the money, that they had to come down to really see how that money is invested,” says Figueroa. “We told them they can’t continue to finance repression against the people, militarization, land occupations, and handing territories over to mining companies that displace small farmers. These projects are what’s behind the death of our people.”
Trinidad states, “In the Women Human Rights Defenders Network and the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), we’ve insisted that Congress pass the Berta Cáceres Act to cut off security aid to the Honduran government, because the aid and arms sales just translate into more violence against the population.” Cáceres was an indigenous Lenca feminist and land defender assassinated on March 2, 2016. Those arrested have ties to the Honduran army and the hydroelectric project she fought.
But US intervention in Honduras is a hard habit to break. Former president Zelaya describes firsthand the degree of US influence even before the documented involvement in the coup that overthrew his government.
“What I found out when I became president is that we’re not even a colony, we’re a subjugated society, through dependency and through an economic system that keeps impoverishing us, making us more indigent, more miserable, and more servile,” says Zelaya, who recounts that after taking office, the US ambassador handed him a list of nine ministries and said, “Here are my recommendations.”
“He left me to decide sports, culture, and music and art,” Zelaya says. “Really. He chose the ministers of security, economy—all the main posts. And they were all people who shared the US agenda.” The former president says he ignored the list. He ended up on a plane to Costa Rica in his pajamas, after the 2009 coup. The plane made one stop—at the US military base in Palmerola.
As protests continue in the streets and the drug-trafficking trial against Tony Hernández begins, Trump appeared with JOH at the UN and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan called Honduras “a great partner.” Hernández was rewarded with the photo op (and who knows what else) because on September 25, he signed a “Safe Third Country” agreement with Trump that forces asylum seekers passing through Honduras to request asylum there—a nation infamous for violence, lawlessness, and poverty.
The Trump administration has ignored the political crisis, even as it concentrates on demonizing those who are fleeing it. In June 2018, as demonstrations against privatizations heated up, Pompeo received JOH at the State Department to send out a clear signal: The empire has your back. The Trump administration maintains its steadfast support for JOH despite charges of drug trafficking, corruption, and abuse of power. Honduras is an important laboratory for schemes of privatization, resource seizure, violent repression, and hegemonic control that are being applied in other parts of the world.
A Ray of Hope
In moments of bleak honesty, Honduran activists admit that their movements are not renowned for long-term strategizing and coordination. Division and loss of momentum have plagued the resistance, in part the result of government tactics to infiltrate, undermine, criminalize, and repress their protests. To create a more forward-looking and united vision, the Platform for the Defense of Health and Education formed 20 working groups to develop proposals. The results will be presented soon.
“When we launched the alternative citizen dialogue, it was an opportunity to give the population an idea of hope, to put its desires for a better health and education system down on paper and into a proposal,” Dr. Figueroa notes. Alonzo reports that the students have also presented a proposal to the university and are organizing to run for leadership of the national Federation of University Students.
Hondurans are fighting for their future. They fight by setting up barricades in the streets, by opposing development projects that take their land and resources, by defending public services, and by embarking on the dangerous path northward. What do they want from the United States and the rest of the world? International aid props up Hernández, and US support allowed him to steal an election and remain in power with a repressive, anti-popular agenda. So the doctors’ movement stands by the Hippocratic Oath—to do no harm. President Zelaya answers the question in three words: “Just respect us.”
The Platform and other organizing efforts to defend public lands, territories, services, and goods mark a new moment in Hondurans’ long quest for a free and livable nation. Feminist leader Yessica Trinidad sums it up: “The country is convulsed with a dictatorship that has all branches of government under its control. Any spark of hope we might have, they extinguish it with very aggressive, violent responses. So it’s important that there’s some renewed hope and commitment.”