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6 May 2010 Edition

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INTERNATIONAL: Honduras's elite asserts its power

Honduran soldiers march next to supporters of the ousted president Manuel Zelaya during a protest near the Brazilian embassy

Honduran soldiers march next to supporters of the ousted president Manuel Zelaya during a protest near the Brazilian embassy

Return of the death squads


AND so the anti-democratic and reactionary politics of the Honduran elite have begun to bear their predictable fruit. Isolated within Latin America since the 2009 coup, the country is on a downward economic trajectory and social tensions are escalating.
In recent months, citizens of the country have seen concrete proof of the country’s descent into a form of authoritarianism that is scarily reminiscent of the 1980s: the death squads are back. Opponents of the coup regime, democratic activists and trade unionists are now abducted in broad daylight and their lifeless bodies dumped from passing cars a few hours later.
One such victim was 28-yearold nurse Vanessa Zepeda, who disappeared after attending a union meeting, in the capital Tegucigalpa. Witnesses say the young mother was bundled into an unmarked car by two masked men in fatigues. That was the last time she was seen alive.
Hours later, her body was thrown from a moving car in the Loarque area of the city, a location chosen with care by her killers or their superiors.
Loarque is known across the country as a stronghold of the popular resistance movement that opposed the coup regime which ousted President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009. Since then, a questionable ballot has been held to ‘legitimise’ the regime and install one Porfirio Lobo to the vacated presidential office.
Resistance to the regime  – the old business elites with a new public face – has crystallised around the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), which is focused less on the physical return of Zelaya and more on protecting and maintaining the socially progressive reforms and programmes he instituted.
Zelaya himself is now in exile in the Dominican Republic and the coup regime has been recognised by the US, the EU and some in Latin America. But thus far, the big regional powers – Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia – have ignored President Obama’s entreaties to ‘normalise’ relations with Tegucigalpa.
The stance adopted by Brazil and Argentina would have been unheard of a decade ago. But today, with Brazil’s emergence as a power in its own right on the world stage and the formation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), policy is no longer formulated in Washington and telexed south.
Their stance has been critically important to the capacity of the FNRP to mount a sustained campaign of opposition and will be equally critical if they are to overcome the state’s resort to the murderous strategies of the 1980s.
It is worth noting that one of the Lobo regime’s advisors is none other than Billy Joya, a former member of the infamous Battalion 3-16, a Honduran Army unit involved in disappearances and torture during the 1980s. Joya has since publicly repented for his death squad activity.
Of equal note is the fact that General Romeo Vasquez, the 2009 coup organiser, was named last month as the head of the country’s national phone company. As ever, the links between business and military are many and seamless, each protecting and profiting the other.
To date, at least 43 FNRP members have lost their lives, some in very mysterious circumstances.
Vanessa Zepeda was murdered on February 3rd. Between March 1st and April 8th, the state-backed assassins went on a literal spree, murdering five journalists and 13 members of the FNRP. One victim, a teacher, was executed in front of his young students.
And given the business-military nexus at the heart of Honduran society, it is unlikely to be just a ‘happy coincidence’ that nine of the murdered FNRP members were active trade unionists. Of course, trade unions play a key role in the FNRP, but the state’s private killers appears to have singled their activists out for special attention.
On the night she was abducted and murdered, Vanessa Zepeda had attended a meeting called to co-ordinate greater trade union involvement in the FNRP’s campaign of resistance.
Gilda Batista of ‘Refuge without Limits’, a human rights organisation based in Tegucigalpa, has investigated the recent executions of union leaders and concluded that the death squads are financed and directed by the “corporatocracy and the military”.
It would appear that the original ‘banana republic’ (the term was first coined in relation to Honduras) has gone back to what it does best.
It is obvious that the Zelaya presidency, despite being short-lived, genuinely spooked the traditional Honduran elites. And the re-emergence of the death squads is ample proof of their failure to kill off the movement that his presidency engendered.
Like most elites who live in fear of progressive social movements, they fundamentally confused the individual with the idea, the man or woman with the movement, failing to realise that the former can be dealt with, but the latter is almost impossible to suppress – particularly, when they have tasted hope and have seen that change is possible. 
Thus, the Zelaya administration had initiated state programmes to provide poor schoolchildren (the vast majority) with free lunches, subsidised travel to school and free classes. Those small reforms ensured that an extra 450,000 children were able to attend school, most for the first time ever. The numbers living in poverty fell for the first time in decades.
Those programmes were closed by the coup regime.
But now the regime faces threats on other fronts also.
The slide into economic disorder that accompanied the coup (150,000 jobs lost, $50 million a day to keep the troops on the streets) saw Honduras declare bankruptcy in February. It is now on IMF life-support.
And into this economic vacuum have stepped the narco cartels. Last December, the head of the national drugs control office warned the country was on the verge of becoming a “narco state”. He was executed days later.
Already, progressive US politicians are drawing attention to the re-emergence of the death squads and the regime is becoming something of an embarrassment for Washington. Their days are numbered.

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