Deep in the mountains of western Honduras people have big dreams for their country and world. The indigenous Lenca communities who collectively make up COPINH - the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras - are fighting for nothing less than the re-foundation of Honduras from below. "Our struggle is against the triple evils of capitalism, patriarchy and racism," explains Cruz Alfaro, one of the elected community coordinators of COPINH.
COPINH communities are scattered throughout the mountains of Western Honduras that were once home to the great indigenous Lenca leader Lempira, who united all the indigenous peoples of Honduras 500 years ago to confront the Spanish with some of the most fierce anti-colonial resistance they ever encountered. That tradition of resistance has continued ever since, with Lenca communities resisting attacks on their lands, culture and resources by the Spanish colonists, the church, the post-independence Honduran state, Honduran oligarchs, U.S. mercenaries, and global corporations and financial institutions.
As an organized expression of a long tradition of resistance, COPINH was founded in the early 90's. Lenca communities came together to support each others' struggles to defend land from cattle ranchers, shut down sawmills, protect the forest from loggers, defy World Bank plans to dam up and privatize rivers and resist exploitation by mining companies. Throughout these and other struggles COPINH has carried out an extensive process of popular education with its base. Through community workshops, regional assemblies, and community radio, COPINH members help each other connect the dots between community issues and the global struggle to make another world possible. There is widespread understanding within COPINH's base communities of the dangers of the neoliberal economic model being forced upon most of the world by the U.S. government, multinational corporations and international financial institutions.
COPINH was an important voice amongst the organizations that had been pressuring and working with ousted President Manuel Zelaya towards a constitutional assembly to open up space for the excluded majority in Honduras to participate in shaping the political and economic structures of their country for the first time. When other branches of the government tried to stop the opinion poll consulting Hondurans about whether to have a constitutional assembly, COPINH led thousands of people with machetes raised to the Public Ministry. They had been pushing President Zelaya to go beyond reforms like raising the minimum wage and granting land reform claims and actually open the doors to grassroots re-foundaiton of the country. The consultation was his first step in opening the door to participatory democracy and the resolution of long-standing demands of the Honduran people.
On June 28th, 2010, the day the consultation was to take place, U.S.-trained army leaders kidnapped President Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica via the U.S. military base at Palmerola. COPINH immediately mobilized hundreds of people to Tegucigalpa, who remained there for months as a permanent fixture in the resistance to the coup. COPINH was amongst the groups in the resistance who went so far as to walk to the border of Nicaragua in defiance of and despite repression from the army and police to try to get President Manuel Zelaya back in the country.COPINH has been present throughout the historic process of resistance to the coup and the continuing struggle for the re-foundation of Honduras. Recently, COPINH raised some controversy when it issued a statement that criticized the urban leadership of the National Front of Popular Resistance for lack of transparency, insisting that dedication to the growth of the resistance movement also means internal accountability and democracy.
As COPINH coordinator Cruz Alfaro explained to us, “We are critical and self-critical, within our own organization and within the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP). If anyone amongst our own leadership strays from the will of the communities, the communities will call them out and correct or oust them in order that the communities always be the protagonists of our struggle. Likewise we are critical when we need to be when the leadership of the FNRP makes mistakes. We believe that if the re-foundation of Honduras is to create a democratic and partici patory society, then the process of that re-foundation, the movement that pushes it forward, must also be thoroughly democratic, horizontal and from below.”
COPINH coordinator Berta Cáceres went on to explain that COPINH believes true power is built from below, not seized from above. “We question the idea of ‘taking power,’ we believe power is built from below, from the base, from the most marginalized sections of the people, not from intellectuals, whether left or right. That doesn’t mean intellectuals don’t play a role, there a brave and great intellectuals in the resistance movement, but the people who have been excluded from shaping society need to be at the center of creating the ideas on which we re-found Honduras. We need to build popular power or we will never truly have power.”
With this position guiding the organization, COPINH, along with many others in the resistance, especially amongst the indigenous, black and campesino movements, has been very critical of the desire by some forces in the resistance to participate in electoral politics.
"It's not that we don't think there is a time for electoral struggle, just not under these conditions. The same military that carried out the coup is responsible for carrying out elections, the government convening them is illegitimate, and the media influencing them is all owned by the oligarchy who gave the order for the coup," explains Berta.
With the February 25th Assembly of the National Fornt of Popular Resistance fast approaching, many are worried about the possibility of a split between what are called the "re-foundationists" or "insurrectionists" and those referred to as the "electoralists." To avoid such a split, COPINH and others argue that the question of electoral participation shouldn't be debated at this assembly, which should instead be focused on strengthening internal democracy and consolidating, educating and building the resistance's base.
"The tension is too high right now, more work with the bases of the resistance, more education, more debate needs to happen before anybody can take a vote on the position of the FNRP on elections," says another COPINH coordinator, Salvador Zúñiga. "The real re-foundation of Honduras will come from the communities, their struggles have to guide our path."
One such community is El Picacho. Though they have to walk eight hours to the nearest town with a bus then travel six or more hours by bus to get to the capital, El Picacho community members have been present at every major mobilization of COPINH and the rest of the Honduran resistance. One of the most isolated and marginalized communities in Honduras, El Picacho is home to about 50 families who live off the land and depend on the rivers in the nearby mountains that are included in their communal land title.
When community members discovered a mayor of the nearest mid-size town had begun surveying their water supplies to lease them out, they contacted COPINH coordinators seeking support. Fearing that the survey may be the first step towards selling off these waters to private interests, COPINH sent four coordinators to El Picacho, accompanied by the La Voz de los de Abajo human rights delegation.
The COPINH and La Voz de los de Abajo delegation drove four hours through rough mountain roads followed by an intensive four-hour hike to get to the community, during which COPINH coordinator Salvador Zúñiga periodically called into COPINH's Radio La Voz Lenca to interview other participants in what he called "this historic hike through the lands of Lempira." Finally, by late in the afternoon we arrived at El Picacho, which had never received foreign visitors, and sat down with an assembly of community members in front of the school.
Salvador opened by asking "why are we here?" After a moment of silence a community elder explained the importance of water to the community and fears about its privatization. "Who wants to add more? Let's here from some of the women." One after another, community members described their worries, frustrations and questions as well as their determination to defend their land and water. Salvador re-affirmed to them that as a community they have the right to decide on the use of their waters yet passionately challenged them to exercise and defend that right as a community and as part of a wider movement.
The voices of all present shouted "yes!" when asked if the community was willing to defend its water, as they did when asked if they would attend a nearby assembly about the threat of a dam project to the region. The community vigorously discussed how to share their water with needy neighbors but defend it to the last drop from private interests, speculators and foreign corporations.
"Out of these discussions comes the basis for re-founding Honduras from below," reflected Salvador on the hike back out.
As the delegation made its way back out of the community on mules and on foot, the voices and ideas fueling the re-founding of Honduras were as clearly and colorfully imprinted on our imaginations as the setting sun that saw us off.