Sunday, June 30, 2013

Honduran Ex-President Mel Zelaya meets with Chicago teachers and youth

Honduran Ex-President Mel Zelaya meets with Chicago teachers and youth
Asks for solidarity to stop funding of military, increase international human rights presence 

Four years and one day after the military shot their way through his back gate, Honduran Ex-President Mel Zelaya’s front door opened to a delegation of teachers and youth from Chicago. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union, Fearless Leading by the Youth and La Voz de los de Abajo sat for an hour with President Zelaya as well as teacher leader Yanina Parada exchanging ideas about the struggle for a world where human lives have more value than private profit.

Zelaya receives a Chicago Teachers Union t-shirt
From left: FLY member Victoria Crider, Honduran teacher/congressional 
candidate Yanina Parada, Mel Zelaya, CTU member Cynthia Smith
 It is pursuit of that more just world that has fueled the Honduran resistance movement, unleashed by the coup d’etat four years ago. Honduran social movements have long been struggling for human rights in the face of a society where ten families control the wealth and the politicians do the bidding of the U.S. government and multinational corporations. In Mel Zelaya, they had finally found a President willing to listen. Reforms began. Accords were signed. The minimum wage was more than doubled. Honduras began to embrace the leftward shift in Latin America, joining the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas and opening the doors to doctors from Cuba and aide from Venezuela.

As the social movements and Zelaya’s government began to work together, they decided to push for deeper changes, seeking to re-found the country and push for a new constitution. Zelaya agreed to launch a non-binding referendum about whether or not to give Hondurans the chance to vote on drafting a new constitution, a process that would take place after his presidency since Honduran presidents have only one term. The mere prospect of people having the chance to express their will about re-founding the country scared the economic elite of Honduras and their U.S.-backers so much that they planned and executed a military coup. On June 28th, 2009, the military violently kidnapped Mel Zelaya, took him to the U.S. military base Palmerola and then flew him out of the country.

Zelaya shows La Voz de los de Abajo coordinator Vicky Cervantes
the bullet holes where the military entered his house during the coup
“They declared me a communist, they said I was an enemy of private enterprise and the military took me out of the country with bullets because poverty was being reduced and the economy was growing. The only time that poverty has been reduced in Honduras was during my three years in government. Almost a million people ceased to be poor under my government. All of that has now been rolled back,” explained Zelaya.

Ever since the people have been in the streets. A resistance movement was born that has surpassed the expectations of people on all sides for its longevity, its size, its determination and its diversity. People weren’t prepared to quietly give up the first ground they had gained in decades.

They have paid dearly for their resistance. Hundreds have been killed in cold blood, assassinated in their homes, at the schools where they teach, at protests, leaving funerals and union meetings. But the resistance has been undeterred and a year ago launched a new party called LIBRE, Freedom and Re-foundation. Mel Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara, is running for President in the November 24th elections and all polls show her in the lead. Alongside her people from grassroots struggles, from teachers to grandmothers to young people around the country are running as LIBRE candidates for every level of government. Yanina Parada, who set up today’s meeting with Zelaya, is one example of many. A teacher whose long trajectory of struggle has earned her great respect amongst teachers and others in the grassroots, she is now a LIBRE candidate for congress. The powers that be are scared. They are killing off and disappearing LIBRE candidates and members around the country in an attempt to create a climate of fear and terror. Some within the resistance doubt that the military will allow a clean election to happen and continue to prioritize the social struggles against the government’s aggressive push to privatize everything, break the unions, and criminalize protest. But many are putting all of their energy into the upcoming electoral process.

Honduras is an important battleground between two radically different visions. One vision, supported by the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Honduran elite, says that attracting investment and allowing big companies to make profit is the only path to “development.”  This vision is based on the economic ideas of neo-liberalism, most famously associated with Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago School of Economics. On the other hand the Honduran resistance, like social movements around the planet, believes that human rights to land, housing, quality education, healthcare and employment are more important than profit and will be won only when the poor majorities have the power to determine their own fate.

Chicago is also a battleground. While Honduras since the coup has become the murder capital of the world, Chicago has one of the worst murder rates in the United States. Chicago has long been a laboratory for neoliberal policies. Public housing has been wiped out, 54 schools were just closed, mental health clinics have been shuttered, health centers privatized, and banks and rich corporations lavished with subsidies. The University of Chicago, whose economics school produced many of the policies the Honduran resistance fights against, is surrounded by some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by violence yet refuses to attend to those being shot down at its hospital because a trauma center would be “too expensive.” Meanwhile, vastly more money is being spent on locking up youth in jails with deplorable conditions and subsidizing profitable banks and corporations than providing resources so they can live in peace.

As in Honduras, these policies have produced resistance. Youth on the south side have built Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and are fighting for healthcare and education and against criminalization and incarceration. Progressive teachers have taken control of the Chicago Teachers Union and had the first teacher’s strike in 25 years, fighting to defend public education and joining with parents and students to demand corporate subsidies be reinvested into schools. It is youth and teachers from these struggles whom Ex-President Zelaya opened his doors to today.

CTU and FLY members talking to Zelaya
Corey Mason, a youth leader and FLY-cofounder going into his senior year at Philander Smith College, opened up the meeting by asking President Zelaya what was the role of teachers and students in the resistance and what the LIBRE party’s educational program is. President Zelaya responded explaining that LIBRE is not a political party as much as a social movement with political aims, that it seeks not to change the people in power but to change the system itself. He also explained that globalization has led to a situation where people are being bombarded by corporate influences every day that often influence them more than formal education. Above all, he emphasized that those with a direct stake in education, not corporations or powerful international institutions, need to be making the decisions about it.

“Our educational plan is to associate ourselves with the teachers. This current government has repressed the teachers under orders from the International Monetary Fund, who says that the expenditures on salaries must be cut. Do you think it is possible to have education without teachers? We must be of one accord as governments, teachers, parents and students.”

He also explained, however, that he doesn’t believe education can be tackled in isolation from broader issues of inequality. “We must address education, health, social security, employment, citizen safety, holistic development. If you just deal with education and don’t fix the rest, it will come to nothing,” the former President responded to Corey.

“What struck me was when asked about his vision and the vision of LIBRE regarding the educational system he talked about the need to put in place a program that could help people develop ten years from the present into their fullest potential rather than look at it from the perspective of what business interests want at the moment. It was a thoughtful and hopeful model of human development that says the people should determine what education looks like, not the wealthy,” reflected Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union.

The conversation went from education to the upcoming elections to repression to philosophy. When Chicago Public Schools special education teacher Cynthia Smith asked Zelaya if he feared a coup if Xiomara wins, he said he didn’t think that another coup will take place because the political consequences of the last coup were too great for the U.S.. Many others in the resistance, however, ask why the military would allow what they took by force to be taken away from them at the polls. Nonetheless Zelaya strikes an optimistic and determined tone, insisting that there is no choice but to continue to struggle to honor all those who have fallen.

Zelaya with FLY youth leader Corey Mason
When asked about if he has undergone a personal transformation through this process, Zelaya said, “I am just a human being who thinks we can all live in better conditions if we are just, if we have social responsibility.”

When asked what advice he has for young revolutionaries, he said, “Know yourself. Figure out why you believe what you believe and then you will never stray.”

His words had a strong impact on the teachers and youth leaders. Victoria Crider, a 17-year-old FLY leader and a junior at Martin Luther King College Prep on Chicago’s south side, summarized her experience saying, “Meeting the ex-president was powerful and intriguing. This meeting gave me hope. The president had a thought that not one politician in the U.S. has acknowledged, ‘what can I do to help those who doesn't have everything they need?’ It gives me hope but it also puts into perspective the cruelty of the U.S. government. Our system needs to be torn down and rebuilt with the bricks of freedom, peace, humanity and this can be achieved through revolution.”

At the close of the meeting, La Voz de los de Abajo coordinator Vicky Cervantes asked Zelaya what the international community can do to show solidarity with Honduras. He made clear that the Honduran people's determination to change their country will prevail, but only if the powerful stop using violence  as a tool of negotiation. He called on the international community to stop the flow of arms and military financing into Honduras and to establish a major presence to ensure the transparency of the election process and the monitoring of human rights violations. Before letting the delegation out the front door, he took it to the back gate to show the bullet holes that are still there from when the military violently removed him from power. "I leave it like this as a reminder of what we can never allow to happen again." 
Ex-President Zelaya with FLY leaders Darrius Lightfoot and Victoria Crider

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