Monday, July 15, 2013

Honduran Army Kills Compañero Tomas García of COPINH

Below is a communique issued by COPINH earlier today. Since its publication the surviving victim of the military shooting, Allan Garcia Dominguez has been transferred to the hospital in San Pedro Sula in critical condition. 

More information in Spanish - Informacion en español

Today, July 15, in the morning (around 9:45 am), the Honduran Army killed compañero Tomas García, a member of the Indigenous Council and auxiliary of the community, an active member of COPINH, a respected compañero, very prudent and a fighter, a compañero who never gave in to the pressures from the company DESA and SINOHYDRO. We condemn this brutal action that once again puts the Lenca population of Río Blanco into mourning. Furthermore the bullets from the soldiers’ rifles hit the youth Lenca, Allan Garcia Dominguez, son of compañero Tomas who is in delicate condition and was transferred to the Hospital of Santa Barbará. 

This act was committed while the community was on its way, as always during these 106 days of resistance, to a peaceful blockade in front of the installations for the hydroelectric project of DESA and SINOHYDRO. 

We demand that the National Police, the Public Ministry and other entities immediately capture and bring to judgement the criminals . 

Compañero Tomas García, present, present today, tomorrow and always!

Chicago Teachers Union members, Chicago youth meet with Honduran Teacher Union leaders and Rank and File Educators

From June 27th to July 10th a delegation of Chicago teachers and students traveled in Honduras meeting teachers, youth and many activists in the Honduran resistance (see separate blog entries for more reports). Below is a short report written by Jackson Potter from the Chicago Teachers’ Union about conversations with Honduran teachers’ unions. 

With Oscar Rescate of COPEMH and Yanina Parada a teacher and LIBRE candidate

CTU members, Chicago youth and La Voz De Los De Abajo meet with Honduran Teacher Union leaders and Rank and File Educators

At dinner in Tegucigalpa, Oscar Rescate, president of Copemh, the union of middle school educators of Honduras, described his life after the 2009 military coup where he was threatened, followed and ultimately had to take refuge under the protection of the well known human rights organization COFADEH in Tegucigalpa. Copemh is one of the strongest of the 6 teacher unions in the country. By all accounts, teachers have played a leading role in the resistance against the military controlled government over the last four years, and they have paid dearly for it. More than 25 teachers have been disappeared and assassinated for their political courage.

Rescate described the escalating repression of teachers over the last four years. Efforts that include diminishing the pensions that teachers have earned throughout their careers, elimination of legal protections such as automatic dues checkoff (so that the union is guaranteed membership dues in order to function on a monthly basis), indiscriminate firings, months and years without being paid, and burgeoning class sizes requiring students to sit on the floor.

A central source of these attacks has come from international financial institutions such as the InterAmerican Development Bank of the Organization of American States which famously called for the elimination of teachers unions presumably because they represent the biggest obstacle to removing worker protections and the privatization of public services. Teachers also have proven to be very good at mobilizing large numbers of people to support free education for all, subsidized transportation for students throughout the country and the former President Zelaya's agenda to raise living standards for the most vulnerable Hondurans.

Moving forward, Rescate is calling for an educational system modeled off the Finnish example. He points out the need to invest in school infrastructure, invest in more robust teacher led professional development opportunities and institutionalize the respect for teacher rights.

While our delegation was impressed with Recate and Copemh, not all rank and file teachers are satisfied with the work of their unions. We also met with teachers who belong to Colprosumah, the biggest of the 6 teacher unions in the country. About 10 teacher leaders explained to us that their leadership has spent too much time maintaining their power, their relationship with the government in order to preserve the perks and high salaries that they have become accustomed to. The CTU members on the delegation shared similar stories about our union under the former leadership of the corrupt UPC under Marilyn Stewart.

The Colprosumah teachers also shared their concerns about the inordinate amount of focus by the resistance upon an electoral strategy to solve the problems of the country. They wonder about the Libre party's claims that Honduras will experience a “refoundation” because that term means “something and nothing at the same time.”

Alfredo Lopez, Garifuna leader
Moving forward the rank and file teachers of Colprosumah promised to fight for their union. They are looking for the Supreme Court to monitor their internal elections because of potential fraud. Lastly they criticized their leadership for working with the Minister of Education to pass a law that allows parents the ability to become teachers without any certification.

Working on the Garifuna hospital in Ciriboya
Members of the CTU and CORE shared our approach to rejuvenate our union which served to transform the CTU into a fighting organization capable of leading a successful strike this past fall. We discussed the need to work closely with parents and community allies and demand democracy and transparency. The Honduran educators were thankful for the exchange and believe that rank and file teachers like them and us, are the ones who ultimately have the power to shape and transform their unions, the education system an the society at large.
With Rio Blanco community

With indigenous community protesting hydroelectric project at Rio Blanco

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

3000 families evicted again.....Sula Valley

July 10th - Today La Voz de los de Abajo and Radios Populares of Chicago visited the campesinos and campesinas  of the ADCP/CNTC (Progreso Association for Campesino Development and the National Center for Rural Workers) near Progreso, Yoro. We were joined by members of the Permanent Human Rights Observatory of the Aguan. 

All across this part of the Sula Valley green fields of sugar cane and other crops stretch out for acres.
 On July 1st, 3000 families were forcibly evicted by soldiers, police and private security guards from lands claimed by AZUNOSA sugar company. The crops that were planted were ready to be harvested when 2000 acres of corn, yucca, banana and other crops were destroyed by heavy machinery. Men, women and children were chased and threatened. 143 members of the campesinos group were detained and charged and there are at least 9 arrest warrants issued for community leaders including the Progreso region's General Secretary of the CNTC.  Community members explained that the National Agrarian Institute (INA) had already expropriated more than 1000 acres of AZUNOSA land because the company owned at least five times the legal limit of land according to Honduran law. Also, its original concession for the land expired at least 10 years ago anyway. At the time of the eviction no order of eviction had been presented to the campesinos as required by Honduran law. 
The campesinos originally recuperated the land in 2012 after it was expropriated and thus eligible for land reform. The campesinos had begun to work the land to grow crops in order to feed their families, yet this was the 4th time they have been evicted. The last eviction occurred on June 20th. This land recuperation is one of three important land struggles in the Valley including MOCSAM and another group.  During our visit we saw Honduran army soldiers, and AZUNOSA private guards apparently patrolling together on the AZUNOSA land to "protect" it from  from the campesinos. Meanwhile the campesino families have taken refuge on nearby land owned by the INA, livinng under tarps and with little food, but determined to continue their struggle.
The campesinos requested that the international community be made aware of these gross human rights abuses and pressure the Honduran government to end the evictions and repression and to cancel all arrest orders and prosecutions. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Human Rights Crisis in Río Blanco / Crisis de Derechos Humanos en Río Blanco

Military in Río Blanco community in unmarked truck without plates.
en español 


To the Honduran and international media
To national and international human rights authorities
To the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
To the President, Congress and Supreme Court of Honduras
To the Honduran public and international community

We are extremely worried about the deterioration of the already volatile situation in Rio Blanco, in particular the militarization of the area and recent accusations made in the Honduran media against indigenous Lenca community members and their supporters by the police and the SINOHYDRO and DECA companies who seek to build the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River near Rio Blanco. Blood has already been shed and there is grave danger of a broader bloodbath in the near future. Many media reports have irresponsibly repeated serious claims and accusations that police themselves admit have yet to be corroborated and we have serious questions regarding the official version of events and express our concern in the strongest terms possible about the potential worsening of violence, intimidation, repression, criminalization and legal persecution.

We are a 15-person delegation of international Human Rights observers organized by La Voz de los de Abajo, an organization that has been working for 15 years accompanying social justice movements in Honduras and reporting on human rights violations. Our delegation is made up of teachers, youth and experienced human rights observers from Chicago, Illinois, United States. We are in communication with the United Nations Working Group on Paramilitary Activity and members of the United States Congress as well as human rights monitors around the world. We visited Rio Blanco on July 2nd and 3rd, 2013 to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, intimidation and violence faced by the indigenous Lenca community of Rio Blanco because of that community’s opposition to the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam by the Chinese company SINOHYDRO and the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos (DECA) as well as the allegations made against Rio Blanco community members, the Rio Blanco Indigenous Council, and the organization with which the community is affiliated, the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), including its General Coordinator Berta Cáceres.
COPINH coordinators Berta Cáceres and Doña Pascualita conversing 
with Río Blanco Indigenous Council about the cultural and spiritual
significance of the Gualcarque River for the Lenca indigenous
people and the non-violent struggle to defend it

Our delegation was able to interview dozens of members of the community of all ages, representatives of the Rio Blanco indigenous council and COPINH, as well as police, military, administration and personnel of DECA and SINOHYDRO, and community members employed by the company. We were witness to a lengthy and democratic discussion by over 100 community members facilitated by the Indigenous Council of Rio Blanco together with COPINH about the offers made by the company to the Rio Blanco community. We were witness to the community’s overwhelming decision not to accept anything less than the withdrawal of the Agua Zarca dam and the foreign companies seeking to build it and repeated insistence on their right to consultation and respect for their cultural and spiritual rights under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization of the United Nations. 

The community has been blocking one of the access roads to the site for the dam construction for over 90 days. Numerous community members including children, youth, adults and elders during separate interviews shared the same concerns and versions of events about numerous acts of repression and intimidation that have occurred since the beginning of the blockade including:

Children who are present every day at Río Blanco blockade listening in
and participating in assembly of Indigenous Council and COPINH about
company offers. These children told of being threatened by military/police

  • Over 150 police and military appearing at the blockade on Sunday June 23rd and pointing high caliber automatic weapons at small children and elders
  • Police and military arbitrarily entering the homes of many community members and circulating the community with heavy armament intimidating community members
  • Residents of a nearby community allegedly employed by the dam company intimidating people at the blockade, arriving at the site appearing drunk and wielding machetes and making death threats to community leaders and supporters
  • A machete attack on one community member leaving him in grave condition missing part of his hand and with a severely disfigured face. This community member was in the hospital at San Pedro Sula at the time of our visit
  • The targeting of supporters of the blockade by military and police operations, the most recent of which was on the first day of our delegation’s visit when Berta Cáceres and other members of COPINH on their way to Río Blanco were stopped, told to all exit their truck, yelled at and searched, as has happened on numerous other occasions  
  • Death threats against Berta Cáceres, Aureliano Molina, Tomas Gomez, Francisco Javier Sanchez, Lucio Sanchez and other members of the community
  • Close collaboration with private security by the national police and military, who are supervising the company’s privately contracted guards and are being housed and fed by the company as well as using company vehicles. We believe this negatively affects any possibility of the military and police acting objectively and it serves as a further intimidation of the community who see the company as controlling the national security forces. 

Human rights delegation interviewing engineer for Agua Zarca dam as
well as police, military and community members collaborating with them.
On the morning of July 3rd we conducted a thorough interview with police, military and company administration and personnel as well as community members who were with them on company property and were identified to us as family of the person accused of the recent machete attack. The police and dam engineer claimed that on the night of Saturday June 29th there were shots fired at the site of dam construction next to the Gualcarque River and that the night of July 2nd (the night before we interviewed them) at approximately 8pm there were shots fired at the cafeteria and offices for the company at the site across from the blockade. Our delegation was present at the blockade until 7pm at which point we went to the town of Rio Blanco because a severe storm with a heavy downpour of rain and loud and frequent thunder and lightening that lasted well into the night. According to the engineer and police version of events, they heard shots and hit the floor, though they mentioned nothing of the thunder and rain storm that was taking place at the exact time of the alleged gun fire and showed us no bullet shells or bullet holes. They explicitly blamed Berta Cáceres, General Coordinator for COPINH, for inciting the alleged violence, saying, “every time she comes something happens.” They had no answer when asked if she was present before the alleged gunfire on Saturday. They had nothing to say about the judge throwing out their last case against her due to lack of evidence. Our delegation explained that throughout the meeting at which she was present on Tuesday afternoon she repeatedly reminded people that the Rio Blanco struggle has been and must remain a non-violent struggle. Our delegation asked the police, military and company personnel if they had interviewed any community members opposed to the dam about the alleged violence and they said that they had not. Our delegation asked them if they had looked into the possibility of involvement from potentially competing interests in the Gualcarque River such as the Grupo Terra energy company associated with Miguel Facussé’s son-in-law Freddy Nasser, which has expressed interest numerous times in building a dam on the Gualcarque River. They responded that they had not. Our delegation asked if they would be providing jobs to those community members that had been collaborating with the company. They said that they would provide as many as they could, looked at the community members who were amongst them and nodded reassuringly.

As we were finishing the interview, two truckloads of additional police from Santa Barbera bearing high caliber automatic weapons arrived and they informed us that more were on the way, supposedly to investigate the alleged gunfire of the previous night.

Military in company truck at Agua Zarca plant headquarters.
The day after we left, accusations appeared in the mainstream Honduran media accusing the community of Rio Blanco and COPINH of somehow making their way past all of the police, military and private security and burning down part of the infrastructure of the dam site. The police appear in these reports also accusing COPINH and Rio Blanco community members of additional gunfire. The mainstream media reports are using the word “terrorism” and denouncing community members for supposed use of violence, mentioning only briefly that community members repeatedly say that their struggle is non-violent and the only thing they carry are the machetes they carry as work instruments.  The only firearms our delegation saw or heard of the entire time we were present in the community, at the blockade, in the very small houses of key community leaders and around the site of the company were the high power weapons wielded by the army, police and private security. 

We call into question the credibility of the allegations being made against COPINH and the Rio Blanco community and the credibility of the limited investigations by the police. The police and military we spoke with claimed to be there for the general safety of the area yet are staying on company premises, guarding company property, being fed by the company and are very friendly with both company administrators and the handful of community members employed by the company. The spokesperson for the local residents employed with the company was introduced to us as a family member of the person involved in the machete attack that sent one community member to the hospital. He and the police said that attack was in self-defense because the now-hospitalized community member was supposedly trying to “knock down his house” but said they couldn’t show us any evidence of that supposed attempt and more importantly the police said they had not spoken to any of the other community members opposed to the dam about that incident.

We call for the de-militarization of the Rio Blanco community and surrounding areas and remind the Honduran and international authorities as well as the DECA and SINOHYDRO companies of the duty to consult indigenous peoples about projects that affect them and respect their cultural, spiritual and land rights as is clearly outlined in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization of the United Nations. We also remind the authorities that Berta Cáceres has precautionary measures from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States as a high-risk target of repression and that unsubstantiated implicit and direct accusations against her, COPINH and Río Blanco community members by police and media are contributing to a climate of fear and intimidation. The numerous death threats against her and other community members and supporters should not be taken lightly nor should the possibility that accusations against them are fuelling these threats and the overall climate of repression, intimidation and criminalization. We fear that the current media campaign is aimed at criminalizing COPINH and the Río Blanco community in order to justify further human rights violations.

As human rights observers we will continue to closely monitor the situation and eagerly await a response from the Honduran state, media, local and national police, the U.S. government (who provides funding to the Honduran military and police), the Chinese company SINOHYDRO, the Honduran company DECA and regional, national and international human rights bodies to the human rights crisis unfolding at Rio Blanco. 

La Voz de los de Abajo
Published from El Progreso, Honduras July 4th, 2013

See call to action with list of contact info for national and international authorities

Thursday, July 4, 2013

In the Mountains of La Paz, Campesinos Struggle for their Land

In the municipality of San Jose, high in the mountains of the western province of La Paz the scenic views are breathtaking, mountain peaks covered in vegetation-  pine trees, flowering bushes, coffee plants - with bright colored birds and in the late afternoons a soft damp fog that sinks down into the little valleys. But for the campesinos, most of whom are indigenous Lencas, affiliated to the CNTC and other campesino organizations, the life in La Paz is harsh.

La Paz has one of the most intense agrarian conflicts in the country. Our delegation visited the regional CNTC center and 3 communities that have been recently evicted (desalojados). The CNTC has 53 base communities in La Paz. The land plots in La Paz are much smaller than the extensive plantations in the Aguan Valley and Sula Valley but the population is very concentrated and the large number of landless campesinos is up against a local political and economic elite that includes the family of a former President (Suazo). Land is power in La Paz and now even more so as the big landowners looks towards development of mineral and water resources as well as coffee and other development.

30 of the CNTC communities are involved in intense land conflicts. In 2013 so far there have been 40 violent evictions, two during the month of June. Although there have not been deaths, each time the military/police forces burn down the campesinos’ shelters, destroy their crops, beat even the women and children and arrest and torture the detainees. 200 CNTC members have legal cases against them - some were jailed temporarily and released on probationary measures (having to travel distances each week to sign in at police stations). Others have been held longer and 5 CNTC campesinos were jailed for 5 months last year. The campesinos told us that the La Paz general prosecutor is openly hostile to the campesinos and has implemented measures such as eviction raids in the middle of the night (not actually allowed under Honduran law), and is using conservation laws to prosecute campesinos for supposedly damaging trees and the environment because those laws have tougher penalties than land takeover charges.

We visited three groups: Planes de Calamateca (36 families) which we had visited last September after an eviction - they were evicted again this June.
Fuerza Unida (38 families). They were evicted in June also. The police and soldiers burned down all of their wooden huts - then after those fires spread to the pine forest, the prosecutor accused the campesinos of violating environmental protection laws by causing the fire.
Finally we visited a new recuperation with only 6 months in place, Los Laureles (48 families). They were last evicted in April of 2013 but have replanted many crops although they have not rebuilt homes in the same area.

It was heartbreaking and frustrating to speak with the families who described building small homes and planting crops only to have everything destroyed - and repeating this process multiple times. The campesinos told us that the land is their existence and their identity and they can’t give up their struggle. The CNTC regional and national leaders traveling with us explained the importance of national and international support and the current demand of all the campesino organizations in Honduras for an end to all the evictions and for a new Integral Land Reform Law that creates a just distribution of land to increase food production for the whole country and provides the populous countryside with a decent life.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Visit with Berta Oliva - COFADEH

Sitting in the conference room at the COFADEH office,your have to look into  the faces of the dead and disappeared from the decade of the 80’s in Honduras. Photos and drawings of  the martyrs cover the walls, most of them very young faces. Downstairs there are photos of some of the new martyrs - murdered or disappeared since coup in 2009.

Berta Oliva, General Coordinator of COFADEH (Committe of the Families of the Disappeared Detainees) told our delegation the story of COFADEH’s history. Family members of the disappeared formed the organization to look for justice for their loved one and to rescue the historical memory of the dead : Neither forget nor forgive is COFADEH’s motto and Berta added to that “not until we know who we should forgive” (meaning that the perpetrators of the crimes are identified) and “until we know why we should forgive them”.

 Berta categorized the situation today as “daily emergencies, cases of life and death”  where not only are there deaths to document and follow up but every day people arriving in the COFADEH office to  document threats and attempts on their lives. Many of the victims urgently needing emergency refuge and protection. COFADEH is expending more and more resources on rescues and new cases. This has also created a tremendous back-log of cases that need more follow-up with international and judicial entities.

 She explained that 25 teachers have been assassinated sine the coup. At least six LIBRE party activists, including candidates, have been murdered since Xiomara Zelaya officially entered the race for President in July 2012.  Just days before our meeting with Berta the wife of a LIBRE candidate and another person who was with her were killed in the province of Olancho. She emphasized the incredible level of violence against campesinos since the coup -- more than 125 killed and she talked of a new emergency case in which two priests are at risk of losing their lives. When one of the priests came secretly to Tegucigalpa to avoid attack, the people threatening him showed up at where he was staying and he had to flee again.

The history of COFADEH weaves together thirty years of Honduran history. It begins with the “cold” war and U.S. military interventions against the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua and all the movements for social justice in Central America. COFADEH worked to identify the disappeared and dead, participated in exhumations, and investigated the cases. Berta told us how they uncovered the military death squads  (Battalion 316) and the involvement of U.S. and U.S. trained military men like Billy Joya in the murders and forced disappearance of Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans and even some North Americans like the Jesuit priest James “Guadalupe” Carney who ministered to the poor campesinos and activists on the Northern Coast. COFADEH was able to identify Joya as responsible for the brutal murderer of their first human rights case, the death of Hans Albert Madisson and at least 16 other cases.  Charges against Joya were finally filed in  Honduras and internationally  but he was able to avoid arrest.

At that time the women who founded  COFADEH’ including Berta were attacked in the press as “Crazy old women” and worse, their lives were threatened and all types of intimidation were used to try to shut them up. COFADEH didn’t shut up  and during the 80’s and early 90’s identified more than 300 cases of political murders and forced disappearances and achieved international recognition of their struggle to win justice for the victims and survivors.

During the next phase of Honduran history COFADEH continued to take on new cases as human rights violations didn’t come to an end, but were able to focus on closing the cases from the 80’s and on developing other work. Then came the military coup d’ état on June 28, 2009.  Berta described the massive violations of human rights, and repression including beatings, assassinations, rape and torture. Billy Joya reappears and is given a government position in the coup government and forced disappearances begin again.

Berta told the delegation that the theme throughout the thirty years her organizations has existed is Impunity -- crimes against humanity committed with no consequences for the intellectual or material perpetrators. Sadly she said she expects even worse days are coming and that it is hard to be optimistic given the situation and knowing the character of those in power who already organized one coup --- and are facing a victory by the resistance political party.

COFADEH and Bertha herself are also the targets of surveillance and threats but Bertha emphasized their commitment to continuing their work and called for more solidarity, more accompaniment and more international observers and attention on Honduras.

“I am only alive now because of the international solidarity from all over the world and the message that sends to those who would harm us”. “ I am also a survivor and a victim. I married for love and when I married my husband, Tomás Nativi I also married into the life of fighting for justice. He was an activist, a communist, a revolutionary. I have never been ashamed of that”.  Tomás was forcibly disappeared in 1981.

She specifically asks for more visits and delegations from all levels of international observers to start now as the oligarchy begins to increase its terror and to continue through the elections. “If we are going to make it to the 24th (November 24th is the election date) it will be because of international solidarity. It is important to have people come and actually talk to the victims of the violence and not just sit in meetings with officials”, she said.

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