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Updated 03/01/2010

Honduras News in Review—February 2010

1. Nearly 250 human rights violations, including four political murders, since Lobo took office
2. Proposed truth commission delayed
3. Roundup of resistance, human rights group communiqués
4. International support for human rights, resistance in Honduras
5. Land dispute deepens, claiming more victims
6. Zelaya, ministers face corruption charges
7. Lobo installs new head of Joint Chiefs of Staff
8. Aid starts to flow back into Honduras
9. Diplomacy update
10. U.S. policy update
11. Delegations report back
12. Get involved: Delegation to Honduras
13. U.S. political asylum granted to Honduran girl fleeing gang violence while numbers of illegal immigrants from Honduras rise
14. Costa Rica elects first woman president

1. Nearly 250 human rights violations, including four political murders, since Lobo took office

Over the course of the month since Porfírio "Pepe" Lobo took office as Honduran president, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (Cofadeh) has documented 254 human rights violations. Details of the Cofadeh report were announced at a Feb. 23 press conference by the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) and the Platform for Human Rights (Plataforma de Derechos Humanos), a recently formed collective of Honduran human rights NGOs that includes Cofadeh. Documented violations included two murders, eight cases of torture, two kidnappings, 53 illegal detentions, two cases of sexual assault, 14 illegal searches, 150 people forced to flee the country for fear of life and limb, 25 more relocated to a different city within the country for similar reasons and 30 who changed address for the same.    

On Feb. 26, Cofadeh released a list of confirmed politically motivated murders carried out since the June 2009 coup. The list of 40 murders, the most recent from Feb. 24, includes only deaths that Cofadeh staff have personally investigated. According to the U.S. social-justice NGO Quixote Center, which published the English translation of the report, "It is widely understood in Honduras that the number of murders is much higher than those listed here," but factors such as fear of reprisal are believed to have led many people to not report the murder of a family member or friend or to hide the murder's political connection.

According to this latest Cofadeh document, four politically motivated murders have taken place since Lobo assumed office:

  • Blas López—a secondary school teacher, leader of the Pech ethnic group and active resistance member—was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds on Jan. 30 in the Aldea El Carbonal neighborhood of Olancho.
  • Vanessa Yamileth Zepeda—a 29-year-old nurse, union leader, active resistance member and mother of three—was found dead from a bullet wound in the Loarque neighborhood of Teguicgalpa on Feb. 4. Neighbors said they had seen the body thrown from a moving vehicle. Zepeda, who was reportedly abducted earlier that day after leaving a union meeting, had received multiple death threats because of her activism. According to an article in In These Times, "all of the country's major union federations are part of the resistance front."
  • Julio Fúnez Benítez, an active FNRP member and a union worker with the Union of Aqueducts and Sewer Systems (Sanaa), was shot dead by two hit men on a motorcycle outside his home in the Brisas de Olancho neighborhood of Comayagüela on Feb. 15. He had received past death threats warning him to leave the FNRP.
  • Claudia Larisa Brizuela Rodríguez—daughter of prominent journalist, labor leader and outspoken FNRP member Pedro Antonio Brizuela—was shot in the face by an unknown gunman on Feb. 24, her 36th birthday, when she opened the door to her home in San Pedro Sula. Her two children witnessed the murder. Brizuela Rodríguez was an active member of the resistance and of the trade union of employees of the mayor's office, where she worked.
Among cases of abduction and torture over the past month, two TV Globo cameramen, Manuel de Jesús Murillo and Ricardo Vázquez Vázquez (also reported as Rodríguez), reported being kidnapped, temporarily held in a clandestine jail and tortured on Feb. 2 by plainclothes policemen. The two men had worked in the presidential palace under the Zelaya administration and actively participated in coup resistance marches. Similar to the case of two videographers who were abducted and tortured in January, the men were interrogated about the location of arms and money and were beaten and tortured when they denied knowledge and claimed their only "weapon" was a video camera. The men were hooded, losing consciousness from asphyxiation, and were threatened with having their throats cut. They were released later that night.

2. Proposed truth commission delayed

On Feb. 25, former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, who was appointed by Honduran President Porfírio Lobo to head the Truth Commission Ad-hoc Committee, announced a delay in the installation of a Honduran truth commission. Stein is tasked with setting the working parameters for the committee and finding its constituents. The establishment of a truth commission had been part of the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord brokered last fall in an effort to end the national political crisis in Honduras. The accord also called for a return to power of Manuel Zelaya and the establishment of a power-sharing government in advance of November’s elections, both of which have been points of contention between the coup supporters and its opponents. Stein said the delay was due to a continued search for the last two international members of the commission, and dismissed any notion of irregularity, saying the Feb. 25 date was “no more than a tentative date on a working calendar.” The commission will be composed of two Honduran nationals and two international members.
 
The National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) held a massive rally on Feb. 25 to protest the creation of the commission. An estimated 20,000 people gathered in a march that wound through Tegucigalpa ending up at the Congress building, issuing a statement calling for, among other demands, a Constitutional Assembly and the right for Zelaya to return to Honduras. 

FNRP coordinator Juan Barahona has called the truth commission proposal a “whitewash of the coup,” whose aim is to exonerate coup supporters, the questionable elections they held and the current government in which it resulted, in order to regain international acceptance. Referring to the amnesty declared by then-interim President Roberto Micheletti on the eve of Lobo’s inauguration, Barahona said, “They’re doing this backwards: first they declare the ‘golpistas’ free of sin, and now they form a truth commission, which can say whatever it wants, but whose report won’t have any meaning.” El Tiempo reported that Lobo intends on having “an opposition member” sit on the commission, though it is unclear if he means someone from the FNRP.
 
Agreeing with Barahona’s assessment, Berta Oliva, coordinator for Cofadeh, said that “a truth commission shouldn’t mean a clean slate,” but rather an honest holding to account of responsible parties. She also indicated that the commission should consult with the FNRP. According to El Tiempo, the commission will only look at official government sources, such as those used by Congress and the Supreme Court.
 
3. Roundup of resistance, human rights group communiqués

On Jan. 31, the International Mission of Freedom of Press and Expression, made up of a variety of Honduran and international NGOs, released its findings from a November fact-gathering trip to the country, reporting an entwining of corporate, state and media interests contributing to skewed reporting in the wake of the coup.

On Feb. 3, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for a revision of the amnesty measure passed Jan. 26, saying it was “confusing and ambiguous.”

On Feb. 4, FNRP reiterated its nonrecognition of Porfírio Lobo as legal president of Honduras.

On Feb. 5, Zelaya called for a national reconciliation accord, including a national conversation on a constitutional assembly.

On Feb. 13, in its 47th communiqué, the FNRP emphasized its support for workers’ rights in the face of threats to the National Public Workers’ Union.

On Feb. 15, the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Codeh) released a communiqué expressing concern over various human rights violations—in particular, a case of illegal search and seizure and seven cases of kidnapping and torture, including that of two TV Globo cameramen (see story above). Codeh noted the appearance of a systematic pattern in the abuses that have been taking place, along with a failure on the part of the Public Ministry and the national commissioner for human rights to respond to the violations.

On Feb. 19, in its 48th communiqué, the FNRP asked the Rio Working Group of Latin American Countries to continue its nonrecognition of the state of Honduras under its present state.

On Feb. 25, in its 49th communiqué, the FNRP condemned recent deaths and repressive acts against their membership, placing the blame on the Lobo government.

On Feb. 25, in its 50th communiqué, the FNRP called for the free return of Zelaya to Honduras and a national constitutional assembly, among other things.

4. International support for human rights, resistance in Honduras

The U.S. NGO Washington Office on Latin America released a statement expressing deep concern “about the escalation of severe human rights violations in Honduras." The statement continued, "WOLA calls for an end to these attacks, for a thorough investigation of these criminal acts and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.”

MISF joined several groups associated with the U.S. Network in Solidarity with the Honduras Resistance Front in signing on to full-page newspaper ads published in Honduras that speak out against continued repression. Later this month, similar statements will broadcast through several radio ads on Radio Globo, Radio Progreso, Garifano Radio and others.

On Feb. 11, many signed on to a “Statement on Behalf of U.S. Labor & Progressive Activists Condemning the Murder of Union Leader Vanessa Yamileth Zepeda & the Repression Sweeping Honduras” (Spanish; English) The statement read, in part, “The right to organize is a basic human right of every worker. It is a right defended by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Honduras, that right is being denied on a daily basis … we oppose the enabling role the U.S. government has played in the election and 'legitimizing' of the Lobo regime, which is only an attempt to justify and sanitize the criminal coup of June 2009.”

Members of the American Anthropological Association voted in favor of a resolution to denounce human rights violations in Honduras and urge U.S. President Barack Obama and members of Congress to condemn human rights violations committed since the coup, support "progressive forces in Honduras striving to create a real democracy," work with other countries to find a "peaceful and democratic solution" to the country's political crisis, and withhold recognition of the results of the Nov. 29 election.

This month many U.S. citizens called their representatives and the State Department with messages about Honduras policy when the faith-based social-justice NGO Quixote Center, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador and other organizations initiated a “Call-in Solidarity With Victims of State Terror in Honduras” to deliver the message, “We are alarmed at the growing human rights crisis in Honduras under the government of Porfirio Lobo and we will not tolerate the funding of state terror in Honduras with U.S. tax dollars.”
 
5. Land dispute deepens, claiming more victims

On Feb. 11, police and military personnel—along with private armed security men working for the purported owner, palm-oil magnate and coup supporter Miguel Facussé—on Feb. 11 raided the lands of lower Aguan once again, terrorizing the campesinos with helicopters and injuring Margarito Peralta and Pedro Parachico. The violence in the area, stemming from a previously reported land dispute has been ongoing since early in the year, causing thousands to flee the lands and wounding at least four others in late January. The Feb. 11 attacks took place as the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan (MUCA) leadership was meeting with the National Agrarian Institute to return to the stalled settlement signed before the coup.
 
On Feb. 23, the Lobo government submitted a new proposal to the MUCA campesinos, offering them either 450 million lempira ($23.8 million) to relocate to new lands and cultivate them to palm oil, or to buy back the Aguan lands from the purported land owners, should they want to sell them. Meanwhile, Lobo has offered the group protection though the Security Ministry. Talks will continue on March 9.

6. Zelaya, ministers face corruption charges

Leonardo Orellana, special anti-corruption prosecutor, leveled charges of mismanagement of funds against former President Manuel Zelaya, three of his cabinet ministers and the finance minister on Feb. 23 in a new case being brought up in court. The case involves the alleged diversion of funds from a social investment trust into an advertising campaign for the opinion poll on a proposed constitutional assembly scheduled to have taken place on June 28, 2009. Zelaya responded to the charges as he has in the past, saying they "seek personal revenge and worsen the political persecution against me, forgetting national reconciliation."
 
Meanwhile, in another case against former Zelaya officials, Rixi Moncada, former head of the National Electric Energy Company (ENEE) and Arístides Mejía, former minister of defense, unexpectedly turned themselves in on Feb. 25 to answer for corruption charges. The two, along with former Finance Minister Rebecca Santos, were charged last July for signing a rental agreement for the ENEE building; the details of the case are unclear. All three have been living abroad since the beginning of the coup. Though Santos refused to appear because she felt no assurance of due process, both Moncada and Mejía expressed a desire to see justice done. “It’s all-out war in our country,” Moncada said. “We have to fight for everyone’s rights.” The two are free on bail with broad travel rights until the next hearing on March 15.
 
7. Lobo installs new head of Joint Chiefs of Staff

After much pressure, President Porfírio Lobo on Feb. 26 installed former Inspector General for the Armed Forces Carlos Antonio Cuéllar as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Honduras, replacing Romeo Vásquez Velásquez in that post. Last month the Honduran Supreme Court president dismissed charges against Vásquez and five other generals accused of abuse of authority and illegal expatriation of deposed President Manuel Zelaya during the events of the June 28 coup last year. Cuéllar will serve out Vásquez Velásquez’s term, which is set to expire in December of this year. Lobo’s order includes a mandated retirement for all presently serving leadership.
 
The change of leadership comes 10 days after Lobo had gone on record saying he was quite happy with the military leadership as it stood, and didn’t see a need to address a change immediately. Zelaya and international forces had urged Lobo to distance himself from the leaders that ordered the Zelaya's ouster from office and from the country. Additionally, a series of legal proceedings dealing with last month’s dismissal of charges brought into doubt the status of the generals.

8. Aid starts to flow back into Honduras

On Feb. 10, the World Bank announced it was resuming aid to Honduras in the amount of $390 million—$120 million more yearly than it had previously loaned the country. This represents a vast majority of the $450 million in aid lost following the June 28 coup. Shortly after Lobo's inauguration, it was announced that the country was bankrupt and would need to find new sources of aid. Nearly 20 percent of Honduras’ annual budget comes from international aid.

9. Diplomacy update

As President Porfírio Lobo establishes his administration in Honduras, 29 nations have restored diplomatic ties, including Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Costa Rica, Panama, Dominican Republic, Columbia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Of the 39 countries with whom Honduras had previous diplomatic ties, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, México, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile have not restored those relations.

Although Spain has resumed diplomatic relations, on Feb. 24 the Spanish congress declined to formally recognize the legitimacy of the Nov. 29 Honduran elections.

Uraguay’s incoming minister of foreign affairs Luis Almagro told foreign media that the November election was an attempt to “whitewash” the coup and that Uraguay will not recognize the new government until "new elements appear that guarantee democratic openness and stability.”

Earlier this month, Latin American leaders met at the Rio Group summit without any representative from Honduras. The group decided not to formally discuss the possible return of Honduras to the Organization of American States, but did vote to form an alternative coalition called the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. This group will not include the United States or Canada, and Honduras has not yet been invited to join, but may be included later if it is readmitted to the OAS. The new Latin American and Caribbean forum has yet to establish a formal name, organizational shape or rules, all of which will be solidified in a meeting in Caracas in mid 2011. Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. State Department's top official for Latin America, said that the new organization "should not be an effort that would replace the OAS."

On Feb. 27, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before she departed on a trip to several Latin American countries. The two discussed “the process of democratic normalization in Honduras” and how the country could be reintegrated into the OAS. Earlier in the month, after meeting with Canada’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Peter Kent, Insulza released a statement saying that they had given “attention to the process of democratic normalization in Honduras and the possibility of eventually lifting the suspension imposed on the Central American country’s activities at the OAS."

Following the Washington Post’s criticism of Insulza and the OAS earlier this month, several international figures responded. Brazil’s Foreign Secretary Celso Amorim said that Post's critique was “totally without foundation” and reiterated Brazil’s support for his reelection next month. Mariano Fernández Amunátegui, foreign minister in Chile's outgoing government declared that the OAS had helped the Americas make democratic strides. Zelaya, now in the Dominican Republic, said the OAS has no teeth to prevent coups or human rights abuses.

10. U.S. policy update

Despite criticism of the Nov. 29 Honduran election and continued political repression and censorship and violence against dissidents in Honduras, the State Department has continued to praise the new Lobo government. On Feb. 26,
Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela remarked in the State Dept daily briefing: “The outcome in Honduras is a very successful case of standing for a very fundamental principle and that is that you cannot tolerate a coup d’etat in a country ... The election was an election that has been recognized by the international community as a valid one. It certainly reflected the desires of the Honduran people."

On Feb. 5, Hugo Llorens, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, announced that economic aid to the country would be reinstated as quickly as possible. He said, "We're looking toward the future, and more than anything, we want to strengthen cooperation between our countries."

This month the Obama administration submitted its budget request to Congress, including next year’s foreign assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean. Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of NGOs, offered a critique.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to several Latin American countries from Feb. 28 to March 5, but will not make a stop in Honduras. According to
Valenzuela, Lobo will meet with Clinton in Guatemala on the last day of her trip.
 
11. Delegations report back

Read about a student trip to Honduras organized by Associate Director of the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies Monica Maher and Program Coordinator for the Committee on Human Rights Lauren Herman. The group visited Honduras a week before the Jan. 27 inauguration of elected President Porfírio Lobo.

A solidarity and human rights delegation led by La Voz de Los de Abajo of Chicago visited Honduras in January during the Lobo inauguration and the departure of former President Manuel Zelaya. The delegation attended a massive protest march and met with human rights, union, religious, LGBT and campesino groups, all part of the FNRP. They share some reports of their visit here, including a summary of their meeting with Codeh Director Andres Pavon. Members of the delegation can be reached by e-mail: handsoffhonduras@gmail.com

12. Get involved: Delegation to Honduras

March 13-20: Honduras Solidarity Delegation. Meeting in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, the group will hear from the popular resistance movement and human rights groups, visit political prisoners and threatened communities, and document human rights abuses. This delegation is being organized by the Task Force on the Americas, led by Andrés Conteris, who recently left the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras after accompanying President Zelaya for five months. Andrés has been a Latin America human rights activist for many years, is a co-producer of the documentary Hidden in Plain Sight (about the SOA in Latin America), and a Latin America correspondent for Democracy Now!

 Cost: $700, includes all ground expenses; does not include airfare. Contact Dale: 415-924-3227 or Geodale1@earthlink.net for details and an application. For further information on this and other delegations and events, click here.

13. U.S. political asylum granted to Honduran girl fleeing gang violence while numbers of illegal immigrants from Honduras rise

A U.S. immigration judge has granted political asylum to an 11-year-old girl who fled Honduras to join her parents in San Francisco after gang members killed or threatened several members of her family. Historically, individuals fleeing gang violence are not eligible for political asylum because, according to the law, persecution must fall under the categories of race, nationality, origin, ethnicity, cultural or religious beliefs, political activity, or gender discrimination—although there is a major effort in the U.S. to change the way these cases are addressed. The lawyer for the girl and her cousin, who was granted asylum last year, explained “…the difference in the two children’s cases was their grandfather's vocal opposition to gangs, which exposed them to violence but also enabled the judge to conclude that they had been targeted because of their family status.”

The Department of Homeland Security reported there were 7 percent fewer illegal Honduran immigrants in the United States last year; however, the biggest jump in illegal immigrants from any country was in Hondurans, whose numbers almost doubled in the past decade. This jump has often been attributed to a rise in gang violence, among other economic factors.

14. Costa Rica elects first woman president

Costa Rica elected its first woman president, Laura Chincilla, on Feb. 7. Chinchilla was most recently vice president and justice minister under outgoing president Oscar Arias. During her campaign, she said she opposed the decriminalization of abortion, gay marriage and the removal of Catholicism as the official state religion.

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