|English | Español||September 24, 2016 | Issue #58|
Housesitting in Honduras
Voices from Catacamas, Hometown of Honduran President, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya
By Jonathan Treat
Photos: Tomás Ray Harner III, D.R. 2009
On July 17, when townspeople learned that the military had surrounded the president’s house, more than four thousand protesters marched to the house to take it back. When confronted by the crowd, the fifty or so soldiers quietly retreated.
Since then, the pro-democracy movement in Catacamas has maintained a constant vigil at the president’s residence. The home has become a symbol of popular resistance. Hundreds of people from communities around the state of Olancho gather here daily to guard the property and wait anxiously for the return of President Zelaya. Military planes and police helicopters circle in the skies above the crowd – an ominous reminder of the powers they’re confronting.
“I completely support the president. Look, I’m going to be frank – I’ve never voted before. But I know too much about Mel,” said one man, a self-described campesino who farms a small plot of land. “He’s not like other presidents I’ve seen. He’s humble. You see him eating at local markets, attending funerals and fiestas with the people – he´s not arrogant.”
A local taxi driver had this to say: “My father worked for Mel for 11 years, before he became our president. And I know he helps people. Since he’s been president, he has shown that. He’s done good things for the poor – giving pensions to the elderly, raising minimum wage, and improving schools and clinics. He’s a good man.”
Marlon Escoto, rector of the National University of Agriculture, was more measured in his critique. “President Zelaya isn’t perfect. But he’s much better than other presidents, and he has definitely made some positive changes that are benefitting the poor,” he said. “The elites here thought that during his campaign he was just saying populist things to get elected. But he has followed through. And that has alienated many in the ruling elite in Honduras.”
People in Catacamas also seem to be unanimous on another point – that the de facto government seized power illegally, through a military-supported coup.
“I just don’t understand this argument about whether it was a coup or not. The OAS, the United Nations, every country in the world, and Obama have all called it a coup” said one Catacamas taxi driver. “A coup is exactly what it is – and it´s shameful.”
Honduran military troops
The other man adds an ominous note. “The coup is creating a dangerous situation. There are lots of guns in Olancho, since the (US-backed, anti-Nicaragua) Contra war (of the 1980s). Mel needs to come back, and soon.”
Not surprisingly, the pervasively pro-Zelaya sentiment of people here – and their consistent, active non-violent resistance – isn’t popular with the current regime. On June 28, the day after the military coup, roughly 2000 people from Catacamas and neighboring communities mobilized to make the four-hour journey to Tegucigalpa to join the groundswell of popular opposition to the coup. But less than an hour into the trip, the caravan of cars and some thirty buses were confronted by military troops. An eyewitness reported that the soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons, shooting out the tires of ten of the buses, bringing the caravan to a halt.
Since then, military checkpoints are commonplace throughout Olancho state. There is a strong sense of indignation in the community, but it tempered with caution.
“The military regularly stops people leaving the town,” said one Catacamas resident. “You have to give them your documents, and tell them where you are going and why you’re going there. And people who are known as leaders of the movement against the coup have been told to turn around and go back home, or face arrest.”
One local taxi driver was stopped by the military when driving through town. “They have no right,” he said angrily. “It’s against the constitution for military to stop civilians – only police have that authority. I was furious, but you have to be careful. There’s no law here these days.”
There is also an ongoing curfew here—anyone on the streets after 11 p.m. risks being jailed. One young man said that the previous night he didn’t make it home in time. He showed me nasty cuts on his wrists from being roughed up by authorities while handcuffed.
Praying for President Zelaya
The crowd of people who have gathered here is diverse, and there are no obvious distinctions between class or social status. People here voice a common goal – nonviolent resistance to Micheletti regime and the return of Zelaya to the presidency. In the meantime, they intend to make sure that the army keeps its hands off the president’s home.
Over the weekend (July 19, 20), several hundred people from Catacamas and neighboring communities gather at the President Zelaya’s family home. They chat in the shade of the three open air palapas (gazebos), on the front porch, or on the grassy grounds. Local vendors sell snacks and soft drinks, and kids play on swings and slides. Some dance to the music blaring out over loudspeakers. In the afternoons, there is food for everyone. One woman, a local teacher cooking up a meal for the crowd over a wood fire speaks with obvious defiance.
“We’re here because we are people with conviction. We know that our consitutional president is Manuel Zelaya. We elected him, and we’ll be here until he is back in power in Honduras. So we came to take this house back from the army. When they saw us coming, they left. But we know they are still around, waiting – we’ve seen them, some wearing ski masks,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. The people of Catacamas have courage. We’ll be here in this struggle until the president returns home.”
People gather to share the meal, chatting and laughing. Throughout the day, the atmosphere here has generally been relaxed and festive, more like a picnic than a stronghold of nonviolent resistance.
“I remember very well how things were during the 1980s. I understand the pain and suffering of living under a military regime. I don’t want to go back to that. We’re asking the world to help us, to demand the return to consitutional law – and the return of our president,” said one of man in the crowd, a professor at the local university. “The situation is very dangerous. We don’t want to see people pick up arms. We don’t want to see any bloodshed.”
A student, upon hearing the news of the stalled talks, says that he supports Pres. Zelaya completely but that he wants him to do everything possible to avoid an outbreak of violence.
“I want Mel to come back to Honduras. I want to see him return as president. I trust him, and I think he is sincere,” he said. “But I have two daughters. I don’t want to see a war. I hope he continues to negotiate.”
Unfortunately, there seems to be nothing left for President Zelaya to negotiate; he has agreed to [discuss and negotiate] all the terms presented by mediator Oscar Arias. But in spite of the unanimous condemnation of the current regime by governments around the world, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the suspension of all aid to Honduras by the EEU and the threat of the same by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – Micheletti [and the military coup regime] remain defiant. And Hondurans brace themselves for the possibility of a violent storm.
Note: On Tuesday, July 21 a caravan of more than 500 vehicles drove through Catacamas and neighboring communities in peaceful protest of the de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti, the ongoing military repression. They demanded the immediate return of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency. Military planes flew overhead. The electricity to the entire town was cut off for much of the day. There were at least five checkpoints between Catacamas and Tegucigalpa, attended by military troops and national police who demanded identification and searched vehicles.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism