Dana Frank Veruska Cantelli

Warscapes had the chance recently to engage in a conversation with historian and journalist Dana Frank to get the pulse of the current situation in Honduras, which has remained volatile, and extremely violent, since the ouster more than three years ago of democratically elected president José Manuel Zelaya. 

On June 28, 2009, a group of soldiers stormed Zelaya’s house and forced him into a small plane destined for Costa Rica. He was quickly replaced by Roberto Micheletti, president of the congress, who assumed office. Then, in a dubious election supported by the United States, Porfirio Lobo took over the presidency in 2010. Prior to the coup, President Zelaya’s plans to enact a series of social reforms had led him into an alliance with Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and other Latin American and Caribbean states known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, or ALBA). Earlier, right after his election, he had called a referendum for the purpose of creating a constituent assembly in order to rewrite the 1982 constitution. He quickly became a danger to the Honduran elite, who has continually grown its wealth by coercively devouring the land from the campesinos. It was clear that Zelaya had to go. 

Immediately after the coup, Hondurans took to the streets in support of Zelaya. They continue to protest despite state violence perpetuated by the military. Some 23 journalists have been killed since the coup. Among those killed or disappeared are Erik Martinez, leader of the opposition party LIBRE (Libertad y Refundación), and Antonio Trejo Cabrera, a lawyer for the land rights group MARCA (Movimiento Auténtico Reivindicador de Campesinos del Aguán), which works in the highly disputed Aguán Valley, where dozens of campesinos and indigenous leaders have been killed while trying to protect their land from state seizure. They had become the nemesis of men like Miguel Facussé, owner of the biodiesel company Grupo Dinant and by far the richest and most influential man in Honduras. 

Now, a new challenge is looming. For over twenty years, two parties – National and Liberal – have contended for political power in Honduras, but in 2011, LIBRE was founded on the principle of breaking with the traditional duopoly. With Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of Manuel Zalaya, at its head, LIBRE is preparing to take part in the next elections, in November 2013.

Dana Frank, professor of history and director of the Center for Labor Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has spent the past five years researching the history of the AFL-CIO's Cold War intervention in the Honduran labor movement. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News and The Nation magazine, among others. Her conversation with Warscapes’ Veruska Cantelli was conducted over gmail-chat in early December. 

Veruska Cantelli: Hello Dana. Thank you so much for your time. 

Dana Frank: Thanks so much for being interested in Honduras.

VC: Absolutely. The unfolding events in Honduras and your work deserve urgent attention. Let me dive into the heart of the matter. Three years after the June 28th coup that deposed President Zelaya, a military governance has been established in Honduras. Now one year from the new elections, what is the political climate in Honduras?

DF: ‪The current situation is horrific, under the ongoing coup regime of Porfirio Lobo. It's not quite a "military governance," as you said - it's an illegitimate government that came to power because of a military coup, in collusion with the Supreme Court and the great majority of the Congress. Brutal repression of the opposition continues: four campesino activists in the Aguán Valley, for example, were assassinated in the last three weeks. The same figures that perpetrated the coup control the government, including the same military. The police are acknowledged even by the government to be tremendously corrupt. There's near-complete impunity not only around the coup, but for over 10,000 human rights abuses by state security forces since then.‬

VC: These numbers are shocking.

DF: Yes, and as next year's elections approach, human rights groups have raised alarms about repression of candidates and activists of the new opposition party, LIBRE. Three LIBRE activists were assassinated in May and June, one of them the first gay candidate for Congress; and two mayoral candidates were killed in November on the same night, as a warning. But in the November 18th primaries, that just happened, LIBRE did extremely well, with at least a third of the total presidential votes (in an election ridden with fraud). This is a tremendous threat to the elites that have always controlled Honduras, and they are willing to kill hundreds to stop LIBRE from coming to power.

Photo ©Global Research, Center for Research on Globalization

VC: ‪I read with attention your article for The Nation – “Which Side is the US On?” You point out the US military involvement saying that, “The United States has been quietly escalating its military presence in Honduras, pouring police and military funding into the regime of President Porfirio Lobo in the name of fighting drugs.”‬ Do you see any similarities between this strategy and other Central or South American strategies by the US, for instance, more recently, the one during the pre-Morales Bolivia anti-drug war?

DF: ‪This is a long term pattern, most obviously in Colombia, where Plan Colombia has been used to repress activists for years now. We call this the "Colombianization of Honduras." The drug war is being used as a pretext to pour more and more into the Honduras security forces, and escalate the US direct military presence as well. Yet the Honduras government is itself riddled with drug traffickers and organized crime, from top to bottom, including the judiciary, attorney general's office, and Congress. We are handing money over to drug traffickers, in other words, in the name of the drug war. And that war is killing Hondurans:‬ the DEA participated in the killing of four Afro-Indigenous Hondurans in May, and it still hasn't been investigated.

VC: As you mentioned, since the coup which brought into power President Porfirio Lobo, violence against indigenous people, against activists, intellectuals, and journalists has escalated to more than 23 journalists now killed, and hundreds of cases of killings and disappeared. Do you foresee any progress in making justice, and what role has the mainstream media had in reporting the situation in Honduras?

DF: ‪‪I don't see any real progress. The State Department is finally acknowledging, in tiny peeps, that there's a human rights problem in Honduras. But it has yet to acknowledge the pattern for over three years of tremendous repression of the opposition. And it just recently, once again reaffirmed its support for the Lobo government and celebrated the "robust ties" between the two nations. In Honduras, there are now all sorts of official commissions supposedly cleaning up the police. But they have little power, and only cosmetic arrests have been made. The "progress in making justice" you asked about is being made by the tremendous opposition in Honduras: human rights groups, the LGBT movement, the labor movement, women's movement, Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous movements, and all amazing activists who keep fighting, when they know they could die at any moment‬.

VC: At Warscapes, we strive to point out holes and misrepresentations, or under-representation, in the mainstream media coverage. In that sense, I was wondering what you would say is the role of mainstream media in terms of paying attention to Honduras?

DF: The mainstream media was largely terrible the year after the coup, and silent during 2010 and 2011. But in 2012, the situation has changed a great deal, thanks to the heroic work of two reporters at the Associated Press – Martha Mendoza and Alberto Arce – who broke stories about the DEA killings, about the new Chief of Police being a documented death squad leader, and about US-trained military officers killing a boy at a checkpoint and then trying to cover it up. The Los Angeles Times has written two excellent editorials. The New York Times has been playing catch-up recently, with improved coverage. The disaster that is US support for the Honduran government, and the drug war in Honduras, is now big news, astonishingly. But TV, other than Al Jazeera (which has been terrific), is still silent. I wouldn't want to exaggerate the improvement – the Washington Post, for example, isn't covering the situation at all. I want to say here how grateful I am to The Nation for allowing me to keep writing about Honduras for three years now, and keeping it in the public eye when the rest of the media was ignoring Honduras.

VC: Something else we try to do is to arrive to an understanding of conflict and war through art. In a country where radio hosts, writers, artists and teachers are among the targeted, what has emerged in this respect in Honduras?

DF: Alternative radio has been absolutely central in Honduras since day one of the coup. All of the newspapers are controlled by the oligarchs, so radio is essential, including small community-based stations run by indigenous communities. Radio is the heart and soul of the ongoing resistance. And people have paid with their lives for that. Radio stations continue to be harassed and announcers sent death threats. More broadly, the resistance surprised everyone with its enormous creative cultural output – suddenly, a mass culture of resistance exploded, full of humor, passion, and power, transforming Honduran society at its cultural roots. It continues to grow and inspire activism. As for the teachers, they have been at the center of militancy: striking over and over again to defend education, to protest privatization, and to get paid at all. They work very closely with parents and local communities, and have inspired thousands of students to protest as well.

Photo © Witness for Peace

VC: To reinforce what you have just said, the events of July 11th 2009 come to mind, when poet Rebeca Becerra, director of a branch under the Department of Culture called "Libro y el Documento"  published the open letter "Mi unico delito" (My only crime) on the website "mimalapalabra," in which she denounces the secretary of State in the department of Culture, Art and Sports, Mirna Castro and Vicepresident of Culture, Juan Fernando Avila Posas for having deposed her from her position as promoter of literacy and art in the poorest remote areas of the country.‬ It is intense to contrast these efforts with the emergence of figures like Miguel Facussé who has great interest in acquiring land and restoring the status quo in Honduras. In that sense, what has been his influence in promoting the so called “model cities”? Even though the program has been declared unconstitutional, will this suffice to stop their construction?

DF: ‪Miguel Facussé continues to enjoy completely impunity for the alleged participation of his security guards in the killings, along with state security forces, of over 60 campesino activists in the Aguán Valley. In May, a lawyer for the campesinos, Antonio Trejo, won an unprecedented legal case against Facussé, restoring lands he had illegally seized from campesinos. Trejo received death threats subsequently that he attributed to Facussé, and in September Trejo was assassinated.‬

Although the law enabling the Model Cities was declared unconstitutional, I think we can assume that the powerful forces behind it will rise up again to promote the project.  It's been chilling to see how the deep forces of raw neoliberal capitalism have pushed this idea, which completely abrogates Honduran sovereignty and any rule of extant law, allowing for total corporate hyperexploitation. There's been a tremendous struggle, as well, over control of the cultural patrimony, particularly the Mayan Ruins at Copán Ruinas. The oligarchs want to exploit them as tourist fantasyland, and the staff have gone on strike to protest their plans.

VC:  We are facing a form of neo-colonialism entirely in the hands of corporations. I know that lately you spent a lot of time in congress, can you tell us about your work there?

DF: ‪We have an impressive team of church groups, NGOS that work on Latin America, experts from progressive think tanks, and many others, that has been pressuring Congress since the coup began. Twice we've gotten almost a hundred Members of Congress to demand that police and military aid be suspended immediately, and letters to the Secretary of State about repression of human rights defenders and of members of the LGBTI community, plus a hearing on media freedom in Honduras at which Padre Melo (Ismael Moreno) of Radio Progreso testified with great eloquence. Now members of the Congressional Black Caucus are particularly concerned about repression of Afro-Indigenous Hondurans, including the DEA killings. There's a great deal of concern in the Senate, as well, and that's why over $50 million in police and military aid to Honduras is currently suspended, including funds to the National Chief of Police and anyone under his jurisdiction, because of the death squad evidence.‬ It's been a very powerful experience to see how much Congress is interested in the situation in Honduras, and US responsibility for it. And it's growing rapidly.

VC:  I know that you are also an historian, can you tell us what you are working on right now?

DF: ‪I continue to work on researching and writing a book about the intervention of the US labor movement in Honduras during the Cold War.‬

VC: Your work as an historian sounds crucial given the importance of rewriting essential passages of the U.S involvement in Central and South America. ‪Once again I would like to thank you for your time and your great work. 

DF: Thanks so much for helping keep the horrific situation there before the public eye. 

Veruska Cantelli is an editor for Warscapes.