The fight to take power in Honduras

Voters head to the polls on Sunday, in the first election contested by the opposition since the 2009 coup.

Leading the charge of the LIBRE party is Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed president Manuel Zelaya [Reuters]

Tegucigalpa, Honduras – In June 2009, Luna Gevawer was working in the marketing department of a Honduran daily newspaper when the democratically elected Liberal president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup d’etat – a changnig of the guard promoted by her boss and the vast majority of the mainstream media here.

“I gave up my job and took to the streets,” 30-year-old Gevawer told Al Jazeera.

“The streets were full with teachers, feminists, young people, every part of society were there. We were gassed, we were beaten, we threw stones at the police and army, and everything changed.”

We were gassed, we were beaten, we threw stones at the police and army, and everything changed

by  Luna Gevawer, LIBRE candidate

This Sunday, Gevawer is on the ballot paper as a candidate for Congress, as Hondurans go to the polls in the first elections since the coup to be contested by the opposition.

She is standing for the new party on the Honduran political scene, the Freedom and Refoundation Party – known by its Spanish acronym, LIBRE – which emerged in 2011 from the ground swell of post-coup popular resistance.

It is the first time in a century that Hondurans face a genuine alternative to the right-wing National Party and centre-right Liberal Party.

Voters will choose the president, 128 congress members, 298 mayors and vice-mayors and their respective councillors and 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament from a total of nine political parties.

In a twist no-one could have imagined four years ago, LIBRE is led by the captivating wife of the deposed Zelaya, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, who has managed to unite a motley crew of feminists and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists, campesino and indigenous groups, teachers and intellectuals, street gangs and youth groups, as well as former Liberals who defected from the party after the coup.

This eclectic mix claims to be unified behind a campaign to re-write the constitution in order to tackle powerful vested interests and make the politically aligned judiciary and congress – who helped orchestrate the military coup against Zelaya – more accountable and democratic.

The LIBRE party wants to tear down the two-party system which it says has served the interests of just ten oligarch families and international investors for too long in Honduras, while 60 percent of the population live in poverty without access to basic health and education services.

‘Chavez-like nightmare’

Their apparent dream of a democratic state in which there is a genuine separation of powers between the government, judiciary and security services, has been interpreted as a Chavez-like nightmare by much of the mainstream national media, neo-liberals across the Americas and her closest contender – according to the polls, at least – National Party candidate, Juan Orlando Hernadez.

Orlando has proven himself as politically adept as president of Congress since 2010, when his party took power in controversial and violent elections. He has centred his campaign around a promise to put “a soldier on every corner”.

While the military is more trusted than the systemically corrupt civil police, which is led by the alleged death squad leader Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, it was involved in the coup against Zelaya and is implicated in an ever-increasing number of human rights abuses. 

But Orlando’s message is a tried and tested vote-winning message in Honduras, a country of eight million blighted by escalating violence since 2005 – as the rising prominence of street gangs, drug cartels, organised criminals, state and private security forces, as well as endemic levels of domestic violence against women, led to the country having a homicide rate among the world’s highest.

Earlier this year the attorney general, just before being unconstitutionally sacked, told Congress that resources only allowed 20 percent of murders to be investigated.

Security tops Honduran voters’ priorities

There is a 97 percent impunity rate in Honduras.

In 2010, the National Party, under the presidency of agricultural landowner Profirio Lobo Sosa, declared Honduras “open for business” and has pushed through controversial laws favouring international investors in tourism, mines, dams and Model Cities at an unprecedented pace.

Canadian, Chinese, European and US companies have benefited.

Community resistance

The communities and institutions which have stood in the way of this breakneck development have paid a high price, often targeted by state and private security forces working with politicians or private businesses, or both.

In the Baja Aguan Valley, where more than 110 campesinos (small farmers) have been killed since 2009, an investigation by the Canadian human rights group Rights Action found the US-trained 15th Battalion operating “death squads” in conjunction with police and the unregulated private security forces of palm oil corporations.

In the capital in the early hours of October 23, the newly formed military police broke down the doors of Edwin Robelo Espinal, a member of the resistance movement since 2009.

His house in Colonia Flor de Campo, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, was ransacked by unidentified officers who were accompanied by a military judge and a public prosecutor, allegedly looking for weapons. Robelo has been organising community protests against the sell-off of a community soccer field used by the local children.

A neighbour told Al Jazeera that Robello went underground after last month’s raid, fearing for his safety. His girlfriend was killed in September 2009 during post-coup protests and Robello was given protective measures by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights after he was tortured by police in 2010.

Rights Action has also documented the murder of at least 18 LIBRE candidates and activists since the election trail began in May last year – more than all other parties combined. At least 67 lawyers and 30 journalists have been killed since 2009, with LGBT and indigenous community activists also targeted for their human rights work.

“It is a matter of urgency that all presidential candidates in Honduras publicly promise to address this dire human rights crisis,” said Nancy Tapias Torrado, Amnesty International’s Honduran researcher.

In December 2012, in what has been described as a second coup, Congress removed four of the five judges from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

These judges had previously ruled that Congressional laws facilitating a “police purge” and the creation of Model Cities were unconstitutional.

They were replaced by judges friendlier to Congress, who may prove very useful for the National Party if election results are contested, Karen Spring of Rights Action told Al Jazeera.

Since the coup, Hondurans have suffered major social, economic and security setbacks.

The murder rate increased by almost 60 percent between 2008 and 2011 – to 91.6 murders per 100,000 people – and, according to InSight Crime, “the coup precipitated the current security crisis as foreign drug trafficking organisations quickly took advantage of the chaos and political instability that followed”.

Modest reductions in poverty and unemployment made under Zelaya were largely reversed and the country’s wealthiest 10 percent enjoyed all real income gains in 2010 and 2011, while extreme poverty rose, according to research by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Spending by Zelaya, who was also criticised as heavy-handed and power-greedy, on public health and education programmes have been cut since his ousting.

Undecided voters

Nevertheless, on the streets of Tegucigalpa at least, there is a lot of support for more security and plenty of undecided voters.

LIBRE’s grassroots organising and diverse appeal is impressive, but their campaign funds and political structures are paltry compared with the traditional parties.

Guillermo Peña Panting, director of a new Honduran liberal think-tank based in San Pedro Sula, believes the country’s one million independents will win it for the National Party.

“Orlando Hernandez has shown himself to be politically strong, whereas LIBRE’s campaign promises change but is highly emotional and based on revenge against the Liberals,” he said.

The international community has called for “fair, just and transparent” elections, and more than 800 international observers are in Honduras on top of the country’s 12,000-strong monitoring team.

Adrienne Pine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University and a current visiting professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras

“These elections will take place in the context of extreme violence in which LIBRE activists, and others who oppose Honduran state violence, have been particularly targeted and persecuted,” she told Al Jazeera. “Orlando Hernandez is even more dedicated to the neo-liberal militarisation project than the current president, and he promises to rule with even more of an iron fist.”

Everyone expects some fraud – there always is – but ordinary people seem most worried about military and police repression on Sunday and thereafter, regardless of who wins. 

“I think we can win, we are so organised in every neighbourhood that it already feels like a win,” said Luna Gevawer.

“But if the Nationalists [win] then we all expect violent repression on the streets – as they control the police, army and the judiciary. It will be bad.”

Follow Nina Lakhani on Twitter: @ninalakhani

Source: Al Jazeera