Dana Frank of The Nation reports on the continuing conflict in Honduras following the 2009 overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya:
In Honduras, it's come to this: when 90 percent of the city's 68,000 public schoolteachers went out on strike in March to protest the privatization of the entire public school system, the government teargassed their demonstrations for almost three solid weeks, then suspended 305 teachers for two to six months as punishment for demonstrating, and then, when negotiations broke down, threatened to suspend another five thousand public schoolteachers. The level of repression in Honduras, after a nationwide wave of attacks on the opposition in March and early April, now exceeds that of the weeks immediately following the June 28, 2009 military coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya, as current President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa wages war on entire swaths of the Honduran population.
Ilse Ivania Velásquez Rodríguez was one of those striking teachers. A 59-year old elementary school teacher and former principal in Tegucigalpa, she rushed to the Presidential Palace to defend Zelaya the morning of the coup. She was one of hundreds of thousands of Hondurans who took to the streets for weeks to protest the new coup government of de facto President Roberto Micheletti --- who Honduras' oligarchs hoped would roll back Zelaya's mild leftward moves and resistance to further neoliberal privatization. Last summer she was one of thousands in the Honduran opposition who circulated petitions --- eventually signed by 1.25 million people, roughly one in three adults --- demanding a Constitutional Convention to re-found the country from below.
"My sister wanted to retire this year," her sister, Zenaida, who lives in San José, California, told me. "But they told her she needed to be on a waiting list," behind two thousand others, because the teachers' government-managed retirement fund was bankrupt --- looted by Micheletti’s post-coup government.
The morning of March 18, 2011, the second day of the strike, Ilse joined other teachers at a demonstration in front of the Tegucigalpa office of their state-run retirement agency, to demand her pension and protest the privatization plan. As police and soldiers stormed down the streets and aimed tear gas at the demonstrators, the teachers, to signal their nonviolence, raised their hands up high. The police started rapidly launching tear gas anyway. At 10:44 a.m., as Ilse tried to run away, one of them deliberately shot a tear gas canister directly in her face at close range. She fell to the ground, unconscious, into an asphyxiating cloud of gas. The driver of a passing television truck, himself affected by the fumes, ran over her right side. She lay face down in a pool of blood seeping out from her body. Three hours later, she died in a hospital.
Teachers like Ilse have been the shock troops of resistance to the coup. During the 1990s and 2000s, teachers deployed regular mass mobilizations to increase their salaries and pensions under legislation that granted them special labor protections at a national level. With the military coup, they were the first to take to the streets. "From the beginning, we felt obliged to defend democracy against a government imposed by force," emphasizes Jaime Rodriguez, president of COPEMH (Colegio de Profesores de Educación Media de Honduras), the Honduran middle-school teachers' association. "That united almost all the teachers, apart from what the government did to the teachers themselves."
By this past March the teachers' grievances had become enormous. Not only was their pension fund gone, but they are also owed six months' back pay. At least twelve teachers in the opposition have been killed or disappeared since the coup. Last August, the government of Pepe Lobo--himself placed in office during Micheletti’s reign, in a fraudulent November 2009 election boycotted by international observers and most of the opposition --- promised to pay them back. But the money is still nowhere to be seen.
On March 31, despite the protests, the Honduran congress approved a law opening the door for privatization of the entire country's public school system. The legislation passes control of education to municipalities, who are free to organize for-profit enterprises or work with nonprofits modeled on a pilot program developed during the presidency of neoliberal Ricardo Maduro (2002-2006). Maduro will now head a new nationwide program in which teachers, instead of being hired through their professional associations, will work on yearly ten-month contracts with no job security, be paid as much as one-third their current salaries (placing them below the minimum wage), and receive no pensions.
The day before the bill passed, the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP, or the National Front of Popular Resistance), in solidarity unleashed a nationwide paro civico or "civic strike" to oppose the law, protest the repression, and demand a new minimum wage, lower prices of food, fuel, and public utilities, and, above all, a constitutional convention to re-found the nation from below. The FNRP unites the broad national coalition that came together right after the coup, embracing the labor, campesino, women's, gay, indigenous, and Afro-indigenous movements.
By this point the Honduran resistance has hardened into a steely wall of defiance. It continues to oppose what it considers the "ongoing coup regime" of Pepe Lobo. It has no official avenues for political input at this point: Congress, chosen in the same bogus election as Lobo, is in the pocket of the oligarchs and ignores popular sentiment; since Lobo dismissed five judges and magistrates who oppose the coup government, the judiciary almost entirely supports it. The judicial system is largely nonfunctional. To this day no one has been prosecuted or convicted for any of the politically-motivated killings of 34 members of the opposition and 10 journalists since Lobo took office, let alone for the over 300 killings by state security forces since the coup, according to COFADEH (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras), the leading independent human rights group.
The FNRP knows if it chooses to run candidates in the 2014 elections--a topic of fierce internal debate--the electoral process will be controlled by the very same military that is occupying the country. Thinking long term, theFrente has spent much of the last year carefully constructing a system of national representation, community by community, building to a national assembly with 1,500 delegates this past February in Tegucigalpa that is laying the foundation for a new constitution, that it hopes to force Lobo and the oligarchs to accept.
Meanwhile, Hondurans in the opposition are using one of the few remaining weapons they have: their own unarmed bodies, placing themselves in the path of the regime, quite literally. In response, the regime is now using lethal force over and over and over again, all over the country, hoping to tear gas its own citizens into submission.