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between a bank and a burger king: election farce in honduras

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Luis Aguilar, a student at UNAH, sends a message to Obama that made it to CNN Espagnol, outside the Brazilian Embassy, Tegucigalpa, Nov 25 2009
Luis Aguilar, a student at UNAH, sends a message to Obama that made it to CNN Espagnol, outside the Brazilian Embassy, Tegucigalpa, Nov 25 2009

As I sit facing a wall of blue-uniformed TSA officers wearing ominous blue latex gloves, I can’t help wondering if it was a coincidence that the most militarized departure gate at Miami International Airport was the one shipping people to the most militarized elections in Central America.

Perhaps most striking about the five-hour delay that held me in Miami on my way to Tegucigalpa was the extent to which Hondurans going home were not fazed by the police dogs, machine guns and full-body searches that punctuated our wait.  What seems so intimidating to the handful of international visitors on our flight is old hat for people who have been living under an oppressive military coup for over four months. 

But despite their desensitization to dramatic demonstrations of coercive force, the Hondurans I am flying with are by no means at peace.  “Tegucigalpa is not very safe right now and I worry for my family,” said a young man waiting with me.  “We need all of this to end.”  And it did not appear to him or his friend that the elections were going to be the end of anything.  According to the second man, “the international presence is so important, because (the coup regime) will do anything if they can get away with it.”  Both individuals asked to remain anonymous and expressed uncertainty about their own approach to the election; they were flying home for the specific purpose of participating in their democratic process, but doubted the legitimacy of any election held under the auspices of the coup.

Indeed, now that I have arrived in Tegucigalpa and begun speaking to people here, I’m struck by how complicated their experiences of the coup and their approaches to the elections truly are.  The organized resistance has called for a boycott of the elections, but people in Honduras are aware that they could face serious, perhaps even violent, consequences if they do not vote.  Some workplaces will punish employees that do not vote; other people fear that they will be subject to police violence if they do not have a finger dipped in ink on election day. 

Despite that fear, there seems to be little doubt in the minds of people here that whenever the state is shutting down the press, there is something they are trying to hide.  The people I spoke to in the airport were deeply troubled by the consistent and continued repression of free speech, as exhibited most dramatically by the regime’s shutting-down of Radio Globo and Canal 36.  I asked another passenger, a member of the National Democratic Institution (NDI) election-observation team heading down from Washington, what he thought of the prospects for free and fair elections in a climate of repression and fear. 

“I haven’t actually heard about the media being shut down,” said Phil Robbins of the NDI.  “Truthfully, there has been very little preliminary work done.”  Normally, explains Robbins, election-observers would spend many weeks on the ground before an election, ensuring that all candidates are being given appropriate opportunities for campaigning and that people are not being intimidated into, or out of, supporting a particular slate of candidates.  But this has not happened – Mr. Robbins was arriving in Honduras for the first time, reading up on Honduran culture in his Lonely Planet guide while we waited for our flight.

NDI is one of the only two organizations that have agreed to monitor the elections – both have affiliations with the two primary political parties in the US.  The second, the International Republican Institution (IRI), has already earned a worrisome reputation for its legitimation – and perhaps participation - in the coup that overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti and for its immediate acceptance and recognition of the leaders of a failed coup in Venezuela in 2002.  The Carter Center and other international groups have refused to be involved in a process that ultimately legitimates the coup itself, by legitimating its successor.  NDI, affiliated with the Democratic Party in the United States, has sometimes distanced itself from IRI, but they will be working together to give the ‘ok’ to elections under Micheletti’s regime.  When pressed about the political climate in Honduras, Robbins simply said that he “would have to see things for himself before coming to any conclusions.”

Fair enough – but is three and a half days enough time to gain any meaningful picture of what is happening here?  For the people who have been on the ground for many months, risking their lives reporting on the coup since June 28th, there is very little question that the process cannot be free or fair.  The withdrawal of many dozens of candidates from the elections in protest should be further indication that this cannot possibly live up to the standards of even the flawed and problematic democracies that exist elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.    

Outside the Brazilian Embassy where Manual Zelaya is penned in, people gathered in vigil, wedged between a Burger King parking lot and a wrought-iron fence, surrounded by military and police that could barely be differentiated from one another.  The city is, for all intents and purposes, under martial law.  And if the graffiti that screams out from almost every wall – with the notable exception of the banks and fast food chains - is any indication, the confrontation is far from over in Honduras.

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