Honduran teachers’ protests trigger repression, fight-back

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A strike by teachers in the Central American nation of Honduras has led to a confrontation with the right-wing government of President Porfirio Lobo. Soldiers and police seized and jailed 19 teachers and a few others March 24 for demonstrating against educational privatization. Their jail stay may be prolonged. The magistrate in charge of arraignments refuses to inspect police reports, and police officials stormed though judicial offices demanding the prisoners' referral to a court for political cases.

On March 26, the National Front of Popular Resistance (FHRP, for its Spanish initials), which has been fighting for the democratization of Honduran society and politics since the June 2009 right-wing coup d'état, called on March 26 for "freedom for political prisoners."

For two weeks, thousands of teachers had protested in the streets against privatization. Dozens have been wounded and many jailed. A police tear gas cartridge hit a leading activist teacher, Ilse Ivania Velásquez, in the face, killing her. At one point, police swept into the National Autonomous University to block students from joining demonstrators outside. Students resisted. Several were seriously wounded. At various times, police releasing tear gas and wielding clubs attacked teachers gathered in schools.  

On March 25 in Tegucigalpa, students' parents assembled to discuss repression unleashed by soldiers and police on a daily basis. Afterwards they demonstrated in the street, only to be met with police clubs and tear gas. Meanwhile President Porfirio Lobo was delivering to the Army's anti-bomb squad two automobiles fitted out with anti-terrorist gear.  On March 26, teachers and the FNRP organized a motor vehicle caravan of protest through Tegucigalpa streets. A nurses' group announced they too would soon be protesting.

Soldiers captured youths, incarcerating them in the basement of a military office building despite constitutional prohibitions on using homes, and "special installations" to house prisoners. On March 21, police using clubs and tear gas assaulted 13 reporters at a demonstration, pursuing them with tanks and destroying cameras.  One of the reporters credited the police with "establishing attacks on reporters as normal." During 18 months of President Lobo's regime, ten reporters have been murdered.

Also on the eventful March 25, Honduran human rights activists and representatives of an international human rights mission were in Washington, D.C., testifying before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, The latter group of human rights and religious activists, and lawyers, had recently toured Honduras, interviewing human rights defenders and victims.

In Washington, Marcia Aguiluz and other lawyers sought a declaration by the Commission calling for protection of basic rights in Honduras and identifying the government as responsible for violating rights to legal guarantees, free expression, free association, and judicial protection. The lawyers sought support for their demand that four judges dismissed for protesting President Zelaya's forced removal from power be reinstated. The main issues presented to the Commission were criminalization of human rights defenders, lack of judicial independence, and disproportionate use of force against civilians.

The International Mission brought developments in Honduras' Bajo Aguan region before both the full Commission and its specialist on Honduras, Felipe Gonzalez. In Bajo Aguan, agribusiness impresarios are taking over large tracts of land to establish African palm plantations for biofuel production. In a press report issued earlier in March, the Mission condemned the killings of 19 Bajo Aguan peasants since January 2010, along with rampant kidnapping, torture, sexual abuse and beatings; and displacement of small famers and their families.

Coalition of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras leader Bertha Oliva called upon the Commission to take a stand "to preserve the lives of hundreds of Hondurans living under a repressive regime."  She brought up death threats against leaders of the FNRP, denounced persecution of gay people and journalists, and protested army and police violence.  

Honduran human rights advocates were on hand in mid-March in Geneva to provide the United Nations Human Rights Council with follow-up information required through the initial phase of its "Universal Periodic Examination" on Honduras instituted in November, 2010.

The government on March 27 announced "the application of strong sanctions against teachers not returning to classes," including suspensions up to a year without pay. The statement characterized both teachers' groups and organizations associated with the FNRP as "vandals," accusing them of infiltrating state security forces and causing violence.

The FNRP has announced a "Great National Civic Work Stoppage," set for March 30. The object, "in each department, municipality, and village [is] is to paralyze the whole country: highways, public institutions, schools, and colleges."  The notice says, "Pardon the inconvenience. We are fighting to build a new country!"

Image: Photo from earlier human rights struggle in Honduras. Provided by CODAFEH.

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