Sarah Blaskey and Jesse Chapman
"What we want is to defend our rights and that they be respected. And the only way that our rights will be respected is to perform our duty, and our duty is to be here [protesting]," said one young man, eyes still streaming from the clouds of teargas that engulfed his school.
Jose (name changed for security purposes) is a student of the Autonomous University in Tegucigalpa. He and a few thousand of his fellow students were tear-gassed and beaten November 26, 2013, when they peacefully demonstrated, alleging fraud in the
presidential election that took place two days earlier in Honduras.
Most of the protesters supported the newly formed, left-leaning Party of Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) in the elections. They say their presidential candidate, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of deposed president Manuel "Mel" Zelaya, was the true winner. Their assertions of fraud are based on exit polls and numbers that were called in by table observers at all of the voting centers that projected Castro would win by a margin of up to 5 percent.
However, with 68 percent of the total votes counted at this point, the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), charged with overseeing the elections, declared an irreversible lead for the hyper-conservative Nationalist Party, which currently runs the country.
Students began what they say will be a series of protests against the fraudulent election results. Their protests took place in defiance of the cautionary words that Zelaya used at the LIBRE press conference Monday when he said that LIBRE supporters should take the streets only "if it is necessary."
The demonstration began outside of the university around noon, when several hundred students blocked the streets. Not long after it began, national police in riot gear arrived and forcefully pushed the students back inside the campus, using military-grade tear gas and giant batons made out of long thick pieces of hardwood. Students began throwing rocks in defense.
Human-rights observer Franklin David Dercir said that the violence was started by the police.
"We asked [the police] to let the students express themselves freely. But before we knew it, they came from the front and from behind," Dercir said. "They surrounded us and started throwing teargas bombs. The boys obviously had to defend themselves."
Once the students were pushed inside the university gates, the police continued to assault them with tear gas and weapons. Many minor injuries were reported, and one young man was sent to the hospital with a broken leg. A dozen protesters were taken to jail after the violence subsided.
This violent repression of political protest came as no surprise to the protesters. The police force is corrupt and completely under the command of the ruling oligarchy, 12 families with absolute power in Honduras.
Lorena Espinal, a student protester said, "[The police] don’t go to the neighborhoods where the real delinquency is. Here in the university, where we have the knowledge, they come here and attack us. They don’t mess with the delinquents, because they protect the delinquents of power - the oligarchy that has dominated us."
The election took place in an atmosphere of intimidation and militarization. The TSE controlled 14,000 troops and sent them to monitor the polling stations and transport the ballots. Many more troops were deployed throughout the country for potential riot control. These troops are some of the same forces that carried out the military coup against Zelaya in 2009.
Many of the generals that orchestrated the coup, including the leader Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, were trained at the School of the Americas. The US military also has had a role in training the Honduran military and police force and is responsible for massive arms exports to Honduras. In 2012, the United States exported $1 billion of arms to Honduras, although the specifics of what was exported are still unknown.
During the protests at the Autonomous University, we saw firsthand the use to which these military exports are put. The tear gas that was used against nonviolently protesting students defending their right to democracy was manufactured in the United States.
Contrary to popular narrative, the military exports the United States sends to Honduras are not being used solely against drug traffickers and cartels. They are being used widely to repress Honduran citizens all across the country. From Bajo Aguan, where campesinos are driven off their land to make room for corporate African palm plantations, to Rio Blanco, where the Lenca people are struggling to protect one of their sources of water against a dam that is being installed, the Honduran military and police use their weapons and training to clear the way for the ruling elite’s interests.
The United States is not just complicit in the violent repression of Hondurans. It formally has endorsed an illegitimate coup-government, until now, run by the National Party’s Porfirio Lobo. Now, the United States is on track to endorse the current elections wrought with fraud and intimidation.
According to the US State Department’s press release on the elections:
"Honduran and international observers, including those from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, reported that the process was generally transparent, with strong voter turnout and broad participation by political parties. … The United States supports the democratic process and remains committed to continuing our cooperation with the Government and people of Honduras."
Even the Carter Center, which has a good track record in truthful analysis of election processes, essentially has claimed that the elections took place under normal circumstances.
These "mainstream" narratives are in stark contrast to many others that are getting less attention. Reports range from murder to kidnapping to simple intimidation and ballot fraud.
On Tuesday morning, a press conference was held at the office of COFADEH, Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras, where many delegations of election observers presented their findings. All expressed deep concern over the electoral process and the results.
Azadeh Shahshahani, president of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) said, "We have serious concerns and questions regarding the validity of TSE preliminary election results. We are deeply concerned about the United States government’s characterization of the electoral process as transparent. The US government should refrain from assessing the validity of the elections at this early stage but should insist on the protection of Honduran civil society."
The NLG press release went on to document many irregularities witnessed by their 17-member election observing team. The report states:
"Additional irregularities were observed throughout the country, including allegations that smaller parties’ credentials were sold to National Party supporters for a seat at the voting tables (a TSE official has verified this). This threatens the integrity of the election process as individuals staffing the voting tables were in charge of counting ballots at the end of the day. There were also reports of the distribution of gratuities to National Party supporters. The NLG also documented inconsistencies with voter rolls and vote tabulations."
All of the groups present at the press conference denounced the elections as fraudulent. Observers documented many irregularities ranging from already-marked ballots, to dead people whose names were on the lists to vote. Others documented cases of intimidation, ranging from frequent pat-downs at the doors of voting centers, to whole delegations of LIBRE Party table observers detained by paramilitary forces.
The groups also expressed concern over the worsening of human rights violations under the rule of the National Party.
Marta Flores, a speaker at the press conference, concluded, "Here a military dictatorship is continuing to deepen. Here the population is being criminalized. We cannot stop denouncing this and we publicly ask that this continue to be denounced."