Political Report # 1298
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman. Tensions are rising in Honduras where the electoral court still hasn't released the full results from Sunday's presidential election. The U.S.-backed president, Juan Orlando Hernández, was widely expected to win Sunday's presidential race despite growing concerns about his consolidation of power and his militarization of the country.
But in an apparent upset, partial election results released on Monday showed his main challenger, Salvador Nasralla, leading Hernández by five points. Nasralla is the head of a newly formed coalition of center and left political parties called the Alliance Against the Dictatorship. The Alliance includes the leftist party of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup in 2009. This is Salvador Nasralla speaking Tuesday.
SALVADOR NASRALLA: Even though we have a five-point advantage, they can still try to steal the election from us. I'm asking the Supreme Election Tribunal, which right now is not supreme, because it obeys the orders of its boss, the president-fulfill your responsibility and release today a partial verdict about the election results.
AMY GOODMAN: Many of Nasralla's supporters are concerned the electoral court may now be trying to rig the vote in Hernández's favor. This is Guillermo Valle, the head of the Innovation and Unity Party, which is part of the coalition that makes up the Alliance Against the Dictatorship, also speaking Tuesday.
GUILLERMO VALLE: We have sent out an urgent alert. For us, it is critical. It's very serious, this situation where the conspiratorial traitors of the government are practically carrying out a coup d'état.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday the electoral court released new partial results showing the gap between Nasralla and Fernández has narrowed, with Nasralla now leading by only two percentage points. For more, we're joined by Suyapa Portillo, assistant professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Pitzer College, who has just returned from Honduras where she was an election observer. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Portillo. Can you talk about what is happening in Honduras right now?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: Thanks for having me, Amy. What's happening in Honduras right now is a lot of uncertainty. People are concerned and worried that maybe the election results will be stolen from them. Word on the ground right now is that only the Nationalist Party votes are being counted. That's why you see the rise for the Nationalist Party on those polls. And it's actually-a lot of-about 73 percent of the ballot boxes have been reported as of now. It's really awkward and weird, actually illegal-, that the electoral court is not being more transparent and releasing results. You have the U.N. and the U.S. Embassy asking them-and the Organization of American States-asking them to release the results and be more transparent with the population.
It's really awkward to not have results right after or even the day after. But the electoral court cannot release results without the permission of the president. As you recall, the president controls the Supreme Court, the electoral court, and just about every branch of government. So people are a little antsy, a little nervous. There's also another word on the ground, and I think Reuters reported on this yesterday, that potentially he's negotiating a way out. You know he is under investigation, and so is his brother, for narco trafficking in the international world, and in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: You're talking about President Hernández?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: So it could be that he's-yeah. It could be that he's actually negotiating his way out.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about whether this is a surprise. Did you expect Nasralla, the opposition candidate, to actually win?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: I think everybody was hopeful. I have never seen so many people at the polls as I did this year. I've served as electoral observer before. I have never seen so much enthusiasm. People came out to vote in the morning, and then came back for the count. The polls were closed at 4:00 p.m., one hour earlier this year, which is also an anomaly. Usually they extend it an extra hour for people that work. And you know, on Saturdays. And so it was really exciting to see people come back to the polling stations to witness the count.
I went to about 13 different voting centers throughout the day and then came back to them to get a tally of what the count was for the different candidates, and people were really lining up outside the classrooms-the elections take place in public schools-and just counting and demanding that the the table and the counters turn the ballots to show them who the election-who the the official was.
And so this was really exciting to see. People were really vigilant. They don't want this election to be stolen from them. They came out in a really strong show of support. Voting to them was really important. If you go to my Twitter feed, you could see some of the people talking about what it was like and why they couldn't vote and how they worry about these issues. As much as possible, I tried to report immediately on this.
And also some inconsistencies. For example, some people would show up and they had already voted. But they hadn't voted, right? So someone else voted for them. There were other inconsistencies where people's information appeared, but their picture was wrong and so they couldn't vote. And these things kept happening throughout the day, and people were passionate about exercising their right to vote.
And I traveled with Pitzer College students who were really blown away by the level of civic participation. And like I said, people coming back to the count. We left the polls around 1:00 in the morning, and people were still counting, and people were still guarding those tally sheets that were going to be sent to Tegucigalpa, and trying to write down the numbers, so that when they get posted in the electoral court's website, they could actually check those numbers and check for fraud. So this was a really engaged populace, at least in San Pedro Sula, where I was, in the southwest part of the city.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Portillo, can you tell us who Salvador Nasralla is?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: Salvador Nasralla is a sportscaster in Honduras. He after the coup d'état in 2009-the coup d'état broke bipartisanship. Before 2009, the elections were really fought between the Nationalist Party and the Liberal Party. After the coup against Manuel Zelaya Rosales, about ten parties were formed. One of them was Salvador Nasralla's party against corruption. And this party did really well.
The issue with this party is that it's an urban party, so it does really well in the cities like Tegucigalpa, where people watch his show-San Pedro Sula, and La Ceiba. But in the rural areas, he has not very much reach. So the strategy of the Labor Party under Manuel Zelaya Rosales-to bring together these parties that are outliers but do garner votes in the city was actually quite brilliant in the sense that you were able to see a combination of a sort of rural and urban vote in this situation.
And I think also the Labor Party learned a lot from 2013-from the mistakes made-how to really sort of get out in front of this, and they did effective campaigning in some of the most populated regions. Like I said, I visited about 13 polling stations-sorry, voting centers-in the most marginalized areas. Areas that middle class people wouldn't even think-going to neighborhoods like la Rivera Hernández, or Cabañas, controlled by MS-13 or 18th Street gang.
But people came out. Despite the heavy militarization, people came out in droves, and were not afraid to vote this time. They knew that in 2013, at least what people told us is they knew that that election was stolen, and they weren't going to let this happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the militarization of Honduras, with Salvador Nasralla saying on Tuesday he would review the benefit of having U.S. troops stationed in Honduras if he's elected. The U.S. government supporting the president, Juan Orlando Hernández.
SUYAPA PORTILLO: The militarization was really excessive. I wasn't in Tegucigalpa, but I saw a lot of reports of the exits and the entries to the city were militarized and blocked right after the closing of the elections. There was only one open entrance and exit to Tegucigalpa. In San Pedro Sula, what we saw actually, and we were able to document, were military police, anti-riot police. We saw national police, and we saw also people not in police uniform wearing ski masks carrying high-caliber weapons.
Like I mentioned, I took Pitzer students there with me, and they were actually quite shocked to see the level of militarization and the high-the weapons that people were carrying around voting centers. Also, it's illegal to have this level of militarization and in a voting center. It could be seen as intimidation. And Honduras has lived through many military dictatorships-from 1963 to 1980, for example-where they weren't able to exercise suffrage freely of the military until the 1980s. So this really was in poor taste. It was intimidating to some voters. Some people chose to stay home.
But for the most part, I think the working classes, the poor people really struggling under this neoliberal regime, really came out despite the militarization. And like I said, people were there until 1:00, 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. These are dangerous hours to be out in some of these neighborhoods. But they really, really wanted to guard the vote, despite the heavy militarization.
In one of the centers where we were in Cabañas, the school was Presentación Centeno, two Nationalist Party members started fighting over tally sheets. Because we were guarding the tally sheets being scanned into the TSC's app. They have an app. So the scanners are connected to a tablet that has an app and these tally sheets are uploaded so they can get results quite fast. But also the hard copy was going to be guarded and taken by military guard to the capital, in case there needs to be a recount.
And we saw people fighting for the tally sheets, even in one party-the Nationalist Party members for the congress-representing different congresspeople. And you see them fighting out there, and all of a sudden we had just a drove of anti-riot police run into the center, which is really scary because they have tear gas, weaponry. They are instructed to shoot and kill during election period. At least that's the story that most Hondurans remember from the military period. That you don't want to mess with these military people during the election period.
And so we saw those kinds of struggles happening in the voting centers at the end. The count was extremely passionate, and the police was reacting as if the populace could not be trusted. And I think that's one of the messages from Juan Orlando, and why people wanted to get him out, why they voted to get him out-because he treated the Honduran people as if they could not be trusted to have a peaceful vote and to exercise suffrage and be passionate but not necessarily violent. So people were almost despondent about the military being present as if they could not be trusted.
AMY GOODMAN: And how typical is it for men in ski masks, their faces covered, to be in the streets, Professor Portillo?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: Unfortunately, in San Pedro Sula, this is quite typical in these working class neighborhoods. Lots of times, policemen do that, or military police do that, so that gang members won't recognize them and go after their families. This is the story that people say. But it's quite intimidating to see that. Like I said, for my students it was really shocking for them to see it and to live it. And so unfortunately in these working class neighborhoods, it's very common. This is how they fight against gang members or narco traffickers, or so they say. But it's quite intimidating.
Also, they're not wearing their uniform. They're wearing black gear. So people know who they are because they've seen them in the neighborhood in a lot of different operations. But again, for the everyday person, it's just a heavy militarization situation for everyday life.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Portillo, can you talk about who the current president is who ran in this election, Juan Orlando Hernández? Talk about his rise to power. And you can go back to the ousting of Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup, and then the running of his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, and what exactly Juan Orlando Hernández did when he became president.
SUYAPA PORTILLO: So, Juan Orlando Hernández really rises to power after the coup d'état. This is the opportunity for the Nationalist Party, which had been sort of out of power for a while, to rise into power. He became the president of congress and eventually really worked-was escalated or elevated to run for the presidency, when Xiomara Zelaya's candidacy rose.
This is a president that-this is a presidential candidate who had an extreme amount of money running. He had TV spots. He had all kinds of support from the United States and other sort of right-wing nations and right-wing presidents and right-wing groups. And later we find out-so he wins in what are considered fraudulent results and election results in 2013. And what we end up seeing after the elections is that the money that he used to run possibly for office was actually stolen from the Social Security Administration, the public service.
You saw just terrible conditions in the public hospitals, and $90 billion were stolen from the people to possibly run-by the Nationalist Party to run his election and for it to be so successful. At the same time, the first thing he did in 2014 was to create the military police, a police unit that didn't exist since probably the military period of the '80s and the Cold War. These kinds of policemen are linked to egregious human rights violations, abuses of power. It's basically allowing military to be near civilian areas, as we saw in the elections this Sunday, with high caliber weapons.
He granted over 300 mining concessions, which is one of the reasons why Berta Cáceres was killed, because of the concessions granted to build hydroelectric plants and mining concessions to not only international corporations, but his friends and his family members.
Everybody in the branches of office that matter are members of his family. This is what we call an oligarchy in Latin America. Kind of like what Trump is doing here in the United States, where his entire family is assigned to important posts in Washington. The same thing with Juan Orlando Hernández.
He imposed all kinds of iron rule over people. He wasn't supposed to be reelected. If you remember, that's why Manuel Zelaya Rosales was ousted, because according to the right wing, he was trying to get reelected to stay in power. His connections to Hugo Chávez were questioned. Well that's exactly what Juan Orlando Hernández did.
But the reason he could do it is because he appointed the Supreme Court that granted him that permission. He appointed everybody in the electoral court. He controls just about everything. So this is effectively a dictatorship according to people on the ground in Honduras. They feel that he has abused power so extremely that they came out to vote against him. So this was a really powerful vote-yes, for the Alliance [inaudible] but also against Juan Orlando Hernández.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of Berta Cáceres. In 2015, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's leading environmental award. In accepting the award, she described how she helped organize Indigenous communities in Honduras to resist that hydro dam you spoke of, because it could destroy their water supply.
BERTA CÁCERAS: Let us wake up. Let us wake up humankind. We are out of time. We must shake our conscious free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our mother earth, militarized, fenced in, poisoned.
A place where basic rights are systematically violated demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to co-exist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this earth and of its spirits.
I dedicate this award to all the rebels out there. To my mother, to the Lenca people, to Rio Blanco and to the martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Berta Cáceres talking about the martyrs who gave their lives. Berta Cáceres who was herself assassinated in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, in March 2016. Now shocking new revelations have been released that link the assassination of the renowned indigenous environmental leader to the highest levels of the company whose hydroelectric dam project she and her indigenous Lenca community were protesting.
So, Professor Portillo, can you talk about how the assassination of Berta Cáceres fits into this story of perhaps this Honduran election upset that is taking place right now?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: Definitely. I think Berta Cáceres was a beloved leader in Honduras. She ran for vice president in 2006 actually against Zelaya's party. She really had an international reach, as we were able to see after her murder the level of response from the international community, and the consistent accompaniment of her family.
Over 32 members of her family are under threat of death constantly. They have cautionary measures from the Inter-American Court because of the level of abuse that they're experiencing on a daily basis. One of her daughters, Bertita Zúniga Cáceres, has taken over COPINH, so constantly in the public eye.
This international reaction on Berta Cáceres I think really backfired for Juan Orlando Hernández. They thought that they could just kill a leader and everything would be silenced. They didn't realize who Berta Cáceres was, and the legacy-and her work-her consistent work in the international community for indigenous and Afro-descendent groups. When the nation doesn't pay attention to them, they must go to the international community to seek justice, and have the international community press the government. And I think that's exactly what happened with her murder.
Also, DESA corporation, which is linked to her murder and the direct cause of her murder-they actually paid security guards and former military men to assassinate her-they were given a concession by the president. They're family members of the president, related to the president. And of course the investigation is stalled, because again, the president's family would be under scrutiny at this point, and his own concessions as well as potentially military police or some sort of secret police that is covering up what happened to Berta Cáceres. I don't think he expect...
AMY GOODMAN: And I just wanted to add for our viewers and listeners and readers-they may remember we spoke to The New York Times reporter Elisabeth Malkin who has read a new report by a team of five international lawyers who found evidence that the plot to kill Cáceres, as you were saying, went up to the top of the Honduran energy company behind the dam, Desarrollos Energéticos, known as DESA.
The lawyers selected by Cáceres' daughter, Berta Zúniga, are independent of the Hondurans government's ongoing official investigation, examining some 40,000 pages of text messages. The investigation also revealing DESA exercised control over security forces in the area, issuing directives and paying for police units' room, board and equipment.
And so in the whole region from Tegucigalpa on out, how did this assassination play into what we're seeing today? Do you think Berta Cáceres from her grave played a key role?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: I hope so. I hope that Berta Cáceres played a key role. But also remember that there's many other Lenca leaders that have also perished, and Afro-descendant, Garifuna leaders who have also perished. So I hope that they are doing that from their grave.
Again, I want to say the local indigenous people continue to organize. Afro-descendant communities continue to organize and pressure the government in her memory, in her-all Hondurans were outraged by not only the murder of Berta Cáceres, but what they said about it. So the initial report was that it was a crime of passion. That this was what it was. And that her ex-lover killed her. I mean, really sort of mutilating her.
And I think that was really angering to people to hear a government make these excuses. Again, like I said, they really thought, "We're going to kill this one indigenous person and be done with it." They didn't realize how they were going to affect not only the international community but also the national community, and how indigenous people were going to respond and fight even more fiercely for justice for her.
So many people are outraged about Berta, but also outraged about every single murder. Over 200 LGBT people-really, we have over 2,000 murders if you count LGBT folks, feminicide victims. If you count journalists, attorneys. The level of human rights defenders-abuses towards human rights defenders and murders of human rights defenders-campesinos-one of the largest figures of murders against campesinos and farmworkers. It's outstanding.
And there is no prosecution. There's total impunity. Nobody is brought to justice. Not even-even in the case of Berta Cáceres, it has been two years and nobody has been convicted of this yet, and it has been impossible to work against-to really get them on it. Because the proof is there, and everybody in Honduras knows that they did it. But it has been really hard to get them because they control the courts. They control the police.
And so a lot of evidence has been destroyed, for instance, at the scene of the crime. Really incompetent police. Her daughters always mention in their interviews how the police would come in and step over blood and things that could have-blood and and other ballistic evidence that could have been evidence, that would have brought these people to justice now. So total impunity.
This is ungovernability. This is not an effective government that is respected by the people. In fact, one of the local radio stations in the North Coast, Radio Progreso, has an institute of reflection and action, and they conducted a survey not too long ago, and they discovered that 71 percent of the population does not trust the government or any entity in the government. That is not an effective ruler and leader. And I think Juan Orlando Hernández needs to concede that he lost this race fair and square.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Portillo, what role did the United States play?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: The United States has a complicated role in this, as most of you, and as you have reported yourself. Hillary Clinton has boasted in her own book about making quote unquote "hard choices" in Honduras, of actually allowing the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya.
In fact, many scholars, myself and others, spent about a year trying to convince the U.S. media that this was effectively a coup d'état. The Obama administration did not want to call it a coup d'état until 2011, the WikiLeak reports actually revealed that effectively this was a coup d'état and the U.S. Embassy was aware of this. We spent much time doing that because this was effectively one of the first coup d'états in the 21st century. It was a step backward for Honduras, a country that has been under U.S. control for a very long time-over 100 years.
In my own work, I document the reach of the United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company in the first half of the 20th century. It wasn't just in Guatemala that the United Fruit Company was controlling politics and exercising coups. They were also doing so in Honduras, and really stomping on workers' rights and national rights.
They could dominate over presidents and weigh in on elections. This is a corporation, weighing in on sort of national politics in Central America, but particularly a strong reach in Honduras. In fact, the United States also had an embassy and two consultants in the North Coast. That's how much presence you had of the U.S. State Department in this very small country of less than seven million people.
As we see, the military dictatorships from 1963 to 1980 actually helped the United States. They could work with these dictators. They were yes men. They would do everything that the U.S. would say, and particularly in the 1980s when you had the contra revolutionaries fighting against Nicaragua and El Salvador armed for-and being trained in Honduras. So just to give your listeners-this is a long history of reach in the country and oppression of the country and national politics.
But the Obama administration's refusal to call it a coup d'état was damning and really difficult for the Honduran people. It has led to thousands of deaths. It has led to thousands of children at the border. 2011 was one of the most violent years in Honduras. Murder rates going up to 90 per 100,000. You had over 90,000 children at the border, trying to leave the country. Many more people on their way up to Mexico.
There is no jobs. There's joblessness. The coffers of government were totally destroyed by the coup d'état. They used basically all the people's money from contributions and taxes and everything. They used all that money to basically tear gas their own citizens, to kill their own citizens, to put them in jail for protesting and exercising their right to protest and to want a democracy and to have their president reinstated. They weren't asking for very random things.
So the Obama administration has this very dark past in Honduras and particularly Hillary Clinton. In fact, when she was asked in 2014, and she was running for office, what to do about the children at the border, she said "Deport them." This is why the Central American community withheld from voting for Hillary Clinton, because they knew that these were their kids. These were their people at the border.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Portillo, I wanted to ask just as we wrap up, on the issue of President Juan Orlando Hernández, what is the U.S. role in supporting him? And what are U.S. troops doing there now?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: So the Alliance for Progress is this plan that's supposed to address the immigration situation in the home country. It's supposed to be money used for education, for controlling the gang problem and violence issues. And that money has basically been granted during the Obama administration but continues to be granted now. It's basically being used to militarize the country, not to improve education.
In fact, some of the schools that we were at during the elections were in really poor state and really-I can't believe children go to school in such conditions in some of the poorest neighborhoods. So the money was used for that. And so the troops are there to keep the peace, they say. To make sure that the violence in the country is under control. But we know that that's not the real reason why the troops are there.
AMY GOODMAN: How many troops are there?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: We know that under right-wing governments is when the U.S. can actually exercise its reach in the region. Honduras is in a geopolitically important place to oversee, for example, nearby Nicaragua or Venezuela, which is really in the eye of the United States. So it's almost unfortunate that the Honduran geopolitical location has created room for this, and also that we have a president that has basically sold not only his soul but the entire country to capitalist and U.S. State Department. So, we're quite concerned about...
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Portillo, how many U.S. troops are there?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: I'm not quite sure how many U.S. troops, but you know that Soto Cano Air Base has permanent U.S. troops since the 1980s there. And I think there was one deployment, I believe from Arkansas, a couple of months ago, of troops. I'm not clear how it's happening there.
But the other thing, Amy, is also that these are the troops we know about. We also understand that there are DEA agents and covert operations supposedly to control the drug traffic. And in 2011, DEA agents actually shot and killed two pregnant women in the Mosquito Coast region. So we know that there's-again, they haven't been brought to justice. Not in the U.S. or in Honduras. So these people's lives are still unsettled from that. And really, DEA agents are exercising covert operations.
We also have sort of connections between military. Remember, a lot of these military members were trained at the School of the Americas. So they're actually connected to military men in the United States. So there's three levels of engagement here from the United States. On the one hand the diplomatic engagement that Hillary Clinton boasts about in her book. You know, these "hard choices" she had to make. There's also the military connection between Southern Command School of the Americas and the military men such as Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, who executed the coup.
And then there's this sort of immigration prevention sort of Alliance for Progress against violence program. And so there's these economic sort of congressional money going in there. So it's quite complex, and the reach of the United States has been that complex for over a hundred years in Honduras. And it's now just being revealed, because the resistance groups and the sort of egregious violence against human rights defenders such as Berta Cáceres have sort of cracked open this window into Honduras.
AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to John Kelly, who is the former head of SouthCom, Southern Command-that was under President Obama-and then he becomes the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, dealing with the border. And now of course he's in the inner circle of President Trump. He's his chief of staff. Can you talk about John Kelly's history specifically in Honduras? Interesting that as President Trump pushes the building of the wall, still the U.S. military presence expands way south of that.
SUYAPA PORTILLO: I think that Honduras-and many Hondurans will say this as well-has been sort of the backyard of the United States. A place where people-a place where they can actually have, like I said, covert operations on the rest of the region. Where they can actually train military that will go commit incredible heinous human rights violations.
This is their-they feel like this is their land in some ways. That Hondurans don't have rights to this land. That the reason there aren't any movements that have developed in Honduras has been because of the strong reach. And again, the collaboration between generals in Honduras and the United States dates back to the 1950s. So the reach of these kinds of operations go way back to-even the invasion of Guatemala in 1954 that led to the coup d'état there actually came in from Honduras.
So Southern Command reach in Honduras-it's almost unquestionable that they're going to have access. And as you saw in the WikiLeaks reports in 2011, even the State Department was incredibly informed about what's going on in Honduras. So we just don't know, Amy, the reach and the covert operations that are happening there in the name of the drone war. So I think that those are things that will be emerging over time as we learn from people on the ground who are experiencing these issues. And now that Honduras is on the international stage, hopefully these relationships will be revealed.
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