“At my place if I go out, I can be assaulted on the corner right next to my house,” said Maria Luisa Regalado, a political activist with the National Popular Resistance Front, commonly called the Frente. A local non-profit that supports social justice in Latin America, CoDevelopment Canada, brought the Honduran activist to Vancouver. Regalado spoke at El Barrio restaurant last week to spread awareness about government repression and strengthen international solidarity for human rights.
She no longer goes out at night to dance or have coffee with friends. Regalado fears she will be the target of violence because she belongs to the Frente. “Our houses become our prisons. I’ll be out working, going from one office to another or to a meeting and I’ll be wondering what could happen to me in the streets,” she said. “There are women that I have worked with who have been assaulted.”
The group opposes President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo but dissension has high stakes. Intimidation, arbitrary detention, beatings, torture and assassination are well-worn tactics used to silence anti-government activists, according to human rights groups. In the three months since Lobo’s January inauguration, almost 550 politically motivated human rights abuses have been documented by a human rights group, The Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras. From January to May, there have been 12 politically motivated assassinations, 6 journalists executed and two rapes perpetrated to stop these women's political activism.
“We know that the people in the country that have the economic and political power have basically used the constitution as toilet paper,” said Regalado. She said that people’s constitutional rights have been suspended. Political protests are criminalized by government declared curfews.
The Frente is made up of trade unions representing everyone from teachers to banana pickers, indigenous people, women’s rights groups, and human rights groups who are united in a political fight to give Hondurans a greater voice in government policy. They routinely take to the streets to protest against Lobo’s Conservative government, which has back-peddled on land rights for indigenous people, increased the cost of living and reversed mining laws to attract multinational companies.
The Canadian government supports President Lobo since he represents a return to democracy following last June’s military-backed coup. Left-leaning president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by a rival member of his own Liberal party, Roberto Micheletti. Micheletti objected to Zelaya’s deepening alliance with Venezuela’s Socialist President, Hugo Chavez. While still in his pajamas, Zelaya was stripped of the presidency at gunpoint and exiled from his homeland. He was overthrown on June 28, 2009, the day that a national poll on constitutional reform was supposed to take place.
Canada called for democratic elections following the coup in the interests of peace and security. But Honduras’ November 2009 election that brought Lobo to power was controversial. The election was organized by the coup-backed government.
Carlos H. Reyes is leader of the Frente. He ran as an independent presidential candidate but withdrew from the race. He called the elections a farce. The EU and the Organization of the American States refused to send election monitoring teams since Zelaya was not reinstated prior to elections, a recommendation of peace talks.
The failure to return Zelaya to power prior to elections was seen by regional leaders from Brazil and Argentina as legitimizing the coup. They argued that Honduras’ coup set a dangerous precedent that presidents can be removed from power by force and simply replaced. The Frente agreed that Zelaya should have been reinstated and was formed in protest to the coup.
The day before Lobo’s January 27 presidential inauguration, an amnesty law was ushered in by the Honduran government. The military was cleared of wrong-doing in ousting Zelaya. All perpetrators of political violence during the coup escaped investigation and jail time for human rights abuses. High ranking army officers accused of participating in the coup now hold key public office positions in Lobo’s government.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs has made Honduras a foreign policy priority, identifying democracy, human rights, and respect for the law as central to its Americas strategy.
“Canada is normalizing relations with the Lobo administration, and is urging Honduran authorities to take steps to protect human rights and uphold the rule of law,” said Dana Cryderman, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, in an email.
Lobo has strengthened support from the Canadian government by holding a Truth Commission to investigate the events leading up to Honduras’ coup and the surge in human rights abuses that followed. In the first 100 days of the coup, a local human rights group documented over 4,200 human rights abuses.
While the Frente is planning to mark the June 28 anniversary of the coup with political protests, Canada’s Minister of State for the Americas, Peter Kent, will be justifying Canada’s response to the coup before a parliamentary committee.
Kent said the Truth Commission would help Hondurans regain trust in democratic institutions and create dialogue between members of the Frente, the military and coup leaders that were opposed during the self-appointed government. The Canadian International Development Agency is spending $250,000 so that former Canadian Diplomat, Michael Kergin, can act as a commissioner in the proceedings.
But Honduras is holding the Truth Commission at the same time that a new onslaught of human rights abuses are being committed.The international community needs to demand that the government of Honduras respect human rights, said Regalado.
“They are still killing members of the resistance, they are still killing rural people that are trying to get their land back, there is still a repression of freedom of speech and there are still countries that are recognizing Lobo’s government,” she said.
Cryderman said that Foreign Affairs is encouraged that Lobo had appointed an Advisor Minister on Human Rights and that Honduran authorities are open to visits by international human rights groups. She noted that there is still work to be done to strengthen human rights in Honduras.