Injustice in Honduras: The U.S. government must help reinstall the rightful president

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I just returned from a trip to Honduras where I was part of a delegation of seven U.S. citizens concerned about the coup in Honduras and its aftermath. In Honduras we met with numerous civic groups, including unions, human-rights organizations and peasant associations.

As the press has reported, ousted President Manual Zelaya, who was kidnapped from his home and forced into exile, has great support among the poor, the unions and the indigenous groups of Honduras -- the most under-represented and repressed portions of society.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, over 65 percent of the population of Honduras falls below the poverty level, on average making $750 a year or less. This means Mr. Zelaya has broad support in his country. Indeed, a Gallup poll taken in recent days shows that Mr. Zelaya has much broader support than the interim president installed by the coup.

Mr. Zelaya was engaged in a process of democratization and social change when he was removed from office by the military. Once a rich rancher, Mr. Zelaya was elected as a candidate from the Liberal Party, which, despite its name, is a conservative-right party aligned with the elites.

At first, Mr. Zelaya turned to the oligarchs to ask for help in making modest policy changes, but they were not interested. So he turned to the groups who were willing to lend a hand -- the unions, human rights groups, indigenous groups and peasant associations. He began to consult them on the issues affecting the working and poor people of Honduras, and he began to make changes to improve their lives -- for example, he raised the minimum wage by 65 percent, provided free school lunches, lowered the price of public transportation and passed legislation to protect forests from logging.

Mr. Zelaya also began to address long-standing human-rights issues, such as the problem of those "disappeared" by the military regime of the 1980s. In consultation with a group representing the families of the disappeared, he passed a decree promising government help to find their loved ones.

While in Honduras, our delegation spent a lot of time with Bertha Olivia, the founder of the group, which she formed after her husband disappeared in 1981. Ms. Olivia had asked her priest for help, but he refused, telling Bertha that, as a Christian, she should just resign herself to her loss.

That priest is now the nation's cardinal and he still sides with the elites, supporting those who conducted the coup. But the cardinal finds himself in opposition to much of the rank and file of the Catholic Church, who are demanding the return of Mr. Zelaya to the presidency. These include the Dominican, Claretian, Jesuit and Maryknoll orders. The Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist churches of Honduras also are calling for Mr. Zelaya's return.

Ms. Olivia now fears that if the coup is not overturned, Honduras will return to a period when disappearances and arbitrary arrests of those willing to speak out against injustice were commonplace. Her fears are not unwarranted.

The coup government, responding to the nonviolent tactics of anti-coup protesters, has been responsible for the targeted killing of at least four individuals. At least 86 people have been assaulted or beaten by the armed forces and more than 1,000 have been illegally detained. Numerous media outlets have been shut down and journalists have been arrested and detained. One journalist openly opposed to the coup, Gabriel Fino Noriega, was among those murdered.

Close to home here in Pittsburgh is the case of Dr. Luther Castillo, an altruistic doctor who runs a clinic in the poor community of Ciriboya and who is assisted in this project by Pittsburgh-based Global Links, which regularly sends his clinic medical supplies. (It also supplies clinics in eight other Latin American and Caribbean countries). Dr. Castillo has spent time in Pittsburgh with Global Links and at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he has spoken to students and faculty.

Like many others who have decried injustice in Honduras, Dr. Castillo is now on a long list of people for whom the new regime has issued arrest warrants and he has gone into hiding. Even so, Dr. Castillo continues to minister to the sick and to those injured by military assaults. He has communicated to Global Links that he desperately needs supplies and medicines to continue his work in Ciriboya and Global Links is seeking donations to answer this call. (Donations can be made at and should be labeled "Honduran Emergency Aid.")

Meanwhile, our own government must do more to pressure the Honduran de facto regime to allow Mr. Zelaya to return to office as president. The United States should remove the 500 to 600 troops it has stationed in Honduras; cease training of Honduran troops at the School of the Americas in Georgia where two of the key generals involved in the coup were trained; freeze the assets of the coup leaders and of their supporters in the Honduran oligarchy and withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Honduras, just as all of the European Union nations have done.

President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, who is attempting to mediate a resolution to the crisis, has called for such pressure from the United States, recognizing that it is needed to restore democracy to Honduras.

Daniel Kovalik , a labor and human rights lawyer, serves on the board of Global Links ( ). He lives in Highland Park.


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