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Reflection: An observer’s account of Honduras

July 3, 2009

Isabel MacDonald never thought one phone call would put her in the middle of Central American history.

The director of San José´s Center for Peace was contacted by a Honduran acquaintance last Tuesday, who offered her the opportunity to observe a referendum as one of 30 foreign invited guests. Before she knew it, she was on her way to the mountainous Central American country, where she had spent five years of her childhood.

“(The actual vote) didn´t seem like a big deal at the time,” said MacDonald, after receiving a briefing from the Manuel Zelaya administration. “It was a nonbinding poll that simply set the groundwork for change. The thought was that most people would vote yes.”

But she was surprised to see the campaign launched against the vote: Newspapers ran full page advertisements featuring handcuffed voters and the words “Illegal” in bold letters.

That night, MacDonald and the team of observers enjoyed dinner with the president and some of his cabinet members.

“They were totally relaxed,” she recalled. “They had no idea this was coming.”

Less than 12 hours later, the observers awoke to learn the president was kidnapped and several ambassadors were missing.

“Military planes were flying low over the city,” said MacDonald. “And (then), someone up there, close to God, turned off the electricity, the cell phones, the Internet. I was with some Chilean observers and they said this is exactly what happened in Chile ” during the 1973 coup against socialist President Salvador Allende.

MacDonald sat down with the rest of the observers to type up a press release, which they were able to do thanks to their hotel´s generator.

She proceeded to visit the government buildings where some of the protests took place, but at the time, it was “very tranquila,” she said. The military was on one side of the fence (about 200 of them with two tanks) and protestors were on the other side.

She returned to Costa Rica on Monday, but not without feeling a sense of disbelief: “We kept thinking to ourselves, this is a return to those dark days of Latin America and we are living it now.”

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