I’ve never been to jail. But my trip to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa this past week gave me a taste of what it’s like to lose vital personal freedoms, and I admit that confinement to a building, regardless of its qualities, is highly unpleasant.
When deposed President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya suddenly appeared in Tegucigalpa this past Monday, the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti panicked, and, with only 30 minutes warning, imposed a national “state of siege.” At the time of this writing it had been extended to 60 hours, with a fourhour reprieve to allow citizens to scurry out to attempt to buy milk, vegetables, food and medicine for their households. Major traffic jams clogged urban centers, as workers hurriedly left their jobs, students abandoned their classrooms, and tourists and other visitors rushed from beaches, Mayan ruins, and other sites to get indoors somewhere, anywhere, before they could be arrested on sight for being on the streets.
Zelaya, who had been “removed” from the country on June 28 in his pajamas and ferried to Costa Rica’s JuanSantamaríaAirport and into exile by Micheletti and the Honduran armed forces, appeared 88 days later in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa calling for a national dialogue. The move to the embassy, personally approved by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, was accomplished with no bloodshed and by undisclosed routes. De facto President Micheletti swung into action, and – besides forcing everyone, regardless of their national origins, to seek shelter – also closed all national airports, cut electricity in certain parts of the country and launched into one of several speeches on his commitment to “preserving democracy.”
The official reason for shutting down airports was the fear that “foreign armed forces would attempt to land troops at the nation’s four international airports.” The real reason, as admitted informally by a regime spokesman, was the fear than José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organizaton of American States (OAS), might land in the country and head over to the Brazilian Embassy to initiate a dialogue with Mel, as Micheletti watched from the Presidential Palace, five blocks away. Micheletti has declared Insulza to be an adversary of his government.
I admit that if it is necessary to be in jail, a room on the executive floor of the InterContinental Hotel is not shabby at all.
Monday night was “tapa” night at the restaurant and the happy hour up at the executive lounge was OK. But, by Tuesday morning, I began to get “psyched” as I had never experienced a situation in which I was confined to a building from which I could not leave at the risk of being shot, and where I did not know the length of my “sentence.” My situation was fine compared to the 80 percent of the population in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Many Hondurans live day-to-day, and, as might be expected, they ran out of food and money almost immediately.
By Tuesday night, citizens began to ransack neighborhood groceries and supermarkets. No one believed Micheletti and his government when they attempted to label these “looters” as “Melistas.” I believe that many of them were being radicalized by the “state of siege,” and they may or may not be Melistas, but they certainly were not supporters of the de facto regime.
Poverty has always been rampant in Honduras, but since June 28 consumption of electricity has dropped 17 percent – a sure sign of a major economic contraction – and revenues from sales taxes have dropped 23 percent. People are hurting because of the political crisis, and when they find themselves, as they have this week, without food, water, or the capacity to get out of their homes and onto the streets to get supplies, they did not warm to Micheletti’s announcement that “the sacrifice was a patriotic act to save democracy.”
I began to prepare an overland exit – I could not stand the idea of spending another day in the jail to which I had been sent by Micheletti. So, early Wednesday morning I set out for the El Salvador border with a driver and stickers on the car that said “international press.” We had to run a gamut of 15 police roadblocks before covering the 125 kilometers to El Amatillo in Honduras.
At each post, we were met by machine guncarrying, black-uniformed officers who said we could not pass. Many of these men and women standing in the tropical sun had been on duty for at least 30 hours with no rest or food, and we found that if we handed out snacks, they would talk openly about how bad a government Micheletti was running, and, after a few jokes and back slapping, we were able to move on.
I was able to cross the border without the benefit of any outbound immigration or customs checks (the officers were confined to their homes by the state of siege), and I walked across a bridge and into El Salvador where I shouted out loud, “free at last!” The other eight million citizen “jailbirds” I left behind have my profound sympathy.
Carlos Denton is president of CID/GALLUP, S.A., which provides strategy and marketing data in 14 countries of the region from its San José headquarters.
March 30 – President Manuel Zelaya issues a decree to hold a national referendum on whether Hondurans should vote on a constitutional reform, sparking ire throughout other branches of government and his party. Honduran courts strike down the decree.
June 24 – Zelaya fires military chief Gen. Romeo Vásquez after the army refuses to assist in distributing referendum ballots, brought from Venezuela.
June 25 – The Supreme Court orders Gen. Vásquez reinstated. Zelaya leads a crowd of supporters to raid a military base where the ballots are being held.
June 28 – On the morning before the referendum is to take place, soldiers force Zelaya onto a plane to Costa Rica. Fellow Liberal Party member Roberto Micheletti, the former president of the legislature, is sworn into office as president, sparking international condemnation. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank freeze loans to Honduras.
June 29 – U.S. President Barack Obama condemns the coup, calling it a “terrible precedent.”
July 4 – The Organization of American States suspends Honduras’ membership; OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza travels to Tegucigalpa. He fails to convince Micheletti to back down.
July 5 – Zelaya makes his first attempt at reentering Honduras. The military blocks his plane from landing. Violent clashes between police and protesters ensue, resulting in the death of at least one Zelaya supporter.
July 7 – Zelaya and Micheletti agree to talks with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who has been endorsed by the U.S., Europe and the OAS to serve as chief mediator in the crisis.
July 9 – Zelaya and Micheletti arrive in San José to begin talks, but they refuse to meet face-to-face.
July 13 – In Nicaragua, Zelaya says Micheletti has one week to allow his return and that the Honduran people “have a right to insurrection.” Hundreds of Honduran supporters cross the border to join Zelaya.
July 22 – Arias proposes the San José Agreement, which would create a power-sharing government made up of both rival factions. The pro-Micheletti representatives say the different branches will consider the proposal, amid Micheletti’s calls to put Zelaya on trial for violating Honduran law.
July 24 – On the Nicaragua-Honduras border, Zelaya steps onto Honduran territory for several minutes, then returns to Nicaragua.
Aug. 23 – The Honduran Supreme Court rules that key points of Arias’ plan are illegal.
Sept. 16 – Five candidates in Honduras’ November presidential election visit Costa Rica to meet with Arias. During the meeting, they sign a document supporting the San José Agreement. In statements to the press, however, all but one reject the possibility of Zelaya returning to power, a key element of the agreement.
Sept. 20 – The government of Panama, led by conservative businessman -turned President Ricardo Martinelli, asserts that it will recognize the results of the upcoming presidential elections in Honduras.
Sept. 21 – Zelaya successfully enters Honduras and seeks refuge in the Brazilian Embassy. Micheletti calls a curfew, as thousands of Zelaya followers gather outside the embassy.
Sept. 24 – Micheletti tells former U.S. President Jimmy Carter he is willing to enter into dialogue to resolve the crisis. Carter is expected to visit Honduras as part of a mediation team along with Arias and Panamanian Vice President Juan Carlos Varela.
–Tico Times and Reuters For daily updates on the crisis, visit ticotimes.net