A mid-winter visit to Central America


As the year begins, Our Global Village examines human rights stories from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Seems like a good time to check in on the homelands of so many immigrants living and working in America today. Thousands of these sojourners received political asylum here because of human rights conditions in their native lands.

Honduras after the Coup
You may remember that in June 2009 Honduras experienced a coup, forcing the ouster of democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya, in the midst of land redistribution and other liberal reforms, had requested a constitutionally-permitted referendum on whether or not he could run for an additional term. The answer came not from the court nor electoral council; rightist elites saw to his overthrow.
The president’s illegitimate stand-in is one Señor Lobo, a powerful businessman. Lobo presides over a scarcely-reported reign of terror. Over 750 armed attacks on protesting citizens have been documented, including more than 60 assassinations of non-violent civilians. Death threats and “disappearances” have replaced health, land and educational reforms.  
The victims are chiefly peasants being evicted from farmed land, union workers opposing the coup, homosexuals (18 murdered in just six months) and, of course, the journalists. Nine were killed in 2010. Reporters without Borders rates Honduras with Mexico as the most dangerous countries to report from in the western hemisphere.
Still, the news leaks out: intimidation by para-military spooks, total impunity for human rights violators, rapid privatizing of natural resources and public utilities, and an increased U.S. military presence. Sad, but disturbingly true. Last month, longtime director of Honduran Committee of Families of the Detained & Disappeared, Bertha Oliva, accepted the 2010 Human Rights Award on International Human Rights Day. Doña Bertha observed: “Truth is the extraordinary opportunity we have to rebalance power.”
For a year and a half now, courageous dissenters across the spectrum of Honduran society have sustained a non-violent resistance to the illegal coup. They call for the suspension of all U.S. and Canadian military aid, the presence of international observers, and that a National Constituent Assembly be convened to restore the democratic rule of law and address the roots of systemic injustice in Honduras.

Sunshine in El Salvador
The view from El Salvador is very different. The same month the coup overtook its western neighbor, Mauricio Funes of the National Liberation Party (FMLN), became Salvadoran president. His victory sidelined the ultra-conservatives long in power. A 77-year struggle for truly free elections — in which over 100,000 Salvadorans lost their lives — finally bore fruit.
President Funes quickly reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba, severed in 1961. Now only the U.S., among the Americas, refuses to recognize Cuba as a country! And this past October, Funes led a delegation of 100 Salvadorans on a historic state visit to the island nation. Initially, business leaders and rightists were skeptical or opposed to joining the President’s entourage.  
But Funes urged them to accompany him for the benefit of all sectors of Salvadoran society. In Cuba, he and his ministers signed cooperation agreements with their counterparts to improve medical care in El Salvador, nurture a national literacy campaign, train Salvadoran athletes and stimulate cultural exchanges.
Business and trade agreements were negotiated in air travel, tourism, and pharmaceuticals. (Cuba once gave free medical school educations to 400 FMLN students.) Delegates returned home pretty excited about dismantling the ideological wall that had only made both nations poorer. Citizen-centered politics had won the day.

Ghosts of Guatemala
We cannot say the same, sadly, for Guatemala, to the north of Honduras and El Salvador. It’s a clear example of a country not ruled by governments thoughtful of the common man for over half a century. The CIA overthrew Guatemala’s popular agrarian-reform president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954.
Typical of Guatemala’s long travail, in the early 1980s, a giant, inefficient hydroelectric dam was jammed into the northern highlands. Thirty-two Mayan villages were submerged and destroyed. In the ancient hamlet of Rio Negro, 444 elders, kids, women and men were gradually massacred over a four-year period as they resisted the dam. Five thousand displaced Mayan villagers were never consulted about the project and have never received just reparations.  
The survivors lost loved ones, fertile ancestral land, and their sacred religious sites.
Who was behind this disaster? The World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and North American and European engineers. The case for reparations is slowly making its way through the courts. The survivors have never given up.  

Primary sources: Friendship Office of the Americas, El Salvador Watch, Rights Action

Albrecht is a San Antonio, N.M., resident. She has written global affairs digests for New Mexican newspapers and journals for 12 years. Find her column on the last Saturday of each month in El Defensor Chieftain.