The Learning Curve of the Teachers vs. the Honduras Coup
By Al Giordano
AUGUST 23, 2009, SABA, HONDURAS: The classrooms were empty but the assembly hall was full. Last Thursday afternoon, more than two hundred striking schoolteachers and other members of the civil resistance from the northeastern state of Colón gathered at the city high school to chart their next steps.
“Compañeros, are you tired?” a speaker called out.
“Are you going to go home?”
“Are we going to win?”
They marched out of the assembly hall, clapping, cheering, and started their engines. More than eighty vehicles were counted as they noisily entered the street – honking horns, waving anti-coup placards out the windows - for the first of two afternoons, Thursday and Friday, of vehicular caravans against the coup regime. Up and down the main streets of Sabá they paraded while resistance coordinator Wilfredo Paz sat down with members of the Narco News team to talk shop.
“Today we evaluated our progress to date,” he shared. “We consider the seven-day march to San Pedro Sula last week a grand success, for the quantity of people who participated, for the solidarity we found in every town along the road where people brought food, drink, shoes and medicines for the marchers, and for the 30,000 participants in the final day of the march in that city. We also notice a deepening of our level of organization that has united us with those in other states.”
Periodically during the interview the noisy caravan would pass by to remind all ears that the resistance to the unpopular coup regime simply does not stop.
“As we speak, campesino organizations have had the government agricultural bureau offices in Tocoa occupied for nearly 25 days,” said Paz. “And beginning today every town and city is sending delegations to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to provide information to Judge Balthazar Garzón of Spain, who prosecuted Pinochet for his war crimes in the Chilean coup, and also the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States. This is a little difficult because the regime has ordered the bus companies not to rent us transportation so we have to organize other means to get there.”
Sabá, at 400 kilometers and nine hours drive from Tegucigalpa (a trip that used to be a about an hour shorter until an earthquake last year toppled a highway bridge that allowed a shortcut through the state of Yoro), is almost as far as one can get from the capital and still be in a city. Three other cities in the state of Colón – Tocoa, Trujillo and Bonito Oriental – are yet a little bit farther out, all toward the northeast corner of Honduras. To travel farther east than that – into what is known as the Mosquitia region and the state of Gracias a Dios (the name of the state means “Thank God”) – one needs a four-wheel drive truck to navigate the mud and dirt roadways, or a boat to reach its outposts via the Caribbean sea.
In this tropical banana producing region, the highway blockades of July were of longer duration – some for as long as 60 or 70 consecutive hours – than in other parts of the country (see also Belén Fernández’s related report from the region, Honduras Reports Lack of Towns Named for Oliver North) and faced less interference from repressive forces. “There is more respect here from the police and the Army,” Paz explained, and by respect it’s clear that he means a healthy fear of provoking this population.
Colón – like Olancho to the south, and much of eastern Honduras – has a farming and ranching populace many of whom possess weapons for hunting and protection. And while the resistance here, too, is nonviolent, the locals do have a nationwide reputation for self-defense. One of the first and biggest stores one sees upon entering Tocoa, population 53,000, is called “La Armería” – “The Gunshop” - and displays large hand painted images of the weapons and bullets on sale inside. As in the rural regions of the United States, sportsmen are a big part of the culture, as are omnipresent cowboy hats men wear. That this region’s civil resistance has remained pacific is evidence of the self-discipline maintained so far by its movement’s most important sectors.
Helping to lead the resistance in this region are the mayors of its four largest cities: Mayor Adán Fuentes of Tocoa’s 53,000 citizens, Mayor Adelmo Rivera of Sonaguera (population 34,000), Mayor Luis López of Trujillo (43,000) and Mayor Clemente Cardona of Bonito Oriental (22,000). In the days after the June 28 coup d’etat, the Armed Forces raided the home of Tocoa Mayor Fuentes, who had been the regional coordinator of the nonbinding referendum campaign for a Constitutional Convention that the coup was designed to prevent coming to a vote that same day.
Luis Agurcia, a coordinator of civil resistance efforts in Trujillo, a public schoolteacher, told us that the Armed Forces had “militarized” the schools of that city from July 13 to to August 13. Uniformed troops had been sent to each of the schools daily to keep watch on teachers, who have been on strike an average of two or three days per week in protest of the coup. On the days that there were studies, students literally had to navigate around the heavily armed uniformados to walk to and from class. The militarization included the “Escuela Normal” in Trujillo that prepares 1,300 youths to become schoolteachers and also includes a grade school for 300 younger students whom the teachers-in-training educate as part of their own education.
“We brought two attorneys here on Monday, August 10. The Colonel accused me of ‘indoctrinating children.’ But the lawyers explained to them the law and they backed down.” The schools have thus been freed at last of a military presence that itself served, if not as a uniformed indoctrination of schoolchildren, certainly, at minimum, a heavy handed attempt at intimidation.
Schoolteachers throughout Honduras are a backbone of the resistance and, through the national teachers unions and their 57,000 members, a key communications conduit between the local resistances across the country. President Manuel Zelaya – forcibly exiled at gunpoint by the coup regime – had raised schoolteacher salaries by eight Lempira per hour (about 45 cents). The average schoolteacher works 27 hours a week in the classroom. The sixteen percent pay hike raised an average $71-per-week salary by an extra $12 dollars. By Honduran standards that’s an important gain that the teachers consider worth fighting to maintain. They believe the coup regime wants to roll back the gains they and other workers won before Zelaya was kidnapped 56 days ago.
Since the June 28 coup d’etat, the golpista media has waged a daily smear campaign against the movement with constant accusations – undocumented, supported only by rumor and innuendo - that those who march in the streets do so because they are supposedly being paid cash to protest. The source of such funds is inevitably claimed, without a shred of evidence offered, to be the government of Venezuela, and even the embargo-stricken isle of Cuba, the coup regime’s sources of much paranoia and obsession. For the schoolteachers, though – and indeed among all Honduran workers who saw the minimum wage raised by 60 percent under Zelaya – they do have financial interest in defending the elected government from the coup regime. That interest does not come in some shadowy bag of cash, but, rather, is fully and transparently disclosed: the pay raises that they and other sectors of workers won fair and square the democratic way through government action. That also explains why they continue to demonstrate, day after day, that the coup regime is not in control of the country's population.
The gossipmongers that spread those malicious and unproved accusations of a cash-directed movement only demonstrate their own inability to grasp that the self-organization of workers for better pay is not a corruption but, rather, a basic building block of any free society. The pay raises are fully disclosed, and a struggle to defend them is recognized as wholly legitimate by all societies that aspire to be authentically democratic.
The struggle by schoolteachers – now agglutinated in six unions and united under the banner of the Honduran Federation of Teachers Organizations (FOMH, in its Spanish initials) – has been long. It has survived previous military coups in 1954 and 1973 and won important gains mainly through the tactics of strikes, marches and road blockades: Among them the 1968 passage of obligatory public education for grade and middle school students.
“Many compañeros don’t know the history of the country, of the union movement or that of the teachers,” Jeremías López, a union organizer in Catacamas, Olancho since the 1970s. He believes the emphasis on strikes, marches and blockades against the coup has been too narrow: “We agree that we have to change tactics. We mus t avoid taking up arms, and I say that as a former guerrilla fighter. What we need to do is educate and mobilize the general public.”
López and two other organizers, out of their own pockets, recently launched a weekly program titled “The Best of the Resistance” on the Super 10 radio network that broadcasts in the geographically large states of Olancho, El Paraiso and Gracias a Dios. It costs them 2000 Lempira (about $104 US dollars) a month to rent that airwaves space. In recent days the local resistance brought a radical theater troupe to Catacamas from San Pedro Sula, and subsequently the topical musical group Café Guancasco to that same city square.
“Often, when we schoolteachers print a flyer or communiqué for the public, it is written in a fine Castilian Spanish that common people don’t relate to,” says López. “You have to speak in the language of the people.” The increasing emphasis on theater, song and live radio is aimed to expand the movement beyond its union and organizational bases.
López notes that in his region the resistance has also – like those in the state of Colón and elsewhere – adopted the tactic of car caravans in recent days. “Last night we had 800 vehicles parade and make noise throughout Catacamas and Santa María Real throughout the evening against the coup.” Similar caravans are underway in the cities of Tela and San Pedro Sula, reports Radio Progreso.
On Friday afternoon, back in the Northeast corner of the country, the Trujillo teachers union invited two of your reporters to the Escuela Normal for a meeting of sixty of its union leaders. As the reporters sought to interview the locals, the locals were more eager to interview the reporters. They wanted to know: In our reporting from other countries and civil resistance movements, what strategies and tactics had we learned about that might be useful to them?
One of the union leaders shared his concern aloud – one that we’ve heard echoed throughout the country from resistance organizers - that that the Honduran civil resistance’s emphasis on protest marches over the past 56 days risks its falling into a predictable pattern: The movement convenes a march or a blockade, the action is attacked violently by police and the Army, with a toll of wounded and arrested participants, and to denounce the violations of human rights the movement then takes to the streets with another march, which is similarly beaten by the repressive forces, so on and so forth, in a vicious circle that can lead to frustration, fatigue and diminishing returns.
From that a conversation ensued about, among other examples, the African National Congress – the movement that toppled the apartheid regime in South Africa – that spent the 1960s and 70s as an armed guerrilla insurgency but had then transformed into a victorious nonviolent campaign when it had shifted its emphasis to community organizing techniques of house-to-house persuasion and education. From 1994 to the present, the ANC has led the elected government of that country. The big change in the ANC’s tactics came based on the advice the ANC, during its guerrilla stage, had received in the late 1970s from the leaders of Vietnam’s successful armed resistance to US colonial invasion.
The South Africans had arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) hoping to impress the Vietnamese with how many insurgent troops it had trained and armed, and to gain their strategic and tactical support. One ANC delegate who was present at those meetings told Narco News earlier this year that it was the Vietnamese – possibly the most successful armed guerrilla movement in world history - who convinced the South Africans that they weren’t at all ready to wage a successful armed insurgency because they had not engaged in sufficient public education and community organizing to build civilian support for it. (The late Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was legendary for his attention to the details and minutia of community organizing and educating the citizenry.) The South African shift to strategies and tactics of community organizing, in the end, eliminated the need for armed struggle and brought victory through nonviolent methods. From that emerged a discussion about the public communications and relations needs of the Honduras anti-coup movement, which includes large sectors of labor and farmer organizations – like the teachers union – whose members are already highly politicized but that do not always expand their public education or organizing efforts to the rest of the population.
Other historical examples similarly informed the discussion, from Serbia’s ten-year struggle that toppled the dictator Milosevic to the organizing techniques of the Zapatista and indigenous movements in Mexico, to the blockades by the coca growers of Bolivia, among others.
Reflective of that growing desire to expand the strategic and tactical moves by the civil resistance, the Trujillo schoolteachers then headed out of the meeting, started their engines, and paraded through the city, as their counterparts in Sabá and other cities had done the previous day and repeated again on Friday. They then joined with anti-coup car caravans from Bonito Oriental, from Sabá, from Sonaguera, and from the small towns in the region, converging Friday night on the state’s largest city of Tocoa for a mega-caravan of voluminous protest.
Police agencies and the Armed Forces have not as yet figured out a method by which to stop the sudden epidemic horn-honking protest caravans, which move too fast for the usual repressive weapons of teargas and nightsticks. The cacophonous caravans likewise do not stay in one place long enough to allow the actions of provocateurs, infiltrators or the misguided machos that often leech upon large protests to engage in actions that the pro-coup media then predictably uses as fodder to paint the entire resistance as somehow threatening to the general public.
The caravan rides day and night like a pony express – east, west, north and south – from its decentralized focal points throughout Honduras, heralding the news to the populace that the coup regime lacks the people’s consent. It is also evidence that important movement sectors, like the teachers unions, have decided to reach out beyond their own members to the larger and less organized public. Which only goes to show that they may be teachers, but in Honduras, they are also learning.