Toppling a Coup, Part VII: A School of Leaders in Honduras

By Al Giordano

75 young Afro-Honduran community organizers gathered this weekend in La Ceiba and issued a call for a November 2010 referendum for a new Constitution. D.R. 2009 Samuel Molina.

AUGUST 30, 2009, LA CEIBA, HONDURAS: Scratch the surface of the de facto Honduran coup regime and its architects can’t help but demonstrate, again and again, that one of its unspoken reasons to exist is their unbridled racism toward considerable sectors of the national and international community. The July comment by its make-believe “foreign minister” that referred to US President Barack Obama as “that little nigger” was not an isolated gaffe: Coup “president” Roberto Micheletti has additionally installed the country’s most infamously bigoted politician, Rafael Pineda Ponce, as his very own chief of staff.

As the de facto regime’s “minister of government,” Pineda Ponce has suddenly found new relevance in Honduran political life. Before the coup plotters rescued him from obscurity, Pineda Ponce was a disgraced and largely forgotten 2001 presidential candidate on the Liberal Party line who lost to President Ricardo Maduro largely due to the total rejection Pineda Ponce faced from the Afro-Honduran population after he referred to those citizens sneeringly as “monkeys” that hang from trees.

Rafael Pineda Ponce, “government minister” for the Honduran coup regime, has portrayed Afro-Hondurans as “monkeys” hanging from trees.

“We can’t spend our lives contemplating the sunsets and the palm trees with monkeys hanging from them,” he had complained in front of a reporter for a national daily newspaper in 1998, in reference to the Garifuna and Afro-Honduran communities that populate much of the northern coast. That was the region that Pineda Ponce sought to open to foreign investment and tourist mega-resorts. And although the Liberal Party has traditionally received healthy support from Afro-Hondurans, who are ten percent of the population, Pineda Ponce did not win in a single municipality with significant Afro-Honduran presence in the 2001 elections, a vote he lost by eight percentage points nationwide.

Pineda Ponce’s 1998 racist gaffe came in the context of his crusade then to change the Honduran Constitution to eliminate article 107, which says:

“State lands, communal farms or private property located in the border regions with neighboring states, or along the coasts of both seas, extending 40 kilometers inland, and those of the islands, keys, reefs and sand banks can only be acquired, possessed or deeded to Hondurans by birth, by companies governed entirely by Honduran partners or by State institutions, and any act or contract to the contrary will be declared null and void.”

Pineda Ponce’s point was that development by foreign companies of hotels and tourist attractions along Honduras Caribbean coast was, he felt, somehow inhibited because of the preponderance of black Hondurans who live and work near the beaches. (The apparent desire of some North American expats to enable or overlook the race hatred of top coup leaders may also have something to do with their own fixations on owning villas and manses near the beach while Article 107 remains inconveniently in place, as journalist Belén Fernández explores in her story today, The Parable of the Honduran Congresswoman and the Gringa Blogger.)

Community organizer Celeo Alvarez Casildo remembered this history while speaking to the 70 young adults who had been selected to represent their communities at the XVIII National Gathering of Afro-Honduran Youth held this past weekend in La Ceiba.

ODECO strategist Celeo Alvarez Casildo speaks to the National Gathering of Afro-Honduran Youth about the art of community organizing. D.R. 2009, Samuel Molina.

During a Friday morning plenary session, Alvarez had recounted the history of how the national Organization of Community and Ethnic Development (ODECO, in its Spanish initials) has influenced presidential candidates over the past three elections to sign detailed campaign promises. “In 2001, four of the five national candidates came to sign our pledges. But the Liberal Party candidate who is now government minister didn’t come. Why didn’t he come?”

A young man stood up to answer: “He made comments about how we have to remove the monkeys from the beaches. That’s something we could never stand.”

It’s a part of their history that the young Afro-Hondurans, most of whom were still children when it happened eleven years ago, remember very well, for the collective shock and polemic it generated at the time and for the gains won by ODECO when it organized around and against Pineda Ponce’s remarks. Not only was the candidate’s presidential campaign hung by his own words, but his proposed elimination of Article 107 – against which tens of thousands of Afro-Hondurans and others organized and mobilized, knowing that the proposal was principally aimed at taking away their coastal and communal lands – went crashing down to defeat with him.

Despite or perhaps because they must live daily with such prejudiced attitudes by the white and Ladino Hondurans that dominate the country’s institutions (paradoxically, the most powerful business magnates in the country are themselves part of ethnic minorities of Arab or Jewish descent), the Afro-Honduran population has made giant strides in the past two decades since ODECO formed in 1992 and applied a community organizing model to its anti-discrimination efforts.

“Our history is one of racial, political, economic, cultural and environmental racism and discrimination,” Alvarez told the assembled youths. “We had to organize ourselves. Nothing that we have today fell from the sky. All of it is the result of an organized struggle.”

The building where the gathering was held is living testimony to the fast growth of ODECO as a force in Honduran life. It indeed did not fall from the sky but was constructed, one floor at a time, from the ground up. The lot it stands upon cost $34,000 dollars, donated by a Norwegian human rights NGO. The foundation was laid in May 2004 and the first floor completed that October. The third floor assembly hall was inaugurated on September 30, 2006. The entire building, including dormitories with 64 beds, cost about $210,000 US dollars to build, much of that donated by human rights NGOs from Ireland. Construction contractors have estimated that the structure would have cost more than one million dollars to build commercially, but ODECO was able to do it on a relative shoestring thanks to the donated labor by hundreds of Hondurans during its construction.

Community Organizer Celeo Alvarez Casildo at the Satuye Cultural Center that ODECO rose up from a vacant lot in the Isla barrio of La Ceiba. D.R. 2009 Samuel Molina.

Alvarez – who directs a staff of thirty from the complex, each of whom, in addition to their titled duties is required to also be a “promotor,” the word they use for community organizer – continued his talk on Friday morning: “In 1992 – raise your hand if you were already born then – everyone thought we wouldn’t go out into the streets because we were afraid. But we went door-to-door, neighborhood-to-neighborhood, community-to-community. We called it ‘ant’s work.’ I didn’t think more than a hundred people would come to our first demonstration. All I could promise is that I would show up with my family. When the day came, more than 5,000 marched down San Isidro Avenue. The street turned black.”

“Who led the march?” he asked, then answering: “The young people, and also children and senior citizens did. We went into the streets with our drums. Our drums have accompanied this process since the beginning. Last night at this event’s inauguration the energy was high because our culture was here with us, and with us the voices of the ancestors, as we go forward constructing the new nation, the new community. A better future for the community depends on each one of you.”

Alvarez frequently points out that his organization participates in only three marches a year: Each April 12 commemorating the arrival of Garifunas to Honduras after winning their freedom from slavery on the island of San Vicente; each May 1 when it marches with the country’s workers for Labor Day; and each October 12, together with indigenous peoples, on the anniversary of the arrival of Colombus to the New World. “The rest of the year we do the real work,” he noted: “that of organizing.”

“You have to keep on moving,” he urged the youths. “If you stand still, nothing happens. You have to move. The power to negotiate is born from mobilization.”

Advancing in Times of Retreat

During two decades when labor unions and other progressive forces in Honduras and elsewhere have suffered declining membership, and while the electoral left has won only a couple handfuls of congressional seats, the community organizing model of the Afro-Hondurans has brought them a unique power in Honduran society to obligate politicians and institutions to address their grievances.

A milestone of this emergent power came last March 19 when each of the presidential candidates nominated by the five national political parties signed a written list of thirty campaign pledges that ODECO had put before them. So well organized is the community that the politicians didn’t dare not sign.

Among the promises now unanimously made by the presidential candidates: To budget $12 million US dollars to complete the process of regularizing land titles in Afro-Honduran and indigenous communities, $2 million in economic development funds, $8 million for improvement of electricity, potable water and telecommunications systems in their communities, $10 million for development of tourism in Afro-Honduran communities (many of which are along the north coast beaches) and the construction of a Garifuna Tourism School with an annual budget of $1.5 million, $20 million for local municipalities to democratically plan community development, a $500,000 annual budget for the National Commission Against Racism, $265,000 to support Afro-Honduran History Month activities each July, $5 million for a new government department for Afro-Honduran and Indigenous Development, a $2 million annual budget to treat HIV-AIDS patients, $25 million to improve public schools in minority communities, $500,000 a year toward the creation of the International Afro-Descendent Institution (including the School of Formation of Afro-Descendent Leaders in Human Rights, Communications and Investigation, ODECO’s “School of Leaders”), $2.5 million for the collection and preservation of ancestral song, dance and arts, $1.2 million annually for learning institutions the preserve Garifuna tradition, a fifty percent increase in the budget of the Garinagu Cultural Center of Honduras, $2.5 million to construct an International Garifuna Museum in La Ceiba, $2 million for the Indigenous House of Culture, $10 million annually for environmental clean up and preservation in Afro-Honduran and indigenous communities.

That $104.9 million dollars in specific commitments was signed by National party candidate Pepe Lobo, Liberal party candidate Elvin Santos, Democratic Unity candidate Cesar Ham, Democratic Christian party candidate Felicito Avila Ordóñez, and Bernard Martínez Valerio of the Social Democratic party. (The sixth presidential candidate, Independent Carlos Reyes, had not yet qualified for the ballot last March when the pledge signing ceremony was held.)

And that’s not all. Beyond the $104 million US dollars in specific budgetary promises, the organization extracted the following additional pledges from the abovementioned presidential aspirants: Protections for indigenous and Afro-Honduran populations in the DR-CAFTA “free trade” agreement between Central America, the Dominican Republic and the United States, government supported advertising and communications campaigns against racism and intolerance, ratification by Honduras of the Inter American Convention Against Racism, Discrimination and Intolerance, stronger laws to guarantee proportional representation in national, state and local government, a commitment that Afro-Hondurans and indigenous will constitute at least thirty percent of the next president’s cabinet, diplomatic and other top positions, support for public safety and housing construction in minority communities, better use of the Census to accurately measure minority populations, 500 scholarships per year for Afro-Honduran and indigenous secondary education, 500 scholarships per year for the same in universities, reform of the laws establishing the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History for it to better recognize and preserve Afro-Honduran and indigenous culture, and adhesion by Honduras to international labor, environmental and anti-discrimination treaties that its governments have so far failed to sign.

D.R. 2009, Samuel Molina.

ODECO’s reach extends to judicial and military authorities, too. When some years back soldiers of the Armed Forces killed four Garifuna fishermen for allegedly floating their boats into a nature preserve, the organization made such a noise that military General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez – more infamous today as the executor of the June 28 coup d’etat – and his joint chiefs of staff had to head up to La Ceiba to try to calm the storm: ODECO organized hundreds of citizens to meet them in a public assembly and demand justice. The offending soldiers were prosecuted for their crime.

The June 28 coup and its aftermath have created a new set of challenges for ODECO. Prior to Thursday night’s inauguration of the national youth gathering, the de facto government’s vice minister of youth, Randy Garcia, who is Afro-Honduran, asked ODECO for an invitation to attend. The request was declined. “We won’t have anything to do with that government,” Alvarez told Narco News.

During the Friday morning session, Alvarez passed the wireless microphone to the youths, seated in a large circle in the third floor assembly hall, and asked them to take turns reading aloud the 30 numbered campaign pledges signed by the presidential candidates. When one young woman struggled with the pronunciation of some government agency titles in the text and some other youths laughed, Alvarez interrupted: “Companeros, ¿que pasa? We learn to swim by swimming and we learn to read by reading. Do not worry if you trip over the words. This is how we move forward, learning.”

He spoke to the youths of the importance of reading, citing historic leaders like Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela “and Malcolm X, who said ignorant people don’t win any battles. What did these leaders all have in common? They were studious people. You have to read. You have to form yourselves. He who claims to be a leader and doesn’t know anything just ends up tricking the community.”

School of Leaders

A show of hands revealed that about half of the 70 youth delegates are already graduates of ODECO’s School of Formation of Afrodescendent Leaders in Human Rights, popularly known as the “School of Leaders.”

Founded in July of 2006, the School of Leaders has graduated 360 Hondurans and another 40 or so Afrodescendents from neighboring Central American nations and Mexico. A slight majority of the graduates to date have been women. The program is offered in four courses that are held one week each month for four months, with 30 to 40 students in each session and professors from Honduras, Guatemala, Perú, the United States and elsewhere. Local community organizations choose the students – who range from ages 12 to 30, most of them around 19 or 20 years old - and graduates participate in raising the travel funds for new students from their communities to go to future sessions in La Ceiba where ODECO’s assembly hall and dormitories are host to the school.

The first week’s course, “Afrodescendent Presence in América,” includes history from slavery through abolition to the present. Labor leader and author Pedro Brizuela of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, wrote the teaching text, titled “Leadership,” that is the basis of the first lesson. The text cites quotations from such diverse commentators on the theme as Evangelical author John C. Maxwell, Conrad Hilton and Plato. Today we translate it to English and publish it in Spanish to make it available worldwide. (Many of its planks apply equally to journalists as to social leaders, and it will surely be incorporated into the curriculum of next February’s Narco News School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico.) It speaks of the difference between a “leader” and a mere “boss,” and lists 21 indispensable qualities of a leader: Character, charisma, commitment, communication, ability, bravery, discernment, focus, generosity, initiative, listening skills, passion, positive attitude, problem solving, relationship cultivating, responsibility, self confidence, self discipline, service, capacity to learn, and vision.

D.R. 2009 Samuel Molina.

The second weeklong course is titled “The Philosophical Conception of National and International Laws that Protect Human Rights.” The third is, “Struggle and Daily Life of Afrodesendents.” And the fourth is, “Defense of the Rights of Afrodescendent Communities.”

The School of Leaders’ 191-page textbook, its second print run published in 2008, provides texts and source documents on the abovementioned themes. With ODECO’s permission we make that textbook available today in its original Spanish for free downloading. It also contains the texts of national and international laws and treaties in the areas of human rights, racial equality, labor and land law, as well as detailed study of the Honduran Constitution. It teaches how to organize to influence municipal, state and national governments, as well as a focus on how organizers can address specific problems in communities: racism, xenophobia, discrimination, intolerance, violence against women, HIV-AIDS, substance abuse, child abuse, and the nuts and bolts of participatory democracy.

Grupo de Danza ODECO, at the Thursday inaugural session of the National Gathering of Afro-Honduran Youth in La Ceiba. D.R. 2009 Samuel Molina.

The seriousness and sense of purpose of the young leaders was evident all weekend at the national youth gathering: participants agreed to abstain from alcohol or drugs during the session, keep their cell phones on vibrate, and listen carefully whenever any of them speaks. Virtually every intervention by a participant is applauded, no matter how short or long the statement. The participants received three delicious meals a day from head chef Sonia and her kitchen staff. The students participate in trust building exercises and social events such as a presentation of dance and song in the Garifuna language on Thursday:

Añahei gurigia mafiñehaña luagu wanichigu

Wanichigu wedewese

Wanichigu wedewese

Higarugu, Higarugu, Higarugu, Higarugu

Higarugu niburetiñu garinago

The song – a call to the youth to believe in the knowledge of the ancestors and the power of the young; the chorus sings, “Come, Come, Come Garifuna Youth” - was not an ancient traditional ballad but, rather, an original composition by Guillermo Tómas, one of the youths at the gathering who works teaching Garifuna language classes for ODECO.

Subjects, Not Objects

Alvarez, in his Friday presentation, explained that the thirty campaign promises signed by the presidential candidates were themselves the result of a democratic process among Afro-Hondurans at the grassroots level.

“Did ODECO invent these demands?,” he asked aloud. “No. This was the result of a lot of work, meetings in the communities where the people put forward ideas. They were elaborated and put on paper.”

“These demands are not exclusive to afrodescendant communities. They also include the indigenous. We need to construct alliances with other sectors. The indigenous have similar problems to our own,” he stressed. “Nothing falls from the sky! You need to light the torch to continue with organized struggle to accomplish anything.”

Alvarez then explained that a big task will come to force the next president – product of the scheduled November 29 election that has been stained by the fall of constitutional order in the country – to comply with those promises. “Once elected, then comes the job of vigilance, of insistence, so that they keep these campaign promises. Someone once said that nothing is achieved without the people’s will. But nothing is maintained without a push from the institutions.”

He then outlined the kind of process that will be needed to force the government to comply with the presidential pledges, inventing the names of three Hondurans to tell the story. “It will look something like this: ‘Chepe Martinez’ and ‘Filomena Castro’ and ‘Candido Garcia’ form a commission to monitor and evaluate compliance with the promises. But to get to Tegucigalpa, Filomena, Candido and Chepe need transportation, lodging and food. They need to get from their communities to the capital and then must be able to move inside the capital. They’ll need to be able to pay the telephone bills. They need certain conditions. If they don’t have them they won’t be able to arrive, speak on telephone, or follow up on the promises. It takes an organization to make that happen.”

“What comes next?” he asks. “That depends on the responsibility and capability that we have. Are you subjects or objects? What are we?”

“Subjects!” chant the youths.

“You, what are you?”


“We have voice. We think. We act. We feel. We want them to see us as subjects. Very few communities in Honduras have what we have. We already have this commitment. We are not the object of anyone.”

During the Saturday session of the national youth gathering, the assembled watched the second half of a Spanish language translation of the PBS documentary, A Force More Powerful, about nonviolent action, civil resistance and strategic planning. At the closing event, a group of youths offered a theater performance portraying a courtroom scene in which the HIV virus was put on trial – his defense waged by “Attorney Ignorance” – and the Grupo de Danza ODECO culminated the conference in red, gold and green vestments offering a traditional dance.

The trainings and lessons taught both inside and outside the Satuye Cultural Center are evidently relevant to the situation that all of Hondurans, not just its Afrodescendent population, are living today under the impositions of a coup regime.

In the past three years, Celeo Alvarez Casildo and ODECO have quietly risen up a peaceful army of almost 400 highly trained community organizers who go about their work with seriousness, dedication and also great joy and camaraderie. In a decade of reporting on the social movements throughout the hemisphere, we have seen no other Latin American community organizing training program as advanced as ODECO’s School of Leaders and, as word spreads about it and its resulting field organizing, it seems only than a matter of time until the art of community organizing that it teaches comes into popular demand throughout the rest of Honduran population, particularly among the youth.

When Leaders Lead

Not content to merely title themselves leaders with a diploma, the youths gathered for the conference to actually lead. They discussed their views of the current political crisis in Honduras and then delegated half a dozen from their ranks to draft a declaration based on their collective conclusions.

The declaration denounced the “violation of human rights” by the coup regime that stole power on June 28. It offered support to the Arias plan to restore President Manuel Zelaya to the post to which he was elected. But the youths’ interpretation of that plan may differ significantly from that of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: their most prominent demand was that on the last Sunday of November in 2010, the people of Honduras vote in a national plebiscite to create a process to write, democratically, a new Constitution for the nation. (The conditions of the Plan Arias that is backed by Washington prohibit President Manuel Zelaya from promoting a constitutional convention upon his negotiated return to the presidency. With this declaration, the Afro-Honduran youth – organized at an advanced level that surely ought to impress and prick the conscience of the community organizer that currently occupies the White House - have made it crystal clear that no such deal applies to them or their aspirations for a more democratic Honduras. With or without Zelaya’s return, they’re organizing for a new Constitution.)

Many groups and individuals make declarations, but this one comes from a network of highly trained organizers with the capacity and infrastructure to mobilize a lot of noise and light upon its demand. Higarugu niburetiñu garinago… The Garifuna youth is coming to make sure that the popular demand for a new Honduran Constitution shall not be lost in the maneuvers by the powers up above.

After the youths read aloud and unanimously approved of the declaration, Celeo Alvarez addressed the youths. “This declaration will surely go around the world,” he said, expressing pride in their “coherence” and passion for justice. Alvarez said he would take the declaration of the youths next month to Washington DC where he and other Afrodescendent leaders from throughout the hemisphere will meet from September 21-25 under the banner of ONECA, the Central American Black Organization, which has deep connections with US Civil Rights organizations, leaders, community organizers and the Congressional Black Caucus. Alvarez was ONECA’s president for its first 14 years, and is a member of its governing board. While in Washington, he will be available for interviews and meetings, and may be contacted via email at

So that no one around the world, in Washington or anywhere else, will need his or her spectacles to read it, here’s the money ‘graph - the only part of it for which they wrote some words in ALL CAPS, for emphasis - of the youths’ declaration, when they call for:

“The convocation of a PLEBISCITE so that the citizenry can vote on the writing of a NEW CONSTITUTION, with clear guarantees for wider and more representative participation among all sectors of the Honduran people. This plebiscite should be held on the last Sunday of November of 2010.”

And that you are reading the youths’ declaration – here is the full text translated to English and here in Spanish, including the signatures of the 75 young community organizers that co-authored it – is evidence that their call for a November 2010 national referendum for new Constitution has already begun its journey across the planet and throughout the larger School of Leaders that is a country named Honduras.


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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