By Richard Kunz
On June 28, military forces removed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya from office. Zelaya was attempting to change Honduras’s constitution to allow for a president to sit for a second consecutive, four-year term in office.
In February 2009, the Straight travelled to Honduras to report on development issues. One story filed from that trip discussed a locally-run orphanage and school that is in large part funded by Vancouver residents. In February, Richard Kunz, a director for the project, was interviewed by the Straight. He has since remained in Honduras, living in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. The following commentary was prepared by Kunz for the Straight.
For the past five years I have been living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, working as director of a ministry to children and teenagers who come from backgrounds of extreme poverty. El Hogar Projects gives such people a place to live, an education, and a chance to grow up in a community of love and support. I have remained in Honduras during the recent and continuing political turmoil, which many from around the world have described as a “coup”.
For those of us living here, the turmoil did not start with the removal of Manuel Zelaya on June 28. Zelaya had been pushing very hard for a national referendum that would give him the means to extend his term and rewrite the constitution of the country. This was opposed by the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Congress, the rest of his party, the Roman Catholic Church, and the evangelical churches. Still, he persisted and, since he had no cooperation from the government of Honduras, he had the ballots printed by Venezuela and delivered to Honduras. The day before the referendum was scheduled to take place, tensions were running very high. Everyone was expecting violent confrontations and there was a run on groceries and gasoline. Many church services were canceled for that coming Sunday.
Early in the morning of June 28, Zelaya was arrested by the military at the behest of the Supreme Court. He was flown out of the country and taken to Costa Rica. It took a while for those of us in Honduras to learn what was happening. Power was turned off in the country for about five hours. The only communication I had was through my cell phone. Rumors were flying everywhere. By about noon however, power was restored and an announcement was made—Roberto Micheletti, the president of the Congress, was going to be sworn in as the new president, which followed the order of succession stipulated by the constitution.
In Tegucigalpa, it was my experience that most people breathed a sigh of relief. Many felt that Zelaya was dragging the country toward the kind of quasi-dictatorship that exists in Venezuela. But relief was shortlived. World leaders began to condemn the “military coup” that had occurred, and demanded that Zelaya be reinstated. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez threatened to overthrow the new government by whatever means possible, including military action.
Since then, we have existed day by day in a state of uncertainty. Every day there are demonstrations. There are large and peaceful protests in support of the new government, but also smaller and more violent demonstrations in support of Zelaya. Zelaya has promised to return to the country tomorrow (July 4), brandishing his international support. The government in Tegucigalpa has compiled 18 charges against him, and has said that, should he return, Zelaya will be arrested and tried on those charges. Demonstrations are scheduled to take place on both sides of this issue.
Although in many ways life here remains normal—businesses are open and the government continues to function—the level of anxiety and uncertainty is high and the country is holding its collective breath.
In living through my first “coup”, there are a few things that stand out. One is how difficult it is in a situation of confusion to receive accurate and helpful information, and how important it is to have that information. At those times, the informal channels become extremely important. I have a friend who has a friend in the army, so I was able to get some information on events taking place that way. I got phone calls from folks in the U.S. who had friends in Costa Rica, who got information about what was going on in Tegucigalpa before I did.
It is also interesting and informative to see the huge gap between what is often reported in the news and what seems apparent to those of us living through it. Many Hondurans here feel very proud of their young democracy. They believe it has met a test imposed by a corrupt would-be dictator, and has made a smooth and constitutional transition into a new and legitimate government. The only thing that has changed is the president, who was acting in violation of the constitution.
From an outsider’s point of view, Honduras has suffered a military coup, led by the entrenched elite against a president wanting to help the poor, and this has undermined democracy. That may be an attractive story line, but it is neither true nor helpful.
Finally, there is the strange sense of being caught in larger events. We all have our own lives, and most of our attention goes to living those lives in the best way possible. In Honduras, many of those lives are difficult to begin with, hedged as they are with poverty and the limitations of the infrastructure here. But in this case we are all directly effected by the broader political situation.
When we watch the news, it is not about events happening in far-off places. Instead, it has to do with immediate decisions we make about everyday events in our lives. Can I go out for coffee today? Should our volunteers come to spend a week with us? Is it safe to go to church? Knowing that these everyday decision may be influenced by things as “foreign” as the interest of leaders in places like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ethiopia desiring to stay in power is strange.
Honduras is not a large country, and is not important for the production of oil or for the size of its army; however, its people are trying to live through a difficult situation. I ask that the rest of the world not be too quick to make a judgment on the events here.
Richard Kunz is a director for El Hogar Projects, an organization of orphanages and schools in Honduras which survives on charitable donations. For more information on El Hogar, see www.elhogar.org.
Much of El Hogar’s funding is provided by British Columbian residents through the Universal Outreach Foundation. For more information on those efforts, see www.universaloutreachfoundation.org/ and read the Straight’s March 2009 story on El Hogar.