Human Rights Situation in Honduras after November 2013 Honduran Elections Generates Concerns
By Wendy Griffin
The Afro-Indigenous Garifunas and other Honduran Indians have been in the US, Canadian, Honduran and South American news because of their concerns that their lands are being taken away and their resources of their rainforest, beach, fresh water and coral reef resources are being destroyed or taken away. These are central themes in Dr. Keri Brondo’s 2013 book Land Grab about the Honduran Garifunas’ land problems, particularly in the La Ceiba area, or on OFRANEH’s blog www.ofraneh.wordpress.com or in HondurasWeekly.com reports or the website of COPINH of the Lencas, before and after the troubled November 2013 election, and these have increased since the new president took power in January 2014.
The Society for Applied Anthropologists was so concerned they commissioned a report on the Human rights situation in Honduras which is available for free on their website under committees and human rights. Five talks at their recent conference were about Honduran ethnic groups—Garifunas, Lencas and Maya Chortis, which is very unusual. The Presbyterian Church USA also scheduled a teleconference about the Human rights situation in Honduras, the Gran Chaco area of Argentina and Cameroon, the following week. Even the World Bank’s own Omnibudman’s raised concerns about making loans that could have significant social and environmental risk to the companies financing megatourism projects and African palms in the Garifuna area, and a hydroelectric dam in the Lenca area, and those were published in the New York times. According to the SfAA report 90% of illegal immigrants to the US are people fleeing the problems of insecurity inHonduras, including the highest homicide per capita rate in the world and concerns that with both lack of land, the sea and river nad forest resources ruined, and no jobs, the alternatives are stay in Honduras and starve to death or try to immigrate.
OFRANEH (The Fraternal Organization of Blacks of Honduras) is the national ethnic federation of Garifunas of Honduras who represent them in front of the Honduran government, and helps prepare cases for International American Human Rights Commission about abuses of the Garifunas’ human rights. OFRANEH’s leader Miriam Miranda and the Garifuna’s struggle was recently highlighted on the Telesur network’s TV show Causa Justa (a Just Cause), and this segment, called Tierra Negra ( Black Earth) can be seen on Youtube. Causa Justa also did a show on the Honduran Lenca Indian’s struggle with the current Honduran government, too, which have not improved, even though this Honduran president identified himself as a”son of Indian Lempira” (a Lenca hero) at his inauguration and cried when a Lenca girl sang at his inauguration. Vimeo.com videos showed lenca Indians saying that police with ski masks had been in their village to threaten them that there was going to be a "matacina" a killing of many people, shortly before the new president took office.
These problems and human rights abuses come as tourism expands, Spanish speaking mestizos/Ladinos move into their area, export related industries such as cattle ranching, African palms, shrimp and other seafood exports, logging for hardwoods, and drug trafficking move into their coastal , rainforest, and Guatemalan border areas. US banana companies like United Fruit (now Chiquita), Cuyamel Fruit (now Chiquita), and Standard Fruit (now Dole) had earlier displaced some Garifunas, and many Garifunas worked as dock workers, sailors, and mahoghany cutters for these banana companies. The Garifunas in Honduras, together with other ethnic groups, are participating in an oral history project on the banana companies and the Honduran ethnic groups to be presented in 2014 for the 100th anniversary of the Truxillo Railroad Company, a United Fruit subsidiary.
The most recent threat to the Garifunas is called “Model Cities” or Charter cities, an idea developed by US Libertarian Paul Romer. The President of the Honduran Congress Juan Orlando Hernandez has been aggressively pushing through changes to the Honduran Constitution to make these Model Cities possible, to the point that the Supreme Court justices were fired when they found the laws unconstitutional, and new judges were hired, who found the laws, in fact, were constitutional. Mr. Hernandez won as Honduran president in elections in November 2013, and after legal struggles that went up through the election system and to the supreme court, he took power at the end of Janaury 2014. He has totally restructured the Honduran government, so that there will no opposition voices heard neither at the congressional, nor the Minsiterial, nor the Judicial levels, and he is increasing the use of military as “security” or social control. Honduran illegal immigration to the US has increased, and fleeing from the security situation is given as the number one reason for leaving. Not just poor people are leaving, as well to do Hondurans who can manage somehow to get to the US, Canada or Spain are doing so.
Wilbor Guerrero, the Garifuna in Seattle, says he has seen where the proposed Model Cities are planned to be, and in his opinion, basicly the plan is to remove the Garifunas from their 54 Coastal communities in Honduras. The population of those communities was about 50,000 people according to the 2001 Census, which the Garifuna organization OFRANEH (Fraternal Organization of Honduran Blacks) says purposely undercounted the Garifunas. On the Causa Justa TV show the Honduran Minister of Tourism confirmed that basically people could be moved for the megatourism projects.
Honduran papers like La Prensa say the new Model cities law (ZEDE) allows the government to take people’s lands under “emminant domain”, which is how they got the land of almost the whole Garifuna neighborhood of Rio Negro, Trujillo, now a cruise boat dock and mall for the cruiseboat tourists. Not only Garifunas are threatened. Suyapa located across the street from the UNAH, Honduras’s public university, was made a Model city in the last election, and feasibility studies are already underway to study implementing Model Cities in Choluteca and Valle Departments in southern Honduras,which are special development districts according the Ministry of Planning’s website.
According to Wilbor Guerrero, a Honduran Garifuna from the San Juan Tela area, who lives near the SeaTac airport south of Seattle, there have been Garfunas in the Seattle area for at least the last 30 years when his uncle moved to the area. The Seattle area Garifunas include Garifunas from Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. These Garifunas often come to Seattle after first having lived in other US cities, particularly New York City where an estimated 100,000 Garifunas live. The US is now the country which has the highest population of Garifunas, not a Central American country, which presents challenges to US institutions like schools, hospitals, the Catholic Church, as well as to the Garifunas themselves.
Hundreds of the Honduran Garifunas who might soon be displaced by Model cities along the Honduran North Coast are US citizens, who worked 30-45 years in the US, often as sailors originally, and then retired to Honduras to live on their Social Security and pension checks in the houses they built little by little as they worked in the US. Many Garifuna men served as sailors on the ships of United Fruit Company’s Great White Fleet which functioned as transportation ships to support the US war effort during World War II, and are eligible to have their names added to the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC. The Fruit companies helped Garifunas who had good records as sailors to move to the US legally, reported Honduran Garifuna Sebastian Marin, who worked for United Fruit as a sailor for 35 years, including being in Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Mr. Guerrero was not hopeful that the other leading candidate for Honduran president Xiomara Castro, the wife of former Honduran president Mel Zelaya,in the November 2013 elections would have been helpful to the Garifunas either, as he believes her family is related by the marriage to Honduran banker, Tiempo newspaper owner, and Liberal party politician Jaime Rosenthal. Mr. Rosenthal, whose family is a founding member of the San Pedro Sula Jewish synagogue, is commonly linked to Garifuna land problems, especially in the area of Wilbor Guerrero’s hometown San Juan Tela, where the Garifunas have been trying actively to recover land.
Before the new Honduran Congress took its place in January 2014, Manuel Zelaya who won a seat as Congressman of Olancho, resigned as head of the Libre party and head of Resistance Front which formed after his ouster from power in 2009. The Lencas have a newspaper published occasionally which in on the Internet which they say they started, because politicians only remember us when they ask us for our votes. The Lencas were very active in the Resistance Front, but once in power, Manuel Zelaya seems to have followed the route of his predecessors and forgot the Lencas as they predicted on their paper’s website since well before the election.
The former president of the San Juan Tela citizen group or “patronato” estimated that 75% of San Juan Garifunas now live outside of Honduras. He also estimated that 75% of the land of San Juan has been usurped by non-Garifunas. The two numbers are almost certainly related. The Honduran interviews with Garifunas about immigration to the States and the many deportations of Garifunas, who were often legally in the US, but got deported because of issues like drugs, in the Mormon Church’s video “A Story about the Garifunas” on Youtube, is set in the Garifuna villages near Tela.
The areas where the Garifunas have ended up in the US, like Bronx and Harlem in New York City or in Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami, are areas that have for many years been associated with high levels of drug use of the inhabitants. This issue of legal immigrants being deported back to their countries of origin after having grown up in the inner city in the US and getting involved with street culture there of drugs, violence, and crimes like theft, has been highlighted by the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, highlighting the case of Khmer refugees, but visitors were invited to show other parts of the globe which were affected, too, and many were in Latin America, including Garifuna villages in Central America.
Wilbor Guerrero’s village of San Juan is located between the resort town of Tela which used to be the headquarters of the Tela Railroad, a United Fruit Subsidiary, and the new mega-tourism resort going into the Micos Lagoon area between the Garifuna towns of Tournabe and Miami. A new 18-hole golf course has recently been completed, reported Honduran English speaking newspapers, with investment from Guatemalan bank, a Panamanian bank, Honduran banks, the later with funds from the World Bank’s private industry division.. If you consider that Honduras is the second poorest country in Latin America, you can imagine that a new luxury golf course was not high on the perceived needs of the Hondurans themselves, particularly since the town of Tela already had a 9 hole golf course leftover from the banana company days.
Given the current poverty in Guatemala and Panama, why the banks from there investing in Honduras, in a project not wanted by the local people? What could the local Garifunas have done there if they had had access to the at least $40 million dollars being funneled into this project in their area? The jobs that have materialized from mega-tourism in the Tela and Trujillo areas offer about $10 a day wages, which is not enough to feed a Garifuna family given the high cost of fish and plantains, and in the Trujillo area almost no Garifunas were hired for the infrastructure projects.
The huge luxury hotel shown in the Garifuna in Peril movie is in La Ensenada on the other side of Tela. The last time I had been in La Ensenada the Garifunas who lived there were selling fried fish on the beach in the open air with palm thatch roofs and no walls. The luxury hotel in Garifuna in Peril is huge and very impressive, all inclusive, and fenced off. The desire of the developers to build the Mayan Riviera (where no Mayas or Mexicans are allowed in) in Honduras was clear. The OFRANEH leaders interviewed in videos on the Internet talk about how there are other places where there were Indians, and now they are gone, and no one knows where they went, and they lost their languages, shows that they were thinking of those of the Mayan Riviera, but also the original inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands.
The issue of tourism displacing Blacks who lived along the Coasts has been reported in South America, as well as in the Caribbean, in Central America, and even in Mexico. Recently in Mexico, the Costa Chica, a part of Southern Mexico along the Caribbean coast where most Afro-Mexicans live, was recently rezoned so that foreigners could buy land there. Witness.com has been partnering with Afro-Brazileans to document through videos the moving of poor Afro-Brazilians from their homes in Rio de Janeiro for the purpose of building World Cup and Olympic related infrastructure. The area where Afro-columbians lived has been caught up in issues of drugs, rebels, tourist land grabs, and arguments that they do not have land titles, which was because colonial law in all of Latin America did not permit land titling to mixed race or Black people. There was literally no category of legal land title available to them, which explains many land issues in Honduras and probably all of Latin America.
The Caribbean Sea is named for Carib Indian ancestors of the Garifunas, and how the African blacks mixed with Caribs and Arawak Indians and then were taken from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent (Yarumein) to Honduras is told in song (Yarumein) which can be heard on the Garifuna Coalition website, in dance (Yarumein), in Honduras’s most famous play “Louvagabu” (The Other Side Faraway), in the movie “Garifuna in Peril” and in the first American play by a Black man “The Death of King Shotaway” which is thought to have been written by a Garifuna who came to the US from St. Vincent.
Many Caribbean Immigrant Groups in the US, such as Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, etc. also consider themselves partially descended from Arawak speaking groups such as the Tainos. Even in English speaking Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Barbados, elements of Arawak culture continue such as the making of cassava or bammy bread, called “ereba” by the Garifunas and “erepa” by the Arawaks. Many Caribbean countries continue the making of a spice from the bitter manioc or yucca juice squeezed out while making cassava bread, known as “casareep” in the English speaking Caribbean and “Dumari” among the Garifunas, which is the secret ingredient in Caribbean pepper pot soup, reports Jeanette Allsopp of the University of West indies, Barbados. Even Jamaica jerk spice, which mixes salt and chilis, was a technique for salting fish that was known by the Taino Indians of Jamaica when the Spanish first came, according to Wikipedia.
The sacred plant of the Taino or Arawak Indians was tobacco, which comes from the Arawak words for rolled up tobacco leaves, which is to say, a cigar, which some Caribbean countries like Cuba are famous for. The words cigar, and the French word cigarette (small cigar) or the Spanish word cigarillo (little cigar), actually come from Yucatek Maya word for rolled up tobacco leaves, according to Wikipedia’s article on tobacco. The Garifunas continue to use the sacred plants of the Tainos and Arawaks like cacao and tobacco and cassava bread made of yucca as well as smoked fish in their religious ceremonies.
The Smithsonian Institute’s Latino Center in Washington, DC is currently planning an exhibit on the Indigenous Aspects of Caribbean Cultures. Some US Garifunas are applying for some of the internships which the Smithsonian has to encourage Hispanics and Indians to get involved with learning about the Smithsonian’s collections and improving the Smithsonian’s exhibits about these ethnic groups. New York Garifuna James Lowell, originally from Belize, was active in representing the Garifunas in the current exhibit on Central American Ceramics at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, which mentions the Garifunas in their maps, and included James Lowell speaking at the Smithsonian’s symposium about the exhibit.
US Garifunas from New York and Los Angeles, including Ruben Reyes of Garifuna in Peril and James Lowell who also has a new movie out were also invited to participate in the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in Washington, DC for the first time this year.