I awoke in my bus from a drug-induced sleep drowsy and dazed, not sure where I was or what I was doing. We were cruising down a highway surrounded by lush green mountains rolling into the distance, every few minutes we would pass by some man-made structure splattered with graffiti. I was in Honduras I suddenly remembered, where a coup d’état had occurred and an oligarchic-military backed regime was in control. But where were all the soldiers? I didn’t even remember seeing any at the border crossing. How much longer until we reached our destination? Suddenly the mountainous landscape broke into a vast sea of concrete buildings and shacks stretching into the distance – we had arrived in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. What a sight this city is, just seeing it took away any anxiety I had about spending time in another bustling, stinky Latin American metropolis. It is situated within a giant mountain valley filled with hills, and it is the different levels that make it so visually stunning. The clusters of buildings and homes never seem to stop and just roll over the steeping terrain. For some reason this makes it a very confusing city to traverse, and it never really leaves you feeling grounded.
The first thing that one notices in Tegucigalpa is the deep intrusion of corporate America into Honduran society. It is a city of brand new fast food chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, they are everywhere. Literally hundreds of each of these chains are scattered across the city, more so than in any North American city that I’ve seen. The odd thing about these chains is that here in Honduras they are status locations, places for the middle and upper-class people to go and eat among their own social class. It is easy to understand why a coup d’etat took place here – the rich elites have so much at stake. Any economic model other than unfettered capitalism could mean a loss of profits for them, and an encroachment of the poor masses into the exclusive middle/upper-class society. So rather than let democracy take its course, the people with power and money pulled a few strings and shot the socio-political development of Honduras dead in its tracks.
However, it wasn’t easy to tell at first that a coup d’etat had occurred here, I guess it never really is. People have to survive; they have to learn how to cope with whatever situation is thrown at them and just keep on living their lives. So, of course at first glance all seems normal here in Honduras, but after a little more exploration one begins to notice that the graffiti all over the city is actually political, with the majority being anti-coup propaganda. It also quickly becomes apparent that this country is heavily militarized, albeit they are not as visual as I thought they might be, at least not until I went to certain areas or events. Whenever the resistance took to the streets for a peaceful protest against the coup regime, the police were always out in force, ready to repress at a moments notice. Election Day might as well have been called the Honduran Armed Forces Convention, with soldiers or police on almost every corner of the sprawling city. I experienced these police first hand that day as me and my trusted amigo made our way to various polling stations to do some investigating. A truck filled with police felt that my backpack was dangerous and they thus decided to stop us on the highway. About five of them surrounded us, fingers on the triggers of their assault rifles, ready for anything that the two of us might do to disrupt their precious elections. They, searched us and questioned us, kept us waiting a bit, then insisted on driving us to the next town where we were heading. Later my friend told me that it was extremely rare these days for a Honduran to get in the back of a police truck without disappearing.
The real sign that this was a country under siege was not in the public displays of military might or the graffiti on the walls, but rather the fear and despair of everyday people. Because I was working in human rights I was introduced to those people whose stories the rest of society does not hear. I met a lawyer who had worked as a government prosecutor for many years, and who was critical of the coup regime. The day we met he had been fired from his position, with no reason given. I met several people who no longer sleep in their homes for fear that the government forces will take them away in the middle of the night. I met a woman, lying in a hospital bed with a bullet in her head after being shot by the military and left to die. Lives are being ruined, families torn apart, all because of the economic interests of a few people. Sure, there are many people who just go on living like nothing has happened here, who leave the decision making to the forces that be – political apathy is rampant here like anywhere else. But there are those who will not stand for a dictatorship, those who will protest until they gain the rights and freedoms that they deserve. It is those people who really see and experience the dark side of Honduras today, and it is those people that will change things.
Human rights work can be exhausting, but it is a struggle that pales in comparison to the toils of those people we are trying to support. I always try to keep that in mind, especially as I head back to the coast for some sunshine and waves. I’m off to El Salvador and the great Pacific Ocean. My injuries have healed and my mind feels strong, what I really need right now is the sound of the surf and the company of some old friends.