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  Number 266 | Septiembre 2003
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Honduras

The March on Tegucigalpa: “It’s Our Water!”

Hondurans have just carried out their country’s largest, best organized, and most coherently focused demonstration in the last forty years, the first step on a road full of challenges.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

August 26 marked a turning point for Honduran society. On that day, 25,000 people from all corners of the country converged on the capital to protest the privatization of water and oppose the government’s economic policies. Starting at 5 am, the demonstrators blocked the four main entrances into Tegucigalpa in an action organized by the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance, which brings together a wide range of labor, indigenous, community and other grassroots organizations from around the country.

Planned on August 2 at a meeting of representatives of grassroots organizations from Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, El Progreso and Valle del Aguán, this “March for Dignity and Resistance” was the culmination of a two-year process of trying to organize nationally against the privatization of water.

The last straw

The decision was taken to hold the march after Congress voted to approve a new law governing the water and sanitation sector on the very first day of debate. This was the first in a series of votes required for the bill’s final approval.

The legislation under consideration ignored a counterproposal formulated by the grassroots organizations after extensive public consultation and presented to Congress on July 1. Instead it was sent straight from commission into a dusty file cabinet and never reached the floor of Congress. After presenting their proposal, the representatives of the grassroots organizations announced that they would hold a large meeting in Tegucigalpa on July 9 to discuss the situation. This meeting set the stage for the huge national demonstration of August 26.

For the first time in several decades, representatives of organizations from all around the country met to plan a common action. They unanimously agreed on three demands, calling on Congress to reject the proposed water law, shelve a controversial civil service reform law and drop a proposed property law.

While the grassroots organizations prepared to march on the capital with these demands, Congress continued to discuss the new water bill, approving it in a second and then a third and final vote on August 14. The die was cast. The organizations revised their demand related to the now-approved water law, calling on President Ricardo Maduro to veto it.

Indigenous organizations from western Honduras took the first step in the national demonstration, arriving in the capital a week ahead of schedule and staging protests in front of Congress, including hunger strikes and a symbolic crucifixion. Their actions gave a big boost to the national organizing efforts.

Lempira by lempira

To ensure the demonstration’s success, organizers had to solve the serious practical problem of how to pay for buses to take people to the capital. El Progreso took the first step by asking the people themselves to find a way. The Permanent Grassroots Assembly against Privatization, which brings together several organizations from that municipality, organized a radiothon for August 16 with two objectives: to inform the population of the demonstration’s objectives, especially with respect to the approved water law, and to gather funds to hire the buses.

The eight-hour radiothon was broadcast over three local channels and brought in some $3,000, contributed by people in the municipality’s poorest neighborhoods and villages. The mountains of one-, two- and five-lempira notes clearly demonstrated who is most concerned about the water issue. Although the rich weren’t interested in contributing to the fight to defend water, the poor certainly were and their small donations mounted up.

Many communities also organized fund-raising campaigns to hire their own buses. On the eve of the march, over 30 buses were lined up in the municipality of El Progreso alone. Encouraging news was also coming in from other regions that had organized successful activities to collect money for the trip to the capital.

No negotiations

On Sunday, August 24, President Maduro announced on national radio and television that his government would not be pressured into negotiations. The President talked of many things in his address, but failed even to mention the key grassroots demand to veto the water law. On Monday, August 25, the government launched a publicity campaign to play down the strike. It also organized a televised presentation of the government’s achievements by Maduro’s economic Cabinet. The Presiden warned that he would apply the full force of the law against anyone who violated constitutional order.

Threats, checkpoints and intimidation

The first buses left the western departments of Lempira and Intibucá, some 500 kilometers from the capital over difficult roads, in the early hours of the 25th. At 11am the transit police stopped them, alleging that they did not have permission to travel outside their normal routes. The second contingent of buses left Valle del Aguán, some 600 kilometers from the capital, on better roads than those in the west. They had barely left town when the police stopped them with the same argument and held them up for six hours.

The buses hired in El Progreso cancelled the contract the day they were due to leave, on the grounds that the government had threatened to indefinitely withdraw their circulation permits if they agreed to transport “the troublemakers.” While this was happening, the national coalition pressured authorities in the capital to lift the roadblocks. The people in El Progreso finally convinced 25 buses to make the trip, but some 700 people were left behind in the city’s central park, unable to join the caravan because several drivers remained intimidated by the government’s threats.

Although the authorities lifted the main roadblocks, they placed many smaller ones along the way. Some buses were stopped up to 20 times along the route, and each time the drivers were threatened and the passengers frightened. In many cases, police patrols stopped the buses and then hurried ahead to stop them again a little further on. The police stepped up their pressure as the buses neared Tegucigalpa.

Just before reaching the capital, the caravan came up against a squad of riot police who banged their riot shields with their billy clubs. That aggressive, metallic sound in the early hours of the morning made even the most determined of the demonstrators quiver. The government’s plan was to frighten people in an effort to prevent them from going on to the capital.

The official publicity campaign was aimed at minimizing, confusing and distorting the march’s objectives. The mainstream media presented the people’s imminent arrival in the capital as the appearance of the “real riders of the Apocalypse,” as one national radio commentator put it.

Tegucigalpa surrounded on all four sides

The time had come. At 5 am on Tuesday, August 26, the four main roads leading into the capital were blocked by thousands of demonstrators, according to the plan worked out by the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance. The road to Olancho was occupied by several groups, including the Coalition of Indigenous Peoples, primary school teachers, Tegucigalpa residents and the caravan from Olancho. The northern highway was occupied by caravans from the regions of Aguán, El Progreso, San Pedro Sula, Santa Bárbara and other municipalities in the western part of the country. The road towards the eastern department of Danlí was occupied by the caravan that came in from the east, along with the doctors’ and nurses’ unions and Tegucigalpa residents. And the southern highway was occupied by secondary school teachers and several other unions and associations. The police arrived with the order to dislodge and disperse the demonstrators, but there were so many thousands of people that this never happened; the head of the police operation on the southern highway was overheard telling his chief over the radio, “There are so many people here it’s impossible to carry out the task.”
The Coalition’s coordinating committee contacted the national radio stations at 6 am, but the news directors replied that they had orders not to transmit any news related to the protest. The committee then decided to go to the stations, and made their way into the transmission booths. At one station, they began to broadcast
but were quickly interrupted, but at another they finally succeeded in transmitting a statement announcing the demonstration’s demands. Despite the media owners’ attempt to boycott the demonstration, the size of the crowd surrounding Tegucigalpa made it impossible to ignore, and by 7 am, news of the protest began to be broadcast. Still, the reports tended to focus only on isolated events, without conveying the mood of enormous enthusiasm in the streets.

“Your election isn’t a blank check”

The statement read over the radio at 6 am wasn’t published by any of the country’s written press, and the government alluded to it evasively and disdainfully. envío is publishing this historic text in full, because it explains the motives behind the largest demonstration in Honduras’ recent history.

Statement of the people to the Government of the Republic:
The social, community, labor, indigenous and grassroots organizations of Honduras, grouped together in the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance, would like to announce our position on the current agenda of the legislative and executive branches.

We emphatically reject the Framework Drinking Water and Sanitation Law passed and ratified by Congress because it establishes the basis for the state to gradually renounce its responsibility to conserve, distribute and administrate drinking water, a resource vital to national sovereignty, by transferring this responsibility to the municipalities, which will in turn transfer it to the service providers. We demand that the President veto the law, and demand that the legislators discuss the proposed bill we presented to Congress on July 1 of this year.

We repudiate the decision of the executive branch and many legislators to introduce a Civil Service reform bill, because it represents the first step towards legislation designed to undermine the statutes of several professional associations and roll back the achievements made by unions and associations through their collective contracts, and because it would leave state employees and workers unprotected. We demand that this proposed bill not be placed on the legislative agenda under any circumstances, a demand that we also make of the proposed bill to insert the unemployed into the labor market, which would extend the trial period for new employees from two months to three years, during which time they would not enjoy any labor rights.

Land ownership legislation is of fundamental importance to the present and future of the most vulnerable sectors of society and to the country’s development. However, rather than providing a clear response to the agricultural problem and the need for the recovery of community land, the proposed “Poverty Reduction through Property Titling” law will lead to greater confusion and ambiguity. We therefore demand that this proposed bill be shelved and replaced by a process of consultation and debate that will lead to legislative proposals that address the problem of agricultural land ownership as well as community property in urban areas.

We would like to remind the legislators and the President that their election by popular vote is not a blank check. It is a mandate to govern in consultation with the people. The experience of nearly a year of struggling to defend water and other grassroots conquests has taught us a hard lesson: most of our elected representatives do not listen to the people, and the legislative agenda is defined outside the country, in response to outside interests.

We reject the government’s proposed National Dialogue because it is not inclusive, valid or credible, and given the lack of any willingness to listen and of real debate over the people’s problems, we see it as a mockery on the part of those in power. If the government is truly willing to listen, we demand that it immediately respond to our demands and proposals.

The National Dialogue unmasked

The Coalition’s coordinating committee tried to contact the Presidential Palace, but there was no response. They then called the president of Congress, who replied that he would discuss the problem with the heads of the legislative benches and would propose a time to meet with the demonstrators. At 10 am, they again called the Presidential Palace, and in response to the continued refusal to talk, the committee decided to present their official list of demands to President Maduro.

At 11 am, the president of Congress announced that the congressional leadership had agreed that they had nothing to discuss with the demonstrators. Shortly before noon, President Maduro announced that he did not recognize the demonstrators and would not give in to pressure and blackmail. He insisted that the National Dialogue provided a forum to discuss national problems.

Maduro called this “National Dialogue” in July, to design a national plan for the next 25 years. It mainly consists of representatives from sectors allied with the governing party.

The August 26 demonstration unmasked and invalidated this initiative by showing the nation how the government’s current policies threaten the country’s present and future by subjecting it to the conditions set by international organizations, especially in the case of the privatization of water. Its organizers and participants were all social, community, indigenous and grassroots organizations from around the country that are excluded from the National Dialogue.

Resign, Maduro!

The demonstrators stayed at their posts from 5 am until 1 pm, when the Coalition’s coordinating committee gave the order to converge on the square in front of Congress, in the old heart of the capital. As the demonstrators began to walk to Congress under the burning sun, after eight hours at the roadblocks, President Maduro was bringing the “National Dialogue” with the “representatives of civil society” to a close. “Here,” he said pompously, “are the true representatives of the people, and you are the ones I have to listen to. Now more than ever, I state before you that no one will force me to talk under pressure or blackmail.” Just a few blocks from Congress, 25,000 voices in a huge, single mass could be heard calling out, “Resign, Maduro! Resign, Maduro!”

Civil disobedience and hunger strikes

At the House of Congress, the Coalition’s coordinating committee had planned to read the following statement:
“We would like to announce that we will continue to carry out sustained resistance. First, we call on our people, our communities, the Water Administration Boards and all sectors of rural and urban society to begin civil disobedience against the public authorities, within the framework established by our Constitution. We cannot accept, we cannot obey those who have approved legislation against the country’s best interests. We cannot obey a water law that threatens the lives of the poor. We urge people to disobey our irresponsible, elitist and anti-national authorities.”
The plan was then to announce the names of public figures who were beginning an initial 24-hour hunger strike, as the next stage of sustained resistance. After their names were read out, the statement would then conclude: “From this moment we are moving to the next stage of resistance with the hunger strike. All those compatriots who so desire are invited to participate in this strike. We would also like to announce that at this moment, actions of resistance are also starting up in each region of the country. We will not stop resisting until the government answers our firm demands.”

A few uncontrolled acts

These words were never spoken, however. The committee had barely begun to read the first paragraph when disturbances broke out on the steps leading up to Congress. A small group of overly excited demonstrators began to harangue the crowd, urging them to take over Congress. Their actions provoked a violent reaction from the police, which led to a clash between police and some demonstrators: the police struck demonstrators, some of the demonstrators threw rocks at the police, and thousands of other demonstrators fled in an attempt to escape the tear gas, police bludgeons and a potential fire, as flames began to burst out at several points around the House of Congress.

In all, some 20 people were wounded, 15 were detained, hundreds of people from the countryside were lost, and the faces of thousands of demonstrators, dispersed through the streets and alleys of the deformed capital, were filled with panic and rage. Unlike the peaceful, orderly action that the indigenous groups from western Honduras had been carrying out for a week and that added so much to the demonstration, the violent actions of a small group of demonstrators detracted from the demonstration and temporarily halted the sustained post-march resistance planned by the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance.

Maduro: Intolerant, angry, out of control

As he had done three months earlier in response to the March for Life organized by environmentalists to demand a halt to unrestricted logging and a redefinition of government priorities, President Maduro turned a dear ear to the demonstrators’ demands. On neither occasion was he capable of taking a constructive attitude. It is generally felt in the country today that the President seems bothered and angry, and his intolerance is not only ideological in nature. He literally appears to be psychologically beside himself. And with good reason. On top of this growing wave of discontent and organized grassroots protest, he is facing divisions and unrest within his own party. The congressional representatives of the National Party’s most traditional sector are calling for the heads of several ministers they believe to be incompetent and disloyal to party lines. Then there’s the international pressure, which is unsustainable. The IMF is refusing to sign a letter of intent with the country because it views the government as unable to fulfill the required fiscal, political and legal conditions, and doubts that it can create the right conditions for an agreement anytime in the near future, with the country in such crisis.

On top of all this, his irritation is being fueled even in his own home. His wife, Aguas Ocaña, a Spaniard he married just a few months ago, created a national scandal by abruptly leaving the country after publicly criticizing her husband for ignoring her request to fire a government minister with whom he had formerly been involved, accusing him of not fulfilling his vows of marital fidelity.

The President’s source of support

With all these burdens weighing him down, President Maduro has chosen to hide behind a shield of intolerance when faced with anything beyond his control. His main source of support is Oscar Álvarez, his security minister, whose ideas were shaped by the notorious National Security Doctrine under the tutelage of his now deceased uncle, General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, who led the greatest reign of terror in Honduran history in the early 1980s. Maduro’s positions have hardened as a result of his personal and political insecurity. His agenda is defined by the interests of elites strategically linked to financial and political power groups, and particularly by US foreign policy interests. His publicity campaigns emphasize achievements on secondary, superficial issues: anti-crime and anti-gang operations in which he himself participates on a daily basis, the arrest of gang members, the so-called National Dialogue, and international “solidarity” in the form of the 360 Honduran soldiers sent to Iraq. But his only response to the political opposition and any other groups he can’t control through publicity and party lines is one of rejection and contempt.

“Seditious thugs”

The government took advantage of the immaturity of some of the demonstrators, who got carried away by the size of the demonstration and were no doubt provoked by police infiltrators. It used these violent last-minute acts to silence the force expressed through the march and the demands that gave rise to it. On the night of the 26th, most of the media presented the most negative images: flames outside Congress, demonstrators with clubs and stones, the wounded and beaten.

The following day, President Maduro made a hysterical statement reiterating his contempt for the demonstrators he described as “thugs.” He accused the leaders of “manipulating people’s feelings” and charged that the march had been financed by international organizations intent on destabilizing his government. Maduro promised to put those involved in acts of vandalism in jail, along with the leaders of the march for supposedly organizing the violence and for sedition.

No turning back

The violent acts temporarily demobilized the sustained resistance planned by the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance. But the path has been sketched out and the demands remain firm. The government, determined not to respond in any way, has dedicated itself to a series of political, ideological and legal reprisals against the coalition’s leaders, while at the same time trying to squash all information about the march’s demands. But it has not succeeded in covering up people’s discontent. The President’s public bursts of anger and threats tend to diminish his figure, and as his administration’s credibility erodes, the country is heading towards an ungovernable situation. Although Maduro was able to create a temporarily threatening environment, he will be unable to keep popular discontent from growing.

Olancho 1975 and Olancho 2003

The march was the largest and best-organized demonstration in the country in at least 30 years. What could have been
a similar demonstration, had it not been crushed, was held in June 1975. It began in Olancho and was joined by people from other regions of the country who marched to the capital demanding agrarian reform. The Hunger March never reached the capital, however, since it was stopped by the Los Horcones massacre, in which 14 people were killed, including 2 priests. A period of fierce repression followed that big demonstration, putting a damper on grassroots organizing for many years and leaving Honduras’ grassroots and political organizations out of step with organizations in other Central American countries during the armed conflicts.

The second similar demonstration took place just a few months ago. The March for Life, led by environmentalists from Olancho, began with 2,000 people and swelled to 15,000 by the time it reached the capital a week later. It inspired people from all over the country, from a wide range of social and grassroots sectors.

The March for Dignity and Resistance was even larger, in the number of participants, its national scope, its demands and its level of enthusiasm. It has transformed the resistance to the international organizations’ impositions into a nationwide movement.

The march didn’t come out of nowhere

The March for Dignity and Resistance was a very important step towards linking and coordinating social and grassroots organizations from all over the country. Honduras is very diverse both geographically and politically, with several distinct regions and a wide range of different cultures and political struggles. This demonstration was a decisive step towards overcoming fragmentation, without undermining the distinct identity and specific struggles of each region and organization involved.

The march didn’t come out of nowhere. It was a way of organizing and channeling the growing discontent in Honduran society in response to a political caste that views the state as spoils to be divvied up and used to buy or blackmail the conscience and will of the people. It was the result of a two-year process of meetings among the country’s diverse social and grassroots organizations, which led to the identification of common concerns that have become increasingly critical because of the government’s insensitivity. The organizing effort originally involved regional entities, such as the Permanent Grassroots Assembly Against Privatization in El Progreso, the Popular Bloc with its main headquarters in Tegucigalpa, the Coalition of Grassroots Organizations of Aguán, the Regional Foundation of the Santa Bárbara Valleys and the Coalition of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations, and finally came together in the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance, a young but very promising organization.

Groundwire

Through this march, people have tried out the strategy of large-scale grassroots mobilization. It may well mark a break with the dispersion and fragmentation that has characterized grassroots movements in recent decades, and help us find a way of running a groundwire to connect with the realities and rhythms of the poorest, most vulnerable sectors of the population. That’s the path we need to take if we are to build the grassroots opposition so sorely needed in Honduras.

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