Honduras: military control of Caribbean zone behind conflict?

A prominent presence at the protests demanding the return of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya are Garifuna drummers, singing and chanting in their traditional language. The Miami Herald reports they are especially motivated by Zelaya’s plan to revise the constitution. “We have been in a continuous struggle for decades to have a voice, to be visible, to have representation,” said Celeo Alvarez Casildo, president of the Organization for the Development of Ethnic Communities (ODECO), told the Miami Herald. “It’s not that we supported Zelaya—and much less the events that led to his ouster—but we have our own very good reasons for wanting a constitutional assembly.”

Garifuna seek territorial rights
The Garifunas are an Afro-Amerindian people who inhabit the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras. Although marginalized from political power in the country, their language, dance and music were proclaimed by UNESCO as “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2001.

Ruben Francisco García Martínez, one of just four Garifunas in the Honduran congress, came to office with his colleagues in 2006. They are the first Garifunas in the legislature in 75 years. García Martínez, who belongs to the same Liberal Party as Zelaya and Micheletti, blames the country’s political culture. “We’re lacking democracy within our own parties,” he said. (Miami Herald, July 22 via Sudan Forum)

Garifuna leaders in Honduras have been threatened and assassinated in recent years by the hired gunmen of big landowners seeking to encroach on their traditional territories in the northern Caribbean departments of Atlantida and Colón for tourism development.

Militarizing Miskitia
Military control of Honduras’ Caribbean region may be a key issue behind the conflict. In 2006, Zelaya and the Bush administration negotiated the future of Soto Cano air base in central Comayagua department. The base was known as Palmerola back in the ’80s when it hosted some 5,000 US troops. Since then, it has intermittently hosted lesser numbers. Zelaya insisted on converting it to a civilian airport, and following a DC meeting with Bush that June, the US agreed.

The pay-off, it seems, was to be greater US military access to Mosquitia. Rendered by its indigenous Miskito residents as Miskitia, this is the remote area of rainforest and coastal wetlands along the Nicaraguan border in the Caribbean zone—just down the coast from the Garifuna heartland. Drug traffickers have long used its many shletered coves with impunity. Honduran Defense Secretary Aristides Mejía said the Miskitia presence wouldn’t necessarily be “a classic base with permanent installations, but just when needed. We intend, if President Zelaya approves, to expand joint operations” with the United States.

Coup leader Gen. Romeo Vásquez had already traveled to Washington to discuss future plans for Mosquitia. Contradicting his colleague, Vásquez said the plan was “to establish a permanent military base of ours in the zone,” including aircraft. The US, Vásquez added, would help to construct air strips on site.

Then-Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte, also ex-ambassador to Honduras, weighed in, saying that Honduras could not transform Palmerola into a civilian airport “from one day to the next.” He made his own trip to Tegucigalpa to to discuss Palmerola. Speaking later on Honduran radio, Negroponte emphasized that the airport would have to receive international certification before plans could proceed. EFE reported that Negroponte also sat down with the president of the Honduran Parliament and future de facto president Roberto Micheletti. The account did not say what the two discussed. (Nikolas Kozloff, unfortunately writing for the discredited pseudo-left website Counterpunch, July 22)

Colombia tilts to Micheletti
Honduras’ de facto Foreign Minister Carlos López Contreras boasted to reporters July 22 that he had met secretly with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe two days earlier, who had expressed his support for the Micheletti government. Honduras is interested in closer ties with Colombia, because both countries are “victims of common external aggressors, like Hugo Chávez,” López said. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed there had been an “informal” meeting with a Honduran delegation, but refused to comment on Uribe’s alleged sympathy for the de facto government. (Colombia Reports, July 22)

Under the previous Honduran president, Ricardo Maduro of the conservative National Party, Uribe had wooed Tegucigalpa into an alliance with Colombia against Nicaragua in a maritime boundary dispute between the three nations. Honduras and Colombia agreed to recognize each others’ maximum claims, cutting Nicaragua out of a large and potentially oil-rich stretch of the Caribbean. In 2007, after Zelaya’s election, the World Court issued a compromise ruling on the Honduran-Nicaraguan dispute. With this, Zelaya and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega publicly reconciled, and Uribe’s strategy was frustrated. (Nicaragua’s case against Colombia at the World Court is still pending.)

The Miskito homeland is bisected by the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, and they fish in the waters which were disputed. Frustrated with government neglect of their region, indigenous elders in Nicaraguan Miskitia earlier this year declared independence from Managua.

See our last post on Honduras.

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  1. Did Negroponte visit Honduras on eve of coup?
    So claims Juan Almendares, ex-rector of the National Autonomous University of Honduras and president of the Movimiento Madre Tierra, in the August Spanish-language edition of Le Monde Diplomtique:

    Durante los primeros días de junio 2009 previos al día previsto para el golpe militar—el 25 de junio de 2009—visitó Honduras John Dimitri Negroponte. ¿Que hacía en Honduras, en un país invisible, este personaje sospechado de violaciones a los derechos humanos en varios países del planeta? Su misión era clara y estratégica. La prensa local reportó que se reunió en forma privada en la base de Palmerola y otros lugares con personas que han desempeñado un papel clave en el golpe militar: en particular, el general Romeo Vásquez, jefe del Estado Mayor Conjunto, y Billy Joya Améndola, quien en los años 80 fue uno de los principales dirigentes del Batallón de Inteligencia 3-36, encargado del secuestro y desaparición de opositores políticos y fundador de los escuadrones de la muerte “Lince” y “Cobra”. Hoy es asesor personal del presidente de facto Roberto Micheletti Bain.

    Negroponte también se reunió con la jerarquía de la Iglesia Católica y Osvaldo Canales, de la Confraternidad de las Iglesias Evangélicas, así como otros religiosos, empresarios y dueños de medios de comunicación, al igual que con Ramón Custodio (comisionado nacional de los derechos humanos) y con Micheletti, presidente del Congreso hondureño.

    Our translation:

    In the days of June 2009 immediately before that anticipated for the military coup—the 25th [ 28th? ] of June of 2009—John Dimitri Negroponte visited Honduras. What did he do in Honduras, in an invisible country, this personage suspected of human rights violations in various countries around the planet? His mission was clear and strategic. The local press reported that he met privately in the base at Palmerola and other places with people who have played a key role in the military coup: in particular, Gen. Romeo Vásquez, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Billy Joya Améndola, who in the ’80s was one of the principal directors of Intelligence Battalion 3-36 [ 3-16? ] , in charge of kidnapping and disapearing political opponents, and founder of the death squads “Lince” y “Cobra”. He is today a personal advisor to de facto President Roberto Micheletti Bain.

    Negroponte also met with the hierarchy of the Catholic church and Osvaldo Canales, of the Co-fraternity of Evangelical Churches, as wel as with other clergy, businessmen and owners of the mass media, and with Ramón Custodio (national human rights commissioner) and with Micheletti, president of the Honduran Congress.

    However, we have not been able to find references to the visit in the Honduran press. If anyone can help us, please do.