Tuesday, September 15, marked the celebration of Independence Day in Central America. I had a holiday in Guatemala, where I live, and spent the morning watching live coverage of the separate parades mounted by dueling factions of Honduran society, bitterly divided by the June 28th army coup. One parade featured platoon after platoon of soldiers marching along a short route to the national stadium in Tegucigalpa, where they were received by a small crowd of onlookers, described by some commentators as the sort of crowd seen at matches between last-place football teams. The other featured union workers, school bands, families marching with their children, senior citizens in wheelchairs and even a contingent carrying gay flags, perhaps 100,000 people all told, which stretched for several kilometers and marched to the city’s central park.
I mention all this partly because I happen to love Central American parades. Even at the height of Guatemala’s dirty civil war, the sight of soldiers playing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" on glockenspiels somehow always made me smile. And, nerve-wracking as the school "war bands" may be, beating snare drums in the streets for weeks before Independence Day, their presence is somehow a welcome harbinger of coming festivities. While I do love these parades, yesterday’s events were instructive for other reasons.
Yesterday marked the 80th day of resistance to the army coup in Honduras. Protesters have been in the streets marching every single day for the past 80 days, despite at least two assassinations by army snipers and brutal beatings, tear-gas grenades and detentions by police and army forces. The resistance leadership has worked tirelessly on organization during that time, creating a massive movement with a broad agenda for social and political reform. Yesterday the resistance was very clearly flexing its political muscle, summoning people in numbers that would previously have been unthinkable and far surpassing the number of people who attended the official army parade.
Before exploring press accounts, we have to dwell for a moment on the unfortunate incident of the hijacking of a school "war band." As in Guatemala, the centerpieces of Honduran Independence Day parades are the school bands, with their drums, glockenspiels and baton-twirling majorettes. Rival organizers knew this and were working hard to secure as many school bands as possible. The army parade was able to obtain three, compared to at least eight in the resistance parade. It all seemed like a friendly enough competition until news broke that ten police agents, acting under orders of the presidential guard, had hijacked a school band headed for the resistance parade. Channel 36, a resistance TV station, immediately sent a film crew to investigate and interviewed an irate school principle, who described how the police had taken instruments from the school bus and loaded them onto a police bus, while also forcing the students to board and striking teachers who tried to interfere. It was, the principle said indignantly, "something never before seen in the history of Honduras."
Now, for an account of the official army parade, we turn to a newspaper owned by one of the coup architects, Jorge Canahuiti. You’ll have to bear with me. One encounters this type of flowery Spanish frequently in Central America, and it’s very difficult to translate, since there is no real equivalent in modern English. Here’s how the article begins:
A love for Honduras was expressed as never before.
From mid-morning, residents of the capital took to the Suyapa boulevard to participate in the celebration honoring the country’s 188th birthday.
Rejoicing welled from the interior of each person present, who, with their applause, whistles and smiles, demonstrated a pride in being the sons of a free, sovereign and independent nation.
Students from some schools decided to join the outpouring and highlighted civic values with their presence. In the independence celebration, the military corps was also present to delight old and young with their skills.
There is no pro-resistance newspaper in Honduras, but El Tiempo in San Pedro Sula tried to strike a more balanced note.
Notably absent from the civic-military parade organized by the government were the famed majorettes and war bands from elementary and secondary schools, who mostly decided not to attend, with the exception of some four high schools, on orders from the leadership of the teachers [union].
In the absence of students with their colorful dress uniforms who captured the public’s admiration in the past, the day’s main attraction were members of the different branches of the Honduras Armed Forces, who practically dyed the short route, left unfilled by the public, from Plantas Tropicales (the starting point) to the National Stadium in olive green.
Here is a photo it posted of the official parade.
Back to the coup newspaper, we can only soar to greater rhetorical heights once inside the stadium.
The Santa Teresita band and the presence of the Instituto Central Vicente Cáceres [the hijacked band] also caused a sensation during the march, especially on reaching the interior of the National Stadium, where the public rose to applaud them until they were exhausted.
The entrance of the diverse military corps to the field inside could not have been better, as the public massed in the stands followed the deployment of each platoon.
However, it was the air show which stole the highest marks from those present.
The presence of cavalry and military work and training teams were, without any doubt, another of the celebration’s attractions.
The entrance of General Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez generated an unforgettable reception as he, along with the Joint Chiefs, marched in unison.
And the head of the Joint Chiefs, dressed in his military uniform and carrying a rifle in his hands, saluted the presidential cabinet and, without missing a beat, left the field, leaving behind a thousand people paying him tribute.
Here’s a Reuters photo of General Vásquez (right) and the Joint Chiefs with their guns yesterday. Note the nearly-empty stands in the background.
The coup newspaper devotes a scant three paragraphs to the massive resistance parade on the other side of town. I have quoted from its article at length because I think it’s important for people to see, first-hand, how the coup media operates. The pro-coup newspapers, radio and television stations in Honduras are like Fox News on steroids.
There is no comparably effusive account of the resistance parade, but El Tiempo newspaper again tries to provide balance:
In an atmosphere of joy and jubilation, the National Front Against the Coup celebrated the country’s 188th anniversary, organizing a multitudinous march from Morazán boulevard to the capital’s historic center.
As had been expected, the resistance front not only paraded with an impressive number of demonstrators, it also had several groups of majorettes, war bands, satirical costumes, floats, national banners and torches, among other attractions typical of traditional September 15th celebrations.
The resistance had been buoyed by international news in the days leading up to the Independence Day parade. The UN Development Program, for example, had announced it was cutting aid for the November elections, which the world will consider illegitimate and which the resistance is calling on Hondurans to boycott. The regime’s UN ambassador had been unceremoniously tossed out of a human rights meeting on Monday, at the request of Mexico and Argentina. The U.S. had revoked more than a hundred visas of businessmen, judges and congressmen involved in the coup, including the visa of regime leader Micheletti and prominent businessman and coup organizer Adolfo Facussé. (The U.S. action has actually led to the coining of a new verb in Honduran Spanish: desvisar, which means to strip someone of their visa. Those who have lost visas are now called desvisados.)
While Hondurans of both stripes pay little attention to Micheletti, a bumbling, ungifted and petty politician, Facussé’s story captured the nation’s attention. He had flown to Miami to meet with Republican congressmen (supposedly also taking his son for a doctor’s appointment in Coral Gables), but was escorted from the airplane by U.S. immigration agents, placed in a small room and forced to return to Honduras on the next available flight. He held a press conference upon his return, in which he said he had nothing to do with the coup and threatened to sue the State Department. Hondurans enjoyed this spectacle enormously and, writing in the comments sections of newspapers, were quick to offer the services of coyotes, who could take him overland through the Mexican desert for a fee of $5,000. One radio commenter noted that Facussé was like "the man who killed a tiger and was afraid of its skin," meaning that he feared the consequences of his own actions.
I watched the resistance parade live, via Internet, on Channel 36, occasionally tuning in to Radio Globo’s coverage as the parade passed its studios. More than two hours elapsed from the moment the first motorcycles leading the parade passed Channel 36 cameras until the very last marchers had filed past. Tens of thousands of people participated, and the number could easily have reached 100,000.
This was indeed the people’s parade, the kind of traditional Central American parade that is endlessly entertaining, that warms the heart and makes you smile. Here were the hand-lettered signs, each a minor work of naïf art, the little boys in cowboy hats who stopped to wave at the cameras, the elderly women, some in wheelchairs, who had lost husbands in the nightmare years of earlier military regimes, the students beating their snare drums, some of whom, unable to afford colorful uniforms, were dressed in their everyday white school shirt and trousers, the majorette who attempted to leap, in high heels, onto two bass drums set end-to-end in the street and slipped, the four-year-old children marching with their parents who knew all the protest chants by heart and belted out "EL PUEBLO UNIDO" for the interviewer, delighting in the crowd’s refrain of "jamás será vencido," the courageous wife of the deposed president, Xiomara Castro, accompanied by her daughters and wearing her signature cowboy hat, the trade unions, each with its banner, the taxi drivers, people organized by barrio, the endlessly waving Honduran flags.
Here’s a photo of doña Xiomara, well-known for her work to assist AIDS patients in Honduras, leading the parade.
And here’s a short video of one of the school war bands. The song they are playing is one of the resistance songs, "Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo" or "They fear us because we are not afraid." You can get some sense of the crowd’s size around 1:48 in the video, when the camera pans up and down the street. This is but a small section of the parade route.
On and on and on they marched, a stunning demonstration of civic involvement and a repudiation of the army coup which the coup organizers could scarcely have anticipated when they sat down to plan their overthrow of the government three months ago.
The progress and context of this social movement are summarized in an excellent article by Canadian journalist Jennifer Moore, based on an interview with Honduran social researcher Leticia Salomón:
"Those [businesses] that thought the coup would be a matter of thousands of dollars, now have thousands and even millions of dollars invested in this. Not just money that they have put in, but money that they have lost as a result of the highway blockades, work stoppages, and strikes. The business sector recognizes that this has been terrible for them, and as a result, a strong business sector has begun to pressure for a solution to this because they have reached the upper limit of the economic cost of the coup."
But beyond confounding coup makers' plans, Salomón adds that broad-based national resistance to the coup is giving rise to a new "social force" in the country that any future government will have to contend with.
It was this new social force that was on display, for everyone in the world to see, during yesterday’s rival Independence Day parades. After a mere 80 days, the resistance has attained a level of organization and discipline that few would have thought possible, and which the coup organizers clearly did not expect. It is a vibrant, colorful and authentically Latin American force, juxtaposed against the stereotypical farce of a military regime propping up puppet leaders that is all too familiar from the dark annals of Latin American history. It is a force that promises to transform Honduras with a new-found concern for the nation’s impoverished (who can not even dream of flying to Coral Gables for a doctor’s appointment). It is a force that will expand the exercise of citizens’ rights beyond the election of a president every four years into an authentic participation in the country’s political process. It is a force composed of many voices, from all walks of life, enthusiastically singing and chanting in streets throughout the country. And it is the force with the most majorettes and school war bands.