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The Student Movement Standing up to the Honduran Regime

by Tom Sullivan

Ten years have passed since the democratically elected center-right president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was removed in a military coup. On the same day of a referendum to create a National Constituent Assembly that sought to rewrite the military dictatorship’s 1982 Constitution, Zelaya was whisked away to Costa Rica still in his pajamas. Observers across Latin America, watching nervously to see how President Obama would respond to his first real foreign policy test in the region, quickly had their hopes for a shift in US policy crushed. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were quick to legitimize the coup and call for new elections that in Clinton’s wordswould “render the question of Zelaya moot.”

Clinton has defended the US role in the coup by arguing that to declare it a “coup” would have forced the United States to cut off all aid to the country, ultimately hurting the Honduran people. Yet since then, Washington has found no shortage of alternative ways to hurt the Honduran people, who have watched their country turn into one of the most violent and dangerous in the world.

The current status quo in Honduras is reminiscent of the days of US-backed death squads during the 1970s and ’80s Central American civil wars. Since the coup, a right-wing dictatorship — maintained through an alliance between the military, landowning elites, and the media — has increased ties with the United States while drastically militarizing the country. In July 2013, the regime created the Intelligence Troop and Special Security Group. The next month in August, with a quick amendment to the Constitution to avoid the prohibition on military participation in policing, the Military Police was created. Even the DEA has entered the scene, through its Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) which is now conducting operations in the country.

After the brief scare that Zelaya’s self-declared “center-right” government might bring socialism to the country — one of the coup’s central justifications — Honduras has returned to a program of neoliberalization. But popular resistance to this agenda has been strong. The fraudulent reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) in 2017 was an important moment proving the criminality and violence of the regime: Hernández brutally cracked down on protesters, killing seventeen. Since only April of this year, state security forces have killed at least eight people protesting privatization attempts to health and education.

In what is starting to look each day more like a defining lucha (fight) for Honduras between a regime lacking legitimacy and a diverse movement of street protests, the role of the student movement has been critical. The key battleground has been the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) in the capital, Tegucigalpa. With a student population of over 93,000, since the coup UNAH has become both a symbol of government encroachment into Honduran society as well as popular resistance against the regime. Bitter fights have broken out over everything from administrative changes, to attempts to criminalize student protest, to an increase of the passing grade from 60 percent to 70 percent, which would have effectively kicked 13,000 students out of the university. Various groups within the movement have taken their fight all the way to the National Congress and even the Supreme Court of Justice, which in 2015 ruled in favor of ten students who had been illegally suspended for shutting down a UNAH campus in protest for sixteen days.

Student resistance first began to form in response to the 2009–2017 administration of UNAH under Rector Julieta Castellanos, a strong ally of the regime. In the words of one student protester, “many consider that this process of government control developed and intensified during” her rectorship and that “this is the origin and maturing moment of many of the conflicts of the university today.” One of Castellanos’s first acts as rector was to fire sixty workers at UNAH for allegedly illegally protesting on campus. When her term came to an end in April 2013, she stayed on as “interim rector.” Meanwhile, an act of Congress was passed to remove the rule of no-reelection, allowing her to continue in her role. The man responsible for steering the reform through the National Congress is now the current president: Juan Orlando Hernández.

The student movement is diverse, accommodating a range of ideologies and tactics. This year it has intensified as wider movements against Hernández’s attempts to privatize the health and education sectors have grown. Massive street protests have been led by La Plataforma para la Defensa de la Salud y Educación (Platform for the Defense of Health and Education), made up of various unions with more than seventy thousand combined members. Despite attacks by the staunchly pro-regime media, La Plataforma achieved a huge victory in June when Hernández backed down and repealed the law. It was a watershed moment of popular power against a regime that needed to deploy the military, when the police alone could not repress the movement.

On campus, the most important group within the student resistance is El Movimiento Estudiantil Universitario (The University Student Movement). Formed in 2016, the movement has proven unflinching in the face of the state security apparatus. For over two and a half years it has taken over buildings, led mass protests, multiple times shut down campuses for weeks at a time, and even caused the cancellation of an entire semester in 2016. The MEU has provoked the ire of the political class, represented by the closely protected former rector Castellanos herself, who accused the group of acts of terror and being of the extreme left.

These accusations have not prevented the MEU from winning wide support among the student body. The MEU fights for the democratization of UNAH, while joining its struggle with national-level action, supporting the wider social movement against the neoliberal ruling class. The MEU has been leading the student movement mainly through calling for large-scale student mobilization. A flashpoint was reached on June 24, when the military police invaded the UNAH campus and fired live ammunition at students. Remarkably, no students lost their lives, despite a number of serious injuries. Still, the protests are refusing to stand down.

It is important to understand that a key part of the spirit of UNAH is its autonomy. It’s so important that it is part of the university’s name and identity, National Autonomous University of Honduras. When the Military Police entered the campus and fired upon students, it was not just a disgraceful act of government repression against students, it was a direct violation of UNAH’s autonomy. In every sense of the word, it was an invasion.

Consequently, much of the fight has been for control of the all-powerful Consejo Universitario (University Council) which has the power to name a board which in turn appoints the executive of the university in the rector. The students, teachers, and administrators each have a 33 percent share in the voting makeup of the council. The student movement is now trying to ally itself with the teachers to have a clear majority control. Across the diversity of the student movement is one common desire: verdadera representación (true representation). For one senior student organizer who prefers to remain anonymous, this means the decentralization of power. To this student leader, one of the most pertinent problems is that the frentes universitarios (student groups) have “sold out” and belong to the political parties who try and use them for power and leverage within the country’s most important educational institution. In plain words, “estan jodiendo a nosotros” (“they’re fucking us”).

In Honduras, to oppose the government has become dangerous. The state apparatus has made it clear that any calls of “Fuera JOH!” (“Out JOH!”) will not be tolerated. The regime is protected by a national media that discredits any form of anti-government resistance and an international media whose only coverage of the country is to demonize its most vulnerable people who flee extreme violence and poverty. Under this imperial shield, Hernández is employing state violence and repression without fear of consequence.

Emboldened by Washington’s unequivocal support of the 2009 coup and the fraudulent 2017 election, as well as the 2015 constitutional change to allow presidential reelection, Hernández knows he is safe to apply a whatever-means-necessary approach to the mass protests that are now beginning to radicalize and call for his resignation. With the recent revelation that the president has been involved in drug trafficking with his brother — who is currently under arrest in the United States — “to maintain and enhance their power,” Honduras is on the precipice of becoming a narco-state. This makes it harder for the United States to publicly support Hernández. But when push comes to shove, he remains Washington’s man.

Now more than ever, the Honduran people are in need of international solidarity. The crisis they are suffering epitomizes the very worst of imperialism and neoliberalism. Hernández, with his known links to drug trafficking and criminal gangs, employs the state apparatus against his own people while corrupting democratic institutions to further entrench himself and the oligarchy that supports him in power. All this while unleashing a torrent of privatization attempts against the most vulnerable people. In response, students and workers are valiantly leading the fight. All who believe in anti-imperialism and power from below must show their solidarity with the Honduran people in this critical time.

Tom Sullivan is an Australian freelance journalist based in Mexico City.