“Support of the US to the current government that we have which is a criminal government. That is what generates conditions for this caravan to take place.”
Honduran Congress member Bartolo Fuentes (2014-2017) spoke to a large audience through a webinar organized by the Honduras Solidarity Network titled Roots of the Exodus: From the Honduran Political Crisis to the Refugee Caravan, an Update.
Fuentes, a member of the LIBRE political party, a party organized out of resistance to what are widely seen as stolen elections of 2013 and 2017, spoke from the capital Tegucigalpa. Fuentes had been deported from Guatemala while accompanying a caravan of Hondurans fleeing violence, political persecution, and extreme poverty.
Vicki Cervantes, co-coordinator of the Chicago group La Voz de Los de Abajo facilitated the webinar and indicated the importance of responding to the narrative coming out of both the Trump administration and the government of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, “It’s important that we do not accept, and that we answer and respond to the narrative of both Trump’s government and Juan Orlando Hernandez’ government because they want to ignore the roots of the exodus.”
Cervantes went on to introduce Fuentes, a journalist, who has reported persecution, verbal attacks and death threats against him for his work and for his activism. In defense of the refugees leaving Honduras, he has been threatened with charges of human trafficking by the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez. A fraudulent Facebook account was created using his identity and photo, and he reports taking necessary measures to protect himself against these threats
Although multiple groups of several hundred escape conditions in Honduras daily, Fuentes believes the particular massive group that left Honduras on October 13, did so as a result of unprecedented widespread media coverage.
“On the morning of October 12 the media covered the news. One of them didn’t just report on a march of migrants that were leaving, headed towards Mexico because the people at that point weren’t even saying that they were going to the United States. They were going to Mexico on foot and they were going to ask for rides to get to Tapachula, [Mexico] and then from there, ask to be recognized as refugees.”
One of those news channels was HCH according to Fuentes, “HCH didn’t just report. HCH started a campaign to try to discredit and attack that caravan. They were saying that it was a spectacle, a conspiracy carried out by the political enemies of the government, and that those people were being paid.”
Fuentes said that he was named as the person financially supporting the caravan, and actually paying people to join in, an accusation he flatly denies, “I was there in the [bus] terminal. I had already announced that I would be accompanying them in my role as journalist and as a defender of the rights of the migrants.”
“What [HCH] thought was a way of discrediting and to try to take away from the prestige and importance of the caravan, it actually turned into a publicity campaign. Thousands of people watch that channel, because that’s a channel that reaches grassroots communities all over. What they took away from it was, hey other people are heading north and they’re going together. And so a lot of people made the decision at the same moment they saw that news on the channel and they joined that same day.”
So what started as a group the usual size of 150 to 200 people fleeing Honduras, grew to 1500 people overnight, and grew at the same rate each day after that. At the height of its numbers, about 6000 people reached Mexico City in the first wave, 2000 in the second, and 1500 in the third wave.
Fuentes said that about 10,000 people moved through Mexico and that most made it to Tijuana, while others stayed back in Mexico to ask for asylum there.
In discussing the political context in which Hondurans have fled, Fuentes said that there has always been poverty, but not to the extent that now exists, “In Honduras we’ve had poverty for a long time. This scandalous level of poverty has really been over the last 10 years.”
In 2009, Honduras experienced a US backed military coup, “It’s not just the economic situation of people, its also the deterioration of the basic services from the state: education, healthcare, fundamentally and a very precarious state of employment.”
Fuentes pointed to the 2017 elections, the results of which election observers, as well as the population questioned, “It was certain that the government that we have now was going to leave. People voted massively, but the fraud was scandalous.”
With over 50% of the vote counted, the numbers of which were announced close to 2 AM the next morning, showed Salvador Alejandro Cesar Nesralla Salum ahead of incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez Alvarado 45.17% to 40.21%. The election oversight body, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced that the results were not statistically reversible and Hondurans could be heard across the capital, Tegucigalpa, celebrating in the streets.
“But the fraud was a completely unabashed, shameless fraud. Nonetheless [the National Party] were able to get the approval from the US representative in Honduras who seemed to have more weight that the TSE itself within our country. And so people took to the streets. They took to the streets to protest. The government didn’t just send out police to attack with tear gas in response. No. They took out the military from the barracks. Even the engineers battalion participated in repressing the people, shooting with firearms that are used for war, with live ammunition. They killed more than 40 people right in the in the middle of the day in the middle of the street in front of tons of witnesses. Nonetheless, there’s still not a single soldier that has been accused for these assassinations.”
“[Before the election] people are there with some hope that there might be some change. There might be some improvement in their economic condition. That hoped ended last November and the beginning of this year. If I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money, I don’t have any healthcare, I don’t have education, and the little bit of hope, they take that I have. They shoot it down. The military shoots it down. There’s nothing left that’s going to keep me in Honduras.”
US role in maintaining the Hernandez government in place does not go unnoticed by Hondurans, “The government of Donald Trump is highly responsible for this social phenomena. We know that the government of Juan Orlando is corrupt. Even Donald Trump said it at one of his press conferences. He said, ‘We’re giving lots of money to the government of Honduras. I’m sure they’re just robbing it.’ He said it himself. And it’s true. That’s not a supposition.”
Several arrest orders have been issued in the past few days for leaders of Hernandez’ party officials in the National Congress accused of stealing money from the Secretary of Agriculture of the National Agrarian Institute, “It is a corrupt government. It’s a government of robbers, of thieves. And a few days ago, in the United States, they captured, they arrested the brother of the president who also had been a congressmen in the prior period when I also was a congressmen. He also is being accused of having been dedicated to drug trafficking since 2004. And he has used, according to the witnesses that the prosecutors in the US have taken testimony from, he has the structures of the armed forces and the police to take not kilos, no, tons, literal tons of drugs, in particular cocaine to US. We’re talking about the brother of the president of the republic. Why? Why does the US back up those kinds of people?”
Fuentes urges the public to see the responsibility of the role that the US plays in forced migration, “That situation of repression, of persecution of the opposition, of the lack of hope for change. That’s what leads people to easily leave the country.”
Some of the blame also lies with the International Organization of Migration (OIM) Fuentes says. He cites the difference in the treatment of migrants leaving Venezuela for Peru who are provided transportation to their destination, yet Honduran migrants have been repressed instead. Instead, he says, that the OIM should also support Hondurans who wish to return, or who are not able to return, “Because if they go back to their communities, they’re going back to death. Death by bullet. Or death by hunger.”
Those most at risk for persecution are social movement leaders, especially teachers, he says, “And when they take to the streets, when they do assemblies the district director has been turned into basically police who are persecuting the teachers. They take them out for suspension hearings. They suspend their pay. They try to take away their jobs. And it even gets to the extent of the assassination of teachers in the streets. After the coup de etat, we’ve seen the selective assassination of teachers. And the teachers are really the spinal column because of their national presence, and their numbers. We’re talking about 50,000 people throughout the country. And they’re now completely afraid.”
Other persecutions exist against the small farmer sector. Currently about 5000 campesinos are facing arbitrary charges for their work according to Fuentes. Some of those are jailed, others have to travel to other cities to “sign in” on a weekly basis, creating a financial hardship to those living on meager sustenance wages.
Others are fighting arrest warrants for their work fighting for their land, or fighting mining concessions, or hydroelectric projects. Fuentes says the assassinations are continual.
The post-election protests saw a spike in assassinations, “That has bestowed fear among the people.”
“One thing is knowing they may beat you, or launch tear gas at you, or take you to jail. Another thing is to know that they might shoot you with an AR15 or M16. And we know just one of those weapons can shoot 900 bullets in one minute. And they have a lot of those kinds of weapons, and the military is shooting them. That kind of a situation has made it so that the people’s movement is a little bit afraid now. Nonetheless there’s still actions of protest.”
Nevertheless protests continue throughout the country. A highway takeover was violently repressed by police in the previous few days, while today three students were arrested for having burned buses. It was later discovered that police infiltrators carried out the arson in an attempt to criminalize student protesters. A protest earlier in the week ended with a journalist being shot.
This week the son of a city council person was assassinated. A student was also killed when he was set on fire and he burned to death. An attorney was killed last week on the steps of the Supreme Court in broad daylight. In a separate incident, a youth who was denied asylum and deported from the US was killed days within arriving back to Honduras, “The situation that we’re living in Honduras is terrible.”
“The US needs to understand the situation of violence that we are living through is in large part because of their support for a criminal government, for a dictator, for a usurper who has violated the constitution of our republic that prohibits reelection, and nonetheless he’s reelected. And now he shoots down in the street anyone who protests his violation of the law. And it’s the United States that’s backing him up. They are backing up a drug trafficker. The government of the United States must take responsibility for the crisis they have generated. What we want is a definitive solution that is a change of the reality of Honduras. If they change that, I have no doubt we will see less migration. In the future we won’t have to have more caravans of migrants. Otherwise this is going to continue. And its possible that at some moments, they become even larger.”
In fact I would say that’s one of the achievements of the caravan has been to make this issue visible and get the social movements to include this issue in their agenda.
When asked what he would like to see to resolve the humanitarian crisis, Fuentes responded, “We want Juan Orlando to leave the presidency. If that happens, that would mean an end to the massive migration that’s leaving Honduras.”
He would also like to see the restoration of Temporary Protective Status, “None of these people had passports or visas or asked for asylum. No. [The US] approved a lot of people, having been victims of a tragedy, were able to access a benefit that was offered by the government of the United States. The Coup of ’09 and the two periods of electoral fraud in 2013 and 2017 in Honduras have been worse, worse than the tragedy of Hurricane Mitch.”
“So we’re talking about a worse tragedy. So why doesn’t the US government consider approving another type of TPS instead of perversely, narrow-mindedly just dealing with 50 asylum applications per day? We are talking about a political hurricane.”
Fuentes fears that he too will have to soon flee Honduras because of the same political persecution that others have faced, especially in defense of the migrants who have left, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid that they’re going to judicially ask me to leave like they have done against other social leaders and other human rights defenders. And so stop the situation. Stop the repression. Stop the persecution. Change this criminal government. Return some of the social rights of the people. Improve their situation of life.”
“That is the best measure so that there doesn’t have to be any more massive caravans fleeing to the United States.”