Indigenous People Assert Their Rights in Honduras

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    , Carlos Euceda
visited our community where he spoke and
granted interviews. Carlos is a Lenca Indian.
He is concerned about the lands that he and
his people inhabit in Honduras. And he is
trying to do something to protect them.
Carlos is finishing a law degree at the University
of Honduras in order to better equip himself to do
battle for the rights of indigenous people. I was pleased to
have the opportunity of interviewing Carlos on January 30.
This article is based on what I learned from him and from
working with the Peoples Alliance on Central America here
in C-U in the 1980s.
Those of us who were involved in the Central American
solidarity movement in the 1980s were familiar with the genocide
against the indigenous people of Guatemala which
resulted after the United States’ overthrow of the democratically
elected Arbenz government in 1954 (the year after it did
the same thing in Iran). Some 200,000 people, mainly Highland
Indians, lost their lives at the hands of the subsequent
military dictatorships.We were also familiar with the conflict
between the Miskito Indians and the Sandinista government
in Nicaragua. Many of the Miskitos, who lived in the eastern
coastal area of Nicaragua, received U.S. assistance in their
armed resistance to the Sandinistas.
While some Miskitos were native to Honduras,
and other Nicaraguan Miskitos used
that country as a refuge or base for armed
incursions into Nicaragua, there were not similar
conflicts between the Honduran indigenous
peoples and the government of Honduras.
This is not to say that there were not
serious human rights abuses in Honduras. It is
just that these abuses centered around opposition
to the real control of the country being in
the hands of the Honduran military and the
U.S., the latter using Honduras as a base for the
anti-Sandinista Contras that it had created.
The major player for the U.S. was Ambassador
John Negroponte, presently George Bush’s
ambassador to the United Nations. Among the Honduran
armed forces, which was headed by Colonel Gustavo Alvarez
who was on the CIA’s payroll, the most vicious unit was the
U.S.-trained Battalion 316, or the Special Investigations Directorate.
It was fond of “disappearing” and killing Hondurans
who protested the control of the army and the army’s doing
the bidding of the American government.Human rights workers
were also their prey.
Conflict between the Miskitos and the other Contra forces
and the Sandinista government ceased when the Sandinista
government lost the 1990 elections. In the 1990s, there were
U.N.-brokered peace agreements in Guatemala and El Salvador.
With the cessation of these conflicts, the Honduran
military felt less urgency to commit human rights abuses
against the civilian population. But a new crisis was looming.
If the United States no longer saw Central America as a region
that required its military intervention, either through support
of army-death squads, like those of El Salvador, Guatemala, or
Honduras, or of a counterrevolutionary force like the
Nicaraguan Contras, it continued to see it as a site for economic
exploitation. In fact, one could say that the conservative
governments that were left in place after the armed conflicts
were much more conducive to the implementation of
the U.S.’s economic plans than the U.S.-supported military
governments and counterrevolutionaries. Nevertheless, the
latter were necessary. They paved the way by eliminating those
who resisted U.S. control. But the best of all outcomes for the
U.S. was that the Central American countries were now ripe
for economic exploitation without the need to support expensive
wars against such exploitation. The populations had been
largely pacified.
Largely, but not entirely. In El Salvador, whose Indigenous
population had been almost entirely killed off in the massacres
of 1932 (La Matanza), the rebel groups formed a political
party and continue to struggle through elections and
through labor and peasant organizational activity. In
Guatemala, former rebels have organized politically and in
labor groups. But there is also a strong movement for indigenous
rights. In Honduras, where there was no organized
armed rebellion against the military government, the major
force of resistance comes from the Indian population.
There were two factors that led to this struggle. The first
was the greater penetration into Central America by neo-liberal
institutions. These include corporations like St., Louisbased
Monsanto and Novatis (a bio-technology firm), the
IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, the
projected CAFTA (a NAFTA for Central
America), and Plan Puebla Panama that plans
a whole complex of coordinated manufacturing,
shipping, mining, and tourist activity that
will transform the natural environment in
such a way as to threaten any semblance of the
people’s control over their own land and
The indigenous people are particularly vulnerable.
First, they live off of the land and the
waterways, so their very way of life is threatened
by the planned transformations of these
two crucial environmental components. Second,
they do not have individual titles to the
land. They have a form of collective ownership.
They are under pressure from the financial
institutions to transform their social and economic relations
by splitting up the land into individually owned tracts. Breaking
up the land also breaks up their solidarity and makes them
easy prey to corporations that will offer them attractive prices
for the land. Then, they will either have to migrate to already
overcrowded cities (a further break in solidarity and traditional
cultural ways of life) or sell their labor very cheaply to the
multi-national enterprises that locate in their former lands.
The second factor that led to the resistance against this
imposition of neo-liberalization was a real life-model for
action.At the end of the 1970s, a first organization of Miskitos
and Garifuna (people of Afro-Caribbean origin) was formed
in Honduras. In 1988, the Miskitos and the six other Indigenous
peoples joined with Garifuna people to create the Confederation
of Aboriginal Peoples of Honduras (CONPAH),
the organization with which Carlos works. The spark that
ignited the CONPAH into militant action was the uprising in
Chiapas that began in 1992. There, indigenous people showed
that they did have a power of resistance, even armed resistance.
In addition to armed resistance, the Zapatistas in Chiapas
asserted the right to autonomy over the areas in which
their communities were located.
The CONPAH has not engaged in armed resistance like the
Zapatistas. But what they have done is organize marches on the
capital to demand the following: programs of bilingual and
cultural education; the development of productive agricultural
projects that will offer food security without environmental
degradation; and compliance with the International Labor
Organization’s Convention 169, which is the strongest international
agreement protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.
The response to the actions of CONPAH has been brutal.
Carlos informs us that since 1992, 53 key indigenous organizers
have been murdered–a huge loss considering that indigenous
people constitute well under 10% of the approximately
six and a half million people in Honduras. Carlos further
informs us that six indigenous people who defended their
land rights have been sitting in jail for 2 years without a trial.
Aside from the killings and the jailings, the army has militarized
certain of the areas and villages. Families are intimidated
by the presence of military patrols on the ground and helicopters
in the air.Moreover, the United States is adding to the
military presence in the countryside. The U.S. presently has
two bases operating in the country and is building a third in
an area populated by the Miskito people. The bases offer some
services to the population, such as health exams, but Carlos
claims that there is a quid pro quo extracted from the indigenous
population. That takes the form of collection of hair,
blood, and teeth that generates data for genetic experimentation,
causing deep fear and resentment among these people
who desperately need health care.
Carlos was here not to just tell us about the plight of the
indigenous people at the hands of the Honduran and U.S.
governments and the multinationals that are after their land;
he was also here to ask for our help. Sixty percent of the
indigenous people in Honduras are illiterate. There are no
phones, but almost everyone has transistor radios.
Communication within sparsely populated and rugged
areas is crucial if their struggle is to be effective. Bill Taylor, a
member of our community, has collected radio transmission
equipment that would be of great value to their effort. But it is
expensive to prepare and transport. If you would like to aid
this struggle, you can donate cash or equipment to Bill Taylor’s
501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Primary Communications
Project, to enable him to get this material to the
people who so badly need it. Tax-deductible checks can be
made out to the Primary Communications Project and sent to
Bill at the PCP, 442 E. 1300 North Road,Monticello, Il. 61856.
Bill can be contacted via e-mail at or
via phone at 762-9561. Spanish speakers who would like to
contact the CONPAH directly can do so at

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