Adrienne Pine and Jesse Freeston discuss Hondurans’ demand that President Juan Orlando Hernandez resign and the repressive, violent police response to protesters
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
The protests against Honduras’s President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, which have been going on for several months now, are showing no signs of letting up. If anything, they have been intensifying ever since it became known last week that Hernandez was involved in a conspiracy to use drug trafficking money to support his 2013 presidential election campaign. That is, on August 3rd, the television channel Univision published a report that cited documents related to his brother’s drug trafficking trial in the United States. According to these documents, Hernandez’s brother, Tony Hernandez, has been involved in drug trafficking since 2004. As a drug trafficker, he funneled $1.5 million to the presidential campaign of his brother.
President Hernandez, however, has vehemently denied the accusations. Here’s what he had to say, followed by a response from Salvador Nasralla, the opposition from the Opposition Alliance who ran against Hernandez in 2017.
JUAN ORLANDO HERNANDEZ, PRESIDENT OF HONDURAS: These accusations are categorically false and perverse, made up by a drug trafficker called Alexander Ardón. They want revenge against the only president who’s done what he’s needed to do. They’re trying to stop us in our fight against drug trafficking, but we’re not going to stop.
SALVADOR NASRALLA, OPPOSITION LEADER: We live in a country that is a narco-state, where the Supreme Court of Justice, the Public Ministry, Congress, and the Armed Forces are used for drugs to cross the border. Drugs have been crossing through Honduras since 2002. Seventeen years of it, seventeen years of money being handed to politicians.
GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the protest against Honduras’s President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, and the allegations against him, are Jesse Freeston and Adrienne Pine. Jesse is a filmmaker based in Montreal, Quebec and the director of the film Resistencia, a documentary about the resistance to the 2009 coup against Honduras’s President Manuel Zelaya. And Adrienne is Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology at American University who has worked extensively in Honduras. Adrienne joins us from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Jesse from Montreal.
Thanks for being here today, Jesse and Adrienne.
JESSE FREESTON: A pleasure.
ADRIENNE PINE: Thanks for having us.
GREG WILPERT: So before we get into the background of the latest developments, let’s take a quick look at what’s been going on in terms of the protests. Adrienne, let’s start with you. Last week you were in the middle of the protest filming them, and you were attacked by the police. Tell us about what happened.
ADRIENNE PINE: Sure. Well, actually I experienced repression, I documented repression on two occasions last week. The first one was on Tuesday when, at the end of a massive protest that left from the National University and ended up in the Congress building, police and soldiers began very heavily repressing, even using an enormous tear gas – or sorry, tank, to repress the protesters. And actually the following day as well I documented that same tank, hours of tear gassing and repression at the university. The following day, Thursday, I went to meet with students at the university, the National University, former students of mine, and the police started repressing students there who were protesting against the regime and the privatization of healthcare and education. And I went up close because what I saw was that the police were throwing dozens of rocks at the protestors, using deadly force in addition to the tear gas canisters. And so I went toward the main gate of the university to document.
I was live streaming when the students started shouting to the police officers, “Look, there is a human rights defender. A gringa is filming you,” basically saying, “You should stop throwing these rocks because that’s illegal.” And so [inaudible] nd they started targeting me specifically. So what you’re looking at right now is video of my foot, my leg. And I had to run behind that tree you’re seeing and then behind a wall to protect me. I was very nearly killed on at least a dozen occasions when the rocks were whizzing past me. It was terrifying. And they were attacking me because they thought I was a human rights worker, specifically.
GREG WILPERT: Wow. So Jesse, now, there has been opposition against President Hernandez ever since he was elected in what most observers call a fraudulent election in 2017, actually was re-elected at that point. What have the protests been about since then? And how has the movement against him evolved leading up to today?
JESSE FREESTON: Well, I would say that ever since the coup in 2009 there’s been a series of waves of movements and protests. And they typically start out when the government fails to do some basic thing that governments are supposed to do. And typically that has to do with healthcare and education. And so, most recently we’ve seen for the first time ever the doctors get organized and go on strike, and organize protests, and take the streets, and take over highways, together with the teachers, who have a long history of doing that and have achieved kind of their middle-class status in Honduras in large part through these kinds of actions.
So, as Adrienne mentioned, there’s been a movement ever since the coup to privatize both these things as much as possible, little by little, education and health care. And those are the things that often spark these kinds of movements. In 2015, it was the National Party of Juan Orlando Hernandez that also inherited the coup, which stole $300 million, US, from the social security fund of the Honduran people. And then the study by the National University found that at least 3,000 people died from lack of access to their social security funds. And you don’t have to spend much time in Honduras to meet many people who can tell you stories of either themselves or their family who went to go get their social security after working for 30 years or whatever it might be in the service, and not being able to get access to it because it was stolen. So these are the kinds of things that the US Embassy and the Canadian Embassy and other governments have not denounced in the past. And maybe we’ll get to this, but it seems like this might be changing.
GREG WILPERT: Now, Adrienne, what are the current protests all about? I mean, of course they’ve probably taken up many of these demands that have happened in the past, but what’s the main issue at the moment? And what are the chances that their demands, whatever they are, of being fulfilled anytime soon?
ADRIENNE PINE: Well, so as Jesse mentioned, there have been nationwide protests since April led by doctors and nurses and teachers in response to new, even stronger efforts to privatize healthcare and education. But about two weeks ago, there were documents released in the Southern District Court of New York related to the drug trafficking case of the president’s brother and former Congress member Tony Hernandez that demonstrated that the current sitting President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, is being investigated as a co-conspirator, “CC4,” co-conspirator number four, in the drug trafficking case.
Basically, it gives credence to what everybody already knew in Honduras, which is that this is a narco-dictatorship. In addition to Juan Orlando Hernandez, the leaders of the police and military organizations have also been named in these documents as co-conspirators. People are outraged and see this as a potential turning point. And as such, beginning last Monday, there have been massive protests nationwide that both take on the themes that have been present in protest since April fighting against privatization, but more urgently, take on the demand that the dictator must go.
GREG WILPERT: Now, Jesse, President Hernandez, or JOH, as he’s sometimes called, has been quite directly implicated, as Adrienne was saying, in drug trafficking. But he denies these charges and even claims, as we saw in the clip earlier, that he is leading the fight against drug trafficking. Tell us a little bit more about Hernandez’s own background, where he comes from, and who he represents in Honduras society.
JESSE FREESTON: Yeah, Juan Orlando Hernandez is from Western Honduras. It’s a coffee region that has recently in recent decades also become a main transit region for cocaine coming up from Colombia. Juan Orlando Hernandez’s father was a main landowner and military colonel. And this is key I think to understanding his power base. He equally represents these two groups which are often unified in the history of Honduras and today in Honduras.
So that’s a bit where he comes from, and he comes from the National Party. And then, I don’t know if this is really important, but if there’s an equivalent to Make America Great Again in Honduras, it’s this kind of Make Honduras Safe Again. And it’s an older generation that looks back to the years of dictatorship under the Carías family, which was the National Party that Hernandez represents. And Hernandez’s wife is actually a descendant of Tiburcio Carías, and she actually has the last name Carías.
So all that to say is that, for a regime that hasn’t built a single school, that’s seen the healthcare system completely collapse and be, well, ransacked by themselves, their only real claim has been that they’ve been leading the fight against crime and leading the fight against drug trafficking. And so that’s why him being named directly in a US court, despite talking about how he works hand in hand with the US to fight against drug trafficking and is doing a historically good job of doing it, that’s why it hits straight to home. And he really has nowhere to go. He can’t say, “Oh, I’m doing great work in healthcare. I’m doing great work in education.” He has to keep hammering this home, “No, I’m tough on crime,” because that’s really, when you talk to his supporters, that’s the only thing they can mention that his government does, is invest in the military and invest in the police.
GREG WILPERT: Adrienne, that’s actually what I wanted to ask you about as well. I mean, does Hernandez have any credibility left in Honduras at the moment? And how are the press and the political class responding to these accusations against Hernandez?
ADRIENNE PINE: Well, it’s interesting, Greg, because the political class, or rather the mainstream press, has almost uniformly been supportive of Juan Orlando Hernandez, but they haven’t been able to ignore this news. And so there’s been something of a shift in the past week where they have to address the fact that in a United States Federal Court, the president that they’ve been supporting all along because the Honduran mass media is owned by the same people who supported the coup, the same people who’ve supported Juan Orlando Hernandez, and they’ve been basically his propagandists. But now what it’s looked like over the past week is that there’s a little bit of backing off because, ultimately, the sense is on the ground that Juan Orlando can’t last that much longer. Nobody knows how long he’s going to last, but there’s a consensus that he’s not going to finish out his presidential term.
GREG WILPERT: And if he doesn’t, if he were to resign, what would that mean? Would there be new elections, or would the vice president take over? What do you think would happen?
ADRIENNE PINE: That’s really the big question. That’s the million dollar question because that determines everything that comes afterwards. And there’s not a clear answer to it. It’s doubtful that Ricardo Alavarez would want, who’s next in line, would want to take on that position, because it’s a position that will be so tainted, and he himself wants to be elected president, a legitimated president. And there’s talk that perhaps there will be a governing council. But the thing is that, as people understand politics here, the real power lies in the US Embassy. And so, in large part, what people on the ground are saying is that it all depends on what they decide they want to happen in Honduras. And this is part of the ongoing usurpation of Honduran democratic processes and sovereignty that has been going on since well before the coup, but has really intensified since the 2009 coup.
GREG WILPERT: Okay. Jesse, do you want to add anything to that?
JESSE FREESTON: Yeah. I would say that this idea that the real power in Honduras is in the embassy … And I say the embassy because that’s what people call it, they call it “la Embajada.” They don’t say “the US Embassy,” they just say “the Embassy,” because of the power that it historically and apparently right now has in Honduras. And I’d say this is the first time though where from Honduras, it looks like you’re seeing two versions of US power, or two wills, or two desires coming from the North. Throughout the Obama government into the Trump government, there’s really been, while the words may have been different, there’s really only been one US. It’s been very consistent in terms of its support for the government and all this stuff. And in Honduras, people are used to the judiciary being extremely political. So the idea that the judiciary would do something that the executive doesn’t want is kind of – it doesn’t often happen in Honduras, and typically doesn’t happen in the US necessarily either. But what we’re seeing here is a New York Attorney General going after a sitting president of Honduras, and then the embassy, at least until now saying, “We still support this guy.”
And so I think this is a really interesting moment viewed from Honduras to see two versions of the empire, two moving parts of the empire apparently, at this moment at least. And maybe the embassy is getting ready to – maybe this is part of all one plan to replace him, but as for now it seems like there’s two moving parts kind of going against each other, which I think is quite fascinating. And I would point out the other thing is just what this shows is empire, as well as it might be a good thing that Juan Orlando Hernandez should fall given all his corruption. And so, it’s quite sad to see how in Honduras today if you want a decent education, you go to the US. If you want credit, you go to the US, whether it be to the stock market if you’re a private business. Or if you’re the government, you go to the IMF. And now if you want justice, you have to go to a court in New York. So I think that’s another lesson to take from what’s happening there.
GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now, but hopefully we’ll have either one or both of you back on again soon as we see how this situation develops.
I was speaking to Jesse Freeston, filmmaker and director of the film Resistencia, and to Adrienne Pine, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology at American University. Thanks again, Jesse and Adrienne, for having joined us today.
ADRIENNE PINE: Thanks for having us.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.