Special Report: Honduran Teachers Get Shock Treatment
A report from various communities in Honduras where the regime
imposed by a 2009 military coup has opened up an all-out attack on the
country’s teachers. Honduras’ teachers are, in the eyes of many, the most
organized sector of the anti-coup resistance movement. Over recent
months they have had their pensions stolen, their wages cut, their labor
rights suspended, and a new education law passed which they believe is
the beginning of the privatization process. In response, the teachers and
the National People’s Resistance Front have occupied institutions, roads
and highways across the country, to which the regime has responded with
Produced by Jesse Freeston.
JESSE FREESTON: Over recent weeks, the regime put in place by a 2009 military coup has begun the process of destroying the Honduran teachers movement, a campaign that has turned Honduras’s cities into battlegrounds. Opponents are calling it an example of what author Naomi Klein famously labeled The Shock Doctine.
NAOMI KLEIN: The exploitation of crisis and shock has very consciously been used by radical free-marketeers. And, you know, I start the book quoting Milton Friedman, something he wrote in 1982: only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. And he was admitting that his ideas, his vision of a radical, privatized world, couldn’t be imposed in the absence of a crisis.
FREESTON: Honduran sociologist David Vivar explains how it’s being applied in Honduras.
VIVAR: The teachers in Honduras are one of the only–or of the few sectors that have achieved a decent living. By this I mean they have decent housing, they have–well, they can send their kids to college, they have healthy food, etc. Since the coup, that livelihood has been, well, heavily attacked. A hundred million dollars was robbed from their pension fund and hasn’t been returned. Last September, Pepe Lobo went to New Orleans in order to study the charter school system design, and he brought it back to Honduras, and that’s what he’s giving us now.
FREESTON: The transformation of New Orleans’ public school system is one example employed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctine.
KLEIN: And one of the people who saw opportunity in the floodwaters of New Orleans was Milton Friedman. He said New Orleans schools are in ruins; the teachers, families, parents, are scattered throughout the country. This is a tragedy, he wrote; it is also an opportunity. Then he proceeded to explain that this was the moment to transform New Orleans’ education system into a charter school system, which means public money going to private schools, many of them run for profit. They busted the teachers union completely. They fired 4,700 teachers–they don’t have a contract anymore. This was the opportunity.
FREESTON: During our September visit to New Orleans, Pepe Lobo’s assistant, Mayra Pineda, was quoted by the student newspaper The Tulane Hullabulloo as saying, quote, "We’ve had a huge problem with teachers unions. . . . Charter schools are certainly one option to try to solve the union situation." Just two weeks after meeting with New Orleans authorities, Lobo signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. In exchange for a $200 million loan, he promised to cut the country’s education budget. A little over three weeks after that, the regime cut the teachers’ salaries, while announcing increases for the budgets of both the military and the police. One month later, an IMF evaluation declared things were, quote, "broadly in line with expectations".
DAVID VIVAR: When you see these institutions talk about development and targeting the only working class that ever truly developed, in December 28, during the teacher vacations, Lobo suspended the Estatuto del Docente, which is the teachers’ bills of right, which allows them to strike.
FREESTON: Then, in March, the regime passed a law moving control of the education system to the municipalities, and the teachers went on strike again. Lobo declared the strike illegal. Many teachers took to the streets anyways, occupying institutions, roads, and highways throughout the country. Freddy Zavala is one of the teachers who organized a highway blockade outside the town of Jutiapa on Honduras’s north coast. He put the regime’s attack on the teachers in the context of the broader repression since the 2009 coup.
ZAVALA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This is the continuation of the coup. We see here a disrespect for human rights. Every day, we see deaths, youths murdered, teachers beaten and shot. As teachers, we can’t put up with this any longer.
FREESTON: In the capital of Tegucigalpa, the teachers occupied the national institute in charge of their pension fund, in order to demand their $100 million be returned. Jaime Gonzalez is the president of one of the teachers unions that lead the occupation.
JAIME GONZALEZ (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The public education system has completely collapsed, abandoned because the people in power are redirecting all the resources to the security forces, the police, on top of an incredible level of corruption.
FREESTON: The regime has been running television ads saying that the law isn’t about privatization but about involving all sectors in the management of education.
CLIP, TV AD VOICEOVER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We all win with the Strengthening of Public Education and Citizen Participation Act–parents, teachers, schools, and above all, the kids.
CLIP, TV AD, UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This final document maintains the original spirit of not privatizing or municipalizing public education.
FREESTON: Beatriz Valle, former ambassador to Canada under the overthrown Zelaya regime, believes that they are destined towards privatization.
BEATRIZ VALLE (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Could the education system be improved? Of course it could. But this law doesn’t have a single article that talks about improving education. Let’s not fool anybody here. They want to provoke a crisis, and when the system falls apart, the private companies will naturally appear to fill the need that will be created in the society because parents want their kids to be educated. But most Hondurans won’t pay, because they don’t have the money.
FREESTON: Valle also stressed the significance of the stealing of the teachers’ pensions.
VALLE: Stealing someone’s retirement is a very serious attack on their humanity, a violation of a basic human right in any society. I don’t see why they can’t go out in the streets and protest. Their money is stolen. And then they can’t protest, because they’re called criminals. They’re repressed and killed.
FREESTON: Police and military were employed to remove the teachers from the pension institute by force. School principal Ilse Velasquez was killed during the attack. This security video shows her being run over by a TV truck in the chaos. Her daughters, also teachers, say she was hit in the head with a tear gas canister before falling under the truck.
DAUGHTER OF ILSE VELASQUEZ (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We’re convinced that my mom died as a result of the brutal repression that happened that day against teachers that are merely demanding that their historic gains be respected that have cost us blood, sweat, and tears in the street, because nothing the teachers have was ever given to them by the government.
FREESTON: Regime leader Pepe Lobo declared that her death was an accident. Ilse’s sister Zenaida couldn’t disagree more.
ZENAIDA VELASQUEZ: We come from a family of seven children. We love each other. If you touch me, you touched all of them. So I’m very hurt. My heart is broken. And–but that gives me the strength to fight back, especially when the government has started a campaign which is a campaign of impunity, trying to wash their hands, saying that my sister’s death, it was an accident. She was hit by a gas bomb. It was heavily gassed.
FREESTON: Ilse was killed in front of the very building that denied her her pension just days earlier.
Z. VELASQUEZ: She wanted to retire. She was told she needed to be on a waiting list because there’s no money to pay her salary, her retiree salary.
FREESTON: Ilse is not the first sibling that Zenaida has lost in Honduras’s social struggle. Her brother, student leader Manfredo Velasquez, was one of the more than 200 people disappeared by the US-backed Honduran regime in the 1980s.
Z. VELASQUEZ: Manfredo was kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared. This year is going to be his 30th anniversary of his disappearance. And we never found his remains. That is like having an open wound. And we haven’t healed that wound, when all of a sudden we have the wound widely opened again with what happened to my sister, Ilse /"van.ja/.
FREESTON: Eight years after Manfredo’s disappearance, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights found the state of Honduras responsible for the murder. It was the first time ever that a state was found responsible for such a crime. While it never led to a single conviction inside Honduras, it helped expose the regime’s treatment of political opponents.
FREESTON: At least up until the coup d’etat, there was a large improvement in the experience of social movements from 1981 to 2009.
Z. VELASQUEZ: Yes.
FREESTON: Is that all gone?
Z. VELASQUEZ: It’s gone. It’s incredible how [far] back we have gone with this regime after the coup d’etat. And it is also incredible to see the reaction of the population.
DAUGHTER OF ILSE VELASQUEZ (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The regime knows that the teachers are the backbone of the resistance. Since the day of the coup, we haven’t accepted the new reality. And all the persecution we’re receiving from the regime is payback for not having supported the coup d’etat, for example, the case of Manuel Flores, which was so incredibly clear. They went into his school and killed him.
FREESTON: There have been no charges filed in the case of Jose Manuel Flores or any of the ten teacher leaders assassinated since the coup.
DAUGHTER OF ILSE VELASQUEZ: The killing of teachers is a message that if we continue bothering the regime, they will continue with other teachers.
VIVAR: Our shock was the coup. Ever since that happened, everyone that’s politically active with the resistance movement has been repressed in every sense, not only beating and by the gas, but by–well, their lives have been threatened. These conditions are allowing the government to pass these unpopular laws.
FREESTON: Other groups have joined with the teachers in protesting the regime’s plans–a sign of the unity in the national resistance movement: high school students organizing walkouts, and motorcyclists who temporarily occupy key intersections; youths, unionists, street vendors, and others who maintain roadblocks; and taxi drivers who organized a park-in that paralyzed the downtown cores of Honduras’s two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, including support for the teachers in their campaign for subsidies against high gas prices. The country’s university students have occupied a series of campuses, including Tegucigalpa’s National Autonomous University. It is against Honduran law for police or military to enter university campuses, a law put in place after the governments of the 1980s disappeared student leaders and teachers. Today, the police are disregarding that law. They launch tear gas and rocks at students while armored trucks spray them with a mixture of water and chemical irritants. Last Wednesday, after roughly three hours of battle at the university’s two main entrances, about 50 police entered the university through the back, only to be pushed out again by hundreds of rock-throwing students. Daniel Moya is a leader of the student group FRU. He says that the government’s plan to pass its responsibility for education on to the municipalities has been seen before.
DANIEL MOYA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): In Honduras, municipalization means privatization. They’ve already done it before. In San Pedro Sula, the water service was handled by a state company, the National Autonomous Water and Sewage Service, which as a state company didn’t focus on making a profit, but did ensure drinking water for the majority of the people, which in our eyes is an essential human right. So what happens? They move the water service from SANAA to the municipality–they municipalized it. The first thing the mayor says is "I can’t handle this," and he creates a company called San Pedro Water with private capital. And today not everybody has access to drinkable water, because this company is obviously trying to make a profit. And if it’s not profitable to provide water to Neighborhood X, then it doesn’t matter if they die of thirst or not; the water’s not coming.
FREESTON: The regime has also stepped up attacks on journalists receptive to the cause of the teachers. Cholusat Sur is one of the two major TV stations sympathetic to the resistance movement. They have been threatened or shut down on numerous occasions since the coup. While covering the teacher’s strike, Cholusat reporter Lidieth Diaz was surrounded by police. When they pulled on her microphone, she told them to leave her alone. They then set off a tear gas canister at her feet. Two days later, Cholusat cameraman Salvador Sandoval was shot directly in the face with a tear gas canister while filming the repression of the teachers.
SALVADOR SANDOVAL (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I turned around, and the cop aimed at me from close range and fired, and the gas canister hit me in the nose, fracturing my septum.
FREESTON: Sandoval required emergency surgery.
SANDOVAL: The police have all the press identified as either "resistance" or "not resistance", and it shouldn’t be that way. They’re supposed to defend the security of everyone equally. The press has its hands tied. We’re repressed.
FREESTON: Sub-Commissioner for the National Police Wilmer Suazo explained why the police attack the protests.
WILMER SUAZO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We’re protecting the safety of the pedestrians and drivers and the safety of the police and armed forces who are trying to clear the road.
VIVAR: The regime has tried to convince the people that the teachers are thugs and, well, criminal. Once you accept the unions are the enemy, you’re willing to accept that their organizations can be destroyed.
FREESTON: In August, just before Lobo left for New Orleans, an undercover agent of his Presidential Guard was discovered infiltrating one of the teachers assemblies.
CLIP FROM DICK y MIRIAM (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): You work with the Presidential Guard. I’ve seen you there!
UNIDENTIFIED: How many more of you guys are here?
UNIDENTIFIED: How many?
CROWD: Murderers! Murderers!
FREESTON: As far as Honduras’s courts go, since Lobo took power all the judges that opposed the coup have been summarily fired. What’s left of the courts recently imprisoned 18 teachers on charges of sedition for participating in the strike. When they were denied bail, no statement was made as to why. Benedicto Santos, one of the lawyers for the accused, pointed out that teachers are in jail while those who carried out a military coup remain free.
BENEDICTO SANTOS (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It’s embarrassing that while the criminals walk the streets doing what they please, teachers, organized groups demanding their rights, are sent to jail.
FREESTON: After three weeks of repression in the streets, Lobo threatened: any teacher that didn’t return to classes would be fired. The threat worked, and most of the teachers voted to end the strike.
VIVAR: Okay. This is El Heraldo‘s declaration of victory. It basically says that the teachers’ leaders are divided and they end the strike. El Heraldo is published by the cousin of the foreign minister, Mario Canahuati.
FREESTON: Despite the teachers bringing an end to their strike, the regime went ahead and suspended 305 teachers for participating in it and threatened to fire thousands if necessary. To recap, the teachers have had their salaries slashed, their pensions stolen, their labor rights suspended, their voice taken out of decision-making in education, and their schools put on the path to privatization. When they or anyone else tries to protest, they face their meetings infiltrated by military, possibly being fired, likely being gassed and beaten, possibly being jailed with sedition charges, and possibly being killed.
Z. VELASQUEZ: The destruction of the teachers movement is not only a simple destruction; it’s a humiliating destruction. They are humiliating the teachers.
DAUGHTER OF ILSE VELASQUEZ: My mom wanted a new constitution. She even collected signatures for the constitutional assembly project. But now she’s dead and won’t be here to see the project she was convinced will happen. Sooner or later, social progress has to happen, one way or another. You can’t stop these things.
FREESTON: As this video goes live, the resistance is shutting down the country once again, in solidarity with the teachers. From Honduras, for The Real News Network, I’m Jesse Freeston.
End of Transcript
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