Independent Filmmaker Jesse Freeston reports from Honduras on how the newly inaugurated President Hernandez lacks all legitimacy in the general population, not only because of the fraud allegations, but also because of the massive corruption scandals his government is covering up
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Honduras inaugurated Juan Orlando Hernández for a second term on Saturday. The ceremony was overshadowed by widespread protests and police repression outside of the stadium where the ceremony took place. The opposition, led by former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup in 2009, and Salvador Nasralla, who ran against Hernández, argue that the November elections were fraudulent and lacked legitimacy. During his inauguration speech, Hernández promised to create jobs, and to combat violent crime and rampant corruption. The OAS, they usually side with the U.S. on most matters, but right after the elections in November, they called for a reelection. The EU had also expressed their reservation about the legitimacy of the elections, but they have all now backed down, now endorsing Hernández’s government, as did Mexico, Canada, and numerous other conservatives governments in Latin America, begging the question, what is going on here?
Joining me now from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to discuss these developments is Jesse Freeston. Jesse is an independent documentary filmmaker and the director of the film Resistencia, a documentary about the resistance to the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya. Jesse, thanks for doing the piece this weekend on Friday night contextualizing all this for us, and also for joining us today.
JESSE FREESTON: My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jesse, I understand that the opposition protests during the inauguration were really contained by police. They were not quite allowed to take place in the way the opposition had imagined. Describe what you observed.
JESSE FREESTON: Yeah, the call was for people to surround the stadium and basically make it impossible for the inauguration to happen, either by stopping Juan Orlando Hernández himself from getting to the stadium, or at least by stopping other people from getting to the stadium in order to fill the seats, and maybe forcing the regime to fill an inauguration with empty seats. That didn’t happen, in large part because of thousands of soldiers and police officers. Not in large part, completely because of that. They created basically a one-kilometer radius around the stadium, which is located in a very central place in Tegucigalpa. You couldn’t go down any alley or anything without running into eight or nine military who were heavily armed. To get to the stadium, I had to show ID three times. One time it didn’t even look I was going to get anywhere near the stadium. I wasn’t let in the stadium, but yeah, that’s what the situation was.
Then the reality in Honduras now is if you get together with any kind of anti-regime message, with any group of people, they’re going to break it up. There’s a few exceptions to that, but the vast majority of the time, that’s what happens. That’s what happened. They tear gassed. There’s some pretty incredible photos done while I was at the stadium, so people were following that. There’s some pretty incredible photos of, for example, people in an underground tunnel and the police launching tear gas into a tunnel as people are trying to get out of it, to get out of the tunnel.
Different things were happening around the stadium, as well, that I think are actually maybe more important for us to talk about, because these kinds of protests have been happening day after day, and the repression of the protests is nothing new. It’s going on 60 straight days of this kind of thing happening between police, military, and people who are against the electoral fraud of November 26th.
What was happening outside the stadium, what I think was very important, because you had busloads of people getting off the bus and immediately being given food out of these massive food trucks and their names being checked off lists. This situation was something that people talk about all the time, is that the National Party will bring in busloads of people from poor communities in the outsides of Tegucigalpa or even further away in order to fill the stadium. There’s a few very interesting videos that came out of when the food runs out and people get really angry, because you can tell that they were promised food, and there wasn’t enough food in the food truck. There was actually fights that broke out that people filmed and posted on Facebook.
Another picture I took that I think tells a lot of the story, too, is this is widespread knowledge that not only are they given food but they’re paid. Typically, the numbers that people threw out for how much people get paid to go to the stadium for a day like that is between 50 lempiras and 100 lempiras, which is about $2.50 or $5, somewhere in that range. There was these women … As the busloads were leaving the stadium and going down one of the main boulevards, there was a bunch of women who were standing on the side of the road waving bills at the buses, saying one of two things, either saying, “We know they’re paying you,” or saying, “How much are they paying you?” Some of them had 20s, some of them had 100s, lempiras.
I was taking pictures of them. At one point, as they’re going by, this one woman is waving 20, and a woman on the bus pushes a 500 lempira bill up on the glass. I’ll give you guys that picture to show. That photo says a lot. When I posted that on Facebook, a Honduran friend said, “Oh, 500 lempiras? Today must have been really important.” Because this is $25. This is a lot more than is typically rumored to be what they pay for these kinds of situations. Even still, when we look at the footage of the inauguration, they didn’t manage to fill the stadium, not even close, but they did put the people in certain areas where the camera angles make it look like it was full.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, President Hernández did call for reconciliation and dialogue with the opposition. What was the reaction to his proposal?
JESSE FREESTON: The opposition was breathing tear gas while he was saying that. I think we need to stop caring about what somebody like Juan Orlando Hernández says. His actions are way beyond anything at this point. These people have absolutely zero legitimacy. To give one example, there’s a huge, huge, massive corruption scandals, series of scandals in Honduras. In 2015, as was in the first report, was the massive movement of torch marches, weekly torch marches across the country demanding an anti-corruption commission.
That commission has found all kinds of stuff. They have all kinds of information on how the system works and how the corruption works, how $300 million got taken out of the Social Security fund, how all kinds of NGOs were started just to help support a public-private education system but then none of that money ended up in the schools. It all ended up in these NGOs and then to a bunch of people’s pockets. Just how the state has been completely ransacked by the politicians of the National Party, and at the same time that they raised the sales tax in Honduras to 15%, which is absolutely devastating a lot of people in this country right now.
In all that situation, this anti-corruption commission after two years of investigation is getting very close. They started publishing some names, and they’re getting very close to bringing these people to trial. At that moment, the Congress passes a law. This new Congress, elected through fraud, passes a law. When they read the law in Congress, it basically limits to a certain extent the powers of the MACCIH, this anti-corruption commission, and the Ministerio Publico, which is the public prosecutor, to carry out these kinds of investigations.
Then that law was bad enough, but then when the law gets put into law, when it gets actually written into La Gaceta, which is when something becomes law, they change it, and they make it so that the MACCIH and the Ministerio Publico actually cannot in any way go after anybody who is sitting in public office, whether elected or a bureaucrat, whether past or present, without first a three-year investigation by the Tribunal Superior de Cuentas, which is a politically run arm of the Treasury, basically, which is all National Party-appointed people. Basically, it’s a law of impunity that wasn’t even the one that was read in Congress. They then changed the law before it goes into law, and within hours, there’s a judge who legitimizes that law by making a ruling by throwing out a bunch of cases of corruption, by saying that this law says that these people can’t be tried, because it also applies retroactively.
This is the kind of people we’re dealing with. In the hospitals here, people talk about “el pasillo de la muerte,” the hallway of death, where people are dying in the hallways because there’s no beds. That’s the situation that was created by this corruption. There is thousands of doctors without jobs at the same time that people are dying in the hallways. It’s not hard to make the connections to what’s happening in this country between the corruption, between the incredibly poor conditions that the Honduran people are forced to live under, and the political connections, and then the repression.
SHARMINI PERIES: As you say, Jesse, and as others and investigations within Honduras will reveal, and in spite of the fact that during the inauguration Hernández promised to fight corruption, just on Friday, Associated Press reported on a major new corruption scandal involving the head of the National Police, the Police Chief Jose David Aguilar [Morán], who is now suspected of having aided and abetted in a $20 million cocaine deal, according to this internal affairs police report, which is still secret. If the institutions that you’re talking about and Hernández actually succeeds in dismantling the anti-corruption agencies in the government now, what can you tell us about the kind of legitimacy this government will have when it comes to this issue?
JESSE FREESTON: I have not met a single person yet who is even the least bit shocked by anything. There’s so many of these scandals dropping that it’s incredible. If that’s not even really … We shouldn’t even call that scandal alleged. All the documents are out there that there was a really well known narco-trafficker, Wilter Blanco, who was moving more than a ton of cocaine in a water truck. He was caught, or his driver was caught. They were in handcuffs, and they were in a police station, and the guy who is now the national commissioner of the national police force, recently appointed by Juan Orlando Hernández, made a call and said, “Let him out. Uncuff him and let him go with the truck and everything.” Nobody here is surprised.
We shouldn’t be surprised, because the ethics of this regime and of many in the regimes in the world today, some of the ones we live under too, is the people who make up this regime, the only way they value themselves and the only way the world values them is how rich they are, how much money do they have. In a situation like this, however you get the money, it’s all equal, whether it’s by ransacking …
There’s two ways to make money fast in Honduras, because the Honduran people don’t have much money, so you don’t make a lot of money selling goods to the Honduran people. There’s a few exceptions, like cell phones that everybody uses, and things like this, but in general the two sources of massive pools of money in Honduras are the state, which you can ransack whenever you want if you’re in the National Party, or cocaine and drugs. If you want to get rich in Honduras, these are the two paths, and this is what everybody’s doing that’s in power, particularly those that took power in the coup d’etat, because they got away with a coup d’etat, so what’s worse than that at this point?
SHARMINI PERIES: Jesse, as I mentioned in the introduction, many countries have now accepted Hernández’s legitimacy to govern, including Canada, where you’re from, Jesse. They are doing so even though the OAS and the EU had initially reported widespread irregularities during the vote. Now, these countries and other so-called democracies are supposed to vouch for the democracy and legitimacy of these types of elections in other countries. Also, there were the statistical analyses conducted by the magazine Economist and by the OAS showing the statistical impossibility of Hernández’s win. Given all of this, how are the people in Honduras reacting to the international legitimacy that Hernández has now been given or is receiving as a result of being inaugurated and now allowed to govern?
JESSE FREESTON: To tell the story since 2009, I think when I would show up in protests in 2009, anybody, people who didn’t know me would approach me and be really happy, like, “Thank God you’re here. The world’s going to know.” Then, over the eight and a half years that I’ve been coming back and forth to Honduras, and going to events, and talking to people, I’ve seen that become more and more rage-filled, to the point where now it’s like, “Why aren’t you telling people? Why are you guys doing this?” People feel very alone, especially right now. On November … What are we? November 29th, or sorry, January 29th, two days after the inauguration, most people are pretty depressed right now. I think that’s in large part due to the isolation that they feel internationally.
That said, their sense of humor is incredible. In the president’s speech, Juan Orlando Hernández’s speech, he said, “Un saludo para los que están alla en Honduras.” A salute to everybody who’s over there in Honduras. It’s just a mix-up of words on his part, but now the Honduran Facebook has just blown up with memes about what world Juan Orlando Hernández lives in, if it’s not Honduras, because he’s sitting in the national stadium saying, “Over there in Honduras.” People, their sense of humor is keeping them up, but this isolation that they feel from the international community I think is … The international community, I mean particularly the West. Sometimes we use that term and what we really mean is the West, and that’s what props up this regime.
Anybody who’s listening to this who is in Canada, or the United States, or any country in the EU but particularly Germany and Spain, or anybody who’s in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Israel, we are the ones propping up this regime. Even with a 15% sales tax on this very poor country, this regime would not be able to stand. It is through international aid, military and otherwise, and be clear, some European countries, and Canada, and countries like this like to say, “We’re not sending military aid. We’re sending aid for food security, or for education, or whatever.” It doesn’t matter. This regime will do whatever it wants with that money. As soon as it’s here, there’s no accountability. There’s nobody actually following up on this stuff. That money, as soon as it’s in their coffers, they’re going to use it to put in their own pockets or to buy more supplies for the military or police force.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Jesse, in your piece you did for us that was published Friday night contextualizing all of this, there was a delegation from the United States that arrived in Honduras with some people who were a part of the Zelaya government in the past. How were they being received, and what are they intending to do while there?
JESSE FREESTON: I think the intention, if I could read it from one of the through lines … It was a very diverse group in the delegation in terms of what sector people are coming from. There was an all African-American delegation. You had Danny Glover, who comes from the world of entertainment and activism even before he was an entertainer, an actor. We had James Early, an academic and former curator at the Smithsonian or director of cultural studies at the Smithsonian. We had a bunch of business people, an ex-mayor of Berkeley, Gus Newport, a city councilor in Sacramento. It was a whole diverse group, but when they would talk, all of them would talk about their experience in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, as a successful movement of international solidarity. Then, after being here for just within a few hours, and hearing from people, and hearing about what’s going on, they immediately made the connection. That’s what’s needed right now in Honduras.
Honduras is the laboratory for so many things. This is the ultra-right American, and when I say American, I mean the continent of America, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, this is the laboratory of the ultra-right. This needs to be, at least in our hemisphere, the anti-apartheid movement needs to be here. They recognize that, and they constantly made references to the work they did in the anti-apartheid movement.
The other thing I would add to that is a lot of people are pointing out in Honduras a lot that all the international media coverage is in Venezuela right now. I have not been to Venezuela. I don’t know what’s happening in Venezuela, but our duty as citizens is to be aware of how we’re impacting the world, and then make sure we’re having a good impact on the world. My government in Canada, and all those governments that I listed before in Europe, and Asia, and North America, and Israel, we’re not supporting the Venezuelan regime. We are not only supporting the Honduran regime, the Honduran regime doesn’t exist without us. Let’s be very mindful of that, and let’s put our eyes towards Honduras, and let’s put our actions towards Honduras.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jesse. I thank you so much for joining us today. We’re going to follow this story along with you, and hope to hear from you very soon again. Thank you.
JESSE FREESTON: My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.