From Tegucigalpa to El Paraiso: Curfew to State of Seige
(Author’s note: This is a bit rough, I know, but I felt it urgent to get this out now rather than hanging around and polishing it up for a few days. Forgive the errors: They´re my own.)
Here in Tegucigalpa I ran into a friend from Venezuela, Angel Palacio, a documentary film maker. He introduced me to Nery, a slightly chubby, dark skinned, gray haired school teacher who’s coming up to a month of protests. He and his wife Suyapa take me to STIBYS, the beverage workers’ union, but we don’t manage to get any interviews. I get back to my room in the early evening, but Nery is going to take me with him on the caravan to meet President “Mel” Zelaya at the border and hopefully accompany him back to Tegucigalpa.
I confess with some guilt, that I'm enjoying the curfew. My room has a window onto the street and up to and after the curfew I'm conscious of the sounds of cars, motorcycles and buses, the latter sometimes with broken mufflers, can be horribly loud. Then at 11 at night it all goes quiet and I feel like I could be in Oklahoma on the farm. I've been waking to the silence, an exquisite feeling. And it lasts until five a.m. and then the noise begins again. Perhaps we could convince the golpistas to begin curfew at 9 a.m. and have it go to 5 p.m. so we could also get a break from the drudgery of work.
On Thursday evening I got a taste of the arbitrary and vindictive exercise of power. Nery had told me we'd be leaving to meet Zelaya in Honduras at three p.m. and I didn't hear from him until a little past that time. Then the phones didn't work so I couldn't hear him, then he couldn't hear me. And finally we talked at a little before four and he said they were still preparing for the trip. Then he called again and said we'd meet at the park at 5 pm.
I sent off an article on the Honduran press and then went back, got my pack and went to the park. As I approached the park, I saw a huge group of people gathered listening to a reggaeton group and I was sure they were gathered for the caravan. I put on the Mel Zelaya ribbon on my hat and went into the crowd looking for Nery. I walked around the crowd and noticed a few people staring at my hat. I also noticed the people weren't very friendly, although I got one or two smiles, but nothing like in the blockade today on the carretera norte. Finally Nery and Suyapa, and Nery's sister Reyna arrived and I noticed none of them had any identifying hats, stickers or ribbons. Reyna, as we approached the corner, suggested I take the ribbon off my hat. Nery agreed and motioned back at the crowd. "That's an opposition event," he said.
We stopped in front of congress and Nery called the people organizing the caravan. After he got off the phone he told us we'd leave early in the morning. "The golpista government found out about the caravan and set the curfew on the border at 6p.m. The compañeros are afraid to leave now because we'd get in trouble for violating the curfew."
The next morning I took a cab to Villa del Sol, a shopping center, where people were gathered to head out to meet Zelaya on whatever transport they could find. I had a cup of coffee and two baleadas (tortillas with beans and cream) and talked for a while with Carlos, a Venezuelan who I recognized because of his hat that had Bolivarian symbols on it and the name of his home state, Lara. I asked him if the rumors that two Venezuelans had been killed was true. He said he hadn't heard that; the embassy had been harrassed, so had Telesur reporters, but he wasn't aware of any Venezuelans being killed.
Nery came by to tell me that he'd found a cab driver who was willing to drive us for the cost of gas but Elder, another teacher with whom Nery had worked volunteered his jeep and we settled on that since our group had now grown to seven.
We included Eduin, a short, perfectly groomed man in a long-sleeved, striped shirt, white pants, perfectly polished shoes. He looked to be in his early thirties: pious, debonair, smooth talking unemployed jack-of-all-trades, he maintained a cool that went into high gear on occasions as he strutted around like a cornish rooster, slowly adjusting his dark sunglasses to better analyze the world.
Nohemy was a good-humored but quiet two-hundred-something-pound teacher who rarely said anything but who laughed a lot. She limped around in one sneaker and one sandal, her big and second toes wrapped in gauze from blisters she'd gotten from too much marching.
Elder was not only our driver, but our news caster. He walked around with one earphone in his ear, listening to Radio Globo on his walkman and giving us up-to-the-minute reports on the situation.
Reyna was Nery's sister, an elegantly dressed and good looking woman in her early sixties, decked out in jewelry that matched her emerald green silk blouse, she was constantly making word plays on Hondura expressions that kept everyone amused -- everyone but me, that is, since I had no idea what she was talking about. The mother of a fourteen-year-old who, she claimed, was a giant who would tower over any of us, Reyna spoke of her doctor-husband in the past tense, so I assume she was a widow. Then there was Carlos the cab driver who spoke very little but who, like Nohemy, laughed loudly and long at every joke and word-play.
And there was a lot of joking and laughing because this group was on its way to meet its president and to bring him home. "We laugh and joke a lot because the situation is very difficult," Nery tells me. "We have to keep our spirits up." In the latter, at least, the group is quite successful. To Nery's statement Eduin,who is sitting next to me, gives me a thumbs up and he looks as if he's posing for a photo.
It took us about two and a half hours of driving to arrive in El Paraiso where we were stopped by a final reten or checkpoint. We'd passed several on the way but after the first major reten on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, we hadn't even been stopped. Now we were stopped by a row of police behind plexiglass shields, backed by a row of soldiers behind metal shields with little rectangular windows. All heavily armed. We park the jeep what we think is a safe distance behind and join the crowd of a thousand or so protestors squaring off with the police and demanding to be let through. I go up and down the line taping. I walk through the crowd taping. The police let me through after they see my press pass and I go behind the police to tape and shoot photos. Tempers were rising and Nery warned me that there would soon be trouble and I should join him a safe distance from the main concentration. A minute or so later, a few young men tried to push through the line and that's when the police started shooting tear gas and live rounds. I ran with the crowd and realized that, of all the demonstrations I'd been in, this was the first time I'd been tear gassed. But burn as it did my lungs, eyes and face, I was more worried about the live rounds.
Rumors had it that there were three men wounded, but I didn't see anyone hurt. A little later an ambulance arrived and was let through by the protestors and then a police jeep barrelled down the street narrowly missing me. I heard that it hit three men, which wouldn't surprise me, but I couldn't confirm the claim.
At the time I didn't quite understand my situation. With a press that is entirely unreliable, except, perhaps, for El Tiempo, which is also a very small circulation daily, rumors take the place of facts and information. Of all the vacuums of human reality that demand to be filled, the information vacuum is perhaps the most demanding. After all, what do people do when they're idle but gossip, that is, swap rumors. And in a country where the media is engaged in a black propaganda operation to support the government and demonize Hugo Chavez, even the alternative media get sucked into the rumor mill, something I would only understand later. But the worse part of the rumor mill was right in our midst where we had no access to newspapers and limited access to other media (through our own newscaster Elder). And so, what happened to the three men who had been shot? Rumor has it that one of them died... Rumor has it that Mel is in the country again... Rumor has it that the Micheletti supporters are on their way to fight us... Rumor has it that we can leave whenever we want... Rumor has it that we've fallen into a trap.
Unfortunately, only the latter appeared to be true. The people built a huge bonfire in front of the military/police line and threw green branches with green leaves on and the wind conspired with them and blew the smoke onto the military/police. And the officers/soldiers fired more tear gas and moved forward. The people built barricades with huge boulders covered with tree branches to prevent the military trucks full of soldiers from arriving and they stopped the trucks. But the military and police, as Nery pointed out, had the upper hand. "They have the guns. We have nothing," he said, patting his empty pocket.
We had, however, seen President "Mel" enter Honduras briefly by passing under the chain that separated Honduras from Nicaragua, but after talking with the Colonel there, he had returned to Nicaragua. Nevertheless, the momentary presence of Mel in their country lifted up everyone's spirits and seemed like an enormous victory.
Meanwhile, outside the day was passing and the only support protestor's received was from locals who arrived to sell tamales or snacks to the crowd. The blockade had evidently taken organizers by surprise, but by the evening they were bringing in water, and the next day food arrived. As night arrived protestors built small fires on the Panamerican highway. Nery invited me to join his wife Suyapa and fifty or so other demonstrators who were sleeping on the concrete porch of a house right off the highway and right in the middle of the action.
The señora was clearly a supporter of the president and she made coffee for everyone and had bread to pass out to those too poor to buy food from vendors in the streets.
And of the latter category, I suspect, there were many. Among us were the many school teachers like Nery, Nohemy and Elder, but there were also campesinos, unemployed laborers, students, poor artists and urban lumpen proletariats. Many of us benefitted from this woman's great generosity offered even as the rumors circulated that people helping protestors would be punished. We charged our cell phones at her house, used her outhouse, occupied her porch around the clock and by turn. Her porch became home base from which we sallied out to the barricades to chant or mill around and discuss the rumors.
Nevertheless, all the señora's generosity didn't make her porch a more comfortable bed. I spent the first hours of the night trying to find a comfortable position on the concrete, finally settling on a pair of socks to cushion my hips, one sneaker to cushion my knees and my pack as a pillow.
We got up just before dawn and had coffee that the señora generously offered, then went out to check on the other demonstrators, many of whom had slept in the empty truck trailers or under them. There had been fairly heavy rains throughout the night but all the demonstrators had managed to find some sort of shelter, or so it seemed.
Nery suggested we go look for his "madrina" or god-mother, who is also a cousin. "We call her a 'comadre' here," he explained. The granddaughter of the señora accompanied us there and the comadre welcomed us and fed us bean and cream sandwiches. We sat around in the back yard for a while then Nery, Elder and Eduin and I strolled around the center looking for a few things and noticed that there were many people out, and many stores open, despite the curfew, which was effectively a state of seige. The mayor of El Paraiso, evidently, was refusing to enforce the state of seige and, again a rumor, some said he was in hiding because Micheletti was calling for his arrest.
When we returned, the comadre said that the highways were clear and we could leave any time we wanted. She talked to her son, Luis, who said he'd just come back from Danli and the road was clear. We decided to leave and piled into the jeep, then when we arrived at the Panamerican highway we talked to a group of fellow protestors and were told we wouldn't be able to get past the nearby reten. Someone else said the retens had been lifted and then another disagreed. They had been reinforced, that one argued. We decided to take a walk down the Panamerican to the crossroads which the military/police were still cordoning off. Elder and I walked ahead of Nery and Suyapa, and he whispered to me that he'd found out that the comadre's husband was in the Nationalist party so the comadre was probably anxious to get us out of her house before her husband came home.
We decided, at last, to go to the house of the comadre's son, Luis, which we did. We climbed in Elder's jeep and drove up the road at a pace slower than a walk: Elder was checking out the local women and commenting loudly out his window on their outstanding attributes. He was joined by Eduin, whose confidence was boosted by the extra couple feet of height the jeep gave him. Between comments to the local women Eduin preened in the mirror, smoothing his shiny black hair back and adjusting his dark sunglasses on his sunburnt nose.
We were received as heros by Luis and his family. His wife Kenya gave us coffee and we watched CNN live and listened to Radio Globo. The elder of the house, Señor Mendoza, came home wearing a cowboy hat. He offered to take us to meet the President in Nicaragua the following day. The rains came and went and it got late and we had dinner and through it all Radio Globo blared the news through the house: it had been threatened with a shut down by the government and two thousand protestors in Tegucigalpa had surrounded the station, violating curfew to protect it. Ten cars full of police arrived and then left, and the protestors remained. An unidentified soldier called in to say that a good number of Batallion commanders, colonels, captains and other lower ranking officers were with Mel and optimism grew. And, thanks to Nery's family, the seven of us had beds to look forward to, and a shower and a simple, but satisfying dinner.
In the morning Señor Mendoza told us the roads he'd used to take dozens of Hondurans to Nicaragua and which he'd hoped to use to take us there had now been closed off. A compañero Orestes, a farmer who also taught agriculture, could lead us, but we'd have to walk there. We were told it was fifteen kilometers to the border (we would discover that it was at least twice that far). So we started out at seven in the morning in groups of two or three, following Orestes into the jungle down a dirt road that twisted past houses where Orestes would stop and ask residents about whether or not they'd seen police or military in the vicinity. Yes, they would tell us, but not today. The roads were clear. After an hour, Orestes got a phone call. Another group was coming so we waited for them.
Soon another eight or so people arrived, accompanied by a tall man with a camera who was running with great agility around them, getting shots from different angles. Someone introduced him as a reporter from Telesur.
I introduced myself to the reporter who looked vaguely familiar, and told him that I'd lived in Venezuela for a year in 2005-2006. He asked where I was from and I said I was from California.
"Oh really," he said in English. "I'm from Idaho." He introduced himself as Reed Lindsey and he'd lived for a number of years in Haiti from where he'd reported. That's when I recognized him as the Telesur reporter who I'd seen on television the year I was in Venezuela, reporting on the Haitian elections.
We began discussing the rumors and breaking them down. One involved the death of Pedro Mandiel who had turned up dead the day before after having been captured and released by the police. I said I'd heard that the police had grabbed him a second time and Reed quickly asked if I'd seen it. No, I'd just heard someone say that. Did they see it? No, they'd heard it from someone else.
"Ah yes. That's the problem," Reed said. "No one can confirm that he was in police custody when he died. So we don't really know anything about who killed him."
Reed asked me how I thought this whole situation might turn out and I said I was quite hopeful, given that there seemed to be a divide in the armed forces.
"Yes, but we really don't know that, do we? I mean, we don't know who that was who called Radio Globo, how credible he was, what information he has or anything else, now, do we?"
I'm not ordinarily too impressed with journalists, but Reed is one journalist who impressed me deeply for his professionalism, his critical eye, and his commitment and as we continued our long march and I watched him work for the next few hours until his battery nearly ran out, I felt I'd had a crash course in how to follow a story. His questions were sharp enough to evoke the perfect response. He knew exactly what angle to get on a shot. It was humbling.
I confessed as much: that I was an English teacher who spent his money doing journalism. He laughed and even outdid me in humility, which really impressed me: "That's great. That's incredible. I mean, I make a living from this, but it's really good to see people who do this out of passion."
He went back to work and the road grew steeper and smaller and more rugged and the houses fewer. We paused at a turn and Orestes pointed out a mountain in the distance which marked the Nicaraguan border. "We'll go through just to the left of that mountain."
We stopped at one woman's house for water and she fed us a brunch. Those served first got sardines, cheese, a boiled egg and tortillas. Those served last made a meal of beans. Fortunately, I was among the first served, again.
It's a hard thing to accept that white privilege extends from one tip of the Americas to the other and across cultures. Here the gringo gets the best bedroom, the best bed, the first, and largest, cup of coffee, and the first and best plate of food. He goes first in line and is the last to be punished. And one with a press card gets even more: he or she is free to come and go even in a state of seige.
The road became a path after the last house, and we began a rigorous climb up the side of the mountain. It began to rain and the trail turned into mud so we had to pull ourselves up, grabbing saplings, or handfuls of foliage to help us up.
Nohemy was fairing well, now with both feet in sneakers. She laughed as she slipped and fell in the mud. Reyna maintained her elegance even as she fell on her ass a couple times, each time getting up and making a joke and moving on. Eduin's hair remained perfectly in place, even as his white jeans were splattered with red mud. And Elder continued his news cast, now offering us ominous warnings from Radio Globo that "sicarios" (paid killers) had been recruited to slit the throats of Hondurans trying to enter Nicaragua by back roads. That warning quieted us down briefly as we continued our trip, but only briefly.
Finally after five or six hours of walking, scrambling, falling, slipping backwards and slogging through mud up the steep slope we arrived in Nicaragua. Nery wasn't doing very well: he'd forgotten to buy his blood pressure medication before leaving El Paraiso.
We began our descent through a coffee plantation and finally found another road which we took for another two or three hours until we arrived, at last, at a small store where Reed bought everyone sodas and white bread. Another compañero bought lunch, but I was too exhausted to eat it and passed my plate of beans, cheese and tortillas to Nohemy and Reyna to share.
Someone called the contact person to pick us up and we walked to the road where we were transported, in two groups, to the temporary center at a school in Las Manos where the Hondurans were briefly gathering before being taken to a hotel. I was told I should go to take care of immigration up the road.
I have to admit that despite all my misgivings about the turns the Sandinista National Liberation Front have taken, the corruption of its leadership, and its authoritarian (Ernesto Cardenal would describe it as "dictatorial") formation, I felt something stir in me when I saw the red and black flags with "FSLN" painted in white. And I was also grateful and moved to see that some little bit of that great generosity that characterized the party in the 1980s was still alive, something I would soon discover at immigration.
I arrived at the Nicaraguan checkpoint, manned by three immigration officials. I said I had just arrived with a group of Hondurans and the head official said, "Yes, but you had no reason to arrive illegally." I said I was a reporter and covering the story but I could see I was in trouble. The head official handed my passport to another official, a younger man with a mustache, who led me to the office.
In the office the mustached man explained my situation to the other official seated behind the desk. They both looked at me and grinned.
The official behind the desk, after confirming that I spoke spanish, explained my situation.
"You see, you've entered the country illegally. Now we have to figure out a way of trying not to "matarte" (kill you), so to speak. I think what we'll do is assume you came in by the road and just charge you the normal seven-dollar fee."
Just at that moment the higher official came in and after a brief exchange with the man behind the desk, said things were much more complicated than that and left. The man behind the desk rolled his eyes, glanced over at me, then turned back to his papers and mumbled "Bureaucrat..."
Finally the other official returned and after a consultation between three or four officials, it was agreed that I had arrived by the road, legally, and that I was to be charged only the usual seven-dollar fee.
I paid my fee, thanked the officials, who were all quite happy at the outcome, and then I went down to the school and say goodbye to my friends before catching the final bus to Ocotal, where I would stay the night.
I washed my clothes in the shower, went out to check my email and get dinner then went to bed after flipping through channels on the television.
In the morning I was determined to maximize the use of both my white privilege and my press card to get to Tegucigalpa because I had only two days to get to San Salvador before my flight left.
I left Ocotal at six in the morning on a bus to the border where I went through immigration again.
The Honduran and Nicaraguan immigration share an office with two windows. After passing through one, you go to the next one. In this case, the Nicaraguan immigration exit form was simple and completed in minutes with a three dollar charge, payable in any of three currencies: dollars, lempiras or cordobas. I then passed to the Honduran window. The woman there took my passport and looked through it. Her forehead wrinkled as if she were studying a problem.
"You entered Nicaragua through Los Espinos?"
I thought it best to agree.
She continued studying my passport. I realized then that there were missing elements in a story which she was trying to piece together. As she piece together what she thought would be a logical explanation for what she read in the forms and my passport, I confirmed every element until she stamped the paper and allowed me to pass. Thank you, white privilege.
Up the road I was told journalists would be arriving and I might be able to get a ride. But there was no one there. After waiting half an hour, I decided to walk to the next reten at El Vedun, which I did. I walked for an hour or so and arrived at the reten. There were several soldiers, one or two of whom I had taped a couple days before in El Paraiso. They were friendly, and suggested it was dangerous for me to walk all the twelve kilometers into El Paraiso, and that I should consider waiting for them to get me a ride.
"You're free to do either," the soldier said, "but I think you'd be better off hanging out in the shade over there until we can get you a ride." He said this in English and a couple of the other soldiers also took the opportunity to practice their English on me.
Soon a police jeep arrived and after they loaded up one of the policemen's motorcycle, the soldiers asked if they could give me a ride into El Paraiso. The police agreed and I jumped in the back.
Soon I was back where I started and the police told me to go to the terminal where I could catch a bus.
"They're running again?" I asked.
"Yes, no problem," the policeman on the passenger side of the jeep assured me.
The terminal was closed down and the taxis out front were going no where. A bus arrived and when I asked him where he was going, he said, "No where. No one's going anywhere."
I walked down to the Panamerican and through the crowd of demonstrators eating breakfast and then up the Panamerican toward Danli and Tegucigalpa.
I hitchhiked for an hour or so, and walked toward the next reten, this being the third one since the border, and manned by police. I stopped briefly to sit in the shade at a bus stop where a woman was waiting. I said I'd had no luck getting rides but seen others getting rides. She laughed. "Yes, it's because everyone here thinks you're a protestor. They don't like the protestors and they want them to leave." I said the protestors also wanted to leave, but the government wouldn't let them through. She nodded. Then a friend of hers arrived and they both began to complain about the problems the protestors had caused. I argued that it wasn't the fault of the protestors, but of Micheletti's abuse of power. They agreed and I was satisfied so I continued walking the few yards to the reten.
I introduced myself to the police as a North American journalist. They said, I'd have to hitchhike. There were no buses running. I said I'd tried but hadn't gotten any rides since the ride in the police jeep. They seemed unwilling to help, but I stalled and kept talking with them, hoping they'd get tired of having me there and ask someone to give me a ride.
After a few minutes a taxi with a press placard in the windshield arrived and the police asked the driver and the reporter if they could give me a ride. The reporter looked at me suspiciously but agreed to give me a ride to Las Arenales, just a couple of kilometers down the road. I thanked them and the police and got in. After talking with the reporter, a cameraman who later introduced himself as Andres, he said that in fact they were going to Tegucigalpa and would give me a ride all the way.
"There are lots of people posing as reporters. Infiltrators. I thought, at first, you were one of them. There are a lot of people who look like you who live in Santa Barbara (white people, Nationalist Party and pro-Micheletti).
Andres had also been in El Paraiso for four days. He worked for EFE, a Spanish news agency, and now he was ready to get home.
We passed quickly through the eleven more checkpoints, where there were only between one and maybe a dozen or so people detained. I asked Andres what happened to all the people in the busses who had been detained at different checkpoints.
"They all went home; they were turned back. Only the people in El Paraiso can't leave. And I saw only a few hundred there today."
As we arrived in Tegucigalpa, it was like a different world. Andres said what I was thinking.
"Isn't it incredible here? The absence of tension?"
Then he added, "You know, if we hadn't come along, you'd still be back there." He wasn't asking for thanks, which I gave him anyway, adding,"Yes, I've been thinking of that the whole trip." But, thanks to white privilege and a press card, that wasn't the case.
I decided to go to COFRADEH, the human rights organization just a few blocks from where I was staying. I wanted to know what was really going on in Honduras under the "de facto" government of Micheletti.
Meri Agurcia mentioned that there had been 1500 confirmed human rights violations since the coup, seven confirmed deaths and 16 reported disappearances, including one on Saturday of Samuel Flores, a 24 year old who is still missing at the time of this writing. Those are the facts, she said. No, she couldn't confirm the reports of "sicarios" killing people in the mountains, but yes, it does appear that the government of Micheletti has threatened to retaliate against people in El Paraiso who are helping the demonstrators.
And no one knows when the demonstrators, those who are not white, those who don't have press cards, will be allowed to leave. And the duly elected President Zelaya? Well, it seems he also has fewer privileges than a gringo with a press pass.
Clifton Ross is the writer and director of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out available at www.pmpress.org and Translations from Silence, a book of poetry introduced by Jack Hirschman available at: www.freedomvoices.org. He can be reached at: email@example.com