November 2020 Honduras Coup, Hurricanes and Pandemic Update
Not only do Hondurans continue to suffer the repression and impoverishment of living under the JOH dictatorship for years following previous coup regimes, and suffer through the pandemic while the regime redirects resources meant for health care and public health to the pockets of politicians and big business; Hondurans are now additionally suffering from two hurricanes that have devastated them. The regime and politicians - who just a week before were visiting communities with their political campaigns - not only are largely absent in rescue, refuge and rebuilding efforts, but actively impeded Hondurans who autonomously organised to help with rescue and food, and equally impeded the entry of donations and rescue volunteers from neighbouring countries. Hurricane Eta arrived in Honduras on 4 November 2020, and Hurricane Iota followed in on 16 November 2020. Amidst the disasters, flooding, and heavy winds that ravaged the people and land and crops, political persecution did not rest in this time; hitmen made an attempt on the life of CNTC (National Confederation of Campesino Workers) treasurer of the Santa Barbara branch, only to five days later assassinate the son of an organiser of the same branch of CNTC. Also in November, ex political prisoner Raúl Alvarez was stabbed by attackers, having been released on bail in August 2019 after imprisonment for 18 months together with Edwin Espinal and towards the end with Rommel. Meanwhile, there have been some absolute heroes this month within communities in Honduras with their autonomous actions of solidarity in both rescue and sharing what they can. All this and more:
Hurricanes’ journey and regime’s response
On 4 November 2020, without any warning from the Honduran government to the people except for a last-minute message, nor measures taken to mitigate damage and save lives, Hurricane Eta travelled into the south of Honduras from Nicaragua while at category 2, causing damage to roads there that had coffee farmers in the region desperate as they attempted to work out how they would be able to transport and sell their just-harvested coffee beans. Eta then travelled on to the northern provinces where it ramped up to category 4. Images flooded social media of people in many areas navigating rivers between their houses which had once been the streets, or worse, trapped on roofs of their homes, stuck waiting for help.
Just as evacuated families contemplated or succeeded in returning to where their homes had been to attempt to start over, on 15 November another hurricane, Hurricane Iota, arrived, starting in the south again on category 1 and reaching category 2 at 8 pm, and became an extremely dangerous category 5 with daily forecasts of rain between 250-762 mm as it reached the northern region of Honduras, devastating lives that were only just attempting to put themselves back together. Iota left Honduras for Nicaragua on 18 November 2020.
Overall about half of the population was affected, and some 94 lives were lost – in some cases bodies of entire families were found and buried together. While impacts were of differing degrees across the country, even the lightest hit parts of Honduras (eg Tegucigalpa, and perhaps El Paraíso down south) had entire communities evacuated or cut off from others due to flooding, landslides, etc. And in El Paraíso, there were people filming others trapped inside a car that was taken by the flood’s strong current – ‘there’s children inside!’ Someone was heard screaming. There were cries for help from everywhere including remote communities, alerts about communities of people in different places stuck on roofs, for one, two, four, sometimes even more days, who needed rescuing, and were desperate for warmth, dry clothes to change into, shelter, food and drinking water, having been without all of these things all those days and nights. Local rescue missions with fisherfolk’s boats worked hard but needed helicopters to help. Where people were trapped together in larger groups of people, there were long lines waiting for boats to come rescue them. There were also people badly hurt and bones fractured amongst them. Under chaotic circumstances, hundreds of people have been reported disappeared. Amongst these, campesino singer songwriter of the resistance Mario de Mezapa and his family, as well as a journalist, and a human rights defender. Thousands of families – many being peasant and Indigenous – lost their crops and their homes, had no time to rescue any belongings, and had to contemplate starting from zero. It was estimated by CNTC peasants’ organisation that 90% of peasants have been severely affected. Lots of roads and bridges were hurricane-damaged and landslide-affected and some places completely cut off – vehicles could not go in or out and there was no phone reception, nor electricity, the corner shops had emptied out and all food sources running out fast in general. Access to drinking water and hospitals was scarce, and if people already struggled to find work under the pandemic, jobs became even more of an illusion with the hurricanes. Trees and electricity lines were blown down and electricity cut off, including for a period of time in Tegucigalpa. Amidst all this, 18 people of the remote Miskito community were shipwrecked as well.
In hurricane refuges – often school buildings – as children play in the playgrounds, mothers sit around wondering what happened to their homes and what their lives are about to become. Others’ homes are still standing but they worry that they can still lose their homes, many of them urged to evacuate as floods head in their direction. As well as dealing with flooding and material loss, many grieve the loss of loved ones, or simply of people they knew, of people like themselves. Others are fatalistic and think if the hurricane should take them, ‘take me then, if I survive this, where would I go? What will I come back to?’ Their survival was near impossible already before the hurricane. Severe weather conditions continued beyond the hurricanes. Even on 24 November there were continuing evacuations of homes in Tegucigalpa, Omoa and Cortés.
The hurricanes also exacerbated the spread of COVID-19 to rural communities where people have no access to treatment. Before the hurricanes, school buildings were used as isolation centres for people who tested positive – with the hurricanes it is unclear whether they were being used for both positive cases and evacuation centres simultaneously. With the hurricane crises, COVID-19 safety measures are not able to be maintained in most cases, at least initially.
Most communities also remember politicians’ electoral campaign speeches just days before the set of hurricanes hit home, such as that of Tito Asfura, National Party candidate and current mayor, who is quoted to have said, ‘we are here to face the problems. Nature is unpredictable. We have enough machinery, tools and staff to be able to face the problems, we have refuges, etc. You can count on us to attend and serve.’ The lack of public assistance in the aftermath was heavily felt.
The state not only vastly absent in rescue refuge and post hurricane efforts but outright obstruct others’ efforts
Immediately, people autonomously organised to help out where they could, in rescue efforts, in collecting food and clothing, etc, but the regime and its police, Copeco (Contingencies Department of the regime), and other state forces worked just as fast to halt these efforts.
• Police arrived immediately trying to stop fisherfolk from taking their boats out to rescue people trapped around Coowle, San Manuel and La Lima on the morning of 6 November 2020, accusing these of not having boat licences. It was in the afternoon when they finally allowed them to use their boats to rescue people
• Also that morning, in Juticalpa, Copeco stopped a local woman who went to drop off food and clothes for people who had evacuated and were taking refuge in the university campus buildings. ‘They made us turn back with all the clothes and food and this is not fair. I’ve come back feeling so disgusted and resentful, we are trying to help, and these people only want to control everything. We had come autonomously, we didn’t want to tell them our names.’
• The regime on 7 November 2020 issued a statement about what requirements donations must meet: that donations must be channelled through embassies, consulates, and become Copeco’s to distribute as it wishes and say that donations are from Copeco! People on the ground who self-organise are asking for the opposite, for people who wish to donate to not do so through any of the regime’s government organisations. They have observed already that at the ICVC (public school building) refuge for instance, National Party activists who have not been affected by the hurricane had entered and left with packages of food and clothing. Similarly, during hurricane Mitch in 1996, government and council officials took what they fancied from donations and only passed on what they rejected.
• In addition to controlling and claiming as theirs all the donations that they had officially allowed through, the regime also runs a Telethon on Honduran TV, a government-based fundraiser, this time in the name of the hurricane. If the government officials and leaders repeatedly and blatantly pocket money meant for healthcare and pandemic mitigation, and mostly spend state money on police and military, what reason is there to trust them with donations in cash or in kind for hurricane victims?
• The consulate in California for example had told a group of people who went to drop off donations that if they don’t agree to the donation being said to be from Copeco, then the consulate was going to make sure the donations don’t make it to Honduras!
• The police also booked a Honduran person who was helping transport people including people with fractures who were evacuating the flooding. Police accused him of fitting more than the legal number of people in his car, completely disregarding the important and urgent rescue work he was doing.
• The regime charged taxes to La Asociación de Hondureños Solidarios from Barcelona, Spain, when the group was sending humanitarian assistance.
• The Honduran immigration and police commissioner Julian Hernández Reyes refused entry to the Salvadorean Green Cross who approached the border with 21 members in two Toyota Landcruisers, at 7.45pm on 7 November 2020. ‘We came on our own initiative and never did we imagine that the Honduran Immigration would require that we had applied for a permit before reaching the border, when our neighbour country needs our support,’ Thousands of Hondurans were outraged that their regime’s immigration did this.
• The regime president Juan Orlando Hernández had the nerve to call for unity, on 9 November 2020
• On the morning of 10 November 2020, traffic police and military stopped, threatened and intimidated 5 trucks from the Patechuco organisation that were driving to the northern area to deliver donations there. A military officer treated them as enemies, taking photos of the people and vehicles at the Siguatepeque checkpoint, in an act of persecution and threat.
• People from El Salvador wanted dearly to collect items for their neighbours hit by hurricane and were left with no choice but to allow COPECO to distribute these – 54 trucks worth of donations. It makes people’s stomachs sink thinking this will not reach the people affected by the hurricanes.
• On 12 November 2020 in the south in El Paraíso, on the Trojes road, riot police and military were quick to arrive at a protest roadblock formed by the community demanding road repair following damages by Hurricane Eta so that their coffee harvests could reach their destinations. Riot police and military immediately attacked the protest with teargas and profiled people using their phones. Police also took no measures to prevent spread of COVID-19 while meting out repression. People did not disperse despite the teargas and the profiling because they desperately needed the road repairs. The regime took much longer – over 8 hours – to send heavy machinery to temporarily reconnect the road there towards the capital city.
• On 14 November 2020 the regime’s electricity department in Francisco Morazan carelessly announced the electricity disconnection effective 8am that morning for up to 72 hours from the El Cajon hydroelectricity dam. The complete evacuation of the banana fields of El Progreso is necessary before such disconnection.
• On 23 November 2020, Copeco and other government officials retained donations that arrived on a Spirit plane – there were specific people expecting to receive these donations collected in the US but who never will. Those who collected the donations felt terrible.
• On the same date, the government lied or greatly exaggerated the activities it had carried out for Eta and Iota, claiming to have cancelled a public holiday on 2 November, and to have carried out 240,000 air operations in 21 days – the air forces have 86 planes, if it carried out that many air operations each plane would have been in operation non stop 24/7 during this period – that would have also meant having the petrol, maintenance and pilots available for all the said operations. The theory doesn’t hold, so it must have included air operations carried out by planes and staff etc coming from elsewhere – but even then 240,000 air operations in this period was not credible.
It is because of rage over these government attacks coupled with a lack of preventative or supportive government actions, that on 10 November 2020 - and very likely other dates - people protested, yelling and angrily throwing things at Copeco vehicles. Copeco is supposed to help but consistently does the opposite, in this and other crises.
What could a government have done to mitigate? Plenty. It could reduce resources to police, military, and the tourism industry, and redirect these resources to infrastructure, supporting small farmers in production grains, devised contingency plans and early alerts. There should have been more refuges organised and people who had evacuated shouldn’t go back to their homes before it’s safe. Even if there were no hurricanes there should have been refuges for heavy rains, which the area frequently experiences. There should have been rescue staff and lifesaving equipment ready.
Solidarity of the peoples – stories of fisherfolk and other heros
Many people did what they could to support those whose lives have been torn apart by the hurricanes. People organised to collect food, clothing and hygiene items to send to people in refuges. Fisherfolk who have boats and people who have other means to help the rescue efforts have jumped into rescuing communities of people. Others collected phone numbers of those who can help rescue or are helping to organise and sent them around to people who know others in need of rescuing. People with trucks, people who are butchers, small hotel owners and countless others have offered up what they had to assist people affected by hurricanes, to transport donations, to contribute to refuges, to shelter people who had to evacuate. Volunteer doctors travelled to remote areas affected by hurricanes to tend to people there. An electrician offered to help reconnect electricity for people returning home after evacuation and to only charge for parts. A group of people called Los Macatanes https://tiempo.hn/los-macatanes-voluntarios-limpian-lodo-sin-cobrar/
offered to help clean mud from homes, asking only food and water for the day in return. As many people asked about the whereabouts of people they were worried about, people went about organising, updating and making available databases of refuges etc on a Family Reunion page to help people locate their loved ones. Churches that practice liberation theology, various organisations, groups of journalists all also collected donations for refuges, from clothing, to bread and coffee, food, hygiene supplies and other items. Peasants organisation CNTC organised distribution of mattresses to peasant members to ensure families could sleep. Journalists’ organisation C-Libre similarly collected items to deliver for journalists affected who were in need. Uni students organised points of collection on social media. Organisations also organised for psychological helplines for example.
Special mentions must go to:
The hero of Río Chiquito, fisher Francisco Zuniga, on 14 November, made twenty trips on an old boat to save 150 people over 2.5 hours in a highly coordinated fashion, taking first elderly people, and then women and children, then the rest, rescuing all 150 people from his community, finishing just minutes before a massive flood storm hit the community that they evacuated from. There were many Francisco Zunigas all over Honduras.
Another pair of heroes are the humble couple Evelyn Flores and Wilson Varela. They were watching a news report on TV, about a family affected by the hurricane in the Planeta neighbourhood: they saw how Franco, Nohemy and their two small children and a 16-day-old baby, had to pick up the baby and child and run as the flood of hurricane Eta approached their home. Franco and Nohemy usually made a living selling lollies at a park that they drove to in an old car they managed to buy over the years – the car would have been lost and wrecked. They arrived to Franco’s parents to shelter together with 3 of their sisters and all their children, sleeping on cardboard and using plastic to cover themselves to sleep at night. Evelyn and Wilson, from a far off neighbourhood, having watched the news story, shook their heads at the conditions the family was in and felt compelled to set out on a journey to look for them. They arrived to La Planeta neighbourhood and went tent to tent looking for them, with grave fear that they would not find them alive. Franco and Nohemy had headed back homewards thinking it was time to go clean it up and live there again but Iota had arrived to ravage the area again. Evelyn and Wilson got onto some floating tyres they found in the water to swim there, almost aimlessly, because how do you just find someone in a situation like this? There were pieces of debris that had blocked the way when they threw their heads down and were giving up, but someone who drove a boat approached them and offered to help navigate this neighbourhood of rooftops peeking up from the water. On the boat they kept coming across fridges and animals travelling through the waters, instead of the people’s faces they kept hoping they would next see. They searched like this for days, looking under poles and plastics, but they did win out and screamed with joy when they saw the family and took the family to live with them in their small home, giving them a tiny room. The Univision news reporter had come to report on the story and saw not only were Evelyn and Wilson sheltering this family, but in total, there were 12 adults and 23 children in their humble home, as they had also gone out to look for Franco’s closest families ravaged by the hurricane, as well as sheltering Evelyn’s brother in law Hector Tacho. In this full house, there is an old boardgame in the living room that people play, and a TV where everyone watches something together in the afternoons and evenings, while in the day, everyone goes out to try to beg or do what they can to bring some food back to the house. Hector for example rescued an ice cream cart found in flooded areas, and went out everyday since to sell ice cream to make some modest cents to bring back to the house so there is enough food for everyone. 10-year-old Nicol said, ‘I feel good here because I’m in a house, I sleep on a mattress, and I feel good’ and 12 years old Suyapa said, ‘it was gross being there ‘cause I felt like I was an animal and they were going to bite me. Here I am good because I’m with my cousins, aunties and sisters’ Here, they share everything, until they can go back to clean their home again. Wilson sells fruits and food for a living, and believes that what he and his family decided to do was the right thing, because he wouldn’t leave any of his own on the street, ‘I don’t have money, but with the little that we have we are helping. It’s not those who are well off who give, but those who have good will.’
Another who had opened her doors was Juana Tabora – she didn’t look for people to refuge, they came knocking on the door of the funeral home she managed in the outskirts of La Lima, as the streets began to flood. That was how the funeral home became an improvised refuge for 30 families evacuating Eta and Iota hurricanes. The funeral home did a lot of burying of COVID-19 victims and the funeral home had closed for a period because the risks became too high, but Juana recalls how in the moment, with people desperate to save their lives, there was no time to think about COVID-19 safety measures initially, although it was very much a danger.
Queer communities also collected money for the needs of trans folks whose needs are not looked after in refuges. They may be put in mens’ refuges where they become objects of hate and abuse. There is no government assistance available to them. But trans refugees in the US also collected and sent money in solidarity.
Elsewhere, as well as fundraising efforts, there is a mobile hospital from Colombia of 12 staff and 26 volunteers with 3 rescue boats and an all-wheel-drive, in addition to Salvadorean Green Cross and many other rescue teams. In Australia a small fundraiser was held and a group of people autonomous organised themselves to source items of need with the money and distribute these.
People are doing a lot, but the need is immense and ongoing, especially for Indigenous and campesino groups.
Honduras Solidarity Network continues to collect funds and is one option if you want to fundraise or send money https://afgj.salsalabs.org/2020hondurashurricaneeta/index.html
While severe weather continues to hit people including most campesinos, already down, there was one attempt against a campesino leader, and another was killed, both in Santa Barbara
On 24 November 2020, Santa Barbara regional secretary general of the CNTC peasants’ organisation and defender of land and territory, Neptaly Ventura Orellana, found heavily armed hitmen waiting for him after spending some time with the La Libertad group in the Pinalejo highlands. The hitmen shot and wounded him in the legs; Neptaly survived but was left in a very delicate condition. So soon after the hurricanes, landowners continue to terrorise those in struggle like this. Despite such threats, the defenders continue their work.
Days later, 29 November 2020 in the afternoon, Kevin Javier Chacón López, son of the finance secretary of the same CNTC branch, José Nerio López, was in the 6 de Mayo village in Macuelizo Santa Barbara when he was ambushed and killed by heavily armed but unidentified persons.
Garífuna black indigenous defender assassinated
On 24 November 2020, young Laura Carolina Valentín Dolmo, garífuna defender who is member of Ofraneh (Honduran black fraternal organisation), was found dead in the Danto River in La Ceiba city. Laura was assassinated in the context of systematic violence against Garifuna people and persecution against those who defend human rights in Honduras.
Political prisoner stabbed
Persecution equally continued against political prisoners. Political prisoner Raúl Alvarez was locked up for 20 months with Edwin Espinal – Raúl was accused of starting a fire that affected Burger King in the context of the protests against the 2017 electoral fraud. He and Edwin were political prisoners together and towards the end of his term was also in with Rommel Herrera, the young teacher-made-political prisoner from the protests for the education and health sectors, until both Raúl and Edwin obtained bail. On 30 November 2020, Raúl was stabbed by an attacker and hospitalised in Hospital Escuela. His life was in danger and he was operated on at 8.30pm. Just days later, on 3 and 4 December 2020 Raúl had planned to participate in a demo and fast in front of the supreme court demanding freedom for fellow political prisoner Rommel Herrera, who’s accused of setting tyres on fire at the entrance of the US Embassy at the protests.
In the build-up to the protest, human rights organisations were applying for Rommel’s detention in a psychiatric ward to end, and for him to be released home and set up with outpatient services for his mental health. In the process of his court appearance, he got to see his mum, grandmother, brothers and uncle for the first time in 8 months due to the level of confinement under the pandemic. He has been a political prisoner since May 2019. His court case continued in uncertainty.
Hate crime against well-loved queer person in hurricane times
On 8 November 2020, people woke up to the painful and horrifying news that Mía Colluchi was found dead and half naked, thrown in between some shrubs. Mía was a volunteer from the queer human rights organisation Asociación LGTB Horus. Mía is from Playa Negra, Zacate Grande, in Amapala. The organisation wrote, ‘with deep pain, we inform people that our volunteer Mía Zavala was assassinated yesterday in Amapala city, we demand justice to be carried out by the authorities, to clarify this assassination that has our LGTBI community mourning. It’s regrettable that the levels of violence gets this bad in such a healthy place. We demand justice. Mía Collucci was a very well loved person in the Amapalina community. My friend Mía, what a great pain, you don’t deserve to die like this, such a great human being, and above all there were no sadnesses for you, you were born on a day like today, and today you are taken from us. Let’s hope that the authorities play the cards and do not let your death remain in impunity. Rest in peace, my friend.’ The greatest shock was that Mía was widely loved in Amapala. This news meant to queer activists that queer people –even in Amapala – are at risk.
Covid-19 deaths update
During November, the total number of officially confirmed COVID-19 cases in Honduras went up by 10,849, to 108,253 cases on 30 November 2020. The number of COVID-19 deaths for November was 246, up to a total of 2918 in Honduras to date.
One of the 246, is the much loved and admired Francisco Saravía, who died on 24 November while driving himself to hospital to seek help. Francisco is described as an ‘exceptional human, one of the most lucid economists. He specialised in public finances. A committed and hardworking man, very analytical and reflective in the analysis of the national reality, critical and self-critical, and of social movements. He leaves a big hole in the intellectual organs of grassroots movement in Honduras. Professional revolutionary. Rest in peace.’ Francisco is described as unforgettable and a joker. He is another victim of the regime whose life could have been not lost if the healthcare system weren’t completely plundered.