jueves, 22 de marzo de 2018

Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras: 25 years of struggle and Revolution

By Roverto Barra
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), two years after the March 2nd assassination of Berta Cáceres, the indigenous environmentalist revolutionary leader of COPINH, we share a text to remember the history of this organization which, alongside other organizations, helped revolutionize the contemporary social movement in Honduras.
The beginning of the 1990s was characterized by the decline of the revolutionary struggles in the Central American region. This decline did not only mean a change in the political situation of the region, with the incorporation of guerrilla forces into legal electoral parties, but also implied the opening of local economies to transnational capital investment in strategic areas, taking advantage of the neoliberal privatization of state and natural resources.
For the people’s movements, the demoralization due to the loss of political and ideological leaders following the fall of the Nicaraguan revolution and the Eastern European Socialist Bloc meant that coordination and united work were even harder to achieve. At the same time, there was a strong wave of NGOization of the models of organization and social struggle, which furthered the fragmentation of social struggles. The various neoliberal governments in Central America adeptly took advantage of this.
For Honduras, the recipe was neoliberal but based on a “model of continuous occupation” that assured that from the 1980s and on, state resources were plundered while sovereignty was consistently handed over to the North American empire in exchange for power and impunity for the national elite.
The Resurgence of the Lenca people
In this regional and national context, Honduran society began to suffer anti-people attacks with Decree 18/90, which sought to codify into law the structural changes in the economy and to dismantle public enterprises and privatize state resources. Thus, the neoliberal government of Rafael Callejas [1] vigorously implemented [2] a heavy persecution of labor leaders and a progressive dismantling of the social and agrarian policies that had benefited the poorest segment of the population.
In 1992 and 1993, the Honduran indigenous peasantry did not even (and still do not) enter into official statistics. As such, the new neoliberal agrarian policies did not even consider measures that would respond to the severe crisis in the countryside; instead, it was just the opposite. In just three years, more than 50% of the lands allotted in the Agrarian Reform process of 1964 had gone back into private hands.
Without political or social counterweights, the Callejas government created an ambitious structural adjustment plan (with the support of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United States Agency for International Development - USAID), where the best peasant lands and indigenous people’s territories were at the center of the economic transformation of the country. The communal lands in the West of Honduras, historically forgotten but rich in forests and natural resources became territories under dispute between large national capital allied with transnationals on one hand, and the rural communities and organized Lenca people on the other.
Hope was born in La Esperanza
After the end of the war in El Salvador, with the concentration of the Honduran military battalions in the Western region, especially along the border, many revolutionary Honduran internationalists began their return to Honduras with the intention of supporting the social struggle in the country. This fostered, after various attempts and a slow but steady organizing process, an alliance between indigenous Lenca leaders and revolutionary ex-combatants, with the goal of working around the historical demands of the Lenca indigenous communities and the grassroots organizations of western Honduras.
COPINH was born in La Esperanza in the state of Intibucá in Honduras, on March 27, 1993 as a fruit of these efforts. Its objective was to “improve the living conditions of the Lenca people of Honduras and to help fight in our country, in Central America, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the world, to implement a model of development that is more just, more dignified for human beings and in harmony with the environment” [3].
The necessity of COPINH’s creation is clear from the number and relevance of the actions carried out in its first years. Soon after its inception, the organization was able to stop an industrial logger in the state of Intibucá. At least 16 logging projects were cancelled because COPINH’s actions and mobilizations. In July 1994, tens of thousands of indigenous Lenca people came down from the North Yamaranguila mountains and from the state of Lempira to join the first and historic Indigenous and Black Pilgrimage for Life, for Justice and for Liberty. This mobilization did not only show the urgency of the demands of the indigenous and black people of Honduras, but also marked a watershed moment for the organization and the struggle of the people’s movements in Honduras, resurrecting the marginalized who despite impoverishment and exclusion, raised their voice and assumed protagonism in Honduras and Central America.
Their demands and their victory were astounding. The Lenca people achieved legal recognition of the first two indigenous municipalities in the country: San Francisco de Opalaca (Intibucá) and San Marcos de Caiquin (Lempira). With that came the signing of more than 50 agreements between COPINH and the Liberal Government of Carlos Roberto Reyna. Amongst said agreements were the creation of schools, opening of highways, health centers, etc, in addition to the promise to review ILO Convention 169, which protects and guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples. Honduras ratified that convention on March 28, 1995.
Honduran society since 1994 has been engaged in heavy struggle for national demilitarization. It is important to remember that the country has suffered from a dominant military presence in all areas of life. The model of “Continuous Occupation” implied not only permanent U.S. military bases in the country, but also the omnipresence of Honduran soldiers in the operations of state institutions considered key to its security (Migration, Customs, Telecommunications, Civil Registry, etc.).
In October of this same year, COPINH, indigenous women, students, along with the black Garífuna community, peasants, and Christian communities - mobilized around 20,000 people to the capital to demand, amongst other things, the repeal of obligatory military service, the end of the North American occupation, and the demilitarization of the country. These and other mobilizations led to a repeal of the Military Service Law and the withdrawal of soldiers from state institutions.
Solidarity as the essence of struggle and camaraderie by the people
The indigenous Zapatista insurrection in Chiapas and the demands for peace in Guatemala internationalized the struggles of COPINH. In April 1995, a mobilization was organized to the Honduran capital, which, amongst other things, expressed solidarity with the indigenous people and their armed uprising in the state of Chiapas, México, and demanded an end to repression of the indigenous people in Guatemala. This new organizational push was in line with the original objectives of COPINH, and, in essence, responded to a necessity of reciprocal camaraderie in the face of the imperial capitalist threat, which meant the amplification of domination and plundering in Latin America through the imposition of the neoliberal model.
For COPINH, solidarity with all the social struggles of Honduras, Latin America and the world become fundamental, part of their belief that any people’s struggle is also a struggle of the Lenca people and their organization. This is reflected in the attempt to coordinate with organizations of workers, peasants and indigenous people in Honduras and other parts of the continent to build a mass platform for struggle against the serious threat from the United States through its imposition of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
This strategic vision to constantly advocate unity, coordination and solidarity amongst people’s struggles made it possible for the workers, peasants and indigenous peoples of Honduras to create common spaces of struggle in the face of these threats and the serious economic crisis that affected them. It is important to remember that in 1998 Hurricane Mitch severely hit the community-based economy. The loss of productive infrastructure and of harvests of basic grains and coffee [4] meant that many producers were ruined, creating an opportunity for the government of Carlos Flores Facussé to impose, consistent with neoliberal logic, a Master Plan of Reconstruction and National Transformation (PMRTN). This plan prioritized the expansion of structural adjustment policies and the reduction of state benefits, labor and social rights, all to favor investment and loans for big business owners.
The threat of unemployment, salary freezes and the loss of benefits for public sector workers brought labor federations such as FUTH and FECESITLIH and other working class sectors together to create the Bloque Popular (People’s Block) in 2000. This was the first attempt to coordinate workers and other dispossessed sectors after the grave organizational crisis of the nineties, permitting the organizations that were fighting to defeat the neoliberal model in the country to come together. These were the first steps towards an alignment of COPINH and the organized workers’ movement.
In 2001, Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP), which later came to be known as the Mesoamerica Integration and Development Project, was proposed. This was an enormous infrastructure project that would facilitate the pillaging and exploitation of natural resources to favor big business.
This provoked a response from workers, community, peasant, indigenous and urban organizations, who came together to struggle against the plan. COPINH immediately joined in the work of coordinating spaces for debate and organization via the Mesoamerican People’s Forum, which formed in opposition to this plan. The struggles of the sectors most affected by the implementation of neoliberal policies were also included in these efforts, as was the case with the education workers with whom COPINH was especially close. The teaching sector was the worst affected during the government of Ricardo Maduro, and it was COPINH that would march and support their assemblies and highway occupations in different parts of the western region.
With the convergence of agrarian crisis, teachers’ resistance, and struggle against the FTAA and PPP, worker, indigenous and black resistance gained momentum. In 2003, with the visionary and strategic leadership of different national leaders including COPINH, these forces all come together under a common platorm through the formation of the National Coordinator of People’s Resistance – CNRP [4] in 2003, marking a unique and historic moment of unity in the Honduran people’s movements.
All of the organizations agreed on and supported the proposal of “rotating coordination,” prioritizing the protagonism of the various regions of the country. It was also agreed upon to deliberate in assembly and spaces of dialogue to plan local and national actions in order to reach consensus before making decisions. The first relevant action came in August 2003 with the March of Dignity, when thousands of people from across the country gathered in Tegucigalpa to demand the end of repression of teachers and an end to the neoliberal policies of the government of Ricardo Maduro.
COPINH’s contribution to different moments of unity and coordination on national and regional levels was evident. On the national level, it contributed by promoting new forms of coordination like the CNRP, which prioritized dialogue over imposition and consensus-based democracy. It was a big advance for the Honduran people’s movements as it enabled them to create links of solidarity between diverse actors, with respect for a diversity of visions, opinions and forms of struggle. The contribution of COPINH to the national struggles led to recognition of the role of the indigenous people in the construction of a new society. The indigenous people began to be respected and recognized as fundamental actors for change. The ability of COPINH to mobilize showed that the Lenca people were already fundamental actors envisioning and struggling for change.

The struggle for women’s liberation
In the midst of these fights for rights on a national level, the women of COPINH begin a long journey of rising up and fighting for their rights. One of the first important struggles was the awareness brought to discrimination and violence within the organization. Several abusers of women were kicked out of the organization, thanks to the courage and tireless struggle of leaders like Doña Pascualita and Berta Cáceres. It was no easy feat to launch, for example, the first COPINH Women’s Assembly. At the time people thought that it would divide the organization. Instead, the opposite happened. It resulted in the institutionalization of the statutes of the organization.
For Berta it was not possible to advance in the anti-patriarchal and anti-racist struggle without fighting against violence against women in all of its forms within the organization itself. They worked for the permanent incorporation of women in the structures of the organization, as well as engaging female comrades in political education in all areas of the struggle so that they would be part of all of COPINH’s organizational and community work.
Berta said that “the anti-patriarchal struggle is a vision that is expressed in all areas of COPINH’s work from its inception. (...) This anti-patriarchal idea intersects with all the areas of organization because we want the machista culture to be changed, we want to achieve equal rights and have participation in and to benefit from the organization. Considering that we as women are different people and with different stories but not with unequal rights, and with this struggle we defend the valuing of women’s decisions and thoughts in the family, in the economy, in politics, and in the organizational development of the country and the world.”
For Berta the protection of women and children who were victims of violence was also a permanent need. Her dream was to have a safe space for female comrades who were abused or attacked. Years later this dream began to take shape with the proposal to build a Refuge House for Women. In 2015 the house was finally inaugurated, the House of Healing and Justice of the Women of COPINH. There were many other struggles and efforts as well. For example, COPINH promoted the Women’s Courts, a space to denounce violence and share resistance strategies, alongside other women’s organizations. There were also gathering spaces amongst indigenous women.
Accompanied by Berta Cáceres, the women of COPINH brought forth important struggles for the defense of the land. An important example was the resistance of the women in the community of San Antonio to stop the El Tigre dam, along the Lempa River on the border with El Salvador. Thousands of women, along with Berta and COPINH, marched innumerable times between 2006 and 2007 through the community with their faces covered and machetes in hand, carrying their children and demanding the end of the hydroelectric project, which was later suspended.
United People’s Struggles and National Re-foundation
In 2006 Manuel Zelaya was elected President of Honduras. His relationship with people’s organizations had never been good, and this changed only after the last Civic Strike in 2008 organized by the CNRP. In these years there was a clear shift of the government towards the member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America - ALBA.
COPINH, which always had good communication with representatives of Venezuela and Cuba, was able to recognize the importance of the changing position of the Honduran government and the urgency to support the brave position of the Zelaya government in this new political context, as it began to confront the powerful elite.
In this process of reconciliation of the people’s movements through the CNRP they proposed the “independent people’s platform candidates” with Carlos H. Reyes, workers representative; Berta Cáceres, indigenous leader; Maribel Hernández, a teachers’ union leader, and Carlos Amaya, member and leader of the Honduran left. With a program based on 12 points [5] created by the agreements that were reached in the First Encounter of the Workers, Peasants, Teachers, Communal and People’s Organizations in 2008.
The election of Berta as a candidate not only showed the political maturity of the movement, but also the recognition of her as an indigenous leader and of the leadership of COPINH itself. It was through this process of more profound reconciliation that the organization organized the First Encounter for the Re-founding of Honduras, in La Esperanza.
From there they tried to put forth a true Constitutional Assembly, to empower the people and re-found the country with a new indigenous Constitution, for the people. In this context of struggle for change the 2009 coup d’etat takes place. On the date of the elections, the slate of candidates (in a gesture of revolutionary integrity) withdraws and calls for resistance and struggle in the streets against the dictatorship.
The coup and the struggle of COPINH
COPINH was accompanying the initiative of the government to consult the people, which is why it was dramatically affected by the military repression. However, it understood from the first moment that the struggle would be waged essentially in the capital. Thousands of members of COPINH went to Tegucigalpa where, in addition to mobilizing and accompanying the struggle for more than six months, they constituted a unit that was sent to defend and protect the perimeter of the Venezuelan Embassy for more than three months.
Reconstituted people’s power and the community-based struggle
Once the government of Porfirio Lobo was elected, COPINH multiplied its efforts of solidarity to accompany the struggle of the peasants of Aguán, who were being massacred for demanding respect for their right to land.
There was also a rupture within the recently created National Front of People’s Resistance -FNRP. This rupture came from the polarization of the positions between those who supported the focus on electoral politics and those who called for the overthrow of the dictatorship through the people’s insurrection. The electoral line was defended by those close to the Bloque Popular and the political cohort of Manuel Zelaya; and the line of insurrection supported by so-called “re-foundationists”, was led by COPINH, organizations of the left and organizations with territorial struggles.
The division in the people’s movements already existed, as did the deepening electoral contradictions. The electoral fraud of 2013 brought to light the differences and the ruptures between social leaders who advocated the electoral line, with the re-foundationist line being led by Berta and Miriam Miranda (from the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras). Both leaders encouraged a new dynamic of struggle based in the territories, from the communities and for the defense of the common goods of nature, in response to the onslaught of extractivism from the Lobo government.
The struggle for land and territory became one of the principal necessities of the “re-foundationist” organizations. In 2013 the Platform of Social and People’s Movements of Honduras is created and Berta and Miriam are the leaders that organize and lead it. It is in the context of the struggle for the defense of the territory that the government unleash a witch hunt criminalizing social movement leaders. The struggle for Río Blanco and the Gualcarque River led to the subsequent assassination of Berta in 2016, one death amongst many others who gave their lives in various communities defending nature’s common good.
In this stage, despite having been severely attacked by State and corporate repression, COPINH continues a fierce struggle against the hundreds of extractive projects that threaten Lenca communities and territories.
This is the current challenge of COPINH: to sustain the struggle. This is why it is rebuilding its power from the indigenous communities and from its historical struggle and resistance. This struggle is not only for COPINH but for all struggles, in any part of the world. As Berta said, for mother nature, for humanity, because time is running out.
1- Currently being prosecuted in the United States for the infamous Fifagate case, where bribery and corruption was discovered on the inside of the International Football Federation -FIFA-. Before this, Callejas was prosecuted in Honduras for different crimes of corruption.
2- Labor reforms and trade union action in Central America; http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/fesamcentral/07612.pdf :
3- Constitutive document of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras.
4- Coffee in Honduras is produced by hundreds of thousands of poor families who depend on their small harvests for a basic annual income. Small producers are exploited by the export companies and intermediaries who set miserable prices when buying their harvests. In 1999 the price of coffee collapsed in the international markets, which meant one of the worst disasters for the local community-based economy in the country. The Lenca area in the West of Honduras is one of the regions with greatest coffee production.