In Nov. 2009, I stood among thousands of unarmed Hondurans – teachers, students, civil servants – demanding an end to a military coup that had transformed a relatively peaceful country into a brutal police state. As I leaned toward a line of soldiers to take a photo, I felt the butt of a machine gun against my rib cage and understood, in a visceral and embodied way, just how serious the situation had become.
The soldiers guarded the Brazilian embassy, where democratically elected
President Manuel Zelaya was being held captive by the military regime. At the time, around 40 people had been killed in direct state violence, while hundreds more had been terrorized in their homes or in the streets, attacked with batons and bullets, raped and tortured in prisons. Anyone who tried to speak out against the coup was targeted for violence or intimidated by threats.
The coup regime is still in power today and the repression continues unabated; in fact, just three weeks ago, Amnesty International Canada issued an urgent call for support for some 114 families targeted by intense police violence in northern Honduras.
But on Aug. 12, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Honduras to congratulate its leaders on a successful return to democracy and respect for human rights.
It may seem like a contradiction, but this is the new Canada. Not only has the Harper government been the strongest supporter of the military regime since the Jun. 2009 coup, we have also successfully negotiated new trade agreements with it and recently announced that we would be sending 150 Canadian soldiers to conduct joint military exercises with the same military that carried out the coup and has overseen some 200 politically motivated assassinations in just over two years.
The horrific stories start to blur together. Beloved teacher Jose Manuel Flores, shot to death at the school where he taught with his students – a response to his activism in the National Teachers’ Federation. Carlos H. Reyes, former presidential candidate, bludgeoned in the head by police. Enrique Gudiel, a critical journalist from Danli, discovering his 17-year-old daughter hanged to her death.
Honduran human rights organizations have meticulously documented the crimes of the military regime and time and time again have begged the international community to take heed, isolate the regime, and force them to step down and allow civilian rule once more.
But Canada has taken the lead in willfully ignoring these groups.
In 2009, the leaders of the coup held fraudulent ‘elections’ in an attempt to legitimize their rule. Every reputable international observation group in the world refused to participate in the sham. Nonetheless, independent conservative US and Canadian groups came to Honduras and declared the elections ‘free and fair,’ all the while refusing to speak with delegations from Honduran civil society who wanted to present evidence on the widespread repression. I confronted one such observer, Edward Fox, about his refusal to pay attention to the human rights organizations and he replied, “I’ve spoken to the US ambassador, and he’s here all the time.”
Indeed. The United States has a long history of meddling in this country; it was nicknamed the USS Honduras in the 1980s, and from its bases in Honduras, the United States launched some of its most brutal and violent wars in Central America. As Honduras has slid back into the chaotic violence characteristic of the 1980s, many Hondurans have suggested that Canada is taking on the role the US used to play; as one woman put it, we are “more gringo than the gringos.”
Kidnapping an elected president and putting an entire nation in lockdown fits the definition of ‘coup d’etat’ to a T. But Canada’s statements have carefully softened the severity of the violence, euphemistically calling it a ‘political crisis’ and routinely ‘calling on all sides’ of the dispute to exercise restraint, as if this were a matter of two equally powerful parties struggling for control. We ‘congratulated’ Honduras on its fraudulent elections (of which up to 70% of Hondurans boycotted in defiance) and regularly praised victorious coup president Pepe Lobo on his ‘steps toward reconciliation’ while the violence continued unabated.
Canadian Minister of State Peter Kent held meetings with Lobo and worked tirelessly to bring Honduras back into the international community, even sending a Canadian diplomat to sit on a ‘Truth Commission’ in 2010 which looked, frankly, farcical to Hondurans who continued to be targeted by police and military on a daily basis.
A shameful record, indeed. But if supporting a miserable gang of thugs like the one ruling Honduras seems un-Canadian, it may be time to look a bit closer in the mirror, and re-examine some of our assumptions about Canada’s behaviour in the world.
Our decade-long occupation of Afghanistan has left over 10,000 civilian casualties, utter social and political ruin, widespread allegations of torture, and no improvement in the much-maligned conditions for women whom we claimed to represent.
Our decision to send the Canadian military to overthrow the democratically elected president of Haiti in 2004 ushered in an era of political instability and disarray that drove the country into ever-deeper poverty and dislocation, making it tragically and immeasurably more vulnerable to the devastating earthquake in 2010.
Our quiet participation in the quagmire in Iraq ought to be a skeleton in the closet, but it is ignored perhaps because we are now actively dropping bombs on Libya, though it doesn’t appear to be doing much good for ordinary Libyans.
As Stephen Harper prepares to heap praise on the leader of a brutal and illegal government in Honduras this Friday, we might ask who in Canada is benefiting from our relationship with this regime. Certainly the Canadian mining and garment giants, from Goldcorp to Gildan, which exploit Hondurans’ weakness under such a repressive state apparatus.
But surely not those of us who may have been born in Canada but consider ourselves global citizens. For those of us who believe democracy, security, and human freedom and dignity are more than just euphemisms, it must be time to take responsibility for the Canadian governments’ actions and to insist that they change.
Tyler Shipley is a writer and researcher who teaches at York University in Toronto.