“Honduras is facing an S.O.S. international situation regarding human rights issues”

Interview with Berta Oliva –COFADEH

Thursday 6 June 2013

All the versions of this article: [English] [Español] [Português]

Published: NGO Development Coordinator in Spain.

Canal: Political Study Institue for Latin America and Africa (IEPALA).

Type of Document: Interview.

Language: Spanish.

Subject: Human rights.

Keywords: Justice administration, Human rights defenders, Forced disappearances, State, Impunity, Violence.

Countries and Regions: Honduras.

Description: Interview with Berta Oliva, founding member.

“I walk the streets of Honduras and also the streets of the world, bearing the burden of the suffering of my people”. These words are said by Berta Oliva, a human rights defender who for over 30 years, all along which she has been constantly claiming the compensation for victims as well as justice. She started this work in the 80s when, in the midst of a brutal repression environment, her husband – political leader Tomás Nativí- was detained and went missing. Then, together with other persons victims of torture, disappearances and assassinations, she founded the Commission of Missing Detainee Relatives in Honduras (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras, COFADEH).

A slow and serene woman, her voice doesn’t crack when she has to denounce abuses of power and human rights violations taking place in its country. Her constant work in that sense has made her the victim of multiple threats and harassment. “We have learned to live without fearing death; it doesn’t mean we are not afraid, but rather that we have to do our work and live and always struggle for life”. During a visit in Spain – upon the invitation of IEPALA- to denounce the present situation of impunity and violence in Honduras she talked to the NGDO Coordinator.

When they began their work in the 80s they were able to realize that aside of demanding justice and truth for the victims, it was necessary to place the Honduran people on the side of the historic memory. “This was the way to educate the population into the never again”. To wage a battle in a country that at that time had seven armies is not an easy task. We were facing a conflict ignored by the international community, in which “everything happened and nothing happened”. In spite of these difficulties, as time went by, we have been able to make the population aware of its rights, to become empowered and to demand their rights. “We were able to confirm this during and after the military coup in 2009: it was the same people we had thirty years ago, who then used to run and hide from those holding weapons and power. The people of today took the streets with full decision, clarity and courage; and staged a continuous struggle, giving evidence of its indignation and response to the coup. This collective behavior is a result of their appropriation of their rights and a consequence of the works we did related to the memory. And the most important of this epic is that it was not done using violent methods, but rather using ancestral and diverse knowledge, demanding truth and the return to the constitutional order”.

Human Rigths Watch classifies Honduras as one of the most violent countries in the world where the most serious cuts regarding rights are taking place in the last three decades. They are even referring to death squadrons and social cleaning policies. According to Berta Oliva “present situation is worse than what we had 30 years ago since the impunity levels are stronger and they are transformed into a State policy or, as we use to say, the debris of the State. The aggressors of that time, who were agents invested with authority, have re-emerged as security advisors, police trainers, political analysts on the media and even as candidates for popular election positions, without any shame at all and with a cynicism never seen before. They are fully convinced of their own impunity as torturers, assassins and responsible of crimes against humanity, since they have never been held accountable. Now, aside of been experts they are demanding the right to elect and been elected”.

The data regarding violence and impunity registered in Honduras are among the highest one all over the planet; according to Berta Oliva this situation is directly linked to the institutionalization of crime. “Honduras is going through the worst crisis of extreme impoverishment and inequality; a situation that could be overcome if violence should not have been transformed into a State policy. This is the big difference when compared to the situation we had in the 80s: at that time what was persecuted was the ideological thinking and murdering took place; at present the ideological thought is chased and killings take place, but it is not seen. In fact, the greatest danger the majority of people who are human rights defenders is facing is that of being murdered and seen that killing justified by the generalized violence, specifically created to disguise political and ideological persecution. Sometimes, even before any investigation is done or the body is still hot on the floor, speakers from the State in Honduras are already justifying that death claiming alleged links with drug trafficking or the organized crime”.

Within this context, the Maras seems to be an important actor (recently the main two Maras in the country–Salvatrucha and Barrio18- had announced a truce whose consequence might be evaluated in the next coming months), with links that are questioned quite often by the civil society. “Yes, it is true, Maras do exist, but in fact they are a tool of the army, of the Ministry of Defense; a State policy having the support of the USA to justify its intervention in Honduras. The Maras do not emerge or grow by themselves, they are rather the result of a praxis implemented through the government in the secretary of defense and in the police. Under this scheme it is allowed for State agents to justify their attacks against social, civil and political rights. On behalf of the Maras they storm into the neighborhoods, into the colonies, into the homes claiming they are engaged in a combat. Using this speech as a pretext they have increased their budgets and arsenals, engaging in an impressive social cleansing. They have eliminated some Maras and they have protected some other which are the one rendering services to both the army and the police. This is a problem of political ethics on the part of the authorities in our country, and in this specific case, of the security forces and the Prosecutor’s Office”.

At a time in which the USA participates in the talk, Berta Oliva is even more firm in her statements. “We have gone from being a country so deeply dependent on the policies of the empire that I would rather prefer not living to see this, to feel it; as a Honduran national I feel deeply humiliated and threatened by its policies, which are ferocious”.

Could we say then that Honduras is a failed State? “I don’t dare to say it is a failed State, no, I don’t dare to say that…. And you know why? Because the USA is awaiting for us to acknowledge that fact to military intervene in the country just as it has done in some other countries. The Honduran justice institutions are precarious, they do not function, the lack legitimacy and trust. They not only require a cleansing process and an intervention but also their reconstruction; but they don’t need a foreign intervention, as it is happening in the Prosecutor’s Office, where the US government impose an evaluation which derived into a commission with linkages to its embassy. This leads to placing dead ones in a position of defenselessness and then to kill that person again by saying he/she was engaged in something else, but never referring to the work done as human rights defenders. They transform the victim into a victimizer and the State is made the victim of these persons. Situation is very serious. I never dreamed living such a situation as the one we are facing in the country now, but saying that this is a failed State…. I think I need to think a little more on that, because the moment we declare it we are opening our doors to the US to justify that Honduras is Haiti”.

On May 3rd, President Obama met with a group of Central American heads of State to assess the battle against drug trafficking in the area. Several organizations have criticized this visit since they consider it to be interference in affairs that are the sole responsibility of sovereign States. There are some who ask whether this US interventionism in Honduras is just the entrance door into the whole of the region. According to Berta Oliva “in fact it is the legalization of its Regional Security Initiative for Central America. The USA is already on the isthmus, stretching its area as an important piece and imposing a vision that increases the danger for the population. And this situation is especially concerning in the Northern triangle linked to Mexico, a regrettable example of “war against drug trafficking” that has caused the death to 50 thousand innocent people in five year period”.

International support

Some countries support Honduras with the purpose of increasing the institutional level of the government; a support which is seriously criticized by Oliva: “They cooperate, for example, with the Prosecutor’s Office to train prosecutors and we end in having corrupt professionals, people rendering services to the organized crime and with total impunity; prosecutors that, precisely due to the training they have received, know how to handle the situation to justify cases against victims while favoring the victimizer. By doing this, the place where we go to present our claims has been transformed into a public laundry: cases and evidences are washed and they make us, who demand justice, look as those who have made a mistake facing a compromised State with the changing of affairs”.

While denunciations against the government increases and the different actors engaged in the Honduran context deepen into their own criticism; the civil society bears as well a responsibility regarding this situation. “As Honduran nationals we have the obligation of knowing which the ruling laws when trying to implement a change and handling a State in crisis”. This is the only way to face “an intervention coming hand in hand with political defeatism of the President of the National Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is aspiring to the Chair of the Republic. A political servile attitude aimed at paving the way for him and his friends in the electoral campaign which also admits for impunity to continue as it is at present”.

The sentence issued against Ríos Montt took place when we talk to the human rights defender (a few days later it was annulled). Her joy when she heard of this information was quite evident, as well as her worries about the process. “There is no doubt whatsoever we have to celebrate this trial. I’m very happy! Happy! This is a triumph for struggling people in the region. It was certified he committed genocide and crimes against humanity something he denied for a long time. The sentence represents a support message, although the levels of impunity existing in the area are huge, that is why we should expect for the appeal process to produce a total change in the judicial decision. I think it also send a message of impunity to professional criminals in Honduras; that is tos ay, it is saying them that perhaps 40 years might elapse but they will be trialed, but then they will not be sent to jail since according to the Honduran law sentences are not enacted after a given age. And we are of the opinion that justice should be on time: now and not later …”

Historic memory once again appears in the talk, the importance of working with it within the society because, as she says: “memory is like a whip (she stresses on this word) powerful, potent, since it store everything and when confronting criminals is able to defeat the worst of them. And in Honduras we have seize this, which is why when criminals look at us they feel naked. This is what happens with a criminal who came from Spain seeking refuge when trials started to judge forced disappearances that took place in the 80s and now he is a candidate to the National Congress. He joined his friend, a coup participant, Romeo Vázquez Velázquez. This is how things are marking in Honduras: a genocide who has committed crimes against humanity, an expert on forced disappearances and tortures, next to a criminal who stages coup d’état; both trained in the School of the Americas… This is probably the future in Honduras and is the situation we are facing now”.

Solidarity with peoples

All along these years of struggle, COFADEH and other similar movements have received the support of organizations from different places in the world. Solidarity with our people has created bonds that have survived for several decades. “I am a survival of solidarity, without any doubt at all. If solidarity would not have existed at that time and now, I could not have survived. I will not keep silent, not there, not here. But I consider that solidarity should be more on the alert so that we could move from a state of national emergency to an international S.O.S. for Honduras and for all human rights defenders. This is the only way we might survive since everything is almost ready to create a premeditated chaos, bigger than the one we have bee facing along the last four years. Worst times lays ahead of us, worst that what we lived in the 80s or after the coup d’état. Honduras is in an abyss and solidarity should be alert precisely now when general elections are around the corner. We are witnessing not only the impunity for criminals who murder the ideological thought, but also a mixture of drug trafficking activity and power which might be transformed, if it is not already so, in a main character of the drug trafficking state. What we have in large quantities are weapons, not food”.

Elections in Honduras will take place on November 24 and Berta Oliva is of the opinion that the key is taking action in the next coming months. She claims for the drafting of a strategy for the region and more specifically for Honduras which guarantees presence solidarity. “If we were to develop this action only during election days, watching the line of voters or visiting public institutions without ensuring that the military or any other violence generating actors abandon the main character role on the streets, solidarity will never certify a legitimate and democratic elections. From June to September we will know if there will be elections or not. It is going to be a tough job… My fear is that they will create such a big crisis that elections might not take place due to force majour reasons – such as deaths, kidnapping, expatriations and whatever else you might think about. And this type of situation might create turmoil and a bloody public action might take place worst than the one we experienced in 2009”.

The electoral functioning ways are in danger, she denounces. “It might be the first time in the democratic history of Honduras in which the national party will hold power during two consecutive periods – it has always been two periods of the Liberal party and one for the National. I think they have negotiated this, but also, the candidate from the National Party is not yet the candidate for the US embassy and he is stubbornly decided to be the president and he is willing to shed blood to attain that. And the people have its own candidate: Xiomara Castro. These are the main actors; if a proper negotiation process does not take place the crisis will burst. So the only way left is solidarity, and do not think we are not afraid …”

Fear for the fact that threats might be become a reality is always present, although, as Berta Oliva says, “we have learned to live with it. My two sons are there and I would like to take them out of there for at least two month since I know how they function, I know the will strike on that which hurt you the most and an old lady like I am is not worth to be killed, but there are other ways to kill a person …”

We ended up this talk discussing about Spain; about the rights cuts we are facing, , Berta Oliva advises us to be convinced of the fact that what we are claiming is just. “If the claim is just, dying for demanding a right of enduring the violation of freedoms…. (she takes a deep inhale, look to a side, she stands up) . We have to do it. If I’m thrown into a jail for claiming a right, if my freedom is taken away, right there, in jail, I’m going to involve those kept there; right there I’m going to present my claims. If they kill, I will emerge from my tomb. And when I say I will emerge from deep below I mean that the only way is to claim for just and human rights, there is no other way they can stop you once you are fully convinced on what you are doing… The force of those fighting next to us is what give us the certitude of reaching our goals. There is no other thing to do but fighting; we shall never feel comfort in not doing so. We have to move on. Take the streets is a duty when one feels trampled on, that your rights are violated. Power is on the streets not in the offices. We should design the path by demanding truth and justice along the streets in Honduras, along the streets of the world”.

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