Interviewee: Bertha Oliva, President of COFADEH (the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Lucy Goodman
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: 23rd August 2010
Martin Mowforth (MM): [A longish point about the change that has happened as a result of the coup d’état.] How has the work of COFADEH changed?
Bertha Oliva (BO): Since the day of the coup d’état, we have seen our capacity to cope overtaken and that worries us because we have a clear indication that, as far as human rights go, there has been a savage worsening.
When COFADEH was first founded, in the 1980s, it was due to the forced disappearances and the violations of human rights, and we had a lot of work, great demand, many claims – at that time there were victims of all kinds of repression, of harassment and of surveillance. But we managed to do our work.
Now, looking back, we realise that the situation which faces this country today is very grave, because in the 1980s the repressive forces of the state used violence but in a hidden way, making use of paramilitaries. But today, after the first seven months, you can see the savagery in the streets, with the army oppressing the Honduran people. They try to take apart the Honduran people through repression. But it hasn’t happened as they wanted – the greater the repression, the greater the participation in society.
It seems to me that it doesn’t fit the current reality – after the seven months of the coup and since the 27th January when there was supposed to be a new government – according to them a constitutional and civil government – we can say that it’s just a continuity of the coup, it’s unfortunately a failed state. As a failed state, the situation changes, because in the 1980s we were trying to strengthen the state, although with serious deficiencies, but a state of law nevertheless. But today we have to strengthen …???…, and the only people who broke the constitutional order are those who are in the public institutions.
We have seen how things have changed, how life has changed for an organisation like COFADEH which is dedicated to follow-up, accompaniment, monitoring, action and lawsuits – it’s a different situation.
MM: As for the observation and monitoring of protests – today there has been a protest of the teachers?
BO: That has given us a totally different course of action. Just imagine, we are now faced with really strong protest marches but which are also very repressed. After the coup, which is now more than a year ago, the dynamic among the population is just as strong as it was at the time of the coup. For example, in the last few days the demonstration by the teachers has had hundreds and hundreds of participants – they took more than an hour and a half to pass by our office here. There were two to three hundred thousand people, all teachers.
There is a reality in the country that the successor government to the coup government is committing a huge mistake because it tries to ignore the social movement and the peoples’ demands. So, it’s going to overcome it by repression. But it doesn’t realise that such repression only serves to show the government as a lying violator of human rights, because according to its international image its commitment is as a government of reconciliation which respects human rights.
For example, right now you can see, you are witnesses to that man who just left – he was an agent of the secret police, as a paramilitary who infiltrates the marches.
MM: And what was he doing here?
BO: He was here because the protesters found him out. They grabbed him with a walkie-talkie giving out information, and he had been there, in the middle of the crowd, since 9 in the morning; and he was informing where they were and that they had to send more people like him. So the protesters grabbed him, and after the march, at about 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, they brought him here so that COFADEH could call the attorney general’s office or the police. The people were very angry and when they brought him here we couldn’t say that they should take him because we knew that they were very angry and they could have done anything to him because they felt so offended. They could kill. So for us it was a very difficult situation, because when he is here we have to protect the rights of the assassin.
What he did was to call the Police Commissioner so that they would send for him. After he called the Commissioner he started saying he wasn’t one of them, but obviously they had advised him, because if the police sent for him, he would have to accept and admit that he was one of their agents. So they called me and said that they were going to send an attorney so that he could make a formal statement. Faced with that, I knew that they wanted to see how they could raise charges against us, but I said to him, “Look, you’re going to make a formal statement, but nobody here did anything to you, and so you decide whether you are going to go or to stay because nobody’s coming for you.” But he had already called his father and his father sent a lawyer. So he told the lawyer, …???… The lawyer said to him, “Why are you here?” It’s because he was informing on the activities of the protest march …???…
That’s the kind of work that we have to do daily now. It’s very difficult. To assume a role like that is not easy. We had a hitman here who was infiltrating a march monitoring protesters in the Resistance and teachers who were protesting about their rights which had been violated and that they had been victims of attacks and aggressions the like of which I’ve never had to register before.
MM: Have you never registered them with the police?
BO: But there’s so much aggression by the police in public. For example, on Friday when the protest had finished the teachers were concentrated in the Francisco Morazán University; some were getting ready to have lunch and others were preparing to go and analyse what had happened in the protest march, when they were savagely attacked by the police. They fired more than 200 tear gas bombs, each one of which costs $100. According to what we’ve been seeing, those bombs are the same as they used in Perú to break down the Sendero Luminoso group. It’s a really strong bomb which stuns and bewilders people. They are using lethal tear gas bombs against the protesters.
The effect on these people is going to be very strong in a little while; and on top of that they detained four of the teachers’ leaders – they held them and beat them up, they split open their heads and they put them in a cell which wasn’t legal. We were looking for them for more than two hours; we didn’t know which station they were in and we called it a kidnapping. Afterwards they moved them to the Core 7 police station where they raised charges against them and kept them until 2 in the morning with access to a doctor – and they were bleeding. That was effectively constant torture for more than twelve hours.
Afterwards they were driven to a private hospital in an armoured police car to receive medical attention. What’s more, they were so cruel – they ordered a police presence in the hospital, almost on the doors where they were. I asked that they withdraw the police presence because they didn’t need to guard them especially as those who had attacked them were from the same police corps and that they would be better cared for by their colleagues. Also, they were teachers and if they would want to file charges they were not going to abscond or flee.
This has been something that has been happening for many years. The system of the application of justice, all those involved in the delivery of justice, they have always been …???…; but at the moment it doesn’t even matter whether the people know and that was clearly shown to happen on Friday. The Public Prosecutor is the department which files charges against the detained. Their mandate is to protect, defend and accompany the population and society. And what they did was to file charges against the detained without intervening to ensure that they were immediately set free. If after they were found responsible for what the police had claimed, then they would receive open judgements. But faced with the barbarity of tear gas bombs, a tank of pepper gas spray, bullets, a detachment of more than 500 police who were there – for each teacher who was grabbed there were up to 50 police. How could a teacher do anything against these policemen? But even so, the Public Prosecutor has filed charges against them. They are accused of sedition and of lacking respect for authority.
MM: What are your relations with the current government? Do you have any channels open to you that you can use to change the practices of the police and the army, through the judiciary or other branches of the state?
BO: That’s the waste in the process that we have. Now what we have is a confrontation. So we talk of the indefensibility in that we are the defenders of human rights for the population. We had created spaces to allow us to help in the case of human rights violations, but today we no longer have them – that’s all gone. On the one hand, we believe that the government is not a government, rather it is a régime which imposes the idea that we should accept things even if they aren’t legal, even if they aren’t just – everything that it does violates human rights. These days I am realising that our spaces for manoeuvre are being reduced because a defender of human rights who does their work, who is not only making statements to the press, but also in COFADEH we accompany the victims, we take testimony and we help them to recover their emotional stability. After we make the denunciations to the Public Prosecutor, we insist that judgements are made in the courts. That’s not easy, because at the moment, as the Public Prosecutor was one of the institutions which legalised and whitewashed the coup d’état, they are the same officials – they haven’t changed these authorities at all the Attorney General, the Assistant Attorney, and in my judgement the Human Rights Attorney, the Constitutional Attorney, the Attorney for …???…, and the Attorney for Children are all lawyers who have acted with false …???…; and then if we go to the Supreme Court of Justice, they are the same people who carried out the military coup, who signed everything that justified the coup. If we go to the National Congress, which is where we have less effect because right now we are in the middle of them making new laws to strengthen their position – but equally they are the same deputies who were elected and were in Congress when the coup took place. The space we have to work in for human rights are minimal, and we are left only with the ability to make denunciations to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
MM: The IACHR is one of your hopes?
BO: Well at least it offers a hope in the short term, but to make a denunciation and to demand precautionary measures we turn to the Inter-American System and the International System for the Protection of Children. We have dared to inform the Commission and we have asked for measures. To Amnesty International we have sent urgent actions because there isn’t just persecution in the public protests, there’s also a much graver situation, a hostility towards, surveillance of and threats to social leaders and NGO directors.
MM: And to you yourself, I imagine?
BO: Well, I admit that we have been threatened plenty of times, but I try not to say anything about it because if I start thinking about the threats we receive, we would do nothing and wouldn’t be able to slog away at all the other threats and violations. You have to realise that this is very hard. Right now, for example, I’m fearful of what is happening with this case, because they can raise me as a cause because with that lad they brought here they could accuse me of detaining him illegally.
We get every type of threat. They threaten us with legal action, they threaten us publicly, and we have also seen that as every day the situation gets worse it becomes more dangerous. Acts against life, acts against liberty, acts against the psychological state of people are all now systematic, selective and hushed up. During the first days of August seven journalists were threatened. Under Lobo’s government from the 27th [January] six journalists were threatened in February, March and April. But in the month of August, six journalists were being seriously threatened and detained – they were illegally detained and they had hampered their work before that. You wouldn’t believe that they could act so shamelessly against journalists.
The campesino sector. For instance, is one sector which is being threatened like you have no idea, and another thing which seems vital to me to say is that the battle for land in the interior of the country is very serious. Those people who you see downstairs, they are from the community of Puerto Grande in the south of the country, on the Island of Zacate Grande in the Gulf of Fonseca. They’re receiving death threats; yesterday some of them were wounded, and of those wounded one woman was hospitalised. I think there are about 80 families live there and the owner is a powerful landowner, Miguel Facussé, whose strategy has been to get families fighting amongst themselves. He’s got families to say that he is giving them that land; so he’s not fighting with the communities, instead families are fighting amongst themselves and that brings out the state authorities. So along come the authorities, the DGIC and the Public Security Force to see who’s fighting, and they say to them I’m only here to carry away the dead [there is probably some other proverbial or colloquial phrase or saying which would fit better here.]. That is a direct threat, but likewise, at the same time, it’s happening in Bajo Aguán, in Tocoa Colón, with the MUCA [The Unified Campesino Movement of Aguán] – the same Miguel Facussé, killing people, harassing people. So this is returning and coming round again like a ring.
In Tegucigalpa it’s a lie that there is governability. Here there are crawlers; here they have wanted to manage MUCA, so Lobo Sosa has signed an agreement, a deed of commitment, which says he will honour and which says he will deliver them lands, with titles, and that he is going to grant money for this purpose and that then it will be monitored. But what we have seen up to now is that no land titles have been delivered. That’s not what he offered, but what he has been giving is death. But they want to manage it at the international level, to show that they are progressing in this matter and to make sure that there is nobody who comes and says what they are in fact doing. But what is certain is that the conflict is continuing and the lack of respect for life is at its most intense since the start of the coup because the President believes that by saying he has signed agreements and that he has nominated commissions to monitor the accords, he uses it and sells it and wants to impose the idea that the situation is improving.
So, as his is a government of reconciliation, he has created an Official Commission of Truth and Reconciliation.
[Please note here the difference between the government appointed Truth Commission, officially called the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, and the international Truth Commission.]
MM: What hopes do you have for this Commission and the other Truth Commission?
BO: We’ve supported the Truth Commission. We know that it will have serious limitations because when you want to get information from the institutions of the state, they will possibly close up or will dilute the information when they deliver it. But equally, we know that what the Truth Commission can collect is going to be fixed in the notion of finding and deepening the truth without manipulation. For me, yes, there is hope in the Truth Commission.
It’s taking us a lot of effort to install it because it would seem that there are interested parties who are keen for it not to proceed, and that’s what the state, the government, is betting on because they want their own Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be the only one that is considered to be valid. The biggest political blow that the government has had up to now has been the installation of the Truth Commission and the recognition that it has given to the National Resistance Front because they were thinking of raising the profile of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but they haven’t been able to.
Just imagine, one of the members of the Honduran Truth Commission is the Rector of the University against whom there has been a trade union hunger strike for more than 100 days because he sacked them in violation of their collective contract, despite the fact that there were fixed and official recommendations that they must be reinstated because their rights were being violated. But there were more than 40 of them and he didn’t want to reinstate them into their work.
So, if any of the members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission commits a violation of social rights, do you believe that they can contribute to discovering the truth about human rights violations and which are much stronger and which are being committed by the government? It seems to me that this is a real problem. Perhaps in a year or six months they’ll deliver their first report.
It’s possible that the Truth Commission will report later than is generally thought, but the expectations that we have for the Truth Commission are the only ones we have. It’s the only one on which we can place our belief for everybody who is in solidarity with Honduras. The 28th June 2011 is the date planned for the first report, not the final report which will be concluded and produced in September 2011. The problem with the Truth Commission is that they’ve closed their searches, which is what happened during the coup, during the Micheletti régime, and is happening the same now. That shows the difference. I think that the facts of the cases are showing us some really strong things.
Right now we are producing a situational human rights report which isn’t finished yet. It’s currently in draft, but says that the assassinations carried out with political motives are now greater than those which were carried out under the Micheletti régime.
MM: The problem of impunity is one which has lasted for over 80 years, or certainly existed before; but impunity still exists here. What can the international community do to help to overcome this problem in Honduras?
BO: I believe that the international community can help us a lot right now. It’s the biggest crisis moment that this country has lived through. On the one hand, there is a communication strategy. The government has all the media and it is misinforming. The media which the international community reads are the media of the coup and that is where the disinformation is. The international community has to be watchful. It seems to me that each country can create solidarity committees, and solidarity relating specifically to the theme of human rights, to raise the level of awareness so that in your countries you know what we’re living through here. Honestly, I admit that the situation of human rights violations has overtaken COFADEH’s capacity to deal with them – every day we get more cases, to which we have to add the levels of poverty with which we work, because we are not economically prepared to respond to such barbarity. That obliges us to grasp the hand of wherever we can in order to attend to the people, to be able to help them.
MM: Do you have relations with Amnesty International?
BO: Yes, we do have relations with Amnesty. Amnesty collaborates with us a lot on Urgent Actions, but equally I believe that the solidarity committees should do that, as much to pressure the government as to look for ways and means of collecting funds and sending them. Not only do we have external displacements, where we have to take various people out of the country as an emergency, but we also have internal displacements. There are people who are in a very serious situation who we have to send to different places away from their homes, for example for a month until the situation passes – and that month is not free.
Also the clear poverty of the country and unemployment is enormous. In the face of all this, it’s very sad that whoever is empowered by the state is sharing out what little remains with the state. And that refers to the dams, the river basins – it’s impressive what they are doing. And if the population protest, then it is nothing much for the person to kill them and have done with it, …???…, and that’s it.
Corruption is another factor which is selling off the people. That is to say if someone sees acts of corruption and denounces them, he becomes the object of persecution, s/he’s sacked or s/he has to leave his/her job if it’s the boss who is being corrupt. But that is also an example of impunity.
The Honduran people are soon going to suffer disenchantment. These people have resisted and have kept up their morale, but there’s going to come a moment when morale falls because there are so many deaths – every time there’s a march, they fire tear gas, they torture, they assault, they emotionally destabilise with death threats, they steal from them, they accuse them of terrorism. It’s an oppressive state. What worries me most, and it should be the same for solidarity too, is how countries are recognising such an oppressive state under circumstances in which the massacres and political persecution are not stopped, it’s that that we come to expect as a people. That’s when disenchantment arrives in the country and its inhabitants. If right now the government is desperate for states to recognise it and it continues to violate human rights, it’s not going to stop doing it when it’s been recognised. Impunity is going to be a strong factor, and repression is going to get even worse.
At the moment in the country we are suffering hunger and there has been a time lag as far as militarisation goes, and we’ve managed to do a lot in that time. The most difficult thing is that in the militarisation the important positions have been taken by the human rights violators of the 1980s, the ones who are operating the death squads. That’s a product of impunity, a product of the squad members who we saw in the 1980s criminalised social protest. Nobody can protest because they are exposed to being gassed, to being detained or wounded or just disappeared.
MM: Are you labelled as terrorists?
BO: I work for human rights, but they label me as a member of the Resistance, and I support the Resistance, and for them that says everything. What I have said clearly I am always going to say – not just say, but do, because we don’t just talk, we also act – and it is the human rights defenders who, along with the people, suffer the abuse from agents of the state – they don’t leave human rights defenders alone. The defender who conforms ceases to be a defender. So, it doesn’t matter that they brand us as whatever they want to brand us as. But what is certain is that we face a broken country, a failed state. In the short term I don’t see that the situation is going to stabilise, in fact to the contrary, it’s going to get worse. It’s not going to get better if there is recognition and reinsertion of the state of Honduras into the Organisation of American States (OAS). That is not what is going to sort out the country, on the contrary, that will deepen and worsen the human rights violations because they are already unaccountable because they’re already accepted. The people’s suffering here is going to get worse every day.
As part of all that, there are people who describe the pain and the anxiety. This is a graphic on the death of Isis Obed. He was the first visible victim after the coup, because there were others before the coup – 15 days before the coup there were deaths, people who were calling for participation in the fourth poll were assassinated.
MM: It’s obvious that you need economic support.
BO: And more! I think we need to spread information about the situation because we have an impressive media barrier here. People come and because they don’t see any information in the media, they think everything is normal. But just imagine, in the National Autonomous University of Honduras there are four people who have been on hunger strike for more than 100 days, and still the problem isn’t resolved. For more than 15 days the Teacher’s Security Institute (Inprema) has been demanding that everything that was taken from it should be returned. That’s part of the corruption. The problem is not just funds, it is also about saving education in Honduras – it goes further than recovering the stolen funds, it’s about education in Honduras. There’s a tendency to privatise it and with the prevailing ignorance and limitations of the population and with the levels of poverty that we have, if Honduras was poor before the coup, now we have extreme levels of poverty. If the international financial organisations continue making the mistake of believing that support for the institutions of the state is going to resolve the problem, it’s not so – that will make it worse. The people need direct help. What the government is interested in right now, and what it will be interested in for a long time to come, is increasing the number of soldiers and the police force, strengthening the paramilitary groups so that they can subjugate the country even more in order that citizen awareness of education as the duty of the state and the government is not allowed to increase. And what they want to do is to privatise it. If they privatise education, Honduras will be condemned to absolute failure.
I feel that today there is a strategy to subordinate us. Some people have a lot of strength; others have very little and some are very easy targets – they’re more defenceless than others.
If you ask me what I would ask for, I would say the elimination or reorganisation of the Public Prosecutor’s office, to see if we can construct a space, because if you continue making denunciations to the Public Prosecutor, the international human rights institutions say to us, “Have you already made a denunciation to the Public Prosecutor?” By doing so we are strengthening a broken and criminally corrupt institute of the state. The worst thing is that we make a serious denunciation and we name witnesses, but we’ve had so many witnesses who have been assassinated. On the 30th July 2009 a teacher in a protest march was assassinated – he was called Roger Iván Murillo. For Roger’s assassination there was a teacher to give his testimony to the Public Prosecutor. He was a witness, he said that he knew who shot Roger because he was near his colleague. Prior to that the Public Prosecutor offered to give him protected witness status and within the month he was assassinated. The death of the first teacher was in July, and the witness was killed on 16th September – it didn’t take long.
There is a lad who in September filmed when they entered the barrios and shot a union (Sitrainfof) president. With his film he went to the Public Prosecutor to say that he had the proof, and that if they would guarantee his safety he would give it to them because on the film you could see and identify who shot him. That was on the 22nd September, and he went to the Public Prosecutor on the 24th or 25th September. In December his wife was killed. She was driving their vehicle. It was an attempt on his life, but they killed his wife instead.
Similarly, there was another case on the 22nd September . There was a lad who was due to give testimony. When the trial opened in the case of Don Francisco (another man they killed), he served as a witness because he saw and recognised the soldiers and police involved. Since that date, that lad has suffered more than 17 attacks. In September his wife was killed. As with the other case, they killed the wife because they got it wrong. In his case, they killed her by spraying gas …???… After the death of his wife, he continued getting attacked.
How on earth can people go to give testimony in a legal action to the Public Prosecutor, when the first thing they do is kill them? That is an indefensible situation of a failed state; that is what little hope we have in justice. There has to be first a purge of the place [the Public Prosecutor’s office].
Lucy Goodman (LG) : Are you worried for your own life?
BO: It’s a very difficult situation. Almost all of us, everybody who works here, have been subjected to threats. There are 17 of us here. They’ve loosened the brakes on our vehicles, they’ve loosened the screws on the tyres of the vehicles. The office was attacked before the coup. We’ve also been attacked with tear gas bombs. In September  here, there were more than 150 people seeking refuge from police persecution and we were seriously attacked. They surrounded us and threw tear gas bombs below – it was a desperate situation. They closed down a space we used to have on the radio because we were working on a programme about historical memory called ‘Voices Against the Forgotten’. They closed it down without telling us absolutely anything. Now we broadcast by Radio Blog, but we’ve been heavily …???… We can’t live with fear. It’s terrible to be terrorised; for me it’s the worst type of psychological hardship.
When I remember everything that I have felt living with the people, I assure you that I feel a …???…, and I say we must do something, we have to do something, because what they want is that we won’t even say anything, they want to immobilise us.
BO: [Referring to Tegucigalpa, I think] It’s a city which is horribly destroyed, and not just the formality of it, but structurally too because nobody …???… there is no plan designed by the local authorities to improve the situation. What they’ve tried to do all the time is just put patches and more patches on, because that allows them to get international solidarity. For example, with the dengue – nobody believes that it’s really the dengue that’s the problem. There was a flood in May , so the government declared a national emergency and began to take people out unconditionally.
MM: They need to declare emergencies in order to attract funds from the IMF, the World Bank and the IBD.
BO: It’s the only way they can get funds, but if only it was to get funds to provide work. But no, it’s to obtain funds to put in their own pockets because they have to make a profit somehow. …???… impoverishing and destroying the country and its people. Public officials are never going to want to make a government of the people, that stimulates people, that shares …???… under-development. Zelaya wanted to do things, but the oligarchy didn’t allow him to because those things worked in favour of the people and encouraged them with raising things like the minimum salary. They are greedy businessmen, because even with the increase in the minimum salary, it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of the ‘basic basket’ for people. But it did increase it by almost double. We’ve had now seven months of this government which should have resolved the issue of the minimum salary, but it hasn’t even thought about the issue. What it’s doing is the greatest cruelty. For example, the fast food transnationals are firing people and then re-hiring them on hourly contracts only.
MM: Under the new contracts they don’t have any responsibility to pay any social security or other guarantees.
BO: Not even a Christmas bonus because they pay them daily.