To Flee or Not to Flee? In Honduras, A Child Braves Tear Gas to Sell Vinegar Bags

Public education and job opportunities have been stolen from Honduran youth by a U.S.-backed narco-state bent on privatizing the whole of society. Youth face the choice of suffering violence and repression at home or risking the dangerous journey to the United States. 

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — The epicenter of the migrant crisis is in the midst of yet another uprising after the president of Honduras was accused of drug trafficking in the U.S. 

Minutes after the military and special police forces shot a first round of teargas canisters into a crowd of protesters on Tuesday, I heard a tiny sing-song voice chant “Vinegar! Bandanas!” A small child — who seemed to be about seven, my daughter’s age — waded through the crowd selling single-use plastic bags of vinegar and red bandanas. 

I shed enough tears to wash out the sting of the gas, but after another ten minutes and another heavy gassing I decided to take the child up on his offer. He told me the vinegar cost 10 lempiras ($0.41 USD) and the bandana was 20 lempiras. As I searched around in my purse for the wad of small bills I knew I had, the boy wiped his eyes and looked to be suffering from the gas too. I fished out two 20 lemp bills and grabbed the bag I thought he was handing me. But he coughed and shook his head. “No, that one’s mine.” 

I told him to keep the change, and he walked off with a smile while my heart broke. 

 

Honduran youth face Hobson’s choice

Public education and job opportunities have been stolen from Honduran youth by a U.S.-backed narco-state bent on privatizing the whole of society. Youth face the choice of suffering violence and repression at home or risking the dangerous journey to the United States. And everyone here — including the kids — knows the names of at least one child who has died in ICE detention.

The vinegar saleschild was one of dozens of vendors I encountered throughout the day. Anti-government marches are a friendly and lucrative space for street vendors, where they enjoy relative protection from the militarized municipal police who regularly harass them and confiscate their merchandise.

The neo-liberal economic policies of President Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) and his International Monetary Fund partners have injected steroids into already-existing mass impoverishment, leading many to look for such creative ways to make a buck.

 

The narco-president

The hopes of the Honduran resistance — like those in need of some quick cash, such as the young boy — were answered last week when court documents were published identifying JOH as “co-conspirator number 4” (CC-4) in a major drug-trafficking case, along with numerous other powerful government figures. While the dictator’s drug trafficking was long presumed in Honduras, this common knowledge was validated last week by a U.S. federal court. 

The official recognition of JOH as a narco gave new energy to the resistance movement that has taken to the streets since April, demanding an end to the privatization of healthcare and education. Movement leaders called for intensified nationwide protests demanding the immediate resignation and prosecution of “CC-4” on Monday and a large march in the capital, Tegucigalpa, on Tuesday.

It was at the end of this march, outside the National Congress, that the first teargas canisters of the day were shot at the crowd. I came to the protests to conduct ethnographic fieldwork for my research on the impacts of U.S. empire and neoliberal fascism on people’s health.

 

The ‘safety’ of an uprising 

When Hondurans rise up en masse, it brings out a certain elation. In a country so wracked by violence and impunity from the top all the way down, one feels paradoxically safe during an uprising, as opposed to the panic one feels in their bones on any street, at any given moment, on any given day. The safety-in-numbers strategy is similarly used by the migrant caravans.

Marchers gathered at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday morning. Ten years after the coup and the concomitant birth of the National People’s Resistance Front (FNRP), the initial gathering of any national march feels something like a high school reunion. Except at demonstrations, the number of people missing is striking, with dozens of the most famous marchers never to be seen marching again. 

These figures — martyrs of the Honduran resistance — range from the locally beloved Emo Sadloo — a naturalized Honduran citizen originally from Surinam, who was murdered in his auto body shop in September 2011 — to the internationally renowned anticapitalist, anti-imperialist indigenous leader and environmental activist, my friend Berta Cáceres, murdered in her home in March 2016 by a U.S.-trained death squad.

Honduras Protest Teargas

Teargas fills Tegucigalpa’s city center during a protest against President Juan Orlando Hernandez on August 6, 2019. Photo | Adrienne Pine

In addition to the many key resistance figures assassinated since the coup, those notably missing Tuesday morning included some living in exile, like René Amador and Eduardo Urbina. Worst yet are the preoccupations of Edwin Espinal, Raul Alvarez and Rommel Herrera, who languish without trial as political prisoners and are currently on hunger strike.

 

Fasting for comrades and for a better future

Well prior to JOH’s recent public christening as CC-4, supporters of the political prisoners planned a week of action to turn up pressure on the Honduran government for their release. 

On Monday, former president Manuel (Mel) Zelaya, who was ousted in the 2009 U.S.-backed coup; members of congress with the Libre Party; and social movement leaders gathered in front of the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa to fast in solidarity with them. 

Fasters called attention to the demands of their imprisoned comrades, including better living conditions for all prisoners, the release of all political prisoners, and in the interim the transfer of political prisoners to a safe facility. They also demand that members of the powerful Atala family and others involved in the planning of Berta Caceres’s murder be legally held to account and that the dictator leaves power.

The demand for freedom for political prisoners, led by family members and friends, has become a central tenet of the resistance movement’s platform, mentioned in every major speech and visible at marches in signs and graffiti. I spent Monday fasting alongside the ousted president and other friends and colleagues in solidarity with my friend Edwin Espinal and the rest of the political prisoners.

But I did so with a single, slightly different demand: that my own government stop propping up unelected dictators who murder and jail their opponents by the hundreds — thousands if we count all victims of Honduran state security-run death squads. 

Media showed up in droves to interview Mel, mostly asking for comment on the drug-trafficking accusations against JOH. Sitting next to him for hours with nothing to do but admire the former president’s studded leather cowboy boots, I decided to follow suit and ask him a few questions focused on the role of the United States.

The questions of when and — particularly — how the dictator will leave power is on everyone’s mind here, as the manner of his departure will be a key factor in determining what comes next. After our recorded interview, I asked the former president if he thought there was a chance that the Honduran military might take JOH out in a coup. He replied: “It went really poorly for the gringos with their coup against me. Everything has gone down the drain for them. I don’t think they would permit it.” 

For the sake of Hondurans’ winning some kind of actual democracy, I hope he’s right. But the march on Tuesday had omens of an ensuing disaster; along the lines of the 2013 military coup against late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. 

 

The “turtles”

Colleagues on the ground estimated that 7,000 protesters were out on Tuesday facing police clad in riot gear and armed to the teeth. Protesters mockingly call them “turtles.”

They pursued those who stayed in the area of the National Congress, mostly high school and university students; youths who were five or ten years old when President Zelaya was deposed. They are the coup generation, having been born into the struggle. 

Soldiers shot more teargas directly at the crowd. One cannister missed me by inches. They injured at least one man. Medics and friends tended to him after carrying him to the central square.

Honduras Protest police

A man was left bloodied after being hit with a teargas canister in Honduras on August 6, 2019. Photo | Adrienne Pine

Later, after a masked youth shouted “murderers” and threw rocks at them, the turtles cracked down, advancing with the full force of the militarized state. The soldiers were accompanied by an enormous tank that shot a geyser of what activists tell me was a mix of water, pepper spray, “and God knows what else” into the air.  

Street battles escalated as the plume of teargas reached new heights in the city center. Soldiers used a bank across the street from the park as a temporary base of operations to repress the rock throwers. 

Another casualty of the repression was the Midence building, an important commercial center facing the center square. It was set aflame. According to numerous witnesses interviewed on the scene by Radio Globo, the fire was set by a teargas canister shot that landed in a bin of used clothes in a wooden-roofed business adjacent to the building. Police are blaming protesters with Molotov cocktails. 

Tuesday evening, masked student leaders issued a video denouncing the day’s violence against them. Among the most egregious acts of repression was the police teargassing the inside of a bus transporting students from UNAH’s San Pedro campus. Video shows teargas billowing out from the bus as students jump from the windows to escape.

The student leaders also declared their solidarity with political prisoners and vowed to continue opposing the regime, not resting until JOH was removed from power.

Meanwhile, the Movement for Health and Education called for another national mass mobilization Wednesday morning starting at the UNAH in Tegucigalpa, and in the north coast city of San Pedro Sula, at meeting points in and around the city. They plan to block all the exits toward principal national highways. 

 

A revolutionary buenos días

While deadly military and police repression combined with classic counterinsurgency tactics have successfully demobilized the resistance movement at various points over the past ten years, the reinvigoration of Hondurans’ determination today is palpable. At the vigil for political prisoners Monday, a steady stream of passing drivers shouted “Fuera JOH!” to the fasters, who responded with the same phrase. It so common that it has become the greeting of choice for many Hondurans — a revolutionary buenos días.

Despite the economic opportunity created for seven-year-olds by U.S.-supported state repression, this country will continue being one of the most dangerous in the world if the government is not wrested from the hands of a U.S.-supported drug cartel. As Hondurans constantly tell me, children — like the young boy who yesterday sold me relief from my suffering at an incalculable cost to his own health — have no future in this country. 

It is no surprise that so many of them travel with their families or alone toward the United States, attempting to escape such conditions. As Mel Zelaya pointed out to me, the United States is morally responsible for this. And Honduras’ descent into neoliberal fascism is tied up in North America’s.

Honduras Protest graffiti

A piece of graffiti in Tegucigalpa, Honduras reads “Emigrants, friends.” Photo | Adrienne Pine

The connections between the narco-state and the Honduran exodus are articulated by members of the migrant caravans in their communiques and on the walls of the capital city. The most touching tribute to exiled compatriots I saw yesterday read simply: “Emigrants, friends.” 

Taking inspiration from Edwin Espinal and other political prisoners who were jailed for protesting the regime, Hondurans who are able are vowing to keep taking the streets so that one day soon, their children and grandchildren will be able to grow up happy and healthy — and in Honduras.

Feature photo | A child sells bags of vinegar and bandanas to help protesters fight the effects of teargas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Tuesday, August 6th, 2019. Photo | Adrienne Pine

Adrienne Pine is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at American University. She is the author of the book Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras.

Additional editing by Alex Rubinstein