When legitimate Honduran President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, forcibly expatriated during the June 28, 2009 coup d’état, suddenly appeared in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on Sept. 21, pro-coup Honduran television host Rodrigo Wong Arévalo reported that the president and his companions were taking advantage of the comfortable and rent-free living conditions the building had to offer. Wong Arévalo’s report was accompanied by a photograph of Zelaya sleeping across two chairs with his cowboy hat over his face; additional luxuries enjoyed by embassy guests over the past three and a half months have included toxic gas fumes and aggravating noises courtesy of Honduran soldiers and policemen stationed outside the diplomatic headquarters, who according to coup general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez are merely stationed there to protect those inside.
The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH) has proved less convinced of military and police commitments to security, and CODEH volunteers, in conjunction with UNICEF, have assumed the responsibility of delivering food and other necessary items to the Brazilian embassy three times a day since Sept. 21 such that lethal elements do not wind up in the president’s rice. All items undergo police inspection, although the final say as to what gets through and what does not is generally left up to a military colonel; the fact that the delivery process is filmed by unidentified policemen in ski masks meanwhile hints at the existence of video footage of the confiscation of ballpoint pens by the self-appointed protectors of the embassy.
I learned of such protective tendencies on the part of the Honduran military and police force in November when I attempted to fill a request for a writing utensil by my friend Andrés Thomas Conteris of Democracy Now! en Español, who continues to accompany Zelaya inside the building. CODEH obligingly offered its transport services first for a package of three Bic pens and then, when that was confiscated, for a single Bic pen; the thwarting of this delivery as well was accompanied by a recommendation from CODEH volunteer Alex Palencia that I try to find a pen that did not look like a pen.
According to Palencia, the military justification for the prohibition of such objects was that the embassy guests might use them to harm each other. As for Conteris’ request for a nail clipper, this potential weapon made it into the embassy only by being flung into a box of food at the last minute, an option that was not available for such items as a pillow for Zelaya—military clearance for which came after several months—and a change of shoes for other embassy occupants. Restrictions on props for sleeping and walking were evidently justified with the argument that they were not food, the logical basis of which began to unravel slightly when the same argument was used to justify the confiscation of apples.
Arbitrary shoe-related decrees are incidentally not a novel phenomenon in Honduran military history, and Lucas Paredes refers in his 1958 book Drama Político de Honduras to an order given by General Terencio Sierra, president from 1899-1903, to his subordinates to shoot all passersby wearing shoes. Paredes wonders whether Sierra “dreamed of forging a democracy of shoeless citizens or of being the dictator of an ignorant people”; the potential antidemocratic nature of footwear was meanwhile underscored in a Nov. 26, 2009, headline on page 2 of the Honduran daily La Tribuna proclaiming a recent scare in Tegucigalpa’s central park: “Shoes mistaken for homemade bomb.”
The article identifies a “white bag containing a box with black shoes” as the source of the confusion; despite the false alarm, readers are assured that police have blocked off the area anyway “so that no one [can] enter, given that it is now in fashion to place bombs in different areas in order to intimidate citizens and prevent them from going to vote next Sunday [Nov. 29].” It is not clear why the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)—the entity in charge of vote-tallying—did not subsequently invoke the shoe box to explain why the majority of Hondurans had refrained from voting in illegitimate elections.
Palencia, a Tegucigalpa musician whose proposed rock opera about the life and exploits of national hero Francisco Morazán had received encouragement from the Zelaya administration—challenging typical Honduran government apathy for the arts—informed me that the elections had resulted in a temporary easing of restrictions on deliveries to the Brazilian embassy due to the fact that the trained delivery inspectors were dispersed to fulfill military and police obligations to safeguard the electoral process. Safeguarding obligations did not appear to extend to other processes such as the daily lives of citizens, and in 4 months in Honduras I had rarely seen soldiers and policemen in contexts other than the vicinity of the embassy or chasing peaceful protesters down the street; the safety of those inside the embassy was meanwhile presumably jeopardized by election-time changing of the guards and the arrival of new recruits from the interior of the country who were unaware that apples did not constitute food.
As for the successful delivery of a guitar to the building, it was not clear whether this was part of a coup regime effort to encourage Zelaya to focus on his musical talents rather his political ones or part of a military effort to be able to blame him the next time embassy occupants complained that they were being subjected to noise torture. The tradition of implicating Zelaya in crimes for which he is not responsible has already been established by pro-coup Honduran newspapers—which accuse the legitimate president of inciting violence in the country despite the fact that he is not the one inserting police batons into the vaginas of female members of the anti-coup resistance—and has been loyally propagated by well-established foreign periodicals like The Guardian, which offered the following sub-headline for a Dec. 16 article by Rory Carroll: “Spate of abductions and murders continues despite coup against Manuel Zelaya and election of new government.”
Carroll refrains from outlining in the body of the article how the coup against Zelaya might have prevented the December murder of coup opponent and gay rights activist Walter Trochez. He does, however, describe how the “de facto government, headed by Roberto Micheletti, snuffed out pro-Zelaya protests with a crackdown that left thousands detained, hundreds beaten and an unknown number dead,” the linguistic structuring of which essentially results in the dead being the fault of the crackdown while Micheletti is merely in charge of snuffing. As for who was responsible for blasting irritating music into the embassy in the wee hours of the morning, head of the Honduran armed forces Romeo Vásquez laughingly informed me in a November interview that the only music occurring in the environs of the embassy was the song “Las Mañanitas,” played on a guitar whenever a soldier or policeman had a birthday; he did not explain whether lights shined into the interior of the building after dark or the Long Range Acoustic Device that had been driven back and forth in front of the embassy in a police pickup truck while emitting a shrill noise were also part of the celebration.
Conteris of Democracy Now! en Español has reported birthday celebrations of a different nature inside Brazilian diplomatic headquarters, where the cakes that have been allowed through have been thoroughly poked by police and military weapons. CODEH volunteers have confirmed the maltreatment of food by the embassy guards and their tendency to convert tacos into taco puree during inspection—a process which involved two drug-sniffing dogs prior to the death of one of them “due to stress”—and have additionally provided me with an ever-expanding list of items that have at one time or another been denied entry into the embassy. Aside from pillows, pens, apples, and shoes, items include:
blankets, toothbrushes, milk, razors, oranges, batteries, vitamins, medicines without a prescription, jackets, lotions, pants, tin foil, USB devices, peanuts, paper, chocolate, juice, canned soda, CDs, radios, New Year’s cards for Zelaya [which were eventually let in with his daughter], cigarettes [which police are said to hawk to embassy guests at inflated prices], hair dryers, shampoo, socks, curtains, mattresses, sleeping bags, gum, alcohol, pastries, markers, pencil sharpeners, hats, staples, energy drinks, glass plates, metal spoons and forks, shoelaces, tamales, cell phone chargers, shaving cream, and the Bible.
CODEH volunteer Palencia identified an inherent contradiction between the military claim that none of these items qualified as food and popular Biblical pronouncements such as that man could not live by bread alone. Ideas as to what was really necessary for the survival of man were offered on Dec. 19 when water was not permitted to enter the embassy but United States Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens was; Palencia meanwhile explained that the blocking of the Bible by a regime that consistently publicized its own proximity to god had merely been a means of punishing embassy guest Father Andrés Tamayo, a Salvadoran priest who had lived for more than two decades in Honduras and who prior to receiving death threats for his opposition to the June coup had already been accustomed to receiving death threats for his opposition to illegal logging and other environmentally destructive practices. [Tamayo left the embassy in November, returning to El Salvador.]
Books that had not been denied entry to the embassy included Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, which was Palencia’s Christmas gift to Zelaya based on the fact that it had been one of the preferred titles of national hero Morazán. Coup president Micheletti may have stood to benefit more than Zelaya, however, from an explanation of the separation of state powers—given that he had, while president of Congress, convinced the Supreme Court of Justice to authorize him to run in the presidential primaries of 2008, something expressly prohibited by the Honduran Constitution.
Also prohibited by the Constitution is the expatriation of any Honduran citizen (Article 102), which the Honduran armed forces violated by kidnapping Zelaya to Costa Rica in June in order to avert the realization of the president’s proposed public opinion survey on the issue of constitutional revision. Coup general Vásquez nonetheless assured me in November of military commitments to upholding the rule of law and of the fact that “we are democratic soldiers,” although he failed to provide a compelling explanation for why it was undemocratic to ask the population whether it wanted to rewrite a document that was consistently exploited anyway by the country’s political and military elite.
As for other obstacles to writing, these include the ban on pen deliveries to the Brazilian embassy. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration has thus far failed to take advantage of the opportunity to further complicate air travel by arguing that writing instruments are potential weapons, but a brief consideration of historical scenarios in which the argument has been employed—such as United Nations sanctions against Iraq and Israeli blockades of Gaza—suggests that it is merely a veneer for symbolically degrading punishment. In the case of the Honduran coup regime, however, the triumph of denying human beings the ability to record their circumstances on paper is rendered less impressive by the fact that Brazilian embassy guests in Tegucigalpa possess laptop computers with internet access.
First published in Upside Down World, 5 January 2009