The most common calculation heard yesterday at Tegucigalpa’s Toncontin Airport was that the crowd that had gathered to see off outgoing Honduran President Mel Zelaya was larger than the crowd that had gathered at the same airport on July 5, 2009, when the forcibly expatriated Zelaya had unsuccessfully attempted to repatriate himself by plane. The president had subsequently resorted to more modest means of transport such as the trunk of a car and had appeared on September 21 at the Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital, where he had remained trapped until a guarantee of safe passage enabled him to travel yesterday to the Dominican Republic. That the airport turnout for Zelaya’s Dominican departure was even larger than the turnout in July indicates that the coup regime strategy of legitimizing the coup via elections has not had the intended sedative effect on the Honduran populace.
Aside from crowd dimensions, the two airport gatherings also differed in that Honduran soldiers and policemen refrained from using tear gas at the latter gathering, or from fatally shooting unarmed Honduran teenagers. A member of the anti-coup Resistance I spoke with at the airport attributed this restraint to the idea that it did not behoove newly-inaugurated President Pepe Lobo to acquire victims during his first hours in office; as for Radio Globo reports throughout the morning that there were more people at the airport than at Lobo’s inauguration ceremony at the national stadium, another Resistance member suggested that the ceremony was meant to be exclusive anyway and that Zelaya had been the only president to open the doors of the presidential palace to all Hondurans, including those of the barefoot indigenous variety.
The exclusivity of the event was naturally enhanced by the fact that most countries in the world failed to attend, although lack of foreign approval of governments elected under illegal circumstances has been partially counteracted by the “program of cooperation” promised to Honduras by Israeli ambassador to Central America Eliyahu López, who did attend the ceremony. In addition to the training of Latin American paramilitaries, previous examples of Israeli cooperation in the region have included the attendance of Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon at the meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Honduras prior to the coup despite Israel’s lack of geographical qualification as an American state. An additional cooperative opportunity made possible by Zelaya’s removal is the planned visit to Tegucigalpa by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe on Saturday.
At Toncontin Airport yesterday afternoon, entertainment options consisted of listening to music, listening to speeches, listening to people with megaphones in pickup trucks make fun of snipers in the airport’s air control tower, and looking for shade. Speeches were given by Resistance leaders Juan Barahona and Rafael Alegría, as well as by the “grandmother of the Resistance,” Dionisia Díaz, who lost her husband in the banana workers’ strike of 1954 and who with her own megaphone has been a fixture at Resistance activities since the coup; the victims of the coup regime were also commemorated various times throughout the day, once via the release of balloons into the air.
When it was reported that Zelaya and company had emerged from the Brazilian embassy and were en route to Toncontin, the crowd began to close in on the double barbed-wire fence surrounding the air field. I ended up wedged between a couple who kept assuring their young daughter that “your Mel is on his way” and a woman with grey hair and red Converse sneakers who informed me that she was a psychoanalyst; it turned out that this was not an offer of help in dealing with large crowds but rather the pretext for an analysis of Zelaya.
The psychoanalyst had not voted for Zelaya in 2005, she explained, as she had judged him to be too impulsive a character; she had altered her judgment when said impulsiveness translated into a 60-percent raise in the minimum wage, support for legislation banning open-pit mining, and the decision that the presidential palace belonged to everyone. As for other kinds of impulsive sharing, I was momentarily concerned by the sensation of something being inserted into my ear but was relieved to find that it was simply one of the psychoanalyst’s earphones, which she had determined I should use in order to follow radio coverage of Zelaya’s trajectory despite the fact that the same coverage was being blasted from a loudspeaker a few meters away.
By this time a throng of policemen had appeared on the opposite side of the barbed wire, inside the airfield. Initially too heavily concentrated at one end of the field, the policemen had to be forcibly repositioned by a superior, who encouraged them to stretch their arms out to their sides in order to ensure that they were not too close to their neighbors, causing a lot of shuffling back and forth and a momentary trip down memory lane on my part to middle school cheerleading camp. Further shuffling occurred when a military throng arrived behind the police throng and attempted to augment the formation.
Two planes eventually appeared on the runway, ready for takeoff; crowd members compared information and reached the consensus that it was the second plane that contained Zelaya and that should thus be waved at. Another crowd consensus was that this was not a permanent farewell and that Zelaya was simply more useful at the moment outside the country than in the embassy of Brazil in Tegucigalpa, although this arrangement was briefly cast into doubt when the first item that appeared in my Google search of the term “Zelaya” this morning was an article entitled “Zelaya is in the country.”
More caffeine and a closer look at the computer screen revealed that the headline belonged to a Dominican newspaper; as for today’s front-page headline in the Honduran paper La Tribuna—“President Lobo: The past is behind us”—this seems even more unlikely given that the back page consists of an inauguration photograph of Lobo flanked by coup general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez.