On August 12, 2011, Stephen Harper signed a free trade agreement with Honduras, making Canada the first country to so recognize the Porfirio Lobo Sosa government, installed in highly questionable elections after a military coup in 2009. Outside the gates, the Honduran Women’s Collective and other rights organizations protested on behalf of sweatshop workers and oppressed opponents of the regime.
The military coup in Honduras was the result of actions taken by powerful business interests whose profit margins were threatened by the progressive policies of the Zelaya government. Former president Zelaya was woken by soldiers in the middle of the night, forced into a small aircraft and dumped in his pajamas on an airstrip in Costa Rica. In the following days, Junta forces savagely repressed street protests, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens more.
In an April 2010 report titled Honduras, Democracy Denied, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation described the coup as “an extremely grave crisis for democratic governance in the hemisphere” and expressed regret that the Canadian government had endorsed the illegal election despite “ongoing egregious violations of political and other human rights.”
Since the coup, Honduras has become the most violent country in the hemisphere. Murder rates are sky-high, and according to a May 2010 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a great deal of the violent crime is committed by police and soldiers against the resistance movement, and against members of groups seen to be on the side of democracy.
The Zelaya government was supported by a coalition of women’s groups, LGBT activists, campesinos, and indigenous people and these are now looked upon as enemies of the state. Since 2009 at least 62 people have been murdered in Honduras because they were gay, lesbian or transgendered. Some of these appear to be state-sponsored killings, the rest unsolved because the police turn a blind eye.
No journalists were murdered in Honduras in 2008, none in 2009 prior to the coup. Between July 2009 and December 2010, nine were killed, and that trend has continued till today. Lawyers, peasants’ rights workers, teachers and students are among others who are at an exponentially higher risk of violent death since the coup.
The CCIC report strongly recommended that Canada withhold a trade agreement until the Lobo regime restored democracy and put a stop to the savage repression. Harper chose to ignore that report and others, claiming that anyone critical of the free trade agreement was “trying to use human rights as a front … for protectionist reasons.”
Today, with the Harper government’s legitimacy in question, it’s tempting to call him and Lobo birds of a feather. But how much do these two good amigos really have in common? Lobo stands accused of repression, murder, illegal arrest and detention, attacks on the freedom of the press and torture. No one is accusing Harper of anything similar, but by leaping to recognize Lobo’s regime he has helped to confer legitimacy on its brutality. To the extent that Lobo is guilty, Harper is an accessory after the fact.
When it comes to elections fraud, even if the wildest accusations being leveled against the Harper Conservatives turned out to be true, they’d be small cheese compared to the way their Honduran buddies run things. Members of Harper’s gang have been convicted of cheating on their expenses and stand accused of impersonating election officials to trick opposition supporters into not voting.
On the day Lobo was “elected,” more than 30,000 security personnel were deployed, mayors were required to provide the military with a list of enemies of the regime, protesters were fired upon, and according to Amnesty International, members of resistance groups “suffered attacks and acts of intimidation.” If suppressing the opposition vote was the intent, it appears to have worked. Voter turnout in the poorer parts of the country was estimated at 30 per cent.
Voter turnout in Canada has declined under the Conservatives, hitting a new low of 58 per cent in 2008 and rallying slightly to 61 per cent in 2011. By coincidence, the Lobo regime and its supporters at the International Republican Institute claimed an overall turnout of 61 per cent in 2009, though a local observer group put the figure at a more realistic 48 per cent, the lowest in that country’s history.
There is no moral equivalency here. Lobo’s conservative regime has suppressed democracy by means of military violence, while Harper’s has simply chipped away at the public’s confidence in the democratic process. It’s one thing to stay away from the polls because your government makes a mockery of democracy, with its illegal election financing, opportunistic proroguing of Parliament and polling-day dirty tricks. It’s quite another to stay home because you might be killed.
Harper is no Lobo, but he’s Lobo’s pal and that’s more than bad enough.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.