As helicopters dropped tear gas canisters beside him, University of Montana senior Joseph Caldwell sprinted into his driver’s van, which sped him safely away from the smoke-filled streets.
Caldwell wasn’t auditioning for a James Bond movie; he was observing an
election day. On Sunday, the de facto government in Honduras was trying
to clear the streets of protestors by tear gassing, spraying and beating
people with batons, Caldwell said.
“Basically, your only crime was walking down the street,” he said. “They
attacked unprovoked, beating people they could catch with their batons.”
About 1,000 peaceful protestors marched to a central plaza in San Pedro
Sula, Honduras, to boycott the elections on grounds that it would
legitimize the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, who forced
Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya from office on June 28. Zelaya had
called for a constitutional convention while he was president, which
frightened some into thinking he might be trying to extend his term or
become a dictator, although Zelaya never suggested either, Caldwell
said. Nations worldwide, including the United States, condemned the coup
At least 38 people were arrested and 10 others were hospitalized Sunday
in San Pedro Sula due to military opposition, Caldwell said. One
protestor had to have his arm amputated in the hospital because he was
beaten so badly.
The 27-year-old international affairs major was in Honduras for the past
week as an intern with Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition
International, which sent him to the country to write a human rights
report on the situation in Honduras. Caldwell developed a particular
interest in international issues related to Latin America at UM and said
he jumped at the opportunity to go.
Caldwell was part of a 19-member group made up of people from various
organizations that were also sent to Honduras to document human rights
issues. The Quixote Center, a social justice organization, selected and
organized the group, spreading them out between four different Honduran
cities to better document issues surrounding the elections. UM student
Courtney Zehring also unofficially joined the group later in the week
because she was doing another internship nearby, Caldwell said.
Civil liberties have been curtailed throughout the country, Caldwell
said, with the military restricting marches and creating national
curfews that restricted residents to their homes between 6 p.m. and 6
a.m., along with shutting down the borders for 30 of the 50 “election
Elections officials reported that conservative candidate Porfirio Lobo
trumped the liberal party with 56 percent of the total vote. Some 61
percent of registered Honduran voters cast ballots in the election,
according to the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
Caldwell said about 70 percent of the Hondurans he interviewed in San
Pedro Sula were against the coup, although some of them still
participated in the elections to try to move the country forward,
Caldwell said. Others believed the military coup was warranted as a
means to protect the country from a man trying to destroy their
government, he said.
Caldwell felt the United States should have done more to resist the coup.
His group met with officials at the American Embassy in Honduras on
Tuesday to share their reports. Caldwell said that, while U.S. embassy
officials did not agree with the military coup, they said the United
States cannot refuse to recognize free and fair elections. When asked to
define “free and fair,” the politicians didn’t have an answer, Caldwell
“The U.S toed the line. They did some things, but not enough,” he said.
Caldwell said it is unacceptable for an authoritatrian government in the
21st century to oust its former president with a military coup and
destroy the rule of law in Honduras, adding that Latin America has
worked extremely hard to get where it is now in building democratic
governments. He said a military coup like the one in Honduras puts the
entire region in danger of digressing to where it was politically 20
years ago and the United States shouldn’t stand for that.
Besides human rights issues during the election, Caldwell said there are
other things happening in Honduras every day that Americans should stand
against and work to change.
“It’s been used as the manufacturing plant of America,” Caldwell said of
According to government reports, about 62 percent of Honduran exports go
to the United States, Caldwell said. Honduras is the second poorest
country in Central America and the third poorest nation in the Western
hemisphere, he said. Wealthy companies have historically dominated the
region, often at the expense of workers’ rights and sufficient wages, he
“I want people to see the truth of what’s going on down there,” Caldwell
Story by Carmen Grorge | December 2, 2009