Juan Ramon Duran
HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 23 (IPS) – Thousands of Hondurans flocked to businesses in the capital Wednesday to stock up on food and gas after the de facto government temporarily lifted the curfew in place since ousted President Manuel Zelaya surreptitiously returned to the country on Monday.
In a message broadcast on TV and radio, the regime’s minister of industry and commerce, Benjamín Bográn, called for calm as thousands of people lined up outside gas stations and supermarkets in this city of one million people.
“There are enough stocks of basic grains to cover demand for six months,” said the official. “Companies that supply chicken, beef and vegetables report that they have enough to cover needs. People should not worry, and should stock up on supplies in an orderly, calm manner.”
Local residents, shut up in their homes since Monday afternoon, flooded out into the streets in Tegucigalpa when the curfew was suspended at 10:00 AM. It was to go back into effect at 5:00 PM. Hundreds of people also formed lines outside of banks around the city, to withdraw money.
Retired law professor Francisco Martínez told IPS that the curfew had caught him off-guard. “I had very little food, and was a bit desperate,” he said as he left the Delicatessen supermarket in a central Tegucigalpa neighborhood, carrying two bags full of food.
But as he headed to his car, the 67-year-old Martínez found himself trapped between around 100 heavily armed riot police and water cannons and some 5,000 members of the National Resistance Front Against the Coup d’Etat (FNR), who were trying to march to the Brazilian embassy, where Zelaya has been holed up since slipping back into the country on Monday.
After Martínez pleaded with them for over half an hour, the demonstrators finally let him drive his car through the crowd, which was pushing against the police, chanting “We want Mel! We want Mel!” – as Zelaya is affectionately known.
Dozens of photographers and journalists were snapping pictures and filming the standoff between the police and the protesters.
All of a sudden, an FNR demonstrator wearing a red scarf on his head shouted “son of a b****, you’re Romeo Vásquez’s driver!”
The man who he was shouting at turned pale, and a security guard let him into the Delikatesen supermarket and pulled down the metal curtain. “Thanks, friend, you saved my life,” said the man, who declined to give his name, but admitted that he is the driver of one of the cars of the personal bodyguards of General Romeo Vásquez, head of the joint chiefs of staff and one of the leaders of the June 28 coup that overthrew Zelaya.
In the supermarket, hundreds of people urged the employees to check them out quickly, because they were afraid of being caught in the midst of a clash between the police and protesters.
“We are really tired of this situation. These politicians, Zelaya and (de facto president Roberto) Micheletti, should talk and resolve this situation that has us all stressed out,” said a visibly annoyed doctor, Lorena López, who complained that she missed a medical congress in Lima, Peru because the de facto authorities closed the airports on Monday afternoon.
After more than two hours under the blazing sun, most of the demonstrators decided to go back home and the few who stayed were scattered by the police.
“This march, which is trying to reach the Brazilian embassy, is the only demonstration in Tegucigalpa,” said a police officer wearing a gas mask and holding a riot shield.
FNR spokesman Rafael Alegría told IPS that the “repressive measures” taken by the de facto government are only making people angry and prompting them to take to the streets to demand that Zelaya be reinstated.
“Look at the spontaneous protests held last night in many neighbourhoods and slums of Tegucigalpa, where people blocked streets with barricades made of stones, garbage cans and burning tires,” he said.
On Tuesday night, after thousands of Zelaya supporters were violently dispersed by the police and army outside of the Brazilian embassy, a number of groups of local residents mounted roadblocks around the city, which were broken up by the police in clashes that landed dozens of injured demonstrators in the teaching hospital and other health centres in the capital. At least one person was reported killed in the disturbances.
Supermarkets were also looted by crowds who broke through the metal curtains and glass windows and doors to seize food and home appliances.
Police chief Orlín Cerrato said the police were overwhelmed by calls from businesses and individuals asking for protection. Warning that looters would be punished, he said that over 100 people were arrested in such incidents Tuesday, but were released in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Micheletti announced Tuesday night that he was willing to engage in dialogue with Zelaya, “but within the framework of the constitution” – interpreted by political observers as a reiteration of his refusal to accept Zelaya’s return to the presidency and the ousted leader’s proposal for the election of a constituent assembly to redraft the constitution.
“The solution to the crisis are the elections” scheduled for Nov. 29, said the regime’s foreign minister, Carlos López, in a nationally televised address.
On June 28, hooded soldiers broke down Zelaya’s door, pulled him out of his home at gunpoint, and put him on a plane to Costa Rica, still in his pyjamas. Shortly afterwards, Congress and the Supreme Court approved the army’s action, on the argument that the president was planning a referendum that had been ruled illegal and unconstitutional.
The question to be asked in the non-binding popular vote, scheduled to take place the day of the coup, was whether or not Hondurans wanted to elect û during the general elections – a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.
The constitution does not allow for such a process, and any amendments adopted since it was approved in 1982 were passed by parliament.
Since the coup, the de facto regime has faced near total isolation from the international community.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York Tuesday, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva urged the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on the situation in Honduras.
Lula also demanded that the Micheletti government respect the integrity of all of the people in the Brazilian embassy.
Just a few days after Zelaya was ousted, the U.N. General Assembly condemned the coup and demanded “the immediate and unconditional restoration of the legitimate and constitutional government.”
Catholic priest Andrés Tamayo, who is with Zelaya in the embassy, called on the authorities to stop lobbing tear gas canisters, and to stop emitting a shrill noise from a sonar outside the building and playing the national anthem over and over again on a powerful sound system.
“This is aggression, as is the military and police occupation of the houses next to the embassy,” Tamayo told IPS.
The embassy has been surrounded by troops and the police since Monday. Only U.N. and U.S. embassy staff have been allowed in to the building to provide supplies to the roughly 30 Hondurans and Brazilians in the compound.
On Wednesday, Zelaya called once again for dialogue to solve the crisis.
In the meantime, the once-solid wall of support for the de facto regime from the traditional parties – the centre-right governing Liberal Party and the right-wing National Party û, the business community and conservative civil society organizations has begun to crack.
The first to distance himself was the National Party presidential candidate Porfirio Lobo, who urged Micheletti to meet with Zelaya to hold talks. A dozen Liberal Party lawmakers, who publicly admitted on Wednesday that what happened on Jun. 28 was a coup û something denied up to now by the de facto government and its supporters – also called for talks, and acknowledged the high level of popular discontent over the curfew.