From Guantanamo to Honduras: Psychological Wars Then and Now

Posted in Uncategorized on January 1, 2010 by JShansky

by Joseph Shansky

Originally published at PULSE Media and the Twin Cities Daily Planet

October 28, 2009

with one comment

embajadaHonduran military surrounds Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. (Photo: AFP)

By Joseph Shansky

Recently, musicians such as Rage Against the Machine, Steve Earle and Pearl Jam joined the newly-formed National Campaign to Close Guantanamo Bay.  It’s a public effort to protest the past misuse of recordings during “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo prison.  An exaggerated volume and incessant repetition of loud music are just a few auditory torture techniques famously used by the American government overseas to disorient prisoners.

However, the issue of psychological warfare should not only be seen in a past context.  Since these revelations, the question of its continued use in other parts of the world deserves exposure.

One timely example is Honduras.  In June of this year, President Manuel Zelaya was violently removed from power in a military coup d’état and replaced with a non-elected government, led by former National Congress leader Roberto Micheletti.  Since his return to Honduras September 21, President Zelaya has been residing with supporters in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, with Honduran armed forces stationed outside.

Following orders by coup government officials, the army has been frequently directing harsh noises at the embassy occupants.  The most recent example took place early in the morning of October 21, when the broadcast included military anthems, rock music, and animal noises (pig grunts, in an apparent attempt to add insult to injury) at an excessive volume, and on a constant loop from around 1:30 am to 7 am.

This was the latest in a series of increasingly dramatic acts of harassment against embassy occupants, including flashing blinding lights at the windows during the night, designed to cause sleep deprivation.  Little has been mentioned in the international press of these sonic and visual assaults on the embassy which began upon the President’s return.

Sources from inside the embassy confirm that the harassment has been almost constant.  Andrés Conteris, founder of Democracy Now! en Español, is one of an estimated forty Zelaya supporters still camped out at the embassy.  Conteris, who has been reporting internationally throughout the siege, says the latest techniques follow an earlier blueprint:

The psychological warfare methods directed against the Brazilian embassy follow an arbitrary pattern which is part of keeping us off balance.  The all-night assault with noise and music on Oct. 21 is the latest use of Directional Energy Weapons (DEW), which began with the unbearably shrill sound known as the LRAD on Sept 22.

The LRAD (Remote Long Range Acoustic Device) is a sinister sound cannon used to emit piercing and pain-inducing sounds designed to disperse crowds and can cause severe loss of hearing.  The LRAD was also used by police in Pittsburgh at the G-20 protests on the same day it was first used at the embassy.

Apart from the appalling nature of such attacks, not to mention the legal implications, a question arises as to how this is allowed to go on in such a blatant manner for so long without fear of consequence.  When General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez was asked on the following morning about the noises, he sarcastically attributed the music to an early celebration of Honduran Armed Forces Day.  An even more telling attitude would be that of de facto Defense Minister Adolfo Lionel Sevilla, who said that the occupants “should be grateful it was music and not bombs”[1].

What allows the regime to believe they can operate with impunity is that basically they can, and they have been doing so since the coup.  The US, which instantly “condemned” the coup on June 28, has since taken virtually no real punitive measures of consequence.  Verbal condemnation and heel-dragging have been substituted for effective action.  This has been echoed in some form for months, from the Organization of the American States to the United Nations, which responded to the latest reports with this statement:

The Permanent Council denounces and strongly condemns the hostile action by the de facto regime against the embassy of Brazil in Tegucigalpa and the harassment of its occupants through deliberate actions that affect them physically and psychologically and violate their human rights. [2]

In this context, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice’s response to the initial September 22 embassy attacks is not surprising:

We condemn acts of intimidation against the Brazilian embassy and call upon the de facto government of Honduras to cease harassing the Brazilian embassy. [3]

But since September this harassment has only increased both at the embassy and among the general population.  Numerous reports have emerged from leading human rights groups in Honduras documenting the ongoing violations of the rights of citizens in the streets and in private homes.  In addition, the attitude of “no consequence” has undermined negotiations to bring about a just resolution to the crisis.  The coup government is under no pressure to negotiate in good faith.

Several attempts from within the US to pass congressional legislation demanding more pressure on the coup government have fallen short.  Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) has sponsored the strongest legislation so far. These attempts have been overshadowed by US Republicans leading stateside efforts to support the November presidential elections in Honduras. This follows the position of coup officials, who have successfully delayed negotiations with a renewed focus on the elections they claim will wipe the slate clean for Honduras.

However, the voices dismiss the destructive aftermath of a coup which also allows small elites to monitor the circulation of virtually all information.  The few independent media outlets that have voiced dissent against the coup have been taken off the air or severely limited. This cuts off the democratic process essential to fair elections.  Two of the major presidential candidates, César Ham of the Democratic Unification Party (UD) and Carlos H. Reyes (Independent) have recently stepped down, calling the elections illegitimate at this point.

This leaves a campaign in full swing by candidates who have been directly supporting the Micheletti de facto government.  They ignore the pleas of a clear majority of the country wanting to stabilize Honduras by reinstating President Zelaya.  Coup supporters in both Honduras and the US have cited Zelaya’s removal as necessary to prevent the leftist influence growing throughout Latin America, even if it means overthrowing a democratically-elected leader.  In reality, Honduras can now be seen as a laboratory in which any real social reforms are violently squashed before they can spread.  Many see it as a return to a fearful era of past military coups in Latin America.

Defenders of the coup regime often point to the constitutional aspects of Zelaya’s removal and specifically to an August analysis from the Library of Congress which deemed the coup legal and constitutional.  This was flatly contradicted by a new Forbes Magazine investigation which concluded by declaring the Law Library of Congress “complicit in the illegal acts of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime”.[4]

There is now overwhelming evidence that Zelaya’s removal was illegal, and that it paved the way for serious violations of human rights and civil liberties (including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and transit) all over Honduras.

The US, with a firm economic grasp on Honduran business and political interests, has the leverage necessary to act directly against this regime in a number of concrete ways, the least of which are laid out in Rep. Grijalva’s letter to President Obama.  It has chosen not to.  And this is exactly what battalion officials like Velásquez depend on when they give reckless orders to blast the embassy with intolerable sound and light.

President Obama pledged to show Latin America a new face and a new respect from that of a dismissive Bush administration.  With the first military coup d’état in many years, he’s had a golden opportunity.  Instead, State Department language has only grown more tepid since first vehemently denouncing the coup in June.  The few actions it has taken, such as suspending visas of coup leaders and limiting certain channels of aid, have done nothing to resolve the crisis or to halt the repression in Honduras.

Thanks in part to an almost calculated show of US inaction, the regime in Honduras has operated a campaign independent of international law and without consequence.  In doing so it recalls the US’s own shameful crimes in Central America and elsewhere, long promised by President Obama as an era to never revisit.

[1] http://www.tiempo.hn/secciones/crisis-politica/6052-ministro-de-defensa-no-estamos-de-acuerdo-con-restitucion-de-zelaya

[2] http://hondurasemb.org/2009/10/22/condemnation-of-the-acts-of-intimidation-against-the-embassy-of-brazil-in-honduras/

[3] http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2009/0925/breaking73.htm

[4] http://www.forbes.com/2009/10/20/honduras-manuel-zelaya-law-library-opinions-contributors-coup.html

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  1. […] in total impunity to keep the Zelaya party deprived of sleep sound both surreal and horrendous: here’s a great article by Joe Shansky at Pulsemedia.org on the worrying use of psychological weapons by police, both in the US and […]

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Community Defiance in Honduras

Posted in Uncategorized on January 1, 2010 by JShansky

by Joseph Shansky

Originally published at PULSE Media and Socialist Worker

October 28, 2009

Pro-democracy protesters have kept up resistance to the coup regime (Chiapas Indymedia)Pro-democracy protesters have kept up resistance to the coup regime (Chiapas Indymedia)

SINCE THE few days of renewed excitement around the “secret” return to Honduras of the democratically elected President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, there has been a disturbing omission of the Honduran political crisis in the international news.

It would be reasonable to think that with each passing day that an exiled president was camped in a foreign embassy (as Zelaya has been in the Brazilian embassy since September 21), tensions would rise and all eyes of the world would be on that lone building. Instead, the opposite has occurred, and it appears as though the international press had lost interest without action to follow. The subsequent collapse and renewal (and collapse again, etc.) of ongoing “negotiations” with Roberto Micheletti’s coup government did little to breathe life into this story.

Here in Tegucigalpa, life continues under subtle siege for ordinary citizens. The city gets dark faster at night now, and the people seem more frightened in general. The curfew remains. Small groups huddle together and glance around anxiously, couples hug closer, young girls grasp hands tighter and walk faster.

The militia is everywhere, of course, made up of young, mostly uneducated kids who twirl their guns with abandon, dig their batons into the dirt, and wait for a notice for action. It can come at a whistle’s call here, and sometimes it feels as though the entire country is poised, frozen in battle.

The most recent momentous note in this political standoff occurred when Micheletti declared an impromptu state of emergency following the massive street rallies on the day Zelaya returned. He then imposed a “decree” which stripped Hondurans of almost all basic civil liberties, including the right to assemble freely and access to media outlets that did not strictly toe the coup government line. He also imposed a continuous and rather vague curfew, allowing open interpretation for street police to constantly monitor and harass citizens.

After a brief but immediate international outcry, Micheletti apologized and promised to withdraw the decree, but has done no such thing. Instead, he’s used this legal loophole to clean house by first attacking the primary ingredient of a democracy: the free press.

The studios of Radio Globo and Channel 36 were assaulted in the middle of the night and their transmitters were sabotaged and taken, thus leaving the majority of the country without access to the few independent news sources they had depended on for so long.

He then forcibly evicted 55 local farmworkers who had occupied the headquarters of the National Agrarian Institute for months since the June coup. According to Honduras Resists, a leading online source for resistance support, the Institute “houses the land titles that had been attained by small rural farmers and communities through years of struggle, many of which were finally granted under the Zelaya administration, angering the powerful landholders who are responsible for the coup and now want to halt and reverse the process of land reform in Honduras.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

ONE MAJOR effect of this curfew and the violations that it brings is that Micheletti has unwittingly drawn people to the resistance movement against the coup government who may not have otherwise been involved. The demonstrations have continued daily for four months now, sometimes taking different forms.

An example of the varied support for Zelaya’s restoration (and against the coup in general) has been factions of the religious community. A few days ago, a group of Evangelical Christians gathered together in front of the abandoned Channel 36 television station. They planted themselves there to sing and pray for the station, for the resistance, and for Honduras. Several speeches were also made by organizers and religious figures, including priests.

When they had completed the blessing of this censored independent media outlet, they continued making the rounds, next going to Radio Globo to perform the same songs, the same prayers. It was a striking image, the Bible lying on the table next to the microphones in the studio. It conjured up big notions of God and Information and Truth and good people who believe that these ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Under the decree, the military domination has also expanded into lesser-populated areas. The police have stormed neighborhoods ranging from inside the city center all the way to Greater Tegucigalpa and its outskirts. The same has happened around the country. In turn, these remote and generally much poorer neighborhoods have begun organizing independently, as they now feel the effects of constant police raids on houses and communities. These barrios, usually ignored and left to their own devices, have begun to take action.

I recently traveled one night with several other foreign journalists to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Arriving amid mountains of trash, I immediately heard a cacophony of homemade percussive sounds, people drumming on whatever was freely available.

We came upon hundreds of people of all ages marching in the dark together–families shouting, singing, chanting, blowing whistles, banging on nearby doors to rouse their neighbors. Along the sidelines, others watched from windows and front steps, staring fearfully and somewhat enviously at their neighbors’ courage in defying the curfew. This was just one of many similar nightly neighborhood rallies since the decree banning such gatherings.

The crowd surged up a hill and turned into an alley where a car was parked with a film projector sitting atop it. After a few minutes, the organizers were able to project the image onto the side of a nearby house. The video was a compilation of homemade footage documenting many of the recent abuses their peers had suffered at the hands of the police.

In one scene, the camera followed a single police officer from behind as he ran with his gun drawn directly at group of demonstrators nearby, shooting wildly and recklessly. Others showed the police randomly isolating and dragging non-violent protesters out of the street and into unmarked cars.

The images were designed to enrage the crowd, and it worked. Cries of “¡Asesinos!” (Murderers!) rang out in the night, the excitement and anger grew to a palpable climax, and for a moment I was sure that we’d soon be experiencing our own live replay of the scenes in front of us as soon as the local police took notice. These people were loud.

But aside from provocation, the video was also used as a tool to educate people who live in outlying areas to the realities of what much of the city was going through on a daily basis. It was a form of the news that had been missing from the public since Radio Globo and Channel 36 were taken off air.

This kind of sudden unity is not a novelty limited to one area of the city. The day after the decree, 24 separate neighborhoods were listed as openly defying the curfew to protest the coup d’état. The resistance which has held steadfast for almost four months now has grown in true grassroots style. Like a domino effect, as the coup’s fear tactics increase, the opposition grows tremendously.

Regardless of what happens from the top down politically, it would be wise to take note of the remarkable manner in which these communities have come together at ground level. On a very fundamental level, this is democracy in action. Using any means possible, these citizens are courageously breaking through the information blockade that has paralyzed so much of the country and isolated much of the world from the events taking place in Honduras.

First published at PulseMedia.org.

Scenes of Resistance: Notes from Tegucigalpa

Posted in Uncategorized on January 1, 2010 by JShansky

by Joseph Shansky

Originally published in the October 2009 print issue of Z Magazine and CounterPunch

As I pack my bags to go, I hear that the military repression is getting worse—150 arrested, many wounded. In the airport waiting room I scan CNN, but there is no mention of this on the world news. When I get to my hotel room in San Pedro Sula, I’m still looking for news. In the middle of channel-surfing, all stations go black for ten seconds and over an image of the Honduran flag a voice pleads for the Honduran people to be patient as democracy is restored. The exile of the president comes off as nothing more than a necessary inconvenience, its opposition a mere nuisance.


Police barricade

Later, I sit on the steps in front of the hotel and speak to a man passing by on a bike who is clearly in favor of the new government. “Zelaya. He’s friends with Chavez,” he says disgustedly. And Chavez? “Well, he’s a dictator who wants to take over the world.” I ask him to elaborate and he rephrases. I can’t get any details out of him, just a vague dismissal of Zelaya’s policies.

Just a few minutes earlier, I had been watching ten second clips of Hugo Chavez’s speeches, followed by President Zelaya’s own speeches, with “similar phrases” extracted and highlighted. The implication was that they were in bed together with a socialist agenda destined to destroy the average Honduran. It’s a massive campaign, which I see multiple times in an hour.

At about 9:00 AM, a taxi drops us off in front of a small crowd of people gathered to attend the march in Tegucigalpa. Several people are carrying a giant Honduran flag, under which some seek relief from the sun. The mood is light, some people are in costume, friends are meeting up, people are passing around water and sandwiches, and everyone seems geared up for at least a few hours of walking. After a while, the crowd has grown by several hundred and we begin to march. Immediately I hear a megaphone blare, “¡En filas, en filas!” (In rows! In rows!) In a very short time the protesters drop off into three neat lines, a display of spontaneous organization which I’ve never seen in a protest before. It is a show not only of order, but of solidarity—a united front.

As the morning goes on, the crowd gets larger and soon I can’t see a beginning or an end. Some are branching out to tag walls with slogans ranging from general (“¡Fuera golpistas!” “¡Urge, Mel!”) to specific references to the CIA and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Graffiti covers almost all corners. We pass several lines of police armed with riot gear, shields, batons, guns, and, most crudely, large sharpened branches from trees. Still, the mood is celebratory. As we enter the center of the city, the crowd begins to splinter and the anarchists emerge. They smash several windows and tear down street cameras. Their behavior will later be attributed by almost all major media in Honduras (and worldwide) to the other 95 percent of demonstrators who have been consistently urging disciplined non-violence. At the central plaza, it begins to rain heavily. We duck into a café and the march is over, for now.

The next day, we travel about an hour to an abandoned schoolyard in Savanna Grande. The premises are being used as a campground to re-energize, restock supplies (small plates of rice and a tortilla for each person, along with endless plastic bags of fresh water), and rest for the night. The group is part of the process in which thousands of rural demonstrators simultaneously walk across Honduras to converge on its two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, on August 11.


Campesino march

This particular group of about 75 people is from Choluteca. They are poor, determined, and happy to be there. They range from young children to several elderly women and everyone in between. The first person I speak with at the campesino camp is a woman whose brother had been disappeared by the Honduran military in the 1980s.

I am at Sábana Grande with a delegation of human rights observers that I am assisting through Global Exchange. The delegates are given the opportunity to interview the demonstrators and to hear about why they leave their homes and towns. When it grows dark and the delegates are ready to head back, I ask if I can stay the night with them and am immediately welcomed into the fold. The night passes quickly after someone takes out a guitar. What has been a solemn and tired group promptly turns into a jubilant dancing mass, sound-tracked by fiery protest songs.

I wake around 6:30 AM to trucks pulling into the courtyard with fresh supplies for the marchers. A large pot of sweetened coffee is brought out and someone greets me by name, thrusts a cookie in my face and a small plastic cup of coffee in my hand. Ten minutes later we are back on the main road, walking along the highway in the direction of the capital. Again, spirits are high. The three straight lines are enforced, providing fodder for one elderly marcher to joke about organizers’ discipline. But unlike the demonstrations in the city, no one is watching along the sidelines. Several trucks accompany us to provide water. A couple of guys run ahead of the marchers to monitor and direct incoming traffic. As we continue down the highway, we pick up more people. The chants grow more intense, as if daring fatigue. We finally make it to the city.
The anarchists are kicking me out of Pizza Hut. They storm in, teenagers wearing bandanas over their faces, and announce that anyone who doesn’t leave immediately will be deemed a golpista, a person who is with the coup. The restaurant is located across the street from the convergence point for the marchers coming from across the country. Thousands are present. For many, the location of the demonstration has become, in part, a referendum on capitalism.


Graffiti at Burger King

The walls of Pizza Hut are covered with anti-corporate graffiti, as are the outsides of Burger King, McDonalds, and many other fast-food corporations, which represent to many Hondurans the dark side of globalization. A select few individuals and families own the vast majority of businesses in Honduras, as well as almost all major print, television, and radio media. These large business interests are widely known to be helping fund and otherwise support the military takeover.

Down the block, trucks with speakers blare protest songs and are also equipped with megaphones. Padre Andres Tamayo, a leading environmental and social justice activist, speaks fiercely against the coup while emphasizing the need to remain faithful to social justice and disciplined nonviolent action. Later, one of the Global Exchange delegates, Allan, is on the truck/stage and the crowd is responding wildly to his suggestion that a U.S. banana workers union in Mississippi boycott shipments of Dole and Chiquita products from Honduras by refusing to unload cargo.

Next, the coordinator of the delegation takes the megaphone. I climb up to film his speech and stare down at the crowd of thousands as he begins. He angrily explains how just that morning President Obama called critics of the U.S.’s handling of this situation in Honduras “hypocrites,” despite his own rhetoric about the new face of Latin American policy under his Administration. Soon the crowd is fully engaged in a call-and-response deeming Obama as the true hypocrite.


Convergence point blocked, Tegucigalpa

Later that afternoon, the rally is still going on when a police barricade forms, blocking the marchers from heading to the President’s house. After a few hours, the protest leaders convince the demonstrators to back away before things get ugly. We head for the hotel to rest, satisfied that at least for the day, the action is over. We are wrong. Two blocks from the hotel we see a cloud of smoke rising into the skyline. It appears to be coming from the area of the mall where we are headed. As I round the corner, I see a burning bus and people fleeing toward us. Past the bus is a line of riot police marching in step. Looking left, I see that a few blocks down people are running in all directions and it appears a large group has been split apart by the tear gas the police are dispensing. I see that a Popeye’s restaurant is on fire. The entire lower floor is in flames. There’s no sign of fire trucks or ambulances or even police. Only the riot troops are on the scene and they’re ignoring the fire as they storm past Popeye’s toward the crowd. Over the next few days, it is suggested more than once that the arson is the work of provocateurs, made to look as though demonstrators had gone wild. This is the way the story was framed in almost all international news reports, particularly during the few seconds it is on CNN that night.

As we begin videotaping the scene, a woman runs alongside the police, tearfully pleading for them to not kill people. “We’re all Hondurans,” she shouts. “Please don’t hurt your own people.” We make it clear that we are international media. We get within a few feet and extend our arms with the cameras to get as close as possible to make it known to the police that their actions will be watched around the world. The police continue on, ignoring both the woman and us. Following, we see that they are headed in the direction of an even bigger mass of people a few blocks away. The protesters must have migrated here and things are going to get bad fast as the riot police continue spraying tear gas in the general direction of the crowd. Another woman, seeing us filming, grabs my arm and we listen carefully as she says she just saw five young men being cornered and detained by the police. Reports of detainees and missing people increase and become a central focus in our work in the next few days.
The following afternoon, the offices of the Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) smell of tear gas. Normally the place is full of a very different kind of energy, several floors of people rushing around, displays of hundreds of photos of missing and deceased allies, incredible art work, and notices of ongoing events related to the resistance movement against the coup. COFADEH is a leading human rights organization in Honduras and a regular meeting place for much of the community affected by police repression in the past and now. As we walk in, the floor is strewn with bodies, all young people. They’ve just come from another demonstration and the repression has worsened. People are lying down, nursing wounds, clutching handkerchiefs soaked in water and pressing them to their faces to quell the sting of the tear gas. A few reporters are milling around, some are interviewing them about the attacks. New reports are rapidly coming in about similar unprovoked attacks all over the city. The police are using a “catch and release” strategy, grabbing demonstrators, beating them, and letting them go before any paperwork can be filed.

Even more disturbing are the reports of missing children. At the police station later, we’re told that there are at least 14 underage people missing on this day alone, on top of the estimate of about 40 from the previous day. We help facilitate contact between a human rights lawyer and relatives of those detained or missing.

The coup resistance is a network of spirited camaraderie unlike anything I’ve imagined. However, there is one organization, which is consistently in the eye of the storm and should be heralded for having the courage to speak the truth to the people of Honduras throughout this crisis. That is Radio Globo, an independently owned and operated station based out in Tegucigalpa. It is the primary source of information for anyone involved in resisting the coup. Their transmitters were sabotaged in mid-August and they recently received notice of a pending removal of their broadcast license.

On the last day, our group was invited to speak on the air at Radio Globo about our thoughts and impressions. The format was a roundtable discussion. We ended up being interviewed for almost an hour. The host was gracious, inquisitive, and genuinely curious as to our perceptions of the political crisis. Our reception at Radio Globo, as well as at the demonstrations and on the street, is a testament to how vital it is for an international presence inside Honduras.

At the time of this writing, it is almost two months since the coup. The de-facto government is increasing pressure through countless fear tactics. Despite limited global support, thousands of Hondurans are in the streets every day to show their opposition, but as one person from the Center for Women’s Rights put it, “We’re getting tired.” For their struggle to continue to be virtually invisible in the U.S. is another example of the public apathy that world leaders, aided by the blind eye of mass media, are able to generate in conflicts where they sense no immediate personal stakes.