Fighting for Lives in Occupied Central America
Interview by Donna Hoffman
July 1990; pages 7, 11; Volume 1, No. 7
Translations from Spanish by Deaneen Newell of Global Exchange and Austin activist Kathleen Stockwell
"As I listened to Gilda speaking, I thought, We are fighting for our lives. Because we love our lives. And we love Central America. But there is something working for death, in the name of democracy, oppressing the people and creating a spirit of death: the Bush Administration."
Human rights activists Manuel Ku, from Panama and Gilda Rivera, from Honduras visited Austin, Texas in early May during a tour of 25 U.S. cities sponsored by Global Exchange, based in San Francisco. Gilda Rivera, feminist organizer, psychologist and educator works within the peace and social justice movement in Honduras. She lives in Tegucigalpa where she is Coordinator for the Latin American Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights. An interview with Manuel Ku will appear in the next Polemicist.
Donna: Honduras has not been at war, per se, but the United States has used your country as a staging ground for its dirty work in Central America. Would you tell us about the U.S. military buildup and operations of the past ten years?
Gilda: During the last ten years, the Honduran people have been witness to the process of militarization that has been forced upon our country by the United States and the Armed Forces of Honduras. There have been approximately 150,000 U.S. soldiers through Honduras on maneuvers and between 1,200 and 1.500 U.S. soldiers are permanently stationed in Honduras. There are about 19 U.S. military installations that have been built across the country which are under the control of the United States. This includes two, high-powered radar stations, and many airports that now have landing strips that can land the highest-powered airplanes that the United States has. They have built roads for military objectives.
The aid that comes from the United Slates has been basically for the military. This has been at the cost of humanitarian aid which has diminished.
The Honduran Army has grown so that now there are about 28,000. And, on top of that, the United States has been able to place the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries in our country. The contras have turned our country into their staging ground from which they attack the Nicaraguans. And it's been very obvious that, on an international political level, the positions taken by the Honduran government have been very connected to the interests of the United States. This has become very evident in front of organizations such as the OAS (Organization of American States), the UN, and Contadora (independent Latin America peace making process involving Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela). In the case that Honduras has made unilateral decisions, they have changed their tune as soon as a little pressure it put on.
D: How does the U.S. occupation effect the overall socio-economic situation in Honduras and how do the troops' presence effect the everyday lives of the Honduran people?
G: I don't believe you can separate the general situation from everyday life. In a country where a majority of the resources are spent for military objectives in a country as poor as Honduras, that effects the economy in general, but in turn effects daily life. The Honduran government has bought from the United States a lot of expensive high-technology equipment as if they were a country at war, when this money could better be used for social projects.
On top of that, with the arrival of the U.S. troops in Honduras, you see an increase in prostitution around the areas where U.S. troops are stationed. We're not just talking about the prostitution of women, we're also talking about the prostitution of small boys. Many of the women have been savagely treated by the U.S. soldiers. There are cases of young women having to be hospitalized. And if you're talking of daily life, there are many communities that have had to organize against the U.S. troops because they can no longer be peaceful little communities. The troops have come in and converted them into brothels.
If we 're talking about ecology, in order to build all of these bases they've had to level great sections of our forests. And this is the destruction of our forests but also of our resources.
Also speaking of daily life, the physical presence of the soldiers has to effect the people. They are so in terror. And we're also talking about the right of a state to be a sovereign state.
In a state that is militarized, you also see the militarization of family life. You see the forced recruitment of young boys. Sometimes they'll stop buses and just take them off. There's been an upsurge in the death squads. Its been very widely denounced. They get their funding from the United States and they're responsible for the disappearance, the murder, and the capture of hundreds of Hondurans. Now, in the country, just to feel in opposition to what's going on, you can wind up dead or captured. Many of these death squads, many of these acts are carried out by the Honduran military, but we still maintain that the Honduran military is a product of the United States military.
D: In 1982, the death squads disappeared you and held you for 10 days in a clandestine jail. What was your work at that time and did they give some reason for capturing you?
G: At this time, I was working with the University Student Movement and also out in the communities. I was in my final year as a psychology student.
And to answer the second part of your question about what reason they gave, they never give you a reason. They take you, they can kill you or they can let you go. When they're interrogating you or when they're torturing you, they tried to make you admit to stuff like that you're a guerrilla, with the FMLN or with the Sandinistas. But they never accuse you of anything concrete. In the jail, there are never any charges brought against you. And you're in no place to demand.
D: How has the Popular Movement developed and responded to the U.S. and Honduran military buildup?
G: The Honduran Popular Movement is a movement has been around for a long time now. It's been taking stands about better economic conditions and against the authoritarian powers in the country. With the triumph of the Sandinistas, the Popular Movement in Honduras began to grow and to try to exert more power because that brought a lot of hope that situations could change. But then, with the arrival of the Contra in the early eighties and the arrival of the U.S. troops in 1982, we began to see that profound growth in the Honduran Army. Then, the Popular Movement began to demand as part of the struggle that the process of militarization in our country stop, that the U.S. troops leave, that the Contras leave. Because at that time in Honduras they began to feel much more the effects of the economic crisis. So during the last ten years, the Honduran Popular Movement has been demanding that the Contra leave and that the U.S. troops leave. The Popular Movement is demanding that the Honduran government take a more dignified position internationally. And that at a national level that they would put into practice economic measures that would mean a betterment of life for their people.
Taking these positions has meant that people are being threatened, exiled, disappeared, and killed. Even until today, these repressive measures are still happening. Although the Honduran popular Movement has taken this stand, it is a movement that is weak and battered and it has been unable to assume a very strong position.
D: Right now you are the Coordinator for CLADEM, the Latin American Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights. When and how did CLADEM begin and what are your goals and programs?
G: CLADEM started a year and a half ago as part of all initiative at the Latin American level. The initiative has as its major goals to defend women's rights, to understand and utilize the law for women's benefit, and to push for changes in certain laws. And to help raise women's consciousness and sense of dignity. And also to denounce violence against women.
We are developing educational workshops on four subjects: women and their rights, women' s sexuality and their reproductive rights, women and domestic violence, and women and work.
Unfortunately, we are unable to extend our work right now to legal and psychological counseling which is one of our long term goals. Aside from the workshops, we are also denouncing violence against women. Also, we have begun researching various problems of women because we have seen in general that it is an area about which little is known or has been studied. Domestic violence has been hidden and yet occurs at a very high rate.
Our commitment is to work with women in poor sectors of Tegucigalpa. We're working with women who we call promoters in other organizations who we hope will be able to go back to their own organizations and reproduce the experience of our workshops. We are only in Tegucigalpa right now because all our work is volunteer and we can't afford to go elsewhere.