Hours before Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was forcefully exiled to Costa Rica on June 27, he met with seven delegates from Sacramento.
The seven were: Bill Camp, executive secretary for the Sacramento Central Labor Council (SCLC); Bud McKinney, a sheet mill worker; Chris Bender, a union representative; Greg Larkins, president of IBW Local 340 and a political organizer for the SCLC; Arturo Aleman, a consultant, Kate Allen, a graduate student at UCLA and summer intern for the SCLC and Dion Archuleta, a canner at Campbell Soup in South Sacramento.
The following is an account of their experiences in Honduras over a three-day period in which an alleged coup d’état took place.
The SCLC helped to deliver medical supplies and facilitate medical outreach to Honduran communities with limited accessibility. Because of their aid to Honduras, an invitation was extended to 12 members of the SCLC to observe ballot procedures, which would take place in Honduras on June 28. Five of them were unable to attend, according to Bud McKinney.
Bill Camp’s brother, Tom Camp, a doctor in Alabama, helped with relief efforts in Honduras after the wrath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He encouraged Bill Camp to visit Honduras with him and served as a connection to a native doctor, Dr. Luther Harry Castillo. Dr. Luther Castillo’s passion to help the underprivileged was the driving force that inspired Bill Camp to build a clinic.
In partnership with several members of various unions, Camp was able to gather the resources to build the clinic in Honduras with the California Honduras Institute for Medical Education and Support (CHIMES) over the course of two years.
In 2005, as a result of these efforts, Bill Camp began building a clinic in Ciriboya, a remote village on the northern coast of Honduras.
McKinney found out about the organization while working on a health proposition with Camp at the SCLC in 2005. He was interested in the mission of the clinic and joined Camp in clearing out the initial site and communicating with local elders about having them contribute labor to its construction.
A hospital was opened in late 2007. "The hospital and the [eleven] doctors that it employs provide health care to about 20,000-25,000 people in the area," McKinney said.
Camp made it clear that it is the only hospital in Honduras operated by Garifuna people, the indigenous population.
In 2007, a chance run-in with Patti Garamendi provided Camp with the opportunity to invite Lt. Gov. John Garamendi to Honduras with less than a week’s notice. They scheduled a visit, and shortly before Garamendi arrived, it occurred to Bill Camp, "Oh lord, the Lieutenant Governor is coming to Honduras and I don’t even know if the roads are open!"
Garamendi was able to attend the dedication ceremony for the completion of the clinic and meet Dr. Castillo, a primary force in building the hospital. "John’s real contribution was going and having all the public attention," Camp said. The dedication ceremony attracted press attention both in Honduras and in the United States. He added that Garamendi "had put [the hospital] on the map."
A second-floor addition later the next following year was cause for another dedication. This time, President Zelaya attended and committed to compensating salaries for any three of the 11 doctors. "When they get the checks, they just split them eleven ways," Camp said.
Leaving for Honduras: Day 1
On June 21, the SCLC received a letter signed by Patricia Rodas Baca, the Honduran foreign minister, inviting members of the SCLC by name to participate in a fully funded trip to observe balloting procedures around the country for the survey that was to take place on June 28.
Other than the U.S. ambassador, the seven from Sacramento were the only observers to fly in from the United States. There were about 80 international delegates in total, according to Bill Camp.
The delegates arrived in Honduras on June 27 and were directed to a press conference with President Zelaya and his cabinet members soon after their arrival.
At the time of the press conference, President Zelaya had dealt with battling the Honduran Congress and the Supreme Court over the legality of holding a non-binding survey. Camp said it was essentially, "An effort to hear from the public. Do you think we should have a vote in November about the question, yes or no?, Do you want to have a constitutional convention?"
The Honduran Supreme Court ruled the survey illegal the week it was to occur and threatened arrest of anyone wanting to change the constitution.
At the press conference, Chris Bender said, "they handed out the portions of the constitution and the law that they felt made this legal."
These excerpts were handed out on paper, including Title XII, which is the portion of the constitution in question in regards to the legitimacy of the survey.
Aleman explained the process that Zelaya envisioned would pan out in regards to a future referendum. He said Zelaya intended to hold a survey of the people with the survey scheduled to take place on June 28 to gauge whether they wanted to have a vote in November, on election day, to decide if they then wanted a constitutional congress. From this decision, a constitutional convention may or may not have convened after the installation of the new administration in 2010.
"It had no effect of law," said McKinney said about the survey. The survey was fundamentally a public opinion poll, and the immediate consequence of the vote would have no legal effect on the constitution or the law.
"We were to observe how the election was being conducted, so if the media wanted to have an outside view of how this was handled– was it appropriate, were people being coerced, threatened or intimidated– we would be able to speak as outsiders in terms of our perspective," Camp said, commenting on how the Honduran Department of Foreign Relations outlined the duties of the delegates.
"The only thing we went down there to do was ensure that the vote was free and fair," McKinney said.
Outside of the press conference, McKinney was conversing with locals. "I talked to people outside of (the) Presidential Palace,” he said. “There were a lot of volunteers milling around."
These volunteers were delivering ballot boxes to about 15,000 precincts all over Honduras, after a group of unarmed citizens seized them from the military. The ballot boxes were dispersed the week before, and McKinney had witnessed the last of them being transported.
After the press conference, all of the international delegates gathered for a dinner with Zelaya and his cabinet members. Each place setting had a microphone, allowing observers to question Zelaya.
One question posed to Zelaya was if the referendum was about extending his presidency. McKinney, paraphrasing Zelaya, said he responded, "No. On Jan. 27, my term is up. I will hand over my sash to the duly elected president of Honduras."
Over the course of the press conference and dinner, the seven spent about five hours in the presence of Zelaya.
"There was no expectation that he would be kidnapped," Camp said.
A Turn of Events: Day 2
The next morning, on Sunday, June 28, Camp and Bender were to report to the airport to fly out to a village and observe voting procedures.
While waiting, the two received word from Dr. Castillo, "Take off your hat, take off your vest, take off your badge; put them in your satchel. I’m coming to pick you up to take you back to the hotel — there’s been a coup."
For the duration of the trip, the majority of the group members remained in their hotel, two miles away from the Presidential Palace.
“The streets were calm, there was no troop presence, there was no real unrest where we were at,” explained Larkins, political organizer for the SCLC.
At 8 p.m. Sunday, Dr. Castillo picked up three of the group members, Allen, Camp and Archuleta, and took them to the Presidential Palace, where protests were taking place.
Allen described the scene after a thunderstorm had set in. "[The protesters] were under these tarps in the middle of the street and there was a truck with a bullhorn and they were chanting along to Zelaya’s name right in front of the gates of the Presidential Palace, and behind the gates were all these guards in riot gear."
According to Allen, there were about 200 protesters at the time of her visit, and the three were able to engage in conversation talk with some of the protesters. Allen turned her attention to Camp., "Suddenly they’re going ‘Sí se puede!’ (Yes, it can be done!) and Bill is leading them in a chant of ‘Sí se puede’ in front of the gates of the Presidential Palace," Allen said.
"Our job is to encourage the heart," said Camp.
Anti-Zelaya protesters took to the streets as well, however, Allen said, "We couldn’t stay long because there was going to be a curfew at 9 p.m., instituting martial law."
Returning with a Cause: Day 3
On Monday night, June 29, the seven arrived safely back in California.
"Immediately when we got back, we started calling all the union people we knew and said, ‘you gotta get a hold of the National Security Council and the Secretary of State’s office,’ " Camp said.
McKinney received word that Honduran labor unions were gathering support to take protesters to the street, despite the military’s attempts to machine-gun tires of buses. “The AFL-CIO is in full support of labor’s participation in the retaking of democracy in Honduras,” he commented.
"When workers are being destroyed in Honduras…that really is an injury to all of us," Camp said.
Upon their arrival, Camp received an e-mail from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with an urgent message. 29 people had been listed as targets for detention by the interim government. Dr. Castillo is on this list, but has evaded capture so far, according to McKinney.
In addition to others, Patricia Rodas Baca was detained and later released.
Camp said he believes they "got them released because we got the National Security Council and the Secretary of State’s office saying, ‘You can’t hurt this individual,’ and somehow that went down through the chain of command."
An Update on Current Efforts
McKinney has been in contact with doctors at the hospital in Ciriboya. "Everything seems to be normal at the hospital,” he said. “The doctors are a little apprehensive that if the coup goes very long they will cut funding."
He also said that the Cuban government is pulling out Cuban doctors out of from Honduran clinics, and fears the same may happen with the doctors in Ciriboya.
McKinney is also in communication with Dr. Castillo, who staged a protest against the military’s shooting of civilians with First Lady Xiomara Castro Zelaya on July 7.
"The question is how do we get the head of the labor council in Minneapolis, or Rochester, or St. Louis to understand that this is their fight as well as the Honduran workers?" Camp asked.
As of July 13, Telesur, McKinney’s main source of television coverage of the events in Honduras, has been expelled from coverage by the interim government.
Furthermore, the military seized ballots from a rural city that had held the vote through the coup, according to an anonymous source of McKinney’s.
McKinney reflected on his trip: "I didn’t go to support the referendum or Manuel Zelaya. I had pretty mixed feelings," he said. "I went down there to observe democracy. I went there to make sure the people had a fair vote in both directions."
McKinney explained that he did not want to see the referendum forced on the people, and he did not want to see people "stuff ballot boxes" either.
"It was in a sense an unbelievable experience, but it was also a calm experience in the thrust of the chaos," Larkins said.
The group plans on making another trip back to Honduras Aug. 6 and hopes peace comes to the nation by then.