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HONDURAS-INDIGENOUS: ‘Clay Leaders Matter More than Our Problems’

Thelma Mejia

TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 13 1997 (IPS) - Two indigenous leaders in Honduras, accused of taking part in knocking down a statue of Christopher Columbus last month, turned themselves in with the aim of proving their innocence.

Salvador Zuniga and Candido Martinez, leaders of the Lenca ethnic group, said the toppling of the statue was an act of protest on the Oct. 12 anniversary of the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas.

After fleeing from justice for three weeks, the two men turned themselves in Wednesday, accompanied by members of the Confederation of Autochthonous Peoples of Honduras (CONPAH).

They also declared a hunger strike to press for their release. Ten members of the Lenca community have begun to fast, and others will join them depending on how the trial proceeds.

Salvador Zuniga, with the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Peoples of the West (COPIN), under the CONPAH umbrella, said “we have come to turn ourselves in to demonstrate that we are not criminals. But we want justice because it is inconceivable that we could be put in prison for knocking down a plaster statue.

“It would seem that in this country clay leaders matter more than the real problems faced by indigenous people,” he asserted. “If there is justice, we will be released, but we are not sorry for the act of dignity carried out on Oct. 12.”

On that date, some 150 Lencas knocked down the statue of Columbus, located at the entry to Tegucigalpa. Several protesters spilled blood on the statue from syringes used to draw their own blood.

The monument was sculpted 81 years ago, and there are reportedly only three replicas in the world.

The act drew criticism from many sectors. Honduran President Carlos Reina said only “irrational” people would do such a thing.

The ‘Fiscalia de las Etnias’ (bureau of indigenous affairs), also in charge of defending the country’s cultural heritage, has filed charges against Zuniga and Martinez, who it accuses of inciting the act.

According to Judge Dagoberto Aspra, who is presiding over the case, the act of vandalism is punishable by six years in prison. “They had better look for a good lawyer,” he warned.

Aspra said the law must begin to be respected in Honduras. “We cannot confuse things like the indigenous protesters want to do, alleging that what they did was an act of dignity, when they had no right to destroy an object of national heritage.”

The head of the ‘Fiscalia de las Etnias’, Eduardo Villanueva, told IPS that the case was made more complex because the protesters refused to admit that they had broken the law. “I commit myself to their having a fair trial, but not to twisting the law in favour of anyone.”

The indigenous people are demanding that Villanueva be removed, arguing that he does not defend their interests.

The protesters say the incident arose from a “world view” which differs from that of other sectors of society. CONPAH’s Marcos Gutierrez maintained that “according to the world view of our ancestors, what we did was just and legal. But since others preside over society, our acts are crimes. That is not justice.”

The indigenous movement in Honduras began to win increasingly widespread support three years ago. But incidents like the occupation of the Costa Rican Embassy in Tegucigalpa earlier this year and the destruction of the Columbus statue have damaged their credibility and rolled back progress made in negotiating with the government.

Julieta Castellanos, a sociologist with the National Autonomous University of Honduras, said the demands of the indigenous people had been gaining support, but “at some point they got lost, and began to fall into a kind of fundamentalism which is dangerous to society.”

Roughly 500,000 indigenous people live in northern, central, southern and northeastern Honduras – a Central American country of five million people – in often appalling poverty and neglect, awaiting concrete responses to their ageold demands, which for the first time in history began to be heard and partially resolved by the current government.

Their demands, however, according to President Reina, “went beyond what is rational. I cannot resolve at one stroke debts that have accumulated over centuries. But they do not want to understand that.”

Reina, a staunch defender of indigenous causes, refused to engage in direct negotiations when protesters accused his government of repressing native peoples, and peaceful protests gave way to the occupation of embassies and the destruction of property.

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