By Shari Phiel
Much to the relief of his father, Gary Brandvold of Berthoud, BHS graduate Neil Brandvold finally made his way home safe and sound after participating in the recent protests in the Central American country of Honduras.
Now back on U.S. soil, Brandvold has had a few days to reflect on the events of the past few weeks, the terrible violence and bloodshed that continues on, and what he takes away from his time in the tiny democratic republic.
Brandvold began volunteering in 2000 through the Church of Latter Day Saints, and although he did not choose to go to Honduras, he feels lucky to have been sent there.
“I immediately fell in love with the country, culture and people,” said Brandvold who spent about a year “working in the slums of Tegucigalpa, called Comayaguela, and another year in villages outside the city.”
During the time he remained in Honduras, Brandvold organized soccer leagues with gang members from the area and worked on community building projects such as the construction of adobe ovens for women to use to generate sustainable income by selling baked goods.
While there, Brandvold developed a deep affection for the country and its people, an affection that remains to this day. So when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup, Brandvold felt the call to action. “It was tearing me up watching my people take to the streets and demand a return to democracy, and for me to just sit behind a computer screen and do nothing would be unthinkable,” he said. “I feel solidarity with the Honduran people and outrage at what was happening, and I think too often we don’t act on our sentiments.”
Upon hearing that Zelaya would try to return to the country, Brandvold booked the first flight he could get on. “They said he would most likely be on a commercial flight, so I thought it would be amazing to fly in on the same flight or just before he arrived, and be on the ground in Honduras to welcome him back with the rest of the country.”
One week after his overthrow, Zelaya was blocked from returning when Honduran military police shutdown the runways at the country’s main airport and used tear gas and machine gun fire to disperse a large crowd of unarmed protestors, leaving two dead and several others wounded.
Not everyone supports Zelaya’s return though. Many of the country’s business leaders and government officials argue the ousted president attempted to wrest control away from the people by moving to repeal term limits in the country’s constitution.
But Brandvold notes economic considerations are driving those whose support Zelaya’s ousting. “The upper-middle class, which is a very miniscule percentage of the population, overwhelmingly supports the coup. The majority of the poor overwhelmingly support Zelaya.” An estimated 70 percent of Hondurans live in extreme poverty with the remaining 30 percent controlling the majority of the country’s wealth.
“The real reason he was removed was because the wealthy business owners were threatened by the changes he was making to help the poor, like raising minimum wage and actually taxing foreign businesses operating in the country,” added Brandvold noting the frequent appearance of designer sunglasses and expensive clothing at a pro-government rally held while he was there.
Although most major media outlets continue to provide limited coverage of developing stories, Brandvold says coverage is still being censored and outbreaks of violence continue to devastate the country. “On Friday a journalist was murdered after leaving Radio America, and many others are facing death threats for criticizing the coup. One of the journalists at Radio Global jumped three stories from his office when the soldiers came to get him, he had been tortured in the 1980s and feared the same would happen again.” He goes on to describe hearing a loud explosion early one morning which turned out to be a military bombing on a local television station. Other radio and television stations have also been shut down.
Brandvold added that just as recently as Monday, “two members of the opposition political party, Unificacion Democratica, were assassinated; and over the weekend Honduran police detained six employees of the regional television network Telesur and Venezuela state-run station Venezolana de Television.”
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises for Brandvold was not just the lack of Honduran news coverage but the lack of coverage in comparison to other news items. “We had limited access to international news down there, but I was shocked to see that after the military had shot innocent protesters on Sunday all I could find on the news was reports about Michael Jackson’s funeral,” said Brandvold.
If there’s anything Brandvold could share with others about his experiences in Honduras it would be to remember that the world is really a very small place and we should all look out for each other. “It’s amazing how far away Honduras might seem to people, but in reality it’s only a few hours on an airplane and you are there. The people there are our neighbors, and our brothers and sisters. The least we can do is pay attention to what is happening.”
While not everyone in Honduras may support Zelaya’s return, the international community has provided overwhelming support for the ousted leader. Talks between Zelaya and leaders of the military coup began in Costa Rica last week. Brandvold encourages everyone to contact their local U.S. senator and “pressure them to take action.”
For now, Brandvold will continue his work at the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, D.C., a position he took on about five months ago while continuing to hope for a peaceful resolution.
<p>Neil Brandvold sits beneath graffiti, which translates as “Che Guevara, We Swear to Overcome,” spray painted by protestors in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.</p>