Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Retaliation Against Honduras' National University

Student correspondents at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras (UNAH) write, alarmed at proposals to close the university "temporarily", which they believe are a pretext to dismiss existing faculty and hire new professors, who our correspondents suspect will be selected on ideological grounds.

The threat to close the university has been widely reported in the Honduran press. While today's coverage in La Tribuna says the proposal has been discarded, it also reports the head of Congress saying that
“there has been talk of distinct options to approach this problem, we're not going to hide it, there are congress members that have advised that if this continues it might be more profitable to give a grant to a student so that he could study in a private university, the amount that a student at the autonoma [UNAH] costs the State so much that it has been said, but no decision has been taken."

Rigoberto Chang Castillo, secretary of the National Congress, reportedly proposed closing UNAH as "ungovernable". News coverage notes that Chang Castillo is a faculty member of the school of law, and cites a precedent (although unsuccessful) when in 2008, then-president of the Junta de Dirección Universitaria, Olvin Rodríguez, called for a two year closure of the university which quite obviously was not implemented.

The most recent news reports say that the heads of the three branches of government, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Juan Orlando Hernández (on behalf of Congress), and Jorge Rivera Avilés (from the Supreme Court) met with Julieta Castellanos, rector of UNAH, and decided against closing the university.

Yet today, the university has reportedly been closed for a period of ten days, although not apparently by the National Congress: the Ministry of Health says it is closing the campus due to unhealthy conditions created by garbage accumulated when workers went on strike. The Health Ministry claims in particular that dengue (a mosquito born illness) and H1N1 (spread by contact with someone already affected) will be promoted by the trash that has built up on campus and the uncleaned bathrooms. This suggests the ministry of health has a novel view of disease processes, one that we might have hoped was not the understanding of the officials charged with improving health conditions in the country.

The current irritation to the government that is behind the proposal floated this week is the continuing strike by SITRAUNAH, the union that represents labor at UNAH. SITRAUNAH has been on strike since February 23 in a power struggle over reforms at the university. One of the keys to the controversy is the University's unwillingness to continue with the requirement to make payments of over two years of salary upon the death of an employee. As a result, SITRAUNAH has gone on strike and taken over buildings.

The union appears to have some faculty and student support, with recent reports of strikes by some faculty and students, although these also concern proposed financial policies that directly affect students. But SITRAUNAH does not have support from the administration of the university: according to today's report in La Tribuna, Julieta Castellanos requested the congress declare this strike illegal.

The Public Prosecutor, Luis Rubi, would go further: he wants to charge union members with sedition, usurpation, and coercion and has asked a judge in Tegucigalpa to issue arrest orders for the entire leadership of the union.

Sedition? Really? Sedition is an illegal action against lawful authority, directed at a government, tending towards insurrection, but which does not itself amount to treasonous conduct.

What makes the university such a target? Among other things, UNAH is full of intellectuals who have written critical analyses of the conditions that led to the coup d'etat, and of the overall system of government in the country. As we noted in a previous post, UNAH has been criticized for hiring former members of the Zelaya administration, people well-qualified for the jobs they took on.

During the months of open aggression by the Micheletti regime, UNAH students and faculty, even the rector, were subjects of violence. UNAH, and the national teaching university, the Pedagógica, were accused of being sites where bombs/Molotov cocktails were constructed and stored, despite the documented fact that the chemistry lab where the police claimed this was going on had burned years earlier, and not been repaired or replaced.

UNAH is a continuing irritation to government because it is in the nature of a university to encourage free expression of opinions and the development of critical perspectives. The fact that the national congress and public prosecutor are using a labor dispute as a pretext to discuss shutting the whole place down, and even re-directing public funding to private universities, is another indication that Honduras remains far from the ideal of reconciliation and far from conditions that would allow a real pursuit of the truth about the political events of 2009.

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