Election Day Protests
Weather wise, it was a typical day in November, overcast with high humidity, muggy, but it was anything but typical. It was Election Day in Honduras, which is a big deal. Everything shuts down: no schools, no churches, no group activities. Everyone is expected to vote, and the political parties go through great pains to get voters to the polls. They provide transportation to and from houses to the polls for the elderly and handicapped, or for anyone who needs a ride, as long as you vote in their favor. People dress up like they’re going to the theatre and it is all a big social event. As a foreigner, I cannot vote, but am fascinated by the buzz and how important people consider their voting right. I wish we felt more pride in our country for what right we have to choose our leaders.
Voting day was great. My wife, children and I, who volunteer in Honduras, visited family and played games in the afternoon. Everything seemed normal except that the current president, Juan Orlando, had illegally changed the constitution to run for president a second term against his opponent, TV star Salvador Nasrala. Nobody seemed to care about his illegal entry into the election because Nasrala was favored to win and was winning as the country watched the votes come in on live feed. Somewhere around nine pm when we were all getting ready for bed, there was a glitch in the programming and the vote counting ceased to broadcast. When it returned a few hours later, Juan Orlando was miraculously in the lead by a fraction. That was when everything changed. The “typical”, even for Election Day was gone.
We woke up the next day to friends calling us and showing us news feeds. Riots had broken out in the capital city of Honduras. We were in Puerto Cortes, six hours away from Tegucigalpa and felt safe. The following day we picked up six friends from Maryland who had flown in as a mission team and would serve with us in the country for a week. There was an unannounced pilot strike in Mexico City and all Aero Mexico flights were grounded, trapping two other team members in the airport. They were unable to come with the other six and would arrive two days later. Two days was enough time for the rioters, later called the resistance, to formulate and start protests all over the country. In San Pedro Sula, the northern city that we and teams fly in and out of, they blocked main boulevards with burning tires, branches and debris. They vandalized chain businesses, broke gas station windows and looted major stores. It was chaotic.
The day our late team members were flying in from Mexico, I sent Luis with our pickup truck to collect them. We stayed in Puerto Cortes with the team, preparing our ministry’s bi-annual party at a water park. We had 160 people scheduled for our big event and planning was essential. The team members were arriving at five and Luis called me at three. “Brian, I am stuck in a gas station in San Pedro Sula. The alternator went out and the battery has died. I need you to come and bring me a new battery. Also, be careful! There are rioters in Choloma and they have taken the boulevard.” I dropped off the team at the hotel with my wife and jumped back in the Toyota rental van, unsure of what I would face. Wayne, a team member, jumped in with me, along with my sister-in-law Karen. “Are you sure you want to come, Wayne? “ I asked. “I’m not sure what will happen.” Wayne thought for a second then answered, “Wait, let me just say goodbye to my daughter.” Wayne jumped out, probably thinking this may be the last time he sees her, gave her a hug and climbed into the front passenger seat.
The boulevard from Puerto Cortes to San Pedro Sula was clear until just before the stop light at Lopez in Choloma. As we drove closer, traffic was thicker; cars were parked on the sides of the road. We came up behind a patrol unit going our way, and I thought, “Whatever this is, we’ll follow them and get through.” No sooner had I formed the plan, the patrol unit pulled an illegal U over the median and sped off in the opposing direction. We weaved our way through parked cars until we finally arrived at the reason they were stopped. There, about twenty feet in front of our windshield was a column of fire and smoke blocking our path, and that acrid smell of burning tires. Shirtless men with masks stood guard, whooping and hollering like wild monkeys suddenly in control. I silently prayed and moved the van to the extreme right. As I did I noticed the side was not heavily blocked. They had only scattered pieces of broken cement, but not higher than our axle. There was a protester standing in front of the line to block it while they looked for more debris. I thought, “This is my chance! That guy’s not stupid. He’ll move!” And without even giving warning to Wayne and Karen, I mashed the accelerator and the van lurched forward heading right toward the protestor who quickly jumped out of our way. We felt and heard the cement crunch under the tires and we were through! My heart was pounding and I was glad we made it.
A while later, we found Luis parked at the gas station with his mother, who accompanied him for the trip. We excitedly recounted crossing the protest line and Luis told us there were three more lines before getting to the airport. By this time the plane had already landed and we were late. when I gave my wife the news she quickly formed a plan and she called an uncle who was a taxi driver in San Pedro. He lived on the other side of the airport and could pick up the last two team members, my mom and an elderly gentleman named Steve. Without really being able to explain much, other than a taxi driver would find them, I sent them into my wife’s uncle’s hands. Sure enough, about forty minutes later they pulled into the UNO gas station where we were waiting. The taxi wobbled on misaligned tires. Every bolt and washer seemed to be rattling, and the door even stuck when Steve tried to open it. We laughed at the unlikely “team transportation” and I yanked on the door handle from the outside. Steve unraveled himself and slid out. He had a big smile on his face. Their luggage was piled on top of them and stuffed into the open trunk. We grabbed all their bags and placed them in the spacious rental van. Everyone hugged, but we needed to make good timing to get home. Who knew what more would happen? We dropped a charged battery that I had picked up at Luis’ shop on the way out of town into his Toyota truck. “It looks good.” He said, “just let me follow you and you'll be my headlights.” Not liking the idea of Luis driving without lights, but not having any other choice, we jumped into the cars and Luis followed us. Everyone in the van was talking and chattering; we talked about the riot line and the others talked about the strike in Mexico. I was trying to concentrate and prepare myself for what lay ahead. I prayed again. “Lord, you got us this far and I don’t believe we would have picked them up if you weren’t going to get us home. So, please do something and clear the way so we can make it to the hotel.”
We got to the very spot where I had crossed a line of fire earlier, to find the whole boulevard cleared. There were no parked cars on the sides except for the five giant military vehicles and the only people standing in the road were infantry soldiers waving us on! Everyone cheered and we made it back to our hotel in Tulian Rio with the rest of our team. Luis made it home.
The following night protestors appeared right outside the hotel property blocking the bridge that goes over the Tulian River and heads to Guatemala. All night we could hear them shouting and chanting, “Out with Juan Orlando! Out with JOH!” There was a lot of pressure to cancel our big end of the year event, but we held the party just the same. The students that helped decorate were all from Omoa and could not get home that night. They slept on the couches in the hotel with the team. In the morning, eighty people, half of the expected 160, showed up. Everyone from up the coast in Omoa could not make it because transportation had shut down that day. The bus drivers were afraid of the riots and took the day off. We still had a great party and the students made it home, many of them walking.
By the time the team had to return home at the end of the week, the politicians had agreed to a re-count of the votes and things had calmed down. The team made it to the airport without incident and flew home. My family and I stayed. We were scheduled to leave in two weeks on Dec. 18. We hoped that everything would hold until we could get out of the country.
December 18th was just a few days away. My kids, Angie who is six and Nathanael who is 2, were so excited! The last few weeks since the team had left, had been calm, just like we expected Honduras to be. Business was normal in Puerto Cortes, and no more horri