Teachers strike fuels unrest in polarized Honduras

AP News
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Posted: Apr 01, 2011 3:17 AM
Teachers strike fuels unrest in polarized Honduras

The Honduran government wants to impose a law aimed at ensuring the country's frequently striking teachers show up for work the number of days legally required.

Teachers responded by walking off the job.

Disgruntled parents _ who would get greater oversight over schools under the proposed law _ complain their children spend more days at home than in school.

The three-week old teachers' strike has become a catalyst for a wider political movement against the government, and to demand the return from exile of ousted former President Manuel Zelaya. At least one teacher has been killed and more than 50 people have been injured in clashes with police, in some of the worst unrest since the months following the June 2009 coup that toppled Zelaya.

"The protest will continue and the regime will not break us with repression because people who don't fight never triumph," said Jaime Rodriguez, director of the Federation of Teachers' Organization, which has 70,000 members.

The teachers are also demanding six months of unpaid salaries for 6,000 teachers. The Education Ministry insists that salary payments are up to date and the protests are more about destabilizing the government of President Porfirio Lobo.

Also participating in the protests is the National Front of Popular Resistance, a group of activists, workers and farmers formed in the wake of the coup that ousted Zelaya. The group continues to advocate Zeyala's proposal for a constituent assembly that would rewrite the Honduran constitution and shake up a political system long dominated by a few wealthy families of textile magnates and other businessmen in one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

That constituent assembly idea prompted the coup that ousted the Zelaya. The business elite, the military and Zelaya's own political party feared he would use it to abolish presidential term limits and amass power as his leftist ally President Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela. Zelaya denied such intentions.

The coup was widely condemned around the world, but months of international sanctions and negotiations failed to restore Zelaya, who is now in exile in the Dominican Republic. Lobo was elected in November 2009 voting that had been scheduled before the coup. However, Zelaya supporters refused to recognize Lobo's legitimacy because the elections occurred under an interim government installed by the coup.

"The struggle is against the coup leaders and the government of the dictator Lobo," said Juan Barahona, a leader of the Resistance Front. "We will not back down until we bring down this coup regime."

Public school teachers have continuously been a thorn in the Lobo government. They had largely supported Zelaya, who had been popular among many lower-class Hondurans because of his rhetoric vilifying the rich _ despite his own background as a wealthy rancher _ and his imposition of a 60 percent minimum wage hike that businesses complained they could not afford.

Teachers' strikes are a way of life in Honduras dating back to the 19th century and they gained momentum in the 1960s when teachers won a salary raise from five to seven dollars a month.

Most teachers now earn between $600 and $800 a month, just enough to cover basic family expenses, according to government figures.

Over the past 10 years, schools have held classes an average of 125 days a year, far below the 200 mandated by the government, according to a recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank, which that blamed constant strikes over salary payment delays and demands for wage hikes.

"Teachers are always looking for excuses to be on the streets and abandon the classrooms," said Maria Saravia, president of the National Parents' Association. "They don't teach. They always demand more and more salaries."

Lobo has declared the current strike illegal and is pressing on with efforts to push through the "Law of Community Participation for the Improvement of Education," which would give parents, town mayors and local civil organizations more oversight to ensure that teachers show up to class.

It is set to be discussed Saturday in town halls in all 298 of the country's municipalities.

"The idea is that the teachers be in the classroom the required amount of time and that their work be evaluated by citizens and the local authorities where they work," said Juan Hernandez, the president of Congress.

Teachers see it as an attempt to muzzle their right to protest.

"They are trying to control us and pit us against the community," said Edwin Olivia, a teachers' union leader. "We will not allow it."