TEGUCIGALPA — Surrounded by hundreds of protesters shouting for the return of ousted President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya were a dozen black Hondurans swaying to the rhythm of their own drums and singing in their local Garifuna language.
They weren't there to support the populist president — ousted more than three weeks ago — but to defend one of his most controversial ideas: revising the constitution.
"We have no political visibility in this country and that makes us extremely vulnerable," said Alfredo Lopez, 56, a community activist and one of about 400,000 ethnic Garifunas in Honduras. "The constitutional assembly would have given us a chance to change that."
Zelaya was toppled June 28 as he aggressively and, some argue, illegally pursued a national referendum to redraft the constitution. With just six months left in his term, his enemies feared he was bent on abolishing presidential term limits to remain in power.
But for many Garifunas, the constitutional assembly held the promise of winning long-sought rights, such as proportional representation and legal title to communal and ancestral land.
"We have been in a continuous struggle for decades to have a voice, to be visible, to have representation," said Celeo Alvarez Casildo, president of the Organization for the Development of Ethnic Communities. "It's not that we supported Zelaya — and much less the events that led to his ouster — but we have our own very good reasons for wanting a constitutional assembly.''
Those hopes were dashed when the army, acting on orders from the supreme court, seized Zelaya from his home at gunpoint and flew him into exile in Costa Rica. It was the same day the referendum would have taken place. Zelaya tried but failed to return to Tegucigalpa on July 5.
The ousted Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, who is serving as interim president, were in talks to resolve the crisis until talks broke down last weekend. Both claim to be the legitimate leader of this nation of 7.8 million people.
Few believe constitutional revisions are still on the table.
ORIGINS IN REGION
Historians trace the origins of the Garifunas back to the 1600s when escaped black slaves began to mix with Amerindians in St. Vincent. Today, Garifuna communities stretch along the Caribbean coast from Belize to Nicaragua, and there is a sizable diaspora in Miami and New York.
The Garifunas caught global attention in 2001 when UNESCO proclaimed their language, dance and music "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."
In Honduras, they are respected for their food, artists and soccer players, said political analyst Miguel Calix. But that hasn't won them a voice in the national dialogue.
"There is a very subtle, even subliminal, racism here," he said. "That's something that has never been overcome."
Ruben Francisco Garcia Martinez is one of just four Garifunas in the Honduran congress. He and his colleagues came into office in 2006. Before them, there had not been a Garifuna voice in the legislature for 75 years, he said.
While Honduras has socially progressive laws, the nation's party structure makes it difficult for minorities to work their way into positions of power, said Martinez, who belongs to the Liberal Party of both Micheletti and Zelaya.
"We're lacking democracy within our own parties," he said.