The Honeymoon's Over; The Dispute's Begin
Despite the distressful situation of most Hondurans, there is little grassroots vitality for putting up an effective resistance against those responsable for their misfortunes and for overcoming the dead-end schemes of the political parties.
Honduras' Liberal government marked its two year point in office in January, against a backdrop of ongoing difficulties due to the country's economic crisis and aggravated by international commitments that are very hard to meet. Its mandate has so far been characterized by institutional reforms to the state, particularly the justice system; it has made a decided effort to maintain its "human face," instituting legal measures to combat corruption, advance the justice system's independence and question military power.
Minister of Foreign Relations Ernesto Paz Aguilar, a trusted adviser to the President, spent over two months in prison for covering up for relatives involved in falsifying diplomatic passports. The same fate hit several officials from the previous government, and by the time this government hit its half way mark, at least three high level military officers accused of various human rights violations were fugitives of justice.
On March 26, a homemade bomb went off in the garage at President Carlos Roberto Reina's residence. Wilfredo Alvarado, who heads the Criminal Investigation Department, said that the attack was carried out by professionals with the aim of intimidating him and putting a brake on his attempts to improve the justice system.
1996 97: Political YearsThe Reina government's political decline has begun to be felt as we move into this second half of its administration. In the proselytizing campaigns, the first two years of his term were defined as a truce and accumulation of forces within the diverse currents of Honduras' two party political system. The last two years, which began at the end of January 1996, are characterized by hard fought disputes for quotas of power among these currents within the two traditional parties.
The result of all this wheeling and dealing will determine, later this year, who is to be the official presidential candidate for each party. The last year, 1997, will take on a stridently political tone. The two parties will blame each other for the decadence reigning in the country and, with neither funds nor a concrete political project, both will swear to God, the country and their very own mothers, that they will be able to assure the citizens the most promising future possible.
This ongoing negotiating within the political parties will condition the country's general context in 1996. Will the Public Minister continue to be as aggressive in his fight against corruption in a year in which the Liberal Party must elect its candidate for the November 1997 elections? Will the Public Ministry and the Supreme Court finish up the cases against those military officers accused of violating human rights, or will they regroup, negotiating new agreements among politicians, judges and the military? What medicine of the day will the government prescribe for the economic crisis to avoid further political damage?
The Media SpeakIn his book, Los hechos hablan por sí mismos (The Facts Speak for Themselves), published at the end of 1993, Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares documented the disappearances of 184 people in Honduras, most of them in the first years of the 1980s. Although the figure seems small compared to the tens of thousands killed and disappeared in the three neighboring Central American countries, the involvement of security forces in crimes against grassroots leaders continues to be a subject of great controversy in the Honduran media.
To date, not much new information regarding the events of the past decade has been made public, but it is expected that once declassified official US government documents are made public, a number of things will be clarified. Searches of Honduran armed forces archives have yet to encounter documents that would be of assistance in this area.
The Thorny Issue Of AmnestyIn October 1995, the Human Rights Attorney brought a case against 10 military officers, accusing them of responsibility in the disappearance and torture of eight students during the 1980s. Even though the majority are still active army officers, none has appeared in court.
While civil authorities insist that the law is being carried out to the letter regarding these officers and others responsible for the dirty war, military colleagues offer refuge to the fugitives and request special treatment. Armed forces chief Mario Hung Pacheco even went so far as to say publicly that the accused officers have not gone to court for fear of being treated unjustly, though Supreme Court President José Rivera Portilla insists that they will be given a fair trial.
In the first months of this year, a serious debate emerged about the scope of the amnesty agreed to in 1991 between the Callejas government and leftist leaders. The military is pushing to have that amnesty extended to anyone in uniform involved in operations against grassroots movements during the 1980s, while the human rights organizations argue that crimes committed through abuse of state authority are common rather than political crimes, and therefore not covered by the amnesty.
The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared (COFADEH) accuse President Reina and his brother of having negotiated amnesty for the military in exchange for a voluntary draft, a measure which took effect one year ago. Public Ministry officials, however, continue to call on the fugitive officers to turn themselves over to the courts, and are pressuring for a continuation of investigations that would assign responsibility for both these crimes and all others of a like nature carried out during the past decade.
The Catholic Church has had an ambiguous position on the amnesty. The Jesuits in Honduras, along with the diocese of Trujillo, issued a number of communiqués demanding further investigations and denouncing the concession of amnesty before the identities of those responsible for the crimes are known. On the other hand, Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, even came out in favor of a total amnesty.
In January, the Bishops' Conference published a statement declaring that "what should be sought, above all else, is the truth behind each one of the events and the characterization of the crimes. No one should be punished or absolved without a prior investigation of the crimes of which they are accused." COFADEH and the Human Rights Committee (CODEH) received the Bishops' statement guardedly, feeling that it still lends itself to an ambiguous interpretation.
Criminals or Ex Military?CODEH says it has proof that both military and paramilitary forces continue to commit frequent human rights violations. The organization presented documentation regarding seven recent disappearances and has launched a campaign against extrajudicial executions, alleging that some 81 people, many of them supposed criminals, have been killed by police or death squads.
At the beginning of 1996, CODEH charged that at least three taxi drivers killed mysteriously in Tegucigalpa had been active members of Battalion 3 16, an intelligence unit widely accused of committing atrocities during the 1980s, and the now defunct National Office of Investigation. In addition, a number of criminals captured by the police revealed that an execution squad is functioning in the FUSEP Regional Command in San Pedro Sula, under the authority of Colonel Wilfredo Urtecho. CODEH has also brought legal charges against Colonel Abraham Mendoza, head of Regional Command 7, accusing him of directing a death squad charged with eliminating suspected criminals. There are also suspicions some of them confirmed by army officers that many of the bands of bank assailants and car thieves are made up of current or former military officers. The caliber of the weapons they use, their mode of transport, their boldness and the lack of police effectiveness in dealing with the problem all underscore the likelihood that they are not merely common criminals.
Campaign Against the LeftThe first months of 1996 saw a coordinated campaign to discredit the country's human rights organizations, particularly CODEH and its president, Ramón Custodio. COFADEH was also subjected to slanderous attacks, and there is an attempt to set up a parallel organization the Committee of Relatives of Those Fallen in the Line of Duty.
Against the backdrop of recent promotions for armed forces officers, COFADEH charged that 14 of the promoted officers were involved in the disappearances and torture carried out during the 1980s. Some of the highest ranking police and army posts are now held by former members of Battalion 3 16.
Many sectors protested loudly when President Reina named former armed forces chief Luis Alonso Discua Elvir as Honduras' representative to the UN Security Council. CODEH called his appointment totally inappropriate, and took its protests to the UN itself, pointing out how shameful it would be if Discua one day came to preside over the Council, an unlikely but not impossible eventuality.
A new campaign to smear the once strong grassroots movements was spearheaded by former Captain Billy Joya, one of the accused military men still at large. In a televised program, Joya, a recent religious convert, tried to justify the dirty war with bold declarations alleging that leftist groups in the 1980s committed far worse crimes than the military did and that they deserved the treatment they received. His book, Informe B.J., is full of details on activists in the social and political movements of the 1980s, as well as their supposed crimes. Many observers find it curious how much information the book provides when virtually no information on this era is available from the military archives. President Reina commented that the report had been drawn up by the armed forces, and State Attorney Edmundo Orellana called on Joya to present his accusations in a court of law.
Limits on the ArmyThe efforts to limit the army and subordinate it to civilian power have grown in these first three months of 1996, particularly in terms of the defense budget.
A number of members of the National Congress insist that all military funds be strictly supervised and that the Congress should decide on the number of troops the army should have. Leo Valladares pushed for a "purification" of the armed forces and the new Defense Minister, Colonel Nuñez Bennett, questioned the acquisition of huge mansions and luxurious cars by military officers of modest incomes. President Reina locked horns with high ranking officers by naming Nuñez Bennett and other officers to important posts, arguing that he had no reason to respect the slates proposed to him by the army. Despite this clash, however, Reina does not appear prepared to take on the whole military. He and his military appointees were subjected to much jeering during the inauguration of the legislative session in January.
The army says that its battalions have few troops now as a result of both the voluntary draft and insufficient funding to offer soldiers a minimum wage. According to unofficial statistics, the army currently has only 5,000 soldiers and some 2,000 officers, a dramatic reduction from the 18,000 it had at the end of 1994.
Given the deeply rooted popular sentiment against obligatory military service, the army has been unable to recruit young people since the beginning of 1995. The government itself has made contradictory declarations regarding the draft, but the grassroots organizations particularly the Popular Christian Civic Committee have promised strong protests if a draft is proposed or if forced recruiting begins again. They have roundly rejected the new military service regulations, which propose a lottery style draft. Progressive legislative representatives insist that the army take the funds needed to offer soldiers an adequate wage from its current budget, but this would mean a significant reduction in the military hierarchy and in the army itself.
Liberal representative Orfilia Mejia recently called for abolishing the army, dubbing it unnecessary. Other congressional representatives agree that Honduras could survive with a small army. In mid March, the armed forces invited representatives from the three branches of state to observe military manuevers, hoping to convince them of the urgent need to increase the military budget. President Reina explained to the officers that Honduras is simply not able to consider the military's financial demands. Congress president Carlos concurred with Reina, opting for a strengthening of the civil police forces.
An Apathetic EconomyAlthough there is much talk lately of economic reactivation, the Reina government has been unable to stimulate enough investment to pull the country out of its economic hole. Aside from the assembly (maquila) plants, which continue to grow at a moderate pace, the economy has shown few signs of recovery. According to Central Bank data, the GDP increased only 1.6% between December 1993 and December 1995. In constant prices, it fell 5% in the same two year period. The banana industry is still depressed, partly because of increasing pressure by Chiquita Brands on both the union and the government. The agricultural sector as a whole is stagnated; construction has fallen victim to galloping inflation; and all the merchants and money changers seem capable of taking advantage of this. If there appears to be more prosperity than the economy itself is actually creating, that is undoubtedly due to two outside factors: family remittances from abroad and drug money. These sources, just like the maquilas, put money into circulation, but contribute little to the country's overall development.
In March, about 40 of the country's wealthiest business leaders presented their "Great Project for National Transformation," an investment proposal of $18 billion over the next 25 years. Although the Reina government received the plan with enthusiasm, a number of union leaders warned that such an ambitious project could easily became a fiasco, like the ill fated CONADI. In addition, top government and international bank officials have warned that Honduras is quickly reaching the limit of its debt capacity: its foreign debt is $4.1 billion, one of the highest in the continent in per capita terms. The main project that the plan presents is a petroleum refinery on Trujillo Bay, a project that was already soundly rejected by grassroots organizations because of the grave ecological impact it would cause.
Continuing the policies of the Callejas government, Reina has totally neglected the peasantry. The agrarian reform has been reduced to nothing more than a land titling office, while the tens of thousands of hectares previously belonging to cooperatives are now passing into the hands of big landholders, military officers and transnational companies. The government policy consists of exclusive assistance to the agroindustrial companies, eliminating almost all technical, credit and marketing assistance and other services that the agrarian reform offered before. The inevitable result of this is a chronic shortage of basic grains, which leads to massive imports, sparking a vicious cycle that continually decreases the already paltry peasant incomes.
In 1995, inflation was 27%. Combined inflation over the last two years reached 62%. Through auctions, the government is pushing for a constant and controlled devaluation of the lempira. Devaluation of the currency reached 14% in 1995 and will climb at least another 16% in 1996. As a consequence, merchants peg their prices to the dollar and inflation continues. In the first months of 1996, there were significant price increases in the basic market basket, including basic grains, bread, milk, lard, meat and eggs. Fuel prices climbed 50% over the course of 1995 and other essential products and services cement and transportation also suffered significant increases.
Hospitals, Prisons, SchoolsThe lack of boldness on the part of investors, the structural adjustment measures and rampant corruption in the government have all contributed to a continuing weak economy and depressed social indicators. Particularly critical is the situation facing the health system. Hospitals are operating with only half of their equipment, medications are too expensive for the majority of the patients and epidemics are out of control. Last year was named the year of the plagues, because seven serious infectious diseases reached critical levels. To continue to operate at an adequate level, the key public hospital in San Pedro Sula had to hold a public fund raising marathon. It netted two million lempiras (under $200,000).
While the international financial organizations demand a drastic reduction in Ministry of Education personnel, 900,000 Hondurans are illiterate and the schools are in a deplorable state.
Due to high construction costs, it is estimated that 80% of Hondurans will never be able to afford their own homes. The housing deficit in the country is some 600,000 units.
The penal and prison system is also suffering: of 8,800 prisoners housed in prisons built for half that number only 10% have been sentenced. Many of the remaining number are serving sentences much longer than those they would likely have received had they ever actually been sentenced.
Weakened UnionsIn March, after an attempt at achieving some negotiated harmony between workers and management failed, the government authorized a 25% minimum wage hike. The unions began by demanding 60 lempiras a day, then went down to 45, and ended up accepting only 20, equivalent to an increase of less than two dollars a day. Even so, businessmen were angry at Reina, claiming that the increase would produce strong inflation and bankrupt thousands of small and medium businesses. According to official statistics, the cost of a basic diet for a family of five is 45 lempiras a day.
The unions now are demanding a general wage readjustment, which the government refuses to consider, saying that such an adjustment is beyond its reach. The unions, which had already taken over roads to pressure the government, are threatening even more drastic measures if the government does not respond adequately.
The banana workers union, SITRATERCO, one of the strongest in the country, demanded a 90% wage increase from the Tela Railroad Company. They ended up shelving negotiations in exchange for a bonus payment to workers, as well as an economic contribution to the union. After the 1993 strike and closing of four banana plantations, SITRATERCO's membership dropped, leaving it in a weak position to confront the transnational's astute tactics.
The union's weakness was even more dramatically highlighted in the case of the Tacamiche plantation, one of those closed during the strike. With the support of many grassroots organizations, Tacamiche's inhabitants mounted a tenacious resistance to the company's efforts to evict them.
Tacamiche became a symbol of national dignity in the face of foreign capital's demands, but the Reina government decided from the outset to support the company in the dispute. Although the government had many ways in which it could have pressured Tela, it opted to defend the doctrine of "legal security" for investors. The barbarities committed 10 years ago in the name of the "national security" doctrine are now being committed under this new slogan.
After 50 years living on the premises and 20 months of resistance, the Tacamiche workers were forcibly evicted during the first days of February. Having nowhere to go, they ended up as refugees in a community center in La Lima, a city near San Pedro Sula, with backing from solidarity organizations. No vestiges of the old Tacamiche remain; it is now just one more farm belonging to some landgrabber whose name was used by the company to get people off the land and weaken the union.
General DiscouragementThe Tacamiche case demonstrates the general discouragement characterizing the popular movement. Unions take over roads instead of calling strikes; peasant organizations threaten land takeovers but do not train their members; and community civic associations limit themselves to modest and politicized projects. Indigenous organizations, especially of the Lencas, have expressed concern at the fact that the government has not complied with promises it made to them last year, but the most they can do is threaten another pilgrimage to the capital.
Despite the difficult situation so many people find themselves in, there is little vitality at the base to mount an effective resistance against those responsible for their misery. Sadly, the only energetic force is linked to the traditional parties, where any number of presidential candidates are already spending huge amounts of money on publicity for elections that are still over a year away.
The church has issued numerous declarations regarding the social problems during these first months of 1996. In addition to the bishops' communiqué regarding the January amnesty, Fides, the official weekly of the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, has published a number of editorials criticizing neoliberalism and the growing inequality because it could lead to a conflict.
"Upon analyzing Honduran society at this historic moment, we can verify an accelerated increase in the poverty level, an absence of a moral sense, a general climate of confrontation and violence and a lack of political will to push for integral social and economic development," said one editorial. Another said, "Among all the problems afflicting Honduras, none is as grave as the impoverishment of its population. The generalized poverty is growing by the day. The neoliberal policies being applied are only contributing to worsening the situation, since, in the end, they translate into a reduction of social spending, which is not compensated for in our underdeveloped economy."
State ChurchTaking advantage of his influence as the president of CELAM, Archbishop Oscar Rodríguez has emphasized the importance of pardoning the foreign debt and, to that end, has met with representatives of the government and the transnational banks, though with no significant results so far. The recently concluded negotiations with the Paris Club left the Honduran government feeling very let down, since it was unable to get any significant part of the debt pardoned, and had to content itself with relatively minimal changes in the terms of payment.
The relationship between the government and Archbishop Rodríguez has become much closer over the last two years. During the World Women's Conference in Beijing, the Honduran government was one of the few that strictly adhered to the Vatican line. In December, the National Congress decorated the archbishop in a formal act that seemed to have a more political than religious tint. In March, the government announced its decision to turn television Channel 11 over to the Catholic Church for its pastoral work, a decision that annoyed presidential candidate Jaime Rosenthal, key stockholder in the television company to which the government had already promised Channel 11. The newsdaily Tiempo, owned by Rosenthal, interpreted the decision as a "political move against the candidate."
Institutional Reform?The Honduran state is erected upon an extremely fragile base, incapable of surviving political pressures and "the fondness produced by money" that envelopes politicians and public administrators. Any institutional reform must frequently, and ofttimes unsuccessfully, confront this fragility.
The independence of the judicial system, for example, is not a question of the good will of some of the members of the current government. It must rather be the result of a long struggle to instill morals back into society. Any institutional reform that is not accompanied by a serious effort to do this will be irrevocably condemned to failure because only out of this process will new Honduran civil servants and politicians emerge.