A ship of State in flame and sinking
A public opinion survey conducted in late 2011
portrays a depressed, mistrustful society
and collapsed political institutionality.
A change of course is urgently needed
to put out the fires and ensure that
the ship doesn’t sink.
It’s not an easy task in Honduras to get people to give their opinion, express themselves, especially if they’re on foot, don’t go to university, earn a living selling in the street or the market, are threatened daily without knowing where the shots come from, are at a soccer stadium euphorically supporting their team without realizing it belongs to a politician or well-heeled businessman, are transfigured on Saturdays and Sundays singing, shouting and dancing to the sound of the pastor’s harangue in the nearest chapel, or are consumed by poverty in villages tucked away in the mountains or in a marginal neighborhood in any one of our sprawling urban centers.
A broken societyA public opinion survey titled “Perceptions of Honduras’ situation in 2011,” done by the Jesuit Team for Reflection, Investigation and Communication (ERIC-SJ) in association with the Central American University (UCA) of El Salvador in late 2011, allowed these people to talk. What they told us is that they see the country going down and blame politicians, big business, the National Congress and all those who sustain the State’s institutionality for this disaster. This is their perception, mediated inevitably by those with the most influence over their lives and awareness and conditioned by how they live, eat or starve, suffer, endure and laugh and especially by the anguish they feel at the daily jolts they suffer. Not to hear this truth would be politically irresponsible.
This survey portrays a broken society and an unsafe country. If we go on like this, we’ll spiral down into a dehumanizing state owing to what we’re already going through. For this reason, the portrait painted by the survey is an urgent wake-up call to shore up the sinking ship, change course and keep a steady hand at the helm.
The key word is mistrust The survey reflects a society that has lost faith in others and in public affairs. Public affairs have become more of a threat than a defense of rights. More than ten state institutions received a no confidence vote by over 75% of those surveyed and none of the country’s institutions, including the churches, received a vote of confidence that hit 50%. Even the two most respected institutions, the Catholic Church and the evangelical churches, were respectively given a vote of no confidence by 50.2% and 52%.
Being locked in a perpetual struggle for survival, with an “everyone for themselves” attitude in which people take justice into their own hands appears to be what the future has in store for us. Mistrust is the key word the survey yields. Mistrust toward the political and economic actors who have controlled the country over the past few decades is widespread and mistrust of the outside, the different and the unfamiliar only accentuates the fear and insecurity.
Not believing in institutions, especially those sustained by politicians, business people and public officials, especially the police and expecting no good news from them means that people understand they have to survive in defenselessness and insecurity. When 86% say they are as poor as or poorer than they were in 2010 they are expressing profound frustration. And if they warn that 2012 will be even worse, it is confirmation that Hondurans are sunk in depression, despite all the efforts made by the media to distract them from their hardships.
Blaze in the Comayagua prisonOn February 14, the day for friends and lovers, a raging fire killed 360 prisoners in the Comayagua jail. It was a horrible metaphor for the fire that has been consuming Honduras since the 2009 coup.
In less than a week, three fires left charred bodies in the prison, in Tegucigalpa markets and in homes, all as the families of the victims in the Comayagua prison clamored desperately for the blackened remains of their relatives to be released to them. More than two weeks later, the corpses were finally issued one by one to skeptical family members: did it belong to their loved one, was it another body or was it even some bundle simulating a corpse?
Extreme mistrust is the attitude of the day. Honduras has become an example of what a country shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, the political class and even the religious hierarchies carry on unaffected; claiming that the country has returned to normal and all is moving normally towards the elections.
On the afternoon of February 15, before any of the bodies in the prison inferno had even been rescued, the Nuncio either called for or accepted a call from the heads of the three state branches and the government ministers to hold a Mass for the deceased. Not one single relative of the deceased was at the Mass, nor was a single word uttered regarding the fundamental causes of the tragedy. That Mass, performed for those responsible for what is happening in the country, projected a macabre image that clashed with the scenes of desperation in the area around the Comayagua prison.
“We’re not prepared A week after that tragedy, independent journalist Sandra Maribel Sánchez, helpless beside the families who were demanding the corpses of their loved ones from the forensic medicine unit, wrote a testimony I reproduce here in its entirety because it keenly expresses why Hondurans don’t believe in institutionality.
for tragedies like this!”
“The relatives of the victims of the Comayagua prison massacre have become desperate and pulled down the barriers separating them from the bodies of their loved ones… One week after the tragedy a large number of relatives are waiting outside the too-small morgue, hoping to receive information about their loved ones who died in the fire.
“It’s clearly obvious that the authorities’ handling of the situation isn’t the best. Obvious too is the country’s limited ability to deal with tragedies like this one... Because there are so many dead and so many relatives, we are not prepared for tragedies of these dimensions even with Honduras being the most violent country in the world. That’s why it’s impossible to keep everyone ‘under control,’ far from where the dead are lying, on the mistaken assumption that this will lessen their pain and anxiety when the effect it achieves is just the opposite.
“The family members, mostly women, reached the end of their tether and furious because the bags containing their relatives’ bodies were lying thrown on the ground, pulled down the metal barrier separating them from the bodies and tried to open the bags with sticks or knives to see if any of the corpses belonged to their loved ones and find a bit of peace once and for all in the midst of so much anxiety, coldness and indifference.
“This dramatic situation went on for several minutes, after a confrontation between relatives and the police cordoning off the miserable scene, during which several of the charred bodies continued to be visible to the mourners.
“One of the people waiting impotently for some word of their dead relative contradicted the Public Ministry, which assured it was constantly providing information, by insisting they were being told nothing and that it was making them desperate. Between cries, sobs and the fetidness emanating from the bodies, the protestors begged to know what was happening with their relatives.
“Forcefully, but with a lot of dignity, one family member said: ‘We don’t want charity from the government, we don’t want coffins, much less money; what we want is for them to give us the bodies so we can bury them and move on from this suffering!’ Other relatives lost their patience. ‘We want them to give us the bodies, we can’t stand being here any longer with the authorities continually deceiving us!’ said a father waiting outside the morgue to collect his son’s body.
“’They’re thrown in the street like dogs!’ a woman shouted desperately with an expression of grief on her face that could move the most heartless person. ‘I want my two brothers now! Give them to me just as they are!’ Some hours before, another young woman, desperation etched on her face, shouted: ‘We don’t want them buried in a mass grave! We’re waiting here to take them home, to bury them as God decrees, not like dogs! We want them rotting or however they are, it doesn’t matter to us; they are our dead!’
“I didn’t know any victim of this massacre personally; I don’t need to know them to react with empathy in the face of this indescribable and incredibly painful event. The sorrow it causes me and the tears in my eyes have come between me and my computer several times as I try to process what has happened.
“On reviewing the photographic archive I’ve been building so I don’t forget what happened, so I don’t forget similar events in El Porvenir or San Pedro Sula, my pain grew when I came across a photo of the Comayagua municipal cemetery: they were digging 60 graves, where 60 men will be buried. Although they may have committed crimes, they were serving their sentences in accordance with the national law. I took note of the names of each victim and with the exception of Jorge Constantino Ypsilanty, I only found Mejía, Rodríguez, Hernández, Cáceres, Flores, Gómez, Pérez, García, Martínez… all surnames far too common to expect a forceful response from the authorities. I ask myself and I ask them: ‘Would the response have been the same if the dead men bore the surnames Facussé, Larach, Canahuati, Kawas, Nasser, Ferrari, Rosenthal or others like these?’”
Impunity has namesThe population is demanding changes, crying out for changes. The results of the survey indicate that if you were to ask a person in the street their three greatest wishes, they would doubtless say they want jobs, security, and conviction and imprisonment for those who live by corruption and impunity.
Impunity isn’t a rhetorical term in Honduras. It has to do with the lack of investigation into the causes of the Comayagua prison fire. There was also no official investigation into either the killing of 69 prisoners in La Ceiba prison on April 5, 2003, when current President Pepe Lobo was already president of the National Congress, or the fire in May the following year that turned 107 men to ashes in May 2004 when Pepe Lobo was still president of the Congress and by then also president of his National Party. The Bishopric of San Pedro Sula and ERIC sued the State over the latter case.
This time, faced with an imminent conviction on February 28, Lobo’s government had to agree to a “friendly agreement” formula ruled by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), accepting responsibility in the name of the State for the death of the prisoners and agreeing to a timetable for fulfilling the agreements reached.
“We may have public officials Impunity is also the term for the killing on October 22, 2011, of the son of the vice rector of the University of Honduras and a friend of his. Julieta Castellanos, the vice rector, discovered straightaway that the murderers were four police officers assigned to a police post in the capital. They were detained at the post, but a few days later other officers let them escape, arguing that the suspects had the right to rest at weekends. Castellanos continued her crusade against impunity and was finally listened to by the heads of all three branches of State.
but we don’t have a State”
She proposed a purge of the police to be undertaken by a commission made up of Hondurans but with the participation of international actors. The police chiefs decided to go through the motions of a purge, firing some officials and dozens of low-ranking officers, but leaving the entire structure untouched. “We may have public officials, but we don’t have a State,” said the vice rector, a statement that should go down in history for its eloquent synthesis of the reign of impunity that is today’s Honduras.
Months earlier, a Sula Valley family unambivalently identified the police officers responsible for the murder of their son and his two companions. The Police, backed by the District Attorney’s Office and the Courts, cleaned up the files and transferred those under suspicion to another region. It was a direct experience of impunity by the families of the dead boys, as they ended up with no witnesses or legal proof.
“The police force is a On December 17, 2011, politician Alfredo Landaverde, a renowned former official in the fight against drug trafficking, was murdered after a public interview in which he charged high-ranking police officers with links to drug trafficking. There are strong indications that police officers were also responsible for this crime. Backed up by Castellanos, Landaverde’s widow, Hilda Caldera, has demanded that the State respond to this crime. But its statement is unchanging: “We ‘re continuing the investigation, so we can’t release any information yet.”
Given irresponsible criticism from some sectors over the importance state officials had given her son’s case, Castellanos reacted by reading this text: “This murder is an emblematic case since it has synthesized national indignation over thousands and thousands of violent deaths are never investigated and so remain in absolute impunity. It is evident from the action of the public prosecutors and the media that it goes beyond the support of some police officers to criminal bands; the police force itself has acted as a band that implements very serious illicit actions. It has become the most effective criminal organization of all: it is destroying the coexistence of the nation, which is becoming more dangerous as a result.”
A “hard hand” won’t solve anythingThe scenario that opened on October 22, 2011, with the murder of the vice rector’s son breached the wall of impunity. It shows that various institutions and their officials are colluding in maintaining impunity and that the number of victims of the criminality rampant within the Police and the Ministry of Security runs in the thousands.
Neither politics nor militarization and a “hard hand” will return life to normal in Honduras. Nor will a possible direct US government intervention on the pretext that the insecurity and drug-trafficking threat has exceeded the Honduran government’s capacity. There are already US bases in the Honduran Mosquitia.
In the last two years, 18 journalists have been murdered and not one of those crimes has been solved. In the same period 50 peasants in the disputed Aguán region were also killed. More than a few of these crimes are directly linked with the confrontation involving big businessman Miguel Facussé.
On one occasion, in the heat of events that resulted in the murder of five peasants on El Tumbador farm in a dispute with Facussé, he admitted that he has armed guards protecting his properties. No authority dares to do anything that might affect the interests of such a prominent businessman. He enjoys impunity in a country where there’s no longer public administration; only the power of those who control violence.
Who will respond for ERIC’s survey justifies calling the Honduran population collectively depressed and desperate, a state provoked by the reigning impunity. In the midst of desperation and hunger, insecurity and fear, however, people are still giving lessons in dignity such as those Sandra Maribel Sánchez described among the families of the men killed in the Comayagua prison fire. They don’t want charity, they don’t want coffins and they certainly don’t want pats of consolation. They only want their dignity to be respected. They aren’t wealthy families with Arab surnames or families of the political, business or landowning aristocracy. They are human beings and that is the dignity they demand.
those who still have hope?
Who will respond for the 54.9% of those surveyed who say they have hope in the future? Surely not the very ones towards whom people express such mistrust?
Given the country’s deteriorating situation and the insecurity and mistrust people express, the hope they manifest is very precarious and has little basis. Just like the previous survey we did at the end of 2010, people end up depositing their hopes in the very institutions they mistrust. While they clearly mistrust the political institutionality, they name the Supreme Court, alternative media and the churches when asked to suggest which institutions should promote solutions to the national crisis.
There are no alternative modelsPeople deposit their little remaining confidence in their sinking country in the churches, media and Armed Forces. What does this mean? It could mean that once people become disenchanted with political parties, business people and public institutions in general, they prefer to stay in the country listening to better news in the media, receiving messages of consolation in the churches, accepting proposals for solutions from those who make decisions in their municipalities, and submitting to the security the military might be able to offer them.
The inclination towards authoritarian religious arenas is logical when facing such a closed horizon. It’s logical given the long absence of alternative paradigms and the inability of alternative groups to offer or propose paradigms that differ from the dominant ones.
The survey’s findings could be warning us of the absence of a political project and alternative models and hence the current impossibility of impoverished sectors imagining what to fight for. In such a situation people end up weighed down by their frustrations; they express their malaise, but finish up squeezing into the same paradigmatic molds they complain about. Their replies might also express the limitations of the Honduran Left and other opposition sectors that have offered no alternative models to transform people’s unease and discontent into the motivation to struggle for real change.
The attractive Pentecostal offerThe only institutions who harvested increasing confidence in 2011 were the evangelical churches. Evangelist preaching, especially in the Pentecostal Church, offers consolation and security away from the streets with their insecurity and violence, far from the unemployment, rising cost of living, public corruption and fear. It pulls in all those who share the hope of a new heaven that will save us from this earth of perdition. It’s the only alternative paradigm around right now. It plucks them away from history, saves them from violence and perversion and consoles them in their misfortune. Given the dominant political, violent, perverse and corrupt paradigm of this earth and the absence of alternative models on the left and among opposition groups, it offers hope. People don’t seem to mind that it has no link to reality, instead coming in the name of divine providence, albeit administered by the group’s pastor.
When society’s fabric is ripped to shreds, providential offers, which in turn usually legitimize authoritarian offers, gain adherents. Both providentialism and authoritarianism are growing in a country progressively captured by those who exercise the law of the strongest.
The bipartite political system What is peoples’ perception of the political parties? As a category, political parties earn the greatest mistrust after the business class. Nevertheless, many of the same people who say they have little or no confidence in the parties (82.8%) turn around and say they prefer the National Party (31.7%), the Liberal Party (27%) and the LIBRE (Liberty and Refounding) party (barely 2.8%), recently established by deposed President Manuel Zelaya. A more coherent 35.3% say they have no preference for any political party.
is losing its adherents
These findings are an important input into open and honest debate. They express the slow and difficult rupture and transition by Hondurans to distance themselves from traditional politics expressed by the bipartite system. Despite claiming not to have any confidence in political parties, their leaders or their government officials, a significant percentage (53.7%) remain tightly wedded to the bipartite system they so distrust. The weight of traditionalism was written all over the survey.
And what does it mean that 35.3% had no preference for any political party? It announces a falling away, an active transition, a search. It also expresses a big opportunity; although there’s a risk that this percentage has moved away from the two party system with such discontent and frustration that they are now immune to politics, becoming a significantly “depoliticized” population. If true, it would represent the damage the bipartite system, which is not the same as a two-party one, has injected into society, dragging it down to indifference and apathy, trapping it in the “everyone for himself” survival philosophy. It would mean that there’s nowhere to go after leaving that system, because there’s no alternative to capitalize on this migratory stream of people disenchanted with a system in which the two dominant parties are virtually indistinguishable and collude with each other more than compete through different ideas.
What happened to the Resistance?In the first days after the release of the public opinion survey results, the tiny support for LIBRE it revealed awoke controversy and rancor in some sectors of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), which sprang into life with the June 2009 coup, the widespread repression following it, the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti and the election of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo in November of that same year. It’s worth mentioning that the survey was done between November 19 and 30, only days after LIBRE had been baptized as the FNRP’s political arm, when nobody could yet be sure this would be its definitive name and after an irregular process of appointments and disappointments, of clashes and challenges. Those conducting the survey didn’t ask for the names of parties, much less candidates; they only said: “Can you tell me which party you prefer?” In this context the 2.8% garnered by LIBRE was way above the percentage of people who preferred any of the three existding tiny official parties. Furthermore, it was not the survey’s intent was to investigate electoral preferences, but rather peoples’ perceptions of the country’s situation at the end of 2011.
In addition to an extremely depressed society with an alarming loss of confidence in institutionality, ERIC’s survey found a polarized atmosphere with unresolved political conflicts. It found anxiety and uncertainty provoked by economic inequalities in a society that expects no solutions from this government. It found people yearning for solutions within the country. And it found disillusionment with politics and the institutionality that sustains it, even though over 50% remains under the aegis of the bipartite system.
It found skepticism for new proposals, although a tiny percentage expressed sympathy for the nascent LIBRE party whose leaders should, instead of throwing stones, see this data as a challenge to continue working to capture those who still believe in the system and to win over the 35.3% who expressed no party preference.
This portrait calls us to big political tasks. Seeing those challenges as threats or seeing the survey as a malevolent plan is simply myopic. The governing political group, revealed in the survey as incapable, corrupt and unpunished, also opens opportunities.
And the media?There are media sectors that saw the results of the survey as a chance to raise their profile, boasting that they came first in peoples’ confidence. Such is the case with the capital’s TV channel, which emphasized the finding that put its news program first among people who like to be informed, conveniently omitting the necessary reflection on the media’s responsibility to broadcast information that’s true and not tailored to the interests of small groups of politicians and business people. It’s time for the media to take a reality hit. If 44% of those surveyed says they have a lot of or some confidence in the media, 55.4% said they have little or none. Moreover, if 75.4% of the population gets its information and news from television and 16.4% from the radio and almost 60% get news daily, it can only mean that a lot of the negative interpretation and burden of frustration people feel is shaped by the media.
Peoples’ disillusionment towards politics and the migration of a high percentage away from the bipartite system has a lot to do with the role played by the media whose owners aren’t social communicators but rather business people from commerce, industry, sports, energy and banking. They use the media to position their businesses and negotiate quotas of power and capital among them. The media are in the hands of the small business sector towards which Honduran society expresses the greatest mistrust.
Surveys in Honduras are normally linked to the interests of different groups and, for precisely this reason, to rigged results. Although we in Honduras aren’t used to letting people talk, this survey has allowed us to hear the population’s words. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that among those who reject, ignore or discredit this survey are people or political groups experienced in adapting data and knowing how to manipulate what people say and therefore assume this is a manipulated survey.
There’s still fertile ground The survey‘s findings make it very clear that people want profound changes. If there isn’t a radical change of direction, if political (and religious) practice doesn’t change, the ship of State will end up sinking.
While Honduran society may have lost its confidence in politicians and institutions, it’s still firmly fighting within the country, seeking ways to escape the economic misery and stress of violence and insecurity. The example of the struggle against impunity led by Vice Rector Castellanos has been extremely relevant. In her struggle she’s confronting institutions that promote impunity, passionately fighting for the victims of these institutions and their officials. Her gesture, her struggle tells us that there is fertile ground among the population to seek solutions built on the strength of the people themselves.
A change of directionWe at ERIC did this survey in the hope that all of us in the country will stop to think and together seek solutions that respond to the population’s demands. Data are subject to change as new elements relating to the situation at the time are included. Today they are warning us of the deep structural abyss into which Honduras has fallen, of just how deep down we are.
Ismael Moreno is envío correspondent in Honduras. The complete ERIC survey can be found at: http://eric-rp.org/content/