Why is there so much violence in our country?
The violence in Honduras has old roots, but the newest ones have grown rapidly in the last 30 years. The accumulation of wealth, resources, land and power in few hands has generated levels of violence that now seem uncontrollable.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
No matter how much people may want to hide it, the Honduras we’re currently living in has escaped the hands of all sectors, including politicians, business people and even the US government. Everyone is experiencing the chaos, although not everyone admits or assumes responsibility for it. And everyone is trying to get the country back in check, but they’re doing so individually, which is yet another reason behind the current Honduran crisis.
Everybody’s affected by the violence, which in fact is governing the whole of society, controlling it, leading it, blackmailing it and threatening it. But the violence isn’t self-generated; it’s triggered, directed and sustained by people, and each sector blames the rest. By stopping to examine the violence, we can find answers to what has happened in Honduras and what could come, and can identify those responsible and their victims.
Three characteristics Honduras is a very violent society and nobody escapes it or the fear it produces. “Nobody knows when they leave the house whether they’re going to return” is a comment heard in all settings. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, stated during a Latin American forum at the end of April that, in proportion to its population, Honduras has the most alarming violation of the freedom of expression in the world and is the country in which the most journalists have been killed in the least amount of time. San Pedro Sula is known as our industrial capital, but is now known the world over as the city that beat Ciudad Juárez to the title of the city with the most violent deaths. Honduras’ violence feeds off transnational criminal organizations. But what is there here that makes this external factor flourish so much in our country, that structures everything around violence?
of the last three decades
In a search for answers, I’d like to explore three closely linked characteristics that have formed over the last three decades and help explain the violence. These decades represent the period of elected governments that started in 1982 and alternated peacefully and uninterruptedly until June 2009, when the process was abruptly broken by the coup promoted and provoked by the same people who had alternated in power up until that point.
First characteristic:The first characteristic of these three decades is the accelerated accumulation and concentration of resources and wealth in the hands of just a few families to a degree never before seen in Honduran history. It’s perhaps only comparable to the concentration of land and resources in the hands of the transnational banana companies that dominated national llife during almost all of the 20th century.
The concentration of wealth
Social and economic analysts of the final decades of the last century used to argue that before the rise of these families, the lack of an agricultural and industrial modernization process in Honduras was due largely to the absence of a national bourgeoisie or oligarchy with the capacity to promote its own capitalist project, leaving the whole effort in the hands of the banana companies and their capital through the enclave model.
Today, a decade into the 21st century, that reading needs updating, as Honduras now has an oligarchy that controls all the strings of commercial, speculative, agroindustrial, energy, communications, tourism and transport capital, under the tutelage of multinational capital and with the backing of the state institutions. The decisions with real weight are made by these families, which include no more than a dozen surnames. They control, concentrate, exploit and convert into capital most of our natural and mining resources, at the same time crushing small and medium enterprise.
The same namesThe concentration of the country’s wealth in their hands puts these families at a great distance from the rest of society. They are families of really rich people, oligarchs in every sense of the word, surrounded by an extensive array of people who serve them: front men, administrators, employees, politicians and officials, middle men, suppliers and a vast range of professionals. Nothing worth money in Honduras, nothing that can be commercialized, is outside this power circle.
from breakfast to lunch…
If you’re in the kitchen and decide to fry up some eggs and ham, the eggs, oil, stove, gas or whatever energy you use, the refrigerator where you keep the eggs and the coffee and sugar you’ll have with your breakfast are all sold by people with five surnames: Facussé, Canahuati Larach, Kafie, Ferrari and Kafatti. While having breakfast, you listen to the radio news, which is brought to you by a station owned by Farrari and Villeda-Toledo or Andonie Fernández. And if you prefer a TV debate program, you’ll watch it on one of the Ferrari and Villeda-Toledo channels. If a newspaper is more your cup of tea, then you’ll buy one owned by Canahuati, Rosenthal or Flores Facussé.
If you decide to go out for your lunch break and you call a friend to invite him or her along, you’ll be doing so with a cell phone from a company owned by the same families you acquainted yourself with during breakfast. And if you decide to eat at a fast food place, whichever franchise you choose will be in the hands of one of those same surnames. If you stop at a supermarket on the way home to pick up some soap and toilet paper, as well as soft drinks and snacks for the kids, all are associated with the same surnames from your breakfast and lunch. Remembering that that you need gas, you have the choice of filling up at any station under the control of the Terra group of Fredy Nasser, who is part of the Facussé family.
…and from supper to bed Back home, you take a pill for a headache brought on by the hard day’s work. You bought it at the pharmacy chain owned by the Faraj-Atala family—who also own the Ficohsa bank—and by the same surnames that made their appearance at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Feeling better, you sit down in front of the television, which you purchased—using a Ficohsa bank credit card—at DIUNSA, Honduras’ largest import store, owned by the Faraj-Atalas, who jointly hold shares with the Facussés, Canahuattis and Ferraris. If you watch a national soccer match, the rights to whichever game you chose are owned by the Canahuatis, Ferraris, Rosenthals, Atalas and Abufeles. Even if you decide to watch the Real Madrid-Barcelona game, you’ll be watching a Ferrari and Villeda-Toledo channel, as they are the only ones with the rights for international games.
You finally go to bed to get some rest. Your bed is from a distributor controlled by the Faraj-Atalas. Perhaps before dozing off, you remember hearing on the news that there will be rallies of candidates from the two main political parties on the weekend. Well, the same surnames you breakfasted with are the leaders of both parties.
Your whole life is controlled by a group of families with no more than 12 surnames. They’re the same ones that have been taking a few cents out of their pockets over the year to donate to the Telethon, a charity initiative controlled by the Ferraris and the Villeda-Toledos.
This scandal generates violenceSuch concentration of resources, wealth and decisions in so few hands spells disaster for small and medium enterprise as a result of extremely reduced opportunities to compete in commerce, industry and production in general, the loss of purchasing power due to increased unemployment, abandonment of the countryside, migration and inhuman growth of the urban centers, among other social and economic indicators. Moving from this host of shortages to crime and violence is only a matter of time and opportunity, because the violence has already been set up by the hoarders of resources and wealth. Their concentration of that wealth, those resources and that power is what triggers the instability and violence in the country. It’s scandalous and the scandal is growing because it has developed in just 30 years with a State that has passed laws to facilitate everything for them and give them carte blanche in the name of national development and the common good. And it has often been developed with the blessing of the top Church leaders.
Second characteristic:A second defining characteristic of the last three decades of formal and representative democracy are the conflicts that are not only unresolved but also accumulate. While the wealth has concentrated in few hands, the unresolved conflicts have expanded. There are conflicts over land, others related to deficient education and health care, around tax collection, over insecurity and violence… It’s like an enormous pressure cooker. If we had to order these explosive conflicts by priority, the land issue would occupy first place.
Accumulation of conflicts
In the Aguán Valley, dozens of peasants have been murdered in recent years over agrarian conflicts. Recently, different peasant groups occupied lands in various areas of the country. They were later violently attacked and evicted by joint police and army operations. The argument for the evictions is the same: the peasants are invading private property and the State must firmly defend the owners’ rights. As one politician put it, in a comment like many others that filled the press in reaction to the occupations, “The peasants are being incited by politicians interested in destabilizing the government. This problem has to be confronted with the energy that must characterize a serious government and an equally serious republic.”
The man who made this statement is Juan Ramón Martínez, who was the minister of the National Agrarian Institute (INA) at the beginning of the nineties in the National Party government of Rafael Leonardo Callejas. That government saw the passing of the Agricultural Modernization Law, a juridical instrument that legalized the sale to private individuals of lands that had been the object of agrarian reform. It was a time in which we witnessed the land market phenomenon, with the organized peasants in the reformed sector being induced by diverse means to sell their lands at cut-rate prices so they could be extensively planted with African palm, particularly in the Aguán Valley region. As head of INA, Juan Ramón Martínez directed that land privatization and concentration process, using an instrument that was approved over and above the Constitution of the Republic.
Concentrating land The agrarian reform lands passed into the hands of Miguel Facussé, Rosenthal and a handful of other agro-industrialists who, with state protection, diversified their capital into all areas until they became a very powerful economic, agro-industrial, mining, commercial, financial and political oligarchy. Twenty years after implementing that juridically violent land grab mechanism, its main promoter is now calling on the government to use institutional violence against the peasants, who were the main victims of a process that only succeeded in accumulating the agrarian conflict around the nation. Using the law to argue for land concentration is not only unethical, it’s also like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
A big private business leader told one media organization that “the peasant invaders are threatening private property, which is the life of Hondurans.” It’s true that private property is life, but only when ensured for the whole of society. When land is concentrated in just a few families at the cost of the hunger and precariousness of thousands of families, then private property threatens life rather than being the source of it.
Private property concentrated in just a few hands generates violence. As Rafael Alegría, a veteran peasant leader and current political leader of the National Grassroots Resistance Front, told envío: “For 20 straight years we have put up
with the policy of concentrating land, of commercializing land. Now people are talking about the alienation of land, which means that national land, which belongs to the State, communal land, which belongs to the municipality, and fiscal land, which has been donated by or bought from the State, is virtually in private hands. And those private lands can no longer be touched.”
In these 30 years, the buying up of land by agro-industrial companies has gone hand in hand with abandonment of the countryside and of the peasantry. A while ago now, economists from the Foreign Debt Social Forum showed us that for every 100 lempiras in the national budget, 70 remain in the capital city and only 5 are invested in the countryside. Such inequality in the resource distribution explains why 87 out of every 100 young people who emigrate to the United States leave from rural areas.
The third characteristic:The third characteristic that defines the last 30 years and helps explain why there is so much violence in Honduras is
The political class controls the State
the subordination of the whole state institutionality to the political party system. All elections to public posts depend on
the National Congress and its decisions respond to calculations, negotiations and agreements among the top political leaders, subordinated to the discretionary power those same politicians have given to the Congress president.
His functions and attributions turn him into a monarch. Most of the bills debated in congressional plenary sessions first require the president’s approval. The negotiations he holds at his discretion are with the leaders of the political parties, controlled by the same surnames that control all the strings of economic life or by politicians loyal to that powerful oligarchy.
The independent surveys conducted in recent years put the political parties among the institutions most discredited with society. They are the paradigm of corruption, verticality, anti-democracy, impunity, blackmail and cynicism. Yet it is precisely that discredited party system that makes the state decisions. If the oligarchy needs a legal concept to make sure the fiscal policy never affects them, it just takes a few agreements and some money between the leaders of the political parties and the Congress president for the business class’ wish to become law. It only takes a few businesspeople interested in mining, forest and water exploitation so they can become even richer for the political party leaders and Congress president to hammer out an agreement for that wish to become law as well. And it only takes a few businesspeople interested in giving more power to the army and police to protect their businesses for the political leaders and the president of Congress to approving legislative reforms to make that happen. The same happens with the decisions taken in the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Supreme Court or any other state institution.
An institutionality that The filling of top public administration posts isn’t based only on professional competence. Appointments are also made as favors and on no few occasions to protect people with a long record of actions that are at odds with transparency, honesty and ethics. Such politicians generate violence and impunity. The State’s institutionality serves as a refuge for people who occupy themselves committing crimes, establishing alliances with transnational criminal organizations, and turning whole institutions into machineries dedicated to crime and criminality, as in the case of the National Police.
A consensus against this oligarchy What can be done? Honduras needs a new national consensus. It needs to define a new course that breaks with the axis around which this concentration of resources and wealth is structured and that causes violence in society. We need a consensus against the oligarchy and its model, which is responsible for generating exclusion and impoverishment.
Public policies have to be agreed to consensually. One such policy should be a return to an agrarian reform that guarantees private land ownership based on productivity, social justice, security and food sovereignty and breaks with the system of latifundia and minifundia (vast estates and tiny landholdings), defining a the minimums for private land ownership.
Public policies that break with the current process of concentrating natural resources and wealth must be consensually agreed. The natural resources must be under the State’s direct responsibility and be administered based on national sovereignty and the welfare of the communities. All projects involving forests, water and minerals must be based on a harmonious relationship between the State, the communities and the private sectors, giving the State the last word.
Consensus also has to be sought around new fiscal policies that guarantee the disappearance of tax havens. This is
what Honduras has become for a few businesspeople and for the multinationals that invest and use the country’s resources tax free. We need a fiscal policy based on revenue, income and property in which those who earn more pay more and those who have less income are protected by the State. Until there is a new fiscal policy, there will be no way to break with the machinery that produces inequalities.
Furthermore, there is a need to build consensuses on public policies that promote, protect and provide incentives to small- and medium-scale enterprise, social enterprises and all productive, industrial and grassroots initiatives that generate employment, particularly for urban youth. Consensus is required around education, health, housing, energy, communication and the cleaning up and restructuring of the institution of justice in order to tackle impunity and defend human rights.
How can we re-forge politics? There are small signs of the budding emergence of proposals aimed at breaking with the current system of political parties. But this bipartite system has always shown its capacity to capitalize on all political crises that we have experienced over these three decades and steer them toward its own ends, and there are signs it’s seeking to do so in the current situation.
The men who have sustained the top-down nature of the caudillo-producing patriarchal culture are the same ones who in the National Congress approved 40% participation by women in elected posts for the 2013 elections and 50% in the 2017 elections. That’s known as a coopting capacity, a maneuver the political parties are experts at performing.
Will the LIDER party achieve it?A recently emerged new proposal is LIDER, a party that has just been legalized and is registered to participate in the elections. The party has five internal tendencies, ranging from the Left and unions to groups that split from the Liberal Party and continued supporting deposed President Mel Zelaya. LIDER also has a double consensus: all tendencies agree to Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, as the party’s presidential candidate and Manuel Zelaya Rosales as its single leader and means of support.
LIDER is looking to capitalize on the resistance force that came together following the coup d’état. Will this young leftist party break with the logic, practices, verticality and corruption inherent in Honduras’ political party system? Will it attract new generations committed to ethics in politics? Or will it be co-opted, as all previously launched proposals for reforms and change have been?
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.