Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 246 | Enero 2002



A New President and Cracks in The Two-Party Structure

Ricardo Maduro is the new President of Honduras. He was the best of a bad bunch, from the most capable rightwing group. Certain signs suggest that it’s time to start changing the traditional political system and its way of doing politics if the country is to mature.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

If by some miracle an ordinary citizen were to gain immediate and personal access to Honduras’ new President and the President could grant him three wishes, the surprised citizen would almost certainly not hesitate to ask for the following three things: an end to crime and delinquency, the elimination of corruption and those responsible for it, and access to stable and dignified work.

"War against crime"

As though he really were the proverbial genie in the bottle, Ricardo Maduro took his first step toward granting the citizenry’s first wish just three days after assuming the Presidency. He put some ten thousand more police officers and soldiers onto the streets of the poorest neighborhoods of the country’s four most important cities. This joint police-army operation, known as "War against Crime," was followed by an intense publicity campaign, all of which pushes the idea that crime—which has affected one in every three Hondurans in recent years—is going to be eradicated in a matter of days by means of military persecution. Because of his self-styled version of the "zero tolerance" policy, Maduro is starting to be dubbed Central America’s new Commander Zero. Nonetheless, when envío talked with a police officer doing inspections on a highway in Honduras’ northern coastal region, he openly described this operation as "pure foolishness by politicians who want to win people over by making them believe it will do away with crime. They know perfectly well that such methods will only stir up the hornets’ nest even more."
Paradoxically, while President Maduro was implementing this anti-crime operation, a judge in Tegucigalpa was granting parole to former Colonel Alexander Hernández, close collaborator of General Alvarez Martínez, who headed up the most infamous period of terror ever seen in the history of Honduras. And, unlike previous administrations, instead of choosing a civilian as security minister, Maduro opted for veteran Colonel Juan Angel Arias, now in charge of the military operations against the delinquents. This open war declared during the new President’s first week in office has fostered a martial atmosphere that brings back memories of the national security policy.

Victory for the best of a bad bunch

These questionable first measures apart, all political analysts agree that the results of the November 2001 elections were the least negative possible. They also agreed that the victor was the most worthy of the candidates with a realistic chance of winning and had the most honest record. In a country where it is impossible to find a "thoroughbred" economic sector, victory went to the most solid rightwing sector with the greatest capacity to offer proposals to the country. Meanwhile, many say it was just as well that the other rightwing sector, the one representing the party bosses and the shadiest examples of political back-scratching, ended up on the losing side. Nobody, however, denies that some of those individuals responsible for the biggest corruption scandals in recent Honduran history are moving visibly or in the shadows among the new President’s men and women.

According to a CID-Gallup opinion poll conducted just days before Maduro took office, public insecurity, unemployment and corruption were the three problems generating the greatest demands from society. These were precisely the factors that formed the essence of Maduro’s campaign promises. On January 27, Maduro reiterated these promises during his inaugural speech in a football stadium packed with an expectant and skeptical population and some 70 international representatives. In a country as trapped in a spiral of violence and uncertainty as Honduras is, two thirds of the population is banking heavily on Maduro wage a successful war against crime and create a suitable environment for the generation of new jobs.

Successful businessman
and victim of violence

Ricardo Maduro is the country’s 93rd President, 6th since the return of formal democracy in 1981. He is also only the second President representing the National Party, following in the footsteps of Rafael Leonardo Callejas, whose administration is considered to have been one of the most corrupt in Honduran history. During his campaign, Maduro promised to fight the rampant poverty in Honduras and eradicate the high levels of crime through a "zero tolerance" policy. He ratified these promises on taking office, assuring that he was inaugurating an administration committed to transforming Honduran society: "I know that the challenges before me are enormous, but I will face them with dedication, work and honesty, because only that way can I resolve the countless problems afflicting my compatriots."
Maduro won the elections with 52% of the votes. A successful 55-year-old businessman with big investments in El Salvador and Honduras, he is an economist who graduated from the University of Stanford and was president of the Central Bank from 1990 to 1994, during the Callejas government. He currently has interests in businesses producing export goods, stores selling Japanese electrical appliances and banks and shopping centers. He justifies his anti-crime policy by saying, "I am one of the many Hondurans who has suffered violence, and that’s why I’ll take on the delinquents." He is referring to the death of his only son in 1997, at the age of 24.

Former President Flores’ popularity masked the misery

Maduro is starting his administration backed by the vast majority of the population. Eight of every ten Hondurans are convinced that he is a serious and humanitarian leader and hope he will prove more successful than his popular predecessor, Flores Facussé. While Flores started and ended his term with the image of a fun-loving and concerned man and people generally had a good opinion of his administration, they are quite aware that their lives have not improved. This contradictory assessment can be explained by Flores’ prodigious use of propaganda and his iron grip over the media. By means of a permanent publicity campaign that magnified his successes, buying and manipulating journalists and media companies and shackling critical or adverse ones, Flores Facussé was able to hand over the Presidential sash with the highest level of popularity ever. While there were obviously shady political dealings involving the international aid provided for post-Mitch projects, people ended up believing that Flores used the funds transparently and honestly.

The power of the media

That people could both recognize that there had been no improvement in their standard of living and give Flores an 86% favorable rating shows just how powerful the media’s influence is. In the CID-Gallup poll, two thirds of the population felt that Flores Facussé had fulfilled his campaign promises, although the same proportion was unable to mention any promise he had fulfilled.

Although people seem to believe that Flores Facussé managed the resources that came in for Mitch victims with transparency, his finance minister admitted recently that Honduras will have to pay over $400 million in foreign debt service payments in 2002 to relieve a $1.3 billion debt Flores Facussé amassed on top of the $4 billion already owed before Mitch struck.

Maduro’s inheritance

President Maduro thus inherits a country with even greater debts. As a partial response, he plans to privatize the state electricity and telephone companies. Government reports indicate that the state loses $45 million a year to the inefficient payment collection system of an electricity company that only supplies 250,000 houses.

Meanwhile, 81% of Honduras’ 6.3 million population lives in poverty, with 2.6 million forced to try to survive on less than a dollar a day. Former President Flores’ main legacy to Maduro was a document containing the Poverty Reduction Strategy agreed with the IMF, which ensures the country relief from some $960 million of its foreign debt within the framework of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC). As part of the strategy, the Honduran state is committed to reducing poverty by 25% over the next 15 years. According to nongovernmental sectors, however, Flores’ real legacy is none other than a private contract between the IMF and the government that obliges the latter to apply measures that are the equivalent of prescribing a starvation diet for a person suffering from anemia.

Battles on the road
to the presidency

During his inaugural speech, President Maduro talked about the long, tortuous campaign leading to his election. In 1998, Tegucigalpa Mayor César Castellanos looked the most likely National Party candidate. However, the charming and popular Castellanos died tragically just after Hurricane Mitch when the helicopter from which he was inspecting the damages inflicted on the vulnerable capital suddenly fell to earth. No clear explanations were ever provided about the technical failure that caused the accident.

The resulting leadership vacuum could only be filled by Ricardo Maduro. First, however, he had to vanquish his own doubts given the atmosphere that Castellanos’ death whipped up within his party in the first few months. Next, he had to fight the "dark side" of his party: the corrupt members of the Callejas administration and professional politicians from a party renowned for its tricks and shady dealings. He also fought against the assumption that as the successful party candidate he had negotiated posts for his own friends while at the same time maintaining a political discourse based on renovating the archaic political practices of a party with the most dishonest tradition in the country. Finally, he had to fight the most difficult battle of the campaign: defending his Honduran nationality against Liberal adversaries who used the fact that he also has Panamanian citizenship as a weapon to eliminate him as a political contender from an electoral arena in which the governing party was prepared to do anything to keep from losing. Once he had avoided these many pitfalls, Maduro went on to take the Presidency, defeating the weak and stagnant figure of Liberal Party candidate and rural teacher Rafael Pineda Ponce.

Promises and numbers

Ricardo Maduro has promised to up the country’s annual gross domestic product from 2.2% to 3.5%, its social investment from 25% to 50%, the population’s access to health and education services from 40% to 95% and the human development index from 10% to 20%.

He plans to reduce infant mortality from 147 to 73 of every 100,000 live births and the malnutrition level among the under-fives from 40% to 20% in less than five years. His aim is to get the economy to grow by 7% a year, something never before achieved. This is a difficult goal considering that in March, when the three-year moratorium granted to the country following the devastation caused by Mitch comes to an end, Honduras will have to pay around $400 million in accumulated foreign debt service. If the new President implements mechanisms to fulfill at least part of these promises, he will be providing a much more serious response to the public safety problem than could be achieved by channeling budget items into repressive military responses.

The clamor for austerity

The government will have to begin at home to provide an example of austerity, as Maduro already showed with certain measures he adopted just a week after assuming the Presidency. He announced a reduction in the ordinary expenditures for state functioning, accompanied by a decision to sell off all of the vehicles belonging to the Presidential residency and an agreement establishing that all ministers and officials of confidence will use their own rather than state vehicles. These measures were viewed very positively by the population of a country where public officials tend to see the state as an enormous booty to be divvied up among them.

Cracks in the two-party structure

A number of novelties differentiated the elections that brought Ricardo Maduro to power from the five previous elections for national authorities. Although the majority of voters opted for one of the presidential candidates offered by the two traditional parties (the Liberal and National parties), they did break ranks with the two-party system when electing parliamentarians. For the first time in the country’s political history, the National Congress will not have a majority of deputies that can impose itself over the other parties when it comes to approving laws. The election of 12 deputies from the three smaller parties has eliminated the legislative steamroller for the first time.

The National Party now has 61 and the Liberals 55 of Congress’ 128 deputies, with the Democratic Unification Party obtaining 5, the Christian Democratic Party 4 and the Innovation and Unity Party 3. Thus, though the elections ratified Honduras’ traditional two-party structure, cracks have appeared that could define new courses in Honduran politics.

The worst abstention
in Honduran history

Politicians predicted that the citizenry would vote in overwhelming numbers, perhaps encouraged by Nicaragua’s low abstention rate in its presidential elections last November. In the event, however, at least one in every three voters stayed away from the polls, the highest abstention level in Honduras’ election history. Maduro’s victory thus cannot be considered overwhelming because the Liberal Party maintained control over a majority of municipal governments and at the end of the day the winning party will have to reach agreements and seek negotiations in order to push through its proposals.

The Honduran electorate effectively sent a broadside across the bows of the country’s politicians: either change your way of doing politics, particularly your way of fulfilling your obligations as officials elected by the popular will, or the citizenry will increasingly reject your credibility.

By means of abstention and ticket-splitting, a significant sector of Honduran society expressed certain elements that are fundamentally important in the country’s political life. First, there is less confidence in traditional political parties than 20 or even 10 years ago, although people continue to trust the presidency. Second, there is much less confidence in the parliamentarians from the traditional parties, thanks to their corrupt practices, their enormous distance from the departments and municipalities they supposedly represent and their use of public posts to enrich themselves and protect their dirty deals.

A new Congress and
a search for consensus

The mixed composition of the new National Congress provides a fresh opportunity to achieve a dynamic equilibrium in legislative activity. Unless the deputies from the two traditional parties band together to defend their interests—which would be fatal for their own and the country’s short-term future—no party will have a simple majority of votes much less the greater majority required to make the most important decisions alone.

This obliges the deputies to debate and seek consensus, a novel process in a Congress accustomed to simply watching the deputies from the ruling party raise their hands. Congress could actually turn into a school that forges democratic politics by listening to and accepting different interests. It is an historical opportunity to seek national consensus and open up to the opinions of opponents. But this opportunity hangs by incredibly weak threads, particularly because most of those sitting in the new National Congress are the same people who have been sitting there for the last 20 sterile years of party politics

Touching the roots
of public insecurity

The new government faces various political challenges. Despite Maduro’s early move to persecute street crime, delinquents stole nine cars in San Pedro Sula during the very first day of the military and police deployment, and in El Progreso youth gang members fired off shots in defiance of the military operation. Although Maduro’s campaign has received general plaudits, no violent response will get to the real roots of criminal violence if it is not accompanied by social and economic and political and legal responses. Maduro will have to provide new and powerful answers to the lack of public safety, convincing the legislators to approve funds for strategic social and institutional areas. Even so, any serious answer will require a lot of time.

The answer should come from various different angles and provide concerted responses. A military "quick fix" could end up strengthening the most diehard rightwing sectors and represent a step towards the creation of a police state that responds to the interests of big capital. This would be entirely in line with the logic that the Bush government seeks to impose on the world: mercilessly persecute often faceless terrorism, forgetting that its true causes are embedded in the structures of the state and often in the very same entities and individuals planning the actions and strategies against the terrorists.

Maduro also needs to attend to other electoral promises. At least in the first 100 days, the country will give him the benefit of the doubt. But if no realistic answers are provided to the problems of unemployment and the reform and consolidation of the judicial system to guarantee successful judicial processes against corrupt officials, it will be very difficult to still talk about eradicating public insecurity.

A formidable step forward
after a first deplorable signal

A formidable step forward was taken in the institutionalization of Justice with the election of the 15 new Supreme Court justices by the National Congress, despite ferocious initial resistance from the bipartisan apparatus. Congress had to elect the Supreme Court bench from a list of 45 candidates presented by a Nominating Committee created months earlier in one of the last constitutional reforms made by the previous Congress. In an early flash of political inconsistency, Congress again reveled in its habitual steamrollering style when the National and Liberal deputies joined forces to blindly accept an objection lodged by a shady individual. It was little more than a stratagem to avoid electing a Court that would not ensure the impunity of leaders and public officials from the two traditional parties. The challenge was finally surmounted and the new Court elected, but not before Congress sent out a deplorable signal.

For the first time in Honduran history, the 15 new justices are representative and offer the country some hope. Nine are women, and several of them are linked to political, social and legal struggles from a gender perspective.

Redefining the concept
of reconstruction

Flores Facussé inflicted strategic damage on the country by installing a concept of reconstruction restricted to carrying out material infrastructure works based on international aid and magnified by a paternalistic voice and image that dominated the media.

The reconstruction of the country after Hurricane Mitch has been inconclusive. Flores Facussé promoted projects to reconstruct highways and bridges and supported the reconstruction of the damaged economy in sectors linked to agroindustrial capital. The conception was to restore what had been destroyed rather than transform it, in other words to simply shore up the old foundations of a country historically subjected to the control of a business sector linked to international capital. Flores Facussé thus began to rebuild the country with an economy open to big capital in which only the financial sector, agroexport capital and free-trade zone assembly plants showed any growth, in so doing also reconstructing the old exclusion and unjust distribution of wealth.

Maduro now faces the challenge of redefining that reconstruction process by involving the citizenry in a search for long-term answers. A particular challenge is to tackle reconstruction from the perspective not only of infrastructure and big capital, but also of Honduran society’s environmental, economic, social and political vulnerability. At stake is not to rebuild the country that existed before Mitch, but to create a different one, a country without social disasters and one better able to defend itself against natural disasters.

Redefining relations
with our neighbors

Relations among the Central American countries, particularly Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, have been seriously affected recently by border problems sparked by economic interests and by the state of the relations between each of these countries and all of them together with the United States. The age-old problems generated by poverty have been supplemented by conflicts with neighbors that could easily lead to military conflicts. The arrival of new governments in Nicaragua and Honduras opens the possibility of further dialogue and a search for alternatives that would benefit both countries.

It is said that powers from outside Central America are seeking to stir up border conflicts and revive old differences with the aim of building up exclusively bilateral relations with each individual country. Such an aim would threaten Central American integration, which is based on the common interests of the member countries and their societies. Redefining relations among our countries based on an agenda that tackles border, trade, cultural and political problems and involves not only the political and governing elite but also each country’s civil society represents an enormous challenge right now.

Drawing up a new political map

Honduras’ political map is defined and controlled by political traditionalism, as expressed in the two-party structure. The electoral results opened a breach in a system that had previously seemed impregnable. Twelve deputies belonging to neither the Liberal nor the National parties are a new demonstration that the country’s political world cannot be eternally run along two-party lines. Nonetheless, there is no assurance yet that the mere presence of deputies of other political stripes represents a rupture with that political traditionalism that is such a factor in demobilizing the grassroots sectors and both conceals and expresses the prevailing model of social domination.

Two-party politics influences everything in Honduras, from education to many of the country’s religious expressions. Nonetheless, something has started to change among the 16% of the electorate from the urban middle-classes that decided to vote across party lines in defiance of that two-party structure. The peasant sectors, particularly from the country’s most depressed departments, maintained their loyalty to the blue flag of Nationals or red of the Liberals. The poorest rural sectors, particularly those with least access to education, health and state assistance, are the ones that cling to political traditions. Meanwhile, the factors that contribute most to transforming the bipartisan political map are mobility, education and linkage to stable work and to the new problems affecting urban dwellers and wage earners, including the maquilas.

As long as the current legal instruments regulating society’s political participation remain and no reforms are carried out within the National Congress, a new political map cannot conceivably be drawn. One of Ricardo Maduro’s campaign promises was to redefine and reduce the immunity of public officials. Fulfilling this objective would imply facing the country’s system of impunity head on. Many politicians aspire to, fight for and even buy their seat in the National Congress precisely because it offers them an immunity that protects their shady, under-the-table deals. Congress effectively acts as a springboard, turning those who illicitly enrich themselves into public officials.

Reforming the electoral system

Reforming the political system is an absolute necessity that would involve reforming the National Elections Tribunal (TNE) and the way electoral campaigns themselves are conducted. The National Commissioner for the Defense of Human Rights has most clearly expressed the urgency of this need, turning such reforms into a national proposal. "It is imperative," he said, "to increase the political system’s effectiveness and legitimacy given a population so severely battered by the country’s socioeconomic situation and by natural disasters."
The commissioner questions the very structure of the TNE, which is subjected right down to its roots to the ruling party’s directives. In reality, the TNE acts as another platform in the political parties’ electoral struggle and campaigning, in which the incumbent party always has a greater capacity for maneuver and manipulation, maintaining its advantage in this particular platform because it gets two representatives on the TNE.

The current Electoral Law for Political Organizations was drawn up precisely to perpetuate the two-party structure, block alternative representativeness, tie candidates to existing political parties and currents and limit the right of independent individuals to aspire to elected posts. The commissioner also criticizes the length of the political campaigns because of the high costs they represent for such a poor country, the delays they cause in public functions, the diversion of the efforts of public employees and officials into the election campaign and the premature weakening of the President due to the early shifting of power over to the ruling party’s new candidate.

Inventing new ways
of doing politics

For Honduran society, participating in politics is associated with stratagems, blackmail and abuse of power and politics itself with dirt, rottenness, lies and theft. The old ways of doing politics and the reality of the misery in which most of the country lives creates a depressing mixture that could prove explosive in the end. Poverty becomes a springboard for politicians and politics becomes a factory that only produces more misery. The two-party structure has paralyzed people and moved them in the opposite direction from their problems and needs.

The country needs a form of politics that is not just party-based and not limited to the traditional two-party structure. Honduran society has taken positive steps in both directions, particularly following the Mitch tragedy. Many of the initiatives to respond to the needs of the affected population did not come from the political and party system. Mitch mobilized many sectors into organizing from the regions and communities because the urgency of the situation transcended party structures. Civic forums, convergences, committees representing rural sectors, etc., are just some of the initiatives generated by society and they have had a noticeable influence on Honduran politics.

Opening up to such initiatives, linking the country’s different regions and discovering that proposals for true transformation transcend the parties’ capacity and initiative are steps that must be taken if a new form of politics is to be invented.

Investing in forming
opposition leaders

Creating new ways of doing politics will remain a difficult task if no serious and ongoing investment is made in the formation of popular social sectors and their leaders. There is a need for such formation at all levels, both formal and informal.

For a long time, investment in human, political, ethical and social formation has been minimal despite the resources that nongovernmental organizations and other donors have invested in development programs and projects. The formation of peasant, neighborhood and community organization leaders has mainly been restricted to training them for immediate and technical objectives related to a specific project. Meanwhile, ongoing comprehensive and farsighted formation has been overlooked. If an agricultural project is being promoted, the leaders and beneficiary population are trained to know about and embrace the relevant agricultural techniques. If it is a human rights project, people are trained in that specific field, without looking at other aspects of the individuals involved. This utilitarian formation has perhaps achieved its specific objectives, but by leaving other areas of the individual vulnerable, it has helped strengthen the kind of machista, exclusive and top-down leadership that reproduces locally the traditional vices of national politics.

The country needs agents of change who oppose the system of domination and exclusion, who can provide wide-ranging responses to the country’s problems and not just isolated responses to specific situations. To draw up a new political map of Honduras, with new ways of doing and experiencing politics, we do not need leaders trained only for the needs of the moment or popular activists or weekend training workshop promoters. We require people with gender awareness and human, social, political, ethical and environmental formation. This kind of opposition leader could produce original proposals geared to the reality of the poorest sectors, and this would start to turn Honduras into a more mature country.

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