GoodBye to the Military Draft
Civil authorities didn’t dare confront the military for fear of arousing their ire. But things are beginning to change. The first successful battle was waged on the issue of military service.
For decades, the President of the Republic and all bodies of civilian power in Honduras have done what the military tells them to do. They dared not challenge the uniformed men for fear of the sometimes open and sometimes veiled threat of a military coup. And, certainly, no important issue related to military questions was addressed without the approval of the military high command.
First Battle against the MilitaryBut President Reina is beginning to challenge this intimidating relationship. The new position of the United States toward Latin American armies has contributed substantially toward this change, as has the growing loss of fear of a military that paralyzed Honduran civil society for so many years.
The first successful battle took place around military conscription, which affected all Honduran men between 18 and 30 years of age. Both the Liberal and National Party candidates the called for the elimination of the draft in their electoral campaigns. Reina was the most specific; he promised to replace it with voluntary and educational military service.
Honduran society's general opposition to the draft emerges from a rejection of the brutal methods the military has traditionally used to recruit young men. It has been normal to see soldiers stopping collective transport vehicles in the city or in rural areas, capturing young people traveling on them, and taking them to military barracks by force. Soldiers also swept through movie theaters, soccer stadiums, billiard halls and poor neighborhoods. Boys recruited in this way most of them from the lower classes since the "mama's boys" were almost never touched were not even allowed to send a message telling their families what had happened and where they had been taken. The recruiters even went so far as to shoot at young men who ran from them, injuring and killing some.
Such complaints are numerous, as are those about the brutal and inhuman treatment the young men suffered in the barracks. The national clamor against military service gave rise to over a thousand other complaints as well, ranging from the military leaders' arrogance, to accusations of their involvement in corruption, contraband, drug trafficking and even summary executions of citizens.
Hunger StrikeAfter Reina took office, various social organizations began to pressure both him and the National Congress dominated by his Liberal Party to fulfill the promise to eliminate obligatory military service. The organizations promoted events to gather signatures to increase the pressure.
On April 20, ten men and women began a hunger strike, saying they would end it only when Congress passed a law eliminating military service. The strikers belonged to a sizable pluralist group known as the Civic, Christian and Popular Movement. They set up their operations in Plaza La Merced, near the Congress building, where representatives of a wide range of social sectors visited them and sent solidarity messages.
The strike forced the government to put the issue on the front burner and helped strengthen the President's own position. On April 27, Reina announced in a national press conference, covered by radio and TV, that he would send a draft decree to Congress to eliminate obligatory military service from the Constitution. Throughout the drafting of the bill, both he and Congress president Carlos Flores Facussé made sure the strikers were kept abreast of the process.
Some National Party legislators who initially had doubts about the issue decided to support it after meetings with local armed forces representatives revealed that the military's defense of the draft was confused and poorly structured. The legislators also perceived that, given the country's general mood, it would be politically costly to defend military service. Surprising everyone, the National Party bench even sent a commission to visit the strikers and express moral support.
May 3 was an historic day. After dispensing with two of the three debates required by law for approving a decree, the representatives gave it their unanimous approval. Article 276 of the Political Constitution was modified to substitute obligatory military service in times of peace for a military service that is "educational, social, humanist and democratic." Before it can go into effect, this decree must be approved again in 1995 by two thirds of the representatives.
President Reina praised the representatives' expeditious approval as a "wise" decision, and the hunger strikers celebrated the event as a "triumph of the people."
Three Positive SignsAnother event reflecting change in the relations between civilian and military power was the naming of the new manager of HONDUTEL, the national telecommunications company, which for years has been run by a high level military officer. At the beginning of May, in keeping with this tradition, the military command sent Reina a list of officers from which to choose HONDUTEL's new manager.
But the President ignored the list and on May 7 named Mario Maldonado, a retired colonel, to the post. Maldonado, an active participant in Reina's campaign, had helped promote the military coup that brought the reformist General Oswaldo López to power in 1972. He served as ambassador to Nicaragua in the 1980s.
These two historic decisions were not Reina's first challenge to the military high command. That occurred at the very start of his administration, when the high command sent a list of three choices for the head of the Presidential Guard. Reina chose Colonel Alvaro Romero who was not on the list and promoted him to general. Romero had won the high command's aversion for his "reformist whims." He, too, had been appointed ambassador to Nicaragua as a form of punishment.
Yet another positive sign in the relations between civilian and military power was the Supreme Court decision to search a clandestine cemetery in the western department of El Paraíso for the bodies of Hondurans killed by paramilitary patrols during the 1980s. None of the six cadavers exhumed were those the Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared had been looking for, but all bore signs of summary execution.
The Supreme Court magistrates, the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights and the Attorney General of the Republic have expressed their determination to get to the bottom of what happened to the disappeared. All clues point to the military.
And Three NightmaresWhile advances are being made in relations with the military, the same cannot be said for economic issues. Reina committed himself to what he calls "social liberalism with a human face," but so far it is just rhetoric. In fact, his government's economic measures have given him a neoliberal image similar to that of President Callejas, his predecessor. The Honduran School of Economists' sentence on April 21 was categorical: "The new government's neoliberal position is clearly demonstrated when it defines the economy's primary problems as the fiscal deficit, the balance of payments deficit and inflation, and when its solutions focus on these problems."
The fiscal deficit inherited from Callejas is severe (11.2% of the Gross Domestic Product). One measure to reduce it was the February increase in the Customs Value Factor (FVA) from 6.20 to 7.27 lempiras per dollar. (The FVA is the official dollar value of the lempira used to fix import duties.) Increasing the FVA stimulated the devaluation of the lempira, which has now reached 8.20 to $1, thus increasing inflation and speculation.
It is difficult to say how much the inflation currently crushing the country is due to real price adjustments resulting from the currency devaluation and how much to speculative adjustments by unscrupulous businesspeople. But whatever their cause, devaluation, inflation and speculation are currently the three nightmares that make the majority of Hondurans lose sleep.
The Reina government's program to free up the price of petroleum derivative has made the nightmares even worse. The price of these derivatives went up three times just in April and May, and speculators responded each time with an exaggerated increase in the prices of basic consumer products. This is causing disillusionment with the new government, which appears unable to control those taking advantage of the situation. Pursuit and imprisonment of speculators and corrupt business people of all types has become a generalized demand of Hondurans to the government that raised high the banner of the "moral revolution."
Difficult NegotiationsThe government's negotiations with the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should have concluded in April, but they will continue for some months more. They, too, have contributed to the image of a still neoliberal Honduras.
The members of the government negotiating team none of whom has a reputation as an extreme neoliberal accept the need to reduce the fiscal deficit, but reject doing it by establishing new taxes that fall directly on the majority.
To increase fiscal income, the international organizations suggested raising consumer sales tax from 7 to 10%. The government counterproposed improving collection systems, broadening the 7% to cover various services such as cable television, and creating selective sales taxes for high income brackets.
The government promised to reduce state investments and the budgets of its primary institutions by 10%. It also agreed to eliminate certain subsidies, but not the one for public transport. It fears the potential explosiveness of that measure.
It has also refused to drastically reduce state employees some 70,000 by closing or fusing various state departments. It has, however, accepted a moderate reduction of state personnel through administrative reform.
The administration's patronage commitments make the reduction of state employment an extremely sensitive subject. It does not even have the financial resources to provide severance benefits to adherents of the opposition party, who were hired under similar patronage criteria by the Callejas regime.
Neoliberal or Not?The negotiations with the IDB, the World Bank and the IMF are expected to conclude in July with the signing of a Letter of Intent that would guarantee some US$600 million in loans and donations over the four years of Reina's administration. With these funds the government hopes to finance a series of projects, above all in the social area, that would clearly differentiate Reina's campaign promise of neoliberalism with a human face from Callejas' ultra neoliberalism.
The government's negotiating position with the international organizations is weak, in part because Honduras' foreign debt currently stands at some US$3.6 billion. In his speech on May 10, Reina explained to the Honduran people that this debt absorbs more than 35% of exports and over 30% of the national budget. He revealed that as of January the country was US$243 million in arrears in its debt payment.
There has been no serious discussion in political or intellectual circles whether Reina's current neoliberalism is only political pragmatism or is more permanent. No government official has yet defended the neoliberal policy with the ardor and commitment of the Callejas government, and Reina's economic team has run from any doctrinal discussion of economic policy.
A Country at Half SteamReina is running a country that, due to a severe energy crisis, has literally been functioning at half power for the last three months. Electricity rationing has begun, and energy is cut off for five hours a day in sizable areas of the country.
The country's main electricity generator, the Francisco Morazán dam previously known as El Cajón is functioning under capacity. It is capable of generating some 300 megawatts but a severe drop in the level of the water that feeds the turbines means it is currently only generating some 212. The water shortage is due to lack of rain in the watershed rivers that feed the dam, in turn due to severe deforestation. This is one of the tragic cycles resulting from the lack of a defined ecological policy.
A considerable increase in energy demands in recent years has also contributed to the crisis. As former President Azcona pointed out, the many maquila plants set up along the country's northern coast are the single greatest source of the growing demand. According to Azcona, the emergence of these piece work factories explains why the dam, which had been expected to supply the country's energy through the year 2000, has become obsolete in a few short years.
The energy crisis and rationing are having a negative influence on the country's economic activity. Banking, industry and commerce can only work half a day and they close their doors any time the electricity is cut off. The National Industrialists' Association notes that the rationing "means not only a temporary interruption of production, but also the disruption of productive programs, the failure to complete contracts, an increase in labor costs and the waste of raw materials, as well as other aspects that seriously affect the industrial plants." Bankers, merchants and housewives could say the same. Adolfo Facussé, president of the Honduran Private Enterprise Council (COHEP), estimates that the country's businesses lose some 500 million lempiras monthly due to rationing.
The government has begun buying about 15 megawatts of electrical energy from Panama and is making contacts in Mexico to get two plants that could produce another 60 megawatts. Stores, banks, supermarkets and restaurants in the country's largest cities are installing their own generators, making the cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula much noisier. The National Congress recently approved a decree that lowers import taxes on these types of generators.
But all this is not enough. It has been announced that rationing will continue through 1994, even if the rainy season brings abundant rains.
Rooster, Rooster!The organized popular movement, seriously weakened by Callejas' aggressive anti grassroots policy, has been regrouping to recover what it lost during the past four years. It held its first national assembly in San Pedro Sula on January 26. It was an important meeting, since the leaders of the main union, peasant, teachers' and grassroots organizations met for the first time to draft a platform for 1994 and the coming years.
At the end, they decided to send an open vote of confidence to President Reina and to express total support for the "moral revolution" he promised. They also demanded a general salary adjustment, an emergency food plan, revitalization of the agrarian reform process, respect for grassroots organizations and their legally constituted leadership councils, and the design of mechanisms to assure grassroots participation in decision making in state institutions.
These demands have been the basis of conversations since held between leaders of the main grassroots organizations and President Reina and other government officials. In these talks, most emphasis has been put on the urgent need to bring salaries closer to the cost of living. Low salaries and spiraling prices are the two issues currently creating the most despair and frustration among Hondurans.
On April 22, thousands of marchers in various cities repeated these demands to the government, and added a demand to cancel the installation of a petroleum refinery in Trujillo Bay, which would severely damage the environment. The organized grassroots movement returned to the streets with the same demands on May 1. Hondurans heard the following slogans: "Little rooster, little rooster, my salary is smaller every day!" (a red rooster symbolized Reina in his campaign); "With the moral revolution, we don't even have money for salt!"; "The military service should be declared voluntary!"; "To protect the environment, say no to the refinery!"
Reina appears almost deaf to these demands and too receptive to those of the business sector. "So far the producers' profits are still given priority over the workers' interests," said one Honduran bishop. As people say, "Money talks."