Lights of Change in a Blacked out Country
Teachers, banana workers, Indians and soldiers demand just wages, dignity, right to land, the end of impunity and of the enrichment of the high and mighty. They are bright spots that wage war with shadows that are historical.
The majority of Hondurans have been led to desperation by the devaluation of the national currency and never ending inflation. The situation is now even worse due to the severe electrical energy rationing the country has been suffering, with growing intensity, since the end of March. After a breather in July for the World Cup soccer matches, Hondurans returned to daily energy cuts of more than 12 hours.
Back to Candles and Growing DelinquencyThe causes of such long blackouts are various, among them what a spokesperson for the Catholic Church called the government's "outrageous" planning skills, the relative drought of the last four years and the notable increase in energy demands in recent years, mostly due to the piecework assembly plants. Yet another reason has been insinuated; that the previous government's planning was coldly calculated to favor the economic interests of the business sectors that want the electricity sector privatized.
Honduras needs 470 megawatts daily to supply the electricity demands of all the country's users. The Francisco Morazán dam, which has been near collapse due to lack of water to move its turbines, has the capacity to produce 300 megawatts, but is currently producing no more than 150. Since June Honduras has been buying 10 megawatts from Panama, 15 from Costa Rica and 24 from Cortés Electricity, a private Honduran firm formed at the end of the Callejas government. It is hoped that the crisis will be resolved when two electricity generators arrive in the country in October, loaned by the Mexican government. The two plants can generate a total of 60 megawatts.
The rationing began with daily cutoffs of five hours. Since July 15 the cuts have increased to 12 to 14 hours daily in two intervals; half during the day and half at night. A good portion of the country's cities are in darkness from 11 pm to 6 am. The crisis has created the conditions for an increase in both nighttime delinquency and the level of insecurity among citizens.
The cuts have considerably changed the lives of most Hondurans, ruralizing the lifestyle of Honduras' main cities. Candles, gas lamps, hand lanterns, kerosene lamps and battery operated radios have returned. The crisis has made electric stoves little more than decoration. Those people with more economic resources have bought diesel motors of all sizes to generate electricity and to stupefy every corner of the city with their incessant shaking noise. Sales of these motors have increased by 300%.
A daily dramaThe economic Cabinet took two steps in June to control two other dark spots: devaluations and inflation. First, it raised the bank reserves by six points and set in motion a gradual increase of another point every two weeks until it reaches 40% in September. It is hoped that this will reduce the lempiras in circulation and dollarize them. Second, it put all hard currency coming into private banks and money changing houses under the control of the Central Bank in order to sell it at a uniform price through a daily currency auction. With this measure, it has pre vented the accelerated deterioration of national currency against the dollar. The lempira is currently valued at about 8.78 to a US$1.
The two measures have not, however, managed to halt inflation and speculation, which day after day lead to increased prices of basic products, taking them out of the reach of the majority of Hondurans. Even beans have now joined meat and chicken as luxury foods.
People constantly complain that everything has gone up except salaries. Some observers comment that, due to inflation, the country is going through one of the most serious economic moments in its recent history. The Central Bank's cold and unexpressive figure of 16% inflation so far this year does not reflect the dramatic reality of everyday life.
Teachers Make DemandsAttempting to do something about the serious erosion of their salaries due to the devaluations and inflation, the teachers' union and SITRATERCO, the union of the huge banana company called Tela Railroad Company, began mobilizing in June to demand wage adjustments.
It is no coincidence that these two organizations initiated this struggle. Of all the national grassroots organizations, they are the ones most able to mobilize people, and have been in the vanguard of the fight for wage adjustments in recent years. The Honduran union movement's main demand since the Reina government took office in January has been for a general readjustment of wages.
Under the leadership of the National Teachers' Association, which covers all primary and secondary teachers in the country, the educators began demanding a 100% salary increase in April.
President Reina, recognizing the justice in the demand, agreed to meet with them. In June he offered a 40% increase over the four years of his government, which represented a 10% annual increase.
The teachers rejected the offer and continued mobilizing. Reina then decided to offer them a 40% increase over the next two years, which the teachers accepted.
Primary school teachers will receive a monthly increase of 265 lempiras and secondary teachers will receive 2.42 lempiras more for every hour of class they give. In total, this represents 120 million lempiras above the national budget.
Banana Workers Fight TooThe SITRATERCO workers' fight has been much harder, with a much higher social cost and greater repercussions on the country's economic, social and political life. It is one thing to make demands of the national government and another to make them of the subsidiary of a powerful US transnational corporation.
On June 11, the delegates who attended SITRATERCO's 35th Ordinary Assembly announced the decision of its 6,300 unionists to strike if Tela did not readjust its wages by 48%. After a period of negotiations in La Lima, a city on the northern border where the main offices of both Tela and SITRATERCO are located, the Tela team only accepted an 8% increase. The workers rejected this and began a strike on June 28.
When the strike dragged on, the involved parties were invited to Tegucigalpa to negotiate, with the Ministry of Labor and President Reina himself as mediators. As a show of goodwill, the union delegation reduced its demand to 40% and Tela increased its offer to 9%.
The mediators lobbied the workers to accept the transnational's proposal and thereby prevent the great economic damage that a prolonged strike would cause. The union delegation accepted the government officials' recommendations and signed on July 5, with the proviso that the accord would have to be ratified by the more than 100 general secretaries who make SITRATERCO's major decisions. In an assembly held the next day, the 100 rejected the wage proposal and demanded new negotiations.
The Conflict ContinuesThe conflict then took on a new slant. President Reina, bitterly criticizing the SITRATERCO negotiators for their inability to persuade the general secretaries and bases to accept Tela's proposal, declared the strike over. Top officials of the banana transnational, buttressed by the President's position, published their position in the print media and declared the labor conflict concluded.
The strikers decided to try new pressure tactics and took over a busy highway. When President Reina ordered the army to remove them, the order was fulfilled with tear gas and brutality. Six strikers suffered gunshot wounds and an equal number of soldiers were injured with stones. The President's decision was applauded by the lovers of "law and order" and openly repudiated by a great majority of northern border unionists, who, in solidarity with the strikers, took over another busy highway as a challenge to Reina to again order violent removal, which did not happen.
The conflict went into a second phase when 57 union leaders were fired and two farms were closed. The first three weeks of actions and tension meant significant losses both for the transnational and for the Honduran state, which lost considerable tax dollars it would have earned on exported bananas.
Indigenous in the struggleOn Monday, July 11, when the SITRATERCO Tela conflict was at its worst, over 3,000 indigenous men and women arrived in Tegucigalpa on foot and in trucks, in what they called the Pilgrimage for Peace, Justice, Life and Liberty. Most of them were Lencas, the same indigenous group as that of the legendary leader Lempira, who confronted the Spanish invaders at the beginning of the Central American conquest.
Under the direction of well known Lenca leader Salvador Zúniga, the demonstrators entered Tegucigalpa chanting "Lempira lives!" and presented a list of 72 demands to the President of the Republic. (Because of the importance of this issue, we have addressed it in more detail in the separate article that follows.)
The demonstrators set themselves up in the La Merced central plaza near the Legislative Palace. They lived and slept there, cooking beans and green plantains in huge pots and touching Honduran society with their presence. During their stay in Tegucigalpa, they received food, medical attention and other forms of solidarity from the local population. They were also supported by a good number of priests from the indigenous areas and other zones of the country, some of whom joined as active members of the march. The sizable group showed a high spirit of discipline and became a living and contradictory sign of material poverty and cultural riches.
The Air Force Drops a "Bomb"Initially, President Reina and his aides saw signs of a conspiracy against the government in both the pilgrimage and the SITRATERCO strike. During both there were many rumors of a coup planned by the opposition and some military officers who oppose the new order that is undermining the military's historic leadership role in Honduran society.
On July 22, however, an accusation was made public that shook the armed forces structure and set a new and definitive course away from the impunity the military high command has traditionally enjoyed. Honduran Air Force officers, technical personnel and troops publicly denounced anomalies in writing that had previously only been whispered about in private circles: the illicit enriching of the high command.
The document was sent to the President of the Republic on July 11, but was not published by the press until 11 days later. The officers accused of corruption are former Air Force commander General Héctor Castro Cabus and Colonel Oscar Servellón Moradel, currently commander of the same force.
The profile of General Castro Cabus offered by his subordinates is a paradigm. According to the accusers, the General owns several very valuable residences, ranches, urban plots, a yacht anchored on the paradise island of Roatán, 2,000 head of cattle, a shrimp processing plant in the south of the country, holds shares in the Armed Forces bank, the Cement Industry (owned by the military) and luxury hotels on Roatán and Trujillo, and has numerous dollar accounts in banks in the United States and the Caribbean.
The account states that Castro was able to amass such a great fortune through arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras; drug trafficking; cashing checks made out to officers, technicians, troops and auxiliary personnel already relieved of duty; misuse of US military aid; the use of Air Force planes to bring in merchandise for local sale without paying taxes; and the sale of Air Force assigned gasoline to commercial airlines.
In the best of times, General Castro Cabus and Colonel Servellón Moradel earned no more than 10,000 lempiras monthly as salaried state workers. "How is it possible, Mr. President and the Honduran people," asked the document's authors, "that these gentlemen amassed so much wealth with those salaries?" Many Hondurans have been asking the same question for years.
The document was not signed. "We are not signing," they apologized, "for obvious reasons. We do not want to lose our jobs, by which we feed our families, nor do we want to be disappeared. We are available to collaborate with the research and investigation process of these and other scandalous incidents to redeem our Honduras." The anonymous accusers also made clear their repudiation of the authoritarian conduct of both military leaders, complaining that their own historic rights and benefits as officers were taken away from them by the two leaders. The Air Force has traditionally been an elite corps within the military apparatus and one of the most enlightened sectors of the armed forces.
The accusation, coming from within the armed forces itself, has created a great stir and will be an important test to determine whether President Reina has the political will to carry forward his announced "moral revolution." It will also put to the test the ability of the General Accounting Office, which is publicly committed to investigating the "fat fish" who have gotten rich through illicit means, and put them behind bars.
Given a case such as this one, and given that more are to be expected, it can be concluded that the "moral revolution" is bringing more challenges to the presidency than the greatest government publicity agents could have ever imagined.