Now There is Light but Blackouts Continue
Where are the disappeared? And their killers? Will these crimes remain unpunished? How does such an impoverished country develop? How does the life of workers improve? These are some of the shadows that continue to darken Honduras.
Promises were fulfilled on December 14 when once again "there was light" in Honduras. President Carlos Reina pushed the button that restored electrical energy services throughout the country and concluded the severe energy rationing up to 14 hours daily at its worst moments with which Hondurans had been desperately dealing since last February.
"Let there be Light" ... And Let It Cost MoreIn the ceremony to turn back on the lights, Reina recognized in his speech that "the greatest victims of the energy crisis have been the noble Honduran people, who for ten months were subjected to blackouts, forced to face a series of problems due to lack of energy, and obliged to make many sacrifices." Jerónimo Sandoval, manager of the state energy institute, guaranteed that the country would not face another rationing similar to 1994, and that even though the level of the Francisco Morazán dam will take several years to recover its former levels, the demand will be covered with energy produced by thermal plants.
Adolfo Facussé, President of the Honduran Private Enterprise Council (COHEP) also spoke, acknowledging that he never believed that rationing would actually end on the date the government had promised. "I'm glad I was wrong," he said, "because this action goes a long way to reestablishing the productive sector's confidence." Facussé estimated that the business sector lost some US$120 million due to the 10 month rationing.
Two fundamental facts have become clear, given that energy production will depend more on thermal plants than on the hydroelectric dam in the coming years. First, the $700 million investment for the dam's construction, which was supposed to guarantee electricity until at least the year 2000, has been a failure. Second, energy generated by a thermal plant will be much more expensive. It has already been announced that electrical costs will increase by at least 24.5% to compensate for the fuel necessary to operate the plants. It is calculated that the country's fuel bill will go up by some 500 million lempiras due to the increase in fuel use.
Both consumers and COHEP have come out against any increase in electric bills. Facussé pointed out that electrical costs in Honduras are three times higher than in El Salvador, which has a negative impact on national business competition.
The lack of precise explanations about the thermal plants has led many to suspect that the energy crisis has become permanent. Facussé himself said that rationing will start again in May. But in a speech on January 25, at the opening of the new legislative session, President Reina emphatically maintained that in 1995 Honduras "will have lights for 12 months and 365 days."
A Disappeared AppearsLight has also been shed on some other national "blackouts." On December 18, the remains of Nelson MacKay were exhumed from a clandestine grave found at the edge of the Goascorán River, close to the Salvadoran border. MacKay, a graduate law student, is the first on the list of 184 people who disappeared in the 1980s whose body has been found in an anonymous grave.
In his university years, MacKay was part of a rightwing student front. His death appears to be linked to the fact that he witnessed the capture and disappearance of another person and recognized the captors. The remains of MacKay kidnapped and executed on February 21, 1981 remained buried in a grave unknown to his family and the justice system for over 12 years. After he was killed, his body was left near a tree and peasants from the zone buried him as an unidentified corpse.
A group of forensic anthropologists contracted by the Human Rights Office part of the Public Ministry dug up MacKay's body and he was identified by his family. These same anthropologists had discovered six other bodies in a clandestine cemetery last June. At first they thought the cadavers were among the 184 disappeared, but that was not the case.
And those Responsible?The exhumation of MacKay's cadaver once again brought to national debate the thorny question of the disappeared and their executors. Some years ago, then Colonel Leonides Torres Arias, head of military intelligence, made public in a press conference in Mexico the systematic detentions and summary executions being carried out by a death squad linked to the National Army, known as "3 16." Torres Arias maintained that the brains behind its operations was the infamous General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez, then head of the armed forces, who had officially created 3 16 in January 1984.
Torres Arias also implicated Colonel Alexander Hernández in this structure, accusing him of being personally responsible for MacKay's detention and execution. Hernández has been consistently promoted up through the ranks despite severe opposition from human rights organizations, which in recent years have continuously accused him of direct links to 3 16 and to the capture and disappearance of individuals.
Torres Arias was called upon to testify before national judicial authorities. In his declaration, he reiterated his accusations against the deceased Alvarez Martínez, whom he accused of being responsible for the "long night of the disappeared" during the 1980s. But this time he abstained from implicating Alexander Hernández, who was not called upon to testify.
A Black MarkNo concrete legal result came out of these legal proceedings. But the public debate surely caused the assassins to lose some sleep. The facts served to demonstrate the government's lack of political will to begin to shed some light onto this darkened area, one that continues to traumatize thousands of people who are demanding the bodies of their loved ones and justice for the guilty.
Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares was right when he said that the way the issue was dealt with this time only served to demonstrate the deep fear that government authorities and the Honduran justice system still experience when dealing with a case that implicates the Honduran army. Even though the army has lost some of the influence it had in society, it is far from ceasing to be a source of power and decision.
Trying to minimize Honduran army responsibility for the disappeared and transfer it to the Suazo Córdova administration, General Luis Alonso Discua, current armed forces chief, publicly declared that the army was just implementing "state policy in the 1980s." Suazo Córdova was President between 1982 and 1986, when the majority of the 184 people disappeared. With an apologetic and self justifying tone, Discua added that the disappeared were "a black mark on the history of the 1980s, a product of the national security policy that was imposed." It was, he emphasized with seeming relief, "an aspect of the Cold War, which has finally ended." General Discua is believed to have been the chief of squad 3 16.
Criminal Investigation: a Somber HistoryThe Criminal Investigation Office (DIC), the new judicial police that replaces the National Investigation Office (DNI), dissolved in June 1994, officially began operations on January 23.
The DNI, which was under the auspices of the Honduran army, was famous for using torture as its chief method for extracting intelligence information. During the 1980s, the DNI was also a political police force at the service of "national security." It has been accused of active participation in the capture and disappearance of people during those years. When it was dissolved, it was surrounded by a cloud of accusations of having become the refuge of hired killers and other criminals.
Some former CNI members have been recruited by the Public Security Force (FSP), the main state police force, and others were definitively discharged. Several former DNI agents have been implicated in the wave of armed assaults on banks, businesses and private residences that has swept the country.
Let there be Light On CrimeHigh government officials participated in the inauguration ceremony for the DIC. In his speech, President Reina explained that the DIC was created with the objective of "investigating crime, discovering those responsible and offering the appropriate organizations what is indispensable to them for the exercise of penal action." The DIC director promised the nation he would never authorize torture as a method of investigation.
The DIC is under the Public Ministry, headed by Public Prosecutor Edmundo Orellana Mercado. Within the process of demilitarizing the state, Orellana was obliged by law to name a civilian to head the DIC. The military worked for a long time to modify that law and thereby opt for the DIC position, but it did not succeed. The Legislative Assembly is now modifying the country's Constitution to transfer the FSP from military to civilian hands as well. Reducing the armed forces and increasing the police force is also part of the national debate. All of these signs are showing the military that the new role of the police is irreversible, and that it must learn to live with this symbol of the new times.
The DIC begins to function at a moment in which the population is alarmed by a growing crime wave. The main arteries of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula are deserted by early evening due to fears of assaults or killings; people take refuge in their homes, protected by ever higher walls. Citizens are confident that the DIC will reduce the impunity that thieves and other criminals enjoyed with the DNI.
They are also convinced, however, that their safety will only really begin to be guaranteed once the FSP is demilitarized and professionalized.
Wage ReadjustmentsEver since President Reina assumed office in January 1994, the union movement has been demanding a wage adjustment to compensate for the loss in buying power due to devaluations, inflation, speculation and the Callejas government's wage freeze policy.
At first, Reina promised the workers that he would adjust wages, but later began to agree with the business sector, stating that the law prevented him from honoring his promise. The business sector and the President sustain that the only legal way to obtain a wage increase is by collective bargaining. But at the end of 1994, Reina once again opened the possibility of a wage adjustment through a joint agreement by government, private enterprise and the organized workers.
On January 19, the President met with major union leaders, who repeated their wage demands and also requested an economic stabilization policy to guarantee that basic food costs, urban transport and electric rates will not be raised. The President asked for two weeks to formulate a response.
Health StrikeParallel to these talks, the National Healthworkers' Coordinator (CNTS), representing all health workers' unions, demanded a 100% wage increase.
The Health Ministry began negotiations with the CNTS, offering them a far more moderate increase. The CNTS rejected the proposal and presented a new one a 50% adjustment threatening a general strike in all the country's hospitals and health centers. The government responded to the crisis by issuing a forceful decree prohibiting strikes in the public sector, which was read on a national radio and TV hook up the evening of January 23.
Despite this, the CNTS did not back down, and the general health workers' strike began the next morning. The health workers decided to continue with the strike partly because of a second government decree, read at the same time, demanding an immediate increase in urban transport costs, from 25 to 60 cents (lempira) on workdays and 90 cents on Sundays.
This government decision was a response to the IMF, which has been demanding the elimination of the transport subsidy. Drivers had also been threatening to paralyze transport if the government did not authorize an increase in urban transport costs or else increase the government subsidy.
Commitments to the IMFThe IMF already has a lot of space in Honduras. The government finally signed a letter of intent with the IMF on December 7. The delay in signing it kept the Reina government in a sort of financial limbo during its first year.
Among the conditions agreed to with the IMF, the government promised to achieve an annual economic growth rate of 4.5%, shrink the fiscal deficit by 4% in 1995 (the government inherited an 11% deficit) and reduce inflation to 5% by the end of 1997 (1994 inflation was 28.5%).
To reduce the fiscal deficit, the government pledged to implement the decision of the National Congress to reduce state personnel and spending by some 10% in 1995. It is also banking on the new tax code, which should be approved by the Congress this year, to help decrease the fiscal deficit by increasing income. To this should be added what has euphemistically been termed "the adapting of tariffs and production costs," which in practice means an increase in water, electricity and telephone bills. The government has also promised to bring the Central Bank's rediscount rates to the level of market interest rates and to privatize both HONDUTEL, the state telecommunications institute, and the state employees' pension funds.
Other commitments to the IMF include turning the National Agricultural Development Bank (BANADESA) into a credit bank exclusively for small producers, and giving more space to private initiative in road and rail transport, up to a short time ago a state monopoly. There are also promises to redesign the urban transport subsidy so that only "the least affluent sectors participate" and to fulfill the GATT conditions, eliminating surcharges on merchandise imports and maintaining a price liberalization policy at the domestic level and free trade at the international level.
With all these commitments, the government is creating the conditions for new credits to enter the country which has been presented as its greatest achievement. Honduras could then be looking at the eventual pardon of some US$700 million of its foreign debt with the Paris Club.
The Light of Development?Reina has assured that signing with the IMF will allow the country to enter a period of economic growth. But the reality is that the country is going through a very difficult social situation, and not only for health and transport workers. The HONDUTEL workers are also demanding wage hikes and threatening a strike. The government will have to give all the workers a coherent and convincing response to their demands.
The lack of a firm political will to create the basis for a social pact that will achieve a better living standard for workers and moderate the speculative drive of merchants and business people has made the government's social legitimacy precarious as it reaches its first birthday. As it blows out the candle on its first cake, the balance is not so happy.
LESLY: FROM THE MAQUILA CONGRESS
In September 1994, Lesly Rodríguez Solórzano, a 15 year old Honduran, traveled to Washington to testify in a US Senate Committee hearing sponsored by the National Labor Committee (NLC). Lesly described the working conditions of minors and women and human rights violations in the Honduran piecework industry. Her experience spoke for all maquila workers in Central America and the Caribbean.
As a result of Lesly's moving testimony and an NLC video documenting the abuses, President Clinton was forced to cut
an Interim Trade Program (ITP) from GATT legislation. This program would exempt piecework assembly, or maquiladora, plants from some US$160 million in annual taxes. The ITP offers tax free access to plants that assemble clothing for re export to the US market.
The companies a great majority of which are US and Korean resented the blow represented by Clinton's decision. It was the first time that they had lost a trade privilege due to labor rights violations; it was a great victory for human rights. The piecework industry is now insistently pressuring Congress to reinsert the ITP tax exemptions. But, thanks to the process initiated by Lesly's testimony, the 450,000 Central American and Caribbean maquila workers are in an advantageous position to demand respect for their labor and human rights.
The tariff elimination bill may come up for a vote in Congress in February or March. But if the rights of women, workers and minors continue to be violated in any of the piecework factories in the Caribbean basin, the NLC can act again, as in Lesly's case. This is what the industry fears most, since 95% of its production is exported to the US.
The larger US clothing manufacturers with piecework shops in the region are the most vulnerable to the human rights campaigns. Some of the best known are: JC Penney, K Mart, Liz Claiborne, Osh Kosh B'Gosh, Van Heusen, Wal Mart, Sears, Levi Strauss and Fruit of the Loom.
In 1992, the NLC won approval of an amendment that conditions every penny of foreign assistance on respect for labor rights. This condition covers all projects financed by AID and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. If labor rights are violated in any project receiving US assistance, all financing must be suspended immediately until the situation is corrected.
The US Trade Law establishes the following labor rights:
* Right to association
* Right to union organization
* Right to collective bargaining
* Right not to be subjected to forced labor
* Prohibition against hiring minors
* Acceptable working conditions in terms of wages, work hours and health and job security.
For any human rights violation in any piecework plant in the region, call collect:
National Labor Committee
15 Union Square West
New York, NY 10003
Telephone: (212)242 0700
FAX: (212)255 7230
In Spanish: Barbara Briggs, ext. 580 and Ralph Rivera, ext. 577
In English: Leslie Ward, ext. 584.