A Small but Real Hope
Between the two great oak trees, the traditional parties, and livelier then the two small parties, eternal bonsais, has arisen the PUD, a party of the Honduran left, a small but real source of hope that looks longingly at what has occurred in the El Salvador elections.
Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of Honduras
Political campaigns in Honduras are a traditional bipartisan system, divided into three periods during the four years of government. The first period encompasses the first two years of administration, when the political forces accommodate themselves after the general elections.
The second period covers the third year of government and its most important expression is the internal party primaries, in two phases: the election of candidates within each current of the two parties and direct confrontation between the various currents within each party. During this period the party appears to have disappeared, as if it were an opaque sun blocked by the clouds of confrontation between the currents.
The third period takes place during the final year of government and its greatest expression is the national conventions of the traditional parties, in which power is redistributed within each party, trying to respect the results of the internal elections with an eye to the general elections. In this period the suns of the traditional parties begin to come out from behind the clouds, although with their faces injured and scarred. In this period it is the government that disappears, leaving the field open to parties to develop their campaigns. The confrontation between Nationalists and Liberals reaches its maximum expression, although this does not eliminate negotiations and overlapping agreements between the currents in each party. Honduras is now in the midst of the third period.
Two old Roosters ReturnThe two large conventions already took place: the Nationalists had theirs in early February and the Liberals theirs in mid-March. The two candidates who emerged to dispute the Presidency of the Republic at the end of the year, Nora de Melgar for the Nationalists and Carlos Flores for the Liberals, are being conciliatory; they know that Honduras is in no condition for more violence because there's already violence everywhere.
The aggressive political game for internal power quotas within the National Party indicates that the Nationalists are writing the chronical of their own defeat. And the Liberals are dreaming of victory. In his closing speech of the convention, the Liberal candidate said that in Honduras "there are more of us who have hope and are betting on the future than those who are impatient and defeatist, converted into prophets of the great calamities, who see everything as difficult and unobtainable. We are more honorable than corrupt, decent than immoral, clean than dirty, good than bad."
His speech is more poetry than certainty, more an illusion than reality. Carlos Flores represents the most conservative sectors of Liberalism, those who were involved in aggressions against the people when he was part of previous Liberal administrations.
Seven years ago Callejas -- Nora de Melgor's ally and promoter -- defeated Flores. Once again, Honduras will witness a confrontation of two old roosters who want to hide in new clothes. Callejas with the face of a woman and Flores with optimistic propaganda directed unabashedly towards the dominating classes, while offering nothing to the country's peasants or popular sectors.
PUD: A New PartyA new group, the Democratic Unification Party, has emerged to join the Christian Democratic Party of Honduras (PDCH) and the Innovation and Unity Party (PINU). The latter two eternally emerging parties have over 20 years of existence without increasing their political support. They are ornamental "bonsai" in the garden of Honduran "democracy," where the two great mahoganies of the traditional parties overshadow all others.
The PUD was approved by decree in 1992, during the Callejas government, fulfilling the Esquipulas II accords which advocated integrating the Central American revolutionary movements into political life in exchange for amnesty. The PUD will participate in the November elections with presidential candidate Matías Fúnez, a political analyst backed by known leaders of the worker and peasant movement and by professionals and intellectuals who are seeking new ways of doing politics in Honduras.
El Salvador Offers HopeThe new party's leadership is aware that it is beginning "a hard fight with an electorate controlled by the traditional parties," but believes that a struggle must be begun to inculcate into the conscience of the Honduran people the need for a change in mentality that will lead it to elect new leaders who represent the interests of the majority.
The FMLN's triumph in El Salvador offers hopes to this leftist Honduran party. Some of its leaders have said that elections in the neighboring country demonstrate that Central American society is waking up and rejecting conservative political forces in the region, no longer with weapons but now with votes.
Honduran voters have always been either National or Liberal. Perhaps now, at the end of the millennium, they will back a new political option that sweeps away the traditionalism that has been unable to resolve the fundamental problems of the country and the people. The PUD presents itself as an alternative to the neoliberal model, which it considers anti-human and anti-Christian. Its rivals consider it a party of "resentfuls" that will therefore have no popular support. Nonetheless, the PUD is beginning to awaken enthusiasm among the grassroots sectors that have been seeking solutions to communal, national and regional problems for a long time and are now overcoming the old bipartisan tendencies.
Disaster with the IMFIf the PUD were to obtain some power, what possibilities would it have of exercising it given the International Monetary Fund's hegemonic power? In the first week of March the IMF's power over the government was seen when, like a schoolteacher, it suspended the government, in the year-end exam.
"It was not worth the pain of the adjustment" was the title of an article in one daily during Holy Week. It referred to the Reina government's failure to sign a Letter of Intent with the IMF and thereby to have lost, after seven years of adjustment and sacrifices by the poorer sectors, the opportunity to have $500 million in old loans condoned by the Paris Club creditors in 1998.
The IMF delegation arrived in Tegucigalpa at the end of February. While negotiations with the government went on, its presence sparked grassroots demonstrations in front of the Central Bank opposing payment of the foreign debt and declarations by the three small political parties (PDCH, PINU and PUD) against the IMF and in favor of publishing the accord before signing it. Business leaders, fearful of the accord's tax aspects, also demanded its publication. President Reina responded with contradictory evasions, saying that no one would read it if it were published yet assuring that it would be published after being signed.
When it was learned at the beginning of March that the negotiations had failed, the business sector rained criticism on the government, blaming it for not sufficiently promoting production, for example restricting the financial policy by increasing bank reserves. Most of the criticism came from National Party politicians, especially former President Callejas, during whose administration the first Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility, known even in Latin America by its English initials ESAF, was signed. "It has been a great economic failure of the government," he said, noting the government's ineptitude and deceit in demanding so many economic sacrifices from the people with the justification of commitments to international organizations.
Unintelligible ExplanationsThe first ESAF was signed with the IMF at the beginning of the Callejas administration (1990-94). ESAF contains three-year commitments to be evaluated each year, and the Letter of Intent, a sort of reminder note, is signed each year. Callejas did this one year, but it was suspended the second year, 1993, because the commitments were not fulfilled; it was an electoral year and the fiscal indiscipline led to an 11% deficit. The economic program in ESAF remained hanging until it was renegotiated with the Reina government at the end of 1994. Because the 1995 macroeconomic evaluation (effectively, ESAF's second year) was positive, the Club of Paris condoned $125 million of debt in 1996. But the Letter of Intent was not signed that year because various laws, such as the Tributary Code, had not been approved. That was the reason for the IMF delegation visit in February: sign the Letter of Intent for the third time or seek another alternative.
The economic Cabinet offered public explanations for the "failure" and what was really lost, but they were all oral, badly explained by the media and hardly intelligible to the people.
Dreaming of DragonsIn its last year, the government is governing less and less as the electoral campaign dynamic imposes its rhythms. It is understood that the President is absent for relatively long periods with the excuse of seeking help for Honduras' development or improving its image overseas. In need of authority and prestige, he seeks them in wealthier countries, as in his last trip -11 days touring Tokyo and Seoul. He returned with few yens but many exotic stories about his visit with the Japanese emperor and interviews with owners of the assembly plants for re-export (known in Latin America as maquilas) in South Korea, one of the admired "dragons" of the Pacific.
It appears that the only concrete result of President Reina's journey was a $4.7 million Japanese donation for a small-scale fishing project on the country's northern coast, which would have been conceded even without the trip. There was, however, also talk of a $20 million Japanese loan to improve the Toncontín airport in Tegucigalpa, to assuage residents of the capital who are upset because San Pedro Sula just inaugurated a modern airport.
Japan and HondurasThe relationship with Japan has been gaining more and more importance. Between 1991 and 1995 Japan gave Honduras just under $211 million in development aid, technical cooperation and credit. Since 1990, it has also given $50 million for potable water projects, equal to 63% of Honduras' entire state health budget for 1996.
Honduras has returned these favors by supporting Japan's bid to occupy a seat on the United Nations Security Council and by promising support for a permanent seat when the UN is reorganized. In his trip, President Reina personally communicated this already announced commitment to Prime Minister Hashimoto.
Local politics overplays the importance of the President's trips to a world far away and unknown. The Japanese, careful in their analysis, are perfectly aware of the visit's partisan interpretation. While Reina was traveling, a Japanese embassy official in Honduras signed a $100,000 support for aqueducts, wells and ramps in the country's southern communities with the president of an NGO who is a known member of the PDCH, to dispel the idea that Japan is indirectly supporting the Liberal Party.
Against AIDSBut local politics are really being played on closer and more concrete fields. A few months before Holy Week the Health Ministry prepared a campaign against AIDS. It emphasized abstinence and fidelity of couples as the best security, but taking into account that 30% of married men (or those in stable couples) and 70% of single men in Honduras are not sexually monogamous, it proposed use of the condom. The Vice Minister of Population Risks announced that almost a half million latex condoms would be distributed for Holy Week despite arguments against it, particularly from the Catholic religious group Pro Life, of Opus Dei.
The controversy led the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, a man of great prestige in government circles, to meet with the education minister and vice minister, both women. In that 20-minute meeting, it was decided that the Catholic Church and the government would form a common front to fight AIDS, an illness that has killed over 9,000 Hondurans and infected 80,000 more with the virus in an apocalyptic gallop that threatens to invade the whole country. With its coasts open to the Caribbean, Honduras is exposed like no other Central American nation to this still incurable plague.
In declarations after the interview, the vice minister maintained her position. Although not sharing the conservative views of the Opus Dei groups, the archbishop had spoken repeatedly against "the culture of death" and its expressions in birth control.
Accusations by the ArchbishopThe effort to defend "the culture of life" has also led the archbishop to take positions against corruption and the foreign debt. He recently served as moderator in the last stage of an International Conference on Democracy and Corruption in Latin America, held in Tegucigalpa. On that occasion he stated that the fight against corruption goes hand in hand with condoning the foreign debt and declared that CELAM (Latin American Episcopal Council), which he presides over, is working to appeal to international financial organizations to alleviate or condone all of the foreign debt, following an initiative of John Paul II. A seminar will be held on May 21-23 in Santiago de Chile for presidents of the 22 Latin American Bishops' Conferences, together with noted politicians, to work on the text of a letter on this issue that CELAM will send to governments.
The archbishop's line is expressed in the weekly FIDES, from whose pages the neoliberal model is frequently attacked. It states that never in Honduras has there been such poverty, violence and hopelessness as there is today.
Easter BreakfastUp to now, the archbishop's critical posture has not provoked clashes with the government, partly because they are usually general criticisms and partly because neither the government nor the Church is interested at this time in opening any breach with the other. The archbishop has much national relevance and personal ability to convoke people. In mid-March, for example, he organized an "Easter breakfast" in a capital hotel to collect funds for street children and for Church media, including a television channel, which was well attended by businesspeople, politicians and members of government and the armed forces. Even the head of the armed forces, General Mario Raúl Hung Pacheco, was there.
At the Latin American level, Archbishop Rodríguez has a very clear agenda against neoliberalism and the foreign debt, but at the national level he is more concerned about strengthening the Catholic Church than about projecting a structural change, surely difficult to achieve.
The modernizing line of the archdiocesan pastoral is geared toward celebrating massive events that can be televised. This maintains the public presence of the Catholic Church, seriously threatened by the advance of evangelical sects. The liturgical acts of Holy Saturday were celebrated this year in the National Stadium, an event that bothered more traditionalist Catholic movements like the "neocatechumens."
A Voice in the DesertOn the other side of the country a different voice was heard just a few days before Holy Week, that of a bishop from the diocese of Trujillo, whose beautiful bay was converted into a gathering place for national vacationers. Bishop Virgilio López participated in a forum in La Ceiba organized by environmental groups to analyze the impact of the "super refinery" -to be the largest in Latin America- that is supposed to be installed in Puerto Castilla with Kuwaiti funds. The bishop called attention to the gigantic project's high ecological risk for the whole zone and asked that a common front against it be organized, exhorting businesspeople to seek investments with better development perspectives. Although this kind of criticism was more concrete than those of the archbishop, the voice of this pastor does not have the distribution or impact of the one from the capital.
What Prophecy Is Possible?Government and business reaction to such concrete criticisms as those of Trujillo's bishop or to more general criticisms like those of the archbishop of Tegucigalpa has always been silence. Neither the government nor the business sector -- two groups that share many lines -- are interested in confronting the Catholic Church. It is allowed to talk and is used when possible, but actions must be taken without taking it into account.
The Catholic Church, though aware of the reigning frustration among the population and of its cause -the neoliberal model- does not represent an internal force either to transform the model or to change the concrete reality of its application. Because of this, the Church speaks the language of reconciliation and dialogue, even if only on the surface.
La Prensa's famous caricature artist, Angel Darío Banegas, won the only prize in a caricature contest at the First Latin American Journalism Congress (Panama, April 1-3) with a caricature of Pope John Paul II dressed as a military commandant, shaking hands with Fidel Castro, who was dressed as the Pope with his great revolutionary beard falling on his white robe. The handshake is firm but the look each is giving the other is enigmatic. If even Fidel and the Pope shake hands, what intelligent government will want to make an enemy of the Church? And what bishop who knows how to calculate the moment, will want to make an enemy of the government? That is only one image of the critical situation faced today by the prophetic Church in Latin America, and in Honduras as well.
The Tip of the IcebergMany things have been left out of this summary: the struggles to raise the minimum wage, negotiations on basic market basket prices, the partial accord with health workers, the business fight to reduce taxes, privatization of the electricity institute, buying basic grains outside of Honduras, the attempt to integrate Honduras into NAFTA, kidnappings, fugitive military officers, border disputes with El Salvador, large Salvadoran tourist and commercial investments in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, just to name some of them. But from the tip of the iceberg that has been described, we can conclude that:
* Although the IMF flunked the government in its practical application of neoliberalism, the government is optimistic about economic improvement for 1997, not because of good management of public funds and tax collection, but because international coffee prices rose and fuel prices dropped.
* The economic respite will strengthen the Liberal Party, the one that is governing neoliberally, to win the elections. This will lead to a new promotion of state modernization and structural adjustment, without taking into account either the urban poor or the peasants.
* The new PUD will probably emerge in the elections with more support than the other two "bonsai" parties, marking the beginning of a new alternative, based in popular organizations, not to take national power but to open space in the National Congress and in some municipal communities. This is a small hope. But it is real.