Questioning the Unions And Monitoring Corruption
Hurricane Mitch has generated a general critical awareness of the unions and has encouraged the emergence of new organizations representing the victims. And perhaps Mitch has also helped Honduras start to feel the positive influence of globalization in the fight against corruption and for human rights.
The heat in northern Honduras is insufferable. The weather forecasts foreboding an early and extensive rainy season have everyone worried. Even if the rains never reach tropical storm or hurricane proportions, there is an immediate and urgent need here in El Progreso to dredge the rivers and repair the innumerable holes in the dikes along the serpentine Ulúa River. If not, the communities will flood again, a prospect that makes peasants hesitant to plant in June or fix up their houses. Communities furthest from the cities, in the lower valleys, are requesting boats to evacuate the population in case of flooding again. They are well aware that the first to be protected by the government's multi-million dollar engineering plan, to begin construction this month, will be the San Pedro Sula Airport, the transnational Tela Railroad Company and the independent plantain and banana growers. The communities are a bit lower down on the list of priorities. The cost of the Hydrographic Catchment and Mini-Catchment Area Management Project of the Master Plan for National Reconstruction and Transformation that the government will present to donors in Stockholm is nearly $196 million. Ulúa's watershed area will cost $20 million.
May Day demandsMay Day was celebrated in El Progreso with a 5,000 person march, in which the number one demand was "the immediate repair and construction of Ulúa's dikes, and the dredging of the rivers and gullies that threaten to flood our communities." Given that the government has evicted peasant families without other options who have again built huts on the dikes and other high-risk zones, and also given that there is no plan for relocation and new housing construction, the march's second demand was land and a house to live in.
The third demand on the list was respect for the right to free organization, and recognition of the Central Committee of Rural Sector Representatives of the El Progreso region. This is because the mayor has refused to recognize any community organizations whose elections are not conducted under the auspices of a municipal delegation. It is the mayor's way of "protecting" the municipality's politicized chain of command—the entrenched civic leaders.
According to one Radio Progreso commentator, the only demonstration in the city's history comparable to this year's May Day event occurred in 1954, with the eruption of the banana workers' strike that soon paralyzed the entire country. That was the beginning of trade union organizing in Honduras, and is why El Progreso is known as the birthplace of unionism. The event's fortieth anniversary was commemorated in 1994.
Leading the May 1 march this year was the incipient organization of hurricane victims from the countryside—the Central Committee of Rural Sector Representatives of the El Progreso region. They were followed by the Workers Party (PT), a small Trotskyist party, together with the National Confederation of Field Workers (CNTC), a militant organization related to the PT in El Progreso. The bulk of the march followed: men, women and children from the city and countryside alike, all left homeless and penniless by Mitch, marching with placards raised. Unorganized people from the town who participate in the parishes, together with the Church's Reconstruction Committee, mobilized the greatest number of people, and helped the hurricane victims organize the march. Somewhere in the crowd was a small group from the Democratic Unification Party. SITRATERCO, the region's banana workers' union, bused its people in from the banana fields to the demonstration in San Pedro Sula.
In San Pedro and TegucigalpaThe event in San Pedro Sula wasn't much bigger than the one in El Progreso, even though San Pedro's population is four times greater. It was also lacking the freshness of the El Progreso march, the sense that new things are being born. The unity between workers and the poor was missing as well. Before the bulk of the marchers reached the rally site at the Cathedral, a group of unions and organizations split off from the march over disagreements with the three umbrella organizations: the Honduran Workers' Confederation (CTH), the General Workers' Confederation (CGT) and the Unitary Honduran Workers Confederation (CUTH). The dissidents accused their traditional leaders of being corrupt and having sold out to the government.
The splinter group, relatively strong and enthusiastic, finished their march in another of the city's plazas, in front of the statue of Francisco Morazán. The group was composed of the soft drink industry union (STIBYS), the medicine and hospital workers union (SITRAMEDYS), the teachers union (COPEMH), the University of Honduras' workers union (SITRAUNAH) and another university workers union (FRU), and members of ANACH, a peasant association.
In Tegucigalpa, the eruption of discontent and division was greater. A group from STIBYS in red hoods and green tunics—parodying a well known figure from a popular Latin American TV program—took over the road to the Civic Plaza in Morazán Park, to prevent the leaders of the same three workers' confederations targeted in San Pedro Sula from reading their declaration. When the leaders insisted on doing so anyway, the hooded protesters commenced with their burlesque, booing their opponents out of the limelight, crying "Out, out, out!" The stubborn leaders tried for a second time, which led a group of young people—these with faces revealed—to bombard them with tomatoes, rotten eggs, bags of water and whatever else they could get their hands on. And so went the unhappy chain of events of May Day in the capital.
Terrorists and romanticsFor the past few years, the national media—obviously owned by big business—have not missed an opportunity to reiterate how the leaders of the workers' movement belong to a class of their own, are alienated from their base, and speak only in their own interests when they claim to represent the workers. The day after the march, the media highlighted the terrorist violence of the hooded members of STIBYS, stating that they were dressed in Ku Klux Klan style and had threatened the thirteen corrupt leaders with death. They also emphasized the dissidents' excitability and romantic attachment to Che Guevara, the latter assumption gleaned from demonstrators sporting T-shirts bearing his image.
Some of the thirteen leaders humiliated in Tegucigalpa have been presiding over the workers' confederations for 20-25 years. CGT leader Felícito Avila, who did not appear at the march, is known as his organization's leader for life.
May Day in La CeibaTwo entirely separate demonstrations were held in La Ceiba, Honduras' fourth major city, similar in size to El Progreso. One was organized by the workers' federations and unions, principally banana workers from Standard Fruit (SUTRAFSCO). The other was led by the Communal Federation of Business Leaders of the Atlantic Seaboard (FECOPALA), which marched separately because, according to their president, "the unions only look out for their own petty interests" and are not supporting the unorganized population's principal demand of dredging the rivers that run through La Ceiba and repairing the dikes. As in El Progreso, the most important issue was the dikes, but unlike El Progreso, where SITRATERCO rank and file marched alongside the Committee of Rural Representatives, there was no such overlap in La Ceiba.
A lesson from MitchA brief analysis of these marches shows that the union movement is in serious crisis. The alliance of its leadership, whether open or implicit, with the government and with capital has given rise to growing discontent among the grassroots. Rather than ignore the unions, big business prefers that the workers feel represented by them, since it uses the unions as a mediating tool for controlling the workers. The union puts on one face for the workers and another for the capitalists. But workers today are starting to figure out who is calling the shots. This discovery, accompanied by radical actions that border on violence, is the product of a generalized awareness triggered by Mitch. It is also the product of a belief shared by the government and big business—specifically the banana companies—that the way to secure governability is via strong-arm tactics and concentration of power, and that now is the opportune moment to modernize their administrative and productive organization without worker opposition.
Hurricane victims organizeThe population in general and hurricane victims in particular have also taken note of the trade unions' elitist mentality. They view the unions not as their representatives, but as a privileged circle—the privilege in this case being a steady job—whose only interest is improving their own salaries. When the union member is also a hurricane victim something else is revealed: that the new organization of hurricane victims represents his or her interests better than the union.
The Catholic Church seems to have some responsibility in this situation, as well as a mission to fulfill. It obviously can't become the leadership of a new organization that could fill the void left by the unions or peasant organizations. But it can, and should, direct all its efforts into supporting the development of the hurricane victims' organization, so the victims themselves can demand minimum security for their lives—the dikes along the river, for example—and respect for their own particular organization, one the government will have a hard time recognizing, since it is on the verge of launching its electoral campaign.
A dangerous reformAn issue rich in its political implications took up half of April, triggering a series of debates at the national level and strengthening the struggle for human rights. The issue was Congress' attempt to reform the organizational law governing the Office of National Human Rights Commissioner.
The reform cut the commission's term from six to four years. Next, and even worse, it limited the commission's power in such a way as to exclude investigation of abuses of authority, bad administration and corruption of public officials. The goal was to relegate the commission exclusively to the sphere of "human rights" understood strictly as bloody violations of the right to life: torture, forced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, and the like. In other words, 1980s-style crimes.
Under the reform, the colossal human rights violation known as government corruption would fall under the exclusive domain of the Offices of Comptroller General of the Republic, of Administrative Probity, and of Public Prosecutor. The reform would prevent the Human Rights Commission, as defender of the people's rights, from performing its oversight role with respect to the comptroller's office or these other institutions.
The reform was approved on April 20, at night, in a surprise move to put the President's initiative into effect without giving all assembly members prior access to the text or the opportunity to study it, and with extremely limited debate. And, as has happened with many other laws rushed through Congress after Mitch, it was passed without the population's knowledge of the proposal. Even at that, the reform was steamrolled through with the 39 Liberal votes in favor, 27 against and 2 abstentions.
Congress has been turned into a rubber stamp, availing itself of the Liberal majority headed by congressional president Rafael Pineda Ponce, known as Pin Pon, the Spanish equivalent of ping-pong. The bills come from the President's office ready-made and the role of Congress, as the Executive office's obedient, non-thinking, non-deliberating servant, is to mechanically put its seal of approval on whatever comes along. It was not without reason that in some May Day placards, Congress was portrayed as a sled driven by President Flores.
In some cases, the hasty pushing through of bills triggers protests by affected sectors in the lobby of Congress. The legislators are sometimes even compelled to take a step backwards, as happened this time. The national and international uproar forced Pineda Ponce to play "ping-pong" with the law: first approve and then quash it.
Charges of corruptionIn March, the National Human Rights Commissioner published provisional accusations in over 17 cases having to do with corruption in the management of international aid for hurricane victims. These charges did serious damage to the government's image, coming as they did prior to the meeting in Stockholm between Central American governments and the international community.
To avoid further accusations of this type, and to avoid having to penalize the authors of such charges in the future, the government decided to take its revenge on Commissioner Leo Valladares, by way of Congress through the reform. Ironically, the government failed to realize that this action—a desperate attempt to protect its image in the future—would hurt its already tarnished image even more on an international level.
It was not only Valladares—a man renowned and respected for his uprightness and courage in the defense of human rights—whose head had been placed on the chopping block, but also his entire institution and the very concept of human rights. Diplomatic pressure from the most influential donor countries was felt immediately. Their ambassadors visited Valladares personally, to express their support and let the government know that aid would be suspended if they didn't rectify the situation immediately.
One week later, after many meetings between President Flores, Pineda Ponce and the Liberal bench members, Congress had no alternative but to retract the law. To put a good face on the decision to annul the reform, Pineda Ponce met with representatives from the five other party benches before the vote. The annulment was approved unanimously.
Support for ValladaresTo assure Congress's rectification, groups from a range of different sectors mobilized in Tegucigalpa. No workers' confederations participated, only a few unions from some peasant organizations. Hurricane victims from the north mobilized, as did the Lenca people through the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPIN), peasants (CNTC and UTC), women (Visitación Padilla Women's Committee) and the Coordinating Council of Popular Organizations, among others. A sit-in of over 1,000 people surrounded Congress, kept under control by riot police. At one point, seeking shelter from the rain, the protesters pushed forward towards the congressional building. When the police tried to keep the crowd back with sticks, kicks and blows, some demonstrators fought back. The final count was one policeman and five demonstrators injured, and hundreds of people choked by tear gas.
Somewhat later, members of the teachers union (COPEMH) and the doctors and hospital workers' union (SITRAMEDYS) arrived to express their solidarity with the picketers. At the end of the day, Commissioner Leo Valladares himself showed up, accompanied by 16 of his delegates from the country's major cities. He requested permission to enter the building, but was refused. The pro-government press and radio, which had vehemently attacked Valladares and his group, declared them responsible for the earlier disturbances.
Positive globalizationThese events indicate that Honduras is already feeling the positive effects of globalization in the area of human rights. The pressure from European countries, especially the Scandinavians, was a decisive factor. Just like the globalization imposed by the International Monetary Fund with its "adjustments," civil society and the human rights struggle also have appreciable leverage in this globalized world.
Domestically, the conflict clarified Congress' obsequious relationship to the President of the Republic and the irresponsibility of the majority of legislators beyond the shadow of a doubt. The issue became so politicized that the National Party deputies, who have never raised their voices to defend human rights and who have some still unsettled accounts of their own with justice, raised their banner in support of the Commissioner's Office. Within the governing Liberal Party, the tendencies that are not part of the government also came out in support of it. Government supporters were unanimously united against it until they received the order to back off.
The presidential campaign will begin next year and some internal party pre-candidates have already been announced. Pineda Ponce is one of those spinning the political wheel of fortune. It remains to be seen whether this episode will do long-term damage to his chances.
Indigenous people's rightsThe indigenous population strongly supports the commissioner, and not only out of appreciation for the many times he has supported them, including by serving as guarantor in agreements with the government that the government later reneged on. They also support him because the day is nearing when the reform to article 107 of the Constitution must be ratified. This article as it now stands states that "the title to lands bordering on neighboring states or on the shores of either sea, extending 40 km. into the interior of the country...can only be acquired or possessed or held under any title by native born Hondurans." The goal of reforming it is to permit foreign tourism investment to develop the beach areas, some of which are occupied by the Garífuna people.
The indigenous populations, with a capacity to mobilize that they did not have at the end of 1998 when the first round of approval of this constitutional reform occurred, are now preparing to defend their rights. Their successful struggle to maintain the integral attributes of the Office of Human Rights Commissioner gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their strength. It also won them an ally that is now strengthened and buttressed by a wall of international support.
Ricardo Falla, sj, is director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits of Honduras.