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  Number 282 | Enero 2005
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Honduras

A Year Full of Disappointments

The vacuous electoral campaign is disappointing, as is the repressive way that crime is being dealt with. The increasing activity of many “civil society” organizations is both disappointing and demobilizing. The only choice is to resist, because another Honduras is possible …even if at times it may not seem so.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

This year ended with frustration as Honduras’ national soccer team was eliminated from the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup. What at first glance may seem to be a purely sports-oriented problem was in fact the first great failure of the year for Honduras’ former President Rafael Callejas, now president of the National Soccer Federation. At the beginning of the year, he publicly promised that all his decisions would be geared to getting Honduras classified for the World Cup. Once again, politics and sports got mixed up with the figures and interests of politicians and businesspeople.

Callejas: A world cup loser

Callejas did rack up several victories during the year, however. First, he managed to get his main attorney, Ovidio Navarro, appointed to head the Office of Public Prosecutor. Navarro’s first order of business was to throw out all accusations of misappropriation of public funds and abuse of authority while Callejas was President in the nineties. Callejas then found the magic formula to end a dispute between the government and the teachers, the year’s most serious and long-running conflict, and one that plunged the government into deep crisis.

Taking the soccer team to the final tournament would have raised Callejas’ prestige significantly, helping pave the way to one of his most cherished dreams: a constitutional reform that would enable him to run for President again. But his defeat on the soccer field complicated his re-ascending political career. Had the team qualified for the 2006 World Cup competition, the soccer-induced euphoria would have drowned out the conflict emanating from the Public Prosecutor’s Office in early October. But as it was, the year ended with the public prosecutor’s ethics, political independence and professional capacity all called into question.

Just as 2003 ended with the Supreme Court strongly questioned following the courageous resignation of Justice Blanca Valladares to protest the corruption, influence peddling and politicization she observed in the country’s highest court, 2004 drew to a close with serious question marks hanging over two public institutions created during the state modernization process implemented by then-President Callejas. One was the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the other the National Human Rights Commission.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office is suspect for following the same path as the Supreme Court and many other state institutions, subordinated to the politicians of the two-party system and the interests of big capital. The National Human Rights Commission became the focus of attention when the government decided in early November to form a parallel institution to weaken it precisely because it has so far refused to submit to decisions made by politicians. The shock waves felt in these two institutions come on top of those in the Supreme Court and express the erosion of an already weak government with little left to do in its remaining time in office but politicize decisions related to justice and human rights to bolster the incumbent party in the November 2005 elections.

Public prosecutor:
MIssion accomplished

When the National Congress appointed Ovidio Navarro the new public prosecutor in March, the parliamentarians knew they were making a political decision based on negotiations between the ruling National Party’s “dark side,” still headed by Callejas, and the Liberal Party sector controlled by powerful San Pedro Sula businessman Jaime Rosenthal Oliva, who has a history of controlling the judicial branch. The representatives voted in accordance with negotiations between the country’s most ignoble economic interests, resulting in a public prosecutor linked to the Callejas group’s interests and an assistant prosecutor close to Rosenthal Oliva.

Navarro immediately set about fulfilling his political role. He offered “proof” that people had never been politically disappeared in the country, turned his back on all trials related to human rights violations, eliminated all files on Callejas from his institution and then reorganized it, getting rid of any attorneys working on cases linked to human rights or demands against top public officials.

Reality and mirage

Current President Ricardo Maduro started his term with an important quota of power that gave him a degree of maneuverability with respect to the political parties, above all the various groups controlled by his own National Party. His team was distinguished by its technical rather than political skills. From the start, the more technical ministers were those of the presidency, government, education and health, while the more political members included the minister of agriculture and ranching and Maduro’s most trusted adviser, Ramón Medina Luna.

All these men accompanied Maduro for almost three years, during which the country has lived between reality and a dream world. The reality is the increasing impoverishment and lack of confidence among the population, along with the abandonment of social policies. The dream world is the one invented by the President, complete with supposed triumphs and successes never before seen in the country, continuously and mercilessly communicated through an intense publicity campaign.

After three years lost between reality and image, the President has been cast into political solitude. His team, which started out determined to forge a technical administration, ended up subjected to the political decisions of the party’s darkest side. Maduro finished 2004 bereft of his trusted education minister, who he was forced to sacrifice following pressure from the powerful teachers’ movement and his party’s dark side. He and the rest of his team also ended the year cut off from their own party’s important political decisions, and with no option but to continue their campaign of publicity lies in 2005.

The year ended with a ferocious struggle among the different tendencies within the political parties in preparation for the February 2005 internal elections that will decide the candidates for November. The two pre-candidates from the National Party stand out: Tegucigalpa Mayor Miguel Pastor and National Congress president Porfirio Lobo, both of whom are unabashedly exploiting their public posts. Reforms made to the electoral law in the middle of the year provided a short-term instrument that will allow these two men as well as the main pre-candidates from the Liberal Party to strengthen their positions within Honduras’ traditional and powerful two-party system.

In favor of the death penalty

Public security has received the most resources despite being the most questioned of all the government’s policies and publicity campaigns. That’s why the issue of security, including the death penalty, is at the center of both party’s campaigns, particularly that of the governing party.

The pro-capital punishment campaign is but one expression of the failure of the Maduro administration’s public safety policy. The congressional president cum presidential pre-candidate is seeking to distance himself from Maduro and exploit all his shortcomings while Porfirio Lobo is focusing his campaign on a proposal to toughen up the state’s repressive policies. His most radical proposal is to reintroduce the death penalty, something that hits home in a country with a frightened population. Lobo says that Maduro’s public safety policy failed because he was too cautious, whereas he proposes to fight fire with fire: facing up to common criminals, the youth gangs known as maras and the big-time criminal elements with firm police actions that are backed up by a legal framework that includes radical punishments.

Lobo exploited his high position to launch a publicity campaign geared to touch the hearts of the most humble folk, who are tired of violence and anxious for quick and simple fixes for their lack of security. This campaign further improved conditions for the application of extreme measures to physically eliminate youth gang members, for example. At the same time, there is a feeling that any law, however radical, will end up backfiring on the most defenseless. Grassroots experience has been that, once approved, laws tend to be used to the advantage of those with money or decision-making power.

Lobo is skillfully managing his political and business colleagues interested in defending themselves from a generalized crime wave that threatens their interests, as well as poorer sectors who are susceptible to the demagogy of professional politicians like himself. His proposal to toughen crime laws has the support of both extreme right sectors and people living in extreme poverty. Lobo would have no qualms about heading up a fascist model: he is very knowledgeable about the feelings and thoughts of the country’s most hard-right groups because he lives and works with them. He also knows the politics of the masses well, given that he belonged to the Soviet-oriented Communist Party’s Central Committee Bureau in the 1970s and was trained in the USSR’s school for top cadres.

Casa Alianza: A significant trophy

Porfirio Lobo has the backing of Oscar Álvarez, the public safety minister, who is devoted to publicity, demagogy and a state that takes a hard line against street crime and those who disturb public order. Álvarez has already let it be known that he is very interested in the future presidency so he can realize his dream of freeing the country from crime and those who threaten public peace and tranquility.

Álvarez achieved his most significant security “trophy” in a September 17 blow to Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, which works with street kids. The blow was aimed at what is the weakest flank of any institution: human frailty. Casa Alianza’s Latin America director, Bruce Harris, has been one of the most renowned figures in recent Honduran history. His reputation was built around the investigations he promoted on the issue of mistreatment of children by public authorities and, even more importantly, the results of his institution’s investigations into police involvement in the systematic murder of hundreds of young people either linked to youth gangs or suspected of belonging to them. He was invariably responsible for any charges made to international human rights organizations.

Harris was hated by all of the most recent Honduran governments and was particularly in Álvarez’s sights. For years, authorities accused Harris of disparaging Honduras in the eyes of the international community and meddling in matters that had nothing to do with him. Many suggested he be declared persona non grata and expelled from Honduras. Perhaps more importantly, Harris was considered one of the greatest obstacles to the public safety policy being implemented by Maduro’s government.

Police plot against Harris?

Suddenly, the public safety minister’s prayers were answered when Carlos Alberto Ortiz, a 19-year-old who already had a history as a gigolo, started coming to Casa Alianza looking for food or a place to sleep for a few nights. Less than two years earlier, he had been at the center of a scandal involving an 80-year-old priest from the western city of La Esperanza, Intibucá. Via parliamentary representative Rosario Godoy, Ortiz had accused the priest of soliciting his sexual services. Other examples followed, showing Ortiz to be a master at sniffing out and approaching male public figures with homosexual inclinations. It is rumored that in no time at all he had specialized in “attention” to priests.

It’s not clear how this young man made contact with Bruce Harris, although there are suspicions that it could have been a setup. What is certain is that Harris met with Ortiz and they agreed on a price for intimate relations. Once the act had been consummated, Ortiz went to his protector, Rosario Godoy, who took the matter to the police. With all the morbid pleasure in the world, the public safety minister personally saw to the publicizing and managing of the issue in a way that would permanently discredit all of Harris’ denunciations of police involvement in the murder of young people.

CAFTA on the verge of being signed

Ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States—a process now accelerated by Bush’s victory—is a fundamental issue in the run up to the parties’ internal elections. The candidates from the different political tendencies prefer to avoid an official position, although some parliamentary representatives from both traditional parties signed a letter promoted by the National Grassroots Resistance Coordinator (CNRP) opposing CAFTA’s ratification.

In the middle of November, the government kicked off an extensive publicity campaign highlighting CAFTA’s benefits for small industry and the informal economy. While
it was joined by an important part of the big business sector, they also met with top CNRP representatives to listen to the Honduran Left’s arguments against CAFTA. During the meeting, Eduardo Facussé, one of the main business leaders, stated: “It’s worth our while having Carlos H. Reyes (the country’s most recognized grassroots opposition figure) close to us, even if we don’t reach any agreement.”

In sum, the year is ending with an electoral campaign devoid of reality, CAFTA about to be ratified by the National Congress, a government reduced to its minimum expression and seeking to toughen up its repressive policies to recover some credibility with a society worried about crime and a social movement moving to radicalize its resistance policies and actions.

The only thing that
truly works around here

They say that the only system that works to perfection in Honduras is the two-party one. That perception was abundantly evident in 2004 in the political reforms approved to update and renovate the electoral law and the law governing political organizations, in the relations with the international financial institutions, particularly the IMF, and in social and political conflicts such as the prolonged teachers’ unions struggle. During the last quarter, it was also evident in corruption cases involving various customs officials in fuel smuggling and links with drug smuggling, as well as in campaigns to reform the Constitution and eliminate the immunity of parliamentary representatives and top public officials. Honduras’ major big politicians, master opportunists who know how to wring personal and party advantages from any given event, have been constant and determining factors in all these issues.

This year demonstrated once again that the concept that the state, and in fact the country as a whole, are the property of a small economic and political elite works perfectly in Honduras. National resources are either used for their personal benefit or, at best, shared out to the population in return for loyalty. These elites understand that the country and the state are the property of the capitalists, bankers and international trade and they don’t hesitate to offer it up or sign commitments in exchange for more perquisites. This patrimonial culture is what sustains the political traditionalism expressed in the bi-party system, not to mention in families (you always have to obey the man of the house becaue he “owns” it), sports, religion, consumerism and the struggle to find work or some other means of survival.

The “civil society” boom

Honduran “civil society” is experiencing a new phenomenon. And to judge by the number of times that term is used, one can only conclude that, in addition to international organizations such as the UNDP, the IMF and the World Bank, those most interested in consolidating the “civil society” model are the government and big business.

In development jargon, “civil society” consists of NGOs and all other national bodies referred to as “counterparts” that are not governmental. They have a basic institutional structure and certain links to grassroots social sectors—so-called “target groups”—that depend on international aid to finance development in poor countries. What is new is that this civil society is being established as an interlocutor between the government and international cooperation, displacing many older social sectors, particularly community and grassroots organizations. Likewise, “civil society leaders” are no longer the heads of those older community or grassroots organizations but are now the executive directors or general coordinators of the NGOs.

The strategic plans of the organizations that make up this civil society embrace many different issues: poverty, environmental vulnerability, agrarian problems, gender equity, civic participation, governability and democracy, human rights, decentralization and the fight against impunity and corruption. While such issues are certainly valid and it is good that they are on the agendas of international cooperation organizations, the problem is that for the most part they are thus being addressed using methodologies, formulas and language designed in the central offices of these organizations in the countries of the North. Participatory research, focal groups, case studies, networking, mainstreaming, gender focus, advocacy, target populations, logical framework... are just a few of the terms and activities that identify the civil society organizations linked inextricably into this once-size-fits-all international cooperation.

Many of the initiatives these organizations implement try to offer alternatives to poverty and the unjust distribution of wealth, but their contributions fill the vacuum where social organization and public policies should be. They thus constitute—together with the “facilitator” state and big business—the third pillar sustaining the country’s de-nationalizing and disadvantageous insertion into the globalized economy.

Three tasks for civil society

In its service to globalization, this civil society has three important tasks:
1) To channel the questioning of and opposition to public policies and the proposals put forward by international financial institutions. The directors or coordinators of the various NGOs promote forums and debates on government projects to spark criticism and channel it towards the officials heading up the different state spheres. The government’s job is then to promote arenas for debate and dialogue with these NGO representatives to gauge their feelings and thoughts and pass them on to the above-mentioned spheres, promising to convert them into public policies.

2) To act as counterparts of the international aid organizations, administrating and managing the funds those organizations earmark for poverty reduction in projects related to agriculture, development, civic participation, infrastructure, governability, freedom of expression, human rights, the environment, gender, youth and violence, among other issues and approaches.

3) To function as a retaining wall against pressure groups and social, grassroots and political protest movements of the anti-system and anti-globalization opposition. The wider this civil society band, the greater the capacity of the government and the international organizations to implement their programs and the greater the government’s capacity to delegitimize radical protest groups and their proposals, limiting or annulling their influence on public policies.

Bloodhounds and mercenaries

The officially recognized target groups of the sectors within this “civil society” band cover almost the whole spectrum: at-risk young people, migrants, maquiladora workers, peasant groups, impoverished subsistence farmers, housewives, urban dwellers, the elderly, gay movements… For all that, the availability of funds is directly related to issues decided upon in the offices of international cooperation, as well as on more immediate problems, disasters and calamities, and even on structural issues such as democracy, civic participation and governance.

The “consultants” placed among the counterparts play a relevant role in the civil society universe and receive a large percentage of the international funds for cooperation. Some refer to them as the “bloodhounds” of development funds due to their skill at sniffing out the issues attracting the most international financing at any given time.

Others prefer to dub them “development mercenaries” because they descend on different countries or regions according to the movement of issues and funds. Consultants conduct research, draw up frames of reference and gather alternative proposals in order to increase the efficacy of the international institutions, but they usually know about as much about the individual country they are sent to study as roving international news reporters do about the countries they find themselves suddenly dispatched to for an unexpected breaking story.

With costs covered

A good percentage of the budgets of civil society organizations is earmarked for the wages of the institution’s director and various other employees, as well as travel expenses and the activities—particularly public relations—carried out by the staff to consolidate the institution’s “advocacy” around the thematic content of their work. The organizations’ directors frequently reproduce that familiar central figure in our patrimonial culture known as the caudillo or cacique (the local strongman or political boss), albeit with their own particular “development and citizenship” language. They feel themselves and are felt by others to be the “owners” of the institution. They tend to cling to their management post, availing themselves of a team of underlings who share some of the benefits of the institutional budget.

The forums—and workshops and seminars—are frequently held in fancy hotels in the country’s most important cities, or even often at beach resort hotels with convention facilities, and include good food, travel expenses and other benefits for those selected from among the target groups. These events are an important budget item for responding to the strategic plan of these counterpart organizations, and one the donor organizations seem quite willing to group members require that their attendance be financed, and the grassroots leaders have long since learned that their costs will be either fully or almost fully covered if they accept an invitation to an event or activity held by these organizations.

Adulterating the movements

These behavior patterns inevitably adulterate the struggle of the grassroots social movements and turn their leaders into a local extension of fee-earning political advocacy and development professionals. A community or a grassroots social sector invited with all costs paid to pledge to construct a more equitable society will end up understanding that everything comes from outside, including the money to fight for their own demands and dignity.

As long as this outside funding keeps coming, there will be people willing to meet to debate local and municipal plans and perhaps even struggle to achieve them. But when the money dries up, the community and its leaders will feel relegated again, a sensation that will almost certainly be worse than before they received the call to participate in the third tier of the big leagues. Or they will look for someone new—another nongovernmental organization, a church or a political party—to sponsor their struggles or whose schemes they are willing adopt in exchange for continued financing. After a while it no longer matters who they have to obey or whose line they have to follow because they will have figured out that the paying game is to dance to the piper’s tune.

The weakness, internal defects and vices of some grassroots organizations, the corruption and/or mistakes of their leaders based on underdevelopment, the existence of organizational structures that claim but do not really have grassroots connections and sometimes the total absence of such organizations all contribute to the lead role this civil society has taken on. But it only helps demobilize people, increase their dependence on international resources, strengthen the patrimonial culture and legitimize the idea that the country and
the state in particular belong to a small political and economic elite into which NGO directors and coordinators are being incorporated.

Having said that, it must be stressed that many organizations within this civil society are genuinely concerned with promoting grassroots organization and channeling their resources into the formation of grassroots promoters are committed tothe mission of building alternatives to the current exclusionary economic, social and political model. Similarly, there are international cooperation organizations that base their work plans on the local reality, understand that their resources must complement efforts being made by the communities themselves and are aware that grassroots leaders cannot be replaced or represented by anyone else.

The need for resistance in Honduras

Despite all the negative dynamics, Honduras’ grassroots sectors, which are mainly organized in the Grassroots Bloc and the National Grassroots Resistance (CNRP), are continuing to express their resistance to the globalization system that is dragging the country down. The main debate among these organizations over the past year has revolved around the role of the grassroots movement in the political electoral process. After several months of discussion, the CNRP decided to publicly reject this process, which is so locked into the current self-serving bi-party system, and commit itself to building an opposition whose struggle goes far beyond seeking access to government and public posts for its leaders. The CNRP is advising the population to vote against both traditional parties and accept no activists, let alone electoral candidates, from them. The CNRP says it aspires to being more than just a political party, even if party bodies participate within it. It proclaims that it could only establish an alliance with a
party that does not confuse itself with the traditional parties, whether in methods, proposals, objectives, the formation of its leaders and activists or their lifestyles.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is envío’s correspondent in Honduras.

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