Honduras: A Grassroots Party Emerging from Grassroots Organization
Jesuit of Latin America
Honduras always stands out as the most backward country of Central America, perhaps with the exception of Panama. The new neoliberal economic plan has been grafted onto a social formation that most closely approximates the "banana republic" stereotype, with economic domination by transnational banana companies and strong political-military intervention by the State Department and US troops. To the non-Central American observer, it would seem that very little has changed in Honduras since the 1950s and that there is relatively little hope for significant changes in the future.
Nevertheless, the recomposition of the country's left political forces in 1990 as well as new strategies—at least at the level of discourse—have been important. It is worth remembering that in 1976 the majority of Central American analysts—including the authors of this analysis—thought that revolutionary movements would triumph first in Guatemala and then in El Salvador, with the greatest delays in Nicaragua and Honduras. However, it was in Nicaragua, home to the region's seemingly unshakable strongman, that a political-military struggle first triumphed.
Such intellectual visions of the world, juxtaposing the most backward with the most advanced, did not help predict the behavior of revolutionary movements in the 1980s. The same thing could well be true for the 1990s. It may be that, within the gradual changes taking place in the Honduran grassroots movement in the framework of the country's apparently rigid social structures, the seed for a new type of revolutionary movement exists, a movement based fundamentally in civil society and not in a vanguard that proposes to take power by military means. Following is an analysis of the gains made last year by the Honduran grassroots movement and the main obstacles still facing it.
The movement tilts at economic windmillsDuring most of the year, the movement focused on defending state salaries and jobs, the banana workers' strike against Standard Fruit's Tela Railroad Company, the peasant protest against agrarian policies that affect basic grain producers, the annulment of the anti-terrorist law and a general amnesty for political prisoners. The Callejas government saw 35 strikes and 26 strike attempts between January and July, not counting numerous work stoppages and other kinds of labor conflicts. The most important was the banana workers' strike for a 60% wage increase. The strike lasted 42 days, the longest in Honduran history. The business organization COHEP calculates that losses totaled $35 million.
Despite this strength, the movement had little success. Callejas used two methods to break the union movement. One was to create "parallel directorates," which made declarations like "We're willing to sacrifice," when in reality it was the most combative workers who were being dismissed. The other was to militarize society even more. The military, defending its budget in the face of congressional attempts to cut it, equated protest with terrorism and argued, in the words of General Arnulfo Cantarero, that "democracy is not maintained with words or violins, but with arms." The government used the army to break up protests after a hike in urban transport prices and, after declaring the banana workers' strike illegal, used massive military intervention to bring it to an end. With its leaders threatened with jail, the union, in danger of disappearing altogether, was forced to accept the government's proposal of a 25% wage increase (with no wages paid during the strike).
As to the other issues, Callejas ignored the peasant protests and made a pact with the cattle ranchers and other big landowners. An amnesty law passed by the National Congress turned into a farce when President Callejas declared that Honduras had no political prisoners, just common criminals. They only happened also to be peasant leaders.
When the government announced its non-negotiated "concertation" (a contradiction in terms), the grassroots movement was just beginning to search for a pragmatic alternative and had still not found mass support. Its response was thus merely reactive and argued on terrain most favorable to the neoliberal enemy.
The Honduran Left goes to the unorganizedThe new initiative on the part of the Honduran movement can be defined by four essential elements:
- Uniting the country's left forces.
- Recognizing that conditions do not exist in Honduras to reproduce the political strategies followed by the revolutionary vanguards of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Independent of the fact that the international situation obliges the revolutionary movements in those three countries to rethink their strategies, the Honduran movement has set itself the challenge of finding its own unique strategy, firmly rooted in the country's specific social, economic and political conditions.
- Creating a political movement and a grassroots party able to compete in the electoral arena with traditional political parties. What distinguishes this new party from the National and Liberal parties, and from the tiny alternative parties (which never managed to garner more than 3% of the popular vote) is its aim to emerge from authentically democratic grassroots organizations, which will stay autonomous from any party interference and top-down directives.
- Recognizing that grassroots organization already exists, albeit relatively small, and thus giving priority to organizing the unorganized instead of concentrating solely on mobilizing these existing organizations.
In reality, the idea of uniting the Left is nothing new in Honduras. There have been repeated attempts, and failures, to do so. The novelty of 1990 is that the other three elements are present as well. As we will see, the advance of this new project has been uneven.
Starting point: Left weaknessAt the beginning of 1990, three important organizations began discussing a new political strategy. They were the United Federation of Honduran Workers (FUTH), whose leadership is made up of people who left the Communist Party some time ago; the Central Coordinator of Popular Organizations (CCOP), whose leaders are still members of the Communist Party; and the United Popular Associations (APU), whose leadership is made up of people linked to the revolutionary movement "Los Lenchos" (the name refers to the assassinated peasant Lorenzo Zelaya).
FUTH membership includes only one worker for every nine organized by the unions linked to the traditional political parties. The CCOP and APU are primarily political organizations. They represent and bring together only leaders of unions, peasant organizations, student organizations, public employees, teachers and health workers that identify with their respective political lines. As weak as these three organizations are, the many other fractions of the Honduran revolutionary Left have even less influence among the base.
Obstacles to the new initiativeThe new project faces five distinct dangers as 1991 begins:
- A long history of sectarianism among the Honduran Left.
- Divisions regarding the strategy for confronting the government's neoliberal economic package.
- The gap between local and national struggles.
- Military repression.
- The danger of believing that the path to rejuvenating the movement is wide, quick and easy, rather than narrow, long and difficult.
Honduran Sectarianism. The sectarianism weakening the Honduran grassroots movement has two main sources: 1) ideological disagreement and 2) defense of the leadership's economic position, which allows them to enjoy a higher standard of living than the people they are supposed to represent.
The majority of the APU and CCOP leaders got past their ideological differences and agreed to build a democratic socialist party to be headed up by a former Communist Party member. The FUTH leadership broke with the other two groups, not so much because of different ideological positions as to protect its own economic interests. Ideological disagreements and a lack of unity continued among the base leaders of APU and CCOP, many of whom continued to treat members of the other organization as enemies as formidable as the right wing itself.
Confronting the Economic Adjustment. In the section on the grassroots movement in this issue, we point out that the "Platform of Struggle" constituted a partial confrontation with the neoliberal economic package, destined to fail for being reactive and partial. Demands included the reversal of the new economic measures, the right to job stability, an end to public employee layoffs and the maintenance of health and education budgets. The Platform mainly represented the interests of the public employees and thus fell into the enemy's trap.
In Latin America, governments implementing an adjustment consider these reactive responses when drawing up their programs. The experience accumulated in implementing these programs has taught the governments that the first protests are more militant than following ones and with each new annual adjustment package, the state becomes increasingly able to undermine and divide the political and labor movements that attempt to protest the adjustments in a partial manner.
The Platform of Struggle not only failed to truly take on the economic measures, but also meant losses for the Honduran movement's new initiative as a whole. Although the three organizations had carefully considered their participation in the Platform, APU and CCOP left its ranks, recognizing a poor strategy as well as the enemy's trap. FUTH decided to stay with the Platform and "ally with the workers' movement even if it is rightwing." Concretely, the Honduran Workers' Central, linked to the Liberal Party, and the General Workers' Central, tied to President Callejas' National Party, together representing 90% of the country's unionized workers, backed the Platform. FUTH, adopting a self-critical stance towards its past actions, presented itself as the only labor federation in the Platform genuinely free from party influence as well as the only organization fighting for independence of union struggles from purely political battles. In reality, this discourse about autonomy and independence hid the FUTH leaders' dependence on economic benefits and social status conferred on them by their leadership posts. Along with the country's traditional unions, they thus negotiated according to the terms and agenda laid down by the Callejas government. Like the other union leaders, they protected their own positions, while the workers suffered increasing unemployment and a reduction in their wages.
Reaching Out to the Base. APU and CCOP have strengthened their agreement that a new political party needs to emerge from the grassroots movement. Their goal is to leave behind the traditional circles of political action that organize only 18% of the Honduran peasants and workers and plunge into the waters of the unorganized population. This ambitious project of combining the development of a new party with going back to the unorganized masses suffered setbacks and caused internal divisions in the two organizations.
One sector of CCOP and some of APU's leaders in the northern part of the country tried to reach out to the unorganized population. In Tegucigalpa, the Union of Electrical Utility Workers freed the majority of its paid activists from bureaucratic responsibilities within the union and sent them out to work in the neighborhoods. There they attempted to learn the local language, gather peoples' economic demands and begin to organize them in health, education and, to a lesser extent, small productive projects.
Many CCOP and APU leaders got out of that work on the pretext that what was needed to organize the unorganized was to build a party at the national level. The result of this debate over how to combine the two tasks was an internal division within both organizations that considerably weakened the new initiative.
The CCOP leaders who spearheaded the work of renovating the movement stopped taking part in the party-building effort with the result that their work remained isolated. Because the leaders dedicated to constructing a new party did not change their traditional style of political practice, they began to develop the party without learning anything about its future support base and thus without incorporating the initiatives of the base and the dynamic of the grassroots organizations.
It is difficult to combine a national struggle with local issues. Ideological agreement was reached on the need for a political movement to emerge from a new dynamism in the grassroots organizations' work with the unorganized people. Nevertheless, while everyone agreed on the need to overcome the legacy of top-down political structures, other outstanding problems included the over-politicization of the movement, the domination of political over concrete interests and the separation of national concerns from local ones.
Military Repression. Even though the country's leftwing political-military organizations renounced armed struggle, repression increased in 1990 and its weight fell full force on the new initiative. Behind the repression was the conflict over the military budget between the Honduran armed forces, supported by the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency, and President Callejas, supported by USAID and the US Embassy in Honduras. The way US internal politics continues to influence Honduras as much as or more than what happens in national politics is dramatic indeed.
The generals and colonels, in search of a bigger piece of the budget and US aid, greatly exaggerated what they called the increasing danger of internal subversion and foreign enemies. The fiction, created for a direct conflict with Callejas, was turned into the reality of more repression against the people. Faced with the evidence that no real danger of armed subversion existed in the country, Honduran military intelligence leaked "confidential" documentation identifying the new economic and social initiative of a number of grassroots organizations as the most serious danger in Honduras.
Callejas did not have the courage to openly support the military budget, but capitulated to the military by not giving a general amnesty to political prisoners, a demand of the grassroots movement as a whole. US Embassy pressure on Callejas to improve the country's human rights situation in early 1991 obliged him to let four leaders of the Trotskyist PRTC revolutionary movement return to the country, something the armed forces had blocked in 1990. This rather timid beginning of demilitarization opens the door for the movement to push for a general amnesty and an improvement in the human rights situation, a step that could give the new initiative more space, even though it will continue to be the military's main target.
The Fatigue Problem. Perhaps the most serious danger facing this new initiative is fatigue. Very few leaders are capable of combining a strategy from the base with a national perspective. For them, the initiative means much more work. Although the strategy encompasses a realistic and just solution to the country's problems, their workload becomes increasingly inhumane. The temptation to transform a project that is by nature medium term into a short-term political project carries with it a danger that the initiative will run out of steam before reaching maturity.
What is the bottom line? The new initiative dominated the ideology and rhetoric of all sectors of the grassroots movement, including those leaders who are not in agreement. New experiences at the base have been carried out. The divisions created within the movement indicate the most important challenges that the project will have to confront. What is needed is to transform the ideal into daily practice in order to achieve the project's medium-term goals. It is urgent for the movement to prepare for the future without stopping its work in the here and now, by imposing a slower rhythm. It also needs to adjust the pace of building a party to the existing rhythms and skill-development requirements of the people and their natural leaders, and to incorporate new base-level leaders, technical experts and intellectuals. Without this, the danger remains of repeating the failures of the past.