A New Government from Which Nothing Is Expected
Four months after taking power through sheer luck, no one any longer expects a thing from Mel Zelaya’s government. Its lack of credibility and its ineptitude have been evident from the start
and, unless it changes its erratic path, there are only two ways out: short term chaos or a bipartisan pact.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
The sarcastic comment one hears frequently on the streets of Tegucigalpa is that “the only thing the government has changed in four months has been the time.” The government of Manuel “Mel” Zelaya Rosales completed its symbolic first 100 days, and its fourth month in power with a loss of credibility unacceptably high for such a short time in public administration. A Liberal Party official dared to admit that “we’re only just beginning and it seems like we’re already on the way out.” This atmosphere of burnout is so thick you can breathe the frustration in the air. Few people are expressing confidence in a President who flunked his first classes at university, while more and more dread to imagine the insensitive blunders that might adorn his next public statements. Many people are convinced that his evident shortfall of intelligence is hidden only by his ability to surround himself with docile advisers and assistants, and by that animal instinct he picked up on his family’s farms in the eastern province of Olancho. An anecdote that illustrates the limited respect people have for his mental abilities was expressed by a taxi driver, whose car sticker read, “Mel, lend me the government for a while.”
There is no doubt that the government that took office on January 27 generated more skepticism than expectations, more doubts than opportunities and more suspicion than confidence. Just four months on, any hope of improvement is long gone. No one has any expectations of this government, even though it is only getting started.
Fragile but arrogantMel Zelaya’s Liberal government won the November 2005 elections through a stroke of sheer luck—more because of a last minute political blunder by its rivals than on its own merits. A few loyalists close to the current government have admitted that they themselves didn’t believe they were going to win. The Liberal Party leadership had already prepared to cut loose Zelaya’s team and prepare a new party machine without it when they realized it wasn’t necessary because they had won.
Following the President elect’s narrow victory (less than 5%) over the National Party, his party’s traditional rival, his advisers went from one extreme to the other: from doubtful to triumphal and from humble to pompous. With the presidential trophy in their hands, they forgot how they had won, erasing from their minds the fact that only half of the registered voters had gone to the polls and that a tenth of those who did vote invalidated their ballot or left it blank. They also forgot that less than a quarter of the voters (23%) had supported Zelaya. Drunk with power despite all this, they took up the reins of government on the last Sunday of January as if they were on a par with the gods.
With this distorted perspective and their limited skills to manage power, the Liberal government began to spring leaks on all sides. Ignoring the fragile circumstances in which they had won the elections, they set about ruling as if the whole country was at their feet. They forgot that they had inherited a mountain of unresolved conflicts that would give them no grace period. The rising fuel prices needed an immediate response. The teachers’ unions were poised to strike at the first opportunity to defend the teacher’s statute, only just settled through negotiations with the previous government. The taxi drivers were waiting too for fulfillment of electoral promises. Added to this were pending deforestation problems and a series of laws relating to water, dams, mining and land…
Grave error from the startMel Zelaya and his team made a political mistake from the start. In spite of being the weakest of the 7 administrations in the last 25 years of uninterrupted electoral democracy, they decided to govern from within the Liberal Party’s closed circle. They shared out the ministries amongst the different Liberal factions that had participated in the elections, without seeking dialogue or consensus with social sectors outside the sphere of the traditional political parties.
The resulting government resembles the Liberal Party’s internal campaigning structure more than a public administration at the service of the nation. Trapped in this confusion of a party lost in a labyrinth of interest groups and factions, with an order based on the chaos of different internal alliances and rivalries, the country is in a downward spiral.
This basic error is at the heart of all subsequent mistakes and explains why the government has burned out so much and so fast. Considering the 50% abstention rate in the elections and the Liberals’ narrow victory, it was obvious that Zelaya could not govern alone. He had to open up his government to other sectors and search for some minimum consensus. Instead he—or someone—decided to govern only with his own party, calculating that this could serve as a platform to unite its different factions.
The trouble with that idea is that the Liberal Party is a kind of federation, with factions that are themselves political parties, positioned under the banner of liberalism, but in clear confrontation with each other. Zelaya opened the door to all these factions and shared out the ministries amongst them. The result has been that each group has turned its ministries into a power base for its members and a launching pad for the next elections. The decision to try to unite the party by divvying up political power has caused the government to lose direction, stripped it of a common agenda, and turned the exercise of power into a form of cannibalism.
Behind the power-sharing quotas, the patrimonial concept of Honduras’ bipartite system is clear: the state is booty whose resources are parceled out to loyal followers in exchange for obedience and allegiance. The logic of capitalizing greater power to invest it in future political struggles is unquestionably what mobilizes the Liberal Party’s leaders, officials and factions. Its officials put their energy into deep-seated, internal power games, thereby distancing the government from the people and their needs.
A firefighting governmentCaught in its own trap and torn to shreds by it, Zelaya’s government lost in just its first few weeks any capacity to respond coherently to the conflicts it inherited from previous governments, thus allowing them to grow worse. With no direction and each faction pushing for power in the executive, legislative and judicial bodies, Zelaya’s closest advisers have opted for demagogic, improvised and almost always provisional reactions, like firefighters trying to douse flames. It wouldn’t be so bad if the fires were put out and the conflicts resolved. However, these firefighters don’t work as a team. Each one goes it alone, chucking “water” out of a limited budget with no sense of responsibility. This may mean having to dip into funds earmarked for the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) or increasing the state’s foreign and domestic debts by spending money it doesn’t have.
President Zelaya is trying to get out of the hole he has created by negotiating with the most vocal sectors of protest and offering them quick fix solutions. But these aren’t viable responses under the circumstances. It’s political suicide to continue acting as an unfettered demagogue, indefinitely ignoring the limitations of what the state can really offer.
The PRS has the distinction of being the only public policy that has managed to survive several governments. Drafted during the administration of Carlos Flores Facussé, it survived Ricardo Maduro’s government, choking and drowning along the way, but just 100 days into Mel Zelaya’s government, it is virtually dead and buried. Today it is being used as a tool by the political chiefs of the bipartite system to strengthen their party support base in the municipalities. Grassroots community organizations are being duped with the vague, generic idea of “civic power,” which is just a maneuver by one sector of the Liberal Party to strengthen its grassroots base and pave the way for the next and as yet distant elections.
A caudillo without a haciendaMel Zelaya comes from the purest blood line of caudillos. A direct descendent of powerful leaders from the Spanish colonial period, Zelaya has moved his hacienda and his talent as an arrogant hacendado to the presidential palace. He is fast losing any credibility with the citizenry through his improvisation, excessively personal style, folkloric replies and disrespect for colleagues.
He hadn’t been in power even two months when he received his first resignation from a faithful ally, Juan Bendeck, director of the much-questioned National Electricity Board (ENEE). The reason? The President touched a nerve by disparaging him in public about decisions apparently taken without consultation. Two months later, he denied in a press conference that he had taken out international insurance to protect the population from a hike in fuel costs and publicly branded Presidential Minister Yani Rosenthal, who was sitting beside him, a “liar” for having announced that same morning that the government had made this controversial purchase.
In a turbulent river…One can start to see which fishermen are getting the best catch from the turbulent waters created by the Liberals. The first is the National Party, which has the chance—handed to it on a plate—to capitalize on the government’s confusion and lack of direction. Second are several internal factions of the Liberal Party itself, which are interested in taking advantage of the political blindness of Mel Zelaya’s closest supporters. Third are what are known in Honduras as the “hidden powers,” who may be taking advantage of the power vacuum to control spheres of government, especially the Security and Public Ministries, the Supreme Court and an important sector within the National Congress.
The opposition of the social and grassroots sectors is as dispersed as it is intense. In these same four months, it has become evident that there is no grassroots social movement able to capitalize on the government’s mistakes, much less articulate a coherent, constructive policy response and help define an alternative direction that would save the country from becoming so ungovernable that the whole of society would end up as losers.
In this turbulent river, one potential scenario is that the government will get weaker as the discontent and conflict increase, bringing political instability and the danger of an ungovernable situation. It is a scenario in which the National Party and hidden powers would benefit immediately. The social movements could move in two directions—either play a fundamental role in leading the discontent or be used as pawns in a destabilization game, serving the interests of other players. If the government were to lose control, Zelaya’s group would be forced to resort to repressive measures.
The government’s loss of credibility would increase across a broad range of grassroots sectors, the powerful political and economic groups and the international financial institutions. Social and political instability would also grow, leading the country quickly into chaos.
A bipartite pact?Another possible scenario is a power-sharing pact between the two main political parties, led by the strongest Liberal and National leaders. It would be based on the conviction that a government confused and divided by internal factions is dysfunctional and of no use to anyone. For this scenario to occur, powerful leaders would need to come forward. Men like ex-President Flores Facussé, in alliance with sectors linked to his predecessor in that office, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, could save the country’s political stability and make it governable in the service of those interests endangered by Mel Zelaya’s weak government.
This pact would assume the opening up of the government to other social sectors, particularly the workers’ and teachers’ unions and some NGOs working on the Poverty Reduction Strategy. The use of repressive measures against uncontrolled discontent would not be excluded outright, but these would only be feasible if a basic consensus had been achieved beforehand. Nor would certain minimum agreements with the more powerful sectors connected to the hidden powers be ruled out.
With debate, presence Given the loss of political direction, the country needs to open up national arenas for debate and the generation of ideas that lead to a way forward. This debate should challenge preconceived analyses and question the viability of the current model of capitalism that underpins the free trade agreement. It should value alternative approaches and their political basis and consider the role of civil society, social movements and political parties in these alternatives.
It is also important that community and regional social sectors be supported for their participate in and contribution to the resolution of the current discontent. Such accompaniment of their participation needs to be developed by the grassroots community organizations based on people’s real issues and needs, avoiding general topics such as the fight against CAFTA, neoliberalism and privatization. These are also real issues, but mean nothing to simple people, anxious about their most pressing needs.
A necessary breakThe definition of a new national policy agenda, which is so necessary for the creation of a coherent opposition in the country, faces a third challenge—the need to break with the vision of social movements as a collection of trade union or professional associations, which are weak by definition. These associations, especially the leftwing workers’ unions and the teachers’ unions, make up the core of grassroots entities such as the People’s Bloc and the National Coordinator for People’s Resistance. At the core of these bodies, however, are unions struggling just to survive in this grim neoliberal world that has nearly wiped them out. Their struggle has become so reduced to demands linked to their own members’ interests that their participation in the coordination bodies relates entirely to the search for these demands to be met.
Reducing the grassroots movement’s to such organizations prevents them from opening up to the needs of people who are not activists in conventional or traditional groups, even though in a country like Honduras, these are the majority of the population. By representing only the trade associations, the grassroots movement is defined by organizational and political elitism. The resolution of social unrest will require a historic break—even an epistemological one—with the current concept and model of a social movement. It will be impossible to address social unrest by channeling energy into the creation of a coherent national opposition as long as the grassroots movement remains identified with unionism and there is no strategic or permanent opening for the creation of a social movement based on grassroots community organization.
A municipal agendaFor this to happen, priority must be given urgently to municipal proposals. It is also necessary to explore the linkages among municipal authorities, nongovernmental organizations, Church sectors and grassroots community organizations, creating viable new ones where needed—going well beyond the government’s barren and indecipherable slogan of “civic power.”
To achieve this, common municipal agendas must be defined, which little by little will feed into the national agenda of a new social movement capable of making proposals and mobilizing people. Key topics, such as environmental protection, land distribution, migration, human rights and social oversight could pull together bodies at the municipal level that generate real processes of participation and civic development.
Ismael Moreno, sj is the envío correspondent in Honduras.