After 25 Years: Formal Democracy But More Social Tragedy
Twenty-five years after the founding
of a constitutional system in Honduras,
insecurity is part of most people’s daily life.
The money migrants send home floats the economy.
The bipartite political class has grown more cynical:
the two parties each have their distinguishing colors,
but they come together around the color of money.
People’s solutions are increasingly individual,
but the author offers arenas in which
they can make collective demands.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
The first several weeks of 2007 were saturated with public displays of politicians and government officials celebrating the 25th anniversary of Honduras’ Constitution, and with euphoric official publicity about the purported successes of Liberal President Manuel Zelaya’s first year of government. As part of the celebrations, the head of the National Congress decorated former President Roberto Suazo Córdova for his contributions to democracy. One can only wonder what contributions he had in mind other than the fact that Suazo Córdova was in office at the time the Constitution was promulgated. Hundreds of people were disappeared under his ominous administration and Honduras was under the strict control of the United States, represented by then-consul John Dimitri Negroponte, now second-in-command in the State Department. Honduran politicians seemed to find nothing inappropriate in honoring those who have done the most to tarnish our country’s image in the eyes of the international community.
“Above all, we’re businesspeople”It is true that over the past quarter century we’ve had successive elections and peaceful changes of government. Moreover, the military now only plays a secondary role in society and institutions have been established to officially represent the protection of human rights, the investigation and prosecution of crimes and the strict and fair application of justice. There is an enormous gap, however, between formal institutions and daily reality. These strategic institutions have been absorbed by the bipartite political model: their posts are divvied up among people allied to the two main parties and thus a single power group governs everything, although politics is cleverly presented as a fight between two rivals. In reality, the only thing that distinguishes the two parties is the color of their banners. A totally functional political democracy in the bipartite model has been formalized and the new institutions have spread wider the old web of corruption, while economic inequality continues to increase at a scandalous pace. It is thus valid to say that with greater formal democracy has come greater social tragedy.
On one occasion, one of the country’s most prominent political figures unabashedly confessed that politicians aren’t essentially “liberales” or “chacurecos,” as members of these two main parties, the Liberal Party and the National Party, are called. “Above all,” he said, “we’re all businesspeople, and as such we’re united by the color of money. The political parties allow us to air our differences in public and negotiate them fairly within our business and economic alliances.”
The Constitution has served as a legal underpinning for legitimizing positions and attitudes like these, which reveal the cynicism of the politicians’ commitments to the state and the laws of the country. The political parties’ top leaders have no political stripe. Their only allegiance is to their capital and their business interests, as has become fully apparent in these 25 years under the Constitution.
Insecurity, violence: Insecurity and violence are part of most Hondurans’ daily life. A recent survey published in a national newspaper notes that the population worries as much about violence in the streets as about unemployment and economic insecurity.
In whom do we trust?
Who to trust? According to a high-ranking public official, 30% of the country’s police chiefs have decision-making posts in the organized crime networks engaged in drug trafficking, human trafficking and car theft; another 30% allow this to happen; and the other 40% have no power to do anything about it. Organized crime, which also controls the country’s prisons, appears to have greater power and decision-making capacity than the public authorities responsible for the prisons. In sum, the public security command structure is under the control of the criminals.
Over ten murders a dayThere appears to be ever less respect for the value and sanctity of human life. Murders in the course of common street crime—the theft of a wallet or cell phone—are on the rise. The media reports as many as ten homicides a day, without counting the killings that take place within the prisons, which have become territorial extensions of organized crime.
People are becoming more aggressive as a defensive strategy in response to their fears of being attacked. They are also staying at home more, using ther houses as a privileged place of security. There appears to be greater aversion to public places, which people hurry by fearfully. There’s also a generalized conviction that the public institutions responsible for administering justice either don’t work or work in consonance with the arbitrary decisions made by their officials or by the heads of organized crime.
“Poor dollars” shore up the economyAs public institutions have lost all credibility, leaving the country virtually bereft of functioning institutions, most Hondurans have decided to opt for individual, private responses. A million citizens have already decided, on their own and at their own risk, to resolve their economic problems by living and working in the United States. These are the people who keep the national economy afloat. In 2006, they sent over US$2.5 billion in remittances back to the country, three times the amount generated by the maquila industry. The maquilas have created only 135,000 jobs—barely making a dent in the 1.4 million jobless Hondurans.
An International Monetary Fund mission at the end of 2006 praised the Honduran economy’s excellent health. According to Central Bank president Gabriela Núñez, the country enjoyed economic growth of over 5% in 2006. Nonetheless, she and the IMF representatives don’t mention, or only say in a mumbled aside, that this macroeconomic growth would be unthinkable and inexplicable without the remittances sent home by the flood of migrants who have left the country in an individual attempt to resolve the unsustainable, unlivable situation here.
José Antonio García’s odysseyPeople who have tried to solve the daily problems of hunger and unemployment this way had to deal on their own with the problems created by their decision to leave the country. One example is that of the family of 17-year-old Juan Francisco, who headed north like so many others. Two weeks later, his father, José Antonio García, received word that Juan was in a hospital in Celaya, México, about to have his legs amputated after being dragged under a train packed with migrants. This landless, unemployed farmworker from one of the old banana camps on the northern coast set off to find him.
His odyssey started at the Mexican consulate, where he went to see about getting a visa. “Even if you eat a handful of dirt to prove to me you’re a farmer, we won’t give you the visa,” responded the officer on duty. But José Antonio didn’t give up; he found out the Mexican ambassador’s schedule, and driven by love for his injured son, sneaked into one of the diplomatic receptions and knelt down before the ambassador to beg permission to visit the boy. He finally obtained a visa and at the end of February, with no support from the Honduran authorities but with a little money collected among the families of migrants, headed for Mexico.
He finally found his disabled son and they’ll be back in a few days to continue trying to find some solution to their anguishing living situation. They’ll do so amid a people trapped in the struggle to survive under the principle that everyone has to save his own skin in this world, as people around here put it.
Private strategiesThere is also a sharp increase in the use of private security companies, made up of retired military personnel and police officers. The atmosphere of insecurity thus becomes a source of business: increased crime leads to an increased demand for security, and the private security companies step in to fill the vacuum left by the state’s inability to respond.
We’re also starting to see what might become the greatest threat to peaceful civic coexistence: the number of people who decide to take justice into their own hands given the lack of response from public institutions will undoubtedly increase.
The dearth of public agrarian policies is spawning an increasing number of agricultural and development projects organized by for-profit private development groups or nongovernmental organizations in the most depressed regions of the countryside. And the deterioration of public education is producing an increasing number of private schools aimed at the middle classes, which now attract even the children of public school teachers. The real results of the current government’s first year in office? Hondurans have already sized up the gamble and are facing life with each shouldering their own burdens.
Two parties united by The newer leaders of the two political parties are increasingly businesspeople whose private businesses can explain their apparent party differences. The arena for working out political consensus is no longer public institutions and the parties themselves; it has shifted to commercial and financial business initiatives. The leaders of the various parties increasingly come together and hammer out political agreements in the places where they do business, spend their leisure time, practice their religion… and organize ceremonies to reward their successes. Their political colors tend to fade away in these places, giving way to the color of money, which is what the political accords and consensuses are based on here.
the color of money
There are signs that the bipartite model is no longer working well. The fact that over 50% of eligible voters did not turn out to vote in the last elections should arouse their concern, as it reveals that those who don’t believe in the two political parties or in the country’s political system in general have become the majority “party.”
The more power is concentrated in small groups of bankers and business and factory owners, the greater the distance there is between state and society, and the more distance people put between themselves and politics in general and elections in particular.
But those who hold political and economic power are unconcerned. They are simply taking steps to give the bipartite model a face-lift, to update it so they can continue using it to control public policy decisions. There are plans to reform several articles in the Constitution; among other points, the Congress president has suggested eliminating the provision barring presidential reelection. A group of legal scholars in the Honduran Bar Association have similarly urged the government to consider calling a constituent assembly to draft a new Constitution that would allow reelection, set longer terms in office, create the figure of a prime minister in the President’s Cabinet, and lower the voting age to 16.
Two parties without bordersAlthough the groups in power continue to use the bipartite system as the basic political model, these groups’ commercial, financial and industrial interests and investments are increasingly extending beyond the country’s borders, the political parties and their own associations, as Salvadoran economist Alexander Segovia discusses in his study published in three parts in envío, which concludes in this issue.
The business class is now making its decisions less through national state or private entities than supranational ones. Once the decisions are made at that level, governments do little more than carry them out. In analyzing the particular factors that determine each country’s situation, it is also important to keep in mind the transnational corporations’ enormous influence as well as the immense power of the international financial institutions and the US government.
Conejo island in US sightsOne example of these determining factors can be seen in the conflict that arose a few months ago between the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, stemming from their dispute over sovereignty of the small Conejo Island at the entrance to the Gulf of Fonseca. The episode reveals the vulnerability of the economic plans made by those in power in Central America. In a region as economically, socially, environmentally and politically fragile as ours, projects can never been thought of as sure things, no matter how powerful the groups promoting them.
A decision by the US government to increase its military presence in Central America can override the interests that Washington itself purports to promote through its free trade agreement with the region. This seems to be the case in the obviously stirred-up Conejo Island conflict, perhaps by US interests in rearming the Salvadoran and Honduran armies to serve its own “anti-terrorist” agenda—a pretext it could use to respond to governments in the region or Latin America as a whole that oppose its imperialist policies.
A breeding groundThe model of democracy that has been consolidated in Honduras is built on the anti-democratic bipartite model and on the dichotomy between formal democracy and social and economic democracy. This model is a fertile breeding ground for authoritarianism and the remilitarization of the state.
The diversion of poverty reduction funds to cover the current expenditures of a state held hostage to the demands of the system’s political leaders is only one demonstration of how public policies are subordinated to the arbitrary decisions and personal interests of these leaders.
Concerns about public safety are exploited to promote a repressive, authoritarian police state concept that is defended—and claims to defend the people—against a criminality it views as occurring outside the state realm, while refusing to acknowledge the crime incrusted within state institutions.
The US Ambassador’s Abuses of power and international intervention become common practices in a democracy that touts formal elections and whose almost theatrical public institutions are run in accord with the arbitrary decisions of those who hold political and economic power. This is demonstrated, for example, by the actions and intervention of US ambassador Charles Ford. He is currently visiting the country’s main cities to meet with what he describes as its “active forces” so he can then formulate his assessment of how the government must lead, how drug trafficking and corruption must be counteracted, and how private enterprise must behave to get in sync with the challenges of the globalizing world.
Ford has gone so far as to suggest the kind of constitutional reforms that must be made to improve the functioning of Honduran democracy, and has accused people of terrorism for doing no more than publicly criticizing and rejecting his intervention in decisions that should be up to Hondurans alone.
Tell me what you listen to...Everything that takes place in the country is defined through the lens of the mainstream media, from the environment of insecurity to the political figures who promote themselves publicly and those who lurk behind the scenes, the positive and negative assessments of the handling of fuel contracts, even the way politics is linked with sports... Tell me what you listen to, who you listen to, and how often you listen to them, and I’ll tell you what topics and actors, winners and losers, are defining the national situation.
One example: the media typically portrays mining not as a serious national problem involving economic, environmental, labor and health issues, but rather as a kind of boxing ring where Cardinal Rodríguez and the bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán duke out their differences. On those few occasions when it is treated as a serious national problem, the main goal seems to be to distract people’s attention from other issues, such as the proposed transparency law, or the price of fuel, or cases involving the hidden powers behind organized crime, or the strange case of the mysterious plane left abandoned in the Toncontín airport for a whole year, while no one in government could establish its place of origin, its owners, or its reason for being in the country.
In short, the way the mainstream media treats an issue of such high national importance as mining depends entirely on the interests of those who hold power at the moment.
For the land and with the migrantsBut there are solutions that are not merely individual ones, and opportunities we should take advantage of. For example, Hondurans are becoming increasingly aware of the need to defend natural resources and the environment, and feel called upon to act around these issues. This could provide one avenue for breaking away from the trend toward predominantly private, individual solutions. Proposals about how to care for our environment and decrease environmental and social vulnerability are capturing the interest of increasing numbers of people.
The land issue, neglected by the state but strongly felt by poor rural peasants, indigenous communities in the western part of the country and Garifunas on the Caribbean Coast, is also emerging on the public agenda. It could become another focal point around which social struggles and national consciousness could develop.
Another possible way of pulling people together and motivating them to act is the link that could be made between documented and especially undocumented migrant workers abroad and their relatives and other social sectors inside the country, and between the migrants and social and economic issues—for example, using their remittances as a pressure point to demand public policies in favor of migrants.
Defending community, People need to protect themselves and find places where they feel safe. Given the risk of people increasingly taking justice into their own hands in response to the dangers around us, learning how to defend ourselves as communities based on knowledge of our rights and of the legislation designed to protect us becomes a struggle for life itself.
We can’t talk of citizenship without being aware of what it really means, and without being able to call on institutions that guarantee our rights. Promoting citizenship without addressing the fact that citizens’ lives are constantly under threat would be a vain exercise. The struggle to ensure that the public institutions responsible for applying the laws actually function, purging the police of corrupt officials and ensuring that the justice system is independent of the political parties, are essential for building an authentic citizenry.
People appear to have a growing desire to be heard, which may be yet another factor in helping to create a more active citizenry. This desire might also be a source of grassroots community organization, whose demands could be channeled through municipal governments, an important arena for social organization. The organization of regional and national efforts around common issues led by new actors from the regions themselves, along with current efforts like the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance and the Civic Alliance for Democracy, are all important, but are not yet grounded in solid political analysis with a clear political orientation. It’s essential for these efforts to include their own research and analysis, so people can build innovative and effective national grassroots social organizations and movements.
The alternative mediaClearly, these efforts also represent an enormous challenge for the alternative media. If the organization of social movements around common issues is the great strategic goal, organizing the alternative media to serve these efforts has to be the communications strategy for the coming year.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.