Zelaya’s Final Year Is Off to a Bad Start
Democracy in Honduras is now a bankrupt process. After 30 years of elections and alternating Liberal and National governments, this democracy is threatening its citizens’ security
and is impeding justice.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
The year got off to a troubled start. The lurching of the economies of the rich world’s power centers is now bringing consequences to countries as poor as ours.
By the end of the second month of the year, more than 500 Hondurans had already been deported from the United States, and these were just the ones coming back by air. Each day sees more women going to the bank or a money-sending agency, not to pick up money sent by her husband or other relative working in the United States, but to deposit $100 or $200 for some family member now unemployed there.
Down here the crisis has its own names. It’s the people who live in the poor neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula or La Ceiba or El Progreso. It’s the people living along the border with El Salvador, so marginalized that they depend exclusively on the money sent home by relatives in the United States. It’s the people who’ve lived off these remittances for the last ten years; especially after Hurricane Mitch brought plenty of international aid but it never made even a dent in the social inequality or the environment’s vulnerability. These are the populations that are feeling the first blows of a crisis that economic analysts are qualifying as global.
There are other names, too, in this crisis. Because of dropping demand in the United States, some 30,000 women have already been laid off from the sweatshops on Honduras’ northern coast, where they sewed underwear and other garments for export. The only upside to being back in their forgotten neighborhoods is that they are far from the stifling, claustrophobic assembly plants where they were developing serious lung problems from daily absorption of “fluff,” the millions of tiny cloth fiber particles in the air they breathed.
Useless efforts: A partisan courtThe tug-of-war debates to elect new Supreme Court justices took place at the same time the first blows of the crisis began to be felt in late January. They were repeated in the first half of February for the elections of prosecutor general and his/her deputy in the Public Ministry. Many people, especially professionals in the capital and San Pedro Sula, invested enormous energy on behalf of or in opposition to the future authorities. In the end none of these efforts changed a single letter of the agreements already made by the barons of politics and big money.
Through paid media campaigns, public statements, meetings and demonstrations in the capital, various civil society groups worked hard to get the judicial authorities elected independently of the political parties and economic sector interests. But it all went for naught: at midnight on January 25, abiding by agreements made three years ago, the legislators elected eight justices from the Liberal Party and seven from the National Party. This time around, according to the agreement, the Supreme Court went to the Liberals.
In the Public Ministry too Likewise the legislative representatives were called upon to elect the top Public Ministry officials. Almost a year ago, a group of public prosecutors took the desperate measure of going on a hunger strike to call attention to the corruption of this state institution whose function is to defend society against the public authorities.
Now, as the date of the elections drew nearer, these same prosecutors reminded the legislators that the hunger strike’s demands should be respected: the institution should not continue being corrupted by the election of authorities who answer to the political parties. But in the end, on February 11, once again at midnight, the legislators raised their hands to elect the prosecutor general put forward by the Liberals and the deputy prosecutor put forward by the Nationalists, thus confirming our grandparents’ wise saying: “A dog that eats eggs will keep doing so even if its muzzle gets burned…”
Mistrust and dissatisfaction Politicians and public officials not only don’t learn; they stubbornly carry on falling into their own self-destructive routines. A survey done in mid-February showed that if elections had been held during that time when the judicial authorities and public prosecutors were being elected, 48% of those polled wouldn’t have bothered to vote due to lack of trust in politicians. Similarly, a recent investigation done in Honduras by a US university showed that 52% of those interviewed had disaffiliated from a political party in the previous six years and not one of those people would register with a new one because of their dissatisfaction with the dishonest and opportunistic practices of current political parties.
among the politicians
With some 30 years of elections and alternation in power by the Liberals and Nationals, people still can’t understand or explain what democracy is. For Hondurans, the two least credible institutions are political parties and the justice system. Nevertheless, political leaders and judges joined forces to elect the authorities responsible for dispensing justice.
The parties’ primary elections in November 2008 gave a clear warning: almost 70% of eligible voters didn’t go to the polls and according to the same university’s investigation, 70% said they don’t plan to vote in the general election in November of this year. Political leaders are familiar with this information, yet they carry on like sneaky dogs, burning their own muzzles.
Zelaya is “all over the place”The backdrop of the Supreme Court election ended the third year of Manuel Zelaya Rosales’ administration and initiated the inexorable countdown of his final year. In an earlierenvío article we agreed with the aptness of the term “ideological shambles,” invented by the politician Matías Fúnez to categorize Mel Zelaya and his group in government. It’s a mixed-up, eclectic government where nobody in their right mind could tell where their ideas started and their incoherencies ended. “This government is taking us all over the place” was the verdict of one woman who participates in analyses of the current reality we engage in periodically in meetings along the banks of the Sula Valley’s Ulúa River basin.
She was right: more than three years have passed without a set course. During the public prosecutors’ hunger strike, members of the government team tried to get close to the strike’s leaders so they could influence their decisions, but we were never entirely sure if it was to get in good with the prosecutors or to use them in a strange maneuver to break with the Constitution.
That same specter of a break with institutional democracy reemerged forcefully in the days the judicial authorities were elected. It was rumored that the defense minister had threatened to send army tanks to the National Congress if the presidential minister’s wife, lawyer Sonia Marlina Dubón, wasn’t re-elected president of the Supreme Court. What’s certain is that the political groups opposing the Latin American Boliviarian Alternative (ALBA) and any relationship with Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega and Cuba have bonded against Mel Zelaya and his team; and on his third anniversary nobody is in any doubt that Zelaya is governing alone with his team of so-called “patricians,” in confrontation with the other currents and sectors of the two traditional political parties.
Zelaya’s first year also With the passing of time Mel Zelaya’s government radicalized its position. The first year he apparently tried to establish alliances within his Liberal Party, as well as with the economic and political groups that control the reins of power. He didn’t last long on this enterprise, especially given that it coincided with clear displays of arrogance by his closest team members. During that first year Zelaya’s team wasn’t interested in a relationship with the grassroots social sectors traditionally opposed to public policies and the model of domination.
got off to a poor start
At the beginning of his mandate, then, Zelaya with his team of “patricians” was sufficient unto itself. The country’s foreign minister made valiant efforts to create tighter relations with the United States government, going so far as to sit down at the same desk with John Negroponte, responsible for the mistreatment and torture to which this same Honduran official was subjected as a university student in the early eighties. By eating at the same table as Negroponte he tried to rid himself of the stigma of the leftist who made both the empire and Honduras’ well-to-do sectors uncomfortable. But nobody in either the circles of power or the grassroots believed him.
The second year, In the second year, Zelaya’s government set about defining new and more significant alliances. By May 2007 at an event held by donor countries, the foreign minister reportedly said that powerful groups were trying to destabilize the “Citizen Power” government from the upper floors of luxury hotels in the capital and San Pedro Sula. Two months later, on July 19, Patricia Rodas, Liberal Party president and mater of the “patricians,” feverishly embraced Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo in Managua to the beat of the slogan “The people united will never be defeated!,” sealing the alliance that would define the Zelaya administration’s new direction.
Zelaya joined ALBA
Since then, Zelaya and his team have attempted to align with the grassroots movement and traditional Left, as a social base that would back his economic, social and energy policies, first expressed in the Petrocaribe agreement and subsequently via ALBA membership. With that, his project became clearer: an alliance with the Latin American bloc led by Chávez, the building of a domestic social base with traditional leftist groups and a distancing from and eventual confrontation with the traditional power groups, both political and economic.
Today the Zelaya administration is starting its fourth and last year in office. In its final phase it has set out escorted by a smaller team of “patricians” and backed by some grassroots sectors, particularly unions dazzled by the approval of a minimum wage raise and the powerful shadow of Chávez behind the new foreign minister.
Tractors yes, agrarian reform noAfter months of waiting, the hundred tractors promised by Hugo Chávez arrived in the second half of February for the government to give out to peasant farmers. They were unloaded on the country’s Caribbean side and met by an enormous “Citizen Power” caravan.
In Honduras, agrarian reform and laws defending peasants from big money’s insatiability are issues not even discussed by the various state authorities. Thirty-two peasants from the “Guadalupe Carney” agricultural community, organized as part of the Peasants’ Movement in Aguán, are fleeing from an order for their arrest issued by the courts that apply justice with alacrity when those affected are landowners. Two are already imprisoned in La Ceiba.
But Chávez’s tractors arrived and the government celebrated as if it were all to do with establishing a brilliant agricultural policy. An old peasant leader, currently active in the traditional Left, was there to receive them, shouting Long live Zelaya, Chávez and Cuba while sobbing gratefully. The demand for agricultural reform was forgotten, as was justice for the persecuted peasants in the Aguán region. In the countryside, increasingly denuded of peasant farmers, the Venezuelan tractors will proclaim the marvels of the Latin American Left, while the needed agrarian reform will be invisible on the horizon.
With saddle bags fullWhen Mel Zelaya started his term on January 27, 2006, the “patricians” believed they owned the country, and that’s how they made people feel. Further down the road they ended up alone, although undoubtedly with their saddle bags full thanks to generous state coffers and businesses facilitated by politics.
A very large portion of the resources Mel Zelaya’s team has worked with in these years comes from written-off foreign debt and millions in funds earmarked for the so-called poverty reduction strategy. Today, in the final stretch, surrounded by leftist groups with no grassroots support and fueled by a sea of Venezuelan oil, they are aiming to go on for longer than four years, but still without knowing where they’re going.
One of the world’s most violent areasOnce elections for the justices were over, political party leaders turned their efforts to restructuring their teams and agendas for the political campaign that will culminate in elections on the last Sunday in November. One of the fundamental issues that will be capitalized on is security, just as it was in the campaign four years ago. Everything suggests it will be a crucial issue.
Scared by the levels of violence and acting as if they had no responsibility in creating the problem, the legislators decided to summon the security minister to a hearing to talk about his policy at the head of a ministry that reeks of wrongdoing and organized crime.
Their concern is fully justified. Choloma, a huge urban zone on the north coast of Honduras bordering San Pedro Sula and bursting with sweatshops, has a rate of 134 homicides for every 100,000 habitants, which turns it into one of the most violent areas on the whole planet. And it’s not unique. The victims of violence are mostly under 24 years old, part of the long human trail of young people sacked by the sweatshops who are knocking on all doors looking for work and receiving a flat NO. Another part of the victims is made up of those subjected to assaults and offers by drug traffickers and agents of organized crime.
A calm and peaceful country?Every now and then some spokesperson representing big business or patio politicians warns that Honduras should protect its image with the international community. They shout to the skies when social movements go into the streets to insist on protection for natural resources or to make social demands. Things aren’t resolved by protesting and much less by coming out on the streets, they say, adding: Let’s promote a climate of peace and tranquility…
Live by the image. That’s the official slogan, even as the country sinks. The political class and one religious leader after another insists on a vacuous call for a vacuous dialogue and national agreement, without really resolving the needs of the most vulnerable people. It doesn’t matter if people are starving or hospitals don’t even have pain killers. What matters is that this reality be hidden away, so we can live off the image of a calm and peaceful country.
The sweatshop business owners want a climate of social calm, but very often they don’t even respect Honduran labor laws. Big business demands a peaceful climate while many of its traders, bankers and agro-industrialists are dodging tax payments and getting involved in reprehensible acts with organized crime.
How can private enterprise demand a climate of calm when it has proposed making half a million Hondurans redundant in order to safeguard its profits in the current crisis? Is it possible to live off one’s reputation in a country where big names in politics and private enterprise traffic arms or promote murder as a means of social cleansing? Is it possible to sustain a reputation for social calm in a country with a business class expert at avoiding taxes and obtaining advantages from the state for itsr own businesses?
A state held hostage Behind the insecurity and the violence we have a country with some political parties, a business class and a state held hostage by organized crime. There are those who maintain that certain ministries, such as the Security Ministry, are the closed preserve of drug traffickers and that the word of organized crime carried a lot of clout in the election of the judicial authorities and top Public Ministry officials.
by organized crime
The closer Honduras gets to its thirtieth anniversary of exchanging iron-fisted military regimes for “representative” democracy, the less democracy we have and the closer we are to an authoritarian proposition wearing electoral clothing. As more time goes by, the clothing of this election-based democracy and peaceful succession of its authorities looks not just filthy but in tatters.
This democracy is an obstacleHonduras’ democracy is not an uncertain process but rather an exhausted and nearly extinct one. After these three decades, the norm is for the law to be subjected by a few strongmen, while the rule of law has no recourse against the whims and arbitrariness of the owners of political parties and big business, who use the mass media to communicate.
The rule of law lacks seriousness and strength and, due to its extreme institutional weakness, constitutes one of the greatest threats to citizens’ stability and security. Right now the rule of law and democracy as a way of organizing and exercising political power doesn’t depend on the citizenry and doesn’t ensure equality before the law.
The rule of law and democracy don’t guarantee the country’s governability because they’ve become instruments favoring the privileges of a small political class and guaranteeing free movement to the groups that hide in the subterranean corridors of organized crime as if it were home.
The rule of law and democracy have become the main barriers to citizens trying to get justice. Public officials hide behind institutions to avoid accountability and subordinate the law to party political decisions.
The danger of social upheaval is not to be found in petty crime or social groups who protest in the street. It’s to be found inside, not on the outside.
In Honduras, democracy and the rule of law need a new wardrobe and a new democratic body. A new social and political body and the garments to fit it can only be designed from outside the current political class, new leadership of social movements that might rise up out of organized communities joining together in their own territories with dignity and justice, like the slogan of the hunger strike that opened so many doors and hopes only to see them slammed shut.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.