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  Number 341 | Diciembre 2009
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Honduras

A “Sweeping” Electoral Triumph but The Nation Got Trounced

The bipartisan model had collapsed before the coup, as had the concept of government and politics of the elites who planned and supported the coup. An authoritarian and repressive regime is coming, but Honduras also has an unparalleled opportunity. The country is poised at a unique crossroads: Can Pepe Lobo govern ignoring the Resistance? And can the Resistance keep up the fight for four more years?

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Let’s go vote, let’s go vote, let’s go vote…” It was five-thirty in the morning on Sunday, November 29, and this was the jingle repeated over and over on one of the national radio stations, practically begging people to go out and cast their vote.

By the end of the day, the same voices were euphorically chanting that Honduras had celebrated a civic party, with the largest voter turnout in the nation’s history: more than 80% of eligible voters. The triumphant voices also announced that Venezuelan President Chávez’s plan for Latin America had been defeated, as had the plan that politician and cattle rancher Manuel Zelaya Rosales had dared try to impose.

Offers, pressure, threats

The political, business and military elites placed all their bets on legitimizing the elections. Two months before election day, store owners were already offering discounts to shoppers who could show an ink-stained thumbs (proof they had voted). Huge ads in the newspapers and on radio and television urged people to come buy on Monday. If their thumbs were ink-stained, they would receive a 50% discount on any product in the store. And the store owners made good on their word on election day.

Many business owners also threatened to fire their employees if they came to work after the elections without a stained thumb. They’re following through on that tactic as well.

In the days leading up to the elections and on election Sunday itself, business owners and party activists offered 500 and 1,000 lempiras to people who would go vote, regardless of who they voted for. In municipalities near the Salvadoran border—the poorest areas of Honduras—these activists went door-to-door, lempiras in hand. Obviously, for people whose hunger for food is far more immediate and powerful than their hunger for justice, offers of this sort were hard to resist. These border municipalities had some of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation on election day.

Costly, militarized
and repressive

These elections—the most expensive in Honduras’ electoral history, according to Supreme Electoral Tribunal spokespeople—had all the accoutrements of typical “Honduran style” elections. Extensive militarization was imposed during the week prior to the elections. Activists from the movement resisting the coup were rounded up and various institutions were searched. The most emblematic case was a military operation carried out against the prestigious National Alternative Commercialization Network (COMAL). Their offices and training center were ransacked by fifty members of the military and police forces, who confiscated files, seized computers, subjected their security guards to severe interrogations and threats, and stole cash. In other operations, grassroots periodicals were seized as “proof of the subversive activities carried out in these political and ideological training centers,” according to statements by the officers in charge.

On the day of the elections, a peaceful demonstration by San Pedro Sula’s Resistance was severely repressed right in front of international media cameras. Also characteristic of the day’s events were media warnings that anyone who didn’t vote would be committing “treason against the nation.” There was also a widespread presence of “international observers” who identified exclusively with the official government line and came to Honduras only to ratify the transparency of the elections, ignoring such human rights violations taking place before their very eyes.

What was the real
abstention rate?

The official media euphoria and preliminary reports from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal contrasted with the desolate scene at polling places with voters only dribbling in. In El Pital, a rural community of 300 families located in the western department of Santa Bárbara, only 14 ballots were tallied. This number doesn’t even total those staffing the three polling tables in this community. Similar numbers of votes were cast in neighboring communities.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal estimated that more than 60% of the electorate voted, ignoring the report by the polling firm “Hagamos Democracia” it had itself hired to conduct exit polls. This firm, despite evident leanings toward the coup supporters, reported that those who voted hadn’t exceeded 47% of the electorate. In the battle over numbers, which ranged from one extreme to the other according to who was doing the reporting, several independent organizations agreed that abstentionism was between 60 and 65%.

Whatever the real number, the absence of significant segments of the population from the polling places was obvious on that last Sunday of November. No analysis could be considered valid that failed to recognize that at least 50% of the population didn’t vote. This isn’t simply the consequence of the coup; elections in Honduras have been plagued by low turnout for some time. It was expressed in the November 2005 general elections that brought Zelaya to power, and again in the November 2008 primary elections; with abstentionism estimated at 49% in the former and 65% in the latter. If, in addition to these historically low percentages, we consider the conflicts unleashed by the coup and the withdrawal of independent candidate Carlos H. Reyes—who represented at least 10% of the vote—we can easily conclude that abstention was as high as 60%.

The hardline vote

In fact, the November 29 election event seemed more like an internal election between the National and Liberal Parties, in which mainly hard-line Nationalists and the hardest-line nucleus of the Liberal Party aligned with the caudillos who planned and backed the coup participated.

The result is that officials were elected who will once again raise the torch of the de facto regime, giving it full legitimacy. The National Party won the presidency with an 18-point lead over the Liberals and got a clear majority of congressional seats: 75 vs. 40-some Liberals. The rest were distributed among three small parties. The National Party will also control most of the country’s mayorships.

Pepe Lobo: I had no part in it

Although the real percentage of people who voted for the Nationalists didn’t exceed 20% of the electorate, these elections gave Porfirio Lobo and the Nationalists full control of the State. This “sweeping” triumph—in a seriously questioned election in which absenteeism was the real winner—can be explained by the fact that the Nationalists capitalized on the Liberal Party’s setbacks. They didn’t skimp on efforts to stir up and prolong the conflict generated by the coup d’état; it was their trump card.

Lobo made no real effort to resolve the nation’s political conflict. His discourse was full of abstract formulations about a national dialogue, with no content or underpinnings. His party busily played the role of defense attorney for the coup, while Lobo himself insisted that “I had no part in it,” maintaining a prudent distance from the Liberals, up to their noses in the coup-generated conflict, given that both Zelaya and Micheletti are Liberals.

Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo’s opportunistic stance guaranteed the triumph he had been seeking for over a decade, and now puts him in the best possible situation to promote the iron-fisted regime he dreamed of in the seventies and early eighties, which he referred to as “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Now, heading an extreme rightwing government, his dream will come true. Lobo, an ambitious cattle rancher from Olancho, isn’t at all bothered that his victory is quantitatively and qualitatively Pyrrhic, given the Liberal debacle and the militant absenteeism at the polling places.

No restitution for Zelaya

Three days after the election, the National Congress president inaugurated the new legislative session, surely with the largest quorum in the nation’s legislative history. Only 3 of the 128 representatives to this state branch were absent. The only issue addressed at the session was the decisive and controversial point 5 of the San José-Tegucigalpa Agreements, referring to the restitution or not of Manuel Zelaya Rosales for the brief remainder of his term.

Since the die was already cast in the letter and spirit of the agreements signed on October 30 and confirmed in the general elections, no surprises were expected from the legislative session. The nation’s ideological and political confrontation was fully expressed during the seven hours that the session lasted. Each representative “explained” his or her vote, which meant that most were apologists for the violence, for eliminating those opposed, for the exclusionary democracy, and for the coup itself.

When the legislators who had opposed the coup read the names of people who had been murdered and women who had been raped during that nearly five-month period of repression and human rights violations, the halls of Congress resounded with outbursts of laughter from the others, mocking those who demanded justice for what had happened. The final result of the vote on Zelaya’s restitution: 111 against and 14 in favor.

January: The next stage

The business, political and military elites are following through to the letter with the coup they designed back in the first quarter of 2009 and began implementing on June 28.

The November 29 elections were the second step in legitimizing the coup, and the December 2 congressional resolution concluded the first stage of this political project. Now, they will move ahead with resolve, decisiveness and euphoria to a third step: installing the new government on January 27, 2010. This will initiate the next stage: a political regime that, more than any previous administration, will be in the hands of the most fundamentalist segments of the Honduran Right. They will receive full backing from the Latin American politicians who have made Honduras both a symbolic and a real-life case for combating the influence of Chávez-led socialism.

The United States:
Just a few twisted lines

The Honduran laboratory is giving the expected results. Surely even more than expected, now that the restrictions imposed on the coup leaders by the international community and the pressures from the internal Resistance—both demanding a return to constitutional order—have been receding.

As the year draws to an end, the international restrictions are being lifted. The Honduran elites always knew these measures had a flimsy footing, since they were being imposed by countries and governments who have always been their allies. There was admittedly surprise and unease among politicians, business people and the military when the US government, their biggest ally and the one from whom they only expected support and complicity, closed its doors to some of the most conspicuous representatives of the coup, canceling their entrance visas.

Washington never really failed them, however. What happened is that its support came by adding “legality” to the normal script, but written on a few “twisted lines.” This confused some, but in the end the United States achieved its desired political objective: legitimizing the sectors and measures that the Zelaya administration had messed up , thereby warning Chávez and other Latin American nations with institutional weaknesses that there’s only room for an economy and for policies that don’t threaten its interests, and that it has no plans to backpedal. The Honduran case leaves no room for doubt.

Pepe Lobo will
govern a powder keg

Beyond the real or imagined existence of Hugo Chávez’s meddling in Honduras, and beyond the arbitrariness and abuses of power committed during the Zelaya administration, the coup that got underway on June 28 revealed Honduras’ institutional precariousness and the subordination of laws to those with more power and money. The main political task at hand now should be to deal with the causes that gave rise to this conflict. The coup leaders, naturally, will avoid this task. Drunk with the “success” of their anti-Chávez and anti-grassroots political plan, they don’t realize that they’ve only deepened the abyss of confrontation. They don’t see that the current conflict will be added on to numerous preceding ones, accumulated over at least the past two decades.

Pepe Lobo will govern from atop a powder keg, and his “iron fisted” response to the opposition could make it explode. Without addressing the conflict, without consensus, using only repression and representing and protecting the interests of a model that is depleting the natural resources and is based on accumulating capital as quickly and cheaply as possible, he’ll be sharpening a spike that sooner or later will be driven into the chest of those who today are celebrating their “sweeping” victory.

A repressive
regime is coming

The President-elect and his retinue are preparing to begin governing on January 27, 2010. The first step on route to this event was the National Congress’s decision on the night of December 2. Lobo made it very clear in few words: “Mel Zelaya is an issue of the past,” thus confirming that the task this group is taking on is not to resolve the internal crisis caused by the coup, but to design an economic reactivation plan and a diplomatic offensive to reduce the international restrictions imposed following the coup, impeding any additional unfavorable foreign meddling.

In these weeks prior to his inauguration, Pepe Lobo and his team will also design an emergency “prophylactic” plan so that the new security minister, Oscar Álvarez—who held this same post during Ricardo Maduro’s administration—can start violently pursuing delinquents as well as those who stood out as leaders of the resistance to the coup. Street thugs, young gang members, grassroots leaders and community and leftwing activists will all be rounded up and thrown into the same sack in this struggle for “social peace.” Pepe Lobo will inaugurate an authoritarian and repressive regime in the guise of a fight against crime.

Security Minister Álvarez made this clear only two days after the election: “Beginning on January 27, we are going to pull the delinquents out of their beds while they sleep.” During the Maduro administration, Álvarez never defined any boundaries between common criminals and those in the opposition. The repression will be directed against both.

The period of representative democracy that began in Honduras in the early eighties collapsed on June 28. The administration of Pepe Lobo Sosa will initiate a stage of rightwing fundamentalism that will make Honduras an experimental model for the rest of the continent.

Lobo’s three-pronged approach

The coup leaders have certainly sent Zelaya to pasture. But they’ve also opened the doors to increasing conflict and greater instability and inability to govern. Before taking office, Lobo will try to tie up the loose ends and establish a three-pronged proposal: an aggressive economic reactivation plan, a social compensation plan to win over part of the poorest sectors and organize them into potential shock forces, and a prophylactic security and social/political plan that will be consolidated as the inherited economic crisis grows and pressure from Resistance groups increases.

The new government’s proposal could unceremoniously convert Zelaya into an insignificant factor, but such a plan wouldn’t be sustainable in a nation consumed by crisis since June 28. No proposal that doesn’t consider the active and decisive presence of the sectors that have grouped together into this new resistance will have a future. Although this political and social movement still hasn’t gelled into an organizational project, it has awakened the citizenry’s conscience like no other movement in decades.

Honduras remains in the hands of its traditional elites, following the same logic that led to the conflict that provoked the coup. If it hopes to survive the impending instability, Pepe Lobo’s government must be willing to recognize the Resistance.

At a crossroads

Now that the elections are over and the non-restitution of constitutional order has been ratified, we find ourselves at an inevitable crossroads. Either the country will recover by putting its money on a new social pact in which all sectors of society participate, which would require seeing beyond the formal results of the electoral process and a new government that doesn’t represent any clear consensus among the voters. Or we can embark on the road toward increasing social breakdown, in which the law of the jungle will triumph over rational thinking, and the only logic will be every man for himself.

There’s only one way to avoid that latter path: break with the violent, controversial dynamic that was at the heart of the coup, and do so including all possible political and diplomatic forces, initiating the kind of dialogue that never took place during these previous months, one that can reach true national agreements with the corresponding consensus. Only that will avoid Honduras falling further into the abyss.

The old bipartite model has collapsed

To make that search for a new social pact possible, the elites represented in the new administration would need to take on board the collapse of the bipartite political model, and not because the coup caused it to break down. The coup simply revealed that it had already happened.

And it goes even deeper. The bipartite model isn’t the only thing that has collapsed; it has been joined by the conception of the State and politics held by the few families that control the Liberal Party and National Party leadership structures. And what is that conception? That they own the State and its resources, and that politics provides them a great opportunity for personal enrichment and the abusive exercise of power.

A unique opportunity

Honduras needs to embrace a political and institutional model that doesn’t concentrate capital among so few families. It needs a redefined State, one based on a much more pluralistic institutionality that promotes participatory democracy rather than caudillismo, the source of so much corruption and authoritarianism.

The crisis has provided an opportunity for political restructuring. This crisis—which isn’t over—can lead us to either destruction or reconstruction, to our renewal as people and as a society based on a citizenry that has emerged from this crisis from below and with dignity.

Never before have we had an opportunity like this, to begin building a public sphere that serves the common good, as opposed to remaining one that serves only a few and spreads harm to many. What should be “a thing of the past” isn’t Zelaya. It’s this model that, for so many years, has made us believe we were born to obey a handful of elites. We deserve a better fate.

Ismael Moreno sj is the envío correspondent in Honduras.

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