General strike? Constituent Assembly?
In Honduras today, both the call for a general strike
and the proposal to form a National Constituent Assembly
contain the objective conditions of a national disaster.
But no subjective conditions or political and social subject
yet exist to channel people’s outrage, triggered by the coup,
and lead the process of profoundly redrafting the Constitution.
The National Front for Popular Resistance is the likely lead entity,
but first it must clarify its identity and rid itself of the Zelaya factor.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
A general Strike! Let’s have a General Strike! That’s the slogan the resistance is using in these turbulent times. Whose initiative was it? Who’s pushing it? Just like the call for a Constituent Assembly, calling for a general strike expresses grassroots insight that the country needs profound changes and that reformist or bipartisan formulas or ordinary electoral terms are no longer enough. Honduras needs something more profound. How to do it? At resistance meetings they shout “National Constituent Assembly!”… and then proclaim “General Strike!”
Easier said than doneIn these difficult times, enthusiastic proposals charged with radical politics are filling the political arenas and leaders are emerging from amongst those most adept at yelling such slogans. In these arenas, calm reflection and open-minded analysis are discarded and those who dare to propose debate above and beyond the slogans and extremist Manichaeism are accused of playing into the hands of the military coup or of being paralyzed by cowardice. Attempting critical analysis is hardest of all if a fervent follower of Mel Zelaya is present.
Grassroots intuition about the country needing profound change is one thing while the existence of political support to turn a general strike and/or a Constituent Assembly into realistic proposals is quite another.
Veteran union leaders involved in coordinating policies for the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP) know and understand that the country must change but that a general strike won’t guarantee this. It’s just a formula, a gimmick, but it doesn’t connect with current organizational reality. Anyone can shout for a general strike but promoting and galvanizing it is a task for the unions and workers in private enterprise and the public sector.
Who would call a general strike? Honduras has three labor confederations: the Unitary Confederation of Honduran Workers (CUTH), the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) and the Confederation of Honduran Workers (CTH). Do they have the political will, capacity and organizing ability to pull it off? A general strike is easier said than done.
Temporary vs. permanent workersThe Beverage and Allied Industries Workers’ Union of Honduras (STIBYSH) is undoubtedly one of the unions with the greatest tradition of struggle in the country. It has been adept at connecting union demands with political demands, but it knows that for every affiliated permanent worker it has, the company has 16 temporary workers it can bring in to pressure, blackmail and control the union struggle.
The company is especially interested in STIBYSH joining the general strike. If it does, the company will bring in the temporary workers and offer them perks, get the government to declare the strike illegal and break up the union. The same could happen to the few other unions in the industry, where the companies have managed to establish an average of 36 temporary workers for each permanent one.
A general strike hopes to paralyze the country’s production. But the figures indicate that the majority of Honduran workers work for the State. Furthermore, the number of temporary workers in private enterprises is growing, favoring capital and working against the unions. This is certainly true of the maquilas, the labor-intensive assembly plants for re-export.
The euphoric voices proposing a general strike are announcing a paralysis of the maquila industry. But who can stop 130,000 workers in an industry that doesn’t have unions? Student leaders or board of trustee presidents, perhaps? A call for a general strike that doesn’t affect this area of production would only result in the entrepreneurs and government discrediting the organizers, measuring up the capacity of the striking sectors and deciding how to break unions and guilds in other industries.
Temporary workers abound in a country where more than 50% of the economically active population works in the informal sector. Organizing a general strike in a country where less than 8% of the total workforce is in unions or guilds is like trying to harvest tomatoes from coconut trees.
Despite all these realities, however, the idea of a general strike appeals to sectors that discovered the path of resistance through the coup.
First position:Within the resistance movement, there are at least three positions regarding the general strike. The first is that of the fanatics, those who refuse to compromise with anyone not seeking the downfall of the system. Their slogan is: “Now or never.” This sector’s preferred stage isn’t the streets but the Internet. From this trench they quote Lenin: “A general strike is not called, it is organized.” For this sector, a general strike is the prelude to a grassroots uprising and, as a precursor to this revolt, they’ve already experimented with “civil stoppages.”
The triple slogan
This sector only recognizes one leader: ousted President Manuel Zelaya Rosales. The slogan for his return to the country can only be compared to the call for a general strike and the proposed Constituent Assembly. This sector doesn’t deal in half-measures: you’re either with Mel or with the military coup. No one can claim to be in the resistance and criticize Mel Zelaya.
When participating in resistance meetings or out on the streets, they shelter behind the popular, messianic, triple slogan: General strike! Constituent Assembly! We need Mel! Anyone from the resistance who questions this triple slogan or tries to bring it to earth in the complex Honduran context is shot down in volleys from the cybernetic trench.
Second position:The second position is that of the leaders of the workers’ confederations. While they don’t give a resounding NO, they are very conservative, calculating and resoundingly cautious. Their position on the general strike is consistent with the one they take on the vast majority of the country’s problems. Their watchword is calculation, in order not to lose their negotiating position with the government and big business.
The workers’ confederations
They act this way not so much because they disagree with the sentiments of those wanting to stir up an immediate strike in the factories and offices, but because they need to play with the idea of the strike as a negotiation tool to pressure the government. It must be admitted, however, that they haven’t managed to advance negotiations on the minimum wage in the last nine months. The leaders of the three labor confederations know that the business sector is firm about not ceding an inch on the minimum wage, which in early 2009 was one of the triggers launching the coup against Zelaya.
Prudent veteran workers’ leaders need to exert pressure to extract an agreement. And given today’s unstable circumstances, the fear of a general strike is a card they can use. They don’t believe in this card, but it works for them. Their position is demobilizing, even though they keep their real convictions to themselves. They are very adept at negotiating and ensuring a balance between their unions, the government and private enterprise. And although the CUTH leaders appear more open and closer to the FNRP leaders, their loyalty to the CTH and CGT leaders weighs more than their closeness to their own unions and the more radicalized grassroots sectors.
Third position:The third position is that of a sect or of the FNRP leadership. They are trying to build bridges between the other two positions. The country’s crisis is causing leaks wherever you look and the call for a general strike is an expression of desperate and angry sectors unwilling to accept a quick fix or reform.
A responsible bridge
Honduras doesn’t need reforms; it needs transformations or a “re-founding,” as this sector defines it, in total harmony with the first and most radical of the positions. The pressure of so many people demanding and clamoring for immediate and not just cosmetic changes cannot be deterred—they claim—and the resistance thus has a responsibility to accompany, elucidate and enrich these struggles, without ever discouraging those who are justly angry.
But they also accept that they can’t irresponsibly stir up euphoria and present the general strike as something imminent. This isn’t just being realistic, because doing so would also help create illusory aspirations in many people who don’t have the information or elements for analysis. Encouraging the strike could boomerang. working against the resistance struggle.
Stirring people up to hold a general strike now would create a climate of disruption with those who currently control politics and the economy, which could provoke repressive, demobilizing responses, including in the media, that would be disproportionate to the FNRP’s current organizational and political capacity. A general strike can’t be decreed without a serious prior organizing process.
Nor is a general strike an activity exclusive to the unions. It’s fundamentally a political act that expresses the development of different union sectors’ struggle and their ability to act in conjunction with many other sectors of the country, and is also capable of paralyzing national production. To think that a general strike could be the prelude to a national insurrection is a big leap from historical experience, in which it has rather been the culmination of a profound and prolonged political process.
“We’re not ready”In today’s Honduras the strike has on its side the objective conditions of a national calamity, but a lot of work still needs to be done to create the subjective conditions. There is no political and social entity that has the organizational and strategic development to steer people’s indignation, increased or precipitated by the coup.
This is the current debate in a large sector of Honduran society. A veteran trade union leader and current leader of the resistance was blunt: “To call a general strike, just like that, without analyzing the consequences, and without being able to judge its political implications, means suicide for the unions and a crucial blow to the resistance itself. The country is trapped in a conflict that is the accumulation of social and political deterioration. Its outcome is unpredictable and the social and grassroots movement must prepare for different eventualities.
“We’re not ready for a general strike but nor was anybody ready for a coup. Nobody was prepared for the protests that broke out and here we are with a FNRP that no one had foreseen a year and a half ago. Anything could happen In Honduras today, from a continual process of coups and counter-coups, through dictatorships linked to the most rightwing elements on the continent, up to a spontaneous uprising.
“The resistance can’t waste its time on digressions; it must invest all its time and all possible resources in developing an organizational and political strategy with various local and regional links so it will know how to act in the face of any eventuality and how to advance processes that open arenas where we have a clear advantage over our political adversaries.”
Time for a new beginningParallel with the pressure of calling a general strike is the proposal of a National Constituent Assembly, which the different sectors of the resistance also tackle from different standpoints.
The call for the Constituent Assembly has been a driving issue since the doom-laden coup. Just as with the general strike, this proposal shows that Honduras is ready to produce something new, although we still aren’t sure how to formulate it. Formulas such as these two counter-cultural and politically subversive counterpoints are both attempts to deal with the current crumbling model.
The calls for a general strike are subversive, although most responsible leaders tell us that a country where only 8% of the working class is unionized isn’t ready for it. The calls for a Constituent Assembly are also subversive, although no one has yet come up with a proposal with viable contents and political processes for establishing it other than those defined and controlled by the same sectors that the grass roots have rejected so thoroughly that they are now clamoring for such an assembly.
To install a National Constituent Assembly, one of three ways must be followed.
A post-insurrection The first way is through a grassroots insurrection that, presumably led by the FNRP, would overthrow the oligarchy, seize power, dissolve the government branches, annul the present Constitution and convene a Constituent Assembly. The representatives to that Assembly would draft, discuss and approve a new Constitution and the country would begin a process of true renewal.
The advocates for this path are the same that today are demanding a general strike as a prelude to an insurrection. The main obstacle is the FNRP’s lack of organizational, political and ideological competence to act as a political entity capable of leading this process of radical change.
But the FNRP isn’t alone in lacking such competence. Honduras’ current reality makes radical change unfeasible. What power is there to take in Honduras? The government? It is but one of many powerful forces operating in Honduras through which power is expressed.
The executive branch, the National Congress and the Supreme Court are today mere instruments through which the formal powers (the political parties and business class) and even more importantly the non-formal powers move in the gelatinous and increasingly powerful, occult world of organized crime. The occult powers are where the real power is. They negotiate, blackmail, extort and manage their own resources and quotas of power, imposing them on society at large. Their power is so great that it leaves the government little decision-making room.
Formal power represents and serves the true occult powers operating in the country like never before. This very complex reality in which power is expressed today exceeds the formulas of pamphlets and books on theories and strategies of struggle. As a result, this first route to a Constituent Assembly has a place only in the confused framework of political fiction.
Government in commandThe second way would be through a process instigated by the government in an agreement with the political parties that make up today’s political party system and with other power groups.
Among its possible variants, such a political agreement would assume converting the present National Congress into a Constituent Assembly, where different commissions would be appointed to draft the articles that then would be discussed for approval in the new Constitution of the Republic.
Another variant would be for the government to summon the political parties, business associations, sectors of what is called civil society and the churches to sign a “national unity” agreement or pact that would culminate in calling a Constituent Assembly. The power groups would control the election of its representatives as well as the whole process and its results. This would of course co-opt or otherwise adulterate the national demand for political, legal and institutional change.
A possible variant would be a referendum to endorse the process, although it would always be tightly controlled.
This second route is not farfetched. Independent of the variables, sectors of the present government and scared and pragmatic white-collared sectors—those responsible for the coup or those who less triumphally prevented its reversal—are toying with it. This is a very acceptable route for the bipartisan system, which is quite accustomed to capitalizing in its own favor on all the changes and reforms that Honduran society has been demanding for the almost thirty years of formal representative democracy.
This way would produce real but never profound changes. For example, they would have to be linked to reforms to the Electoral Law and Political Parties Law, reducing the obstacles and expediting the processes for registering new political parties and the participation of independent candidates. They would have to do with reforms to the second level election of judges, the human rights commissioner, the attorney general and members of the other comptroller bodies of the State, taking measures to prevent the handling and manipulating of senior officials and to stop corruption. Similarly, the internal law of the National Congress would be reformed to democratize decision-making and reduce the powers of its president, which, under the current system, are quasi-dictatorial. The business and political elite’s control of the State would remain intact.
This route is the one that a political and business class in need of rejuvenation may be pragmatically promoting in order
to continue using and enjoying power and associating with transnational capital. It is a real challenge for the Honduran resistance forces on a common quest for profound change, whether in the FNRP or fighting for sovereignty and grassroots participation without being tied to organizational structures.
An inclusive processThe third way would be to wrest and conquer power by moving forward in empowering society vis-à-vis the state through the pressure-negotiation binomial. It is the most complex route and the most uphill. It presupposes the concept of progressively gaining ground and seeking to include ever more sectors of society in this building process, accepting their diversity and differences. What is needed to unite and give coherence and identity to this struggle is a commitment to the most defenseless, oppressed and marginalized sectors.
This third route takes as its benchmark that the situation in the country has broken down to such an extent that renewal can only be achieved by building minimum consensuses. The country is in no condition to seek maximum solutions from a single sector, and certainly not to think only about the near future.
The best we can hope for is to build minimum consensuses among the different sectors of society through a continuous process of pressures and negotiations by the organized sectors in the resistance. Going down this road and taking control of the process is an essential stage for the struggle and for constructing the resistance’s own identity. Doing this would crystallize the resistance as a political, social and cultural phenomenon that knows how and where to act within the national reality, not hastily to reach its goal, but with the wisdom that can identify and take advantage of diverse circumstances, turning them into opportunities, to win over and add to grassroots power and experience.
This third way presupposes that the FNRP must take the lead in the proposal and in the demand, opening itself to all the different sectors of society. Such national leadership can only be achieved and exercised if it devises an authentic strategy for the struggle, not limiting itself to only the unions, but assuming the demands that capture the feelings and outcries from the organized communities in the territories, those that give identity and vital existential reference to the resistance. The contents of this struggle strategy must be very well defined to give meaning to the struggle and to the inevitable negotiation. And it must establish a broad policy of alliances that ensure the accurate identification of the authentic enemies and those who could become allies, even if there’s not always agreement at every step and on every path.
What’s to negotiate?The contents to be negotiated must be related to the strategic issues. What is to be negotiated with the power groups? Land tenure and the legalities that ensure its distribution, use and production; control of natural resources; international relations; policies regarding the economy, production, employment, education, health and housing; ethnic rights and rights regarding culture, gender, organization and full social and political participation; a new electoral law and one on political participation; and the electoral processes and those for the appointing of second-level officials.
Under the FNRP’s leadership, each sector would have to work on formulating the contents of the Constitution until the FNRP has a complete text, agreed to by all sectors, to be discussed in a Constituent Assembly. Similarly, the FNRP would have to formulate its proposal for the composition of the Constituent Assembly and the process for electing the representatives comprising it.
With all this in hand, the FNRP would organize a process of struggle and pressure to force the regime to sit at the negotiating table to defend the real interests of the Hondurans in resistance. At the negotiating table the FNRP would have to defend society’s contents and demands to the maximum until reaching the nonnegotiable core. It must be understood that for its part, the regime would be doing the very same thing with respect to the oligarchy’s interests.
How to avoid the resistance This minimal consensus is what we would call the New Social Pact, which would end up formulated in the new Constitution. Obviously, the FNRP would not be able to negotiate adequately without using grassroots pressures, among which a general strike would have its rightful place.
being towed along
This third way doesn’t absolutely discard the other two. But each of them, independent of the others, would be unviable as a way out of the Honduran crisis. Exclusively using the first way appeals to those proposing it, but could be an expeditious way to justify a dictatorship or increasingly authoritarian regimes. Exclusively using the second way could give the United States fertile soil in Honduras to advance its Latin American project of implanting authoritarian democracies: a formula that combines a militarized society and a police State with institutions generated by electoral democracy representing political parties—even including those of the Left...
The third way, under the FNRP’s undisputable leadership, would pull together the euphoria of the sectors in resistance that are struggling in the streets and the FNRP leadership. The regime would have a chance to present its proposal for the Constituent National Assembly and defend it at the negotiating table, on equal terms and almost certainly in the presence of national and international observers.
In a negotiation that places the FNRP as an undisputable force in the process of constructing a Social Pact, it must have
its own strategy of struggle for every contingency so it can capitalize on the extremely dynamic current situation on behalf of the interests it represents. Any social or political force acquires maturity when it succeeds in doing this. So far the FNRP has not only failed to define its own struggle strategy, but is being towed along by dynamics defined outside its ranks and frequently against its interests. The political regime and the business sectors are still in control of this dynamic and the FNRP is barely managing to react.
The weight of the Zelaya factorShaking off its subordinate condition, avoiding being trapped in activism rather than accumulating forces, and defining a struggle strategy with content and broad-based alliances is what would give the FNRP leadership and negotiating capacity. To achieve this, the FNRP is burdened with a controversial factor it must use with care. That factor is Manuel Zelaya Rosales.
In the meeting held in July in Tocoa (capital city of Honduras’ department of Colón), the FNRP unquestionably lost an opportunity to steer the political process towards negotiation from social and political pressure when, instead of maintaining independence from Zelaya, it chose him as general coordinator of the first Provisional Executive Committee to be officially elected within the FNRP.
After searching all about for FNRP leaders, they finally managed to elect an Executive Committee, the most politically significant organizational step since the formation of the resistance after the coup. The gelatinous conception of the FNRP, with no perceivable backbone, has facilitated the emergence of many diffuse political lines, which has favored the trench of the cybernauts becoming the most visible political line.
The election of this first Executive Committee was a major, much needed step. The assembly was an opportunity for the grassroots sectors’ leaders, organized in resistance since long before the coup, to assert themselves over what are called the resistance Liberals.
The issue is not to keep the Liberals outside of the FNRP structure, but the opportunity was there in Tocoa for a debate between the two groups to decide who should lead in this first Executive Committee. The grassroots leaders managed to assert themselves over some of the Liberals who then petulantly walked out of the assembly.
What happened then? Without the Liberals, the grassroots leaders were overcome by feelings of abandonment. Faced with the danger that Zelaya would transfer his leadership to the resistance Liberals no longer with the FNRP, they decided to draw closer to him and ended by choosing him as their general coordinator. Neither slow nor lazy, enemies of the resistance leaped on the occasion to label all the resistance in the country as Zelaya supporters. From then on, every act and decision made and implemented in the name of the resistance has been attributed to Zelaya, using the logical rationale that he is now their highest leader, officially elected by the assembly.
Getting out from under Zelaya’s leadership is highly recognized in important sectors of the country and in the resistance. This is an undisputable fact. Nonetheless, the man comes from a sector and a school of thinking that favors individualistic decisions about communities and collectives. He is from the ranks of the bipartisan system, with its politically clientelist methods and practices: top-down decisions and constant reference to the caudillo. Zelaya has no experience of organized grassroots struggle. During his presidency, such struggles made him nervous. As late as July 2007 he personally decided to severely repress residents in the west of the country who were fighting for a new mining law.
Zelaya’s paternalistic leadership
A grassroots leader doesn’t just improvise in a single dynamic moment. Zelaya is called upon to participate in the resistance but with responsibility for bringing his political capital to it, not for becoming the movement’s indisputable leader. His responsibility is to strengthen its strategies of struggle until it achieves a negotiating skill capable of dealing with the callous Honduran oligarchy. While there’s certainly a place for Zelaya in the FNRP, an indispensable prerequisite to advancing the current political struggle and progressing in structuring the FNRP around a struggle strategy, with broad-based participatory political development and collective leaderships is to stop living under the tutelage of Zelaya’s leadership or that of any other personality.
If the FNRP doesn’t manage to break with Zelaya’s paternalism, it runs the serious risk of becoming just another structure, whether it defines itself as a broad-based front or progresses to constitute a political party. Whether as a front or a leftist party, it would maintain the caudillo gene structure that persists in the present party system, led by the two largest and worst electoral political party machineries in Honduras.
The clock is tickingIf it is to advance, the FNRP must clarify its identity so as to guide, drive, bind and lead the Honduran resistance without exclusions, fully open to the different organizations, ethnic groups and political and religious options. It is responsible for designing a national strategy for creative, original struggle, putting its own seal on the different moments. This obliges it to define a national agenda of struggle, with demands and contents, and to open arenas for debate in order to offer information, promote discussion and so foment democracy and participation.
The clock is ticking. The FNRP can’t just dedicate itself to planning actions and mobilizations. The fundamental political task is the clarification of political identity and strategy.
The FNRP has less than a year before the start of that ominous electoral timetable driven by the two election machineries, which will kick off in 2011 with the campaign for their internal primaries. The FNRP has a lot it must clarify before the country enters this tunnel in which many people lose themselves.
If the FNRP can clearly establish what it is and what it wants from the Constituent National Assembly, it will be able to guide the different organizations to the common position they must have before the electoral process led by the bipartisan system, and even by the time the publicity machinery goes into action for the system’s internal elections. If it doesn’t do so, it will just add to the dispersion and confusion—and to the disarticulation of the struggles.
Ismael Moreno is the envío correspondent in Honduras.