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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 352 | Noviembre 2010

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Honduras

Dialogue to Change Things So Everything Remains the Same

The dialogue called by President Lobo stirred up a political hornets’ nest but left intact the polarization that has trapped Honduras since the coup. It was a well-calculated step by Lobo in the quicksand he moves in, but caused a misstep by the Resistance Front: they refused to participate so had no way to state their positions or present a coherent, alternative dialogue plan.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

First thing in the morning of October 1, President Lobo Sosa issued an invitation to various sectors of Honduran society to discuss the idea of a Constituent Assembly as a possible way out of the country’s crisis, heightened by last year’s coup d’état and its aftermath but far from created by it.

The President invited the political parties, business associations, churches, Liberals in resistance to the government and the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), the organized expression of the grassroots resistance movement. He set the date for the first session, which would involve the representatives of the political parties, for October 4. After that would be the turn of the Liberals in resistance, and immediately following them the FNRP.

By calling for a national dialogue with all these sectors, President Porfirio Lobo took one more step on the shaky political terrain surrounding him. And the FNRP took a wrong step in the process of attaining civic involvement in the search for responses to the governability crisis in which the country and the State continues to be sunk.

Taking the wind out of
the movement’s sails

The call for a dialogue and the fact that it really happened is unthinkable without the pressure that ousted former President Mel Zelaya exerts on his followers to keep up the demand for a National Constituent Assembly. He sees it as an alternative power to what exists and has even drawn up a calendar to pull it off at the end of 2011. In fact, he is proposing a parallel government. Crucial for the viability of the proposal he’s promoting is the grassroots movement’s ability to make the established powers negotiate the content and process of such an assembly in a way that would lead to the building of a New Social Pact and define new political, legal and institutional rules of the game.

But in politics, improvisations surprise those who don’t take precautions. This seems to have happened with the dialogue called by Lobo. What looked like a card the President pulled out of his sleeve turned out to be a political game consistent with politicians’ cynicism and opportunism. If a Constituent Assembly was the banner of Zelaya and his followers, if the coup occurred because Zelaya called for a Constituent Assembly, and if the Resistance’s main demand is for a Constituent Assembly, then the political class that rules the country must take the wind out of the movement’s sails and make this demand their own.

A step forward for President Lobo

“Dialogue” was the political word of the month during all of October, with two main positions predominating. In one group were the forces of the Right, including the far right. That group limited the political way out of the crisis to reforming the articles of the Constitution governing civic consultation. And the only thing they were willing to consult with the citizenry was whether the so-called “stone-clad” constitutional articles that prevent presidential re-election should be eliminated or not. They are hoping for a reformist solution that can be capitalized on by those who control all the power in the country.

In the other main grouping were the various sectors that have gathered around the FNRP. They reject such limited reforms and advocate seizing the opportunity to make political, legal and institutional transformations that would be expressed in a new Constitution.

The first reaction to the President’s initiative came from the Civic Alliance for Democracy (ACD), the extreme rightwing party responsible for the coup. Its response was terse: “The President is following Mel Zelaya’s game and is being influenced by Hugo Chávez’s slogans. No dialogue about a Constituent Assembly is acceptable. That’s why we defended democracy and threw Mel out.”

Despite such venom, however, they attended the dialogue, as did all others who were called except those from the FNRP. They announced that they first had to consult with their grassroots base, which they called together on October 19 to decide what to do. By popular acclaim there was a resounding “no” to the dialogue, which they saw as a ploy to legitimate the government. They would only participate if Zelaya was allowed to be present and only for the purpose of calling for an inclusive, participatory National Constituent Assembly oriented towards a “re-founding” of Honduras.

Zelaya’s persistent shadow

For them the central theme of the dialogue could be none other than an eventual National Constituent Assembly. The mover and shaker behind this project was President Manuel Zelaya, who introduced talk about constitutional change into the electoral cycle a year before the coup. Although Zelaya was expelled from the country, he continues to influence the country’s political situation now even more than when he was President.

The National Constituent Assembly, the nature and belligerence of the Honduran resistance, international relations, the crisis within the two major political parties, especially the Liberal Party, the life and death of the Unified Democratic Party, the character of the grassroots movement leaders, and many other realities, continue to be closely linked to Zelaya’s shadow, words, actions and life. As one major leader in vernacular politics acknowledged a month before the coup, “One can be for or against Mel Zelaya’s politics, but no one doubts this man’s ability to put issues that interest him on the front page of the national agenda.” It is still true.

A step backwards for the FNRP

Calling for a dialogue to tackle the possibility of a Constituent Assembly was a very calculated step for President Lobo. Since the resistance movement hadn’t moved past slogans to a definition of the contents of a Constituent Assembly, he wanted to catch them off guard.

By inviting all sectors of society, including the FNRP, Lobo could have opened the way to a coherent response with such a plurality of groups. But that didn’t happen.

Lobo’s call caught the FNRP unready, just as he presumably intended. It was unable to give a coherent political response, despite the potential it might have had in its favor to capitalize on the current situation, with the government in such a precarious state. By getting the drop on it, Lobo forced it to meet in emergency session. Although the resistance movement obviously had to reject the “presidential” dialogue as it was put forth, it shouldn’t have refused as it did, giving no arguments and not proposing the dialogue in which it would have participated. The movement paid a high political price, leaving the impression it was “shooting the messenger.”

Reelection isn’t essential

If Zelaya’s plans for a Constituent Assembly were associated with seeking to stay in power, one must remember that several Honduran presidents previous to Zelaya also wanted reelection. Both Callejas and Flores Faucussé let their intentions be known in various ways and they had backers.

With or without a Constituent Assembly, reelection has been sought after for more than two decades by politicians that now oppose a Constituent Assembly. However, as the disconcerted Bishop of Santa Rosa de Copan, Monsignor Luis Alfonso Santos righty said, “The least important part of the Constituent Assembly is presidential reelection. When all is said and done, what does it matter if a person is President for four, five, six or eight years? The basic issue is the institutional transformation of the country and the profound changes being demanded in order to transform the current logic of representative democracy.”

Changing the “stone-clad” constitutional articles that keep them from being reelected has always been an issue of calculation and opportunity for professional politicians. What they really don’t accept is risking their share of power and privilege in any real transformation of the rules of the game in democracy or in the institutionality of a State they consider their “hen that lays the golden egg.” Any such talk sounds to them like “the steps of a huge animal,” so to hide their fears they prefer to talk about the danger Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez represents.

How the dialogue
should have gone down

The dialogue Lobo called for knocked on two political doors that fundamentally define the current crisis. One is that of the sectors that support the government and believe the conflict that arose after the coup was resolved with the elections and Lobos taking presidential office. These include the extreme Right, to which the Lobo administration ultimately responds.

The other door is of the sectors that opposed the coup and still maintain that the crisis it unleashed not only didn’t end with the elections and a new government, but is expressed in a growing instability with notable signs of ungovernability. These diverse sectors of the resistance movement ultimately respond to the National Popular Resistance Front. Between these two are other very diverse social sectors that are fighting to get their demands and rights heard and responded to by state institutions that are now adrift.

President Lobos indiscriminately called together all these sectors, as if each was equidistant from the crisis. Because of this false premise the dialogue has attained neither consensus nor credibility. It has been stripped of meaning, revealing the calculated handiwork of the official negotiators.

If his initiative had been serious, he would have to have started with an invitation to these two big sectors to sit together at the discussion table after proposing to meet separately with each one so they could define their objectives. He also would have had to seek qualified mediation to get a debate and negotiation process underway in search of minimum consensus. But Lobos stuck with his own people, who proposed reforms to the constitutional mechanisms of consultation that would only slightly change the respective articles in a way that would allow them to continue using state resources to their advantage.

They want a comfy,
old boy’s club chat

The call for a dialogue would have been unthinkable if all those at the pinnacle of power hadn’t been feeling that the water was already reaching their necks. The only ones who resisted it at first were the rightwing extremists who consider the present political situation a triumph over Zelaya’s pro-Chávez followers. They see Latin America as a battlefield with no middle ground: you’re either a Chávez-style communist or you’re a self-styled champion of democracy and liberty. They believe that what was waged in Honduras was a battle against Chávez and that’s what they’re defending today. For these people negotiating with the resistance movement is synonymous with weakness.

But these extremist sectors know the country’s falling apart, so they accepted the idea of a dialogue, as long as Zelaya’s followers didn’t participate. They wanted to discuss solutions to the crisis among themselves as if they were in a private club and the entity in crisis were one of their own businesses.

They understand that changes are needed and accept the idea of amending certain articles in the Constitution, specifically Article 5, which establishes the mechanisms for a plebiscite or referendum as a way to consult the general public. They even accept that the so-called “stone-clad” articles could be amended to remove the bar to reelection, allowing ex-Presidents to run again.

But in this private club there’s not the slightest interest in a National Constituent Assembly that might draw up a new Constitution, at least not as long as Zelaya’s shadow remains a determining factor in Honduras. That said, however, nothing should be ruled out with this group. Their “no” to a Constituent Assembly could be very restrained since they have methods at their disposal to maintain their privileges and businesses even in this eventuality.

Some sectors of the resistance
movement aren’t moving forward

On the other extreme of the scenario is the National Popular Resistance Front. This group’s discourse and calculations are energized by Zelaya and his team. Expert in sizing up political moments, Mel Zelaya has succeeded in getting into the pockets of a sector of both the Liberal resistance and the grassroots movement that serves as an umbrella for the various and diffuse banners of the Honduran Left. Zelaya is the indisputable and unquestioned leader of both.

Only a fanatic could claim that the resistance movement has come very far since the coup in developing a position and building a coherent political and social proposal that fits the reality of the many diverse sectors incensed by and mobilized against those who provoked and sustained the rupture with the Constitution. We agree with the assessment offered by several political readers of Honduras’ current situation who have enormous affinity with the struggles of the resistance movement: the FNRP is more a virtual reality than a real organic political structure.

A vacuum filled by
Zelaya’s leadership

Everyone talks about the FNRP and makes reference to its struggles. While some accuse it of being under Chávez’s thumb and being responsible for the country’s destabilization, others refer all work and challenges to it, even threatening to set it on the rich for abusing the poor.

The FNRP is everywhere. There’s talk in some assemblies of it organizing in the country’s 18 departments. It is indeed organized by grassroots leaders in some areas far from the urban centers, but without ties to the national structures.

The FNRP is a political reality that has penetrated national life, but without a political and ideological backbone it can’t mobilize and bring people together. It’s more an arena of political enthusiasm than a grassroots political structure, and there is an enormous disproportion between this euphoric enthusiasm and a quantifiable organizing process, between the virtual and the real. Who fills it? Mel Zelaya. And the larger the gap, the stronger his overbearing leadership emerges.

Part of his success is based on his own merits and real leadership stature, which explain how he was able, at just the right moment, to cozy up to the neanderthal sectors of the Liberal Party and get their nod to be the party’s presidential candidate, and now to be the darling of the Liberals in resistance. But his growing leadership role within the FNRP is also due to its own gelatinous composition, and more particularly to those who ended up in it after following the tortuous paths of the Honduran Left.

Zelaya’s impulsive leadership

To deny that Zelaya exerts leadership and is a driving force within the FNRP would be like denying that Callejas and Flores Facussé are the indisputable leaders of the two major parties. For many years these two made sure that all paths led to their lairs. Zelaya is a similar figure in the world of the FNRP. Until just a few years ago, counted on one hand with fingers to spare, Zelaya exercised such strong leadership within the traditional two-party system in Honduras that it put into question, even disputed, the authority of the most deeply rooted bipartite leaders.

When during his presidency he was expelled from the official circles of that bipartite system, Zelaya turned gradually and progressively in another direction. It is in this new sphere that he now exerts the power he lost within the system. The mass media is not wrong when they add the adjective “Zelayista” to the resistance movement. Indeed Zelaya’s impetuous leadership has turned the FNRP into his own political detachment.

Zelaya has given the FNRP some backbone, turning it into a structure underpinned by the decisions and course-setting of someone who comes from the bipartite system and now has the ability to lead the FNRP in accordance with his influence and the powers he delegates to other individuals, family members or groups.

Power remains in the same hands

A wide gamut of sectors that are bearing the load of the economic collapse and the power groups’ decisions about natural resources can also be found in the dialogue scenario. In the first nine months of the Lobo administration the Assembly legislators approved the concession of scores of rivers to business groups and individuals who have been the major exploiters of geothermal energy, all expert at twisting the laws to favor their investments. Now, as if by magic, they present themselves as the biggest defenders of the environment, dedicated to taking over the rivers and water sources to build hydroelectric plants. It’s a true perversion: the country’s dirtiest businesspeople claiming to be committed to investing millions to produce clean energy.

The most fundamentalist political and economic sectors are still busily maintaining a model that is systematically exclusive and conceives of the rural sector almost solely in relation to their agribusinesses. According to the analysis of the Foreign Debt Social Forum (FOSDEH), only 5 of every 100 lempiras circulating in the country are spent to improve the lives of those who live in rural villages and communities. In contrast, 70 lempiras from the national budget stay in the capital city.

The bomb the coup
tried to defuse

Such data about exclusion are still potential bombs. Of every 100 young people who try to cross the border looking to emigrate to the North, 87 come from rural areas. Some migrate first from rural areas to the urban poverty belts, while others take the immediate leap from the villages to the path leading to Guatemala and Mexico, looking to reach one of the border crossings into the United States.

The bomb is still on the point of exploding. Based on its analysis that Zelaya, manipulated by Chávez, was causing the crisis, the elite class tried to stop the blast with a coup against the government. Zelaya and his team had cut loose of the oligarchy, establishing processes that began to break with the policies of exclusion, concerning the administration of public goods and citizens’ participation.

Time is demonstrating that the coup was a violent act against a society at boiling point and near collapse. It has also shown that in the last analysis and having played a very important role in Honduran politics, Zelaya Rosales was one more factor in the structural social upheaval that the coup couldn’t resolve. As has been seen, trying to remove this distorting factor only agitated it more.

An undeclared war

Daily life in Honduras has become a war zone, with no rules to make it more humane. On September 7, 17 youths working in a shoe factory in the center of San Pedro Sula were murdered in the middle of the afternoon. There have been almost daily massacres of 4 to 8 people, including 14 young people machine-gunned with AK-47s on October 30th while playing soccer in a stadium in a populated San Pedro Sula suburb. The commando units act with impunity, disappearing before the police can identify them.

Where do these killers and hit men come from and who trains them? There are an infinite number of versions but all run up against the facile generic response: a settling of accounts by organized crime. No one seems to know where they come from or who supplies them. The result is an average of 14 violent murders daily, which makes our country one of the most violent on the planet among those without a declared war.

The dialogue we want

It’s among the social sectors weighed down by economic insecurity and the state of undeclared war that one finds the demand for a dialogue that doesn’t depend on the calculations of the extreme Right or the slogans of those under Zelaya’s influence. These people sympathize and are in tune with the resistance movement. They participate, but don’t feel enrolled in the very personalized, controlling current led by Mel Zelaya.

What do these sectors say? They say that the country needs a national dialogue. They believe there’s no other way out of the political instability and crisis of ungovernability than the path of dialogue; one that hears the demands of the sectors opposed to the coup and in resistance but outside of the FNRP.

If the dialogue is to work it must first be saved from loss of credibility. It must be given a new validity; one that takes it out of the court of those in power who say they accept it but act as winners and thus believe they have the right to impose the rules.

To salvage the dialogue, it must stop being about the presidency. This connotation holds little credit and can’t pull everyone together. A dialogue called by Lobo suffers from a bad beginning and is consequently condemned to fail or just remain a poor imitation. The dialogue has to be “national and inclusive” with well defined rules for all who participate.

And what we want in the dialogue

There can be no national dialogue between one sector that dominates and controls and one or more others that are politically subordinated. One of the criteria for dialogue is a balance of conditions. Nor can there be true dialogue when the mass media is used to put forth the interests of the groups with the greatest power as if theirs were the only truth in the country, while smearing and putting down those who don’t think the same way and who should be at the dialogue table but are not. A national dialogue must guarantee equal access to the media and equal time and opportunity for all the dialoguing participants.

A true national dialogue will have to include the interests of all sectors of society, particularly those that are the most excluded and defenseless. Their own voices and demands must be present at the dialogue table, not delegated or represented by anyone but themselves. The search for the nation’s common good must first take into account the calamities faced by the most oppressed.

A true national dialogue can’t be defined solely on the calculations of politicians, even those of the legally registered parties including ones on the Left or the sectors leading the resistance movement. Nor should the national dialogue’s immediate goal be the upcoming elections. The main focus must be on issues that lead to a political, legal and institutional transformation of the country.

Sovereignty and control over the natural resources and wealth, land tenure, fiscal policies, the education and health system, housing, employment, gender equality and guaranteeing respect for cultural and ethnic diversity will be the fundamental issues that must be points of negotiation in writing up a social pact. This pact will eventually have to pass through nationwide consultations and finally a Constituent Assembly, which will draw up a new Constitution that will be the historic expression of a reconstituted Honduras with an active, participatory, inclusive and democratic citizenry.

A bankrupt State
over a powder keg

Where is the present dialogue moment taking us? Everything will depend on how the factors that are pressuring and conditioning the dialogue will be dealt with. One decisive factor is the economic crisis. The country and the government are suffocating from the lack of economic oxygen. With the international community not yet having normalized its relationship with Honduras, union pressure to meet salary demands has the government over a powder keg.

The Lobo government can’t play its role of putting out fires because the economic calamity doesn’t allow it even to ease the increasingly accumulating conflicts. Ten months have passed without it adjusting the minimum wage, and to do that it had to de-index the Teachers’ Statute, keeping the value of the minimum wage unaltered until August. Furthermore, the increase starting in September has been differentiated rather than across the board and in no way keeps up with the inflation rate and high cost of living. Such a decision means continuing to stir up the hornets’ nest of social conflict.

The explanation for the passage of a legislative decree that separates the increase in the minimum wage from the increase in teachers’ salaries protected by the Statute is that the State is bankrupt and there’s an urgent need to give some responses to the social sectors with the lowest incomes.

The teachers’ unions, backed by various other unionized sectors and the grassroots movement, reject this decision. But their attitude is questioned by sectors that have always held a critical view of teachers who are consistently firm in their demands and demonstrations but slack in carrying out their classroom duties towards the children and adolescents who attend public schools.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the government acted in good faith to make sure that the most depressed sectors could have some benefit in these times of economic asphyxiation, sacrificing the union sectors with salary advantages and social security that exceed the majority of the population, which doesn’t even have the opportunity of a minimum wage. But even in such a case, the underlying problem is that the national government has such low credibility levels that it’s unable to have any success in proposing responses that enjoy even a minimum consensus in society.

Feet of clay in quicksand

The society that opposed the coup has no use for anything that comes from the current government or the business or political elites. The government can promote no proposal without coercion, force and authoritarian repression. In fact, there’s not even a modicum of consensus in Honduras that would allow any sector of society to take a lead role in promoting proposals.

As long as Lobo Sosa and his team don’t realize that they’re standing on feet of clay in political and social quicksand, their proposals will always run up against people who aren’t interested in responses from the government but are demanding a Honduras that’s governed a different way.

The “presidential dialogue” stirred up a political hornets’ nest and left intact the polarization in which Honduras is trapped. President Lobo proposed the dialogue arguing that if sectors are calling for a Constituent Assembly, then the government is obliged to listen to them. A month after the invitation, the only ones the government listened to were those who instigated and carried out the coup, thus converting the national consultation into a proposal that will only lead to changing something so that everything remains the same.

Thus ends the year

A month after the presidential call, there has been no real dialogue between those sectors heading up the polarization, while the violence and its promoters are still defining the national scene.

Honduras will thus ring out the year with no real news. Just around the corner, the electoral campaign is due to open in 2011 with presidential hopefuls jockeying for good gate positions in the parties’ internal primary elections. In Honduras these elections are like a huge wind that sweeps up everything in its path.

Since the “presidential dialogue” isn’t changing anything but only confirming the polarized positions of the political sectors, the position each one assumes in relation to the elections will be decisive in establishing whether or not dialogue becomes an instrument for finding a solution to the crisis or continues being an instrument of pressure to measure forces in a fight that will only generate more erosion and instability in the country.

Ismael Moreno is the envío correspondent in Honduras.

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