Authoritarian, Messianic Solutions: Real Dangers for a Depressed Society
Honduras’ dilemma isn’t whether the coup-installed Right will continue ruling or the Left in resistance could actually take power, but how to build citizenship in a collectively depressed society. The national debacle and Hondurans’ perception
of their country, its institutions and themselves
are a breeding ground for authoritarian, quasi-messianic governments with a growing role for the military.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
On January 28, General Carlos Antonio Cuéllar, Joint Chief of Staff for the Honduran Armed Forces and successor to General Romeo Vásquez—both of whom were accused along with four other officers of abuse of authority for detaining and deporting President Manuel Zelaya from the country that fateful morning of June 28, 2009—was relieved of his command by General René Osorio Canales. Before that, Canales headed up President Porfirio Lobo’s Honor Guard and was directly responsible for running the operation that entered Zelaya’s house, removed the controversial leader at gunpoint, in his pajamas, and took him to an air base from which he was exiled to Costa Rica. This appointment made the front pages of all Honduran newspapers (accompanied by rumors, conjectures, bets and a grandiloquent list of other candidates), something that hadn’t happened since the military called a truce in its role in national politics 20 years ago.
The military are players once againWhat’s changed in Honduras for Cuéllar’s appointment to the position of Chief of the Armed Forces—deified before the nineties—to qualify as such major news again? Very simply, the military are no longer categorized as low profile. Thanks to both the coup and Washington’s new directives, Honduras’ military upper echelons have become decisive factors and players in the “authoritarian democracies” designed for Latin America. Honduras is still a good testing ground to experiment with this design, still seemingly imperceptible but enough to smother the insecurity, criminal violence, drug trafficking, youth gangs, political instability and social unrest arising from so many accumulated and unresolved popular demands.
Honduras is the most fertile country for the military to revert to an active role in national politics. The coup accelerated a process that Zelaya himself initiated, optimistically and naively, by recognizing the military as a “force of the people,” something neither of the two previous governments had done. The strongest argument for the military’s rebound is the disarray in which the politicians have left the government and the lawlessness permeating much of the country, especially in “failed State” areas. These include the Aguán region on the Caribbean Coast and various municipalities, particularly the western departments of Copán, Lempira and Santa Bárbara, where state institutions have been subordinated to groups of landowners and local politicians severed from their party’s leadership or from central government institutions who actually make the decisions and direct organized crime.
“Tutelary democracies”Giving power back to those parts of the country that have lost it under the current conditions and so recovering domestic sovereignty would be a decisive argument for reviving the military’s political role. It’s useful to recall that the military, obedient to the US project of launching a “tutelary democracy,” handed over power to civilians and politicians 30 years ago. This meant that elections and the ensuing government would be “tutored” by Washington, with resources to strengthen the armed forces in exchange for them renouncing their active political role. Democracy yes, but with military backup: that was the “tutelary democracies” formula.
As a result of the Central American peace accords and under the sway of the economic adjustments to reduce the State’s role and give free rein to the market-driven neoliberal god, the military was no longer the center of Washington’s attention and gradually moved into second or third place in government and society. Apologists for the neoliberal model claimed that Central American democracy “had matured.” Army chiefs from the different graduating classes retired to engage in private business. Some went into the profitable world of private security companies; others into the underground labyrinths of organized crime. Twenty years after the neoliberal fever, migration as a response to the unviable nature of our maladjusted societies has not only resulted in economic remittances but also in cultural remittances and the transnationalizing of remittances from crime.
From neoliberalism to ZelayaThe economy of a handful of families grew with neoliberalism, and as exclusion and violence increased, politicians lost their capacity to run a government whose power was becoming increasingly unclear. They began aligning themselves with the diverse groups that now make decisions, like real governments, from the territories they control. Presidents, legislators and mayors continued to be elected in basically free and fair elections, but they haven’t had the ability to administer democracy or respond to the mounting and increasingly complex demands from the grassroots sectors.
The opposed interests between the pro-Zelaya sector (representing 21st century socialism) and the elitist political and business sector (bulwark of neoliberalism and local agent for transnational capital) made it a favorable time for the military to abandon its low-profile strategy, seemingly subordinated to politicians and business leaders, and move back into the leading role they are now beginning to take in national life.
A society in collective depressionThe national debacle and the perception Hondurans have of their country, its institutions and themselves are fertile grounds for predicting that we’re at the dawn of a favorable period for authoritarian, quasi-messianic governments with ever more leadership by the military. Let’s look at the data.
An opinion poll of 1,548 people taken at the end of 2010 by the Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) at the Central American University in San Salvador and the Honduran Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) in 16 of the country’s 18 departments, demonstrates how precarious Honduran institutionality is: not one institution attained as much as a 40% approval rating.
According to the overall results of this survey, Honduran society is defined by pessimism and distrust. The weight of the political crisis and unemployment, which together account for over 60% of the anguish, added to the perception that violence, crime and drug trafficking have increased by over 80% since 2009, puts Hondurans in a state of serious pessimism and collective depression as they enter this second decade of the 21st century.
Of those interviewed, 85% were quite sure that the corruption among politicians and businessmen is equal to or worse than in 2009. A similar percentage perceives the same to be true of human rights violations, while 79% have a disparaging view of the administration of justice. People prefer to say nothing and not report even common crimes or human rights violations, because more than 60% don’t trust the police, while over 50% perceive the police as involved in crime.
Almost total distrustHondurans distrust almost everything, but particularly institutions and those running them. Although people say they are hopeful and prefer to stay in the country, these feelings are not backed up by all their other answers, While over 60% think the economic situation is the same or worse than in 2009, more than half acknowledge that 2011 will be the same or worse than 2010.
For the vast majority of Hondurans “we’re going from bad to worse” not only because the situation is worse now than before but because they are expecting worse to come. They’ve lost confidence in each other and especially in the governmental institutions, which they identify as directly responsible for their plight. Suspicion taints all institutionality, with more than 7 out of every 10 people distrusting the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office and those who run them. About 8 out of 10 people distrust not only the political parties in the National Congress and their representatives but also the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP).
The business class aroused even greater distrust amongst the citizenry, with rejection reaching 84%, a disapproval rate four points higher than politicians. The distrust also extends to the Catholic Church hierarchy, although to a lesser degree: 39.5% trust it, while 47.9% expressed little or no confidence. Although, the Catholic Church was the most credible institution in the survey, numerically, it is only faint praise that nearly half the population no longer trusts it.
Waiting for “divine” answersA society writhing between pessimism and distrust is at risk of falling under the influence of caudillos—political strongmen—with messianic proposals and authoritarian models in which decisions are based on the law of the jungle. These scenarios can be imagined from the results of the survey and represent the greatest danger facing Honduras. So much pessimism and distrust are hard to sustain indefinitely, they need some outlet. The major sign of this in the survey would be the 7 out of 10 people who say they view the future with hope.
Despite the anomie reflected by the survey, 7 out of 10 people state that they would rather stay in the country than emigrate. How are we to understand people who say they have confidence in virtually no actors and view 2011 with the greatest pessimism and at the same time claim to have hope in the future? This can only be true if, instead of having confidence in themselves, they are looking for someone else to rely on. Who would that be? In the survey, 39.5% say they put their trust in the Catholic Church and 31.5% say they put it in the Evangelical Churches. While that’s a low rating for each institution, it totals 71%.
This data gives enough basis and reasons to venture the hypothesis that when Hondurans distrust both themselves and institutionality as a whole, their providential vision gets accentuated: they seek a religious outlet to the political crisis, which those interviewed identify as one of the main reasons the cost of living has gone up so much. When distrust is so widespread, people prefer to leave solutions to a “divine answer” offered by religion rather than rely on their own ability or that of society’s institutions, to make the needed changes. And if they distrust a particular religious hierarchy, they’ll seek answers from others. The poll shows that Evangelical Churches have grown at the cost of traditional allegiance to the Catholic Church.
There’s still faith in the mediaThose surveyed listed the media second, after the churches in terms of trustworthiness, with 46.6% saying they have some or a lot of trust in them. It’s the media, television mainly, followed by radio and the newspapers, that principally shape public opinion. Pessimism and distrust have a lot to do with the news and the images people assimilate daily, full of blood, violence and cruelty, all the while presenting senior political and business figures as honorable owners of the State and country.
Just as they do with their providential belief, Hondurans attribute an almost mythical, untouchable power to the media, which they distrust but hardly dare challenge. People deposit the scant trust they still have in these two mysterious entities that shape their lives and opinions: powerful churches of a distant god and powerful remote media that know everything.
The nearest caudillos and pastorsAlmost 6 of every 10 people interviewed answered that they had little or no confidence in the municipal governments, however, this made local power third-ranking in trustworthiness, with 41.2% saying they have some or a lot of confidence in their municipal government. This relative trust contributes the most to people getting a grip on their own reality, given that it deals with the institutionality closest to their lives, their feelings and their sufferings. On the other hand, the headquarters of the political caudillos and promoters of belief in divine providence are precisely in the territories where the people live, feel and suffer.
And when people’s lives are overwhelmed by insecurity, violence, unemployment and the high cost of living, and they see their situation only worsening, they will end up looking to the local political caudillo and the closest religious figure for that hope they say they have in the future. Both will increase people’s distrust, which translates into a lack of confidence in their own abilities and transforming energies. This can turn the municipality into a decisive factor in strengthening authoritarianism for the caudillos and fundamentalist, fanatical religious sects, particularly the Pentecostal ones, which are based on pastor-caudillos preaching a religion that offers intimate personal religious experiences and magical ways out of the crisis. [See “Portrait of Pentecostal Evangelicals” in last year’s May issue of envío for a detailed description of such experiences.]
Military credibility places fourthThe armed forces have some credibility: 38.4% of those surveyed say they have some or a lot of confidence in the military, much more so than in the police, which only got a 26.6% confidence rating. While over half express a distrust of the army, that still puts it in fourth place with respect to credibility, yet another indicator of where Hondurans place their confidence: messianic and caudillista powers, the mass media and the authoritarian power of the military.
If to this trend we add the efforts of a very conservative group of pastors to make the secular State succumb to fundamentalism, it would be no surprise if political parties with a fundamentalist religious focus were to emerge from this breeding ground. Such parties would be politically allied to the military within the framework of “authoritarian democracy” invested in by other powerful fundamentalist sectors from the United States.
Expecting solutions The population, exhausted by violence, insecurity and pressure from the economic crisis, gives the answers to their serious, immediate problems greater priority than those needed to meet the major political challenges. While people attribute the high cost of living and the economic instability to the political crisis, there’s a contradiction between favoring the convening of a National Constituent Assembly as a way out of this crisis and leaving it in the usual hands. The latter reveals peoples’ predominantly conservative or survival mentality, especially among those with less schooling.
from others and from above
A noteworthy fact in the survey is that, commensurate with their distrust of institutions, Hondurans consider that the greatest achievement of Lobo Sosa’s government so far was its program, financed by government bonds, to give 10,000 lempiras (some $530) to poor families, while at the same time expecting the government to resolve the country’s serious problems. They also give some media a lot of brownie points for having built a genuine media barrier to control information.
All this leads to an extremely disturbing hypothesis: Honduran society is being held together by certain, very frayed, social, political and cultural threads that leave the citizenry with very low levels of awareness of their public responsibility and their personal, family and social challenges and problems. Many people expect others, coming from above, to resolve the problems, while they simply immerse themselves in personal survival, in their calamities and in the logic of “every man for himself”.
No sympathy for Honduran society’s antipathy towards the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP), formed in opposition to the coup and its aftermath, is a scandal to its enthusiasts, or at best an unexpected surprise. Three quarters of those surveyed expressed having little or no confidence in the FNRP and only 12.9%—similar to the percentage the executive pulled—said they have a lot of confidence in this structure.
the Resistance Front
This can only be understood by reading between the lines. Over half of those interviewed had a favorable view of calling for a National Constituent Assembly but distrusted whoever heads up the changes, which would put the FNRP on a par with the political parties. Lets not forget that in the survey more than 50% said that what happened to Zelaya was a coup, but was the right thing to do, although in the very next question, the same percentage believes that Zelaya must return to the country as a condition for national reconciliation.
Support for calling for a National Constituent Assembly and antipathy for the FNRP is also related to the opinion-shaping role of the national media, owned by a handful of wealthy and powerful Hondurans, and to the fact that the Resistance isn’t limited to any one political, organizational or party institution. It was effectively created in the months following the coup and is made up of many people and sectors of different political views brought together by outrage at the impositions and violence. The FNRP emerged from an institutionalization process that progressively and very rapidly separated it from unstructured popular outrage. That is probably why people consider the FNRP as just another political party, joining together traditional leaders from the popular movement, Liberals loyal to Zelaya, and people seeking to capitalize on it for immediate proselytizing interests. The FNRP is perceived for what it has evolved into: a movement intimately linked to the figure and leadership of ousted President Manuel Zelaya. It moved further in that direction as the months passed, and can now be defined as Zelaya’s political and ideological structure because he defines its ideas and makes the decisions that give it identity.
Is Zelaya a cult objectMel Zelaya is not only a stumbling block of contradictions and confrontations between the resistance and those responsible for the coup; he’s also a controversial factor within the resistance. While for some he’s the savior without whom the resistance would not exist, for others the worship of this messiah is detrimental to the FNRP.
or an obstacle?
Two opinions from members of the Honduran resistance demonstrate this point. One wrote: “For the Honduran people, the return of Manuel Zelaya Rosales is the driving force, the right direction, the directive vanguard, the banner of the fight with which to achieve the goal established by his government: the installation of a National Constituent Assembly and drafting of a new Constitution for Honduras. And to this end, leading to the inevitable return to his homeland of Commander Zelaya Rosales, there should be no doubts, deceits or delays by those taking part in the political conflict afflicting this nation…. If not Manuel Zelaya Rosales, no one else can lead us infallibly to the goal the people have introjected into their political awareness with the figure, the word, the thought and the action of the most charismatic former President Honduras has had for the last 50 years. Because if this is not so it means that to have elected him as coordinator of the FNRP was a fallacy.”
Another member of the Resistance answered with a different point of view: “The problem with writing like this is that instead of benefiting compañero Zelaya, it harms him because one of the major motivations in this struggle is to end caudillos and divinities. When genuflecting to worship a name or a person, the only thing accomplished is to tarnish the intentions and the role played by that person. In the case of compañero Zelaya, so much adulation of his person and so much obscuring of the other elements in this struggle end up making the leader into an obstacle to our own liberation.”
The survey seems to capture the feelings of a population that recognizes that the FNRP progressively slid into polarization until it came fully under Zelaya’s leadership, and has ended seeing the FNRP as another of the political parties that, along with entrepreneurs, inspire the least confidence and acceptance among the population. The cult to Zelaya would confirm what the people are saying with other answers in the survey: pessimistic and distrusting, they are just pinning their hopes on something or someone they credit with mythical or messianic qualities characteristic of fundamentalist thought in the areas of both religious faith and political and ideological ideas.
What might happen?With a framework like this, Honduran society is clearly cannon fodder for the kind of authoritarianism fostered in the military, which would regain an active role that could grow to levels similar to the worst decades of the second half of the 20th century.
In order to smother the high levels of social and political unrest, the military, on returning to its active role, will have a foreign ally in the most fundamentalist sector of the United States (the Colombian model) and a domestic ally in the most powerful sectors of organized crime to which it will divvy up quotas of power and territorial control. This political and economic amalgamation will make Honduras a very bad role model for other Latin American countries.
Evangelical sects are poised to attack at the opportune moment. They would be faithful allies of the military, of a police state and of those local entrepreneurial sectors most loyal to the tenets of transnational capital.
By raising Zelaya to the level of sainthood in order to promote him as the country’s savior, the sectors grouped around the FNRP are trying to revive Honduras’ alliance with 21st century socialism.
What must be doneFaced with these scenarios, the task is much deeper and more austere: to build citizenship in a society sunk in depression, generate confidence in people’s own abilities to develop proposals, and build a citizenry that can shake off its fantasies and put the country’s failures and problems as well as its various leaders, with both their successes and their limitations, in the right perspective. The dilemma in Honduras isn’t whether the Right will continue to rule or the Left could take power; the dilemma continues to be the search for an escape route based on a society and a country that pins its hopes on at least minimum consensuses, in which a citizenry can emerge that will assume its own leadership and make its own decisions. The whole country is shattered and depressed, without having even minimal shared elements to allow for a fruitful discussion.
We must begin by reaching a minimal consensus on education, health, work and employment, natural resources, land, housing, economy and resource distribution and by tackling exclusion and inequality. All the rest, both political and ideological, will be discussed in their right places. If minimal consensus is not reached first, investing in the construction of citizenry, the authoritarian and messianic solutions that are lying in wait will triumph. And then the whole country, the entire spectrum of political views, from right to left, will coexist in a veritable failed State.
Ismael Moreno, SJ, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.