Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 406 | Mayo 2015



Seclusion is the greatest of all political diseases

What was the breeding ground in which Honduras’ President got approval for his indefinite re-election? It’s one made up of violence and of both real and induced fears, with an agenda that prioritizes violent responses to ensure security. This breeding ground also includes media, Churches and the military. And above all there’s a disease: it’s the illness of political seclusion, a generalized illness that must be understood and overcome if we’re to climb out of the country’s deteriorated state.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Why are politicians who are as ungifted as Juan Orlando Hernández so successful in Honduras? Why do Honduran politicians make and unmake laws without any repercussions? Why does a President have the capacity to get all of the state branches to create the conditions for him to continue in power as long as he wants without the least hint of grassroots rejection? Why is there such political passiveness from Hondurans if we live in the most violent country in the world? It isn’t easy to respond to these questions, some of which perhaps don’t even have an answer. But they are questions we need to be seeking answers to as we move along.

After that mirage

Six years ago Honduran society was profoundly shaken. It seemed as though the whole power structure was coming down and that an avalanche of people was preparing to respond to all these questions with grassroots resistance. At first it seemed that the resistance that emerged following the coup d’état would take the grassroots struggle to the crest of its maturity, but it turned out to be nothing more than a passing political euphoria, a shimmering mirage.

Everything deflated like an immense balloon once the professional politicians gained control of the effervescence that followed the coup. In a very short period of time, perhaps a matter of months, society passed from exalted euphoria about its own strength and autonomy to the deepest depression, as in psychological bipolarity, leaving the social movement dependent on the politicians. In the words of a young leader who organized her people in the days of struggle against the coup, backing those who quickly appeared as mayoral and parliamentary candidates, “The only thing left to us is to complain, because we’ve already lost that strength and any desire to fight. It’s better to stay indoors to save our skins… They don’t even remember us today.”

That doesn’t mean people don’t feel the problems. It’s rather that now, after
these years of not believing in public life and those leading it, they’ve become consumed by the political illness of isolating themselves, licking their wounds alone and consoling themselves with their own laments. There are lots of sayings for it: Every man (or woman) for himself; it’s better to be alone than in bad company; you can’t beat City Hall... People are swallowing their anxieties because they totally distrust the public sphere, the political sphere, leaving it in the hands of small sectors of society to do what they want at their own whim. Meanwhile people try to resolve their everyday problems by themselves, not even combining efforts with neighbors or friends. Seclusion is the greatest of all political diseases.

Just letting off steam

That political disease is at the root of the social illnesses. When people isolate themselves due to their distrust of the public sphere and those managing it, it gives those they distrust a free hand to control public affairs as their own private property and to end up viewing people as their property as well.

People complain about what’s happening in the country, about the politicians’ excesses, about the rising price of basic products…. They complain about everything and even rant and rave about public officials, be they in government, in business, the gringos, but it’s just a way of letting off steam because they’re suffering political paralysis. In the opinion surveys conducted by the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits of Honduras over five consecutive years (2010-2014), people continually demanded profound changes in the country, identified politicians as the people mainly responsible for the disaster and demanded that those same politicians resolve it. But that’s as far as it goes; the politicians haven’t listened and the people haven’t taken the step from moaning to mobilizing.
The last opinion survey, which we did in December 2014 and published in January 2015, revealed the very same distrust among Honduran society of the institutions and their different actors that we had observed in the four previous surveys.

Morbidness and fear

In recent years, the political illness of seclusion has been accentuated by growing fear—both real and induced. We’ve observed a difference between the violence people suffer personally and the violence they perceive in society. In the last survey, for example, 25% said they had been the direct victim of some act of violence (assault, robbery), while 75% defined violence and insecurity as the most severe problems affecting our society.

This gap between what is actually experienced and what is perceived is undoubtedly generated largely by the media people get their information from, particularly television and more particularly the channels that specialize in blood and bodies, images that nurture morbidness and fear among their viewers. Three quarters of the population say they get their news from those channels.

Subjective elements are added to the objective violence in the form of a curiosity not only to know what’s happening, but also to see the reaction of its victims. It’s a curiosity that feeds back into a desire to continue watching that kind of news. On TV, most people watch the anxiety the violence causes and prepare for it possibly happening to them, thus not only identifying with other people’s pain but also naturalizing the violence itself. In any case, those news stories feed fear: both real, because what the people are seeing is real, and induced by the repetition of news stories about violent deaths, extortion and threats. And that fear consolidates the political illness of seclusion.

Violent answers

Obviously, behind the media are political actors who are interested in keeping fear present so people will accept responses based on institutional violence, the use of force, repression and militarization of society. The idea is to get the population itself to demand and back violent responses rather than call for public policies that provide answers to unemployment and reduce the social and economic inequalities.
Television is more important in a society like Honduras’, with such low schooling levels. Most of the people in our opinion survey had not even finished sixth grade. The higher the educational level, the more critical the responses of those surveyed tend to be. And the lower the level, the stronger the influence is likely to be not just of TV, but also of the messages from the neo-Pentecostal evangelical groups that have proliferated throughout the country, preaching individualism and passivity.

We also observed a correlation between low schooling, that kind of religiosity
and approval of the handout programs promoted by the current administration.

The military agenda

The government is taking advantage of
the political illness of seclusion. The fear provoked by television news stories on violence also heightens the anxious desire for someone to provide security. The government then presents itself as the force capable of resolving the problem, which it always does through police and military responses.

The government of Juan Orlando Hernández has known how to exploit this environment of fear and generated needs. Early this year it launched a proposal to create the Public Order Military Police. Backed by a good publicity campaign it positioned this issue as virtually one of life and death. If it’s good enough, publicity could even get a slave to end up thinking and feeling the way his master does. In the words of black civil rights activist Malcolm X: “‘If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The military issue is a special priority on the present government’s agenda. And those who most support its agenda are the people with the least schooling who listen to the media that particularly highlight the violence and climate of insecurity. Most of the population in ERIC’s December opinion survey supported the idea of the military taking to the streets and viewed the creation of the Public Order Military Police as a positive project.
It must be remembered that for several years now the military have been promoting the “Guardians of the Homeland” program aimed at influencing children’s awareness so they view soldiers as a paradigm of democracy, appreciating them more than the civilian sectors. If any more evidence were required, one would only have to look at the control the military have over an increasing number of state institutions, including the Ministry of Security, the supremacy they enjoy over the Police and even their decision-making power regarding which judges have the capacity to pass sentence and which must be removed from the judicial branch.

The breeding ground

It has been in this breeding ground that President Hernández has created the conditions for Congress to approve indefinite presidential re-election. Those conditions have included “winning over” the three institutions people most trust, according to our survey: the Catholic and Evangelical Churches; the media, particularly television; and the military.

In the current Honduran context of objective deterioration, insecurity, violence and fear, these three institutions are accentuating the political illness of seclusion and creating a vicious circle: the more security the government guarantees, the more the people will shut themselves in; and the more insecurity there is or is publicized, the more threatened they will feel and will demand greater security.

The religious leaderships appear to be closer to power than to the congregation, providing it with pastoral accompaniment. The presence of the hierarchies of the different Churches is increasingly evident in environments where government decisions are blessed, while police and military officers are more and more frequently to be seen praying to God in official acts. That reinforces a context in which the most traditional religiosity, particular that of a neo-Pentecostal influence, is penetrating the cities’ most impoverished barrios and housing tracts, helping consolidate the disease of seclusion.

More of the same

Churches, the media and the military have exercised much more influence over the population’s conscience than the political parties have during the current period, despite people’s massive participation in the 2013 general elections. According to our opinion surveys, the parties are the institutions the population most distrusts.

Large segments of the population say they belong to and sympathize with the two traditional political parties, mainly the National Party. The 35% who say they don’t sympathize with any party come in second with those mentioning the Liberal Party leaving it in third place. A long way behind are both of the two new parties—deposed President Mel Zelaya’s Freedom and Refounding Party (LIBRE) and the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC).

The 2014 survey was the first we did after those two new parties had been active on the political stage for almost a year. But the results are discouraging if we compare them to the expectations that both parties generated. People mainly consider them more of the same. Their political role has not altered a whit the feeling of distrust in politicians that has been a constant in the opinion surveys over the last five years.

Our hypothesis is that the emergence of these two parties has not resulted in the building of party proposals that represent the population’s demands, feelings, hopes and interests, forcing us to rethink politics and the citizenry’s participation in public affairs.

The opportunity right now

Despite the influence of the media and churches in distracting people from the real situation, the survey shows that people are clear in identifying the country’s problems and are calling for consensus and unity to address them. This is undoubtedly one of the most encouraging factors in the midst of so many dark and depressing lines painted by the survey as a whole.

Neither the political parties, nor private enterprise, nor the grassroots sectors,
nor the NGOs, nor the social, economic, political or religious leaders will be able to build responses to the country’s very serious situation acting on their own. The different paths have been closing, but at the same time a great opportunity has also opened up, which consists of building proposals based on a dynamic, open-door coming-together of the different sectors. The biggest challenge currently facing Honduras is to promote such meetings and to come up with the right way of doing so.

Hurdles to be surmounted

Various hurdles will have to be crossed to deal with this challenge, some of which seem insurmountable. The first is to get the diverse leaders to listen to what the people say, leaving the comfort of their quotas of power and abandoning the security they and their possessions enjoy thanks to the country’s militarization.

Another is that the grassroots leaderships will have to get past the authenticity hurdle, which must start with truly identifying the levels of organization and the forces they can count on. ERIC’s survey shows that the grassroots movement and its leaders have a barely perceptible presence in people’s lives. And when they are mentioned, for example in the case of the unions, the population sticks them in the same sack as the politicians they so distrust.
Perhaps some of the grassroots leaders really do have a presence among the people, but if so it‘s only in the half-light. Rediscovering new leaderships and redefining grassroots organization based on new thematic focal points and rooted in the territorial and political realities is a condition without which it will be very hard to make any progress in reaching out to other sectors and hammering out basic shared agreements.

And the peasant force?

Given that peasant organization and leaders are just as absent as other grassroots leaders, it’s paradoxical that people perceive them to have a leading role. This can be explained by a combination of three arguments.

The first is to recognize the deterioration of the countryside and peasant families, abandoned by public policies and marginalized by the agroindustries that the transnationals and their local partners are promoting. This has undermined peasant production and explains the migration
from the countryside to the cities and abroad. A study done four years ago, the Social Forum for the Foreign Debt and Development, noted that 87% of the young people who emigrate come from the rural areas.

A second reason is that the majority of those interviewed have rural origins, independent of where they live today, and those roots could explain a possible desire for the peasant leadership to play a lead role in the country’s change.

The third reason is nostalgia. Many people still remember a past in which Honduras developed one of the most powerful and thriving peasant movements in Latin America. It was able to make all of society tremble, as happened in the mid-seventies when peasant pressure for agrarian reform mobilized families so militantly that it brought a frightened but repressive response from the military and large landowners, culminating in the bloody massacre of Los Horcones on June 25, 1975, in Olancho.

Proposals from outside

Given the precarious ability of today’s grassroots leaders to organize meetings among diverse sectors that could result in minimum consensus, the country’s dynamic remains defined by proposals drawn up from outside that don’t involve the people. That’s what’s now happening with the Economic Development Zones (ZEDEs) or the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle plan proposed by the
US President and currently undergoing approval by the US Congress. In neither project is there any discussion of the current or future leadership of the business and political elites, even though they have the greatest degree of responsibility for the profound deterioration into which Honduras’ society has fallen.

In such a context, both the peasantry and the medium, small and micro businesses have been relegated. They are now nothing more than a pool of emigrants, cheap labor or a submissive population that is grateful for the government’s charity assistance programs.

A generalized ill

The greatest hurdle to get over if we want to build basic shared agreements is the seclusion, the isolation. The country’s leaders need to pay more attention to this political ill, which is generalized throughout society.

The leaders of the grassroots organizations are living like ostriches, insisting on certain demands and cherishing the idea that they will someday “take power” to then make social transformations, a phantasy far from the resigned consciousness of common folk.

The political elites are living the same way in the belief they represent the majorities that have become closed in on themselves. Meanwhile those majorities, the everyday people, are living this seclusion as they bear their calamities like penitence, railing against those taking advantage of their problems, resolving what they can individually and leaving the current state
of things intact.

And the business elites are also living like ostriches, convinced that the country, the State and all their resources belong to them, just waiting to be converted into money. Closed in on that conviction, they happily ally with the transnational corporations and the US government. “Honduras is open for business” they said six years ago, while today they announce that “Honduras is open for mining.”

There’s a dialectic in this seclusion. The impoverished and paralyzing seclusion is the flip side of the hoarding, greedy and exclusionary seclusion. And these varied forms of seclusion have permitted President Juan Orlando Hernández to propose his reelection.

signs of breaking out

Despite everything, there are signs that some are breaking out of the seclusion. The community organizations that joined together to protect themselves from the common threat of the mining companies that want to appropriate the aquifers and watersheds are a sign that the isolation could break up, promoting demands around problems that affect various communities equally.

The small ndigenous communitiy networks that are defending themselves from the threat of tourist projects, such as the Garífunas on the Caribbean side of the country and the solidarity networks with Lenca communities in the west and with Topulan communities in Yoro, are also signs of breaking out of the seclusion.

The women organized around the pain left by the violent death of their children in barrios stigmatized because “dangerous youths” live there are another sign that the wall of isolation can be broken through. Likewise, the youths who have decided to organize politically and culturally, those who paint murals with messages of peace and those studying small-scale plastic waste recycling techniques are yet more signs that the isolation isn’t impregnable.

All these experiences are taking place outside of a system that promotes individualism and enclosure. So far they are only happening at the grassroots level, with no signs yet appearing among the elites. But it’s not enough for the grass roots to break out of their isolation to achieve consensus and seek responses to the ills of our society. It will also have
to happen among the leaders, be they grassroots, political, business or religious ones, who are often more infected by this disease than they imagine.

What is increasingly clear is that any process aimed at transforming Honduras’ current reality will have to deal with this political illness of seclusion.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.

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