What was won on the streets ...and what was lost
Three months of peaceful civic struggle
by people in the streets with lit torches in hand
triggered a dialogue that hasn’t been what we expected.
Nonetheless, everything that is achieved today in any arena
was the result of the energy and pressure of the torches
lit by thousands of people all over the country
with the cry of “JOH, get out!” and “We want a CICIH.”
The torches unexpectedly and positively turned reality around
but they didn’t control the direction it took.
Now the 2009 resistance and the
2015 indignant movement must unite.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Life is always complex. And in politics the complexity becomes extreme. We can foresee and anticipate everything, but everything can turn out different from what we foresaw and anticipated. And, if it’s in Honduras, everything is even more complex. What began in the streets with torches, cries of “JOH, get out!” and demands for the setting up of an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH), modeled on CICIG in Guatemala, has now moved on to a dialogue table and negotiations between party leaders. From the streets to the palace. While the streets remain full and people are summoned, who’s actually taking advantage of this? What have the people in the streets won? And what have they lost? What new scenarios are opening up?
JOH doesn’t believe in dialogue
President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) would never have called for a dialogue before or without the torches in the streets. Those torches forced his hand. It’s not that he believes in dialogue or wants to listen to his detractors so they can reach consensus and shared agreements. His deeds give him away.
He never called for dialogue before the Supreme Court of Justice reformed the Constitution and decreed indefinite presidential reelection without a plebiscite or referendum or even a vote in the National Congress. It never occurred to him to convene a dialogue to create the Military Police for Public Order, much less for different sectors of society to approve the Model Cities, now known as Special Employment and Economic Development Zones (ZEDEs). Even less did he dialogue to concede whole territories to corporations for mining and aquifer exploitation.
Juan Orlando Hernández isn’t a dialoguing politician. The Tolupán indigenous people held a 32-day hunger strike yet he didn’t even mention them in any of his continuous speeches, let alone pay any attention to their demands. Multitudes with torches in hand have mobilized through the streets of the capital and the main cities in the interior of the country and he hasn’t made a single reference to them.
Juan Orlando Hernández is an “I order and I command” politician. Dialogue never was part of his governing style. He clearly established this during his four years as the president of Congress and has confirmed it in his almost two years as President. His manners are those of a military officer in a coat and tie, of a dictator surrounded by yes men, servile sycophants who do whatever he orders them to do.
“This thing with the torches”
Congressional leader Oscar Alvarez of the governing National Party did refer to the demonstrators, but with a phrase the political mafia no doubt use in private conversations: “That thing with the torches can’t make us change our minds.”
Yet once the torches lit up the streets week after week, Hernández had to call for dialogue. He did so on June 23, in his own way. He said it would be an “unconditional social dialogue.” And he had a proposal: the creation of what he called the Honduran Integrated System to Combat Impunity and Corruption (SIHCIC), playing with the pronunciation of what the people are asking for in the streets: the installation of an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH). JOH focused on national issues to avoid what he called an international intervention.
He called for a dialogue because the underpinnings of all his securities had been shaken. When he realized that to many, many people he wasn’t the politician that he himself promoted, that his proposal for continuity brought more repulsion than support, he felt fear and failure and decided to change his strategy, but only to reach the same objective. He doesn’t believe in dialogue. He still believes only in himself and believes he’s anointed by God to be President until his death.
He will dialogue only as long as it’s useful for reaching that objective. As he has demonstrated throughout his years in political life, his vision is utilitarian.
Today, the pressure of the torches has been moved to spacious offices in elegant hotels and even though it continues in the streets, the energy is now invested in talks between Juan Orlando’s people, some from the indignant movement JOH was forced to include and well-known representatives of the so-called Honduran civil society. But the latter are no more than a few NGOs based in the capital and financed by US and European government agencies and the United Nations.
June, July and August saw
several stages of the dialogue
The first stage of the dialogue was conditioned by the President’s publicized call in June to different sectors and organizations closely related to his interests. It culminated with the naming of dialogue “facilitators,” understood as part of the pro-government sector. The indignant movement sectors, institutions and organizations stayed out of and rejected that dialogue.
The second stage, starting in mid-July, included representatives from the Organization of American States (OAS) and United Nations (UN). The OAS had previously sent an exploratory commission that spoke with the different sectors of the pro-government bloc but refused to talk to the indignant sectors. The more than thirty hunger strikers camping around the Presidential Palace moved to the UN headquarters to request an interview with the two “explorers” but its doors were closed to them. The UN commission spent a week in Honduras. On July 31st, the hunger strikers ended their fast without any officials, either national or international, even listening to their demands.
In August, the new OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, arrived accompanied by the proposed “facilitator,” John Biehl del Rio, a Chilean. In addition to meeting with the President and his bloc, this “mediator” sought out representatives of the indignant opposition bloc. He returned to his nest in Washington in mid-August, after not only engaging in bilateral talks with different sectors of society from both blocs but also in a broad and prolonged dialogue session in which representatives of both blocs participated.
The international community took the lead in the second stage of the dialogue, achieving the objective of opening a path to legitimizing President Hernández by shifting the government dialogue’s emphasis to make it seem like an authentic national dialogue. One of Biel del Rio’s last statements before boarding the plane was: “President Juan Orlando Hernández is fully willing to work with all sectors. He is the victim of an absolute lack of credibility.”
A dialogue modeled on
the 5 steps of a manual
After a seven-hour session on August 13th, a significant sector of the indignant movement rejected the dialogue. They saw it as a process aimed at “controlling” the movement as opposition, intending not only to co-opt them, but also to replace their leaders with those from the so-called civil society. The political reading by this broad sector of the indignant movement is that the dialogue led by the OAS was modeled on the manual of “deactivation of citizens¡ civil disobedience against a regime in control of the State.”
They say this manual proposes five steps. First: create space for venting. The OAS facilitator accomplished this by giving each of the more than sixty organizations attending the prolonged dialogue session five minutes to state whatever they wanted. Second: discredit the rivals. This was done by infiltrating well-identified people, who on August 14th provoked acts of vandalism in front of the “facilitator,” causing him to express “regret” that the indignant movement should show such displays of savagery. Even though he later seemed to retract that first statement, it was decisive in discrediting the torch-lit marches.Third: bog down the citizens’ complaints by seeking to sow confusion, contradictions and confrontations within the indignant movement’s organizations to devalue the contents of their struggle. Fourth: penetrate and control the movement through leaders other than those who were pressuring on the streets. Leaders and spokespeople of some of the “civil society” organizations that receive abundant financing from US governmental agencies lent themselves to this. Fifth: convert the indignation movement’s struggle into an authentic, officially recognized and accepted “controlled opposition.”
New torches from
Yoro to El Progreso
Has the indignant movement in fact deactivated after three months of peaceful struggle on the streets with lit torches in hand? Nothing foresees this movement ending because the streets and the torches have no owners so nobody can identify the threads that lead or drive them.
The torch demonstrations not only haven’t lost their impetus; they haven’t even lost their creativity. They are extending their echo into the rural zones, as happened with the pilgrimage of representatives of young Catholic groups from the Yoro parish carrying torches through the mountains of northeastern Honduras.
Having experienced in their own lives the corruption and impunity in their zone, which is rife with drug dealers, politicians and public officials working in collusion with organized crime, these young people took inspiration from the lights of the torches in the capital and other cities of the country. On their own initiative, they started out from the city of Yoro early on August 17th and traveled more than 150 kilometers to make it on time to the torch-lit march five days later in the city of El Progreso.
Pastors on the sidelines
That initiative by the youth reenergized the torches in the Sula valley zone and motivated lay sectors of the Catholic Church to join the outrage. They had not previously been fired up by their own pastors, too occupied with their own agendas and always suspicious of popular creativity. Instead of opening their ministries’ doors to it, they shut down, and when they discover a light like that of the torches, they can’t seem to add it to the light of the Gospel. They only cave in to more prudence and greater skepticism.
They have yet to figure
out how to control this
Each week brings surprises. Just when it seems the torches are weakening in one place, they light up in another. The last weekend of August, when the “facilitator” announced his second trip to resume the national dialogue, the torch-carriers gathered in rural communities of the Sula valley to pronounce an emphatic NO to any dialogue as long as the setting up of the CICIH is not guaranteed.
The streets have forced the doors open not only to dialogue but also to negotiations among elites. It is known that there have been meetings between former Presidents from different parties, setting aside their party colors in the presence of international politicians to seek answers to the torches phenomenon. It’s also known that different business sectors are meeting with politicians and even with grassroots leaders in semi-clandestine places to collect information that could give them clues for defining strategies against the indignant movement. The objective is to control the strength of the torches.
Nothing without the torches
Despite the political mafia’s capacity for co-option in Honduras, and despite the growing exhaustion from the weekly marches and internal conflicts over leadership within the indignant movement, nothing achieved at the dialogue tables, in under-the- table negotiations or in the recomposition of the power groups would have been possible without the pressure from the torches in the streets.
It is well known within the grassroots organizations, the government and the business leadership that nothing is ever accomplished without pressure and struggle. Knowing this, all are aware that everything achieved at different formal and informal, official and extra-official, visible and behind-closed-doors tables will be due to the strength, energy and pressure of the torches that thousands of citizens, mainly middle class and young people, have raised for innumerable Fridays and Saturdays in the capital, the main cities and other places across the country.
The two blocs
The contrasts are profound. On one side is the indignant movement struggling against the corruption and impunity with the slogan “JOH, get out!” because it identifies the President as the main person directly in charge of the mafia that has looted several public institutions and is protecting the main culprits of this looting.
On the other side, President Hernández is going to a lot of effort to turn the outrage into an opportunity to appear willing to dialogue while leading the process to the only objective that matters to him and his team: to remain in power and protect each other from investigations and prosecutions for corruption in the National Party.
The international community (US and European governments, the OAS and the UN) together with the Honduran “civil society” organizations they have spawned are between these two extremes, with the NGOs striving to be a bridge between the indignant society and what the international representatives want.
Trust in these “bridges” comes to the indignant sectors in very small doses. There is far more distrust, suspicion and even rejection. Since they are half way between what the government and international community want and what the indignant movement thinks and wants, it places them in something like a limbo, a neutral place that doesn’t exist in politics, much less in these organizations. Their scales end up tipping in favor of those who finance them.
The relay and the mission
These organizations play the same role the fifth column plays in war. They talk about democracy and human rights, but they are the vision of democracy and human rights that most suit their international bosses. Being more loyal to outside interests, they torpedo those inside. Several of their members are close to 40 years old and it is rumored that they aspire to be the generation that relieves the current political party leaderships. Very well educated, they have the same decision-making styles as the political elites. They look to the North and if they take brief turns to the left, it’s just to get take the pulse then return to their commitments with the enlightened Right.
These leaders are poised to take over the leadership of the indignant and ensure that those in the streets who shook the country will serve as a stepladder for them to negotiate in the Palace so Juan Orlando Hernández can continue with his project. They need an opposition as outraged as it is controlled to accomplish their mission: from the streets to the negotiation table between leaders, and from there to an opposition allied with the government and international community.
The extremists vs.
some US Congress members
All in all, the streets have been decisive in achieving some changes. Lit with thousands of torches, the streets created the conditions to shake everyone up and push towards new agreements.
Some leaders from the extreme Left questioned why the torches were taken to the streets only on Fridays and weekends. They insisted on a national strike. And the most enthusiastic—perhaps delusional—even called for a general strike in a country as ramshackle and splintered as Honduras.
Even though the torches didn’t achieve radical changes, as some more extreme groups had set out to do, they shook up the political mafias and got prudent, national and international sectors in motion.
In the US, some support Juan Orlando Hernández at all costs, but some twenty congressional Democrats wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on August 19th, demanding suspension of all financial support for the Honduran military and police structures given that many of their officers are involved in crime, corruption and impunity.
One scene is the open, recognized and publicized dialogue, where there are different voices and public fervor. But backstage, negotiations are going on. An open dialogue would be unthinkable without previous negotiations behind doors closed to the media and even to those who come, with good will, to the public dialogue. Though nothing is known about what was negotiated in Juan Orlando Hernández’ office, and above all, in the office of his political conjurer, Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales, it’s very unlikely that the US government, the OAS or the UN would have given their support to this administration with nothing in exchange.
It’s already known that President Hernández has given up his reelection pretensions. He committed himself to this with the international community given the adverse situation, though his ambition doesn’t allow him to seriously break with an aspiration he conceives as a divine plan.
Mining is non-negotiable
Everything is negotiable in the dialogue except the non-negotiable: continuation of the neoliberal model.
At the very moment Hernández was fervently calling for a national dialogue and taking the first steps towards it, a new social security framework law was published. After the social security robbery, which is what set off the outraged torches in the first place, bankers and business leaders hurried to express their approval to the National Congress. Big investors, not content with approval of the new health care privatization law, had gotten Hernández to include at least 20 substantial changes to the already approved text. This all happened parallel to the “grand” National Dialogue the OAS was facilitating.
Also parallel to the National Dialogue sessions, in which the “facilitator” lobbied to soften positions, especially those of the indignant movement, the First Global Mining Conclave was being held in San Pedro Sula, with about 38 participating countries, under the slogan “Honduras is ready for mining.” There was no way the mining issue would end up on the dialogue agenda, because everything is negotiable except handing over the territory and its natural resources to transnational corporations.
the “grand dialogue”
More rounds of dialogue will continue and the OAS facilitator will come and go, talking straight with some and softening up others. The UN will try to have a presence, without getting as deeply involved as the OAS. Out of this whole process, progress will probably be seen in agreements to tidy up some institutions. Decrees will be swiftly and speedily approved by Congress and as in the recent past, it will be concluded that all must be settled in the next elections.
And as always, for many, that will be the greatest achievement of the “grand national dialogue.” Church pastors will thank the Almighty for “bringing the great Honduran family closer” and will say the agreements express “the country’s reconciliation.” And there will be talk of “a clean slate” in secular and sacred, civil and military, social and political spaces.
If JOH’s power isn’t touched...
Even if there are advances in the possible agreements reached in the national dialogue, everything will just be makeup applied over a national crisis if three specific factors aren’t dealt with thoroughly. Worse yet, the agreements will be a retaining wall that will impede resolution of the unstable and conflictive national situation.
The first factor is precisely the President of the Republic. In this country, people may be poor and have little academic and political preparation, but they vehemently repudiate any person focused on amassing power. And that is the definition of Juan Orlando Hernández. If the national dialogue agreements don’t address Hernández’s concentration of power, different expressions of unrest will return sooner rather than later.
…corruption isn’t dealt with...
The second factor that needs to be seen to is impunity and corruption. People have openly manifested their rejection of any public officials linked to Hernández’s administration. It won’t be enough to prosecute only a few cases. It’s a matter of investigating and prosecuting all those responsible for looting the public institutions, even if they are from the highest political ranks. Any agreements that don’t include JOH’s commitment to ask the UN to set up a CICIH in the country will have a very hard time extinguishing the torches and the outrage that burns within them.
And if JOH doesn’t make personal decisions involving his own family, nothing will remove his label as a corrupt protector of corrupt people, no matter how much publicity may raise his profile as a “prosecutor of the corrupt” or how many international alliances agree on transparency.
As long as President Hernández keeps his sister Hilda in one of the highest positions of trust, it is unlikely that any agreement from the dialogue will suppress the torches expressing the discontent, distrust and mobilization of the outraged sectors of society.
…and this model isn’t dealt with
The third factor has to do with the neoliberal model and its radical expressions in Honduras. The deepest outrage isn’t even against JOH. He embodies the extreme implementation of this unpopular model that has impoverished Honduran society and concentrated resources and power in a small elite circle. He has concentrated so much power in himself because the model has concentrated extreme wealth in a few families, inversely proportional to the loss of opportunities and dignity of the immense majority of Honduran society.
If the dialogue’s agreements don’t deal with the mining concessions, the privatization of health care and other public services, the ZEDEs or Model Cities; if they end up with cosmetic, charity-oriented economic and productive resolutions, the outrage may be held back for a few days or weeks, maybe even a few months; but it will reappear and more aggressively than during this three-month experience of peaceful struggle in which thousands of people participated.
“JOH, get out!”
“We want the CICIH!”
During all the torch marches, the following slogans were heard repeatedly: “JOH, get out!” and “We want the CICIH!” Both demands express what’s at the heart of the matter in many people’s outrage.
President Hernández’ boundless ambition, the corruption and impunity characterizing those around him, the concentration of wealth and goods in the elite he favors and protects, caused the struggle against corruption to acquire the dimensions of political struggle. Contrary to what the government’s publicity has tried to make it seem to discredit the leaders of the marches, the presence of opposing parties was irrelevant in that struggle.
The next crucial process
Despite the fears and tremors caused by the torches, the objective of maintaining the neoliberal model intact, radicalized by JOH’s political mafia, is still there. The international community supports JOH and the negotiations are only seeking to legitimize his government by granting a slight opening for the opposition. Not only did the OAS play the role of “facilitator” in this process, the inter-American Court of Human Rights accepted JOH’s invitation to hold its 53rd ordinary session in Tegucigalpa August 24-28.
Meanwhile, the Nominating Board’s process of selecting candidates for the new Supreme Court justices started during those same days. This apparently participatory process began in August and will end on January 23 of next year when the National Congress will elect 15 justices from the 45 presented. This process is totally controlled by the governing party, in this case Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party. In the context of the dialogue, the result will be the President’s strict control of human rights and the implementation of justice, with the support of the international community.
We’re facing three paths today. The first one—the political project led by Juan Orlando Hernández’s mafia—is in fact the only one being constructed and traveled. It leads to the selfish, authoritarian, dictatorial and arbitrary control of the State branches and institutions and is thus the path repudiated so strongly by the citizens demonstrating with their torches. This project currently rests upon five pillars:
Business: The first pillar is the business elite, junior associates of the transnational corporations with the support of the international communities. They are Honduras’ richest people, who gladly open the doors to multinational capital, mainly environmentally predatory extractive corporations.
The military: His project’s second pillar is the military. Military force is needed in an unstable, deteriorated, collapsed country such as Honduras. Weapons are the support for politics and the economy. Honduras’ military forces respond to the US government’s security policy, currently determined to control all organized crime networks, negotiating with their main drug lords so they end up under the leadership of the US government’s structures.
Twenty-five years after the Honduran elite supported the US policy to reduce military power because it was no longer needed with neoliberalism, today they’re calling them back and raising their profile. They need them to protect their interests in times of high insecurity and pressure, be it due to organized crime or to citizens’ demands. The military are a decisive factor in all the negotiations underway.
The most impoverished: The third pillar supporting JOH is his loyal base among the most impoverished, those who see the President as a kindhearted paternalistic person who “helps” them. The “social inclusion” line item in the budget is handled personally by JOH, with sums 446% greater than last year. Social and credit assistance programs for the poorest have multiplied and each week a new one appears. Governing party activists manage the funds and selectively give the aid to poor people and families who promise to join the National Party and support the President when he demands it.
The publicity Hilda manages: The fourth pillar is the huge official publicity apparatus in the majority of the national media managed personally by the President’s sister, Hilda Hernández,. Official images and texts fill the media that are paid for with funds from an inflated budget, eliminating any need to threaten anyone and thus avoiding complaints against the government.
JOH, the predestined: The fifth pillar supporting this project is the divine argument. Hernández sustains that he is promoting his government plan in response to a divine mandate. He says that since childhood he was predestined by God to govern Honduras the way he has been. To personally choose to change this way would be tantamount to disobeying the divine mandate.
This divine pillar has an important material base in the financial support from the presidential budget to the Evangelical churches and occasionally some sectors of the Catholic hierarchy, especially in the field of religious communication and education.
The divine plan JOH alludes to is backed by important religious sectors. This was seen, for example, in the rapid way they responded to the President’s call for support in the controlled national dialogue and defended him with the argument that the presidential figure represents Honduras, therefore his resignation should not be requested despite proof of his links with corruption and impunity.
The mafia holds the strings
Juan Orlando Hernández and his mafia haven’t changed their objective with the phenomenon of the torches. Only the strategy has changed. The torches disrupted the national situation that guaranteed JOH’s reelection, impressively turning it around, but they didn’t control the result.
The President and his mafia continue pulling the strings. Instead of weakening, his project’s five pillars have become stronger, especially the one made up of the social base of the poorest. During the worst days of the drought in August, JOH decreed an emergency on a national broadcast, allocating resources for the thirteen departments most affected. He also ordered his ministers to leave their desks and travel to strategic places around the country to tend to people’s needs.
The youth’s path The second path we have today is the one opened by the torches. It represents different sectors: university youth, urban middle class, professionals, small and medium enterprises, academics, NGOs and middle-upper class business people unhappy with the official servility towards transnational capital.
This path has been joined by political leaders from the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), some sectors of the Liberal Party, the Innovation and Unity Party and the more liberal sectors of the Liberation and Refoundation Party (LIBRE). It is led by the young people who called for the weekly march of the torches in Tegucigalpa, some closer to political parties, others more independent. As a whole, it would seem to represent a moderate center right political approach that would stand in defense of respect for national sovereignty and nationalist proposals against the US. This path could politically turn into an electoral proposal of an alliance led by the PAC.
The Left’s path
The third path before us is vaguer. It is represented by sectors leaning more to the left, led today by a sector of the Liberation and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) created by coup-deposed President Manuel Zelaya. This would likely be joined by NGOs, peasants, unions and sectors linked to struggles to defend natural resources and the territories.
It’s the path with a democratic grassroots proposal whose strategy would be to move towards a constituent national Congress to write up a new Constitution expressing a new social pact to recast Honduran society. Under Honduras’ conditions, however, this path isn’t feasible, even if it is desirable for different progressive and leftist sectors.
Build bridges between two paths
Faced with a path as consolidated and well-defined as JOH’s path, there are voices that propose establishing bridges between the second and third paths, between the center Right and the democratic Left.
That would be a way to construct the path of the indignant resistance. It would involve an alliance between the grassroots resistance that led the struggle against the coup in 2009 and the indignant movement that engaged the struggle against corruption and impunity with lit-torches today. Between them they could put together a moderate center-left proposal, which after an in-depth reform of the electoral law and the political parties law would become an alliance between LIBRE and the PAC.
To rush electoral alliances without first securing political alliances would lead to sure failure and cause social demobilization, strengthening JOH’s path of “authoritarian and dictatorial democracy.”
Unite the indignant movement
and the resistance
The worst that could happen to an alliance that brings the political grassroots together with the political center Right would be the use of the torch-lit marches and struggles against corruption and impunity to organize internal party currents. This would generate divisions, distrust, confrontations and disputes for space and shares of power.
Any pro-electoral agenda proselytizing must be abandoned and the construction of a broad social and nonpartisan political alliance promoted to struggle against corruption and impunity, demand the installation of an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras, call for the resignation of the attorney general and his deputy, demand and develop an electoral law reform and political parties law reform, and confront the projects and decrees based on the ZEDEs or Model Cities, mining exploitation and natural resource pillage.
Uniting the resistance of 2009 with the indignant movement of 2015 is the path of new hope.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras,