Green glimpses of hope against a blood red background
“I will be Honduras’ next President with the
will of Honduras’ people and my party’s support,”
confidently proclaimed Juan Orlando Hernández
before a gathering of some ten thousand backers.
Many see the incumbent President’s reelection plan
as a pathway to the installation of a Honduran version of
Daniel Ortega’s permanent presidency project in Nicaragua.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
If we had to portray in paint Honduras’ situation this year, the background would surely be blood red, the color of our national reality after the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, the year’s emblematic event, and of so many other women and men. The loss of Cáceres had global repercussions, focusing the eyes of the world on Honduras. Contrary to the government’s extremely costly publicity campaign that insists we’re no longer the most violent country in the world, and are moving toward a “better life,” to quote its ubiquitous new motto, our country hasn’t been able to overcome the mounting violence and death.
Uncompromising opposition to concessions for extractive practices is what led to the killing of Berta Cáceres, founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPIHN), and other ethnic leaders. Peasant leaders from the Aguán region have likewise been killed, leaving traces of blood that is still not being stanched.
What has MACCIH done so far?
The political process leading to President Hernández’s reelection bid is streaking the depiction of Honduran reality with ever darker areas of grey. His stubborn decision to stand for reelection is a determination as solid as the social stability of the country he intends to continue governing is fragile. Next year promises a period of political conflict that will surely exceed that of previous electoral campaigns.
The color grey also stains the results of the Support Mission to Combat Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), sponsored by the Organization of American States and the US government. We’re still waiting for any concrete results from it.
In 2015, an indignant society took to the streets to demand that an international entity investigate corruption and put a stop to impunity, much like Guatemala’s United Nations-sponsored CICIG. As the year ends, the only activity we’re aware of from MACCIH is the production of brief, marginal questionnaires and a constant increase in personnel to handle as-yet undefined tasks.
The release of names of highly placed police officials involved in the assassination of public servants in collusion with key drug dealers, and the subsequent removal of hundreds of officers from the police force following the creation of the National Police Purging Commission is a matter likewise tinged with grey. It expresses the close alliance between the US Embassy and President Hernández to somewhat tidy up Honduras’ discredited security force while at the same time supporting his reelection by getting powerful police officials out of the way.
Danielismo a la Honduras
As 2016 draws to a close, we are immersed in a new electoral process that promises to be even more conflict-ridden, complex and politically rigged than ever. Some analysts consider Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection project the pathway in our country to a Honduran version of “Danielismo,” referring to the unending reelection scheme of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who just won his third consecutive term in office through a no-holds-barred determination to sweep any and all obstacles out of his path.
All analysts agree in viewing the political process led by Hernández as a radicalizing of the neoliberal model designed to ensure foreign investments under an authoritarian government shielded by repressive militarism. The political landscape in Honduras’ painting employs the color palette of “authoritarian democracy,” in which decision-making is concentrated in ever smaller extreme rightwing groups controlled by Hernández.
We’re witnessing the crystallization of a process born in the early 1980s of what is called “tutelary democracy,” in which civilian regimes replaced the military ones of previous decades. The extreme rightwing project of “authoritarian democracy” gained strength in Honduras with the coup d’état of June 2009. It’s based on militarism and the subordination of all state institutions to the leaders of the most extremist group within the National Party.
The five powers of “Authoritarian Democracy”
Many actors are lending their colors to that Honduran landscape. At times some prevail over others, but only five have the capacity to always impose their interests. They are the transnational corporations, the small local oligarchic elite, the criminal groups or networks, the military and the US Embassy. As the head of the National Party, President Hernández has persuaded each of these powers to back his reelection ambitions in opposition to the country’s Constitution, which bars Presidents from serving more than one term.
The US Embassy supports Hernández’s reelection provided it is legally limited to a single additional term. Hernández has lobbied to have this condition accepted, but not all members of his party agree. Nor have all military personnel reached agreement on this issue despite the benefits the President has given top Army officials. The criminal networks haven’t expressed unanimous support for the President’s intentions either, in their case due to distrust in their ranks of a man they believe has betrayed their drug trafficking allies and what they perceive as his submission to US government pressures.
As long as President Hernández continues responding submissively to the interests of transnational corporations and the oligarchic elite remains satisfied with a government that facilitates the conditions to enable privatization of public resources, both of those powers will support his reelection, whether limited to one term or unlimited. Democratic formalities are irrelevant to the interests of these two factions. It matters not whether the government respects them or not, is a presidential or parliamentarian system or is even a dictatorship. The only important thing that matters to them is that investments can count on official protection.
In a context such as this, any positive support political actors might give to the national scenario is merely cosmetic. They contribute by giving the authoritarian project a democratic façade, focusing the attention of the media and the people, who follow their avatars in an emotional, entertaining way, distracting them from the reality of the pacts among the five powers that result in deals for extractive businesses, concessions and the privatization of services and public assets.
Multi-partisanship controlled by bipartisanship
Given the instability, uncertainty, violence and chaos dominating Honduran society today, Juan Orlando Hernández’s proposed reelection project will mark a transition from formal democracy under US government tutelage to another formal structure that will put the weight primarily on authoritarianism.
The political parties are also transitioning from a bipartite model that for decades functioned as a perfect political mechanism. Today they are moving toward a multipartite model that is unique because it is still controlled by the same old bipartite leaders.
Primary party elections will be held in March 2017 to select the candidates who will be running in the general election that November. Although no fewer than nine political parties will participate, we already know who will win the presidency. Juan Orlando Hernandez, the guaranteed winner, will compete against a multipartite chorus of candidates selected by him and representing parties he decided to register so they can legitimize his reelection.
The Extreme Right is back
The leadership that has retaken the extreme Right in Latin America endorses the radicalization of the neoliberal model in Honduras and the legitimization of Juan Orlando Hernández’s authoritarian project. The continent is moving toward governments very different than those that, despite differences among them, all embraced a progressive social vision of the State with more autonomous policies vis-á-vis Washington. This transition seems implacable: we’re swiftly moving away from the nationalistic political proposals initiated twenty years ago, whose primary impact was during the first decade of this century, toward the administration of South America by radicalized neoliberal sectors. We transitioned from President Clinton’s Free Trade Alliance of the Americas (FTAA) of twenty years ago to the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of America (ALBA) of Brazil’s Lula, Argentina’s Kirchner and Venezuela’s Chávez, And we are now returning to the more radically neoliberal models of Argentina’s Macri and Brazil’s Temer. And in the North, of course, we have what some people hope is, at best, the “unpredictable” model of Donald Trump.
Today’s correlation of forces obviously doesn’t favor the social movement. The extreme Right is united and in ascendency in Honduras and throughout the continent while the social movement is losing strength and fragmenting. The fundamental challenge is to transform that correlation of forces.
Spaces in the social movement
Which factors underpinning the neoliberal model can become the seed of its self-destruction? They are the industries based on extraction (mining; concessions of rivers, woodlands and territories; agro-businesses; and model cities) and the conception of the State as a business (including public/private alliances and the privatization of public resources). To that we can add corruption and impunity.
The more our societies and social movements wake up to the extent of the dangers and damages the extractive industries pose to the environment and to community life and physical life, the greater will be their efforts to unmask the development discourse associated with transnational companies. And the more the oligarchy is cited as responsible for the destruction of the States by their insistence on marketing everything and privatizing public resources, the more vigorous must be the struggle to regain the State and its sovereignty over public and common assets. The more the cases of unpunished corruption by political and private mafias are investigated, the weaker those mafias will become.
Everything remains to be accomplished in the social and popular movements, but as Albert Einstein reminded us, “Crisis is the best blessing that can happen to people and countries, because the crisis brings progress. Creativity is born from the distress, as the day is born from the dark night. It is in crisis that invention, discovery and large strategies are born.”
Deep crisis defines Honduras’ portrait. For Einstein’s vision to emerge in it, the country’s social movement must retain its autonomy and independence from the political parties. There have been way too many instances of alliances in Honduras in which the social movement almost always wound up as the transmission belt for party interests. This is what has happened with the National Front of Popular Resistance and the identification of its objectives with those of the LIBRE party.
In times of elections, communities and social movements risk being trapped in political proselytism, reducing their horizons to the electoral agenda, which is almost exclusively about the takeover of power, and thus losing sight of Honduras’ multi-colored picture.
Students and ordinary citizens
In this multi-colored scenario, there have been some glimmers of green hope in 2016. The strike by the University Student Movement (MEU) achieved national recognition for several months, both for the pressures that paralyzed teaching and for the level of leadership the students achieved.
The students’ pressure was not only firm but coherent. It forced university authorities to sit down at the table with mediators accepted by both parties in order to thoroughly review the academic norms of the National Autonomous University of Honduras in force since November 2014.
Keep driving, don’t pay the toll Also adding a streak of green to the Honduran painting was the social pressure against the installation of toll booths on the county’s main highways and the privatization of a public facility, much in the manner of a public/private partnership.
The movement began with some small skirmishes in the city of El Progreso when toll booths were erected near the city in early October and people were told that at least five toll areas were planned.
El Progreso has a militant tradition. This city, with its more than 300,000 inhabitants, was where the most important banana strike in Honduran history took place in 1954, earning El Progreso the reputation, with some people, of having the most revolutionary population, while others merely see them as rowdies. Citizens’ groups mobilized to initiate a determined campaign against the toll charges in the area. In just a few days, the drivers of 99 out of every 100 vehicles refused to pay the toll. The issue quickly grew from a local skirmish into national social, political and legal pressure.
This non-violent struggle of civil disobedience, begun by ordinary citizens and a few businessmen, awakened national awareness in defense of common property and sovereignty. Their opposition to the tolls, promoted on Honduras’ primary highways with the slogan “Siga de viaje, no pague peaje” (keep driving, don’t pay the toll), sparked other activities. During the first week of November, a caravan of some 50 vehicles, dubbed “Soberanía Vial”(driver sovereignty), travelled the main highway linking Tegucigalpa to the north, with drivers determined to exercise their constitutional right to travel freely on a highway the government had conceded to a multinational corporation dominated by Colombian investors.
In the vicinity of Siguatequepe, a city halfway between Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the caravan, which was supported by people’s organizations that included Berta Cáceres’ COPINH, ran into a wall of resistance consisting of three hundred anti-riot policemen armed with pistols, blackjacks, tear gas, shields and war tanks. The military barrier covered the entire highway, obstructing passage for vehicles and people. Undaunted, the caravan demanded repeal of the decree legalizing toll booths and insisted on a national dialogue involving the central government, municipal governments, private enterprise and community organizations to define a model that
would ensure that the highways continued belonging to the public and not to private enterprise.
After a four-hour stand-off, the caravan, unable to proceed, decided to retreat and the anti-riot police dispersed, although the toll booths in Zambrano detained several participants, including two women who ended up in jail in the capital. The accusation against the women? Disobeying the authorities. And it was true: the caravan was an expression of civil disobedience against an unconstitutional law that jeopardized public lands. The women were released thanks to firm pressure by a mass of people who stationed themselves in the police installations.
Red and green
The repressive response to this peaceful protest reflected the saying, “The party is defined by its preparations.” If this is how a government that hopes to be reelected in 2017 resolves disputes in 2016, we need have no doubt that, with an even greater concentration of power in its second term, it will ratchet up the repression.
Yes, even greater conflict awaits us in 2017. Also awaiting us is a social movement that will continue simmering, fed by growing unrest among the masses. Neither the red of blood nor the green of hope will be lacking in the confrontation.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.