(COHA will provide equal space and distribution to those who dispute the findings of this article)
Zelaya of Honduras: A misunderstood but honorable leader or an amiable varlet?
Honduran entry into ALBA granted it numerous benefits, including fuel at market price, but at defrayed and subsidized interest rates, as well as 15 million dollars in development aid.1 The fuel could not only be paid for in installments over a 25-year period at 1% interest, but part of the cost could be paid in goods and services exported to Venezuela, instead of in cash. Since Honduras’ surprising entry into ALBA, Zelaya appears to have become emboldened enough to call for a national referendum to replace the current Honduran constitution.
Traditionally a staunch American ally, Honduras in recent years has had to deal with corrupt and at times murderous governments. Transnational firms such as the United Fruit Company owned large swaths of land and controlled key sectors of the economy. The country’s poverty rates always have been high, making it the second poorest country in the hemisphere. Honduran foreign policy for much of the twentieth century fruitlessly mirrored Washington’s, and numerous human rights transgressions were committed during the infamous Contra epoch. It was into this morass of disenfranchised, impoverished Hondurans that Zelaya launched his message of constitutional change.
Escaping Central American-Style Democracy
Zelaya first broached the topic on November 11, 2008. That day, the San Pedro daily La Prensa reported that the president had proposed that a fourth ballot box be installed at polling places on November 29, 2009. Honduran voting booths presently contain three ballot boxes: one to vote for the president, one for the congressional, and one for local mayoral candidates. Zelaya suggested installing a fourth box to vote on whether or not the electorate wanted to choose a National Constituent Assembly. According to Zelaya, this proposed body would draft a new Honduran constitution. Zelaya seeks a changed constitution which would allow him to run for reelection. On March 24, Zelaya upped the ante by announcing, via executive decree PCM-05-2009, that this national referendum would take place no later than June 28, and that it would be administered by the National Statistical Institute (INE)
The Honduran constitution, which contains 375 articles, can be amended by a two-thirds majority vote in congress. However, there are eight “firm articles” which cannot be amended. These include presidential term limits, system of government that is permitted and process of presidential succession. Since the president has the ability to amend the remaining 368 provisions by means of a congressional majority, some have called into question what the president’s true intentions may be.
Critics immediately labeled Zelaya’s action as a blatant and cynical attempt to extend his term limits. Some, such as Honduran political analyst Juan Ramon Martinez, argue that we are witnessing a concerted effort on Zelaya’s part to discredit some of the country’s key democratic institutions in order to possibly extend his rule.2 “There appears to be a set of tactics aimed at discrediting institutions…he has repeated on several occasions that democratic institutions are worthless and that democracy has not helped at all,” said Martinez.
The president’s comments on a number of occasions have buttressed the grounds for this type of interpretation. He has stated several times that the constitution has been repeatedly violated by politicians and that it needs to be adapted to the new “national reality.”3 Zelaya has not precisely spelled out what changes would be necessary to make in order to adapt the country’s social contract to that new national reality. Zelaya announced on May 22 that the new constitution would include direct democracy initiatives such as popular referendums and recall elections. However, the current constitution already contains provisions for popular referendums and does not expressly prohibit recall elections. Zelaya’s recent legal oversteps have led some to worry about what a new constitution would signify for the country and Zelaya’s fidelity to the concept of constitutionalism.
The Lives of Others
Homicides shot up 25% last year in Honduras and crime is an ever-growing problem affecting all citizens.4 On April 1, the Zelaya administration announced a new series of what he described as anti-crime initiatives. Among these were strengthened wiretapping powers that would give Honduran police access to all cellular phone communications in the country.
Raul Valladares, the head of the national communications commission (CONATEL) later described what the proposed plan would mean for the nation. “At the moment we do not have the capability to record phone calls. We are relaxing norms in order to be able to monitor calls. We will track the origin and duration of the call as well as to whom and how long it lasted.”5
Ramon Custodio, head of the highly regarded National Committee for Human Rights (CODEH), called the measure “police terrorism” in an interview with El Heraldo and claimed that it would lead to the formation of a national police state. Faced with mounting opposition, Zelaya announced on April 3 that the measure would not be carried out, citing technical difficulties in recording cell phone conversations.
Power of the Purse Puts Elections in Peril
In addition to other initiatives with questionable democratic content, Zelaya attempted to hamstring the other branches of government through legal technicalities and plenty of good old-fashioned red tape. Roberto Carlos Guzman sought an injunction against the pending plebiscite before the Honduran Supreme Court, but was rejected. The court argued that, since PCM-05-2009 wasn’t published in the official state newspaper, it fell outside of its jurisdiction. To this day, Zelaya has refused to publish the full text of PCM-05-2009.
However, the president appears to have moved on to more questionable methods to push through his plebiscite. The Secretary of Finance has not yet submitted the national budget to congress for ratification, and this is causing many governmental institutions to feel the pinch. Principally among them are the National Electoral Tribunal and the National Persons Registry, which are two of the agencies that oversee the electoral process in Honduras. The departments estimate they will require 513 million lempiras, or a little over two and a half million dollars to carry out their mandates.6 With a national budget under great stress, this financing has been placed in jeopardy. This has led some to speculate that the true reason behind Zelaya not submitting a budget was to financially asphyxiate the electoral process. On May 1, the vice president of the Honduran Committee for Private Enterprise (COHEP), Alejandro Alvarez, urged congress to seek alternative funding for the elections to be carried out, even from private sources, thus bypassing Zelaya’s roadblock.
“Honduran private industry can support the electoral process if the government is not willing to provide funds,” Alvarez emphasized. But not everyone in the Honduran government is prepared to go along with the president’s sought-after referendum. Attorney General Luis Rubi has repeatedly stated that Zelaya may be exposing himself to criminal prosecution by attempting to modify or scrap the constitution. On May 11 the Attorney General’s office, known as the Ministerio Publico (MP), called for legal action which would render Zelaya’s referendum illegal. The announcement was made a day after the president declared that no police officer in the country would arrest him for carrying out the referendum. “We live in a democratic state and police authorities are required to carry out judicial rulings,” said Rubi. “We hope that the police have not become bodyguards to the president because they will have to choose between protecting him and obeying the Constitution and its laws.”7
Article 375 of the constitution states that the social contract cannot be terminated by an unauthorized individual or body and that anyone wishing to nullify the constitution is subject to criminal penalties. All Honduran citizens share the duty of defend the constitution against efforts to terminate it.
Secret Funds, Dirty Tricks and the Occasional Threat
On May 18, about 100 members of indigenous groups armed for the occasion with machetes and hiding their faces with bandannas crowded outside Rubi’s offices in Tegucigalpa. Their leader, Salvador Zuniga said that, while they were not contemplating violent action, they would defend Zelaya’s referendum.”We have come to defend this country’s second founding,” said Zuniga, referring to the referendum. “If we are denied it we will resort to national insurrection.”8
It should be noted that the Zelaya administration has had a long history of paying organizations to support its projects. Political analyst Enrique Ortiz Colindres claimed in an interview with El Heraldo, that Zelaya had paid laborers to show up en masse to the ALBA signing ceremony held on August 25, 2008. There, before a jubilant crowd, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and other Pink-Tide leaders from across the hemisphere ratified Honduras’ entry into ALBA. Meanwhile, Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Alvarez alleged that his office was offered 300 million lempiras (15 million dollars) to support the referendum.9
In addition to financing pressure groups, Zelaya has also been accused of intimidating journalists. In the past year, journalism has become a much more dangerous profession in Honduras. Journalists Carlos Salgado and Rafael Munguia were both shot in public places, and others have denounced threats on their lives. On May 19, Honduran human rights activist Ramon Custodio asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR) to provide protection for journalist Armando Villanueva and his family, who were the targets of threats which Villanueva insists came from the president. According to Villanueva, a source within military intelligence revealed that the administration had hired three former members of the infamous 3-16 Battalion to conduct surveillance operations against persons labeled threats to the state.10 Funded and trained by the United States, the 3-16 Battalion was formed in the 1980s to conduct covert operations against suspected leftists in Honduras. Currently, several former members of the notorious group are serving prison sentences for murders committed during this period.
One Step Forward, Six Steps Back
Zelaya’s recent actions, some of them not in keeping with the democratic spirit of the Honduran constitution, have caused concern among various sectors of Honduran society, while winning the backing of others. Despite his violation of several constitutional mandates, Zelaya has carried out social legislation. Since taking office, the president has instituted a 60% minimum wage increase, strengthened ties between the government and indigenous groups, and announced plans to increase literacy. However, it remains to be seen whether these are long-lasting reforms or simply election year ploys to boost his popularity ahead of a popular referendum. Zelaya’s legacy could take on two forms, depending on who tells the story: he could be remembered as the man who gave Honduran poor a voice, or he may be remembered as the president who attempted to terminate Honduran democracy.
The president’s refusal to submit his project to congress or even reveal what constitutional reforms he wishes to make shroud the plan in an unhelpful air of secrecy and suspicion. While Honduran autocrats have traditionally not been as repressive as many of their regional counterparts, older Hondurans who remember past military dictatorships, the Contra wars and the late General Alvarez Martinez may not be so eager to scrap the constitution they fought to create. Honduras has a long history of autocratic, intransigent leadership which is more interested in extending its power than pursuing real social reform, and Zelaya seems to be considering the same path.