21st Century Socialism Comes to the Honduran Banana Republic

(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?

Better known for bananas and “Chiquitaism” than political experimentation and new directions, big changes seem to be afoot in the small Central American republic of Honduras. Last August, President Manuel Zelaya Rosales astonished many at home and abroad by announcing his country’s entry into the Venezuelan-sponsored Alternativa Bolivariana para las Americas (ALBA), a “fair trade” and social justice bloc tirelessly being pushed by Caracas, which promotes economic and political ties between like-minded left-leaning Latin American nations.

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.

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7 thoughts on “21st Century Socialism Comes to the Honduran Banana Republic

  • May 30, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Thanks for another interesting COHA-article on Honduras!

    But I feel this criticism of president Zelaya does not hold water. Zelaya is a truely democratic leader and the first president of Honduras after the defeat of the military dicatorship who has fought vehemently to improve the living conditions of the poor majority.

    Zelaya has shown at times to be a very honest critic of Honduran society (see for example the youtube-clip “En Honduras no se dicen la verdad”) and it is hard to deny that his criticism of the results of the democratic system in Honduras after the military dictatorship is correct.

    I have visited Honduras three times in the years before Zelaya was elected and what I observed seemed to be a parody on democracy. In order to get listed so that you could get elected for congress you had to pay a bribe to your party (at lest the major ones) a journalist told me. Poltics seemed to be a continuation of business life where politicians mainly saw to their own personal interests rather than to the interests of the poor majority.

    What Zelaya has done with the help of some other dedicated militants in the liberal party is to help the PL to regain its soul and to reach out to the popular organisations who according the Honduran newspaper Tiempo (www.tiempo.hn) have seen many of their leading members being murdered in recent years. I can agree with your analysis that there have been some worrying threats against journalists and that the Zelaya administration most likely has not been flawless in its treatment of jourmalists. But the overall impression of the administration is a very positive one, especially when comparing to his predecessors.

    Zelaya’s suggestion about a fourth ballot box giving the Hondurans the opportunity to decide if they want a new constituent assembly writing a new constitution which will then of course later be decided on in another popular referendum is not a desperate attempt by Zelaya to extend his rule. If that had been the case Zelaya would have suggested the referendum much earlier and not scheduled it on the day for the presidential election. As it is the PL has already a new candidate for the upcoming presidential election and Zelaya could not possibly get the support from his own party if he indented to somehow shorten the term of the party’s own candidate (if the PL wins against the right-wing Nacionalista candidate).

    There are many institutions who seem to feel threatened about the possiblity of a new constitution and they try to stop the fourth ballot box. The intrigues stemming from this fact should be described in an impartial way, not by portraying the conservatives as the good guys and Zelaya as an evil dictator imitator.

    On Tiempo’s editorial page (www.tiempo.hn) there has been many intelligent analyses both in favor and against the fourth ballot box. One commentator compared the propaganda war now going on against the fourth ballot box with the propaganda war that tried to stop Zelaya from including Honduras as a full member of ALBA. The tactic then was to create fear among the population: Fear that Honduras would become a communist country, that trade with the USA would stop, that remittances from Hondurans living in the US would stop etc. Now that tactic is used once again trying to convince people that there might be a new dictatorship if they are permitted to vote on whether or not they want a new constitution to be drafted.

    It seems foolish to complain in regards to the fourth ballot box is that Zelaya has not stated what the new constitution will contain. That the uncertainty should be another cause for fear among the population. But for Zelaya to publish a new constitution at this point would be exactly the kind of authoritarian behaviour that his adversaries are trying to blame him for (and if he had done that this is exactly what they would have done). The new constitution of Honduras should be written by a collective of people with representatives from both politics and popular organisations und must of course be ratified in a second referendum. It is not for one single person to decide what it should contain.

    Björn Blomberg (Sweden)

  • June 11, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Dear Mr. Thompson,

    As a citizen of Honduras (born and raised in Honduras), I would like to thank you for your analysis, and would like to say that your explanation of the current situation in Honduras is thorough and accurate.

    The president of Honduras is not a truly democratic leader, and in order to fulfill his dreams of perpetuity, has managed to create chaos, uncertainty, and more poverty in the country. By increasing the minimum salary (without any timely warning to business owners so that they could adjust their finances and afford the increase), has managed to bankrupt most of the medium to small businesses, increasing the unemployment rate to record numbers. He has managed to stop large projects financed by foreign investors, cheating our citizens from secure jobs in various industries.

    As a democracy loving country, Hondurans DO NOT want a referendum to the constitution, we DO NOT WANT A FORTH BALLOT, we want elections (paid with our tax money), and most importantly; we do not want to give Zelaya the opportunity to stay a minute longer past his term, WE WANT CHANGE!!

    Karen Bush(Tegucigalpa, Honduras)

  • June 12, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    From a foreigner with experience living in both Honduras and Nicaragua.

    Thank you for enlightening us about Honduran politicing I noticed the many similarities to what is happening in Nicaragua influenced by Chavez and his constitutional reforms with unlimited presidential terms.
    I would be curious to know what other plans the Honduran president has since Ortega’s organization manipulated local mayoral elections through control of community groups. Most Nicaraguans were scandalized by the mayoral elections here but the poor continue to slave away with machetes and the politicians continue to fatten themselves on foreign chaff. Since the majority of the population: the youth and the rural uneducated poor, may not understand the power of their voices united because so often they are gagged due to political favoring in the newly strengthened Sandinista community groups.
    An example of Chavez/ALBA affects on the poor in Nicaragua: Last year the fertilizer was too expensive for most farmers to apply to their plantain fields so this year there is a very reduced harvest. This is a staple in the diet of most Nicas and is also exported.
    I believe there are many similarities happening in other Latin American countries who are feeling the pressure of Chavez and ALBA memberships. It will be interesting to see what the new El Salvador President chooses to do for his citizens.
    Remember the Venezuelans who are suffering even with the petro based economy …there are food lines and never enough to meet the demands. Nicaragua’s government has installed in Managua’s barrios staples stores with discounted products which are just a bit cheaper than the local shops but there are always lines and never enough to meet the demands. The prices of basic grains, along with cooking oils, sugar, and salt etc…continue to climb and the local shops cannot compete with ¨state-run stores¨ so will be forced to close and the locals will be forced to buy from the government with longer lines in the future.
    This is familiar experience in Venezuela. Look out Honduras if you are headed in the same direction.

  • June 4, 2011 at 6:47 am

    The history of Washington's involvements in Latin America have been a shame and a scam. The U.S. isn't involved in helping the third world to climb out from under it's rock, it only intends to protect it's own economic interests by continuing to allow the rich class and status quo in Honduras to continue to screw the interests of the working class that Zelaya's plan clearly intended to help. Truth is that the working class has no representation nor economic justice and so each day more and more immigrants leave Latin America because they have no confidence in their government and the coup is just one more example. It was pure hypocrisy for the ruling elite in Honduras to beat it's chest about their being a need to preserve law and order and respect for the Constitution when they only do this when it's convenient and serves their selfish political aims. These are not traditional democratic governments and certainly nothing like it's practiced in North American, yet the current Washington administration was unwilling to forcefully condemn the status quo who itself broke the law by exiling Zelaya instead of bringing criminal charges against him, if they really intended to protect Constitutional law as they pretended. Moreover, during the intervening time why hasn't the Supreme Court and Attorney General's office indicted the military leadership for kidnapping the President at gunpoint and flying him out of the country against his will? This is an example of how the law is irregularly carried out in these countries and why the bigger question here, of giving the rural and working classes a voice in political life in Nicaragua through the mounting of a Constitutional referendum, which the status quo has argued that Congress solely has the right to do under the current Constitution.

    So it all boiled down to a Congress that has no political will in seeing it's political stranglehold placed in jeopardy by potentially having its power overturned by the masses whom overwhelmingly are in favor of having a new constitution. So under these circumstances what could Zelaya and his allies do if they were unwilling to technically break the law in the name of bringing progress and economic justice to the masses?

    The sad thing about the whole episode is that once again we see the public's understanding of what the real issues were being deliberately confused and distorted by a campaign of fear and misinformation by the status quo, and as usual Washington intervention was neither meaningful nor advanced the cause of democracy. Furthermore as an American living abroad in Latin America can attest, there is no democracy in Honduras as the majority is too impoverished and uneducated in order to participate in bringing about democratic change — thus the need for an honest president such as Zelaya to step in. Yet as a result of him having enrolled Honduras in the Chavez' alternative economic collation the year before, Washington was unwilling to support these bold moves at establishing some semblance of democracy in Nicaragua.

  • June 4, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Furthermore, while Zelaya’s moves were insincerely characterized by the ruling elite as undemocratic and illegal, due in large part to his willingness to go against their interests (which is to preserve the status quo over issues such as continuing to keep the minimum wage down and preserve the low wages that Hondurans have had to live with for decades). Yet the public in America should not be fooled by the way the administration in Washington likes to talk out of both sides of it's mouth. What Secretary of State Clinton should have done for the administration was to spell out in more clear terms just how much inconsistency the ruling elite's argument represented instead of waiving as it did during the initial stage of the takeover and coup.

    Regarding the comment against Zelaya's action as having posed a real danger to the interests of small businesses and job creation, I think the argument hold no water. What type of jobs does this person pretend were lost? This type of fear mongering is typical of the capitalist class. This class always cries about how having to pay a fair living wage deprives the country from having jobs, yet I don't think the business owner would like it if they had to survive on the meager wages that are routinely paid throughout the Latin American third world. Moreover, we're just coming out from the greatest Gilded Age in American history where many workers have seen their middle class jobs exported to the third world where there is no labor protection or fair wages being paid. It just goes to shows how little concern the business class has for the need to pay a fair living wage in Latin America, and furthermore, if Washington has any real interest in stemming the ever growing flow of illegal immigration into the US, it better wake to the reality that helping to suppress a fair living wage in Latin American countries such as in Honduras help to keep the flow of illegal immigration into the U.S. going.

    Truth is that Washington handled the situation poorly for while in a technical sense Zelaya violated the Honduran Constitution, yet there was no other way for him to get the referendum on changing the Constitution into the hands of the disenfranchised Honduran people to whom it mattered the most. Several news reports noted that the Attorney General of Honduras was visited by a group of several hundred angry demonstrators from the rural and agricultural class whom threatened insurrection if the fourth ballot was not allowed to take place. What this tells us is just how disenchanted there were within the ranks of the poorest classes in Honduras, yet instead they were described unfairly as an angry mod who was threatening the stability of the government.

    I am an American citizen who's been living abroad for more than 6 years now in Colombia and who has visited many countries in Central America, I can tell you that practices and actions of governments within these countries is irregular and inconsistent. For example did the Attorney General Office ever prosecute those members of the Honduran military who kidnapped Zelaya from his presidential palace and removed him from the country under the guise of an arrest warrant. Fact is that the warrant was improperly served, thus robbing Zelaya and his supporters from having the opportunity of challenging the validity of the actions undertaken by the Supreme Court and the arrest warrant that was issued. All that ever came about as a result of the arrest warrant not being properly executed to this day is that the de facto president admitted that errors had been made with the serving of the warrant, but there never should have been an arrest warrant issued in the first place because all that Zelaya's actions did was to try and place in front of the people an opportunity to change the political Constitution. So if the ultra conservative Congress of Honduras wasn't going to do it, then who was?

  • June 4, 2011 at 6:55 am

    So then, all the arguments of the elite class (about their being a real need and interest in preserving law and order while forcing Zelaya to respect the constitution) were viewed by those outside of Honduras as being politically motivated. All the rest is a complete sham and everyone certainly needs to recognize this, but especially Americas! America appears to not be interested in discovering the truth about the real conditions that exist today throughout the Latin America, why is that? Truth is that while former president Zelaya's perhaps technically were not legal, nor did they have the backing of many members of the conservative elite class, his intention was pure and he demonstrated great political courage and honesty by seeking to point out the many contradictions that existed at the time he was president.

    If America is to ever has a chance to regain its reputation and image, then it still needs to back up its public rebuke with more serious actions that's aimed at sending a strong signal to coup leaders that it will no longer continue to support illegal behavior and the violation of the political rights of its leaders.

    Finally, Washington did everything it could in seeking to damage the image and reputation of Zelaya for his backing of Chavez' alternative economic colalition, thru it's usage of familiar tactics such branding him a communist and allowing the ruling elite to misrepresent and mis-characterize the former Honduran president's intentions. For Zelaya had made it clear that the fourth ballot box and proposed constitutional referendum weren't being done in order to extend his own term, as had been falsely claimed by the elite, but was merely trying to eliminate the stranglehold that the status quo and Congress had placed upon the Honduran people by the series of articles deemed to be untouchable by the president. Yet Washington let the conservative Honduran elite criticize continue to criticize Zelaya by portraying his image as being a Communist and too extremely far to the left to be able to govern. Anyway, if Washington in the future wants to avoid another fiasco like occurred herein, it needs to wake-up to the reality that economic injustice and political corruption are rampant within Honduras and many other supposedly democratic countries that it does business in.

  • October 11, 2013 at 2:38 pm

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