Latin America’s Preeminent Banana Republic and its Uninspired Political Process
When thousands of taxistas blockaded the streets of Tegucigalpa at the beginning of September to protest the increasing price of gas, Honduran president Ricardo Maduro was unable to mount any effective response in the face of a crisis that had this time been generated by a series of natural disasters rather than his own shortcomings. It was not until congress stepped in, temporarily freezing prices, that the situation began to ease. Maduro then issued an executive order that would hold prices in check through October, in effect capitulating to the street.
Ultimately, Maduro was forced to act by politics rather than economics. With the November 27 presidential elections fast approaching, his would-be chosen successor, Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the Nationalist Party, is locked in a loud and nasty race with opposition Liberal Party candidate Manuel Zelaya Rosales. Yet, as the power wielded by the taxistas indicates, the election may be more about playing to the masses than attending to serious political issues, as both sides seek to harness the deepening discontent that engulfs the country.
An Ugly Inheritance
Whoever wins in November will almost certainly be confronted by an existing series of crises upon entering office. Domestically, Maduro’s presidency has been defined by issues of crime and corruption. Polls have underscored that the weight of popular sentiment falls against him: a June Gallup poll showed that 53% of the population believes that corruption under Maduro is worse than under previous presidents, while only 13% of the population feels he has managed the economy well, and 64% thinks the country is on the wrong course. The government’s inability to effectively manage the oil spike has only further exacerbated tensions among the electorate.
According to an August 27 Nuevo Herald report, “violence, crime and drug trafficking continue to be the principle problems confronting the country.” As organized gang violence carried out by various Mara groups spilling over from El Salvador has become increasingly bloody, Hondurans have undeniably suffered. In December 2004, an ambush attack on a public bus carrying mostly women and children killed 28, in a highly publicized massacre that rightfully terrified the nation. While such events are far from typical, violent crime, as an almost daily event, has become a disturbing fact of life.
Crime is King
To date, the political campaign has reflected, rather than risen above, the chaotic and discordant state of Honduran society. Nevertheless, if one key issue can be distilled out of the everyday mudslinging, it is that of security. The election will likely be determined by the specter of crime, and in doing so, could become a referendum on the establishment of the death penalty in the country. According to a Latinnews report, in the first six months of 2005 there were 1,465 murders in a country of just under 7 million, yielding a rate of one every three hours. Maduro began his presidency promising to take on the crime problem, pledges made credible by his personal loss of a son during a 1997 botched kidnapping. His government launched a series of tough new initiatives, including the 2002 passage of a penal code reform which allowed for sentences of up to 30 years for those convicted simply of “illicit association,” or membership in the Maras. Nevertheless, the government’s hardline approach has, “failed to make any impact.”
Rather, it is ineffectiveness that has seized the center stage of the political debate. Voters will in essence be given the choice between the promise of major security policy reforms or even harder “mano dura” policies, including the death penalty. While the visceral appeal of an extreme hardline response certainly has its share of disciples, some have suggested that Honduras, like its neighbors in the region, needs to examine the root socioeconomic causes of the region’s predilection for violence, rather than merely attempting to crush its anti-social product. Whatever approach is chosen, voters can only hope that the new president will prove more successful than his predecessor in stemming the crime wave referring to wise programs rather than selfish chatter.
Socio-Economic Problems Underpin the Crisis
Much of Honduras’ social instability, which in large part contributes to its violence, stems from the paralyzing indigence found across the country. Around 70% of the population lives in poverty, and much of the suffering falls upon the rural sector where, according to USAID, low prices for agricultural goods have combined with natural disasters to “accelerate migration to urban areas, putting more pressure on limited municipal resources.” Improving rural conditions, particularly through financial support to farmers, is certainly one of the nation’s top priorities.
Urban Hondurans are faced with a spate of problems as well, from housing shortages and inadequate basic infrastructure, to an increasing cost of living and a lack of social welfare offering and jobs. It was these concerns that helped fuel the taxista protests, yet remedying these maladies may prove difficult, given the country’s overall economic slump. Already the government faces a losing struggle to maintain sound fiscal policy, a problem concentrated by the rot of endemic corruption and an overall lack of transparency and accountability. Even moderate progress on these otherwise overwhelming issues by President Maduro’s successor will represent a significant accomplishment.
An equally significant weight on the new president will be Honduras’ history of susceptibility to northern influence. If banana corporations once manipulated national politics, in modern times Washington has been equally effective in buying support through substantial aid packages on totally unwarranted grounds. Mirabile dictum, the 2004 USAID budget for the country was $45 million, and this summer Honduras became the second country to sign onto the Millennium Challenge program, receiving a five year, $215 million package that has been combined with substantial debt relief measures. Salivating at the prospect of such tremendous inflows, Maduro mendaciously hurried to please his benefactors, sending troops to Iraq (although they were later withdrawn in 2004) and, according to the State Department, strongly supporting the global “war on terror.” Honduras is also the site of a major U.S. military base, further underscoring the country’s compromised autonomy, which is an understatement.
The two central figures in the race are Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the ruling Partido Nacional (PN) and Manuel “Mel” Zelaya of the opposition Partido Liberal (PL). These candidates aptly represent Honduras’ two party stagnation as well as the country’s tradition of caudillismo. Both candidates easily won their parties’ nomination during the primaries held in February, and their support, while evenly matched, breaks nearly precisely down party lines. In Honduras, party loyalty tends to be hard and fast, and patronage is insultingly commonplace. According to June’s Gallup poll, 80% of the population claims affiliation with a political party, and the PN and PL tally 39% of the total population each. As such, both candidates have been able to mount impressive demonstrations, caravans and rallies, which merely serve as reminders of each organization’s capacity for fervor, if not farce.
The early poll leader has been the PN candidate, Lobo, who has retained his advantage despite his close ties to the feckless Maduro government. He is well known nationally, and serves as the current president of congress, a position in which he oversaw the initial oil price freeze in September. Under him, in 2004, congress also passed legislation stripping public officials of their immunity from prosecution. Lobo’s national prominence, however, is mainly a result of his ongoing advocacy of the death penalty and his insistence on even tougher hard line anti-crime measures.
While the popularity of Lobo’s other policy stances is mixed, solving the country’s gang crisis is the key plank in his platform. Using a campaign slogan of “trabajo y seguridad,” (employment and security) he has continually emphasized the need for harsher penalties as a means of regaining society’s control, particularly the reinstitution of the death penalty. According to a La Tribuna article, Lobo declared that if elected, “we will act decisively so that everyone can rest easy, we’re going to take the criminals off the streets.” Yet part and parcel of this crime-centered, almost vigilante, campaign are attacks on Zelaya as being soft on the Maras, making such outrageous statements as “the crooks in jail are praying to high heaven that the Liberal’s candidate wins, since they know that with him [Zelaya] they’ll have all sorts of wonderful privileges.”
By focusing his campaign efforts on security, Lobo has perhaps managed to keep the spotlight off some of the more unsavory lines in his resume. According to Latinnews, the country’s human rights organization, Confadeh, has expressed concerns over some of the harsher anti-crime initiatives of the current administration, and has noted that potential civil rights violations could occur if the death penalty were to be instituted. Furthermore, Lobo has been linked to an illegal logging scandal in his home district of Olancho, and may have fraudulently authorized cutting by his friends and campaign donors in the timber industry. If substantiated, such allegations could present a serious dilemma for Lobo: Hondurans have shown a sizeable degree of concern about deforestation. Large civic demonstrations, such as the 2004 March for Life, organized with the assistance of the Washington-based Center for International Policy, have brought attention to the issue, but which have not been able to check either the logging itself or the endemic corruption that permits it.
Manuel Zelaya has been unable to take advantage of the controversy engulfing the opposition, only somewhat succeeding in differentiating himself from Lobo as his ranting proclamations have failed to seriously impugn his tough-shelled opponent. Zelaya is no stranger to Honduran politics and is a longtime fixture in the PL. He worked to establish the party structure in three provinces, and more recently served as a national party coordinator. He also served three stints as a congressional deputy, and most significantly managed the Fondo Hondureño de Inversión Social (FHIS or Honduran Social Investment Fund). While his personal background is that of a large landowner (as is Lobo’s), he repeatedly claims to understand the nation’s rural crisis. According to Latinnews, he declared “I know the profound problems faced in the countryside because that’s where I was born.”
Zelaya also has rhetorically positioned himself as far from Lobo as possible on the issue of crime, decrying the Nationalist’s pro-death penalty stance as “unchristian” and calling it a “fascist campaign of violence” and suggesting that “Lobo has only provoked more violence, because he promotes hatred, destruction and death instead of culture, unity and love between families and society.” (La Tribuna) Instead, Zelaya has seized upon the slogan “poder ciudadano” (power to the people), a vague and meaningless piece of hortative phraseology, and a call for civic involvement that in reality is profoundly lacking in actual substance. Rather than offer a national vision, he has resorted to ranting polemics, as he did during a debate on August 14, when he accused the “Maduro-Lobo government of being responsible for the shortages and the rising prices of basic necessities, as well as linking the situation to the price of oil and the government’s lack of political will.” (La Tribuna) He has claimed to have a plan to improve education, offer 100,000 scholarships, and create 100,000 rural jobs, but such grandiose promises have done little to sway the electorate his way.
What may be Zelaya’s political trump card is Lobo’s highly suspect involvement in the sale of timber resulting from illegal forestry activities and his potential ties to government corruption. “Mel” is seen, according to the Gallup poll, as being the more honest of the two candidates, a trait which the same poll reported was highly important to voters. But if Zelaya once presented a virtuous image, his campaign recently seems to have disintegrated into uninspired mudsling, ranting, and little else.
The Negroponte Bequest
In recent decades – particularly since the Banana Wars of the 1990s – Honduras has been on the block, if not to Chiquita Banana, then to some other outside hustler. One can recall that back in December 1997, during an early morning breakfast meeting between then Honduran Foreign Minister Delmer Urbizo Panting and COHA director Larry Birns, the latter handed over to Urbizo a series of documents pointing to Chiquita’s suborning a number of Honduran institutions, when the COHA head laughingly stated that he would not be surprised if all the documents he was giving to the Foreign Minister, as well as the Honduran ambassador to the U.S. who was also present, wouldn’t be in the hands of Chiquita’s lawyers within an hour. In fact, a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer later established via telephone voice mail that the COHA documents were transmitted to Chiquita’s headquarters almost immediately after the Honduran diplomat returned to his country’s Washington, D.C. embassy.
Much of the pocked-marked face of today’s Honduras should not only be traced back to the era of Chiquita’s CEO Karl Lindner, but to then-U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa, John Negroponte. For good reason, Negroponte, today is the director of National Intelligence, the overseer of all of the U.S. intelligence agencies. It was during Negroponte’s ambassadorship from 1981-85 that Honduras was transformed from a hokey banana republic into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the U.S.-financed secret contra campaign against the Sandinistas. During this period, the U.S. embassy was hugely expanded with many of the positions being CIA berths. It was also during this period that hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid dispensed to Honduran officials, with tens of millions of dollars spent on subsidizing a local death squad, for which the amnesia-prone Negroponte always insisted that he couldn’t recall. Millions more were spent to bribe senior Honduran officials and military commanders like General Alvarez. During this era, big time corruption was introduced by the Negroponte embassy and its successors.
Politics of the Lowest Common Denominator
From the beginning, the forthcoming election has hardly represented a Seneca-like approach to public rectitude nor has it addressed Honduras’ most pressing issues. Even the candidates’ slogans – “work and security” and “power to the people” – reflect a base interpretation of how politics should represent national ambitions rather than reflect a lofty vision. A Proceso editorial noted that both mottos, “lack both depth and a clear linkage to the reality of the country and its situation of poverty and indigence.”
To this point, the campaign has been a race to the bottom, with each candidate seemingly trying to upstage the other with increasingly incendiary remarks while searching after the other’s moral lapses. The lively rallies, which have convened throngs of flag waving party loyalists dressed to match their parties’ colors, unfortunately suggest that Hondurans are buying into what is a clownish political process rather than demanding meaningful democracy.
Since the publication of opinion polls after August 27 had been outlawed – a regulation encouraged by Lobo and signed by Maduro – it is hard to guess what the current electoral standings might be. If the election follows the general trend, it will break along party lines, with the winner obtaining only a slight margin. In 2001, Maduro triumphed 52.2% to 44.3% over PL candidate Rafael Pineda. Zelaya’s inability to distinguish himself as a credible candidate, and his apparent lack of political stature, may balance out Lobo’s well entrenched flaws and leave the race up for grabs. Such a situation may slightly favor the PN candidate, whose party recently has been attracting slightly more support than his adversary’s in polling.
Whichever candidate does triumph next month, it appears unlikely that Hondurans can expect major changes. To date, the race has offered little to suggest that either candidate envisions a clear concept of the nation’s future. As election day approaches, the mudslinging is likely to shamelessly intensify, and, it being Honduras, any meaningful debate will probably be buried in the debris.