Honduras – between democracy and equality is populism

Found on Venezuela Analysis, Maziar Razi in the London Progressive Journal: Marxists must stand firm against Ahmedinejad. I thought it was a very good position piece. It’s all from me on Iran for now; Hugo Chavez, whose support of the megalomaniac, trade union smashing Ahmedinejad compromises his support for Zelaya, forms the link between it and what follows now on Honduras.

President Zelaya of Honduras was deported in a military-backed coup organised by members of his own party, ostensibly because he had gone off on his own and attempted to test public opinion on the inclusion of a referendum on constitutional reform in the coming general election. I got confused about it in a previous post I won’t bother linking to.

Too late in preparing this post, I found the sweet-spot search term on Honduras – it’s “fourth ballot box”.

From an interesting piece from openDemocracy:

“During general elections in Honduras, each voter gets three ballots: the first for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, the second for parliamentary representatives, and the third for the municipal mayor. Hence, three ballot-boxes.

The Honduran constitution – the work of a constituent assembly that convened in 1980 – specifies that parliamentary representatives and mayors can run for re-election, but not presidents. In fact, even the argument in favour of presidential re-election has in the past been viewed as treason. The articles in the constitution the provide for a single term have been considered “carved in stone” and not to be reformed for any reason. Indeed, legal specialists argue that these articles were formulated precisely because of fear that the military would infringe on Honduras’s then tender democracy by using rigged elections as a way of holding on to state power.”

Nevertheless, politicians have been broaching the issue of re-election since 1980 – for convenience this is known as ‘continuism’. Continuism is suspect if it comes from the current power-holder, and for obvious reasons it frequently does. The openDemocracy piece raised a lot of questions. Written in the early days of the coup, it seemed muted in its response to the coup, and this was interesting. Reading it you had the sense of Honduran political classes, steeped in their own self-interest and all of a piece, machinating against democracy, and even that a reworking of the constitution would be of limited value if it were conducted by these political classes. The author’s hope (he is a correspondent to the Nicaraguan critical revolutionary publication Envio) was that:

“In the midst of the convulsion, one of the hopeful signs has been the continuation of a debate that began in 2006 about the possibility of independent candidacies in the presidential election. This debate, centred in Honduras’s traditional grassroots movements, came to nothing because of opposition from the organised left, whose leaders would consider electoral participation only from the narrow perspective of the existing leftwing parties.”

If I understand him correctly, the independents are the only hopeful counterpoint against the political classes, who are also the patriarchs. And yet Honduras’ organised left, itself insignificant, has united with the political classes in opposition to this.

As always the general election in Honduras will take place on the last Sunday in November. Even if he is permitted re-entry, the ousted president Zelaya’s term will have expired and he will not stand this time. But there is the matter of the fourth ballot box.

Impoverished workers are susceptible to populist proposals. Honduras is an unequal society as indicated by one of the world’s higher Gini coefficients (a widely-used score of relative poverty expressed as the distribution of a state’s marketable wealth, where a score of 0 indicates total equality and a score of 1 means that a society is owned by a single person; for Honduras it is 0.53 whereas for that of the lowest, Sweden, it is 0.23. Venezuela’s has fallen to 0.42, though this is only slightly lower than the US’, and Cuba’s is somehow not 0 but N/A). Honduras was a banana republic (n.b. the Food Change site I just linked to is up my street but discredits itself with at least one article claiming that dairy farming isn’t cruel, and I haven’t checked it further) with most of its income generation formerly controlled by the United States (now by far its largest market). Hondurans were more likely to be dissatistifed with their state’s politics than any other Latin American country. And yet, although other Honduran political parties fielded candidates in 2005, these did not include a socialist. The Economist describes it as a conservative country with close ties to the US.

Meanwhile partisans of Zelaya and the coup respectively point to how the actions of the other resonate with an aspect of Honduras’ history which has kept the country down; and yet the actions of each represents just another such aspect (though I would say that the coup sets a more dangerous precedent and, backed by the military, is far more resonant with the bad old days).

There have been recent acts of violence by the military against student and academic protesters at the National University. The comments on the post I just linked to by RAJ at Honduras Coup 2009 discuss eyewitness accounts of the protest (I disagree with RAJ’s excuses for gratuitous/symbolic smashing).

Honduras is between a rock and a hard place. There is Zelaya, who has placed himself among the cadre of Central American presidents, self-styled great men, who are tenacious of power (advocates for Chavez and Zelaya who fail to incorporate this power-gripping tendency and the reactions it provokes into their arguments should be considered spurious). Morales sold redistribution of wealth for the prospect of extending his term. Castro needs no explanation – Cuba is a one-party dynasty. Ortega controls the state institutions of Nicaragua (for what this means in practice take for example Nicaraguan women’s reproductive rights, which he denies). And Chavez, coup-maker and cultist, has assumed presidency-for-life. To send ballot papers for an unconstitutional poll on constitutional reform to Zelaya was not democratic but populist. These leaders may be socialists in the economic sense (see the Gini coefficients for the countries they run) but not in the democratic sense (chapter 4 of Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, in which he weighs the various interpretations of socialism, material and humanistic, is very helpful in evaluating things or people referred to as socialist).

But opposed to Zelaya is a coup conducted in the interests of his former elite, who turned against him and whose only means of conducting government is to repress Zelaya’s supporters via the threat of violence, actual violence, suppression of the media, incursions into universities, and curfews enforced by the military. More on Honduras Coup 2009, and Greg Weeks is an appropriately-concerned and responsible commentator on the geo-politics (both academic-authored blogs). Envio seems highly informed on Honduras political background and coup background. It also discusses the case against Zelaya from a standpoint critical of the coup, but unfortunately does so at too high a level and fails to cite sources for the examples it brings up.

Der Spiegel gives Zelaya, elected president of Honduras a voice. He comes across as badly as you would expect from a politician universally acknowledged as poor (at least, I have yet to come across a defence of him which bothers to testify to his leadership). A better advocate for his acts is Leticia Salomon of Envio. And here is one of his critics, a tropical gardening blogger named La Gringa, who is well-sourced.

Zelaya has been politically labile. Until recently, he was at one with the small-‘c’ conservative patricians who ousted him. Then last year, in the middle of the economic crisis, with his approval at 30%, and widely accused of corruption, he (I’m not sure in what order) took Honduras into the Chavez-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (Venezuela’s counter to the US’s Free Trade Area of the Americas) to receive oil at preferential rates, refused to submit a budget to congress,  imposed a raise in minimum wage by 60%, and began to big up participatory democracy and his own presidency while simultaneously marginalising Honduras’ elected representatives. His actions were not democratic, in that he and his supporters in the executive acted unilaterally without the support of his legislature or judiciary. But they were popular, in that they promised relief of poverty. In unequal societies – and more so where there is also poverty as with Honduras – redistributing wealth is of course right. Clearly, minimum wage should be raised (ideally until it is the same as the maximum wage). This means North Americans don’t get $3 t-shirts any more – good. But not everything that works is right. The orchestrators of the coup removed a constitutional menace by deposing him instead of indicting him. Zelaya is famous for economic populism – whether he had even tried to raise minimum wage by democratic process I’m not sure. At any rate he seems rushed in his politics, very like a man attempting to delay the end of his term. When a conservative patrician suddenly falls in with the regional left states, isn’t unrest on the part of the elites he formerly nurtured predictable? And when he personally, and backed by president-for-life Chavez and his ballot papers, flouts his legistative and judiciary and tangles with the hard-won constitution to permit an extension of presidential term, he is onto a loser. He seems like a loser.

Honduras’s election is a two party race – Liberals (PLH) against Nationalists (PNH). Honduran law deters independent presidential candidates from running by imposing the hurdle of 45,000 supporters’ signatures to be submitted to the supreme electoral tribunal as part of the candidate’s registration process. The organised left is reportedly complicit in maintaining this state of affairs. The Liberals are claiming – post-facto it has been noted – that they were against the coup, perhaps in order that their democratic-minded supporters do not boycott them. According to Adam Carr (an Australian hobbyist who considers his site the largest and most current archive of electoral data in the world), the most recent general election of 2005 saw a very close result of 49% – 46% respectively, and so there is no complacency. This year Roberto Micheletti, now the de-facto president, will not be the Liberal candidate – he lost the primaries to Elvin Santos, while Porfirio(pepe) Lobo is the Nationalist candidate. The grass roots socialist movement will be fielding an independent candidate in November. I’m not sure he will attain the 45,000 signatures, but they are having a go and this is a chance to break into the elite politicking. The candidate is trade-union leader and human-rights activist Carlos Humberto Reyes, who is recovering from a fractured arm and injured head, sustained at the hands of the military while he was participating in protest against the coup.

So, based on the above I’m concluding that a free and fair election in November is now of paramount importance. Roberto Micheletti’s de-facto government-by-coup must act to preserve confidence in this election as representing the will of the people. Permitting the return of Zelaya and impeaching him in full and unedited public view would be the just thing to do. Inviting international scrutiny of the supreme electoral tribunal (said to be partisan) would be a confidence-building measure – apparently it is currently dominated by Liberals. It seems that representative democracy has largely failed at this time in Honduras. To break the patriarchs’ stranglehold, Honduran voters should not boycott the coming election but should help independent presidential candidates become registered. What I can’t figure out is a fourth ballot box. In common with Ismael Moreno, I find it hard to see how it would help ordinary Hondurans enter politics in any meaningful way, and until they can, constitutional reform will only serve the political elites.

Update – via Twitter:

  • Share The World’s Resources on Honduras. Another unsourced document in the style of a bygone age of print media where hyperlinking was impossible. But seems to come from a good place (recommended consultative status for the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations).
  • Coup government today (10 Aug 09) announces that it is favourable to a diplomatic mission of the OAS.
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4 thoughts on “Honduras – between democracy and equality is populism

  1. It is not a coup. It is a constitutional succession. Just look at Zelaya’s behavior in Mexico and you’ll understand why he is no longer our president. He is a compulsive liar and he thinks only on himself. He doesn’t care about the Honduran people.

  2. There are actually 5 political parties in Honduras. Four support the government and voted for the ousting of Zelaya (123-5 was the vote count). The fifth party, UD, which supports Zelaya has recently been connected with FARC, explaining their position. The independent candidate has been qualified and will be included on the ballot.

    The Electoral Tribune has promised that this will be the most transparent election ever and are encouraging everyone to vote to show the world what the world needs to see. They are also asking for as many observers as possible.

    The fourth ballot box becomes much clearer when you look at what happened in Venezuela and Ecuador. The first step is to call the Constitutional Assembly. The next step is to dissolve the congress, start limiting the media….and so on and so on. Zelaya was asking for a blank check and no one could ever get a straight answer from him about what he wanted to change in the constitution. It’s interesting to watch the videos and see the similarities between what Chavez said, what Correa said, and what Zelaya said.

  3. Hello both.

    Gringa, thank you for the updates. I have the impression that consitutional reform is widely accepted as necessary. Do you happen to have any English language sources on what it was likely that Zelaya would have done to take control of constitutional reform – the precedents you talk about, and how you predict he’d have gone about dissolving Congress. I also came across a poll yesterday which suggested that most Hondurans preferred the idea of Zelaya in power to the idea of Micheletti (not sure about the methods, sampling etc). Do you have the impression that HOndurans are so dismayed by the violent and repressive aftermath of the coup (I am inclined to call it a coup although I realise that this is a legal term) that they would prefer to have Zelaya back than to set a precedent for accepting this kind of action?

    What do you think will happen between now and November, Gringa, and what would you hope would happen?

  4. Pingback: Tuesday Roundup « The New Centrist

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