President Maduro’s First Year: The Worst is Yet to Come
Grassroots protests in October and November against privatizing water received national coverage despite the fact that they started in an outlying municipality, creating new awareness among the people of their own power. Next year could see the birth of more organized opposition
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Will Honduras’ President Ricardo Maduro, his ministers, the parliamentary representatives and judicial branch officials enjoy their Christmas holidays with a clear conscience? They would be hard put to, because all of them, without exception, have helped create a truly dismal year in political, economic and social terms.
A worn-out, directionless governmentBoth the country and the government deteriorated noticeably in 2002, and the panorama is even bleaker for politicians and government officials in 2003. The parliamentary representatives finished the legislative year more discredited than ever in the population’s eyes, legislating for small groups linked to the international financial organizations. They then capped that by voting themselves a pay rise of over US$600.
Transparency International was spot on when it classified the Honduran judicial system as the country’s most corrupt institution, which is quite an achievement in one of the continent’s most corrupt states. This year, the three magistrates of the capital’s Appeals Court were sacked for conspiracy, taking bribes and influence peddling. Meanwhile, the President clung to an incompetent and confrontational education minister and consolidated the position of a security minister who delights in repression. Wrapped up in his recent marriage, Maduro has refused to admit a general decline more often associated with the final year of a President’s mandate.
As we approach the end of the year, two things are increasingly clear to Honduran society. First, the President has failed to honor the promises he made during his campaign and in his inaugural speech on January 27. Second, the only response to a government with a short-term vision and no defined political direction, that is governing without the support of the grassroots social sectors, is to create and intensify a well-organized opposition movement.
Nothing indicates that next year will bring any changes to this picture. Quite to the contrary, it looks as though the government will continue to drift and to govern through a string of improvisations. And everything suggests that 2003 will see the piecing together of a new social and political opposition.
A worsening crisisMaduro failed in his first and most publicized campaign promise. In fact, the fight to “destroy” crime and violence could not have been more discouraging. There were 647 homicides in the first half of 2002 alone, and there has been no drop in other crime rates despite the fact that the state invested some $50 million to improve security.
Maduro also promised a profound reform of the economy, but ended the year with poor results on this front as well. He did little more than implement certain measures aimed at palliating the fiscal crisis inherited from the Flores administration. In 2002, Honduras’s imported $3 billion worth of goods and exported less than $1.4 billion.
In one of the first economic measures it implemented, Maduro’s team pushed a Financial and Compensatory Law through Congress aimed at allowing it to collect over $100 million in direct taxes. The law, considered a success by Maduro’s team, has considerably undermined his popularity because it makes it even harder for people to keep their heads above water. In addition, as nothing more than a tax-based adjustment, the act does nothing to stimulate production. Maduro thus made a very bad start in the economic arena, plunging the country further into crisis and dramatically affecting the pockets of most of the population without touching big business.
Meanwhile, in response to pressure from the big unions, the government decided to approve a new minimum wage. To avoid the kind of inflation frequently associated with wage hikes, organized labor got a price freeze on the 16 essential products in the country’s basic basket included in the minimum wage agreements. But the minute the new minimum wage—only slightly more than $100 a month—went into effect, the prices shot up and the government’s image shot down thanks to another negative economic outcome and widespread feelings of betrayal.
Tourism, maquiladoras, agro-industryAccording to the Honduran Social Forum on External Debt and Development (FOSDEH), President Maduro, while abandoning the countryside, strengthened his commitment to the financial sectors and strongly supported what are considered the new productive sectors: tourism, the export processing assembly plants known as maquiladoras, agroindustry and forestry production. The government’s dependence on these sectors—which in turn depend on fundamentally fluctuating international dynamics—is determined by the need to generate jobs. As a result, domestic production is all but ignored.
FOSDEH figures show that the year ended with over a million Hondurans unemployed, 60% of them young people. Meanwhile, 70% of the economically active population—some 2.3 million workers—has taken refuge in the informal sector. Maduro’s government is going on its Christmas holidays leaving behind a situation in which two in every three Hondurans live on under two dollars a day, a state of affairs that is even more dramatic in rural areas.
No capacity to deliverIf the country’s economic perspective is grim, there are few social expectations either. Maduro inherited a teachers’ conflict from the Flores administration that has only increased this year, representing the biggest thorn in the new government’s side. Its failure to implement the Teachers’ Statute—demagogically passed by the previous administration—resulted in mass protests, clashes and disturbances across the country.
The government lacks the financial capacity to honor the promises in the Teachers’ Statute. The underlying problem lies not in the teachers’ demands or even in the government’s closed and intolerant attitude, but in the fact that the economic and social pacts involved promise far more than public finances can provide and the statute simply cannot be implemented. And this is not limited to the teachers’ just demands; the same is true of doctors’ demands based on their own Medical Employees’ Statute.
More conflicts around the cornerThis underlying problem, however, was not the focus of the conflict that pitched the government against the teachers. Rather, it was the education ministry’s intolerance and the government’s maneuvers to divide the teachers’ unions. The country’s biggest social conflict in 2002 was defined by often very personalized attacks and counter-attacks. The government is going on holiday with the problem still unresolved.
All of the social problems that came up this year are still pending resolution, from lack of public security—which Maduro’s “zero tolerance” policy made no dent in—to the conflicts with teachers, doctors and coffee growers, all of whom are far from satisfied with the government’s intransigent stances. More agricultural conflicts can also be expected in the coming year. In addition to the dispute already involving coffee growers, other producers are aware that the new legislation favors the agro-industrial companies and big exporters and that the government’s agricultural policy is leaving the peasant farmer sector to its own fate, thus increasing marginalization in the rural sector. In social terms, 2003 promises greater instability and reduced governability.
Rapidly fading reliefMaduro proved unable to administer the crisis inherited from Flores’ demagogy, and many people who supported his struggle to be his party’s candidate and then his election campaign have since been distancing themselves and joining the opposition. Maduro has preferred to ally his government with the bankers, subordinating its social and public security policies to their interests, spurning the different sectors of civil society up until the last two months—when it was finally obliged to promote dialogue. All of this has added to the population’s image of the President and his team as drifting with no political direction and beset with administrative blunders.
During President Flores’ last year in office, the Honduran population just wanted him to disappear from the scene. There was a general demand that he stop abusing the national television networks and releasing more paid advertisements in the media. This was one of the reasons that Maduro’s government was greeted with such relief. But any such relief is already a distant memory. In less than a year, Flores’ successor has managed to increase the opposition and even start to unite it. The opposition is still scattered, but recent months have seen the beginnings of a possible national coordination. It is thus possible to predict a growing opposition movement in the coming year with greater organizational capacity and links and a common agenda that could provide positive new opportunities for the country.
Obsessed with maquiladorasOne year with Maduro at the helm is enough to classify his government as arbitrary and trapped in short-term measures and improvisations. Instead of implementing productive development proposals that offer greater opportunities to medium and small businesses to stimulate exports, Maduro’s government insists on investing all its energies in consolidating the current model, based on intensive exploitation of cheap labor in the maquilas. With the year drawing to a close, this is the country’s most active sector.
Even while most people recognize that Maduro’s government inherited a very difficult social, economic and political scenario, they perceive that their situation has deteriorated this year and that they are now living with greater levels of insecurity.
Decentralization = privatizationThe government has interpreted the policy of state decentralization by reducing it to privatization, particularly of basic public services, which implies changing the country’s legislation. Bills in the political sphere such as reforms to the National Elections Tribunal and the National Public Registry, aimed at reducing the politicization of electoral bodies and the number of parliamentary representatives, have been debated throughout the year, though they in no way challenge the traditional two-party political system.
To respond to international demands to fight corruption, it was proposed to create a Superior Accounting Tribunal to oversee the work of government entities, track down the corrupt and stamp out corruption. After consulting with non-governmental sectors for months, the two majority parties—the Nationals and Liberals—joined forces with the diminutive Christian Democratic Party’s three parliamentary representatives and divvied up among them all the posts in this much-heralded institution that was supposedly to be independent of the political parties.
A brave denunciationThe most important event of the year in human rights terms was, without a doubt, the National Congress’s unanimous election of Ramón Custodio López as the National Human Rights Commissioner. The most dramatic event was the charge made by Casa Alianza and National Police Subcommissioner and Head of Internal Affairs María Luisa Borjas that structures within the National Police were murdering or “executing” young people linked or suspected of belonging to youth gangs. Between 1998 and November of this year, 2,162 young people—235 of them girls—were murdered, 478 of them between January and November 2002 alone.
This brave denunciation from a high-ranking police officer sparked an aggressive response from the security minister and members of the police high command and got Borjas indefinitely suspended from her post. Her life is now under threat from figures linked to drug trafficking and organized crime who saw their own security and impunity threatened by the accusation.
The water law: an important shiftDuring the first week of October the National Congress completed the first two debates on the new water legislation, known as the Drinking Water and Sanitation Framework Law. Allied with legislators from the Christian Democratic Party, the National Party’s representatives were steadily moving towards the approval of that bill and a new forestry bill. Passing them both would fulfill the government’s commitments with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose mission was due to arrive in Honduras during the first half of November. A third debate was required to complete the parliamentary procedure for approving the water legislation, whose 65 articles include the privatization, concession and municipalization of this precious resource. That bill should have been passed first, followed by the forestry bill and then one dealing with the privatization of telephone, health and education services. But the whole process stagnated following the second debate on the water bill and when the legislative year ended on November 14, these legislative commitments had still not been fulfilled. Why did the third debate on the water legislation bog down, when approval seemed little more than a formality? What changed the legislators’ minds? Was it indeed a change of heart or were they forced to rethink?
It all started in El ProgresoOn October 4, leaders of community boards and grassroots social organizations meeting in a municipal assembly in El Progreso in the department of Yoro, unanimously decided to pressure against the holding of the third debate on the bill, scheduled for the same week. Three days later, El Progreso’s inhabitants demonstrated in front of the town hall with a document signed by over a hundred communities and neighborhoods from the municipality. The document expressed total rejection of the bill and strongly challenged the manipulative use of the term “municipalization” to cover up what amounted to privatizing water.
The next day, thousands of residents took over La Democracia Bridge, on the only direct road to El Progreso, the Caribbean coast, San Pedro Sula and the rest of the Sula Valley. Their single demand was that the National Congress drop the water law once and for all. By October 12 they had gotten the Grassroots Bloc in Tegucigalpa and other municipalities to express rejection of the legislation in the celebrations planned to mark the 510th anniversary of the Conquest of America. This rejection was defined as a concrete manifestation of grassroots rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as well.
It all started with the railingsThe Grassroots Bloc called a protest march in Tegucigalpa for October 24 around rejection of the water law and defense of the Teachers’ Statute, which the government had severely violated as a result of the education minister’s intransigence. Rumors also circulated that a government promise to build tens of thousands of houses to reduce the country’s housing deficit would be financed with the teachers’ national welfare fund.
The atmosphere was highly charged on the eve of the march. What sparked off the agitation was the decision to erect grillwork fencing around the National Congress building to prevent access by beggars, street vendors or people or groups intent on interrupting the parliamentarians’ activities. This was just provocative enough to turn the march into a confrontation between protesters and police.
The protesters ripped out the iron work put up the previous day and the police attacked with tear gas and armored cars fitted with water cannons to force back the protesters, who resisted with sticks and stones. The police also attacked several journalists, one of whom was beaten, while the others had their cameras snatched away or smashed. Arrest warrants were issued for 30 leaders the government accused of disturbing the peace and damaging public property.
Maduro forced to negotiateThe protest marches continued in the capital the following day, although with less violence. It was not because the protesters’ energy had declined, but because the government had deployed such a massive police and military presence that the city was effectively under siege.
When President Maduro returned two days later with a large diplomatic delegation, he made declarations threatening the grassroots organizations with war, employing the same tone he had used two months earlier to declare war on crime. Despite this, the protests continued. El Progreso’s inhabitants took the bridge again on November 5, while others blocked highways in the neighboring city of La Lima, located between El Progreso and San Pedro Sula. Then on November 6, the Grassroots Bloc, the teachers and inhabitants of the Aguán Valley held a mass protest in Tegucigalpa.
Finally, Maduro met with representatives of the protesters and announced that there would be dialogue and negotiations and that the National Congress would suspend approval of the bills.
The Honduran government found itself unexpectedly caught between two forces that until September it had never imagined would fight it out on equal terms. On one flank was the national protest movement that literally forced the parliamentarians and the government to listen to its demands and stop rushing to alter the nation’s legislation in favor of the interests of big international capital. On the other was the pressure from the IMF, which until then had acted as though it were the sole owner and master of national political will and decisions.
The ”men in black”The IMF mission was already in Honduras working with the government to review the fulfillment of its commitments in both fiscal matters and approval of the new legislation. According to those who closely follow the movements of these “men in black,” as the IMF members are known in the capital city, they threatened to drag out negotiations over new loans if the government did not force through the new laws that grassroots pressure had been blocking since October.
The different pressures exerted by the IMF and the grassroots sectors are an expression of the fundamental contradictions currently dividing Honduras. Such contradictions neatly demonstrate the non-viable nature of a country model based on national decisions that only answer to the powerful countries and the international dynamics of big capital and are made without the country’s agreement and almost always against its will.
Neo-nationalists and the “dark side”These international proposals are primarily supported by the current power bloc based around three political parties: the Nationals, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. Institutional opposition to this bloc is expressed only by two small parties: the Democratic Unification Party (UD) and the Innovation and Unity Party (PINU), which together account for only 7 of Congress’ 128 parliamentarians. The Christian Democrats only have 3 representatives, but by allying with the National Party, which controls Congress’ executive board, it has acquired a real level of power that increases when important decisions are made or when Liberals and Nationals are battling out power quotas.
Within the National Party, three power groups are disputing control over the official line. President Maduro and the ministers of the presidency and of government represent the neo-Nationalist group, along with the minister of security, who is heading up the war on crime. This group controls the executive branch’s policies and is opposed by the Nationalist group, which controls the legislative branch and is headed up by former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas. It includes legislators from the old guard, known as the “dark side” of Nationalism due to their long experience in scheming and cutting shady deals and because they have become indelibly stained with corruption and impunity. The President’s decisions are strongly conditioned by the approval or rejection of this group, which holds the real power and decides on the country’s underlying direction.
Tegucigalpa’s popular mayorThe third group within the National Party is headed up by Tegucigalpa’s current mayor, Miguel Pastor, who according to all opinion polls conducted this year is the most popular man in the country.
Pastor has a 90% popularity rating, and though a Nationalist, he achieved his electoral victory in Tegucigalpa, despite the opposition of Maduro’s group, under a flag that was not the Nationalists’ traditional blue. The municipal government is allowing Miguel Pastor to consolidate his political aspirations and to forge the image of a man independent of the Nationalist politicians running the current government. He deals cleverly with the media and appears at five in the morning alongside the teams of workers responsible for cleaning the city’s streets. He is thus taking firm steps from the municipal government towards the Presidency.
Flores still has controlThe Liberals are still an influential part of today’s power bloc, particularly the group led by former President Carlos Flores, who according to those in the know continues accumulating a very strong level of personal power across the country. In practice, Flores is leading his party’s bench in Congress while allying with Callejas’ group to achieve the political objectives that they both need to consolidate their associated businesses and companies.
Flores’ presidency was characterized by his personal control of power, which he distributed among his closest collaborators while never letting go of any of the strings attached to his administration. Mainly interested in cultivating an image of a neat and easy-going ruler, he did not hesitate to earmark important amounts of the budget to control the Honduran press and thus have an extensive pool of paid journalists at his service.
When he left office, Carlos Flores left behind a trail of communications media based on censure and intolerance. He even continues to exercise the same control as always from outside the presidency. He recently turned up at a Tegucigalpa radio station to ask the owner to fire a journalist who was almost certainly the only one left on national radio that had not sold out to him. During one of his programs, the journalist had called for Flores to be investigated after a Flores follower referred to his supposedly fraudulent use of state funds.
An “ethical resistance”What lessons can be drawn from the effective grassroots mobilizations of October and November? First, there is a great level of discontent among the Honduran population, which is expressed on a daily basis in “ethical resistance,” in seeking to do the right thing, in direct opposition to the example provided by the dynamics of the country’s political power. Disillusioned with politics and the promises of the powerful, most people tend to shut themselves up in their own misfortune, where they suffer injustice and shortages. Such behavior is one way of resisting the temptation to break the law, an alternative encouraged by those in power through their own bad example, but it is also a way of expressing discontent.
The wide gap betweenThe second lesson is that the organized sectors and their leaders mobilize and define their identity via wage demands, defense of their interests, professional conquests or demands for power quotas. This way of defining themselves in response to the national reality establishes an almost impassible gap between grassroots organizations and the population in general. The gap only widens when some of the organizations employ a rebellious discourse with anti-establishment contents—such as the fight against the FTAA and the Plan Puebla Panama, the abstract struggle against privatization and the imposition of international organizations or general denunciations against corruption and impunity—without linking them to the daily injustice faced by the population.
organizations and people
A grassroots leadership vacuumThirdly, in addition to real responses to its problems, the Honduran population is seeking an alternative national channel through which to express its discontent, its protest and its proposals, but no such channel exists. There is a vacuum in national-level grassroots leadership and the expectations raised by the defense of water outstrip the movements’ leadership capacity by far. The Grassroots Bloc emerged only a couple of years ago to bring together leaders from some unions and other grassroots sectors, particularly from the capital city. But this rebellious umbrella organization appears to be much more than it really is, and many expect it to act as a channel for the maquiladora problematic, teachers’ demands, human rights abuses and rape and abuse of women.
The government itself says that consensus should be sought among private business, the government and the Grassroots Bloc in order to pass the pending laws. But the Bloc has neither the capacity nor the means to defend so many just demands at one time for two main reasons. For one thing, its organizations do not represent all of the country’s different grassroots social sectors, and for another, it has not yet unified criteria or common political lines to tackle so many diverse national problems.
Rebellious, not resigned, patienceFourth, the October-November campaigns show that the population’s discontent and ethical resistance can break that “private and silent” arena in which discontent has been closeted up to now. The population can produce mass mobilizations, and not just for football games, noisy religious orders, the political rallies of traditional parties or the daily search for odd jobs to secure their survival.
When popular discontent is successfully linked to concrete and essential problems, the population can break out of the isolation of apathetic rebellion and fill the streets. It can shout and demand the withdrawal of the water legislation with the same force as those who vociferously applaud clamoring evangelist preachers and traditional political leaders or roar for their favorite football team.
The apathy of the Honduran people is not so much resigned patience as rebellious patience. What they still lack, however, is the ability to discover the essential mechanisms that convert this apparent patience into organized, active mobilization.
The need for new coordinationLast, but not least, the traditional grassroots organizations need to realize that people don’t follow them when they raise banners devoid of any content that directly touches people’s everyday lives. The mobilizations against the water legislation exceeded the capacity of the organizations and created opportunities for new coordinating bodies to emerge, for improved leadership and for the traditional organizations themselves to update their methods, procedures and the contents of their struggles.
The October-November mobilizations were based on the concrete problem of water and started up in a peripheral municipality. But in no time at all it was an issue on the lips of all traditional grassroots organizations across the country. Water united the Sula Valley with Tegucigalpa and Danlí in the east of the country with the Aguán Valley in the Caribbean region. And the struggle continues. Water has provided content and has brought together all of the grassroots sectors. It created the spark that could turn into a purifying flame.