Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 322 | Mayo 2008



The Social Movement and the Formal/Real Government Contradiction

Honduran democracy has been hijacked by the two-party system. Social inequality deepens as democracy is hamstrung by formalities. The grassroots movement has been trapped between nostalgia for the clarity of the old struggles and the uncertainties of today’s dispersed energies. But shifts seem to be underway at the community and local level. What kind of social movement can tackle the contradiction between Honduras’ formal government and the real one?

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Formal government, real government: it sounds like a play on words. But in Honduras, it’s a concrete problem. The government, with its three branches of state, is one thing; how the country is actually governed, beyond the formalities of those three branches, is another.

According to the rule of law that regulates our democracy, the law rules, not individuals, and no one is above the law. In keeping with that principle, Honduran legislation establishes that citizens formally choose their government through elections. Every four years, society as a whole is convened to elect local, departmental and national authorities by secret ballot. It’s been that way for 27 uninterrupted years. And during this period of representative democracy, reforms have been enacted to ensure that all those who meet the requirements can exercise their right to suffrage. Efforts have also been made to ensure that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal enforces the popular will and prevents any political party from perpetuating fraud.

But actions speak louder than words, and we all know that the two-party system feeds on—and feeds—the patrimonial culture, producing caudillos, Latin America’s version of political strong men, and all the cult of personality and arbitrariness that prevent institutional democracy and the rule of law from really taking root and flourishing.

The rule of law?

According to the formal rules of Honduran democracy, we elect a President, a Vice President, 128 congressional representatives with an equal number of alternates and 298 municipal mayors with their respective deputy mayors and Municipal Council members. In the wake of reforms, the National Congress now chooses the 15 Supreme Court justices from a list of 45 nominees proposed by various sectors of Honduran society. Congress also elects the national human rights commissioner, the attorney general, the members of both the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Auditing Board and the three commissioners of the Institute for Access to Public Information in the same way.

The democratic election of all public authorities is an essential characteristic of the rule of law. But the citizenry’s right
to elect their authorities freely is violated by the internal dynamics of the “real” government, which undermines the foundations of the rule of law. The international community has influenced the reform of various mechanisms and entities over the past 27 years in an attempt to consolidate the rule of law in Honduras, and many of the institutional reforms pushed through in the past 15 years to respond to the demands and challenges of today’s global reality emerged from such international pressure.

The two-party system
is in absolute control

All these reforms, however, have been adulterated or manipulated by the very authorities responsible for implementing them. These authorities are subordinated to the traditional political party system, tied to processes and mechanisms that in practice are completely at odds with the democracy they profess to defend and represent. The Liberal and National Parties—the dominant traditional parties among the five legally recognized in Honduras today—have shared power for the 27 years we’ve had democracy, and just as elections have been the vehicle they used to divvy up the three branches of state, political reforms to modernize the rule of law have become instruments to strengthen and consolidate their control over the rule of law.

The political party system in its dominant two-party form, being intrinsically anti-democratic, transforms all instruments intended to strengthen Honduran democracy into anti-democratic ones. Despite domestic and international efforts, party leaders and public authorities always turn out the same: they behave as if—and clearly believe that—holding public office places them above all others.

Who chooses those we elect?

Who chooses the candidates citizens elect in the general elections? Formally, they’re chosen by their parties, both of which contain various internal factions or political currents with their respective leaders. So who chooses the candidates within each of these factions? Are there elections in which delegates from the communities, municipalities and departments choose their candidates?

Normally, the factions answer to their own political leaders—essentially faction bosses. These leader-bosses handpick or endorse their faction’s candidates. Under no circumstances can anyone become a candidate without their approval.

As a case in point, Porfirio Lobo is the leader of his faction within the National Party. In internal elections, Lobo will be his faction’s candidate, running against those from other factions within his party, such as Mario Canahuati. Either of the two could gain the approval of former President Rafael Callejas, one of the National Party’s most powerful leaders.

Something similar happens in the Liberal Party, though with variations. The boss of the most powerful Liberal faction is Carlos Flores Facussé, who was President of Honduras during the last four years of the 20th century. Flores is not running as a candidate because he hasn’t yet been able to reform the Constitution, which for now prohibits reelection of past Presidents or Vice Presidents. He has promoted and supported Roberto Micheletti, currently president of the Congress, who knows that loyalty to his benefactor is the only way he could make it to the internal elections and run as the Liberal Party candidate.

Normally, those who hold the most important government positions are endorsed not only by their political party bosses, but also by key leaders of private business and by the US Embassy. No citizen will ever become a presidential candidate without passing through all those filters. The same is true of whomever is appointed human rights commissioner, auditor general, president of the Supreme Court, or a member of the Supreme Audit Tribunal or the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Powerful groups and individuals consent to or veto candidates for popular election through the major media. Jorge Canahuati, Jaime Rosenthal, Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé, Miguel Facussé, Freddy Nasser, Miguel Andonie, Rafael Ferrari and Rafael Callejas are just some of the politicians and businessmen whose word carries decisive weight when it comes to filling all the country’s high-level public posts.

Organized crime: Another “party”

Another factor is increasingly coming into play in the election of candidates to the most important government posts. It usually goes by the generic name of Organized Crime. Entirely credible sources hold that a number of organized crime mafias move freely through the corridors of traditional politics and the capital of the most important private sector economic groups. When a candidate confidently says he’s going to occupy a high public office, that confidence comes not so much from whatever popular support he or she may have, but from the financial and political support of some of these mafias.

Rumors are growing of an organized crime connection in the money used by the traditional political party factions for their leaders’ campaigns. If organized crime—involved in car theft rings; trafficking in weapons, people and drugs; and kidnapping—is shifting large amounts of money to political leaders and factions, it’s because politics has become a good investment for them, and a good place to launder money. In short, it has become a beachhead for extending and exercising its power and control over Honduran society.

That’s how it works

That’s how Honduran democracy works. When the masses of ordinary people go out and cast their votes, the candidates have already been chosen by those unelected people who actually make the most important decisions in the country. So what’s the point of elections? They’re an exercise that gives people a sense of being responsible for choosing their officials and of having thus exercised one of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. But the iron grip that powerful groups have on the machinery of Honduran democracy means that their vote simply ends up legitimating public officials who will always administer national resources, approve legislation and apply the law according to their own interests.

As we can see, democracy and the rule of law are operated and upheld by the groups that make up the “real government,” which they do by naming and endorsing those elected to the formal government. The real government is the one that actually rules and makes decisions, functioning over and above the formal four-year political cycle. It uses democracy and all its machinery to legitimate its decisions, protect its interests and almost invariably act behind the backs of poor people.

Waiting for another
strike like that one

There’s a growing tendency for the Honduran social movement to focus its efforts on constructing a form of participatory democracy organized from the community level upward—specifically, placing its hope in the territorial community movement. Honduras had a very strong and active social movement in the mid-20th century, and the famous 1954 banana workers’ strike was unquestionably its most important—in fact emblematic—struggle. Since then, repression, corruption, generous handouts and treachery have abounded, and today’s movement is incapable of moving forward with proposals that question the current exclusionary and non-participatory model of representative democracy.

Generally speaking, the grassroots social movement trails behind the dominant power groups’ proposals and dynamics. In recent years some coordination efforts have been made—for example, the National Coordinating Committee for Popular Resistance—but it has failed to establish itself as a broad grouping offering coherent alternatives to the two-party model, the merely formal democracy or the social inequality.

Honduras’ grassroots movement persists in a kind of messianic hope, waiting for another strike like the one in 1954, as if
one might fall from the sky at any moment. That’s how the popular songs go—bring on another strike. The movement’s leaders also seems unable to break free of this demobilizing nostalgia for the past to get a grip on the discontent and dispersed energies of the present. They’re baffled about how to creatively challenge the insecurity and uncertainty faced by ordinary people, who are still as poor as—or poorer than—20 years ago, or the accelerated dynamic of globalization, with its technological and cultural transformations.

It was more than fifty years ago that our working class carried out its great rebellion, resisting the imperial banner and linking the trade union and political struggles. Out of that success emerged the trade union movement that would lead the Honduran social movement for over half a century. But even though that union movement is no longer what it was in the last century, its main leaders cling to their traditional outlook, confident that a detachment of the workers’ and union movement, led politically by a leftwing, will rescue Honduran society from penury and inequality. It’s time to wake up.

In the current context, unionism bears little relation to these leaders’ almost dogmatic dreams, and it has few links with the extremely diverse reality of the country’s impoverished people. But despite the fact that this union movement has so few real connections with the other organizational forms that have been emerging over the last fifteen years, it continues to lead and shape the grassroots sectors’ main demands and mobilizations.

The traditional movement:
Both strong and weak

Five strands can be identified within today’s grassroots movement. Some are interwoven and complement each other; others tend to repel and discredit each other. Each one, based in its own particular reality, is contributing to the search for a new alternative paradigm to neoliberalism, which puts individualism and the needs of capital above people and community.

What are some of the characteristics of each of these five strands?

The traditional grassroots movement. The identity of the traditional grassroots movement is defined by the demands and organizational forms of trade unionism. It has almost always been pillaged by one of the political parties, whether the traditional political Right, or the shrunken and relatively insignificant Left, both registered parties and unofficial groups. And just as all roads lead to Rome, all unions lead to one of three central workers’ confederations: The Honduran Workers’ Central, the General Workers’ Central and the Honduran United Workers’ Central. The leaders of these confederations are recognized interlocutors with the state and big business.

The leaders of the traditional grassroots movement who belong to the workers’ confederations can be heard twice a year: when they’re negotiating the minimum wage with government and business, and during the May Day parades. When it comes to anything else, silence is their usual response. During election campaigns, they’re adept at visiting the headquarters of the top leaders of the strongest factions in the traditional parties. The confederations aren’t unified, but they’re consistent in hesitating to address the abuse of working class rights, and in the timidity of their voices when our national sovereignty is being abused, or legislation or decisions endanger our natural resources or environment.

The life of this traditional movement revolves around defense of trade union interests. It tries to drag the poor along behind its demands, as if its sectoral interests were national ones. The teachers’ unions are a case in point: powerful in defense of the Teachers’ Statute, able to present themselves as a real parallel government, but weak and absent in the struggles of those sectors submerged in the informal economy—half the country’s economically active population—that have no capacity to organize in trade unions.

In sum, the traditional grassroots movement is very strong in fighting for its union rights and very weak—almost non-existent—in fighting for the country’s poorest sectors.

The new grassroots movement. This emerging movement can be identified by the issues it addresses and its connection with NGOs that channel international aid resources. It has been developing since the 1990s in response to the overwhelming force of neoliberalism, which threatens the resources and lives of indigenous and black communities, as well as forests, water and culture. This movement channels the demands of emerging sectors, recognizing issues of gender and excluded identities. Here we find organized indigenous and Garífuna peoples, women, youth, gays, environmentalists and others.

Movement of territorial community organizations. The identity of these organizations is defined by the place or region where they are based or carry out their activities. Their struggles relate to a range of issues linked to territory. The oldest ones, which have been co-opted by the political parties, are the Communal Boards. In recent years, some of these boards have begun to establish links with various community groups, organizing around local demands and getting involved in struggles independent of political party interests. For example, the Western Regional Board (which brings together some 200 community boards), a few municipal alliances in the western departments of Lempira and Intibucá, the Sula Valley Social Forum, the Residents of Zacate Grande in the southern part of the country, the Olancho Environmentalist Movement and community organizations along the right edge of the lower Ulúa River watershed, are organized into the Honduran Inter-Municipal Development and Social Monitoring Association. Its identity is defined in territorial terms and the connection to the community level is what unifies its struggles and its linkages with other sectors.

Advocacy organizations. The identity of these organizations derives from the funds they receive from international cooperation to work on advocacy with government or society on specific issues. Strictly speaking, they are NGOs or PDOs (Private Development Organizations). They are the most significant social phenomena in the Honduran social movement today, covering a wide range of organizations from those that defend state and private business interests to those that provide funds to support opposition grassroots mobilization.

Political action fronts. The identity of these groups is based on oppositional political struggle that brings together the four preceding types of organization. There are regional and national fronts, such as the Popular Bloc, based in Tegucigalpa and led by one of the traditional leftist union federations, which includes some of the teachers unions. Others include Coordinating Committee of Popular Organizations of Aguán and the Permanent Popular Assembly of El Progreso, Yoro. The broadest front is the National Coordinating Committee for Popular Resistance, which brings together the three others, as well as sectors that overlap with a few of the other four strands of the grassroots movement described above.

Alliances and rejections

These various expressions of popular mobilization are not all separate. They’re like municipalities and departments, sharing mountain ranges, rivers and highways. The two strands of popular mobilization that are least connected to each other are the political fronts and the advocacy organizations, which often reject each other and exchange accusations. Most of the influence of the political fronts is based on the traditional grassroots movement, which is why the advocacy organizations have little or no linkage to these two forms of mobilization; instead, they use their funds and their thinking to nourish—or try to nourish and influence—both the new grassroots movement and the territorial community organizations.

Distant from the people

Ordinary people in the communities not only legitimate the electoral cycle as an instrument of a kind of democracy and rule of law that serve the powerful; they are also far removed from the plans and interests of the leadership of the traditional popular organizations for the most part. Experience shows that the lives and discourse of the traditional and trade union leadership are very distant from the daily lives of ordinary people. The struggles conducted by trade unions and by the recognized leaders of the so-called popular movement often move in one direction while the interests and feelings of the communities move in another. Bridging that distance is one of the challenges in the struggle to develop organization and grassroots participation.

Both the trade union organizations and the community organizations need to recognize that no one has a monopoly on the truth and that we all need each other. The leaders of the grassroots organizations should recognize that their language and ideas often distance them from ordinary people today. Until they fill up with such ordinary people—who are often confused and trapped by traditional political loyalties—their leaders will go on saying things that sound good and may well be true, while their numbers remain low—very enlightened, but dramatically removed from the reality on the ground.

Under other banners

It’s true that electoral abstention has increased in Honduras, reaching almost 50% of eligible voters in the last elections. Nevertheless, the banners of the traditional political parties are firmly anchored in ordinary people’s daily lives. Their respective blue and the red flags wave from houses made of earth and manaca leaves, and the bitter influence of the caudillos persists in our villages and poor urban neighborhoods.

The social movement’s political struggle should be independent of party affiliation. No party banners of any color should be confused with the banners of the grassroots movement. The role of a political party is and should be to work toward achieving state power, while the objective of the social movement is to call on the state and political parties to represent and respond to grassroots demands. A political party may be in opposition today, but tomorrow it may lead the state. A social movement will always remain outside of the state, because its function is to push on behalf of demands from below, from those without power.

The worst thing that can happen to a social movement is for it to adopt a specific political or religious affiliation. A social movement’s identity and political richness derives from its autonomy and independence from any party or religious creed. It would be wrong for a party to use the struggle and organizational structure of a social movement to pursue partisan interests. And a religious denomination would do great harm by trying to direct the grassroots struggle toward a particular belief or religious practice.

The social movement’s agenda

Honduras’ social movement should be questioning why there’s a healthy and expanding economy for the rich and the transnationals and an ailing one for the rest of society. Macroeconomic growth is not enough; we have to put an end to inequality. The movement should be questioning a model that sustains itself through the social production of wealth that is appropriated by ever smaller groups and numbers of people.

It should stake its hopes on the proper functioning of institutions over the arbitrariness of specific individuals and political and economic groups. The weakness or absence of institutions weakens democracy and shuts down governance, while strengthening the traditional groups and hidden influences that circulate through the underground corridors of power.

The social movement should be strengthening itself by linking together the demands that emerge from territory-based community organizations. The road forward is rooted in the life and reality of communities. The construction of participatory democracy is unthinkable outside the social, economic and cultural texture of communities’ own democratic experiences.

It should work on social oversight of the municipalities, questioning the use of public institutions to strengthen the power of the caudillos and power groups acting behind the backs of, and in opposition to, the population.

Finally, it should open arenas to develop an alternative communications strategy, breaking the monopoly over information and control of public opinion that currently is in the hands of a small group of politicians and businesspeople.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.

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