Honduras: behind the crisis

Ismael Moreno
3 July 2009

Honduras is in tumult following the forced removal of its president, Manuel Zelaya, on 28 June 2009. The coup has provoked a wave of protest and near-unanimous condemnation by the country's neighbours, other regional powers, the United States and the United Nations. The deposed president is determined to affirm his right to office - as he did in a speech to the United Nations general assembly on 30 June - and return to Honduras to secure it. Those responsible for the coup seem equally committed to their chosen course of action.Ismael Morena, SJ, is the correspondent for Revista Envío in Honduras, where an earlier version of this article was published

What is going on in Honduras, and what lies behind this political and constitutional eruption?

Manuel Zelaya's dream

Manuel Zelaya was elected president of Honduras in December 2005, and was inaugurated in January 2006. His four-year term of office - before the "constitutional coup", and his replacement (until 27 January 2010, the day Zelaya's term ends) by the ultra-conservative speaker of the national congress, Roberto Micheletti - was scheduled to be voted for in presidential elections on 29 November 2009.

But Zelaya has wanted to prolong his rule; in a pattern familiar from recent national experiences elsewhere in the Americas, he has been seeking constitutional means that would allow him to remain in office. The most controversial of these - and the source of much of the current troubles - is the so-called cuarte urna ("fourth ballot-box"): that is, a proposal to hold a national referendum on the drafting of a new constitution which would (Zelaya hopes) raise presidential term-limits and thus enable him to continue to rule Hondurans. Zelaya had called a public consultation on the referendum for 28 June, which was then declared illegal by the congress and supreme court; hours before the polls opened, he was arrested and ejected from the country.

Also in openDemocracy on politics in central America:

Marielos Monzón, " Guatemala: journalism under pressure" (25 September 2005)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long walk to democracy" (25 May 2006)

Mark Joyce, " The wager of Panama" (31 May 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, " Daniel Ortega's second coming" (7 November 2006)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, " Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, " Nicaragua: through the abyss" (3 September 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, " Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007)

Sergio Ramirez, " Nicaragua: heartbeat of protest" (1 September 2008)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, " Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

Victor Valle, El Salvador's long march (20 March 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, Mexico: living with insecurity (13 May 2009)

There are several ways to interpret what Zelaya was trying to do with the referendum effort. The most plausible may be to see it in the context of the political project of Zelaya and his team - and the problems they have faced in relation to both internal Honduran power-structures and regional diplomacy.

These elements are themselves related. The "patricians" around Zelaya have had great difficulties with the framework they have constructed in order to join the Latin American trade bloc known as the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Alba), led by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez). Moreover, the consolidation of the government's international relations with the region's leftist regimes - Cuba and Nicaragua as well as Venezuela itself - has caused great unrest among some of the country's power-sectors.

Zelaya and his team have long sough to concentrate power in the presidency as the key site of their political project, but in the process they ignored and alienated their Liberal Party political base. The "patricians" paid dearly for this misjudgment in April 2009, when the traditional Liberal interests won control of the party and eliminated anyone with influence in the presidency.

This trend was symbolised by Patricia Rodas, the party president, who dedicated herself to running state policy from the foreign-affairs ministry. The reward was close links with Hugo Chávez, but in the process she found her political base corroded. Rodas was arrested in the coup before being allowed to leave the country.

The re-election issue

The symbolic importance of the cuarte urna can be seen in this context. 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.

Three decades later, the importance of the military in the country's political life has - notwithstanding the coup of 28 June 2009 - been sharply reduced. Many military leaders have been forced to take refuge in the subterranean corridors of organised crime or in the profitable private-security business. In part as a result, the arguments used to defend the articles against re-election have gradually dissipated; the issue was even raised, albeit discreetly, by the administrations of Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-94) and Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé (1998-2002). Their circles of followers, who wanted to smash the stone tablets impeding their favourite's re-election, pushed the issue much more zealously.

The constitution has since 1980 been tweaked in other areas around thirty times, to the point where politicians of all camps are convinced that the document in no longer adequate. This is where the formal change proposed by Manuel Zelaya comes in: that in the November 2009 election-round, the voters will be presented with four ballot-boxes - the fourth one being used for a referendum on the question: "Do you agree with convening a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution?" Most members of the political class has been in agreement with the idea - but most too are unhappy with the man promoting it; in great part because lurking behind the fourth ballot-box they see... Hugo Chávez's shadow.

Zelaya's government had proposed to launch a "popular consultation" in an effort persuade the national congress to approve the fourth ballot-box in the November elections. The coup against the president took place at the moment this was due to get underway. But the barons controlling the two traditionally dominant (and now discredited) forces - the National Party and the Liberal Party - began their own campaigns in May 2009. They saw the issue as a possible way of revitalising their parties, and in addition of robbing Zelaya of his "ownership" of the fourth ballot-box idea. Now, Zelaya has been robbed of more than this, and Honduran politics is in flux.

The independent route

The current crisis has altered Honduran political calculations, though until it is resolved - and depending on the way that happens - the direction of the constitutional argument will remain in question.

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.

That debate, like so many others, was derailed by the pressing needs of the moment. The tiny Partido Unificación Democrática was torn within by irreconcilable conflict over the proposal. As a result of the impasse, the leaders of the  grassroots social movement decided in late April 2009 to run an independent candidate in the November 2009 election: trade-union leader and human-rights activist Carlos Humberto Reyes.

The path won't be easy, coup or no coup. The existing "electoral and political organisations law", created by Liberal and National lawyers to protect their historic bipartite system, has long been used limit electoral competition and exclude any upstart from entering the country's democratic space (the law, for example, requires that an independent candidate must supply 45,000 accredited supporting signatures to the supreme electoral tribunal as part of its registration effort). The effort of the veteran human-rights defender (and current national human-rights commissioner) Ramón Custodio to run for the presidency in 2001 foundered in the face of the law‘s institutional constraints.

The fourth and the fifteenth

The pre-coup political atmosphere revealed the fluidity surrounding the project of launching an independent candidate and the fourth ballot-box proposal. The establishment media owned by the country's elite were quick to connect them, and to try to see evidence of Hugo Chávez's influence. Indeed, the leaders of the grassroots movement and Zelaya do agree on several issues: Honduras's attempt to join Alba; the Petrocaribe alliance with Venezuela to purchase oil on preferential terms; fervent support for Chávez himself; and fiery leftist slogans devoid of substance or critical analysis.

The most rightwing currents in Honduras have also tried to jump on the constitutional bandwagon; for example, none other than Roberto Micheletti, proposed in the second half of April 2009 that President Zelaya grant the working class a so-called "fifteenth salary" on May Day in exchange for full support for the fourth ballot-box.

This sounds progressive and worker-friendly - especially at a time of straitened living-standards, where (for example) Hondurans' purchasing-power has fallen by 30% even compared to 2008 - but is more a trap set by the most conservative business sectors. The business leaders may be worried by a drastic reduction in people's spending, but they are more interested in gaining a political advantage.

But the interests of political calculation also dominate the other side of the spectrum. Zelaya has exploited the grassroots movement's need to be heard and the desire for prominence of  some of its vocal leaders - who for their part seem to have forgotten that the Zelaya who now embraces Chávez and mouths revolutionary slogans once made an alliance with Roberto Micheletti. These leaders also wanted to use Zelaya's government as a lever to present themselves as the real representatives of the continent's left in Honduras. In other words, this a temporary alliance of mutual manipulation.

The way forward

Carlos Humberto Reyes's candidacy may yet prove an instrument towards a real break with the bi-party system. At the same time, even before the coup it was evident that his campaign's links with the executive branch could compromise the very independence it is supposed to embody.  The implication is that the grassroots movement should maintain its critical capacity and establish a clear distance from the executive branch and the fourth ballot-box idea - whose objective was always to keep Zelaya in government at whatever cost.

The smoke from the "constitutional coup" will take time to clear. But even before it occurred, it was evident that Honduras needs a change of direction and new legislation that responds to the challenges of the complex 21st century.

A constitution changed piecemeal every time it suits the official political class can't go on being the legal instrument that regulates the country's life. The real debate isn't the relevance of constitutional reform, but rather the intentions behind that fourth ballot-box. If the idea is to clean up the image of the political class, it would become just another instrument like the reform to elect the supreme court or the supreme electoral tribunal. Honduras's laws are reformed mainly to satisfy  the power ambitions of the politicians themselves, some of whom dress in nationalist blue, others in Liberal red - all the while making a show of wearing the blue-and-white of the national flag.

What use, then, would be a fourth ballot-box that produces a constituent assembly of the same old politicians to draft a new constitution that responds to and updates the interests of the same old political class? The country needs a fourth ballot-box to bring together the interests of all the different social and grassroots elements to campaign for a country better than the one controlled for decades by the caste of traditional politicians, a sovereign country that respects the dignity of its poorest people. Whatever the outcome of Honduras's current political trauma, this aspiration must remain on the agenda. 

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