A new President has taken the helm in Honduras, but the more significant developments took place in Congress, where outgoing representatives spent their last few days passing a barrage of laws in a frantic final dash. Dubbed a “legislative hemorrhage,” more than 100 laws and almost as many contracts were passed between January 17 and January 20 following two weeks of already unprecedented activity that included Constitutional reforms.
A new President has taken the helm in Honduras, but the more significant developments took place in Congress, where outgoing representatives spent their last few days passing a barrage of laws in a frantic final dash.
Dubbed a “legislative hemorrhage,” more than 100 laws and almost as many contracts were passed between January 17 and January 20 following two weeks of already unprecedented activity that included Constitutional reforms. The new laws cover substantial ground, from electoral and police reform to shrimp farming and classified documents. The avalanche of legislation also includes the privatization of public utilities and infrastructure.
“In no way do they stand to benefit the living conditions of the Honduran people. These laws were made to favour the local groups of power first of all, and secondly, transnational corporations,” Carlos Amador, a teacher and resistance movement activist, told Upside Down World.
The National Party maintains control of the executive branch, following the November 2013 elections that took place amid widespread reports of fraud and intimidation. On January 27, Juan Orlando Hernández, former President of Congress until he stepped down to run, took the reins from Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who was elected in contested elections held after Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a June 2009 coup d’état.
In Congress, though, new political parties have disrupted the country’s long-standing two party status quo. The ruling National Party took 48 seats, while the Liberal Party, reduced to the factions that supported the coup, came out of the elections with only 27 seats. The Libre party that grew out of resistance to the coup and includes both former Liberal Party members and social movement activists gained 37 representatives in Congress, including Zelaya. The new Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) won 13 seats, and three minor parties each have one representative in Congress.
The last-ditch effort to ram new laws through Congress in the final days of the Lobo Sosa administration wasn’t entirely unforeseen. Bertha Cáceres, General Coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), saw it coming back in November 2013.
“These are the same people that passed the Charter Cities, the mining law, the intelligence law, the illegal mining, hydro and oil concessions – everything,” Cáceres told Upside Down World in an interview in Tegucigalpa around election time. “What they’re going to do is safeguard the illegal legislative framework that they have created to guarantee the interests of corporations.”
Still, the scope and sheer quantity of legislation passed within a few days was staggering. Decrees placing the national power and telephone companies on a path to privatization were included in the mix.
The outgoing Congress passed the General Law of the Electrical Industry in a single debate on January 20, literally on the eve of the transition of Congress. The law mandates the conversion of the National Electrical Energy Company (ENEE) into a private corporation and then into separate generation, transmission, and distribution companies – all by mid-2015.
Shares in the new ENEE subsidiaries will be, at least initially, owned by the State, but they won’t be the only players in the ring. The legislation allows for other companies to participate and compete in the transmission and distribution of electricity, and creates an Electrical Energy Regulatory Commission (CREE) to regulate the market.
HONDUTEL, the State telephone company, met a similar fate. On January 19, Congress approved a contract handing the financial administration of the company to a banking institution. Aside from managing finances in trust, the institution will be tasked with a proposal to restructure the company. Once a new business model has been determined, HONDUTEL is to become a private corporation in which the government, workers, “or other entities” may participate.
“These companies were created to serve the Honduran people,” said Amador. “Right now the policy of the government is to privatize any and all State institutions, and this goes against the interests of the people.”
Along with all the laws, several new public-private partnership contracts were passed in January 2014, some of them in closed Cabinet sessions. They include immigration services, such as issuing passports,, the Property Institute’s property administration system, road infrastructure in San Pedro Sula, and the recuperation of losses in water and sewer management.
The contracts are regulated by the Commission for the Promotion of Public-Private Alliances (Coalianza), created in 2010 during the Lobo Sosa administration. Coalianza’s portfolio also includes port facilities, aerodrome construction, energy generation, stretches of highway around the country, and more.
Amador points out that along with basic services, key strategic assets for the sovereignty and security of the country – tax collection, passport issuing, ports and airports – are now either privatized or in the hands of public-private partnerships.
Coalianza commission members were determined by the outgoing Congress, months before the existing commissioners’ terms were up. Coalianza commissioner José Antonio Pineda’s term was renewed by Congress, but he was caught on camera voting – as though he were an elected Congress representative – for public-private partnership contracts managed by Coalianza. He has since resigned, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating what many consider a blatant usurpation of office.
After days of almost nonstop legislation, the new Congress representatives convened on January 21 to begin the process of transition required in order to swear in the President the following week. Despite the organization of an opposition bloc by Libre and PAC, the Liberal Party supported the National Party’s steering committee nominations in exchange for revisiting the list of products covered by an increased sales tax. When members of Libre and PAC were not allowed to speak or present their own nominations, a loud and energetic display of opposition ensued.
Union, social movement, and Libre activists protested in the plaza below Congress before and during its transition, denouncing the slew of laws and the silencing of the new opposition. Thousands of people also took to the streets on January 27, to protest Hernández’ swearing in ceremony. The Libre party did not attend the official event, marching instead with their National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) bases.
“What’s coming in Honduras are major struggles,” said Amador. Community struggles to defend their natural resources from exploitation are on the rise, he says, but the country may also reach a breaking point in terms of insecurity and unemployment, with the impoverished majority increasingly unable to meet basic needs for subsistence.
With greater organized struggles, Amador expects increased repression, possibly with the involvement of new specialized military and police units, not to mention the new president’s campaign promise of putting “a soldier on every corner.”
“The country is militarized more now than ever,” Amador told Upside Down World.
If the Liberal-National Party alliance formed to elect the new congressional steering committee remains intact during the Hernández administration, they will retain the majority needed to ensure the onslaught of new laws are not repealed. With an energetic opposition in Congress, there will undoubtedly be more debate. However, in order to put a halt to the wave of privatizations and effect real change, pressure from below will be more vital than ever.
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist with a penchant for coffee and geckos. She tweets as @Sandra_Cuffe.