When Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the center-left Liberal Party was elected president of Honduras in November 2005, many in the country and internationally heralded him as the latest member of Latin America’s “New Left” club.
When Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the center-left Liberal Party was elected president of Honduras in November 2005, many in the country and internationally heralded him as the latest member of Latin America’s “New Left” club, joining leaders like Venezuela’s Chavez, Bolivia’s Morales, Kirchner from Argentina and the perennial Fidel Castro, with whom Zelaya initiated relations for the first time in Honduras’s recent history.
But at a conference organized by the independent National Coordination of Popular Resistance (Bloque Popular-Coordinadora Nacional de Resistencia Popular) in Tegucigalpa in January 2006, opposition politicians and members of various campesino and indigenous organizations expressed serious doubts about Zelaya.
Two years later, these critics find their skepticism was on target.
Zelaya and his officials are mired in scandal and rising public discontent, with much of the population apparently viewing him as just as corrupt and willing to cater to the interests of multinational companies as past leaders.
By the end of October more than a million people had viewed recordings posted on YouTube by one “Juana Pueblo” of conversations between Zelaya and other top government officials, revealing ethically questionable and embarrassing plans and machinations. Zelaya has threatened to jail the as-yet unknown people responsible for the postings.
The tapes included the voices of Zelaya; his private secretary Raúl Valladares; presidential assessor Enrique Flores Lanza; and Marcelo Chimirri, head of the state phone company Hondutel. Among other things Zelaya and the officials talked about how to manipulate the public and political opponents; the controversial proposal to lower taxes on international calls, which infuriated the phone company union; and propaganda plans to publicly label National Congress president Roberto Micheletti a “traitor.”
The tapes also caught Zelaya and his cabinet talking about how to control the media, naming specific journalists under the government’s control. This comes during a year in which Zelaya has claimed the media is against him, and journalists have complained of intense pressure and intimidation and blamed the government for a number of violent attacks on journalists. (More on this in a coming Upside Down World story.)
On Oct. 18 popular radio journalist/satirist Carlos Salgado, 67, was shot to death outside his Radio Cadena Voces station in Tegucigalpa in broad daylight, in front of heavy traffic. Journalists and Zelaya opponents were quick to suggest the government was behind or linked to the murder. Salgado’s comedic alter ego “Frijol, El Terible” was known for mocking the government.
Other journalists at the station reported receiving threats from people connected to the government, and they said their requests to the government for more security services were ignored. Two weeks after Salgado’s murder, station director Dagoberto Rodriguez fled Honduras for the U.S. after police informed him of a planned assassination attempt.
Meanwhile Zelaya’s record on free trade and foreign investment has been far different from his supposed allies Morales and Chavez. Zelaya was a vocal proponent of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which was implemented in Honduras last year. The government has talked about joining ALBA (Bolivian Alternative for the Americas), the alternative trade bloc spearheaded by Venezuela, but the country has yet to do so.
Campesino and anti-free trade groups say development projects instituted in CAFTA’s wake have displaced people and made life harder for average citizens. The Centro Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo (CNTC), a national campesino group involved in land reclamations, lost a community center which was once home to a local low-power radio station to CAFTA this year. The center, outside the city of Comayagua, was seized to make room for a highway to facilitate shipping through the region necessitated by CAFTA, according to CNTC leaders.
During a meeting near the city of La Paz in late October, CNTC members described how it is harder for them to make a living off their land with stepped-up imports of agricultural goods from the U.S.; and they expect that trend to continue. They are also worried about the effect of genetically modified corn and other crops invading their stocks as U.S. imports increase.
Anti-free trade graffiti is scrawled on the walls of Tegucigalpa, La Paz and other Honduran cities. The CNTC and other grassroots groups have worked with members of the left political party Unificacion Democracia (UD) to argue against increased free trade. In June UD members met in Tegucigalpa with representatives of leftist political parties from Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala to discuss resistance to free trade across the region. Among other things, they pledged to resist the European Acuerdo de Asociacion (AdA) trade agreement with the EU which is in the early stages of negotiation.
Though there has not been much significant data collected on CAFTA’s impact on Honduras so far, various reports and studies compiled as the agreement was set to take effect predicted a harmful effect on the nation’s agricultural sector and textile industry.
A study by the International Development Research Centre, for example, concluded that: “Honduras’ traditional cereal and grain crops – corn, wheat, and rice (with the exception of frijol) – will not fare well under the new free trade agreement, given the high yields of USA large-scale industrialized farming (corn yields in Honduras are 7% of those of the USA), and because of the huge subsidies which the USA provides to its farmers to produce these crops.”
The report predicts that “Honduran production of these crops for export will essentially disappear, due to their inability to compete with the subsidized prices of the US market. This will negatively impact the numerous small farmers who rely on the sale of these crops as their primary source of income.”
“When the free trade agreement was instituted it was described as a solution for the people and the community,” said Samuel Gonzalez, education director of the CNTC’s national office. “But if you are on the ground you know it’s not helping campesinos. The campesino reality is that each day that passes means more and more extreme poverty. This neoliberal model is a disaster, it’s just making the rich richer and the poor poorer.”
The long-time government repression of constitutionally-allowed land reclamations carried out by the CNTC and other campesino groups has also continued with severity under Zelaya.
CNTC national director Carlos Obdulio Suazo described the Liberal Party and National Party as “the same parties with the same bosses, just different flags.”
“The Liberal Party is in power, but nothing has changed,” he said.
A number of people have been killed in relation to land struggles during Zelaya’s tenure, including one during an Aug. 27-28 national action by the CNTC, in which they launched land reclamations around the country and held forums.
Land struggles are exacerbated by the fact that, along the coast and in other areas attractive to tourism, foreign investors are buying up land, even in violation of laws that are supposed to protect indigenous lands and limit foreigners’ ability to buy coastal land.
“A gringo or someone from the European Union or Japan can buy land at prices Hondurans can never afford,” said Suazo. “Where before people fished, now they can’t because the land is private.”
Campesinos are also afraid increased mining by multi-national companies will destroy the water supply of small communities and ruin their agricultural lands. An investigation by the independent newspaper El Libertador published in October described how mining by a subsidiary of the company Glamis Gold has contaminated water and caused wells to dry up or become unusable in the Valle de Siria, where an inordinately high number of cancers and respiratory problems have also been reported. Zelaya’s administration has awarded a number of mining concessions to multinational companies which locals fear could have similar effects throughout the country, including at Montana Pacayatal not far from La Paz, a mountain with hundreds of springs that provide water for a large surrounding area. (More in a coming Upside Down World article).
Residents are worried about ongoing discussion of privatizing water, as has been done in many other Latin American countries and cities; education; and other public services and resources.
“It’s not right, they’re selling off our resources,” said Silbestre Manueles Mazariego, a CNTC campesino leader in the La Paz area. “We need to stop this privatization. People are dying of malnutrition in areas that are rich in natural resources. We need these resources to provide a future for our children.”
Meanwhile urban dwellers in Tegucigalpa and other cities are also highly dissatisfied with the administration.
Hospitals have been closing divisions and cutting down on services because of a shortage of doctors and nurses and a lack of funds for medical equipment and machinery. In October the newspaper El Heraldo reported on the closing of 17 health centers nationwide, with dialysis and other services being cut at the nation’s hospitals because of the personnel and equipment shortages. The cuts are hitting impoverished, rural areas the worst, where malnutrition, infant mortality and other problems related to poverty and isolation are already acute.
A report by the Organizacion Panamericana de la Salud found that Hondurans’ access to health services is among the worst in the region, with an average of 8.7 doctors and 3.2 nurses per 10,000 people nationwide. People who count on the public health system have much less access, with an average of only 2.4 doctors and 1.2 nurses per 10,000 people. Honduras also has the highest rate of HIV in Central America.
An October poll by El Heraldo – which is known for its alliance with the National Party – found that a significant majority of Tegucigalpa residents feel that the cost of basic household goods and the cost of living has increased under Zelaya, as compared to past National Party president Ricardo Maduro.
Meanwhile notoriously rampant violence and crime continues to escalate in the cities, including the severe gang problem essentially exported from the U.S. to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Zelaya’s government has been blamed for not doing more to address the violence, with an average 14 people killed per day. However security and crime is a tricky issue since the mano dura (iron fist) policies instituted by Maduro and other Latin American leaders — but not as much so by Zelaya — are known for fostering human and civil rights abuses and destructive criminalization of youth.
The exodus of people, especially young men, from Honduras also continues at a rapid pace. Scores of youth leave the country for the cities, where gang violence, poverty and exploitation are rampant, and then often for the U.S. and other countries. This situation has been going on for years; Zelaya’s government cannot be blamed. But during the broadcast of a new community radio station, CNTC members called on the Zelaya administration to do more to provide resources and opportunities for youth so they don’t feel forced to leave the country.
“The government is the main reason youth lose their principles and values, not seeing the hope of a better future for themselves and their families,” said Gonzalez. “They end up in gangs, getting tattoos all over their bodies, then they could be killed for those tattoos.”
“There are no jobs here,” added Carlos Manueles, Silbestre Manueles’s son and a CNTC member who works with youth in the La Paz area. “So kids go to the U.S., and they come back sick or without arms and legs” – often from accidents hopping trains. “We need to do something else for our youth and our future.”