One year ago today…

June 29, 2010

After spending a day buried deep in writing about the political and economic history of Honduras for my thesis, the last thing I really feel like doing this evening is more writing.  And yet as the sun sets in NZ and rises on Honduras on June 28 2010, I want to add my two cents (lempiras?) worth to the discussion surrounding the one year anniversary of the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, and which is still not over. Not that I would really characterise it as a conversation, with the two sides still firmly entrenched and with such different and conflicting narratives as this and this.

One year ago we had just arrived in Honduras for nine months of graduate research for my PhD.  While I was well-versed in development theory, and somewhat familiar with the Honduran context I had limited understanding of Honduran politics – after all, I was studying grassroots development and ICT, not political science (although my Honduran husband majored in politics).  Over the next few months I had a crash course, reading all I could from both sides and talking with people on both sides of the divide (often to the detriment of my field research work).

Because I felt unqualified to comment, and because I was worried about my research community (mostly pro-coup) I didn’t write much about the coup for a while.  But it didn’t take long for me to figure out some key truths about who was doing the talking, although I have to confess to becoming heartily sick of the use of the word truth, which was manipulated in many ways in the months following the coup. Eventually, with some trepidation, I came out as resistencia. My reasons for doing so still stand, and another nine months of reading and research have only strengthened my support. In fact nine months after I wrote that post have strongly reinforced the final reason I gave in that most – that this was a clearly a coup to protect the status quo, not for change.

This is something that had really struck me as have been writing the Honduras background information for my thesis. Coups, constitutional manipulations, the use and misuse of power by oligarchs, the business community and the military, corruption, international meddling… there ‘s really nothing new under the Honduran sun (including the names of those involved). Understanding the history of Honduras places so much of what happened last year into context. The coup of 2009 is easily seen as one more attempt by the Honduran ruling elite to maintain their own position, to protect the interests of big business and ensure Honduras remains on a neo-liberal path, following the same policies that have lead to the dire poverty and inequality we see in Honduras today. And so in 2010, under the un-democratically elected Porfirio Lobo, it is literally ‘business as usual’.

But something is different this time. Zelaya may be gone but the events of 28 June 2009 were the spark that ignited a new force for change.  The coup has bought together labour unions, campesino and indigenous groups, womens groups, LGBT groups, academics… Hondurans from across the social spectrum, in a peaceful effort to ‘re-found’ Honduras. The traditional media and the coup supporters may sneer and label them misinformed agitators and haters, but I believe they misunderstand and underestimate the resistencia, the emergence of which is something of huge historical significance in Honduras (although given the human rights abuses directed at the resistencia I suspect the government understands this significance!).

I might not be Honduran, or even in Honduras at this time, but I know with whom I stand this June 28. Not next to the powerful, but with the poor, the indigenous, the disabled, the women and children who have been left behind by Honduran economic ‘development’ time and time again. I do not know what the future will bring, but I do hope that the historical cycle will not continue to repeat and that one day, soon, real change will come to Honduras. The resistencia might not be perfect, but I see more hope there than with any amount of international development aid.

Yes, this post is a little late – the elections happened nearly a week ago.  I wasn’t sure I was going to post on the elections but I’ve been thinking about it for the past week, so here it is.  Our Honduran election experience and observations.

Actually this is based more in my husband’s experience, with my observations! I stayed home and spent the day with my daughter making Christmas decorations.  However, my husband, who is good friends with one of the candidates for mayor, and spent election day driving around the voting booths, helping him to keep an eye on the electoral process.  In this particular area, the current mayor has won the past 6 elections, most believe by fraud, but they hoped that things might be different this year, and this new candidate would have a chance.  It was an uphill battle from the beginning, the mayor developed deep pockets before the election and had been fixing roads and we had observed him giving away bags of cement and roofing iron for weeks.

Voting day itself started very early, as voting booths opened at 6am.  That is, except for the first voting booth my husband visited which did not open until much later, delayed by apparent friction in the voting centre.  When they arrived there were soldiers outside, as there were at all voting booths (it is very strange for a kiwi to understand but elections here are run by the military), and the doors were locked.  There was apparently some disagreement between the election staffers, some of them recruited by the current mayor.

Even once that was resolved and the doors opened, turnout was very low.  In fact things were slow and quiet at at all the centres he visited, and my husband was able to return home for lunch, and to have a nap.  Around mid-afternoon the announcement came that voting was to be extended for another hour, although there were mixed reports as to whether this was because there were more voters than expected, or less.  My husbands experience leads him to believe the latter. Shortly after this, busloads of voters, none local to the small town, arrived at the booths and voted. The buses were apparently organised by the incumbent mayor, as were payments to all taxi and moto-taxi drivers in town, in order to get more people to the polls.  The going rate for a vote – apparently about 500 Lempiras (US$25 – a lot of money for a poor family here).

Eventually the incumbent mayor was confirmed as the winner.  As was Pepe Lobo as president.  The election itself was declared a victory for democracy and Honduran independence.  However our observations lead us to believe this simply could not have been free and fair elections.  While we were concentrated on the mayoral election, it seemed to us a microcosm of the larger issues in this election. Many abstained from voting because they either did not see that there would be any change, or they voted for the incumbent because they felt obliged to after taking a bribe.

If an election at local level cannot be run in a free and fair manner, how so could the national elections?  Especially when the resistance has been effectively silenced from the media and repressed, sometimes violently.  Although most places were quiet (very quiet!) I know a lot of people, like me, stayed home on the day.  Where there was protest, in San Pedro Sula, there was also a harsh reaction from the military.  The same military who guarded every voting centre.

The national media in Honduras, and a significant proportion of the international media report that the elections were peaceful, free and fair.  They also reported that over 60% of the population voted.  Given the experience here on election day, we consider that at 60% turnout is unlikely, and even if 60% or more of eligible voters turned out,  their votes were not necessarily clean or meaningful.

It seems we are not alone in our suspicions. Rather than make this post too wordy, here is a very interesting, and disturbing report from The Real News, regarding the electoral fraud.

I guess you could call this a reveal, or a coming out. I’ve carefully and deliberately kept this blog apolitical for what I considered to be very good reasons, but those reasons don’t seem to be making much sense any longer, and I don’t want to keep quiet about it anymore.

On June 28, when Zelaya was removed from office and flown out of the country I has only been back in Honduras for a couple of weeks.  I was out of touch with the political climate and atmosphere in the country, and felt I didn’t know enough about Honduran politics to have an educated opinion.  In addition I was here primarily to do research and didn’t want to risk compromising that.  However over the past 3 months I have watched, listened and discussed the events unfolding and my initial neutrality has given way to open support for the resistencia.   Here’s why.

  • I don’t trust MichelettiWhile there has been ample discussion of Zelaya’s sins in the traditional media here in Honduras, and in online media, I have been surprised at how little  talk there has been regarding Micheletti and others in the defacto government.  Without even having to look into the past, or at the accusations of death squads and violent repression, it is easy to see actions that are far from ethical. The manner of Zelaya’s illegal removal from the country (even coup supporters will admit that now), the faked resignation letter, the forced closure of pro-Zelaya media outlets, the overkill of a nation-wide 48 hour curfew… none of this is the behavior of an honest and responsible democratic government.  With accusations of disappearing money and the selling off of grain reserves, one has to wonder what is actually happening behind the scenes.
  • The constitutionMaybe it is because I come from a country without a codified constitution, or maybe it is just because I am not a political or legal scholar, but the constitutional arguments don’t convince me.  The Honduran constitution has been bent backwards and forwards by both sides to try and support their position, and as a result it is perhaps no wonder Oscar Arias called the Honduran constitution the worst in the world.  While that might be an overstatement, from what I can tell the constitution appears to have hindered, rather than helped the democratic process.  A constitution that has articles that simply cannot be altered, and that make it difficult or even impossible for the people to instigate change, is at best a dinosaur, and at worst repressive of future generations.  Additionally, while the argument for Zelaya’s removal rests on the importance of upholding the constitution, it wasn’t a problem for the Micheletti government to suspend constitutional civil rights it on Zelaya’s return, indeed it seems to be becoming a major problem for them to reinstate them.
  • Misinformation, disinformationControl of the media seems to be one of the key strategies of Michelitti’s government. Certainly here within Honduras it is difficult to find any traditional media outlets not endlessly repeating the governments line and pro-Zelaya outlets have been shut down for inciting rebellion and uprising.  However I find it hard to believe that this was done in the public’s interest, as in several days of watching Canal 57 (Cholusat) near continuously my husband and I did not once hear Zelaya call for violence, although he did call his supporters to Tegucigalpa for peaceful protest.  We also did hear many callers describing the violent and repressive actions of the police and military in their neighbourhoods.  Characterising pro-Zelaya media outlets as inciters of violence allowed the regime to shut them down, and to shut down any reports that were not favorable to their regime. Again, this is not the actions of a democratic and enlightened government.I am also comfortably certain that the pro-coup media’s characterisation of Zelaya supporters as violent thugs, paid mercenaries or ignorant and uneducated is not correct.  While my academic background leads me to be highly suspicious of anecdotal evidence (and yes this post is full of it), this characterisation has not been my experience or observation. The resistence includes people from all walks of life. The Zelaya supporters I’ve met include grandmothers, small business owners and farmers. While I don’t deny there has been violence I don’t believe there is a simple “they are bad” explanation. For example in mid-July my husband had an interesting conversation with  a young street kid in Tegucigalpa who had no political interest (or knowledge) but who had joined the pro-Zelaya marches with his friends and thrown stones at the police for the fun of it.   More recently, on 21 Sept when Zelaya returned to Honduras, I spent the day watching TV footage of peaceful, happy Zelaya supporters outside the Brazilian Embassy, later I was saddened to watch scenes of chaos in that same street as the police and army moved in.  The violence is not necessarily endorsed, nor perpetrated by Zelaya or the resistance.

    Another example of misinformation from the media and many pro-coup commentators is that most of Honduras is supportive of Micheletti and the new government.  Again at risk of being accused of using anecdotal evidence, I have to say the majority of Hondurans my husband and I have spoken to are either pro-Zelaya or are ambivalent.  More convincingly, last week poll results from the authorized polling agency for the Honduran elections were released, which showed only 17.4% were in favor of the June 28 ousting of Zelaya, and 52.7% against. Interestingly I don’t think this poll was reported in the newpapers here.

  • The root of the crisis is fearSocialist, communist, dictator… there was , and is, a strong fear that Zelaya was going to usher in an era of Chavez-style politics to Honduras.  I am less interested in whether or not he was going to do that (and I’m not convinced he would have been able to anyway) than I am in the underlying fear of the left that drove Micheletti and co to desperate measures.  This fear is reflected throughout the pro-coup media and blogosphere, and I have been very frustrated over the past months reading posts and articles endlessly misusing the terms socialist and communist, and misunderstanding left wing politics and the rise of the left in Latin America. The United States has done very well promoting a right-wing, market-oriented form of development, and at vilifying all other approaches.  To read some of the pro-coup postings on the web is to step back to the cold war and to feel the fear of communism, ironically a communism that Zelaya was far far away from implementing. Talking to the poor, raising the minimum wage, convening a national constituent assembly… this is not communism, nor even socialism.  But it was enough for the elites and business community to feel threatened.
  • This is no changeFollowing on from the above – this was a clearly a coup to protect the status quo, not for change.  The coup leaders have vested interest in maintaining Honduras the way it was.  Michelettistas don’t like the term oligarchy, and would love to contest the idea that Honduras is run by just 10 families, but they can’t deny that the coup leaders are largely from the social class that had the most to loose from a change to the left. The coup was a means of retaining, rather than taking power. I don’t believe they were thinking of the good of the country, or of the poor when they took the actions they did, but rather of saving their position and power, and their businesses. The coup does not represent a fresh start for Honduras, but the ability for Honduras to continue with business as usual.  It means business as usual for the poor, selling candy on the street, picking someone else’s coffee, buying just a few tortillas with a little salt to feed their children.

So this is why I support the resistencia. Not because I think Zelaya is wonderful.  He’s not.  Not because I think Micheletti is evil, although I am very worried about what he is up to.  Because I want to align myself with the poor, with those that don’t have a voice, with those that will loose whoever wins the political battle.  I support the resistencia because I see this as an opening to begin a conversation about a Honduras that works for all, about what real change would mean.  Not a change controlled by the elite for their own benefit, but one where all Hondurans get a voice.

If you want to read more about the Honduran crisis (in English), I can recommend the following thoughtful and insightful blogs:

Honduras Coup 2009 – “Responses to the Coup d’etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.”

Quotha – Anthropologist Adrienne Pine posts online field notes and first-hand accounts of the coup from Hondurans.

Hermano Juancito

Carne con Frijol

El  Cinquito

Life goes on

July 3, 2009

My Mum is worried.  Back home in New Zealand reports of the coup in Honduras are filtering through, along with images of protests and clashes, and warnings against unnecessary travel to Honduras.  It’s a surreal experience being here, aware of the events taking place not far from where we live, yet carrying on with life as usual.

Politically the country is still in a stand-off.   The international community yesterday gave the coup leaders 72 hours to reinstate Zelaya or face sanctions.  Zelaya initially stated he would return today but now seems to be waiting for the 72 hours to pass before making a move.  The interim government has declared Zelaya will not be welcome here and, amongst those who have a voice anyway, it is clear much of the population does not want him back either, although both pro and anti- Zelaya marches and protests continue.  So most of us wait.  No-one really really knows how this will play out.

Of course this tension and political unease in the background has an impact on daily life.  We don’t have a TV but listen to the radio, and read newspapers, blogs and twitterers online.  We have prolonged discussions about the situation, and are constantly reassessing our plans taking into account the political events each day.  But the reality is that life goes on.  I go to university.  My husbandand daughter spend thier days playing on the porch, going for walks to collect fruit and swimming in the pool.  The people around us also carry on as normal, the workmen next door rebuilding another little casita, the staff and students at the university all still working.  The pulpurias (small dairy-like shops) are open, as is the local supermarkets and petrol station.

All appeared normal in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday when we finally took a much needed trip to the supermarket and to have a look at a few cars (we are reliant on others for transport at the moment but are looking for a car of our own). People were out and about on the streets as usual, and the malls and supermarkets are all open. The only evidence of the political strife was a handful of soldiers on the road into town, and a small, peaceful pro-Zelaya march (about 300-400 people I would guess) passing by the mall.

Our biggest worry so far is the potential effect of trade sanctions.  Already there are rumours of prices rises in some places.  We are well stocked for rice and beans, and have a whole fruit orchard to enjoy but it is a concern when we really still are here on a student budget.  It is even more of a worry for the 60% or so of the population who are poor.  Petrol shortages are also likely as Chavez cuts the flow of Venezuelan oil to Honduras, and our neighbour has already experienced significant difficulty filling his car in Tegus. earlier this week.  While I’m not sure if it is linked with the political crisis, I have also had difficult accessing my Visa and NZ bank accounts from the ATM we usually use, the message stating that my istitution was not connected to the bank at this time. I’m hoping that is just a normal ‘travel in Honduras’ related issue otherwise we’ll be very short of cash for a while – although the Visa works fine for normal in store payments so we won’t starve.

The other impact this crisis is having is on my planning.  I should be well into making plans and appointments for my research trip to the North Coast later this month, but have put it on hold until things are a little clearer.  At the moment things are safe, and people are travelling normally, but the threat of the escalation of violence exists and if so, we will be happier and safer on our mountainside than on the road.  It isn’t a big deal except that it delays the data collection, but I do have my supervisors permission to stay home and make chocolate cake should I be unable to travel!

So, life goes on.  We wait and see.  We eat, sleep, work, swim… and hope and pray this passes quickly and peacefully.

CasitaAfter a month of organising, packing, travelling, holidaying (vacationing) and settling in we are now officially, properly here in Honduras.  This trip is a little different to our past visits here. We have a home, I have an office, and we are working on getting a car. Simply having a home base and a kitchen makes life in Honduras a lot easier, and we feel we have hit the jackpot with our little casita (pictured).

We found the house through a client of a friend of ours here last year.  At the time we looked at it last year it was an empty concrete shell which the owner was planning to finish and furnish for rental.  We took a risk agreeing to rent it before seeing the final result but we are very pleased.  It is slightly upgraded traditional Honduran style – tile floors, painted concrete walls, concrete kitchen and cold running water.  But it is comfortably furnished, has a coffee maker and hot shower (shower head water heater) so I’m happy.  It also helps that it is on a small farm surrounded by mango, orange, lemon, mandarin and avocado trees, and banana, coffee and corn.  It is very quiet ( a small miracle in Honduras), very safe and absolutely beautiful. The only problem at the moment is transportation, we are reliant on others for rides or it is a long walk to the main road for buses.  Hopefully in the next week or so we will find a car, and we’ll be properly mobile again.

We have arrived here in Honduras just in time for the big news of the year, that is of course the (rumoured? currently underway? attempted?) coup in Tegucigalpa.  I’m not going to go into detail in this post (that would be a whole post of it’s own… La Gringa has a good one here), my feeling is that while I can’t really see any sort of good outcome for the Honduran people, I also do not think it will escalate into the kind of violence seen in this region in the past.  We are very safe where we are, all is quiet and life goes on as normal.

While mindful of the potential for civic and political unrest, I am continuing with my research plans.  I am lucky enough to have been offered office space at a nearby (and respected) university, and am making the most of both the facilities and the contacts.  Over the next few weeks I will be meeting with people around here and in Tegucigalpa, then in late July will be taking the family to the North Coast for another round of interviews and a few days on the beach in Roatan. Apparently fieldwork is supposed to be rough and challenging but political instability aside, so far I think I’m going to enjoy the next few months.

So, after some dramatic statements, much speculation, many rumours and very little consulting, Murray McCully has announced that NZAid will be merged back into MFAT. Along with this it’s mandate will change from poverty alleviation to economic growth.  In other words from a comprehensive policy that is used by the UN and many others in the international development community, to a narrow, economically defined model that has been shown to be ineffective at reaching the poorest.  

It all makes me very glad I never did manage to get a job at NZAid.

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Congratulations Helen Clark, new head of the UNDP.

I was very interested to read John Key’s comments on the appointment:

“Helen Clark should be very proud of her achievement and New Zealanders should be very proud of her,” Mr Key said.

“She will be working to help establish democracies, reduce poverty, improve health care, help in crisis prevention and recovery and assist with environmental issues.”

“In other words the UNDP needs someone who can front for them, mobilise resources and give the organisation a human face,” he said.

This at a time when Key’s government is looking at merging NZAid back into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and thereby making aid a tool of foreign policy and economic priorities.  As I was told today by someone close to NZAid, in practical terms for the Pacific, this means money being re-directed away from grassroots development projects and towards propping up regional airlines and other strategic business interests.  It all makes me very skeptical about whether or not National really does care about poverty alleviation.  I’m quite convinced they know nothing about aid and development beyond thier own political biases.

While I am pleased for Clark, and think she will probably be a great person for the job (and I love seeing a kiwi woman in such a great position) unfortunately she doesn’t escape my scepticism either.  She says:

“For a start we have to ensure that the donors … the Western countries who donate, don’t drop back on commitments,” Clark told National Radio in her first interview since her appointment was confirmed.

This from someone who led a government that seemed unable to raise aid past 0.3% of GNI, despite being a signatory to a UN target of 0.7%.  Can she hold other countries to a commitment she couldn’t keep?

Cautious Hope

January 22, 2009

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time reading and writing about development theory lately but while I enjoyed and appreciated Obama’s speech today I couldn’t help but be reminded of another inauguration speech 60 years ago, that of Harry S. Truman.

This from Truman:
Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens.

And this from Obama:
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

These are ostensibly noble promises, acknowledging the needs of others and offering to help.  I certainly applaud the sentiment, particularly as am I often one of the first to complain that those who have the resources are not doing enough.
However things are never as simple as they seem.  Truman’s speech has been identified as the beginning of the ‘development era’, the decades following that speech giving rise to an unprecedented level of intervention by the West, particularly the United States, into the affairs of the so-called third world.  This intervention, while purportedly to help the third world to develop, to ‘catch up’ with the West, was never given out of a pure motivation to help, rather was given strategically as part of the cold war, and more recently the war on terror.  
Not only was the motivation for giving aid questionable, but the results have not been all that was promised.  That Obama should be promising more help to people in poor nations is testament to the fact that 50 years of ‘development’ around the globe has not lead to any significant lessening of poverty and suffering.  Aid has been appropriated by the powerful in many places, it has propped up dictators, stirred up civil wars and forced open domestic markets to the wolves of international trade.  It has come with all manner of strings attached, strings manipulated by the powerful to their own advantage.  
My fervent hope is that whatever ‘help’ Obama is promising is different.  I hope that when he says the US will “work alongside you” that he truly means that.  I am encouraged that he acknowledges that the rich can no longer “consume the world’s resources without regard to effect”. But I am cautious.  As with Truman’s speech, Obama’s offer comes wrapped in American rhetoric, that certainty that the United States has the answer and that it is thier job to lead the rest of us.  Although I am grateful that there was somewhat less of this than there was with Bush, there is still the faint air of US imperialism hanging about. While it would certainly be wonderful to have the resources of the United States to address the problems of poverty in this world, it will not be true help if it comes with strings attached to US interests.
Despite this caution, I stand with my friends, both in the USA and globally, in hope.  Obama may not be the saviour of the world but his election is historic and of immense importance within the US, and is a beacon of possibility for the rest of the world after years of watching US imperialism at work.  I hope there will be change, I hope there will be good change.
(cross-posted on developing? – my new research blog)

I just watched a news report about a the defacement of an Israeli memorial plaque by a Catholic Priest in Wellington, in protest at the events in Gaza.  A member of the local Jewish community was interviewed, clearly upset by the ‘vandalism’ of the monument.  It made me mad.  How could someone be so upset about the defacement of a monument when the people it represents, his people, are not just defacing but seem set on destroying people.  

The Catholic church has distanced itself from the action.  

The New Zealand government remains ‘nuetral’.

I’m not going to say more because the whole Gaza situation just makes me angry.

 

Later:

Anita at Kiwipolitico has a more thoughtful post on the blood on the memorial protest.

The Hand Mirror has a good round-up of reactions to Gaza from the progressive blogosphere in  Gaza on our minds.   I particularly like the following quote which kind of sums up how I feel-

Like many others I feel utter despair and a complete lack of ability to do anything that would make even a smidgen of difference. I hate feeling powerless. And if I hate it, here on the other side of the world where the sun is shining and no bombs are falling and my son is not in danger of being killed because of an argument between powerful people with guns, then I can’t imagine how bad it must feel to be there.

Auckland University students today offered a reward for a citizen’s arrest of Rice for her role in “overseeing the illegal invasion and continued occupation” of Iraq.

Which made me proud to be a kiwi student.

But it seems the police have made some heavy threats and the reward has now been withdrawn.

Police 1: Students 0
Condoleezza Rice?  History will tell I’m sure.