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HONDURAS: President Clashes with Traditional Elites

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Oct 23 2008 (IPS) - Some sectors of Honduras’s social and leftist movement, labour unions and other popular organisations are caught up in a revolutionary reverie fruit of President Manuel Zelaya’s strong ties with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez.

Although he comes from a wealthy landowning family involved in the lumber industry and heads the Liberal Party, one of the two dominant political parties of Honduras, since taking office Zelaya has clashed with the country’s traditional political and economic power structures.

Zelaya himself describes the power structures as being in the hands of vested interests controlled by the owners of the media and leading economic sectors, including energy, finance and maquiladoras, the industrial free trade zones that produce goods for export.

According to political analyst Matías Funes, President Zelaya “has always been a conservative,” but his discourse is “such an ideological jumble that he’s managed to win over a large part of the social movement, who believe Honduras is in the midst of a revolutionary process.”

Funes, a university professor, told IPS that “revolutions cannot be achieved by decree…and to think that by joining ALBA – which I fully support – we automatically become a socialist country is the worst possible fallacy that Honduras’s popular movement could fall for.”

ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), is a regional trade group promoted by the leftwing Chávez and initially formed to counteract the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish).

“It seems that our joining ALBA has stirred up Honduras’s eternally-incipient, misshapen and bad-tempered political and social left,” said Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno.

Moreno and Funes both said the social movement is currently under the spell of a “revolutionary mirage” conjured by Zelaya and Chávez.

Zelaya and the president of Congress, his fellow party member Roberto Micheletti, signed on Saturday Oct. 18 an agreement for the parliamentary ratification of Honduras’s accession to ALBA, which the country had signed back in August, joining Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Dominica in the alternative bloc.

The agreement will restart the debate on the ratification process, which was brought to a standstill by pressure from the business community. It was announced at a political rally in which Zelaya and Micheletti ironed out their differences, as part of the Liberal Party’s activities towards the primaries to nominate a presidential candidate for the 2009 elections.

Micheletti, who aspires to become Honduras’s next president, signed the agreement in exchange for Zelaya’s support for his candidacy.

The president in turned seized the opportunity to obtain other benefits, most notably approval for construction of a coal-fired power plant, which had been awarded to a Guatemalan company but was subsequently challenged by the Supreme Audit Court.

But Honduran activists have turned a deaf ear to such conditioned party agreements, excited as they are – according to analysts – by the possibility of laying the foundations of a revolutionary process in the country, following Zelaya’s declaration that his government was moving to the left under a “liberal socialist” model.

Honduras decided to join ALBA after Zelaya began to forge closer ties to Chávez a year ago, as the government was being pressured by multilateral lending agencies to adopt transparency and accountability measures, in the face of accusations of irregularities in public spending and two-digit inflation.

Presidential advisors who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity said Zelaya had admitted in private that the lending institutions had left him no choice but to join ALBA, because he “had to satisfy the country’s demands, and Chávez was willing to supply funds with no conditions or audits.”

Membership in ALBA provides access to credit lines and energy and food benefits. Venezuelan aid will include 30 million dollars in loans for small-scale farmers, 100 million dollars in housing assistance, a donation of 100 tractors, and support for health, education and technological assistance programmes, in addition to preferential payment terms for fuel purchases through Petrocaribe.

Rafael Alegría, an activist with the international peasant movement Vía Campesina, told IPS that “behind these attempts to discredit the country’s admission to ALBA and President Zelaya’s decisions are the most outdated sectors of the country who feel they own Honduras and are not willing to give anything to the poor.”

Alegría rejected the allegations that in exchange for accession to ALBA, Honduras’s popular movement “has been bought out by Zelaya.”

“What we have are mutual agreements or understandings,” he said, after expressing his satisfaction over the “significant social changes that are taking place in Honduras.”

However, his position was recently shaken when the local newspaper El Heraldo published a journalistic investigation revealing receipts for a total of 284,000 dollars allegedly distributed by the government to 38 social and political leaders in exchange for support for ALBA and protests raised in Congress prior to its ratification.

The newspaper published a list of people who purportedly received the payments, including Vía Campesina activists, leaders of the Confederation of Honduran Workers (CTH) and other trade unions, members of the leftwing Democratic Union party, and rural leaders.

Most of the trade unions have refused to comment on the accusations.

But Wendy Cruz of Vía Campesina, whose name and signature appears on some of the receipts featured in the newspaper, emphatically denies that her group received 9,000 dollars from the government (part of the sum mentioned) in exchange for support for ALBA.

“We used our own funds to mobilise,” she told IPS, adding that her group “supports ALBA because it is good for the poor.”

For his part, Hilario Espinoza, of the CTH labour confederation, remarked to IPS that the money had been granted “as aid.”

“I’ve just assumed my post (in the union) and I’ve been told that there was a certain amount of money provided as aid, and I collected it not for myself but on behalf of the organisation. I’m not worried about an investigation, because we have evidence that clears us” of any wrongdoing, he said.

But Espinoza was upset by the newspaper’s claim that his union had received 10,000 dollars, saying it was only granted 6,000 dollars.

The Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Audit Court announced on Tuesday Oct. 21 that they had initiated an investigation on their own motion, and planned to summon presidential chief of staff Enrique Flores Lanza, whose budget provided the funds.

Flores Lanza told IPS that “if they summon me I will appear; we contributed those resources in response to a request from social groups and for a good cause that will bring huge benefits for Honduras.”

Zelaya, in turn, allegedly tried to offer money to El Heraldo journalist Alex Flores to get him to stop investigating.

Flores told IPS that “when I asked (Zelaya) to comment on our investigation, he looked at me and said: ‘I’ll give you 500 lempiras (19 dollars) for you to stop talking.’ Then he called his guards and said to them, ‘pay this guy,’ and took out a 100-lempira bill (five dollars), at which point I told him to show me some respect.”

For sociologist and university professor Pablo Carías, the country “is immersed in impunity and complicity. All this commotion over ALBA has only served to harden Honduras’s most conservative right, all because of the social movement’s erroneous belief that revolutions are paper constructs.”

“A project as interesting as ALBA is being distorted by the government itself, with these handouts and buying-off of convictions, which far from furthering social causes merely undermine us; and these payments we’ve seen only prove that what we’ve had are revolutionaries motivated by their stomachs, and not by principles, and that we need to form leaders who will counter the coming years of conservatism,” he added.

Transportation union leader Erasmo Guerrero told IPS that “this new scandal should call the social and popular movement to reflection. It’s not ethical but it happened. This is an old practice that has existed under many governments, and nobody has done anything to put a stop to such irregularities because there are a lot of interests involved.”

Zelaya, who in his 32 months in office has faced 744 social conflicts and protests over a range of issues, has opened a new front with the scandal involving ALBA, a project that most Hondurans supports and view favourably, despite the opposition of the country’s most influential business operators and the conservative sector.

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