Monday, October 28, 2013

Here come the elections 3

I thought I was only going to write two pieces on the upcoming elections. But yesterday the LIBRE presidential candidate, Xiomara Castro, was in Santa Rosa de Copán.

I went out to Dulce Nombre de Copán for the 9:00 am Mass. I wish I had gone to another Mass. The visiting priest droned on in his talk for 30 minutes, with no mention of the readings, and then spent ten minutes droning on about a letter from the bishops on the elections.

On the way to Dulce Nombre, I saw a few trucks loaded with people going to Santa Rosa for the gathering of LIBRE supporters. Many of them looked like campesinos, the poor of the countryside.

 On the way back I found the main road into Santa Rosa blocked, with a line of pickups full of LIBRE supporters.

Someone told me that the police checkpoint was clogged and so I went by the long route – through small villages, a stream, and the road by the jail. For much of the time I tailed a pickup of National Party supporters who looked more like middle class guys (though I do know that many campesinos support the National Party).

 I went home, had lunch, and then decided to take a walk. I waited a bit to avoid the intermittent showers. I wandered down to where the LIBRE gathering was, to take some pictures and maybe talk with some people I might know.

I saw loads of people leaving from where LIBRE was gathering. As I approached I could see, at a distance, Xiomara, her husband Mel, a vice-presidential candidate Juan Barahona, and Monseñor Luis Santos, the retired bishop of Santa Rosa.

They had finished speeches and the crowd was dispersing in the mist.

I was glad that I wasn’t around for the speeches. There is only so much political propaganda that I can take. Also, I didn’t want my presence to be seen as an endorsement of a candidate. That’s not my role as a non-Honduran.

I ran into a good number of people I know, some from the parish of Dulce Nombre, some I never expected to be LIBRE supporters.

As I was about to return home, I ran across a woman from Colonia Divina Providencia here in Santa Rosa, one of the poorest neighborhoods. I spoke with her a bit and then asked her why she was supporting Xiomara. “She’s a woman,” was the essence of her response. She talked a little about the need for someone who knows the plight of poor women here (though Xiomara is NOT poor.) She also mentioned how she may have supported candidates in earlier elections but they didn’t follow up on helping people like her, but were using them.

I wonder: Is Xiomara tapping in to the hidden concerns of women and the poor? If elected, would she really respond to the concerns of poor women throughout Honduras, especially rural women and single mothers?

I don’t know.

But whatever the election result, I won’t forget this poor woman’s sense of hope that a woman would be elected, someone who would know how woman live and struggle.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hurricane Mitch: fifteen years later

On October 26, 1998, Hurricane Mitch was classified as a Category 5 hurricane. It had formed a few days earlier and greatly affected Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. According to one report, of the almost 19,000 people killed by Mitch, 14,600 were from Honduras. About 70% of Honduras’s agricultural production was lost.

Then the aid agencies descended on Honduras and the other countries.

Aid was needed – not only short time rescue and food and housing, but also long term rebuilding of the country.

NGOs, church groups, and governmental aid agencies came. But, as Jeffrey T. Jackson notes in The Globalizers: Development Workers in Action, their presence was a mixed bag.

Money is power. In most cases aid that comes from government and international aid agencies has numerous strings attached and are often there to advance the interests of the donor countries. As Jackson notes, “it is the donor countries that benefit most from development assistance and nation building in the developing world.”

In his chapter on “Rebuilding after Hurricane Mitch,” he details what happened. People were helped and a few of the agenda of Honduran social organizations (such as democratization, decentralization, and transparency) began to be addressed at least in theory.

But I think that the presence of these large globalizing agencies and innumerable non-governmental was not positive.

My first complaint is that these agencies brought their agendas and tried to garner support, rather than really empowering the people affected by the disaster. Development aid is power and is often used in ways that do not respect the rights of people. They enhance the interests of the giver rather than help the recipients work together to enhance their own lives.

Secondly, all this aid came and so many agencies continue to exist in Honduras that their presence may contribute to the passivity and fatalism I’ve seen here. “We can’t do it. We have no money. What aid agency (or governmental body) can GIVE us what we need?” There are a few projects and processes that do try to have people organize, set their own agendas, and move forward to make their lives more human. But the presence of so many groups can lead to a passivity that becomes dependent on outside groups which then set the agenda for the people.

Thirdly, since they usually don’t deal with the systematic causes of injustice and poverty they may enhance the power of the economic and political elites.

It is interesting that this is what the Catholic bishops warned about in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], ¶63:
…we are at a moment in history when the development of economic life could diminish social inequalities if that development were guided and coordinated in a reasonable and human way. Yet all too often it serves only to intensify the inequalities. 

How we change this is a serious issue. I may need to try to return to my thoughts in a future blog post. But I wanted to recall the devastation of Hurricane Mitch fifteen years ago and note the dangers of certain types of development and development assistance.

Friday, October 25, 2013

What sustains me?

How do I do what I do?

Some people I know praise me for what I’m doing here in Honduras. My only response is to say that this is where I feel God is calling me to be and here I find great joy.

But how do I keep going?

Sure there are headaches – spider bites, car breakdowns, people not showing up on time, indigestion and diarrhea.

Sure there are great evils I see about me – people with not enough to eat, friends whose children suffer from treatable ailments, domestic violence, corruption, inequality, and more.

It could get overwhelming – and at times it does.

But how do I continue to thrive here?

This morning I read an article from the November 4, 2013 America on Father John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., whose book Following Christ in a Consumer Society is, I believe, a book that all North American Christians should read.

The author, Jeanne Schuler, a professor at Creighton and a former student of Fr. John Kavanaugh, ends her article with a list of five ways that he laid out “to stay rooted in our humanity in everyday life.” They are what sustain me.
  1. daily prayer and meditation to fight the emptiness endemic to consumer culture
  2. the cultivation of committed relationships in which we are known and loved
  3. the delight in things that simple living makes possible
  4. the lifelong work for justice
  5. ongoing involvement with those at the margins, who show us the beauty in simply being persons 

When one of these aspects of life is lacking, I find myself floundering.

When I am graced with time for prayer – especially in the morning or with the worshipping communities of the Dulce Nombre parish, 

with friends like the Franciscan sisters in nearby Gracias, 

with the joy of joking with kids or gazing at a beautiful landscape, 

with the chance to share my concerns about injustice through my blog,

with visits to the rural villages,

then I feel more human and, therefore, more in contact with God.

All of us need to open ourselves to way to live these ways. I’ve been blessed to find it here in Honduras. Others find it in caring for a child with disabilities, in being a welcoming presence in an office, in serving others through their careers, in sweeping the streets of our cities.

When we start to do this, God can make big things happen through our small deeds.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Here come the elections 2

In my blog entry on the upcoming Honduran elections two days ago, I noted that something new is happening here.

But there are some things that are not new.

Dirty tricks.

They were expected and they are happening.

The surprising support for LIBRE is a challenge for many both in Honduras and outside. The spectre of Hugo Chávez is being resurrected – in time for Halloween.

Reading the news I sometimes feel as if I was back in May and June 2009, just before the coup.

The National Party is complaining that the LIBRE party will bring about the downfall of Honduras because of its socialistic tendencies. They claim that LIBRE hates the military (because LIBRE and another party are opposed to the militarization of the police.) There will be chaos in education, the military will be despised, and Honduras will become like Venezuela.

The American Enterprise Institute published an article, “Honduras Under Siege” that predicted dire outcomes for Honduras if LIBRE wins. In part they write: 
As stepped-up counternarcotics policies in Colombia and Mexico have increased pressure on regional drug trafficking networks, organized crime syndicates have relocated operations to Central America, where law enforcement agencies and institutions are ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught. These multibillion-dollar gangs are making common cause with some local politicians who are following a playbook honed by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Interestingly, one of the authors of the article, Roger Noriega, who played a key role in the 2000 ouster of Haiti’s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

A young woman Honduran analyst who is connected with one of the Honduras business associations (whose board president is Adolfo Facusse) is claiming that “The [LIBRE] party’s manifesto talks about “refounding” the country, which basically means emulating Venezuela’s 21st Century Socialism, including changing the Constitution, promoting an omnipotent State, and probably limiting freedom of expression.”

Also, a Honduran-American commentator is describing Mel Zelaya as a potential Rasputin if his wife Xiomara Castro is elected. He is noting the role that Mel Zelaya is playing as head of LIBRE and sees him as a possible power behind the throne. That might be true. But I think it is a bit much to call him “Rasputin,” with all the villainous overtones that this name has.

And so, the sky is falling. Chávez will be resurrected in Honduras. Communism is at the doorsteps.

I wonder if some are raising these issues to open the path to another coup if Xiomara Castro is elected.

Electoral violence

But worse is the violence that has been unleashed in the campaign. 

Because of the almost irrational adherence to the two traditional parties, some violence is not unexpected. There has been violence against candidate of several parties. But this campaign has seen more violence directed at LIBRE. According to a Canadian human rights group, 18 LIBRE activists, candidates, or their family members have been murdered since May 2012.

This has even been noted by three US members of the House of Representatives who sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, noting
We are also troubled to learn about acts of violence and intimidation against leaders of the opposition parties, especially members of LIBRE.  According to COFADEH, Honduras' leading human rights group, at least sixteen activists and candidates from LIBRE have been assassinated since June of 2012. Furthermore, it has been brought to our attention that the Honduras government has failed to effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible for these assassinations.
We also note with great concern the promotion of increasing militarization of the police as it is threatened civil liberties, including freedom of speech and freedom of association in Honduras.  For instance, Honduran media reported that the military blocked peaceful marches of the opposition this past Independence Day, September 15…

Possible corruption is another danger. Will ballots be lost? Will political party activists manipulate the voters in ways more devious than giving away bags of cement or tin roofing? Will these activists also pay potential voters to give them their identity cards so they cannot vote (as has been done in some previous elections)? Will the numbers be manipulated?

There are observers – international and Honduran. But how much will they be able to see.

All these possibilities raise questions about the potential legitimacy of the upcoming elections.

But, even if the elections are free and fair, will there really be the change needed here, change of the social and economic structures that keep the poor in poverty and enhance the power and wealth of the few.

It’s a long road to social change in Honduras. Elections may or may not help. But real change will be very difficult.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Here come the elections 1

On November 24, Hondurans will go the polls to elect a new president, all the members of Congress, and municipal authorities (mayors, etc.)

In previous elections, two parties have dominated the scene – the National Party and the Liberal Party. Both have their roots in the classic liberal theory of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century there were serious conflicts between members of both parties, leading in some cases to killings. Partly as a result of this people have had a tendency to adhere passionately to the party of their families.

During most of the twentieth century, except for military coups, political power in Honduras alternated between the two parties. For many reasons, the parties often ruled with a strong patronage system.  Vote for me and I’ll see to your wellbeing. Tammany Hall had little on Honduras.

But something happened in 2009 when the elected President, Mel Zelaya, was overthrown by a coup and escorted out of the country. Zelaya, a Liberal Party president, from a rich cattle-ranching family, moved to embrace more populist positions which made him unpopular with the economic and political elites who ruled Honduras.

Whatever you may think about Zelaya, the coup unleashed something that was unthinkable – the break-up of political system which had assured the sharing of power between the two major parties.

People used to vote for their party, maintaining a devotion that rivaled their adherence to their faith. A friend once said that a Honduran was more likely to change her religion than her political party. 

After the coup, a Resistance movement arose – with a wide participation of people including the traditional left, but not limited to them. It attracted some members of  Zelaya’s Liberal Party as well as indigenous groups, gay and lesbian organizations, as well as many people who were dissatisfied with the system, especially from the poor sectors of the country.

A political party was eventually formed from the Resistance, despite some disagreement from some sectors of the Resistance. I, personally, think the move may have been premature, since it seems to have cut short the important consciousness-raising and organization of the poor that the Resistance and sympathetic organizations had been promoting.

But the LIBRE [Liberty and Refoundation] party was formed and has candidates all over the country. Their presidential candidate is Xiomara Castor, the wife of Zelaya.

The polls show that a large number of people are undecided or refuse to give their opinion, but that Xiomara Castro has – until recently – had a small edge over the National Party candidate, former president of the Honduran national Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández.  The Liberal Party has fallen far behind. A new Anti-Corruption Party has shown some strength, but still behind the two main parties.

What strikes me is that whatever the results of this election, Honduras may be seeing the breakdown of the monopoly of the two parties and the religious adherence of people to their parties.

Various people have commented on this but I saw what I think is an example. Yesterday, in Santa Rosa de Copán, I saw this taxi which has bumper stickers for three different parties – a generic sticker for the Anti-Corruption Party on the Bumper, a sticker for a LIBRE congressional candidate on the trunk, and a sticker for the Liberal Party mayoral candidate on the back window. (I whited out the taxi’s number and license plate to assure anonymity.)

Whatever the results of the elections, this example of someone who is not tied to one party is somewhat hopeful.

We’ll see, in a little more than a month, what actually happens.

If you want good background and coverage of the elections and more, check out the Honduras Culture and Politics blog, here.