September 6, 2008

Sold to the highest bidder - ALBA

ALBA, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez, Manuel ZelayaDaniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez, Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya
Photos: Casa Presidencial Honduras

Honduras President Mel Zelaya looked at the "moderate offers" from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, Europe and decided it wasn't enough.

ALBA, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez, Manuel ZelayaDespite what currently appears to be strong opposition among the Honduran public, President Manuel (Mel) Zelaya signed the Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas (ALBA) treaty with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on August 25, 2008, joining Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Dominica. Earlier this year, Honduras became a member of Petrocaribe, under which Chávez allows member countries the opportunity to finance as much as 60% of their Venezuelan oil purchases for as long as 25 years at 1% interest.

At this point, no one is entirely sure to what terms Zelaya has committed Honduras. Those in opposition to the agreement call it a political and military treaty. Those in favor say it is a trade and mutual support agreement, though it is unclear what support impoverished Honduras could provide to oil-rich Venezuela.

One would assume that President Zelaya would have received the treaty terms well in advance of signing the agreement and would have analyzed them with his advisors − and thus would have the treaty readily available to the Honduras public. Actually, one would assume that in a true democracy, public opinion or at least the opinion of the congress would be a factor prior to any decision. However, for days after the signing, copies of the document have not been provided to journalists or the national congress, all of whom have confirmed that they do not know the specifics of the agreement. So much for democracy and transparency in Honduras.

ALBA signing crowd in HondurasIn front of primarily a paid-to-cheer audience of thousands (L.500 per head and L.20,000 per busload), Chávez ranted for an hour for ALBA and against the US. He declared that the campaign of attacks (against ALBA) would not stop “a revolution in Latin America”.

(Later, some of the campesinos complained that they didn't receive their pay for attending − when will they learn not to trust the politicians?)

Notably absent from the L.2,000,000 spectacle were virtually all Honduran businessmen who as a group have been very vocally against ALBA. Approximately 54% of Honduras' trade is with the US and approximately 30% of its gross national income is from remesas (money transfers) from Hondurans living in the US. Many of the one million Hondurans living in the US are worried about reprisals affecting their immigration status.

Protagonists of ALBA stress that the treaty will benefit the poor, unlike trade treaties which benefit the business interests. They say that the benefits will include US $100 million in agricultural assistance, medical care, education, elimination of illiteracy in 14 months, development of energy and food programs, a seed bank program, jobs, rural electrification, protection of the forests and water sources, artistic and cultural programs, interchange of technology, training of doctors and nurses, a 40% discount on fertilizers, government loans to farmers and the poor, and not to be forgotten, 100 tractors, 4 million light bulbs, and oil for 100 years − to summarize, Honduras will become a utopia!

However wonderful all of that sounds, it is difficult to understand how the average Honduran could believe that it will happen. After all, most are at least vaguely familiar with the billions of dollars of international aid that has poured into this country in the past 30 years to improve education, health, agriculture, roads, bridges, housing, the justice system, and on and on and on, without much effect. The majority of that money has been stolen or wasted due to corruption, poor planning, and poor execution of projects leaving very, very little effect on the country, except to those who have benefited from the corruption.

Defenders also say that the treaty requires no obligation from Honduras. Given the welfare mentality of much of the population, this is guaranteed to promote acceptance among a large part of the population. Free money! Free help! Who wouldn't want that? Never mind that the benefits are not very different from those promised by aid organizations for decades.

ALBA, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez, Manuel ZelayaThe national congress insists that they have to approve the agreement; President Zelaya says that he needs no one's approval to sign it, certainly not from any "imperialist", referring to the US. If the treaty is not ratified by the congress, it will be a huge blow to Mel's ego. It has been reported that anti-treaty sentiment in the Congress has been diffused somewhat with L.1,000,000 payments to many of the congressmen.

Effective September 1, President Zelaya raised the lowest government salaries of L.3,400 to L.5,500, a 62% increase, as well as promised to provide some sort of monthly economic assistance to the 225,000 poorest Hondurans. This type of action is sure to win support of government workers, the poor, and, if the increases spill over into the private sector, a great deal more of the population.

Private sector employees are already clamoring for similar increases. Increases this high will likely put some workers at a salary higher than their supervisor, so the increases won't stop with the lowest paid workers. Such a move will undoubtedly place Honduras in violation of International Monetary Fund aid agreements in which the government has previously agreed to reduce total public salaries by 9.2% in order to provide more benefits to the poor.

The anti-American sentiment spewed by Chávez was not well received nor were the insults to the Honduran population and the Catholic church. Hondurans in general are very formal and nothing is as important as honor and dignity. Even some of those who publicly support ALBA were offended by Chávez's comments. The full text of Chávez's speech was formerly on the president's Poder Cuidadano website (Citizen Power) but has been removed.

Chávez stated that the Hondurans who are against ALBA are either piti-yanquis (US hand kissers, boot lickers), vende patrias (country sellers, sell-outs), or ignorantes (ignorant). Zelaya stated "we are not vassals of the imperialists" and "I wasn't born to be a slave (of the US)". Both speakers, as well as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Bolivian President Evo Morales, made many other strongly anti-American, anti-media, and anti-capitalist statements. Chávez and Zelaya also referred to each other as "commandantes", a term which has a negative connotation even among many Hondurans, who think of their leader as their elected president, not their commander.

Honduran President Mel ZelayaMost disturbing of all is the rumor that Zelaya's fervor for this pact is because he plans to somehow circumvent the democratic election process and remain president − or commandante? − beyond his term which ends in January 2010. The Honduran constitution prohibits a second term as president.

Mel Zelaya is said to be one of the most unpopular presidents in Honduras' short 40-year history of democracy, even among his own Liberal party members. The average citizen feels that crime and corruption are out of control and really has no faith at all in the government. In online forums and newspaper comments, some citizens even go so far as to call for a 'golpe de estado' (coup d'état).

Mel has lost face among the public several times by announcing projects which have later been overturned by the congress or supreme court or have just dwindled away when the actions began to affect the 'important' people of Honduras (Hoy no circula, open bidding for fuel imports, Operación tijeras, new international airport, a tough public security program). Strong rumors persist that the government itself is in the control of narcotraffickers and organized crime.

In one particularly disrespectful interview, a Honduran analyst was quoted as saying that Mel was so excessively enamored of Chávez that he ejaculates when he hears Chávez speak. The same analyst said that for L.500 (US $26) and a lunch, you can fill the buses (with Hondurans for any event).

However, rhetoric claiming that ALBA is for the poor not the rich will sway Honduran public opinion since 70% of the population lives in poverty. Hondurans for the most part are not known for long term planning and for many of the poor, a handout today is more important than planning for the future or even selling out to communism. The country is virtually a feudal society, with clear divisions between the tiny wealthy class and the large but powerless poor class. Claims that the wealthy got rich on the backs of the poor ring true. Claims that treaties with the US benefit only the US ring true as well.

In Peru, Chávez is making a concerted effort to indoctrinate the poor to what he calls "21st century socialism" through his 200 'ALBA Houses' spread throughout poor areas of the country. On the surface, the casas are benevolent societies offering literacy programs, agricultural assistance, and health care. However, the centers are said to systematically recruit uneducated children and young adults for ideological indoctrination. The Peruvian congress is currently investigating charges that Chávez is trying to destabilize Peru's democratic government.

Is the Honduran business community strong enough to prevent ALBA from taking place? Are the Honduran poor dissatisfied enough, apathetic enough, or tempted enough to support ALBA despite its totalitarian leanings? Can ALBA change Honduras or will the corruptos suck it dry leaving only crumbs for the poor as they have done with virtually every foreign aid program in the past? Will Zelaya begin nationalizing businesses in Honduras? What is clear is that future investment in Honduras will be limited until these questions are answered.


While the internet is awash in Honduras-ALBA related articles in Spanish, here are some of the more enlightening English-language articles:

Fighting for freedom in rural Peru: ALBA houses threaten democracy

HONDURAS: Joining ALBA ‘A Step Towards the Centre-Left,’ Says President

The state of Honduras under Zelaya: In the pink?

Left behind by the US, Honduras turns to Chávez
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