December 4, 2008

Democracy, Honduran style

The Honduran Presidential raceElvin Santos, left; Roberto Micheletti, 3rd from left; Pepe Lobo, 4th from left.
The rest don't matter any more.
Caricature by: Dario Benegas, La Prensa, Honduras

Probably the most interesting and Honduranesque outcome of the Honduran presidential primary elections is that the winner of the Liberal party, current vice president Elvin Santos, is a man who was not even on the ballot!

Since Santos was disqualified from running due to a constitutional technicality, a "placeholder" is running instead. Supposedly, if and when the difficulty is worked out, the placeholder will step aside and name Elvin as the replacement presidential candidate, as is allowed by Honduran law. The constitution has already been modified at least twice to allow disqualified candidates to run, including for the past president Ricardo Maduro whose Honduran citizenship was questioned.

Porfirio (Pepe) Lobo, the winning candidate of the Nacionalista party with a landslide 76% of the vote, is likely to be the next president of Honduras, since it will be the "blues" turn at bat. He was so popular that in at least one aldea (village), he received more votes than there are people. Pepe was the former president of the congress in the previous Nacionalista administration.

I will never forget the first time that I read about Pepe Lobo back in 2002. I read that the congress had voted to "indemnify" certain farmers and ranchers whose farms had been damaged from Hurricane Mitch in 1997 with cash payments of a hundred million or so lempiras.

On the face that sounded good. After all, isn't disaster recovery, albeit 5 years late, a good use of aid money? However, I then looked at the list of the top 10 or so names of recipients. There was Pepe Lobo, president of the congress, at the very top of the list with the largest payment of somewhere around ten million lempiras if I remember correctly. I wasn't familiar enough at the time to recognize the other names, but very likely they all were from the rich ruling class. I was so shocked that, unfortunately, every time I see his face, I still think about that and wonder what other deals he has been involved in that we will never know about.

The previous seemingly favorite of the Liberal party, Roberto Micheletti who is the current president of the congress, received surprisingly few votes. In the past he fought against several measures proposed by unpopular Liberal president Mel Zelaya and insults flew in both directions.

I want to think that the population was wise enough to see that Micheletti shot himself in the foot by apparently making "a deal with the devil" by selling out to Zelaya and Hugo Chávez's ALBA (literally and figuratively) in exchange for political support.

Right after ALBA passed, we were flooded with print and TV campaign ads showing new pals Zelaya and Micheletti with their arms around each other − Not a wise move when much of the population believes that Zelaya is the worst and most corrupt president the country has had in its short history of democratic elections.

I watched election reports all day on Sunday and all night until the stations quit reporting in the early morning hours. My favorite political analyst is Juan Ramón Martínez. By all reports, the Elvinistas had won the Liberal contest with (roughly) 57% of the Liberal vote against Micheletti's 24%, Maldonado's 17%, and a couple of other candidates with about 1% each. Those percentages varied somewhat by area, but were pretty consistent across the board and in total, with approximately 30% of the votes reported.

Surprisingly, the following morning, Channel 10 was reporting Elvin had won, but only with about 52% of the Liberal vote against Micheletti's 43%! Don't you think it is a little suspicious for a count to change by 19 percentage points overnight? I did, but if there was any funny business going on, it was too little and too late. Perhaps it was just a typographical or math error on the part of the TV station, because current results show Micheletti's percentage of the Liberal votes is back down to 27%.

Someone asked for a synopsis of all the candidates and what they stand for. It's really very simple and can be explained by using only a few key words. All candidates are FOR: Change, transparency, jobs, security (against crime), and AGAINST: Corruption. Even the candidates who have become millionaires in office and are currently under investigation for dozens of denuncias (complaints) of corruption against them run on a platform of fighting corruption! Yeah, right!, say the people.

The head of the OAS (Organization of American States) election monitoring team, interviewed before the election, stated that 70 volunteers would be traveling around to some of the 5,306 polling places to determine whether the elections are fair and free. If by "fair and free", they mean that they verify that the polls are open and that there are a supply of ballots, yes, they will see those things. They won't see any voters with a gun to their head or squads of armed military personnel preventing voters from entering the polls. They won't see poll workers filling out ballots, though it reportedly happened when the observers weren't around. But do those short visits to some of the polls assure the world that the elections are fair, free, and democratic or is that just a public relations "show"?

The day after the primary elections, the television news was fantastically self-congratulating about how honest and transparent the elections were and even went so far as to state that official observers made glowing reports about how the Honduras elections should be a model to all of Latin America. Needless to say, I was shocked at that statement. I almost became a believer (I always have that little ray of Pollyanna hope in me) − for a few minutes anyway (but the realist in me usually wins out). Then the head of the OAS election observation team was interviewed.

I'll paraphrase since it was in Spanish and I didn't write it down, but here is the basic flavor. The reporter excitedly asked "Is this the most transparent and democratic election that Honduras has ever held?!" The head of the observation team replied, "Well, what we saw was adequate." I could see that the reporter was taken aback, no doubt from believing his own TV station's propaganda. So then he said, "But it's true that Honduras' election procedures should be used as a shining example to the whole world of how to run an honest and organized election, right?" The interviewee flatly stated, "No. We can say that the election procedures were adequate." Who knows what the final report will actually say after it is tweaked by all the parties involved, but the word 'adequate' is a direct translation.

As the days pass, more complaints of election fraud and irregularities have been filed and/or made to the media. Some citizens were prevented from voting. Some poll directors didn't show up or left early. Citizens were prevented from viewing the ballot counts at some polling places. Some polls opened late or closed early. The polling time was extended until 6:00 p.m., but the first official results were reported at 4:57 p.m.

According to this article by Scuba Geek, the current mayor who is a mayoral candidate on the island of Roatán was jailed for blocking the airport with his bulldozer to prevent an airplane full of paid voters from landing. You might applaud this "stand against corruption" until you learn that the mayor's own planeload of imported non-Roatán resident Honduran voters had already landed earlier in the day.

One candidate for mayor on the island of Roatán filed a complaint of election fraud because his photo was not included on the ballot, even though he says that the photo was submitted in time and met the requirements. A suspicious shadowy head on the ballot instead of a smiling photo is a definite disadvantage in a country where a large percentage of the population is illiterate.

La Prensa (December 4) is full of various complaints and charges of irregularities. Oh, I won't list all the election problems, because it really isn't important. The big fraud goes on behind the scenes before and after the voters get involved. The voters are just window dressing so that the oligarchy can proclaim democracy and transparency to the world and continue to rake in the international aid.

It just isn't true that Honduran voters can change their government. Not the way the system works now. The system is so corrupt to the core that many Hondurans just don't even bother to vote. Two fascinating older articles are a must read for anyone wanting to get an understanding of some of what goes on behind the political scenes. Bonus: both are in English.

Lorenzo Belveal's article "Democracy" Honduras style is 11 years old, but except for a change in the impunity law, not much has changed. Politicians are no longer granted immunity from all crimes − and I do mean ALL. The previous law protected politicians from prosecution, no matter how blatent the crime, up to and including murder, and yes, that is not a hypothetical. Murdering politicians were not prosecuted. On the books, that is no longer the case. In practice, it still goes on. If you want to learn about the real Honduras, prepare to spend hours reading his website. He is a fascinating guy.

The Formal/Real Government Contradiction is discussed by Ismael Moreno, a Honduran writer who is currently involved with Movimiento Amplia para la Dignidad y la Justicia (Dignity and Justice Movement), an organization that I would really like to see succeed. Moreno has several in-depth articles about Honduras on the Envio site which are well worth reading including Pact of Impunity Around the (2005) Elections.

The Honduran Director of Human Rights went on the record a few days before the election saying that any international or national observers who say that the elections are a fraud are being disrespectful to Honduras. How's that for intimidation?

Election reforms were passed in 2007 and were revised again in February 2008. To be honest, I didn't even look up the law as I normally do, because I know that anything the lawmakers could possibly come up with, can and will be circumvented by the clever corruptos.

One control, for example, as fellow Honduran blogger AJ mentioned, is that the pinkie finger is inked after voting so that duplicate votes cannot be made − my sources tell me that a manner of eliminating the ink was found long before election day. I hate having this fatalistic attitude, but until honor is valued more by Honduran society than "beating the system", that is the way it is going to be.

The population of Honduras is somewhere around 7.5 million. Approximately 4.5 million citizens are eligible to vote, of which current estimates are that approximately 1.2 million live outside the country and are not allowed to vote absentee. Currently, though still classified as preliminary, results show that 965,000 citizens voted, or at least their ID cards did. Not a bad turnout for a primary election. Results won't be official for up to two weeks.

Related article: How much is your vote worth?
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