June 25, 2009

La Cuarta Urna (The fourth ballot box)

No to the 4th ballot boxNo! to 'Sí a la cuarta urna'
Citizens make their wishes known
by tearing down an election billboard
Photo: El Heraldo, Honduras

By popular request, I'm going to try to hit the highlights of an extremely crucial issue affecting the future of democracy in Honduras. It's very difficult to condense hundreds, maybe thousands, of newspaper articles, media reports, and the constitution of Honduras in a blog article, so please understand that this article is only offered as a brief overview of what has been happening and is going on at this very moment. For more details, see La Prensa, El Heraldo, and La Tribuna, which are being updated minute by minute.

Ostensibly, Honduran President Mel Zelaya's proposal to have a fourth ballot box in the November elections for the purpose of allowing the citizens of Honduras to have a say regarding whether or not the constitution should be revised sounds like a democratic measure. At first glance, an uninformed reader might think that those opposed to allowing citizens to vote on the issue are the anti-democratic ones.

The reality is just the opposite.


The real motive behind this issue is widely believed to be to change the constitution to allow Mel Zelaya to continue in power as president, a la his amigo Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The constitution expressly prohibits this and declares any efforts to change those parts of the constitution as illegal and punishable by criminal action.

Most worrying has been the several secret meetings reported over the past months between President Zelaya and the military commanders. Fear that Zelaya would use the military to enforce his will has been widespread. The national congress and media have repeatedly called upon the military to do the 'right thing,' i.e., uphold the current democratic constitution and not perform illegal and unconstitutional acts for anyone, including the president.


No specifics whatsoever are being given as to what exactly should be changed in the constitution. Vague promises of making the constitution "more democratic" are being given. Because of the high level of propaganda (hundreds of millions of lempiras have been spent while the pobladores go hungry and homeless), people have the idea that somehow they will be sharing the wealth (via socialism?) or that the changes will somehow affect corruption − ironic since Mel Zelaya is widely proclaimed one of the most corrupt presidents in the history of Honduras.

On the state-run propaganda television station, Zelaya makes disparaging comments about how the constitution is "27 years old!", thus implying that it is horribly outdated. Concerted efforts have been made to make this an issue of the poor (about 70% of the population) against the rich business owners (of which he is one). The primarily uneducated poor are being easily manipulated with empty promises. There has been no indication that the people will be allowed to approve or disapprove of any recommended constitutional changes. They are merely being offered the opportunity to give a blank check to those in power.

The actual plan put forth by Zelaya is that a constitutional committee (hand-selected by him no doubt) will review and decide the changes in the constitution. I've read the constitution and in my opinion, the problem is not the constitution, but the lack of transparency and the corruption in the way the laws are enforced, or more accurately, in the way that laws are not enforced in Honduras against the rich and corrupt.

Every step of the way, Zelaya's plan has been declared illegal − by popular opinion, by legal professionals, by the attorney general's office, by the national congress, by the lower court and the supreme court. In an effort to legitimatize the fourth ballot box, Zelaya's latest plan is to hold an official public poll this Sunday, June 28, to allow the people to vote yes or no on whether to have the fourth ballot box. This effort also has been declared illegal, but seemed to be going forward with the support of the Honduran military.

Newspaper reports

The 2009 budget has not been approved by the President, resulting in government organizations who are strongly against the 4th ballot box, such as the National Congress and the Ministerio Publico (Attorney General) not being paid in an effort to force submission to the President's will.

Citizens are being denied government-provided medical care unless they promise to vote for the 4th ballot box.

Government employees against the 4th ballot box are being fired.

For the past months, high government officials have been taken away from their duties to campaign in outlying parts of the country. At least one threat of cutting electricity was made to a municipio whose mayor, with the support of citizens, has protested strongly against the issue.


Rich and "important" people, including Mel Zelaya's entire family, have left the country.

Though popular opinion seems to be strongly against the referendum, fear is that the outcome of the election, in the way of Central American elections, has already been decided. Mel Zelaya admitted to the media that he won his presidency because of corruption and frankly stated that that is the way it is in Honduras.

Votes are for sale

L. 500 (about US $26) is the going rate for peon votes. The price, of course, is much higher for those with influence − government contracts, important positions in the government, and outright cash payments are common methods of gathering support. An example is cash payments of L.1,000,000 (US $53,000) to congressman greased the way to approval of the ALBA treaty with Venezuela.

El Jefe and I personally have talked to many people who admit they know nothing of the issue but say they will gladly vote either yes or no for L.500. He has also talked to many who do understand the issue but will still sell their patrimony for the right price. The saddest part of all is that these opinions are offered as completely normal and rather than being something shameful, it is considered good business. "If you can't fight the corruption, you might as well make something for yourself."

Current events in the past 24 hours

Late last night, Mel Zelaya fired Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, Chairman of the joint military forces. The civilian Secretary of Defense and generals in charge of the Army, Navy, and Air Force resigned in support of the chairman.

In a special emergency session today, the National Congress declared the firing illegal and ordered the general back to work. The supreme court immediately ratified this measure. The immediate decommission of all election materials for Sunday's election was ordered.

Just minutes ago President Zelaya held a press conference stating that the congress and supreme court are performing illegal acts against democracy and the people of Honduras. He strongly proclaimed that NO ONE was going to stop the election on Sunday. He seemed to be whipping up people into a frenzy and invited all who had vehicles to follow him to a private place for further discussion....and that was the end of the public press conference.

The emergency session of the congress was then suspended for reasons of security. Meanwhile, agents of the Attorney General entered a military-guarded area to take control of the election materials.

Simultaneously, the President and a caravan of supporters were also on their way to the military base where the election materials are held.

A Venezuelan airplane just landed in Tegucigalpa. Whether this is to provide support for Zelaya or to whisk him and his family away to Venezuela is not known.

When I see the protests going on in Iran right now, I can't help but think that we may be seeing something like this in Honduras. The difference is that it would not get the same international media attention because Honduras is just not that newsworthy to the rest of the world.

Recommendations from many are that people should stock up on food and gas and stay close to home as much as possible. Visitors ask if they should come or they should leave the answer is that no one knows what is going to happen.

I received the photo below from someone who questioned whether this "revolution" may have been a long standing dream of Manuel Zelaya.

young Honduran Mel Zelaya, now presidentYoung Mel Zelaya?
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