January 22, 2014

Chaos in new Honduran congress (revised)

Honduras congress, January 21, 2014
Image: La Prensa, Honduras

Now that I've had time to get a better understanding of what happened yesterday in Congress, I'm (significantly) updating this article on January 22, 2014. I'd like to state that I do not have and have never had a political party preference. Personally, I don't think that any of the parties are good for Honduras. Politics is just a game of power at best, and at worst, a way to get rich at the expense of the poor. Even worse, the majority of the politicians see nothing wrong with what they do – it's all just part of the game: winner takes all (jobs, appointments, contracts, bribes, aid money) including what belongs to the people of Honduras.

I get my sources of information from as many places (political slants) as possible. I've seen plenty of cases of spin (pretty much all the television stations and newspapers have a political party loyalty) and more than a few cases of outright lies and disinformation. I've been particularly disappointed with the television media spin put on what happened yesterday. Unfortunately, most people have their favorite sources and don't have time to investigate further to see if there might be another side to the story that isn't being told.

What happened in Congress?

The provisional officers of the new Honduras congress were forced to leave the room after complete chaos broke out in the first few minutes of the first session of congress. Dozens of people were out of their seats, waving their hands for recognition. Many had moved to the floor in front of the presiding temporary president (Áfrico Madrid, Secretary of Interior and Population) waving their hands (or fists) to be allowed to speak until someone grabbed and broke Madrid's microphone. Things were thrown, people were shoved, microphones were broken, but I didn't see anyone come to blows. The government channel quickly cut off video, but local TV cameramen continued to expose the havoc.

This picture was posted on Twitter yesterday. Look closely and you'll see congressmen with money in their hands, meant to be an insult to the presiding officer that only with payment will anyone be allowed to speak.

The first action after the roll call, prayer, and national anthem was for Madrid to recognize Reinaldo Sánchez, president-elect Juan Orlando Hernández's right-hand man, despite the fact that many Liberales, LIBRES, and PAC members also had their hands raised. Diputado Sánchez, soon leaving the congress to become the minister of the presidency, dutifully presented JOH's selection of three Nacionalistas for the provisional junta directiva (officers of the congress). This isn't me speculating that they were JOH's choice, Sánchez said so himself in Twitter. So much for separation of powers.

In addition to naming the slate of officers, Sánchez, with a smirk, proposed that the controversial vote be taken through a show of hands instead of the electronic voting system (secretly!) which resulted in loud shouts and boos. The president of congress is a very powerful position and often a stepping stone to the presidency of Honduras. Though this was only the provisional junta, it is all but assured that these people will be ratified as the leaders of the permanent junta on Thursday.

Madrid then called on Liberal Diputado Marco Antonio Andino who made a motion that the Liberales and a few others would vote for the Nacionalista officers if the new taxes on basic food items were reversed. This was when the room started going wild, with numerous people jumping out of their seats yelling, waving their hands for recognition, and pounding on their tables. "The fiesta is over!" was one of the calls.

Áfrico Madrid, also smirking, was trying to call the room to order, saying that they needed to vote on the first motion first and that since the voting system depends on fingerprints, it wasn't yet ready for the new congressmen. It was hopeless.

Voting system

I have to ask why wasn't the voting system ready if they knew the diputados were going to be voting on something so controversial. I think the answer is that for political reasons, they wanted the vote to be secret and uncountable. PAC members confirmed that only 8 machines were not working and that the rest could have registered their votes by machine.

Madrid's latter statement about the fingerprints is interesting, maybe true, but Coalianza commissioner José Pineda, who is not a congressman, was caught by TV cameras on Monday in the last session of the old congress voting on approval of a Coalianza contract in place two absent diputados! How could that outrage happen if the system depends on fingerprints? The Ministerio Publico (attorney general) announced later in the day yesterday that the video of the fraudulent votes will be investigated.

Let me look into my crystal ball and tell you what will happen......Nothing! There is no way that JOH will allow a Coalianza commissioner to be accused of a serious crime (usurpation of government officials' powers) when there already is so much suspicion of corruption about this public-private partnership organization. Since the MP and the courts are already under JOH thumb and owe their jobs to him, we'll likely be told that the votes didn't register, there was already a majority so it didn't matter, or some such excuse. Since the Congress stopped posting attendance or voting records back in June 2013, there is no way for the public to verify whether his votes counted or not, but the electronic voting chart in this video shows that Pineda's two votes (from the last row) were registered.

Behind the scenes

The following is what I've gathered. It's speculation but I find it entirely believable.

The Nacionalistas and the Liberales, with the exception of Dario Banegas, Gabriela Núñez, and possibly one other Liberal, had orchestrated the whole process in advance so that they could railroad through the Nacionalista appointees without discussion.

The Liberal Party is in the throes of death and some are saying they committed suicide yesterday. Alone, they don't have enough votes for anything. Supporting the new parties would be seen as being weak. Supporting their traditional adversary would be seen as betrayal. But what drives them most is that both traditional parties are very, very afraid of LIBRE and to a lesser extent PAC. For those two brand new parties to garner so many votes in their first election process is pretty impressive (31% of congress), especially considering that the other three small parties have never gotten more than 1% to 2% of the vote. That is a clear sign that people want change and are finally realizing that change will never come from the traditional parties.

Liberal congressmen plotted with Nacionalistas to try to come out of this with some pride, something they could claim as a victory for their "constructive opposition". So in exchange for voting with the Nacionalistas, Nacionalistas magnanimously let Liberales take credit for proposing a tax reduction for "el pueblo".

That has been the media spin since last night: Congratulations to the Liberal Party for this grand victory for the poor despite the actions of the barbarians (and despite the fact that the motion was never voted on). Liberales are the only hope for "governability" and constructive opposition in Honduras! It's so wonderful that the Nacionalistas and Liberales can work together for the good of the people.

Today, after much study and reflection, JOH announced that the Partido Nacional would agree to the Liberal proposal, once again using the word governability. Hooray! Hooray! Our leaders acting in a civilized manner and with compromise, doing what is best for the poor.

So the whole thing was planned, plotted, signed, and sealed in advance. Calling on Sánchez for the original motion, calling on Andino for a motion that they knew could not be considered or voted on. Even though Andino's motion stated that their support for the Nacionalista nominations was dependent upon the change in law, it turns out that some Liberales, one LIBRE, one UD, and one DC member had already signed Sanchez's motion. Though the news reported different numbers, Madrid show the document on television last night saying it contained 66 signatures in total which would mean that some Liberales and/or some Nacionalistas did not sign it. He gave the number of signatures as justification for his declaring the motion passed and swearing in the new officers. In the end, JOH only barely shared credit with the Liberal Party. Of course, the usual accusations have been made that Liberales were paid for their votes or will be paid with government positions or government contracts.

The believability problem for me is that this reduction in tax for certain food items was already being discussed and was sure to pass congress anyway. PAC, LIBRE, and PINU had formed a pact to ensure that it would be reversed and though not part of that pact, Liberales had called for the same thing, not to mention that the public was loudly protesting. Nacionalistas would have only looked bad to vote against it. The revision was a shoe-in but it was the only bone thrown to the Liberales to try to maintain some shred of dignity. They are making the most of it anyway even though the revised law had already been mysteriously changed to 72 of the 120 or so basic food basket items so there wasn't much left being taxed.

Several Liberales renounced their party yesterday on Twitter. Here's a sad translated tweet from yesterday:

The great loser: The Liberal Party. Divided, debilitated, divorced from their base and the common interest. The deterioration of the party is enormous.

Why the riot?

The main complaint of LIBRE and PAC as well as other congressmen is that they weren't allowed to speak.

The most important thing that I didn't initially realize yesterday when I originally wrote this article, is that Madrid went ahead and swore in the appointees in the midst of the melee. I saw no vote! His microphone was gone. No one else was called upon to speak. Madrid's call for a vote was drowned out by the commotion and I'm not sure that all of the diputados even realized that he had done that. Nevertheless, he declared the motion approved and swore them in before they all left the podium, with unnecessary smirks and chest-thumping. Another victory for our team! Does this make it easier to understand the anger and frustration on the part of many congressmen? Not that this excuses rioting, but it does make it more understandable to me.

If Nacionalistas were surprised at the reaction, they shouldn't have been after the heavy handed and undemocratic way they have legislated for the past four years and particularly after the avalanche of laws they railroaded through in the past month. On the other hand, they aren't stupid. It could be that it was planned in that manner just to provoke the LIBREs into a riot, which wouldn't have been hard to predict based on past actions. In the case of yesterday's session, they had all the votes they needed to secure control of the temporary junta. But rather than at least allowing others the opportunity to speak, they just couldn't resist demonstrating their total power over the congress once again. From my (and El Jefe's) viewpoint, the Nacionalistas did not come out looking good at all. They looked like bullies.

Nacionalista Diputado Ramos Soto, the "constitutional expert", was interviewed on a television show last night. I know a little about parliamentary procedure and I know that he was right in what he claimed. But when asked why Sánchez was called on first when so many other people had their hands up, he said that Madrid had to, because Madrid was a Nacionalista! Madrid, on another television show, defended himself by saying that after the commotion broke out, he even offered Mel Zelaya a chance to speak, which Mel declined.

Rather than being a defense for his action, I take that as showing that democracy does not prevail in Honduras' congress. I was taught that the presiding member is supposed to be neutral and treat all other members equally. But in Honduras, first comes party, then comes "important people", and then everyone else is ignored. Why should Zelaya, who is now just one diputado out of 128, be given special preference? Shouldn't the ability to be recognized be equal for all 128?

This lack of democracy is what Liberal diputado Dario Banegas has been complaining about for ages. Banegas says that opposition diputados are not given agendas for their sessions, they are denied recognition during debates or their microphones are turned off, and they are even denied copies of the laws on which they are voting. Here is what he said yesterday about the first session of the new congress:

"I thought it would be a day of hope, but it brought me sadness. I am deeply saddened and ashamed of the political class. I feel sorry for others because a lack of talent, the Secretary of the Interior and Population sowed the seeds of dissatisfaction in an opposition group that has all the right to speak in Congress."

Though most are demonizing the LIBRE diputados, one Nacionalista diputado was quoted as saying that "the lack of experience of Madrid practically provoked the incident" and that "it wouldn't have cost anything to listen to them".

Many people, not just LIBREs, were happy about what happened! Someone told me he isn't for LIBRE but he's been waiting all his life for someone to stand up to these traditional parties who insist on maintaining the status quo. One of the Tweets most retweeted yesterday was this one (translated to English for my readers):

"With all of the disgust that the congress-zoo generates, today for the first time in my life, I feel represented. LIBRE and PAC"

I empathize with that feeling. Unfortunately, LIBREs are playing into the hands of Nacionalistas with their "indecorous" actions. There is now talk of LIBRE boycotting the Thursday congressional session for the selection of the permanent junta (approximately 13 members unless it was changed in the latest law passed a few days ago). They won't accomplish anything with a boycott. To get anywhere in Congress, they will have to learn and follow parliamentary procedures. But similarly, the Nacionalistas need to stop acting like dictators. They share the blame.

The spin

A national cadena was used last night by Madrid to blast the Nacionalista message, which I'll paraphrase as: Nacionalistas only do what is democratic and best for el pueblo while LIBREs are trying to make the country ungovernable with their barbarities and violence. A national cadena is when the government requires all television and radio stations to broadcast the government's message. Non-Honduran stations are required to be blacked out during the period of the message. Government cadenas should be used for important messages but most often are used for the ruling party's propaganda.

Much of the television media disseminated the message in lock step, with one news devoting the entire hour plus an extra 20 minutes to two guests demonizing the new parties and talking about governability. There was no other news in Honduras yesterday for Channel 3! A big deal is being made of the cost of equipment damaged during the session. Many see that as completely hypocritical when the government response to hundreds of millions lost to corruption every year is usually not much more than a shrug.

"Ungovernable" is the key word of the month. Every politician and analyst mentions it in interviews. It's in the headlines. Even the pastor's opening prayer included that word! I have drafted an article about that which I'll try to get posted soon.

I've spent many hours watching congressional television, reading the news, and following Twitter in the past month. I've drafted some other articles that I haven't been able to finish due to so much TV watching! It is a very interesting time in Honduras. I can't wait to watch the congressional session tomorrow. I won't be surprised to see police or military waiting in the sidelines. I hope it doesn't come to that.

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