January 25, 2014

No democracy in new Honduras Congress

New officers of the Honduras Congress
Images: La Prensa, Honduras

(Written Thursday, January 23, 2014, posted today due to numerous internet problems.)

Waiting for the Honduras congressional session to start this morning was a little anti-climatic. I felt like I was watching reruns of 'The Batchelorette' when I already knew who she chose. Last night, the online newspapers had already announced the new junta directiva that was yet to be voted on by congress today.

Today's Honduran congressional session was an exact replica of Tuesday's with a little less chaos. It was absolutely, shockingly, undemocratically unbelieveable!

The session

The session was opened with the usual parliamentary procedures. Then the show started. The provisional president once again called on Nacionalista Reinaldo Sánchez first, despite others who also had their hands up to speak. Sánchez presented president-elect Juan Orlando Hernández's slate of congressional officers and suggested that since 30 voting machines were nonfunctional, the voting be by show of hands.

Provisional (and now permanent) President of the Congress, Mauricio Oliva, announced the following in rapid succession:

We have a motion.
Is there discussion?
Sufficiently discussed, to voting.
Motion approved!
(Officers were sworn in)
Session is closed.

This entire scenario took about four minutes, two of which was Sánchez reading the motion. My head was spinning with disbelief.

Undemocratic display of power

Again the Nacionalistas could not resist a display of dictatorial power. In violation of parliamentary procedures, Oliva denied the other parties a chance to present their own motion or to discuss and debate Sánchez's motion as is the democratic right of every congressman.

Oliva did not even pause after "Is there discussion?" to look up to see the numerous raised hands before declaring the motion to be "sufficiently discussed". Nacionalistas and Liberales cheered loudly and applauded while the opposition parties stood in the aisle in disbelief with hands still raised hoping to be recognized. Two LIBRE members were holding large banners which said "Pido la palabra" ("I ask for recognition"). The 13 PAC diputados turned their backs as a group to the podium after also being denied the right to speak.

Why? Why act this way? Nacionalistas had already won the game. Their motion was already negotiated and guaranteed to pass. Why did they feel it was necessary to "put the boot to the neck" in another display of absolute power? Why couldn't they have showed a tiny bit of respect for the population who voted for opposition parties and allow everyone to at least discuss the motion that they knew was a shoe-in to win anyway? They had nothing to lose by taking the high road.

The only reason I can think of is that they wanted to provoke the opposition parties again. I know that sounds crazy. Why would they want that? Because more chaos would feed the "ungovernability" argument which the traditional parties are using relentlessly in the media to try to frighten the population.

The session itself was mostly orderly until near the end when opposition members realized that their democratic right to be recognized was again denied. Then the shouting started. Shouting and boos or applause from the audience is common and it's hard to tell how much of the noise was a result of that. By watching the first video below, I later discovered that the government channel didn't show much of the action, including the scene after the closure of the session where LIBREs were shouting "Dictadura!" and "Cabildeo!" The congress' television channel focused on the chairman and the Nacionalista side of the room. I don't remember exactly when or how the government channel ended their coverage or know whether or not it is edited, but watching this Channel 36 video was like watching a different session!

New Junta Directiva

The new 17-member junta directiva (board of officers) consists of 15 Nacionalistas (88%), the one and only UD congressman, who voted with them, and the one and only DC congressman, who also voted with them. Does that sound democratic to you?

Here's the distribution of the congressional seats by political party:

Nacional        48        37%
LIBRE           37        29%
Liberal           27        21%
PAC              13        10%
UD                  1       <1%
DC                  1       <1%
PINU                1       <1%

Total            128

As a result, the UD and DC parties have 100% representation. Nice. The three parties who formed a pact to reverse the tax paquetazo have 0% representation (LIBRE, PAC, and PINU). And almost one out of every three Nacional congressmen are members of the junta directiva.

Partido Liberal could have had representation if their party leadership hadn't directed otherwise. PL was trying to take the high road and show that they weren't exchanging votes for positions in the junta. Former presidential candidate Mauricio Villeda also proclaimed that Liberales would not accept any positions in JOH's cabinet - but that remains to be seen. It will likely happen despite the official party decree. To me this seems a reckless abandonment of the chance to provide some influence. While party leadership sees it differently, many Liberales are expressing disillusionment, further dividing an already divided party.

The spin

I watched several political talk shows where Tuesday's congress was debated. Many presented only one side, others were less biased. Popular host Renato Alvarez said that he had talked privately to a large number of moderate and knowledgeable analysts and politicians of several parties, including Nacionalistas. He said that the majority of them indicated that what the Nacionalistas did was wrong.

In this show, rather than responding to legitimate questions about what they had done, his Nacionalista guests repeatedly reminded viewers of Mel Zelaya's actions in 2009 (more fear factor). Ironically, what this administration accomplished in the past four years is not terribly dissimilar to what they were warning about in 2009 – consolidating money and power in the executive branch, weakening the judiciary and congress, and trying to debilitate the power of the media.

Nacionalista legal expert Diputado Oswaldo Ramos Soto initially planted the seed that everything was being done appropriately in accordance with parliamentary procedure that is used all over the world. This was taken at face value and was regurgitated without any media investigation of "Robertson's [sic] Rules of Order" as Ramos Soto called Robert's Rules of Order. Opposition parties were called ignorant and told that they need to learn the rules (which they do but so does Mauricio Oliva). However, as time passes, it appears that more are speaking out about democracy and the basic principles of parliamentary procedure, which Wikipedia describes as:

"Parliamentary procedure is based on the principles of allowing the majority to make decisions effectively and efficiently (majority rule), while ensuring fairness towards the minority and giving each member or delegate the right to voice an opinion."

Diputado Antonio Rivera Callejas is the Nacionalistas number one damage control guy. He's everywhere, all the time, giving interviews. When asked why no other parties were allowed to speak, he now simply dismisses the question with, "They have four years to say all they want." (shown also in the video linked below.)


A dramatic new TV commercial debuted shortly after the session. I haven't been fast enough to write down all the dialogue but this will paraphrase it pretty well:

Image: a pendulum swinging gently.
Voice over and text (paraphrased): Democracy has to have balance, without alliances, in opposition as a balance, ...

Image: close up of wonderfully looking fresh vegetables in the market.
Voice over and text (paraphrased): ... for Honduras, for democracy, a vote for governability in exchange for the basic food basket of the Honduran people.

Image: pretty young Honduran lady cooking an ample meal: She says: "Thanks to God for the Liberal Party who gave back the food for my family!"

Here is a print ad with basically the same message:

Whether through neglect or design, both traditional parties are responsible for at least 15 years of dismally inadequate education. It's easy for politicians to assume their people will believe anything. However, people will soon realize that costs of their basic food items have risen permanently whether taxed or not. Some already recognize that PAC, LIBRE, and PINU were the first to propose tax reversals and that it would have happened anyway. Some even are aware that the majority of Liberales voted for the original tax paquetazo in the first place.

The new congress was officially installed on Saturday. Monday will be the first legislative session.


Related Videos:

Note: To better understand the videos, the right-hand rows are Nacionalistas until the last two rows which are PAC and the three small parties. The front three left-hand rows are Liberales, following by the remaining rows which are LIBRE.

Video of Thursday's congressional session 

Video of Tuesday's congressional session In this video of Tuesday's session, starting about minute 12:30, you'll see that Africo Madrid declared Sánchez's motion approved before Nacionalista's (on the right) began raising their hands to vote.

Video of Tuesday's session with interviews of several diputados from different parties.

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