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HONDURAS
Zelayas presidency unraveling?
Latin America Data Base, Latinamerica Press
8/24/2006
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President’s first six months in power marked by civil unrest and rifts within his own cabinet.

Serious rifts in the government of President Manuel Zelaya threatened to throw Honduras into chaos as the government celebrated its sixth month in power. Two of the president’s ministers have quit, and his own vice president has challenged his policies. The government has had to fend off striking doctors, demonstrating teachers, protesting students, and charges that an energy deal with Venezuela will hurt relations with the US.

In a July 17 interview published simultaneously in El Heraldo in Tegucigalpa and in the San Pedro Sula daily La Prensa, Vice President Elvin Santos criticized the president, who took office on Jan 27 for unnecessarily provoking the US with a possible oil deal with Venezuela, noting, "Our principal trade partner is the United States. They have invested more than US$1 billion here. And 90 percent of our agricultural production is destined for the US."

First moves

 

Zelaya’s first impulse was to salvage the Venezuela deal. Without mentioning names, he told the media, "All those who are opposed to Honduras entering into this process are those who want to remain with the transnationals." Those who are using these arguments to sow discord are those accustomed by economic interests to be on good terms [with them]. They are the ones in good standing at the embassies."

As the weight of all this bears down, Zelaya is has had the props kicked out from under him.

Most recently, Health Secretary Orison Velásquez quit.

Velásquez said had had enough of accusations from the Medical College of Honduras of corruption in purchasing for the country’s 28 public hospitals. The accusations against Velásquez led to the freezing of $3.8 million in funds from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

With the appointment of Yeni Meza to replace Velásquez, the US turned the spigot back on. Meza said the funds would go toward family planning, infant and maternal health, and AIDS programs. Velásquez follows Finance Secretary Hugo Noé Pino, who quit in June.

Zelaya also seems to have lost ground in his ongoing battle with teachers, who began striking Aug. 1, surrounding the Casa Presidencial.

The teachers demanded their hourly wage to rise substantially, by $1.16.  The government at first offered just pennies, sweetened with a package of bonuses. Classes across the nation were suspended, affecting about 2 million students.

On Aug. 9, at least 12 people were injured as riot police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of teachers blocking a road near the Tegucigalpa airport. The teachers responded by throwing rocks at the police and throwing unexploded tear-gas canisters. The army was brought in as back-up.

Several teachers were arrested, and Defense Minister Aristides Mejía told reporters that the "strikers have increased their violent acts and illegally closed the streets, which we will not permit."

Mejía said the strikers had also tried to occupy the Casa Presidencial. "Therefore large contingents of soldiers are protecting the presidential offices," he said, adding that the teachers were armed with rocks and sticks.

Teachers’ defense

The strikers saw it differently. "It was an ambush," said Edwin Oliva of the Honduran Federation of Teachers Organizations. "And the police acted with violence. The government does not want to resolve our demands, and so we will be in Tegucigalpa until we achieve our objectives."

Zelaya responded to their demands by sending a bill to the legislature that would criminalize demonstrations that block roads.

The bill he sent to Congress to criminalize jamming the highways hurts his friends as well as his foes. It carries a five-year sentence, without possibility of substituting a fine for imprisonment, for anyone convicted of taking over a highway, road, or a bridge, , blocking traffic.

Protesters struck a deal with the government Aug.12 after Zelaya signed a law granting teachers an increase of $55 to salaries.

 This was the latest in a series of strikes by doctors, nurses, and public employees, moving the president to comment, "It seems that the country is in anarchy, in turmoil."

Representatives of a dozen organizations under the umbrella organization Civic Alliance for Democracy called for the recall of Deputy Arnoldo Avilez, sponsor of a new mining law. The law is in process of review, but protesters want it annulled.

The Alianza also demanded passage of the Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information as it was written, without amendments they suspect are being tacked on without transparency and without their having access to the information. They protested the government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, which, they said in a press release, "continues to be a mere declaration of good intentions that still have not translated into direct benefit to the poor, particularly those living in the western zone, the most impoverished in the nation."

They protested as well the construction of the El Tigre hydroelectric dam, a megaproject on the Honduras-El Salvador border they say will inundate several communities in the area along with their pasture and agricultural lands. With these demands, the protesters insist that these actions "must be understood also as an authentic exercise of citizen power, which supports Zelaya in his efforts to reach consensus in the Congress in order to legislate with dignity and adherence to the national interest, overcoming the corrupt sectors that buy and sell the nation."


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