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Opportune dialogue in Honduras

Honduras, July 6, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Geoff Bugbee for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps has been working in some of Honduras's poorest areas — including urban slums like Tegucigalpa's Flor del Campo neighborhood — since 1982. Photo: Geoff Bugbee for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Provash Budden/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Many of our programs focus on promoting and fostering dialogue between citizens, business owners and government officials to achieve lasting peaceful change. Photo: Provash Budden/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Geoff Bugbee for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Facilitating dialogue between everyone helps raise the fortune of all Hondurans, including poor farming families. Photo: Geoff Bugbee for Mercy Corps

I still remember the dark days and the fear that the Cold War imprinted in all our souls. El Salvador and Guatemala were at war then, and Nicaragua became a communist state where Russian language was taught in schools. In the streets, hundreds died and thousands were missing.

As for Honduras, some 25,000 American troops took over the Palmerola Military Air Base in Comayagua, as well as provided money and technical support to the Contras, the guerrilla group fighting against the Nicaraguan communist regime. Those were days of bloodshed, torture and pain, days of car bombs and explosions, massive kidnappings, arms smuggling and the Iran-Contra scandal.

Those are days we don’t want to remember, days we all want to forget.

At the end of the 1990s I started working with Proyecto Aldea Global, Mercy Corps' local partner here in Honduras, implementing a civil society strengthening program. Mercy Corps officials came from Portland, Oregon and trained us on the three civil society principles: participation in decision making, accountability and peaceful avenues for conflict resolution. We then went to Comayagua — the epicenter of military activity in the Cold War years — and worked with the communities there, teaching them the Honduran laws, then organizing and training them on how to address local mayors and government officials, how to negotiate and how to solve their problems and differences through dialogue.

We offered the alternative of proposing solutions, not fighting.

The years went by and democracy was institutionalized here in Honduras: every four years, we've had the chance to have an election and to choose a new president. The new government was functioning under the 1982 National Constitution.

By 2006, the new president Manuel Zelaya Rosales took office, just as other presidents had done before him. Zelaya promised many things and worked hard for it, especially with the poor, yet there was an interesting difference between him and its predecessors: his strong ties with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He signed a treaty with Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela under the name ALBA, aiming to promote commerce and cooperation between these governments. He then cut the ties with American oil companies and signed a new treaty to buy oil from Venezuelan companies only.

Hundreds of doctors and teachers came from Cuba to volunteer in Honduras from Cuba and, during the U.S. – Bolivian diplomatic conflict in September 2008, Honduras sided with Bolivia and challenged the U.S. by not receiving the credentials of their new ambassador for several days.

The current problem started when President Zelaya claimed that the Honduran Constitution was obsolete and then proposed that a new constitution must be signed into law. The current Honduran Constitution allows changes and reforms, as long as they are approved by the Congress; in fact, the Constitution has gone through many changes during the last 20 years, and many other changes were proposed. But there are some articles which the Constitution forbids to change, one of them being the article that prohibits Presidential re-election.

Honduras was governed by militaries for at least 40 years. Arms, force and coup d’état were the “modus operandi” selected by military generals to subdue the country, and some of these “governments” lasted more than 15 years in power. The fear of being deceived and the fear of generals to holding power again motivated the original citizens and lawyers who prepared the 1982 Constitution to close any door to re-election.

So President Zelaya attempted to change the Constitution in Honduras, spurring the present crisis because more than half of the population has rejected the idea of changing it.

But there are many at fault here. What did we do while all this was happening? Did the political parties express their opinion and seek dialogue with the president? No, they didn’t, they just criticized him and called him a mad cow. The Chamber of Commerce ignored him, the church said that they would be praying and the rest of the civil society kept doing business as usual.

There was a schism in the country — and a dangerous one — but no one turned to dialogue, they just ignored it.

Finally, in May 2009, a few lawyers and the General State Prosecutor declared President Zelaya's proposed changes illegal and demanded him to stop it. In spite of legal threats and resolutions, the president and his followers continued with all the preparations. One of the problems the president had to face was the money for this process, but the president did not present a national budget to the Congress in 2008 (even though the law says he must do it by September of each year). So, without a budget, he could use the state money at will. Even today, the Honduran government is operating without a fixed budget. The papers for the constitutional process were printed in Venezuela and tons of money was distributed among politicians to pay for the logistics demanded by a national referendum for at least seven million people.

The second problem faced by the president was logistics: President Zelaya was relying on the army to oversee the constitutional referendum. But the chiefs of the army, naval and air force refused to cooperate and all resigned on one single day. The President then turned to the local police for logistical support.

When the day of the referendum arrived on June 28, no one knew what was going to happen. That morning, the judicial court and the army reacted by arresting the president, accusing him of violating the Constitution and deporting him to Costa Rica. They thought that once he was gone, the problems would also vanish. They were wrong.

Today, I see my country facing United Nations and Organization of American States sanctions. The borders with Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador are closed, and the Honduran people are running here and there all in despair.

At this critical time, I remember what I learned long time ago with those Mercy Corps officials: “Dialogue is important, but opportune dialogue is even more important.” There are times when dialogue loses its momentum and effectiveness — we should never get to that point.

Last night, now-deposed president Zelaya flew in a private Venezuelan jet plane — along with the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay —and tried to land in Honduras, but their plane was not cleared to land. They had to fly to El Salvador, where the newly-elected president, Mauricio Funez received him with opened arms. Who knows what tomorrow might bring?

This November, a presidential election is scheduled here in Honduras. If we reach it in one piece and living democratically, we should feel blessed.

And so I repeat this lesson: dialogue is important, but opportune dialogue is even more important.