Photo Jonathan Blair

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Honduras: The crisis as an oligarchic squabble

Pepe Lobo has been invited to Spain for the EU-Latin America Summit, next May. This is it. The crisis is over. Honduras and its government are back in the embrace of the donours and partners that count. The US and Canada no doubt will follow suit.

Deposed-President Manuel Zelaya had already left for the Dominican Republic, promising that he would be back, but looking happy enough to be out of the whole mess in which he put himself --with a little help from Hugo.

The crisis and its outcome have been variously painted as another instance of a return to authoritariasim in the region, as the latest instalment of a continental fight between a progressive pink wave and the rest, and as a test of the Americas' and the world's commitment to democracy. All of the above make some sense, but none gets to the hearth of the matter, which lies much deeper into the fabric of Honduras politics and society. For the little catfight between Zelaya, Michelletti, and Lobo, with neighbours and the US dabbing into it, looks in fact like a carbon-copy of the oligarchic squabbles that characterized Central American political life for much of the XIX and XXth Century.

The players were the sons of the few families that dominated those city-states --as Enrique Baloyra so neatly put it so neatly-- and basically considered state power like a prize to be sought and kept as private property. Competition was often violent, with each side recruiting among its dependents a small number of soldiers to be sacrificed. In good machista manner, the oligarchy's scions would join in, though very few would die in action. Typically (wait for this one), the noble leader of the defeated faction would be caught alive and... sent in exile to a neighbouring country, from which he would come back, generally chastened, a few years later, to be welcome by his old enemy in a gentlemanly fashion. The whole thing was very much "entre nous" because they all knew one another, they had all been to the same balls and married in the same pool of oligarchic daughters.

A few things have changed, but not that much: in most countries of the region, politics remains an extended family affair and the same names keep popping up in the social and political pages of national papers that are always local. A few outsiders have joined in --and some have dropped out-- but this happened in the past too and anyway, the newcomers quickly took up oligarchic mores and just added their own names to the local pantheons.

To the reader of XIXth and early XXth Century central american history, for instance, the Zelaya patronym is a throw back to a notorious multi-national liberal clan, whose most famous representative was a general who for a while was President of Nicaragua and kept invading neighbouring countries to put in power somebody from the local liberal family networks. His adventures played an important role in the US decision to send marines to the region, so as to ensure that a degree of stability would prevail and that governments would pay their debts to English banks. For doing otherwise could have led to English involvement in the region, something the US wanted to avoid at all costs.

But back to Honduras. Here we have another Zelaya, now coming to power through the electoral process that was imposed from the outside on local oligarchs as the way to decide who is to "have" the state, if only for a while. To avoid jealousies, indeed, the elites have consitutionalized the prohibition of keeping power for more than one mandate. Lobo, who lost the last elections, had to wait in the wings, but he, like the other pretendants, expected to have his turn.

Zelaya threatened to break the deal however. After two-hundred years of patrimonial domination and poverty, there was understandable discontent in the population. The space afforded by democratization was being used by social movements who pushed for real political and economic reforms. Moreover, Hugo Chavez was out there with his money and promises of support. Zelaya fell for it. His own money no doubt safe, he jumped into the bolivarian bandwagon in the hope of keeping the state for himself.

He had misread his hand, however, and his bluff was called. That the struggle was about saving an oligarchic pact was clear from the fact that all major parties and political institutions joined in to denounce Zelaya and contain and repress social movements. In the fight that ensued, the poor paid the price, as they did in XIXth century caudillo wars, both in blood, and in money. For this time, the international community joined in and cut financial support to the country, at a cost estimated at $2bn (Haiti's reconstruction, by comparison, has been assessed at $14bn). Strikingly, those sanctions did not deter the Honduran Congress, one more proof that their deal was worth much more for the oligarchy than the crisis' cost to the country as a whole. In the end, as we saw, Zelaya was punished for his deed, but the old fashionned way. He was sent into comfortable exile, his life safe and, no doubt, most if not all his properties untouched.