Letters from Honduras: Election day
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, was election day. I looked to Chemo as a bellwether.
When we were in Tegucigalpa, Elio and Mema urged him to vote Liberal, singing the praises of Mauricio Villeda, the son of the best president Honduras ever had.
Four years ago, when Mauricio was running with Elvin Santos, I called him a wimp and a zero. Well, he doesn’t have a chin, and he dresses like a nerd (stripes with plaids), but this year he looked like Lincoln. An honest man, even noble (he had quit on principle his role in Mel Zelaya’s administration years ago), he became the conscience of the election season. No one dared criticize him, as he admonished the rest of the field for their excesses, distortions and lies.
Elio and Mema come from the days when you could be arrested just for voting Liberal. They believe in the party, they love its traditions and embody its outreach to the poor in justice and love. In fact, Elvin Santos had asked Elio to run for diputado (representative to the Congress) with him, but Elio could not afford such exposure since he and Mema were still in hiding from the gangs threatening them with death if they didn’t pay “protection” money. Chemo listened and nodded and smiled.
In Morazan, Fermin and Maria urged Chemo to vote LIBRE, the breakaway Liberal party that sprang up from the resistencia after the coup that ousted President Mel Zelaya in June of 2009. (A coup endorsed by his own Liberal party, so intolerable was his corruption.)
Since, according to the Constitution, a president can only serve one term (a provision Mel wanted to erase as his mentor Hugo Chavez had done in Venezuela), Mel’s revenge was to run his wife Xiomara this time as the candidate. The deception was transparent, but so deep and so unfulfilled is the longing of the Honduran poor for justice that they went through the looking-glass and gave their heart and soul to LIBRE. When I asked Fermin, who is never deceived, why he was going with LIBRE, he said, with tears in his eyes, “Miguel, to save my life.”
In his “youth,” Mel helped murder 14 human rights activists on his father’s hacienda Los Horcones in Olancho (June 25, 1975). His father Mel Sr., served a perfunctory jail sentence for the crime before being “pardoned,” but it really was Mel Jr.’s, work. Old Don Jose, who is still a simple day laborer now living here in Las Vegas, was a farmhand at Los Horcones.
“The father was a saint, treated us right, always spent time with us; the son, he was bad news,” Don Jose said, “That whole day, he was going back and forth, back and forth, with the killers in his pick-up.” They shot the “martyrs,” as they have come to be known, including a couple priests and nuns, and then, to conceal the crime, they stuffed the bodies down a well and filled it with lime.
When Mel was running for president in 2005, the opposition candidate (Pepe Lobo, now the current president, then a neighbor of Mel’s in Olancho), tried to make an issue of it. He mentioned it only once before Mel effectively shut him up. Publicly, Mel whined, “You’re upsetting my mother.” (Mel Sr. was long dead.) Privately, one can only imagine what Mel had on Pepe to scare him into silence.
As president, Mel was corrupt; that’s nothing new here, for either party, but Mel took it to new heights. First, he stole the election, something no one wanted to say, least of all the U.S. State Department, after the coup, when the sing-along demanded that the “duly elected” President Zelaya be “restored” to power.
During his administration, he sold us out for the massive transfers of drug money from South to North via Honduras. Crime skyrocketed, and gangs ran the cities. The biggest strikes and protests by the teachers union occurred during Mel’s term, and when Fermin learned from sources that Mel would order the police and military to shoot and kill protesters, Fermin himself had to plead with the teachers and their leadership to disperse and, in effect, surrender their demands. Fermin did it to save lives, but it put him in a terrible position, and that’s when he quit “politics,” forever he said.
So why would anyone support a Zelaya? Poverty is not just not having enough money; it grinds the spirit into the dirt. When Mel tripled the minimum wage by executive order, businesses screamed foul, but the working poor rode a wave of prosperity they had never known. Here, most salaries are tied to the minimum wage. A teacher’s pay, for example, is calculated as a multiple of the minimum wage.
“Miguel, Mel paid off our house, our car, he sent our kids to college, he set our table so no one goes hungry in this house.” No one works harder than Fermin, so I should question his judgment? When you have a family to care for, you can live with certain contradictions.
Chemo nodded in agreement with Fermin, too. But closer to home, unmoved by principle or protest, and with buddies directly connected to the current conservative government who fixed Chemo up with a “special” ID card and other goodies, Chemo voted Azul (‘blue’), the color of the conservative National party.
And blue won, with 36 percent of the vote. Mel and Xiomara’s LIBRE actually came in a close second (29 percent), with the honorable Liberal, Villeda, a gentleman’s third (21 percent). Now, you’d think that in a democracy, the winner should have to get at least 51 percent. If you applied the result standards to grades in school, Chemo could have passed seventh grade!
It’s not easy to get even a plurality in a multi-way race, especially when your party began as mobs in the streets. If I may indulge in a conspiracy theory, this was the plan all along. That is, let the Resistencia run wild, including plenty of provocateurs to stir things up, discrediting their just cause, in effect forcing the movement to fold itself into the “system,” where it could be effectively neutered. In fact, after dodging the radicals’ rocks and, in return, bashing their brains in, would the police and military have recognized the “authority” of a Presidenta Xiomara? Then we would have had a real crisis!
So now what? Mel held a long, rambling “press conference” the day after the election, with many citations of fraud at the polls, only a tiny portion of which had been witnessed by over 700 “observers” from the U.N. and other international groups.
Clearly, the biggest “news” at the press conference was the absence of Xiomara. If anyone still doubted that the biggest fraud at the polls was Mel himself, it was now plain for all to see.
There were actually eight parties in the race. And ironically, the real deal-breaker that made a true majority impossible was a party called PAC (Partido Anti-Corrupcion), led by the very popular sports announcer Salvador Nasralla, who also hosts a Sunday game show for teens that travels to a different city every week.
It was hard to take him seriously, especially when he kept up his announcing gigs during the campaign. But, in retrospect, with a fat 15 percent, it seems he activated the youth, who saw nothing but Charlie-Brown parents in the rest of the field. While the other splinter parties barely broke 1 percent, PAC elected 13 diputados to the Congress, and even a couple mayors, including coming within a whisper of winning one of the biggest prizes of all, mayor of San Pedro Sula, the second biggest city in Honduras, called the “industrial capital” because of its prosperous sweatshops that employ so many young people. Salvador Nasralla has become a statesman in a suit and tie instead of his former short shorts. Just imagine if clean government could really become the norm in Honduras! Of course, for that to happen, we’d need a little help from the U.S.A., to dial down on its drug consumption...
I am torn, in case that’s not already clear. Honduras needs radical reform, but Mel is unworthy of his faithful, and Xiomara should have been the first to dump him. Mel actually won one of LIBRE’s 39 seats in the new Congress, the first former president to even attempt such a thing. So he’s not going away.
I probably lash out at Mel partly to justify my own inaction, and this has been an usual CASA, so “political.” I know the whole world needs fixing, but I stay at ground level, where Manuel from Terrero Blanco needs a plate of food. As hard as it is to figure out how to help these poor folks right in front of me, any one of whom needs everything I have, I guess I would rather fight with myself than confront the “system.”
I know many folks here who have labored their whole life for justice, most of them motivated by the kind of Catholic faith that Pope Francis is finally taking mainstream. These folks have suffered beatings, imprisonment, and death, while criminals high and low profited from the carnage. One of these is Fermin’s father, Pedro. Another is my neighbor Kako, who organized the poorest voters from the surrounding villages to participate, in many cases for the first time, to give LIBRE its majority here.
The actual voting, at least in Las Vegas, is a sweet thing. From Chaguito, 106, to youngsters like Chemo, everybody gets along and helps one another. We even had a “prayer circle” for my friend Ruth Meyer from St. Louis, who came to Tegucigalpa with a special group of observers for the LGBT community, a persecuted minority in Honduras, as you can imagine.