The president will be taken at his word
During his election campaign, Manuel Zelaya, new president of Honduras, promised to empower citizens. Now voters are reminding him of his promises
Manuel Zelaya is off to a bad start.
27. January 2006
On 27 January the liberal Manuel Zelaya took office as president of Honduras. He was elected by a slim majority, based on his promises to expand citizen empowerment, increase transparency, ensure that enrolment at schools be free of charge, lower fuel prices and not increase taxes. “The president will be taken at his word”, says Carlos Ruiz, MS-CA programme officer in Honduras.
“With all the promises he made, Manuel Zelaya gave civil society organisations a strong weapon in their struggle for participation”, he continues. “He’s already been served notice: his inauguration coincided with the beginning of the school year, and when the primary and secondary schools charged for enrolment – as usual – the parents protested.”
“I think that the promise of citizen empowerment for teachers, small farmers, doctors, ethnic groups and many others is useful, because it means they will keep their eyes very much open as regards political developments, and we for our part as MS-CA will be supporting them”, Ruiz went on. “We have access to information at both national and international level that not always reaches the communities. We are going to support MS partner organisations in their efforts to communicate and use this information.”
In the rural municipality of Yamaranguila, MS cooperates with the Committee for Development and Indigenous Rights of Yamaranguila (COPRODEDPIY), which before the elections prepared itself to observe the behaviour of the government. The committee held three forums: one on the Free Trade Agreement between the United States, the Dominican Republic and Central America (DR-CAFTA); another on the Poverty Reduction Strategy, which determines where debt relief is to be invested; and finally a meeting with candidates for the presidency, mayor’s offices and the Congress, so they would have the opportunity to explain their visions for the future. At the end of that meeting a development agreement was signed with the population of the municipality. “The people of Yamaranguila had some very good questions. It was evident they knew more about DR-CAFTA and the Poverty Reduction Strategy than the politicians”, Carlos Ruiz comments.
Carlos Ruiz: “People are not going to stand for it if things remain as they were.”
The outgoing government has shown a certain openness regarding the Poverty Reduction Strategy. On its web site citizens can see the size of investments in each municipality. However, the problem is that many rural municipalities don’t have access to Internet, and those that do, such as for instance Yamaranguila, aren’t aware the site exists. “This has since been remedied”, remarks Carlos Ruiz. “COPRODEDPIY has organised workshops on how to find and use the government’s web site, and María Lina Pérez, who is in charge of gender issues on the Committee, has explained to women in the communities how they can apply for these funds. The investments are being watched closely, and at least in Yamaranguila the government will look bad if it attempts to pay the legally mandated state transfer to the municipalities using money freed up from external debt forgiveness. Already there are five groups that have prepared projects. So the new mayor has no excuse if he makes poor investments.”
A bad start
According to Carlos Ruiz, the new president is off to a bad start. After spending months talking about citizen empowerment and transparency, he distributed cabinet seats and other influential positions to friends and family. In order to make the procedure look a little different, he asked each of these to hand in their CVs, but the bottom line is that nothing has changed and the old-style cronyism prevailed once again.
For several days it looked as though for the first time in Honduran history the president of the Congress would not be from the party in power. At one nerve-wracking moment there was a tie between two congressional blocks, but soon thereafter the two traditional majority parties, Liberals and Nationalists, came to a power-sharing agreement, according to which the liberals are to preside the Congress, while the Nationalists were awarded two seats on the Congress Governing Board. The small leftist Democratic Unity party came away from the fray a little worse for the wear, as it chose to forge an alliance with the Nationalist Party. Some of its members are of the opinion that Democratic Unity congresspersons allowed themselves to be misused politically.
“I think we can expect some political turbulence”, concludes Carlo Ruiz. “Manuel Zelaya won because of his promises to increase transparency and expand spaces for citizen participation. People are not going to stand for it if things remain as they were.”