Since Manuel Zelaya’s surreptitious return to Honduras last week, the media has focused on the hordes of Zelaya supporters trying to make their way to the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa and the military and police repression that these would-be protesters faced. But there are three faces to Honduran society these days, not two. No doubt, these predominantly urban actors are crucial in this country’s short-term political crisis. But understanding the broader domestic political reality, and what may follow this crisis, also demands consideration of rural areas.
The first face of the current Honduran crisis is the pro-Zelaya Resistencia (Resistance). Tens of thousands of Zelaya supporters from all over the country took to the streets this week. They were met by a repressive military machine. Hundreds arrested and injured, detainees corralled in the stadium and several people killed—these scenes provided a tragic reminder of the military repression that plagued Latin America in previous decades. And yet, Zelaya’s supporters remain intent on reclaiming power and going ahead with the constituent assembly that started this mess. While Tegucigalpa has calmed down after several days of curfews, the Resistance remains a significant political force, capable of mobilizing thousands in Tegucigalpa and other secondary cities and towns.
De facto President Roberto Micheletti’s urban supporters form the second face of Honduras. This group cheers the military in the streets and refuses to believe that people are being wrongfully detained, beaten or even killed. Those Micheletti backers who acknowledge these unfortunate events say that repression is the necessary price in the war against Zelaya’s attempt to sow unrest and install chavismo (Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ brand of politics). Unlike Zelaya supporters, these Hondurans recognize the planned November elections as legitimate. They too are capable of mobilizing thousands of supporters, but their mobilizations also have a strong military flavor. These first two faces of Honduras each claim to have the support of 90 percent of the country’s citizens. Both exaggerate, of course, and it remains unclear whether either of these first two faces has the support of even a majority. The reason for this is that the majority of Hondurans live in rural areas, not in Tegucigalpa, where they remain forgotten.
In fact, most Hondurans experienced this week’s events far from the capital. This third, rural face of Honduras virtually never protests and maintains little contact with political institutions except when handouts arrive at peasants’ doorsteps, sometimes in exchange for votes. This third Honduras felt neither the curfew nor the repression this week, but it did listen to news on the radio. Here in the department of El Paraíso, the rural poor mostly listen to the Resistance channel and support Zelaya.
Peasants explain their position by noting two subsidies that began with Zelaya’s government —one for mothers to vaccinate children and send them to schools (Bono Solidario) and the other to provide farmers with seeds and fertilizer (Bono Tecnológico). Having received these benefits, many rural Hondurans were willing to go along with Zelaya’s proposed Cuarta Urna—the controversial precursor to a constituent assembly—even if they did not know what it meant. One peasant Zelaya supporter summed it up: “We didn’t even know what it was about. They just came and told us to support it.” Still, this man and many rural Hondurans were willing to support Zelaya’s project because of the support Zelaya had brought them.
Ultimately, Zelaya used ministries and social programs to organize and promote his constituent assembly project in rural areas. The Cuarta Urna is just one of various instances of how he brought as much continuity as change to Honduran politics, long dominated by what one scholar describes as “competing patronage pyramids”—the National and Liberal parties. These continuities have brought a plague of illegitimacy upon this country’s political institutions.
Another example is the education system, where a letter of recommendation from a ruling party politician remains essential for teachers to get everything from a job to a piñata to celebrate Children’s Day. In Zelaya’s native department of Olancho, politicians used close ties with the President to open schools without permission or to get budget approval from the relevant state agency.
Zelaya did not invent this type of behavior but he did not combat it. One rural teacher described the result as “a cancer.” Honduras’ stable two-party system was long seen as one of the country’s strengths. But the parties have become parasitic and people are fed up. “One wins or the other wins, but everything remains the same,” according to another peasant woman.
Analysts should not delude themselves into believing that Zelaya was bringing a clean slate to Honduras. But they also should not conclude that Zelaya lacks domestic support. In addition to mainly-urban protesters, a dormant mass of Zelaya supporters exists in rural areas. These people are often too poor and afraid to leave their communities. They will not protest but they will remain disillusioned. Those who are not appalled by the coup that unseated their populist president have become disgusted with the modus operandi of Honduran politics.
Should elections be held, abstention will reveal just how disgusted they are. In 2005, voter turnout in Honduras—previously among the highest in the region—fell precipitously as 45 percent of voters stayed away from the polls. Now, abstention will likely rise even higher. Both major candidates are tainted after supporting the coup, the Liberal party is in shambles, the Resistance is planning to boycott elections, and pervasive contempt remains high toward political institutions.
As Honduras’ national political stand-off has escalated, the international community has expressed hope that elections—preceded by Zelaya’s return to power, even if symbolic—will bring peace and legitimacy back to Honduran politics. Elections may bring peace, but low voter turnout would undermine claims of domestic legitimacy. However this crisis gets resolved, the legitimacy of the country’s political institutions will remain tainted—in the short term by the events surrounding the coup, and in the long term by national leaders’ inability to address the toxic state of Honduran politics.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.