Mel Zelaya’s road to Damascus

zelayadamascusManuel (Mel) Zelaya’s Conversion

Luis Hernández Navarro – La Jornada, May 30, 2009

Translated by Machetera

Manuel (Mel) Zelaya is more than 6 feet tall, has a thick black mustache, wears a wide-brimmed hat and cowboy boots.  A son of landowners, he studied civil engineering but never graduated.  Before he got involved in politics, he spent his time as a successful timber merchant and rancher.  In 1987 he was named a director of the Honduran Council for Private Enterprise (COHEP) as well as president of the timber merchant’s guild.

In 1970, Mel entered the Honduran Liberal Party (PLH), an organization with a wide and well-documented anti-communist trajectory.  He was elected to congress a number of times and from there went on to various public jobs.  The liberals and the Honduran National Party (PNH) are the two main parties among the five that exist in Honduras.  However, when it comes to governing, there’s not a lot of difference between the two.  “The only thing that differentiates them,” says a workers representative, ” is the color of their flags: one is blue and the other is red and white.”

In 2006, Manuel Zelaya became President of Honduras.  During his campaign, he presented himself as a genuine and honorable rural man, plainspoken, unaligned with any of the traditional political class, God fearing, endowed with a firm hand for fighting corruption, straightforward, fond of playing guitar and horseback riding.  Someone inclined to implement the petitions of participative democracy and political reform, claiming the power of the citizenry.

Once president, he supported the Free Trade Treaty (TLC) between the Dominican Republic, Central America and the United States (CAFTA, in the English acronym), in the middle of fierce protests against it.  This did not stop him from getting closer to the government of Hugo Chávez and joining Petrocaribe, an alliance among various Caribbean countries to acquire Venezuelan oil on preferential financial terms, paying 50 percent down over 90 days, and the rest over 25 years at 1% interest.

With the passage of time, his political discourse combined an adherence to socialist liberalism (“so that all the benefits of the system go where they are most needed: to women, men, children, farmers, those who produce”) criticism of U.S. intervention, support for Cuba and references to God.

Heading an extremely poor country, lacking social cohesion, with an under-financed government and great difficulties in obtaining international financing, the icing on the cake was Zelaya’s ideological conversion when he joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Caribbean (ALBA).  The proposed regional integration of Latin American and Caribbean countries, originally promoted by Cuba and Venezuela, which puts an emphasis on the struggle against poverty and social exclusion, allowed him to quickly obtain funds to attend to the country’s demands, according to Pavel Uranga.

At first, the distancing of Zelaya from the oligarchy was not necessarily well received by wide sectors of the Honduran popular movements.  According to Lorenzo Reyes, involved in the social struggle, neither he nor the majority of his associates gave any importance to the fact that Zelaya was visiting Nicaragua and other countries, nor that Zelaya was talking with Chávez or any other leftist leader, because at the end of the day he was doing it as entertainment, or relaxation, since ultimately, he wouldn’t change his right wing ideology.  “For the people,” he insisted, “and for us as a popular movement, it didn’t mean anything because in Honduras, the man didn’t define himself: one day he said right wing things, another day he’d lean a little to the left, and he was in two places at the same time…in other words, neither here nor there.”

For many years, the Honduran popular movement has had a noticeable vigor and leadership to it.  Made up of class-based unions, peasants organizations, indigenous peoples, professional and student associations, they came forward partly as a result of the organizational work of the liberation theology groups and the revolutionary left that have come together through unifying forces such as the Popular Block.  During the first 32 months of his government, Zelaya faced at least 722 social conflicts of varying magnitude, including the national civic strikes of 2008 which paralyzed the country over demands such as price controls on basic foodstuffs, keeping potable water projects away from municipal control, and the approval of an increase in the minimum wage.

Far from confining the struggle to immediate demands, the movement has a vision of profound social change.  As Rafael Alegría, the coordinator of the Via Campesina Centroamericana (Central American Peasant’s Way) has indicated, “the social movements have the right to build a new legal order which would favor all the social sectors of the country who have always been excluded and marginalized.  Therefore, we are in favor of a popular referendum.  A new constitution should serve as a new foundation for the state, and give all the power to the people, who are its sovereign.”

From below, this movement has changed the correlation of forces and created an unexpected situation.  Its members are those who have come out to the street to defend a president  inclined to undertake a path toward social transformation.  In large part, Zelaya’s conversion is a product of popular pressure in the framework of a new regional context.  In a country in which the two main parties can only be distinguished by the color of their logos, the popular organizations have bet on the construction of a truly different country: one which abandons the path of neoliberalism.  On the way, they made their president into a politician different from the one he was when he came to power.

Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.

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