Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Achieving a Democratic Solution

Today, I went to the Washington, DC, office of Amnesty International-USA for a special showing of a documentary by Norwegian film maker Gry Winther. Called Women in White, Damas de Blanco, it focuses on the silent weekly Sunday march in Havana of white-clad mothers and wives of Cuban political prisoners. Cuba has pretty much faded from the headlines, especially after the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but the repression—there is no other word for it—of the Castro regime continues after 50 years. I make a couple of cameo appearances in the film, as volunteer coordinator for Cuba and other Caribbean countries for AI-USA, but that is hardly its salient feature. The main protagonists are the women and their men, who have been imprisoned for years now, accused of having different ideas about how the country should be governed and the economy run, or for simply having written articles published abroad or having unauthorized books in their home. In Havana, I came to know Raul Rivero, who is interviewed in the film. He is a poet and writer now in exile in Spain, imprisoned in 2003 and released early for health reasons, whose wife was member of the Damas.

As a 30-year member of Amnesty, I feel duty-bound to try to expose and stop human rights violations, whether by the US, a right-wing government like that of Pinochet in Chile (where I was election observer in 1988), Israel, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, or Cuba, regardless of the ideology that fuels those violations. Castro, because of his rag-tag guerrilla mystique, very successful propaganda, and genuine efforts by the US to topple him decades ago, retains a brave underdog image. Also, there are Cuba’s much-touted advances in economic equality, health, and education. I’ll grant Cuba a good educational system that prepares professionals well, but often for non-existent jobs. However, in my experience, the economic and health advances are overblown, especially since 1990, when massive Soviet subsidies abruptly ended. Also, the US embargo (called a “blockade” in Cuba) is pretty porous and the largest share of Cuban imports of food and medicine come from the US, because such products are exempt from the embargo. However, whether or not Cuba provides adequately for its citizens, the provision of economic and social rights do not require the suppression of civil and political rights, both types of rights can co-exist.

This may seem to be getting off the track regarding Honduras, but the fight in Honduras is partly about this same issue. The interim government there may, in fact, be trying to protect the wealthy or at least the economic status quo, but is also trying to protect against the encroachment on civil and political rights represented by Chavez and, in more extreme form, by Cuba. So I would recommend seeing the Ladies in White, but don’t know how people can obtain a copy of the documentary. It has been shown in theaters in LA and Norway, also on Norwegian television, and is listed on several websites, but I have not seen distribution information there. However, I think it has an important message and the film maker put herself at considerable risk in filming inside Cuba, not to mention the risk to those whom she filmed.

But back to the immediate situation in Honduras, one thing that concerns me greatly there is that firearms are ubiquitous. They are not registered and the violent crime rate is already high. Of course, police forces are inadequate, especially outside the cities. And although the Honduran army has been showing its muscle lately, it doesn’t have a huge number of troops or much equipment because no outside threat had been evident and the country has had other, more important, needs. But, just imagine a civil war where private citizens are shooting at each other, a very scary scenario. In demonstrations I’ve witnessed in Honduras, there has always been a violent, perhaps criminal, element taking advantage of the turmoil.

One of the interns who watched the Cuba film at the AI DC office today is a graduate student in international affairs. We talked a little about Honduras afterward. As she said, and as I have said earlier here, the US is not all-powerful and cannot solve every problem in the world. Our country already has its hands full, so to speak, and Honduras is hardly a priority. That country is important to the US only in the broader Latin American context. And that context demands that the US not appear as the super-power aggressor mandating how things should be done in the hemisphere.

I have not found any mainstream US media commenting on Honduras so far today. A group in El Salvador called CIS (not sure what that stands for) has sent out an appeal for donations to support its “solidarity” efforts in Honduras, especially to pay for further missions to Honduras and ads to publicize their view of the Honduran situation in Salvadoran newspapers. CIS’s recent investigative mission to Honduras reports that half of all media outlets are shut down and over 600 people have been arrested. The organization lauds the election of “progressive” presidents in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador and includes Zelaya in that same camp. It mentions that Cuba has now been rightfully reinstated by the OAS, but that Honduras has been rightfully expelled and chides the US for not having yet cut off all aid to Honduras.

Meanwhile, my previous Latin American commentator has this to say (slightly edited):

The Micheletti regime, in spite of the threat of international economic, military and oil sanctions is trying to see if they can ignore Zelaya and hold out for sufficient time to hold presidential elections and hand over power to the newly elected government. They need time to begin to feel the effect of sanctions on the population before they capitulate. They are not going to feel directly the effects of the economic hardships the sanctions will bring. The poorest sections of the Honduran society will.

The fact that Zelaya supporters are threatening to invade Honduras and that they have considerable support among the population will create an explosive social situation and conditions for a bloody civil war. Moreover, the longer Micheletti holds out, the less popular support his side will have in the coming presidential election. Thus, in my view, everything Micheletti's side is doing is extremely counterproductive. His side's best shot is to accept the Arias mediation proposal and to place all their efforts in choosing a strong candidate for the coming Presidential election and gathering all possible support for his candidacy.

The solution to Honduras’s problems is to carry out the long run development of a capitalist economy and the creation of a middle class and an educated electorate that could anchor the country's democracy. But this is wishful thinking. Lamentably, the choice the Hondurans now have is between the demagogues and a feudal oligarchy.

Of course, Zelaya is a demagogue and his side is not offering an acceptable long-run solution. But as a short-run choice, it is preferable to the selfish oligarchy that has up to now run Honduras. Because, at least, it will offer the population something it has never had before: hope. Moreover this new hope will put them in motion.

The trick is to preserve the democratic process so that if they make mistakes and do not offer the population what they want, they will lose popularity and have to change their policies or lose elections.

For democracy is, after all, just an endless process of trial and error where ambitious groups compete in elections for popular favor and rise to power and lose it according to how they meet the popular will. Obama is right when he states that the US should favor democracy, and not one group or the other, because in the end what is going to ensure that the politicians satisfy the popular will is that democracy exists so that the population can freely choose who its rulers should be.

So in the final analysis, it does not matter whether Zelaya, Micheletti, or the Count of Montecristo rules Honduras for the time being. What is important is to ensure the democratic process and that no democratically elected president could ever be deposed by a military coup.

That is the challenge, to ensure a democratic process so that the majority can always kick the bums out if they don’t want their leadership any more. The prospect of losing that electoral power is a legitimate fear of the interim government, quite apart from any effort to protect their current privileges. But maybe there is no way around it, unless, somehow, guarantees can be written into any agreement signed in Costa Rica. But who will enforce those agreements? Not the OAS, and not the US either, it seems, Barbara

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