The Day the Bottom Fell Out?

  • Written by  Marco Cáceres

Here we go again. Blame the coup for all that is wrong in Honduras. It's an exercise that Hondurans will be forever condemned to endure every June 28th. Fair enough. And sure enough, Manuel Zelaya has been readily available during the past couple of weeks to share with the world brilliant commentary on his unceremonious ousting in 2009. In a recent interview with Giorgio Trucchi of Opera Mundi, Mr. Zelaya predictably continued feeding the narrow, overly simplistic and painfully biased view that the coup was responsible for Honduras' severe social and economic decline during the past five years.

The first question in the interview was, "Five years have passed since you were taken out of your home and put on plane destined for Costa Rica. Looking back today, what are your thoughts on those moments?" Mr. Zelaya said that he believes it was all part of a conspiracy led by right-wing political forces in the United States to turn back the spread of Hugo Chávez's brand of socialism in Latin America. According to him, "They wanted to stop the progress we were making and oppose our development via a model that did not exclude the majority of the population."


Okay, there's truth there.


That question set up the second question nicely... "How is Honduras doing today?" Mr. Zelaya's response: "It is in very bad conditions. Honduras has been converted into the poorest and most violent country in the region, with extremely high levels of corruption, with a broken economy, and an unsustainable a public debt and fiscal deficit." See where this is going, right? Mr. Zelaya is trying to sketch a skewed picture of Honduras pre-coup versus post-coup. Everything was chugging along so well until the coup. Then, the bottom fell out. (The rest of the interview goes on in this same tone, and is merely a refrain of Mr. Zelaya's same 'ole same 'ole. You can read it here if you like: interview.)


The problem is that Mr. Zelaya's version is not exactly accurate. While the coup may have made Honduras' social and economic slide worse, it was not the cause, because the slide had begun long before. In fact, it can be argued that the drug trafficking, homicides, and other violent crime that have fueled the slide worsened so much under the Zelaya administration (January 27, 2006 through June 28, 2009) that it was that  which helped prompt the coup in the first place.


Get this. In November 2013, the National Autonomous University of Honduras' Observatory of Violence program, which tracks homicides and other violent crimes in the country reported that a total of 13,053 murders were committed during Mr. Zelaya's years in office. During the first year of Mr. Zelaya's term, 2006, there were 3,018 murders, which surpassed the previous year's total of 2,417 under the Maduro government (2002-2005) -- an increase of 24.9 percent. In 2007, Mr. Zelaya's second year in office, the number of murders hit 3,261 -- an 8.1 percent rise.


In 2008, Mr. Zelaya's third year, there were 4,473 murders -- up a whopping 25.2 percent. During the first half of 2009, Mr. Zelaya's last six months, there were 2,300 murders -- an increase of 3.7 percent compared to the first half of 2008.


The homicide situation continued to get worse throughout the four years of the Lobo administration. The overall numbers kept growing higher and higher, but interestingly the rate of growth was slower than during the Zelaya years. In any case, the point is that the murders and overall crime in Honduras were already way out of control during the Zelaya administration. The idea being perpetuated by some that the chaos these days can all be attributed to Mr. Zelaya's overthrow in 2009 is little more than a myth. While the coup may have aggravated an existing bad situation, it was not the cause of the high murder rates in Honduras.


If you had to pick a primary culprit for the murders and violent crimes in the country during the past nine years, it would have to be the growth of drug trafficking and the invasion of Honduras by foreign drug cartels, mainly from Mexico, but also some from Colombia. It is no mere coincidence that the Mexican government's war -- "Operation Michoacan" -- against the Mexican cartels began in earnest in 2006. The war had the effect of driving some of the most powerful Mexican cartels south into Guatemala and Honduras to find some temporary refuge. Unfortunately, these cartels, such as the Zetas and Sinaloa, have found Honduras to be much more comfortable, and even welcoming, than their native country... and so they've stuck around. It will be no easy task to convince them to pack up and go home.


Drug trafficking isn't the only reason for the murders and other violent crime in Honduras. But to minimize it and instead choose to maximize the impact of the coup is absurd. There was no real security or stability in Honduras during the Zelaya years, and those who insist on peddling this lie either have amnesia or possess an extremely calculated political agenda. Well, there's also the possibility of plain ignorance. In fact, one of the reasons Mr. Zelaya was sent packing to Costa Rica in 2009 was because a large segment of Honduran society had had it with the man's incompetence and neglect -- which many Hondurans believe helped facilitate the initial major expansion of the cartels in Honduras during 2006-2009.


The expansion would have eventually occurred with or with Mr. Zelaya in power, but it was his government that happened to be in place when it started.


As to Mr. Zelaya's suggestion that the Honduran economy was doing well during before the coup, and that he was some sort of economic genius? Don't believe it. That story is not so black and white as Mr. Zelaya tells it. One of  the popular arguments that supporters of Mr. Zelaya make in his favor has to do with the relatively high growth rates of Honduras' economy during 2006-2008. Mr. Zelaya himself often likes to take credit for the supposedly wonderful economy during his administration. In a letter that he wrote to President Barack Obama on November 14, 2009, Mr. Zelaya pointed out with an underlying element of pride... "it has not been taken into account that I achieved the best economic indicators and the largest reduction in poverty in the 28 years of democratic life". If you only look at the economic growth figures for Honduras during Mr. Zelaya's shortened term, one would be tempted to think, "Hmm, not bad".


Be careful, though, figures can be manipulated to tell any story one wishes. This is done by governments all the time in order to support their records. The US government does this every year. US politicians in their campaigns give totally different figures that tell completely different stories (in some cases, opposite ones) than what their opponents recount. One or the other has to be right, right? Sometimes neither is right. Sometimes, both are.


In the case of economic growth in Honduras, it is important to remember that one of the main reasons there was growth and some degree of temporary poverty "alleviation" was that the Zelaya government engaged in massive debt spending on social welfare programs -- spending that was made possible by the the largely debt-free situation that Honduras found itself in at the end of the Maduro Presidency. President Ricardo Maduro, with significant help from Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez, invested huge amounts of personal time and effort persuading the international financial community to forgive Honduras' debts. They succeeded, in no small part because of the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief program targeted at the world's 39 poorest nations -- which included Honduras.


Remember, Honduras was still recovering from the tremendous damage caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and thus there was still considerable international sympathy for the country and a realization that it could never pay back its debts, so it made sense to pardon them and allow Honduras to start fresh.


Almost as soon as it assumed power, the Zelaya administration proceeded to give away much of the money that had been saved as a result of the debt pardons -- money that was supposed to have been carefully invested in long-term poverty reduction programs, not short-term give-away schemes aimed at temporary relief -- as noble as that may have seemed at the time. Unfortunately, the Zelaya administration did not spend the funds in ways that helped empower people to be more productive and be able to sustain themselves over the long-term. Mr. Zelaya's heart may have been in the right place, but he wasn't governing; he was simply handing out cash that would eventually have to be paid back by a future government or force a future president to yet again travel around the world begging for forgiveness.


In the short-term, this strategy fueled the Honduran economy because people spent the money they were given on food, clothing, housing, gasoline, cooking oil, and any number of other consumer items (vital as these are to daily life). But it didn't create a more competitive workforce and it did not begin to fix the institutional weaknesses and injustices of the country's governing and social systems. The Zelaya administration, like any other administration, spent a fair amount of time sidetracked, dealing with scandals and accusations of corruption and drug use. There were the obvious scandals like the one involving Hondutel and Mr. Zelaya's nephew, Marcelo Chimirri, but there were others.


In other words, Honduras' spurt of economic growth under the Zelaya administration was little more than a gimmick, an illusion. Something that was not sustainable -- much in the same way Mr. Maduro's "mano dura" approach to tackling crime and gangs during his term was superficial, short-sighted, and unsuccessful over the long-term. Again, homicides, kidnappings, gang activity, and drug trafficking all started to spike upward during the Zelaya administration.


Perhaps a greater contributing factor to the economic growth under the Zelaya administration, though, were the remittances from abroad. By far, the biggest generator of revenue for the Honduran economy are the remittances from Honduran nationals living and working (primarily) in the US and Europe. The Central Bank of Honduras has been tracking these money transfers for many years. In 2001, remittances were estimated at US$460 million; in 2002, US$770 million; in 2003, US$862 million; in 2004, US$1.134 billion; in 2005, US$1.763 billion; in 2006; US$2.359 billion; in 2007, US$2.512 billion; in 2008, US$2.707 billion; in 2009, US$2.408 billion; in 2010, US$2.405 billion; in 2011, US$2.610 billion; and in 2012, US$2.761 billion; and in 2013, US$3.225 billion.


Note the significant growth in remittances during 2006-2008. Those were the first three years of the Zelaya administration. The reason there was such a huge increase in remittances during those years is because the economic and social situation in Honduras was so bad that increasingly higher numbers of Hondurans felt so desperate that they had to emigrate to the US. The more Hondurans arrived in the US, the greater the increase in money sent back to families in Honduras, and voilà... more economic growth.


Whenever Mr. Zelaya and his supporters fondly recall his years in power and claim credit for the growth of Honduras' economy, there should be shame not pride, because the main reason the economy grew was due to remittances. A country that relies on remittances from its nationals abroad is a poorly governed country. Not only are Mr. Zelaya and his supporters not ashamed, they twist the facts in order to polish his record. Sympathetic economists and studies are quoted, but the analyses that these sources provide are limited because they mostly only look at the topline numbers, not all the other pesky stuff that goes with them.


So what happens is that history gets distorted, and the new story that emerges from the ashes of the discarded truth begins to be repeated so much that people -- even intelligent people -- begin to believe the strange concoction. This is precisely why Honduras Weekly  will continue to republish this editorial (or some version of it) each year around June 28th in order to properly balance Mr. Zelaya's historical account. Often, the only things more dangerous than outright lies are half-truths and distortions, because they are easier to make gullible, uninformed people swallow. (7/8/14) (photo courtesy Internet)



Note: The author is the editor and cofounder of Honduras Weekly. He is also the author of the book, "The Good Coup: The Overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras". His next book, "The Wolf We Feed: Post-Coup Honduras Under Pepe Lobo", will be published in August 2014.


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