Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Refounding Independence Day

What would press coverage be like if 16% of the US population called for a new constitutional convention? Don't you think there would be analysis, coverage of rallies calling for constitutional reform, and more?

This week in Honduras, the equivalent happened: in a country with an estimated population of 7.8 million, 1.26 million signatures were gathered on petitions to begin the process of writing a new constitution. But don't hold your breath waiting for this to be covered by the mainstream media.

Even in Honduras, only El Tiempo actually reported this development fully. Other newspapers chose only to mention that the Frente de Resistencia had called for marches, always in the context of reporting that security minister Oscar Alvarez was prepared, as he said, to prevent any vandalism, with 3000 police deployed in Tegucigalpa.

The marches called for are counter-demonstrations to the annual observance of September 15, celebrated throughout Central America as the anniversary of Independence from Spain in 1821. This year, September 15 was also the deadline chosen by the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular for the completion of its drive to obtain 1.25 million signatures on a petition for a national constitutional assembly, the asamblea constituyente. In linking the two, the Frente advanced a powerful symbolic claim to following in the footsteps of Honduras' founding fathers.

According to the announcement by Eulogio Chávez, president of the Colegio de Profesores de Educación Media de Honduras (COPEMH), and attorney Rasel Tome, who have been supervising counting of the signed petitions at the office of the beverage workers' union (STIBYS), on Sunday the count reached 1,269,142 signatures. This set the Frente to proceed to mark the anniversary of Independence Day as the beginning of the next phase of their campaign for a constitutional assembly, with a call for nation-wide demonstrations and marches apart from the official celebrations of Independence Day.

In Honduras, whose flag still features a star for each of the countries that once made up the República Federal de Centroamérica, Independence Day is marked particularly by marches by school children who for weeks before have practiced, accompanied by children's marching bands, literally bandas de guerra or military bands, drum corps beating rhythms more appropriate to the armed forces than schools.

This is a festival of nationalism exhibiting a melange of symbols of identity that makes me, as an anthropologist, want to spend pages in thick description.

So to spare you that, take a look at how Wikipedia describes the annual celebration:
Honduras Independence Day festivities start early in the morning with marching bands. Each band wears different colors and features cheerleaders. Fiesta Catracha takes place this same day: typical Honduran foods such as beans, tamales, baleadas, [yuca] with chicharron and tortillas are offered.

The mobilization of children of all ages, from kindergarten to secondary school, in cities across the country, makes September 15 one of those national expressions that becomes a part of the unexamined embodied knowledge that anthropologists identify as the most powerful means for the reproduction of culture. That's what September 15 is ultimately about: children learning that they are part of a national whole through persistent participation, so that as adults they don't even think to question the national myths. What the Frente is seeking to do is push a wedge into that unexamined knowledge, and gain the attention of Honduran society, to open up the possibility of deliberate, consciously considered change in the charter of government.

On this anniversary of Honduras' first foray into self-governance, it is underlining that the call for a constituyente is neither a call for anarchy nor for dictatorship.

The basic questions anyone might have about how, under existing Honduran law, such a process might be initiated are simple enough that they could be addressed in straightforward prose in a series of pamphlets, described on the website Revistazo.

This series was published by a group of religious organizations dedicated to community service, the Organismo Cristiano de Desarrollo Integral de Honduras (Christian Development Organization of Honduras, OCDIH), CARITAS, the Instituto Ecuménico Hondureño de Servicios a la Comunidad (Honduran Ecumenical Institute of Community Services, INESHCO), and Radio Santa Rosa (the radio station of the Santa Rosa diocese). It is a reminder that support for debate about Honduran governance is not, as authorities in Honduras and the US would like to insist, a project of extremists.

If there ever emerges serious discussion of the signature drive for the constitutional assembly in English media, we can expect that the news media will attempt to minimize the achievement. After all, 16% of the population is not a majority. But recall my first analogy: the equivalent in the US, given the 2010 census population estimate of 308 million people, would be more than 49 million people. As another comparison: in January of this year, Gallup reported that nationally, only 27% of US voters identified as Republican; yet no one would argue that Republicans can, or should be, ignored in national policy debates.

International commentators (if they ever pay attention) are also likely to argue that the number is of unknown (or questionable) reliability, because the count was kept by adherents of the cause. This, in fact, is one of the most apparent reasons that the coup d'etat against Manuel Zelaya had to take place on June 28, 2009, to prevent any assessment of the level of support for a constitutional assembly to take place under governmental supervision, even by a government whose credibility had been systematically undermined by media editorializing.

And if, working on a grass-roots level without government or international NGO support, the signature campaign was able to achieve this level of participation, perhaps we have a better idea of what the authors of the coup did not want the world to know: that disillusion with the present form of Honduran government has reached a significant level, one that would need to be taken into account in a truly democratic society.

Which is one thing September 15 is without a doubt about: the first steps taken in Honduras toward government by the Honduran people. Which makes it a good date to take another step along that long road.


John (Juan) Donaghy said...

There's an interesting article on Resistencia Honduras about the resistance of teachers to send their students to the official military parade in Tegucigalpa.

Some notes on the organizations publishing El Zorzal - OCDIH has some adherents in the Mennonite and Seventh Day Adventist Churches. INHESCO is the natural medicine group founded by Padre Fausto Milla. Caritas is, regretfully, only the Caritas of Santa Rosa de Copán.

RAJ said...

I ran across an article in my initial search for coverage in Proceso Digital that was condemning teachers who were choosing to march with the Frente. But I felt it was so editorializing that it was hard to even link to it without taking the time to analyze it.

The final paragraph of the article accuses teachers taking this position of "politicizing" education. This seemed like an odd accusation to make, when you consider that the entire procedure of training students to march in quasi-military formation and then taking them into these September 15 marches is, and always has been, politicizing.

More: the same paragraph expressed surprise at teachers taking this position because, the writers said, this was despite INPREMEH not prospering under President Zelaya. Analytically, the argument here is that teachers should be acting not on principles (resistance to the break in democratic governance that began with the coup) but based on whether they made out well economically. The argument actually underlines the degree to which the actions of teachers (and many others involved in resistance) is not motivated by self-interest.

Finally, this article-- like many others-- references the folkloric and historical performances the children present. This is, as I said above, material that really demands a full analysis but there is simply not enough space or time to do it justice.

Thanks for the specifics about the sponsors of El Zorzal.

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

Yesterday's Independence Day march in Santa Rosa went without the three largest high schools - Alvaro Contreras, Domingo Savio, and Maria Auxiliadora. The first two are "official" (public) high schools and I'm pretty sure they refrained from marching for political reasons.

Alvaro Contreras even held classes on Independence Day - a sort of anti-strike, I guess!

The third school is a Catholic girls' school and I don't know why they weren't in the parade.

The Resistance didn't march but held a forum.

Carlos Tower said...

If the convention-petition number is accurate, then it is more impressive than implied. Primarily because whenever Honduran election numbers are analyzed, those in favor of labeling it a democratic success often point to the fact that turnout numbers might look low, but fail to take into account that more than a million Hondurans have emigrated and cannot realistically vote. If this is true (the number fluctuates depending on the source, but the estimates of the U.S. alone are approaching a million), the true number is even more impressive given that nearly half the 7.8 million Hondurans are not old enough to vote, and the bulk of the million in the U.S. are old enough to vote. Looking at one number alone out of context can undermine the significance, when age and geography matter – and in these questions they surely do matter. My opinion is likely not that of most people reading this blog. But, if one spends time in diverse areas of Honduras with people of all incomes/interests, and knows people there, as you delve into the numbers claimed and really analyze what it would mean were it all true, it becomes less and less believable. This is not to say Frente is without support, or that pro-coup forces do not cook the math whenever beneficial to them. But, the idea that there are approaching 1.3 million signatures in favor or a Convention (and most of what is tied to this demand) is not something I expect outside news sources to cover. I don’t expect them to cover it as they likely haven’t any reason for believing it close to reality . Given the historical context and recent events, why would someone accept this number as fact?

RAJ said...

The international media should cover the continuing organization of resistance to the Honduran government because it is important political news. Part of that coverage should be questioning what the actual number of signatures could be and what it would mean if even a much smaller number of signatures were gathered. And part of that coverage should be talking about the number of people openly marching for their cause, and the open repression of those people. This is news, and not covering it is journalistic malpractice.

You seem to think that you can just reject the reported number because you think it is impossible for there to be a large number of people in support of the petition.

You are claiming anecdotal authority:

if one spends time in diverse areas of Honduras with people of all incomes/interests, and knows people there, as you delve into the numbers claimed and really analyze what it would mean were it all true, it becomes less and less believable.

As we have pointed out numerous times, generalizing from a network of social contacts to an entire population is not reliable. The claim of authority from "being there" discounts the fact that those gathering these signatures also are "there"-- and their impressions are not the same as yours.

I personally am not prepared to guess how many people would or would not support such a petition. If the cuarta urna had gone forward, we might have some basis to estimate this. Until the Honduran congress realizes that blocking such a tally was a mistake, no one will know what level of support such a ballot question would receive.

We are left to use objective data available to us, and those data in fact make this number entirely credible. We review those numbers in a separate comment that follows.

RAJ said...

As you point out, if you take a different base to calculate the percentages, the proportion of the voting age population represented by signatories of the petition would be higher. 2.29 million votes were registered in the last election, less than 50% of the official eligible electorate, making the base 4.58 million.

Using the total electorate as the basis, the 1.26 million signatures the Frente says it has obtained would be about 27% of the eligible electorate. That is exactly the size of the self-identified US Republican voters in the poll I used as a comparison; that is, a good sized minority party.

As it happens, we have three polls about Honduran attitudes to the call for a constitutional assembly that actually show similar levels of measured representative support.

(1) Last year, just after the coup, CID Gallup reported 23% of respondents were in favor of the cuarta urna.

(2) In October 2009, Consultants in Investigation of Markets and Public Opinion recorded 23.8% of respondents were opposed to carrying out the November elections. Al Giordano suggested that this was a good proxy measure of the Resistance, a point I think in retrospect gains even more weight.

(3) In polling this spring by LAPOP a similar level of support for having a vote on a constitutional assembly was registered.

So no, I don't find it impossible that there is this level of support for the petition.

As we noted at the time, had the authors of the coup allowed the question to go forward on June 28, it would apparently not have reached a majority.

But having a public record of the support of even one-quarter of the electorate for a constitutional convention was apparently too threatening-- as indeed, the comparison in size to those in the US identifying as Republicans makes clear.

This may not be a large enough fraction to dictate policy-- but in a democracy, it is a large enough group to claim a hearing. And in a democracy, the press would be reporting on the views of this large minority, not ignoring them.