Thursday, March 4, 2010

Echos of the 1980s

Hey, La Prensa, the 1980s called and they want their rhetoric back!

I knew something was wrong when I read the story in Jorge Canahuati's La Prensa on March 1 entitled "Guerrilla cell arming itself in the Bajo Aguan". The article, which claims to be based on a military intelligence report in their possession, makes a series of unbelievable claims about the campesinos opposing Miguel Facussé's title to several farms of african oil palms in the Bajo Aguan.

In a nutshell, it accuses the campesinos of allying themselves with drug traffickers for protection, organized by non-governmental organizations "of a socialist type" and by Jesuits "with communist ideologies". The alleged report claims to have studied 54 campesino cooperatives that through misadministration and corruption sold off their lands in 1993, but now want it back.

The Honduran government of the 1970s and 1980s had a single minded agrarian policy. If a group of campesinos wanted land, they were made to form agricultural cooperatives and the cooperative was then given land at the discretion of the state.

In the Bajo Aguan, the campesinos involved were largely from more highland departments of Santa Barbara, Lempira, Intibuca, and so on, forced to move into the tropical lowlands of Honduras to have access to land. The government of the 1980s failed to learn what the Spanish colonial government learned in building the eighteenth-century fort at Omoa: when you make highland people relocate to the lowlands, they die of malaria and other tropical diseases that only rarely occur in the highlands. Yet the government of Honduras continued to encourage people from the highlands to "emigrate" to the lowlands to gain access to land. The land campesinos were moved to in large numbers in the 1980s previously had been developed for agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s by banana companies, then abandoned as banana production became uneconomical.

In exchange for the land, cooperatives were directed, as part of national agricultural policy, to plant export crops like sugar cane, african palm, and to a lesser extent cacao, and were given low interest loans to buy the equipment and fertilizers necessary to plant and harvest these crops. They were not given guaranteed markets, or price guarantees on their crops, and had to compete with the oligarchy, who already controlled the markets for these raw agricultural goods and set the prices. Many cooperatives went badly into debt when market prices were low for their crop, and disbanded, though others managed to survive.

The supposed intelligence report alleges that Miguel Facussé and a Nicaraguan, Reynaldo Morales, bought up land as cooperatives failed and sold land to pay off their debts. The campesinos contest this, pointing to agrarian policy under Rafael Callejas in the early 1990s, under the Law for the Modernization and Development of the Agricultural Sector. Through this law, the government expropriated land it had previously given to campesino cooperatives, and turned it over to modern industrial farmers. The timing of this policy is not coincidentally linked to the paving of the road from La Ceiba into the Aguan valley, and back up to Olancho, which happened in the 1980s, giving this region decent access to the national market for the first time.

The alleged report, La Prensa tells us, singles out and analyzes the positions of a number of named organizations. The Movimiento Unido de Campesinos del Aguan (MUCA) is said to be more heavily armed than the National Police and supposedly is causing "thousands of dollars of losses daily to businesses" and scaring away international investment. Here's the most ludicrous part: La Prensa tells us that a named campesino leader affiliated with MUCA, and a named campesino leader affiliated with the resistance, are purchasing arms and waiting for FARC, the Colombian guerrilla movement, to come and train them in how to use them! Even more ludicrous is the allegation that these resistence leaders also head a band of kidnappers. The report claims there are orders out for their arrest. Both of these named individuals would be easy to find and arrest, since neither is in hiding, were there actually any such arrest warrants.

The report goes on like this, a fantasy with no anchor in reality, laughable if things like this didn't kill people. It talks about school teachers, assuring us that in the end, they won't support the campesinos. It talks about the Comité de Organizaciones Populares del Aguán (COPA), which sided with the resistance during the coup. It describes the Catholic Church "trying to fortify its political party, the Christian Democrats", and that the priests in the region are Jesuits, and are marxist advocates of liberation theology.

Rafael Alegria, head of Via Campesina and a leader in the resistance, rightly denounced this fantastic story. He reports he talked with the military spokesperson, Ramiro Archiaga, who denied the existence of any such military report and said he would ask La Prensa for a written explanation. Alegria attributed this bit of disinformation to the security minister, Oscar Alvarez.

A pseudonymous source, published and translated yesterday by Adrienne Pine at, attributed this campaign of disinformation directly to La Prensa's owner, Jorge Canahuati Larach, along with Maria Antonia de Fuentes, Ana Morales, and Nelson Garcia.

Whatever the source of this disinformation, it is dangerous. It is meant to provoke bloodshed. It is a reminder that "newspapers" such as Canahuati's La Prensa and El Heraldo have not changed since they served as media to churn up enough controversy to incite and then justify a military coup d'etat. Maybe the rhetoric is from the fight against communism of the 1980s; but the tactic is that of yellow journalism of the 19th century.


Nell said...

Is Defense Minister Oscar Alvarez related to the loathsome Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez of Battalion 3-16?

RNS said...

Yes, General Alvarez Martinez is his uncle.

Tambopaxi said...

What gets lost in all of this is the question of what's really happened to the title to the land in question.

I worked on Ag Reform issues in the Aguan in the 70's and then again in the late 80's and there were definitely coops there with legal title to their land. Were these coops really disenfranchised by a law in the 90's that took their titles away? There was always a article in the (old) law and in the title agreements themselves that said if the coops failed/went into bankruptcy/dissolved, title would revert to INA for re-use in the event that new coops were formed. I never saw anything that said that the lands would be sold to the private sector...

So, what happened since the 80's? Did INA in fact sell off some (or perhaps, all) of their lands in the Aguan to the private sector (Facusse et al)? If so, and politically repugnant though that may be, do Facusse and his partners actually have legal title to the lands? if they do, then it would seem that Facusse, etc. have the law on their side.

(I"m putting aside what I call the political static of the Church, MUCA, intelligence reports, FARC connections, etc., for the moment, to get at the core of the dispute: Who's got title to the lands and how did they get it?)

RAJ said...

In a previous post, we noted that César Ham, in his new role as member of the Lobo Sosa government, was considering solutions that included expropriating the land, paying the businessmen who claim title, or granting the campesinos involved other land. This would suggest that the government's position is that the title legally is with the businessmen.

However, as the same proposed solutions show, the issue isn't really as simple as who has the legal title. The original transactions through which a cooperative was deemed no longer to have its title; and any actions through which the businessmen gained a claim to title; would be subject to severe scrutiny. As Tambopaxi notes, the original law of agrarian reform would have required land to be redistributed to other cooperativas, not to be sold to the highest bidder.

Miguel Facussé's explanations of the situation include the claim that he bought the land "at a good price" and that "agrarian reform" lost its chance to do so. This suggests his interpretation is that the land was available for purchase.

But the campesinos of the Bajo Aguan base their claim on a

legal agreement (convenio) between president Zelaya and these campesino groups of the Aguan, signed at the beginning of the month of June 2009 before the coup d'etat, in which was agreed that a technical legal commission would investigate the legality of the tenancy of these lands and the supposed property-owners Miguel Facusé, René Morales y Reinaldo Canales would be paid for the improvements that they had made; but the lands would be handed over.

So it is not as simple as finding out whose title is legal. Instead, what has inflamed this situation is the coup d'etat which ended the process of negotiation of a solution, substituting violent repression in the interests of the businessmen involved.

But your comment brings up the broader legal context of agrarian reform, worthy of a post of its own, where we can offer more commentary than in this limited space.

Tambopaxi said...

RAJ, Your last para is the most germane. The old Ag Reform law (from the 70's) was set up so that no one, no one, could cruise in like Zelaya apparently wanted to do, and expropriate land at the wave of a wand. The name of the game (then, anyway) was to give some title stability to use of land.

Again, this is what makes the facts of interest in the current situation. Does Facusse in fact have title to the land? If so, how did he get it?

Again, in the old days, anyway, there was no mechanism to sell off INA land to private holders (decir, groups not registered with INA to hold/use their land). Did the rules change or did Facusse (who's a very slippery guy, btw) pull one of his scams, which he's done before? I probably shouldn't put it that way, because it biases the arguments against Facusse; it could be that he got the land legitimately, and therefore my questions...

RAJ said...

For the details of the changes that let individual campesinos sell land starting in the 1990s, see the next post.

I have to contest your gloss on what the campesinos in the Bajo Aguan were promised, and the anti-Zelaya spin you give this: an agreement to form a legal commission to determine legal tenancy is hardly to "expropriate land at the wave of a wand".

What you are ignoring here is that someone can have documents purporting to deliver title to something and those documents can be legally unsound. This is true in law concerning title of any kind, anywhere.

For title to legally be transmitted, the person conveying the title must actually have clear title; one thing that leaps out for me in the history of agrarian reform is the shifting status of occupancy and title, which could easily promote the idea that someone occupying land was legally able to convey title when in fact they might not be. This is doubly so when land was originally assigned to a group corporately, and then somehow divided individually.

A second potential basis to contest title is if the promised return for title was not completed as specified. For example, when a mortgage exists on a home, the title is not conveyed until the mortgage is paid off. So even if someone with legal title agreed to sell land, the title is not conveyed unless the agreed upon sum is transmitted.

Finally, even title controlled and conveyed freely in return for benefits received can be questioned if the transaction took place with some degree of deception.

I am not saying any of these-- or other-- circumstances that would make title problematic occurred in this case. I am simply pointing out that it is not actually as simple as "who has title". And this leaves aside for the moment the political and policy issues that might make it prudent or preferable for a government to negotiate recompense for those claiming land ownership in pursuit of policy goals.

Tambopaxi said...

Look forward to your next post. I wonder what Ham and INA have to say about titles to the land in question and the rest of this....