Responses to the Coup d'etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Honduran Skepticism About Democratic Institutions: Some Data and Opinions

Greg Weeks at Two Weeks Notice continues to provide some of the best actual data from studies of Honduran civil society that can be found. His post today, pointing to a soon-to-be-more-widely available study by Mitchell Seligson and John Booth of Vanderbilt University, is especially important to understanding both the circumstances of broader Honduran politics, and some of the motivation among Zelaya government officials for pushing for participatory democracy. But even though I understood the issues, the dramatic quantitative, comparative measures provided in the new Vanderbilt study still shocked me.

Greg notes that the study asks respondents about their satisfaction/dissatisfaction with
three key aspects of political legitimacy: support for democracy, support for national institutions, and evaluation of the government's economic performance.
The results are codified in a ratio of "triply dissatisfied to triply satisfied". In other words, how many people are dissatisfied with all three key aspects, compared to the number satisfied with all key aspects? Pardon me for being professorial here (occupational hazard) but as I deal with statistical data all the time, and find my students even in the doctoral program not prepared to really understand such measures, I want to break this out before reviewing the actual, horrifying numbers.

Say we asked 100 people in the average American city the same questions. Maybe 75 would have mixed reactions; another 10 might be extremely pessimistic and say "dissatisfied" to all three questions; and the remaining 15 might be among those lucky folks who think everything is wonderful. The ratio of triply dissatisfied to triply satisfied in our example would then be 10/15, or 0.66. This is a measure that tells us how large the extreme sentiments are in a society.

Honduras had the highest ratio of people dissatisfied in all three areas to those satisfied in all three areas among the Latin American societies studied. Its 6.17 score was almost twice as high as the next most pessimistic society in the sample (Guatemala, at 3.23).

To over-simplify, the Honduran score suggests that for every optimistic person who is satisfied with democracy, national institutions, and government progress on economic issues, there are more than six pessimistic people.

We want there to be more optimism than pessimism in democracies. When pessimism starts becoming the norm, people lose their motivation to participate, to support the institutions that ensure the survival of civil society.

Here is where the opinion part of this post starts. My friends in the Honduran government who support President Zelaya's attempt to raise the Constitutional reform issue have talked about this pessimism, the disenchantment of civil society with government, as threatening the survival of the Honduran democracy. These are people who lived under, or whose parents lived during, the long period of military rule in the 1960s and 1970s. They and their family members remember and talk about the history of 20th century oppression by dictators marked by violence and imprisonment that, while little known in North America, is a history that Hondurans have worked faithfully to ensure never can be repeated.

The failure of successive democratically elected governments since the 1980s to solve the structural problems of the Honduran economy has, in the opinions of many of these informed participants, eroded public trust in government. My colleagues did not need numbers like those we now have to understand that. So they have worked assiduously in the current administration to support policies intended to alleviate the economic burdens of the poorest members of Honduran society. Miguel Cáceres Rivera puts the case for how the Zelaya administration proceeded to try to address this civic weakness more clearly than any other scholar I know.

While economic justice is powerful, and fundamental, it alone would not be enough to ensure the survival of a democratic Honduras. The disillusion with the nature of democracy itself also needs to be addressed, the dissatisfaction with government institutions. Here, the fact is that the current form of government was constructed in such a way that it almost inevitably would produce such disillusion. Congress, the courts, and the executive branch, as well as state and local governance, institutionalized politics that privilege party operatives, as noted by Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle. The theory of the Honduran Constitution of 1982 is representative democracy; but the few who persistently are elected are not perceived by a large proportion of Hondurans as representing the interests of the people. The decline in voter participation is one reflection of this. But so is the emergence of activism by social segments that seek a more visible presence, a voice, to participate.

Zelaya government policies not only acknowledged such segments-- women's groups, indigenous groups, african-descendant groups-- but worked on many levels to engage them in a common project of creation of a new vision of the Honduran nation as multi-ethnic and pluri-racial. This is clear in both statements by Zelaya government officials and the flyer the Fuerzas Armadas claims to have seized during their raid on President Zelaya. It is clear as well in statements by segments of society that have never before had an opening to participate fully in Honduran democracy, such as indigenous peoples.

What advocates of Constitutional reform in the Zelaya government are committed to is a project nothing short of countering the spread of pessimism in Honduran society by shifting from a basis of sterile and stylized "representation" to a vigorous level of citizen participation in governance. This is why a non-binding poll was worth risking legal action. Anyone who doubts the necessity for such activism to preserve democratic society in Honduras needs to read the numbers reported by Seligson and Booth and think about what it would mean to live in a society where six times as many people were thoroughly disillusioned as believed in government.

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