Honduras Needs a New Constitution to Break With the Old, Corrupt State

Gerardo Torres

After many years as a close US ally in Central America and over a decade of corrupt dictatorship, Honduras has a left government. Jacobin spoke to Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Gerardo Torres about the political transformations Honduras desperately needs.

Honduran president Xiomara Castro delivers a speech in Tegucigalpa on February 25, 2022. (Orlando Sierra / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Hilary Goodfriend

In January, Honduras regained its electoral democracy after twelve years of dictatorship. Xiomara Castro, wife of former president Manuel Zelaya overthrown in a 2009 military coup, became the country’s first woman president. As a candidate of the Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) party, her election also breaks with the century-old two-party system that maintained power sequestered between elites in the National and Liberal Parties. The Castro government has the formidable task of dismantling the structures of the narcostate built by the coup regime while advancing toward the popular refoundation of the Honduran state promised by her party’s name.

At thirty-seven years old, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Gerardo Torres is one of Castro’s youngest cabinet members. A journalist by trade, Torres already has a long trajectory of left militancy and organizing. As one of the founders of the Marxist organization “Los Necios,” he fought against the neoliberal offensive of the 2000s in the movement that later became the popular resistance front against the coup d’état. In addition to public office, Torres also serves as the international relations secretary for the LIBRE party.

In this interview, he talks with Jacobin contributing editor Hilary Goodfriend about the long struggle for Honduran self-determination, the challenges of transitioning from opposition into government, and the ideals of Castro’s government of solidarity.

Hilary Goodfriend

President Xiomara Castro’s election has been seen as a restoration, in terms of undoing the 2009 coup and reestablishing the minimal conditions of electoral democracy. But it also represents a rupture, in terms of breaking with the historical bipartisan system and proposing a national “refoundation.” What does refoundation mean to this government?

Gerardo Torres

Honduras had a tumultuous political history, related to international commercial interests and a region that was at war for some time. With the break from military government in 1980, Honduras had an opportunity in the form of the 1981 constitution. That’s where the aspiration for democracy and economic development begins.

Honduras had been tutored and accompanied throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to be Central America’s stable country, and as a consequence, it had been a country with little social upheaval, or with social upheaval that wasn’t very well registered. With the exception of the 1954 strike and some peasant movements and political-military uprisings, Honduras seemed like a country where nothing much happened.

In the 1980s, it was more of the same. We had the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, but since these were far fewer than those in Guatemala or other countries, it’s little-known or even disregarded. In the 1990s, they sold us the idea that because we were the best-behaved country, the friendliest country to the United States, the friendliest to that neoliberal logic that was advancing worldwide, we were going to be the most economically developed.

Hurricane Mitch was for us what the pandemic was to the world. Hurricane Mitch upturned everything, showing us that dismantling the government, dismantling the state, dismantling public assistance wasn’t a good idea. Because in the end, the private sector is interested in generating wealth, but it won’t necessarily assume the task of looking out for the most vulnerable. By then, we already had the first outbreaks of the gangs, we were becoming an acceleratingly impoverished country, and the hurricane revealed that the Honduran state had little or no capacity to react in the face of that problem.

That was my generation’s moment. I was fifteen years old in 1999, and at that point, we began to point out the failure of the state, which had basically abandoned us.

Bill Clinton and the prime minister of Japan showed up here, trying to prop up a country that was falling to pieces. They gave us, for example, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) [an immigration status that makes it easier to immigrate to the United States] because of the hurricane. But that’s where the anti-neoliberal seed was planted. Before, we could be called socialists or anti-imperialists. There’s an anti-privatization sentiment in Honduras: we can’t turn over the state to the private sector. We would say in the streets in 2000, when we were student leaders, “You can’t privatize what the people have paid for.” That was our principal battle cry.

We’re talking about when Latin America was promoting the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the Plan Puebla Panama, and the CAFTA free trade agreement [Central American Free Trade Agreement]. In November of 1999, we founded the political organization “Los Necios,” a Marxist organization that we named “Los Necios” for a Silvio Rodríguez song that says that even when it seems like it doesn’t make sense to fight, we’re going to fight.

On May 1, 2000, together with the labor unions and the peasant and indigenous movements, we founded the Popular Bloc in Tegucigalpa. The Popular Bloc was an anti-neoliberal, anti-privatization umbrella organization. On August 26, 2003, President Ricardo Maduro signed the agreement to privatize water. There had been revolts in Bolivia, and we mobilized in Tegucigalpa for the first time in nearly thirty years. We took the capital. We occupied Congress and didn’t allow them to hold the session. That day, the National Popular Resistance Coordinating Committee was born.

Later, Zelaya took power. We confronted Zelaya, because he came from the Liberal party, a neoliberal party, but afterward, we began to accompany him. By 2008, he had abandoned that neoliberal logic and started to accompany the process of rescuing public companies. Since that was our demand — no privatization, no free trade, etc. — we saw an important opportunity and an ally in Zelaya, who increasingly coincided with us. When the coup happened in 2009, the National Front Against the Coup d’État was formed. But one week later, after Zelaya was unable to land in Honduras on July 5, the National Popular Resistance Front was created. Before, it was called the Coordinating Committee; we changed one letter and continued our organizing.

Both Zelaya and the liberals in resistance and those of us from the social movement had one thing clear: the 1981 constitution was a lie. The logic that if the rich got richer, we would all stop being poor didn’t hold up. It was a lie, the bankers became absurdly rich, the financial sector grew disproportionately, and the productive sectors were dismantled. It didn’t make sense to work growing corn if the corn came from the United States. It didn’t make sense to grow beans if the beans came from elsewhere. We started to suffer from hunger, from poverty, and from the dismantling of our productive capacities.

When Zelaya wanted to stop that train that was hurtling forward, the train of privatizations and neoliberalism, the people accompanied him. But the speed that it carried generated the coup d’état.

The great armed protector of that economic process was the United States. But it would be a lie to say that it was just the United States promoting neoliberalism. No, there are large corporations here from Canada, Italy, France, everywhere, that took advantage of that model. US political and military control was deployed in the service of those companies, so the Honduran military forces followed suit and they did a coup d’état.

We consulted the people and arrived at the need for a new constitution. Amending the 1981 constitution is absurd, it doesn’t make sense. It has a different philosophy: the state, its values, the institutions only serve to protect the private sector, they don’t serve the population, they don’t serve the poorest Hondurans. We Hondurans are expelled from the country, and afterward our remittances sustain the country that expelled us. The exile of thousands of countrymen is a product of the failure of this model that didn’t provide for us.

When they tell me, “Watch out on the Left, because socialists impoverish people,” I respond, “Brother, and what do the capitalists do?” Because this country, when I was a child, had 34 percent poverty, and now there’s 75 percent poverty. The model doesn’t work.

That’s why we talk about refoundation. As citizens, we were able to put a stop to the military governments. How did we do it? A constitution, because they couldn’t claim to have a modern, democratic, capitalist state with a military constitution. We spent practically 80 percent of the last century under military governments. We had to make a new constitution.

The neoliberal constitution, the constitution of the bankers, of the privatizations, the constitution where the state doesn’t intervene, where goods are for those who can pay and aren’t rights — that constitution is no longer sufficient. So we talk about the refoundation of a welfare state, not a commercial state. A state with rights, not just commodities. A state where free competition and enterprise develop without trampling the basic rights of the population, the territories, and national sovereignty.

Obviously, as our LIBRE party general coordinator and former president Zelaya says, the topic is so polarized that we can’t talk about the constituent assembly yet, unless we’re talking about an informative process, a discussion to understand that we don’t want a new constitution or a new state in order to hold on to power, but because the state that we have has a general framework that doesn’t serve us.

The president has talked about two simultaneous actions: dismantling what the twelve-year dictatorship left us, the narco-regime that we had, and building the bases of a government of solidarity. The moment for that is now, but in order to move farther forward, we will need structural changes to make this new framework possible, which means refounding the state.

Hilary Goodfriend

One of the apparent triggers of the coup against Zelaya was his relationship with the Southern anti-neoliberal bloc, including joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). What kind of relations is this government looking to establish with the new progressive bloc in Latin America?

Gerardo Torres

When Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina put a stop to Bush’s Free Trade Area of the America project at the Mar del Plata Summit in 2003, they proposed an alternative project: ALBA. The problem with ALBA — with all due respect to that generation, which I greatly admire — was that it was too dependent politically. When the governments began to turn over, ALBA was dismantled. These are things that we have learned. Even though I don’t agree with the right-wing governments in Latin America, I have to think about economic integration projects that include all of us.

It doesn’t make any sense to continue thinking that I can have a bilateral relationship with the United States, but I can’t have a bilateral relationship with Guatemala. So we believe a great deal in changing the philosophy of the Organization of American States (OAS), we believe in strengthening the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and we are working hard to strengthen the Central American Integration System (SICA).

Currently, I am president of the Economic Development and Cooperation Commission of the Association of Caribbean States. In Honduras, we only hear about the Caribbean when we have World Cup qualifiers. We have relations with Cuba and the Dominican Republic, but the possibilities that exist between Central America and the Caribbean are gigantic.

We believe in Latin American and Caribbean integration, and we want to invite the United States to join as well, but with a different philosophy. Unfortunately, of the coup d’état in Honduras, eight years of the regime were during a Democratic administration, which was [Barack] Obama, and four were during a republican administration with [Donald] Trump. Now, with [Joe] Biden and Kamala Harris, we have found an ally, a partner who sees the issue of migration as a matter of generating opportunities, not a matter for coercion and violence. That is a point of convergence, even though there are other things that we don’t agree on.

We understand that the region’s problems have to do with allowing economic development, not militarization and the use of violence. These things, for example, allow my president Xiomara Castro to have a good relationship with Vice President Kamala Harris. They agree on this essential point: if we don’t allow for comprehensive economic development in Latin America, these problems that end up impacting the United States will not be reduced.

In Honduras, two million children did not receive a quality education or received no education at all, because there’s no internet. There’s no virtual school, because in this country it never occurred to anyone that the internet was a good that belonged to everyone. The pandemic revealed that in this country, only Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, and two other cities have more than 60 percent  internet access. In the rest of Honduras, there’s no internet.

Public education turned out to be a lie. Which of us could keep our kids in school? Those who pay for private school. This is essentially unjust.

The great Honduran poet Clementina Suárez says: “I want nothing for myself that the poor do not have.” Is it so difficult to put people into public office who think that way?

Hilary Goodfriend

One of the most prominent struggles in the last few years has been over the issue of justice and impunity. Your government authorized the extradition of former president Juan Orlando Hernández to the United States, the same country that backed him throughout his two terms. You’ve also negotiated the installation of a new International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH) with the UN.

What contradictions or challenges does this scenario present in terms of Honduran sovereignty?

Gerardo Torres

The thing is, there is no Honduran sovereignty. We are building Honduran sovereignty. We’re building it with the Armed Forces that did the coup d’état, we’re building it with a government that considers itself different, we’re building it with the United States, with whom we now have a very respectful relationship. But what Honduran sovereignty, really?

This country earned its “banana republic” nickname. Our presidents were appointed by the Standard Fruit Company or Chiquita Banana. President Manuel Zelaya Rosales, when he became president, the United States embassy sent him a list with three names per ministry, and they told him, “Pick one for each, that’s your cabinet.” And he said, “No, I won’t do that.” The break with that logic caused a political crisis in this country.

When I was the spokesperson for the National [Popular] Resistance Front in the United States throughout most of the twelve years that we were in resistance, I’d speak with some very conservative people and say, “In Honduras, there’s a narco-state, in Honduras they’re killing people, in Honduras they’re jailing people. All those things that you claim you’re concerned about in Venezuela and Nicaragua and elsewhere are happening in Honduras and multiplied by a thousand. They’re happening at three in the afternoon, at ten in the morning. Why don’t you do something?” They responded, “But you’re all communists, you’re socialists, you’re friends of Chávez!”

We won the election because the people of Honduras demanded a change, and I think that the United States understood that. They even understand that there needs to be a change in the relationship between our states.

There are things we don’t agree on. For example, the president decided that if all countries weren’t invited to the Summit of the Americas, she wouldn’t go, and she didn’t go. The media here, accustomed to that historically servile Honduran politics, were scandalized. They said, “They’re going to do another coup, they’re going to cut off relations, the US is going to blockade us!” The United States, which understood that we’re building a different relationship, said just the opposite: “We respect the president’s decision, we would have loved for her to be here, it’s a shame that she wasn’t, let’s continue to move forward.” This was unthinkable in my country two years ago, twenty years ago, or fifty or a hundred years ago.

Honduran sovereignty is a process that’s under construction. Getting rid of Juan Orlando Hernández was important. He is the leader of a profoundly violent regime. What did our justice system do for twelve years to stop the narco-regime that was being consolidated? Five thousand comrades were prosecuted and persecuted for defending the rivers, for defending the mountains, for defending the jungles, for defending the beaches. Why wasn’t a single Honduran politician accused of corruption, of drug trafficking? If the OAS’s Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) didn’t come in with support from the OAS, and if the DEA [US Drug Enforcement Administration] didn’t come in to extradite corrupt people, criminals, murders, no one would have been touched here for twelve years. So, when Juan Orlando’s extradition happens, sure, take him!

It’s a process that is just beginning. We have to aspire to construct a judicial branch that’s dignified — sovereign, independent, one that respects the interests of the population. But it’s naïve to believe that the judicial branch in Honduras is independent just because the constitution says so. We’re in the process of building a Supreme Court and Justice Department. We must do it right, and that begins next year [with the elections for magistrates and an attorney general in Congress].  If we do it right, it will be people who don’t see political colors, it will be people who will serve the justice that is so lacking right now. But we don’t have that, and we’re working to build it.

The CICIH is a process that will provide a necessary accompaniment, because we only recently won the executive in this country. The historically established powers that were strengthened in these last twelve years remain intact. They have military capacity, economic capacity, media capacity. The CICIH is an accompaniment at the pleasure of the president, and the president has said to the CICIH, “You are welcome as long as your presence helps us to strengthen our judicial power, our investigative capacity, and our capacity to serve justice.”

Hilary Goodfriend

In addition to holding public office, you are also a member of the LIBRE party, and you have a long trajectory in social organizing. How do you understand the relationship between militancy and public service? And what is the relationship like between social movements and the government?

Gerardo Torres

I don’t like to think of progressive forces as a single thing. In Honduras, there’s the social movement, which is a movement of trades. It’s the unions, the labor federations, the peasant organizations. The social movement has the responsibility to maintain its independence in order to safeguard the rights of the people it represents. Then there’s the popular movement, which is what in other countries they call the front line. That’s the territory defenders, the feminists, the LGBTQ community. They’re talking about more universal rights. So, the social movement and the popular movement are quite distinct in Honduras.

The regime was able to penetrate the social movement significantly. There were union leaders and others who had a very close relationship to the government, which allowed them to do certain things, for example, the hourly employment law, the dismantling of teachers’ rights. They colluded together.

The popular movement had zero infiltration. The popular movement confronted the regime from the first day to the last, and they confront us, too. The feminist movement demands that we advance as quickly as possible with our agenda, and that’s good. The relationship [with the popular movement] is one thing and with the social movement, it’s another, because we know that there are also more political interests there. That relationship is more like a political negotiation.

The other is the agenda that we are part of and that, as the state, we can’t always necessarily advance as quickly. In one of his first books, when he was vice president of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera said, “When I’m able to move forward with what they’re asking of me, I feel that it’s a guarantee that the process is going right, because they demand the impossible of me, and they demand it now.” When I’m able to move that agenda forward, I’m staying true to what I’m here for.

The third element is members of the party. That includes people from both sectors and others from neither who are just party members. Those who join the party sometimes even come into conflict with the other sectors. So, we move between all three.

Personally, I’m dying to continue being rank and file. I’d love to continue to do that, it’s what I’ve done my whole life. What I’m doing now is new, I’ve only been at it for five months. But I also understand the responsibility that it implies. President Xiomara Castro is clear, and she repeats it to us all the time. She says, “Everything that you do in diplomacy needs to be related to benefitting the poorest Honduran.”

The poorest Honduran isn’t necessarily a LIBRE member, nor are they organized, nor do they like or agree with me. But they’re the poorest. The government of solidarity, says the president, needs to always be on the side of the one who needs the most.

When I began working in politics, I never imagined that we would end up taking political control of Honduras. That was absurd. There were maybe two thousand of us in the whole country — I’m talking about twenty years ago. Later, with the support of President Zelaya and his leadership and ability, something broke in the minds of the conservative sectors in this country, and they began to accompany us. President Xiomara Castro emerged in this process of struggle. She always distanced herself from that conservative liberalism and nationalism. She always held that there had to be something that came more from the people.

So we’ve made our bed, and now we have to lie in it. We’re in trouble, because we need to provide answers to the population. We’re no longer the opposition. We’re here to provide answers and provide them soon. It’s an exciting change.

A lot of people in Latin America are telling us things like, “Don’t abandon the party, don’t abandon the streets, don’t forget where you came from. We were there, we lost control of the government because we forgot where we came from. Don’t forget. Do your work as public officials, but remember to keep up the organization, keep up the education.” And we’re trying.

For example, this Friday, I’m going to Tocoa, which is the area of the Aguán Valley, to talk to the peasant population about the CICIH. We’re going to tell them what the CICIH is and how the CICIH will benefit them in some way, because their world is very particular. They’re surrounded by landowners, by militarization, by violence. That communication and contact is important to maintain, but most important is giving people answers: reducing poverty, reducing hunger, reducing violence, giving access to education, to health care, to individual rights. That’s the task, and we have to do it and do it fast and for everyone.