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Zelaya takes office
Latin America Data Base
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New president promises to remedy country’s socioeconomic problems.

The swearing in of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Jan. 27 put to rest what electoral observers say was the worst presidential election since the country’s return to democracy 25 years ago. The final results were not released until Dec. 23, nearly a month after elections were held.

With all that behind him, Zelaya, 53, a member of the Liberal Party, received the presidential sash with promises to govern "with honesty and transparency, which is what the country needs most." As a good-faith gesture in that direction, he signed the Citizens’ Participation Law, which he said would "give the people the participation to watch the government and put an end to corruption in Honduras." The law had been passed in Congress the night before and presented to him for signature at the ceremony.

While Zelaya does not have a majority in the 128-seat Congress, the Liberal Party’s Roberto Micheletti was elected Jan. 25 as that body’s president, so Zelaya will not be facing a hostile legislature.

Another of his immediate acts was to order his Education Minister Rafael Pineda Ponce to "take all measures necessary to guarantee that no child, no young Honduran, has to pay to go to a public school." Zelaya said that, as the son of a schoolteacher, he made the commitment to make public education a high priority.

Zelaya vowed to protect water resources, prevent illegal timbering, and see to it that, for every tree legally cut, one would be planted in its place. Mining permits would henceforth include conservation measures.

Without environmental guarantees, he said, no more open-pit mining permits would be issued. On energy, he would follow up on a report to deal with energy costs. He has scheduled a meeting with distributors Shell, Dippsa, and Esso to deal directly with the local causes of high prices.

To promote transparency in his government, Zelaya said he would promote municipal decentralization and require that his Cabinet deliver sworn reports of their personal assets. He will seek the passage of transparency laws and access to public information. These will supplement the participation law he signed, which creates the National Forum of Citizens’ Participation.

Mixed bag economy

In economic terms, the Honduras that Zelaya inherits from former President Ricardo Maduro is a mixed bag, according to analysts. Unemployment in all its categories has risen between 2001 and 2005, and the poverty level remains high. Together with decreases in real income and a worsening distribution of income indicate a deteriorating situation for citizens, even though the macroeconomic picture is brighter. The deficit, inflation, growth, exports, rate of currency devaluation, all show improvement since 2001. But the National Statistics Institute concluded that the microeconomic situation of the country is worse.

Zelaya announced a plan through which minimum-wage earners might be able to buy their own houses. For small-property owners in financial crisis, he promised a plan to refinance, and with that, a fund for deputies to develop projects in their own districts, as is done in Costa Rica.

Turning to security, a topic of great importance in a country’s whose high crime rate and gang problems have left many citizens with a sense of insecurity, Zelaya said that he would increase the number of police officers on the streets.

During his campaign, Zelaya said he was not content to deal with the country’s gang problem with severe sanctions ignoring the social causes. Maduro put many gang members in the country’s overcrowded prisons.

A dialogue with gangs

On Jan. 30, Zelaya announced his intention to enter into talks with members of the most notorious international gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, and has put his Security Minister retired Gen. Alvaro Romero on the case.

"The mareros have asked to dialogue with the government, and I believe I’m obligated to listen to them to learn their expectations," said the minister. "They are looking for a way out of this tunnel they have been stuffed into, and it’s necessary to give them a chance."

He said that he will soon meet with Catholic Bishop Rómulo Emiliani and evangelical pastor Mario Fumero invited as mediators. Both have been working for years on programs to rehabilitate the gangs. Romero said he wants to offer them an alternative by which to give up their weapons and criminal ways. The general said he believes that the gangs are nothing new, that they have always been around in one form or another, and that they have of late been exploited by organized crime.

Emiliani expressed enthusiasm for the government’s plan, telling a reporter, "I like Romero’s attitude very much, and I’m disposed to collaborate with his initiative." The bishop has tried in the past to mediate between the gangs and Maduro’s government, but without success. With this government, he expects better results. His long experience with the groups, he said, indicates that Mara 18 "is less numerous but better organized and disciplined than Mara Salvatrucha, and is looking for reconciliation with society. They are ready to talk with the state because they want to reinsert themselves into their homeland."

To accomplish his program, Zelaya has filled his Cabinet with many people who are outside the norm and to the left of the center-right Liberal Party. For many analysts, there remains some doubt whether Zelaya can reorient the country in view of the entrenchment of conservatism in his own party, in the opposition, and in centers of power outside government.


President Manuel Zelaya vows t
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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