The Roots of the National Strike in Honduras: An Interview with Bayron Rodríguez Pineda
As the 10-year anniversary of the coup d’état in Honduras approaches, Hondurans are entering into their second week of a national strike that has shut down main highways throughout the country, drawn massive street mobilizations, and reignited calls for the president’s resignation. Led primarily by teachers and doctors under the leadership of the national Health and Education Defense Platform (La Plataforma), the strikes represent staunch opposition to the Juan Orlando Hernández government’s reforms to the health and education systems. The reforms, outlined in a controversial restructuring law for both the health and education ministries, are believed to move both sectors towards privatization. The law’s passage through a special congressional committee sparked mobilizations after protestsbroke out in the halls of Congress as legislators clashed over the bills.
The bills are based in special decrees called President and Council of Ministries (PCMs) that Hernández issued in January 2019, which declared healthcare and education “national emergencies” and allowedthe executive branch to take unilateral measures to intervene in the situation. The restructuring bills establish “Special Commissions for the Transformation of the Health and Education Ministries” comprised of each sector’s Minister and six civil society representatives appointed directly by the president. The Commissions are tasked with rearranging each sector’s ministry and budgetand facilitating contract changes. Teachers and doctors fear that this will lead to mass layoffs and serve as a way to undermine teacher organizing, which has been a primary force against neoliberal reforms in the post-coup era.
The Honduran restructuring plans hark back to emergency management laws implemented in places like Michigan, or the expansion of the charter school model in the U.S. This is likely not a coincidence. This kind of restructuring of the Honduran education system has been part of the government’s agenda since the 2009 coup. In September 2010, post-coup president Porfirio Lobo Sosa famously traveled to New Orleans and signed a memorandum of understanding with then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Tulane University President Scott Cowen to partner on healthcare, public education, and student exchange. The transformation of the public school system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which involved converting 90 percent of public schools into charter schools, was to serve as a model for the Honduran education system. For the Lobo administration, the intent was expressly anti-union. “We’ve had a huge problem with teachers’ unions,” said Mayra Pineda, then liaison between the Honduran government and New Orleans city officials, to the Louisiana Justice Institute.“The teachers are striking all the time, and the kids are losing out on school days. Charter schools are certainly one option to try to solve the union situation.”
Since then, decentralization programs have transferred school management, placing increasing responsibility on low-resourced local municipal governments to administer public schools. Waves of student and teacher protests over the last decade have fought to increase school budgets and defend teachers’ rights. On June 3, President Juan Orlando Hernández issued an executive decree to annul the PCMs and called for a National Roundtable on Health and Education. While organizers view this as a reflection of the power of grassroots organizing, teachers and doctors are not yet declaring victory and have presented a set of demands as conditions for any dialogue with the government.
In the following interview, with Bayron Rodríguez Pineda, a social science teacher in San Pedro Sula, spokesperson for the Department of Cortés in the Health and Education Defense Platform, and spokesperson for the Honduran Federation of Organized Teachers (FOMH), discusses the events leading to the strikes and the significance of the current moment.
Beth Geglia (BG): Hondurans are in day seven of a national strike led by teachers and doctors. Tell me about what is going on in Honduras right now with the strike. What led to it and why is it being waged?
Bayron Rodríguez Pineda (BRP): It’s important to say that the fight has been going on for more than 40 days, and it’s interesting because every day new actors are joining the struggle. First it was the teachers, then the doctors came out, then parents, then workers from the transportation sector, and now the strike has a communal character. It’s been carried out in communities, or it’s being articulated with community-based struggles. It’s gone from being a strike planned by sectors to a neighborhood insurrection, to put it one way. It’s become incredibly strong. We were able to paralyze the city of San Pedro Sula and block highways throughout the country. This is an insurrection that replicates the December  insurrection after the electoral fraud, only it’s stronger and clearer in its goals. Its goals are that we want universal health and education as a human right.
BG: What sparked this kind of action? Can you tell me about the Laws for Restructuring Healthcare and Education?
BRP: The movement has had three main moments. There was a first moment in mid-April that corresponded to the healthcare and education unions. This was when Congress tried to pass the Restructuring Law,which generated a spontaneous reaction from the teachers on a national level, because the law explicitly stated that long-term contracts would be suspended and the budgets for healthcare and education would be reduced. Well, the teachers decided that instead of being fired from their classrooms, they would be better off fighting back, not only for their labor rights but more generally in defense of public education and healthcare. The doctors took a little longer to react because educators in Honduras have a greater capacity for struggle due to a whole history of organizing. So, in this first moment tactics of working-class struggle were used and were successful in halting the Restructuring Law. Congress decided they didn’t want to be responsible for this crisis. Mauricio Oliva, the president of Congress, is in the middle of internal elections, so he decided to pass the burden of this wave of repression onto President Juan Orlando Hernández.
The [Health and Education Defense] Platform then passed on to a second moment, which had to do with the PCMs. PCM stands for a decree passed by the President and the Council of Ministers. In addition to the restructuring bill, since 2011 the executive power invented PCMs under the premise that the education and healthcare systems were in crisis. The Honduran constitution specified that a crisis can be declared for a catastrophe of some kind—a natural disaster, a hurricane, or an epidemic. But from 2011 to today the logic of the executive branch is that there’s a crisis in health and education,and through that the executive branch is able to impose its power and take over functions of the legislative branch. This implies an incredible concentration of power that shouldn’t be allowed in any country that calls itself democratic.
There is a PCM that dates back to 2011—I’m referring to PCM 010-2011—and this prohibits any kind of social or political organizing, makes them illegal. It is a violation of our universal rights. Then [the executive] went into a second phase and passed PCMs dealing with boards and administrators that will supervise teachers. It’s no longer the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health that will decide the budget, but instead a commission that includes international bodies. For example, [the commission has] met twice in the last nine years and what we’ve seen is that they reduced both the healthcare and education budgets. To give you an idea, the healthcare budget 10 years ago was 8.6 percent of the national budget and now, even though the population has grown, it is only 5.2 percent of the national budget. Using the crisis as a justification, the government has taken advantage of this context in which you can’t meet [and] you can’t assemble to defend your rights to cut money from health and education and move it to defense or squander it through corruption.
So, the Restructuring Law was one thing and the PCMs were another, but they are two types of legislation that complement each other. They are two expressions of the same thing. We should remember that these two government initiatives came after an agreement was reached between the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), meaning, the government concedes to the IMF that it will reduce its budget and they look to the health and education sectors, which are already precarious, to cut the budget by a lot more. The state of emergency is just an ideological justification that confuses the public, because of course there’s an emergency in the school system, but it wasn’t caused by the teachers. It wasn’t caused by the population. It’s a crisis that was prompted by the government. At no point does the constitution talk about a crisis as something that can be caused by an adjustment in the budget or because the government itself is fabricating the crisis.
Now we’re in a third moment, and this is where we’ve had confusion. We needed to understand what comes after the PCM. The Platform decided to enter into dialogue, but it can’t be a rigged dialogue in which the executive power doesn’t want to cede anything. They’ve had to make concessions thanks to the massive protests and the mobilization of so many sectors of society, but not because they wanted to. My position is that demobilizing ourselves would be a mistake. Here we’ve created organizations that we hope will survive this current context, and those are the public education defense committees, organized from inside the schools, with conscious parents and teachers. Those need to maintain a clear grassroots position in order to not be used from above.
BG: How are the Restructuring Laws and PCMs related to the project of decentralization in the country that has been aimed first and foremost at the health and education sectors?
BRP: These initiatives are the execution of the kind of decentralization that they [the ruling class] has always wanted to implement. This is a decentralization aimed at ridding the state of its obligation and constitutional responsibility to guarantee universal healthcare and education. They want to convert health and education into decentralized services for which municipal mayors would take responsibility. But the majority of Honduras’ 298 municipalities don’t have the capacity to sustain teachers, or to take on more management. In some cases, maybe they do, but they don’t have the intention of investing in education and health, only in infrastructure, social hand-out programs—things they can use to further manipulate the population or that facilitate their acts of corruption. The other thing is that they don’t just want to pass the responsibility on to the municipalities, but to decentralize it even further, pass it off to school management networks or NGOs to administer schools with international financing from places like US AID. Or they want schools to be managed like some type of telethon, a telethon in which you ask for donations and create a whole campaign just to see if you’ll have a budget for the whole year. The decentralization goes beyond the municipal level.
BG: Tell me about the importance of teachers and teacher organizing in Honduras, both in the current political context and from a historical perspective.
BRP: Teachers, if we can call them a social class, have been one of the few working-class sectors that has clear experience in the struggle and that has made a hugely important contribution to the general public. First, they were among the first sectors to unionize after the dictatorships of the 1940s and the popular struggle of 1954. Then they survived horrible decades of repression under the military dictatorships of the 60s and 70s. They incorporated themselves into the popular struggle of the 1980s, considered the “lost decade” or the “dark decade” of Central America, where they again survived systematic repression. When the world thought that working-class struggle had been defeated internationally with the fall of the Soviet Union, and sectors of society everywhere were losing their rights, the teachers here in 1997 were winning one of their biggest victories, which was the Teacher Statutes, which protected them while defending their labor rights. After that, teachers fought for better salaries and for the statutes to be respected.
When 2009 arrived, they confronted the military coup. Teachers became the backbone of the struggle against the coup d’état. They understood right away that what was coming was a plan to terrorize and subordinate the people and turn us into short-term contingent workers. Teachers sustained the fight in 2009 and in 2011 they defeated the General Education Law. A terror campaign was waged against teachers at that point and they were threatened, attacked, sometimes murdered for organizing. In 2012 the government took advantage of the two months of vacation starting in January and pushed through the Fundamental Education Law at a time when teachers weren’t in their classrooms and didn’t have any means to defend themselves. The Fundamental Education Law started a process of outsourcing our labor and so again the teachers put up a fight. Later we decided to incorporate ourselves into other struggles; we participated in the indignados [anti-corruption] movement in 2016 and in the uprising after the electoral fraud [in 2017]. The neighborhoods here in San Pedro Sula were some of the most repressed. There are teachers who deserve medals for all the struggle they’ve given. So yes, teachers have been a backbone of the popular struggle here and that is why they want to do away with this generation, especially the older teachers who have so much history.
BG: Is that part of the objective with these laws that facilitate the firing of teachers?
BRP: Layoffs would be massive. First, the government wants to change teachers’ work contract. We have what we call a long-term contract (permanent contract), which gives us job security. The first thing they want to do is take that away and, in doing so, ensure that the teacher can be fired or outsourced, or moved to a short-term contract. Remember, the IMF advises the government on salaries for all types of workers in Honduras. For doctors—imagine how much schooling a doctor needs to get a specialization—they recommend a salary of 14,000 lempiras ($566) per month, and for teachers, 9,000 lempiras ($364), 2,000 lempiras less than a police officer in the military police unit who is newly recruited and sent to the street to shoot at the people. So the restructuring aimed to first make our work contingent and second, to fire some—not everyone because they can’t completely eliminate the body of teachers. They need there to be education, but they want to decentralize it and change its logic—to reduce it to a service. They want teachers on short-term contracts of maybe three months. Our jobs will become dependent on allegiance to a political party. It’s harder to organize this way, but it’s also harder to survive. Imagine after five years of study you graduate as a teacher so that they give you a miserable salary and a contract every three months. It won’t be seen as a viable profession.
BG: People are saying that in Honduras, people power is winning. What do you think this moment means for the administration of Juan Orlando Hernández and the greater struggle for democracy in Honduras?
BRP: Well, I believe in the concept of people power, but in Honduras this has been reduced to a discourse, propaganda. I think that in Honduras, yes, there is the possibility of building a duality of power, one that really confronts power, because past movements haven’t yet achieved this. There are a few things being born out of this movement that we don’t know yet whether or not they’ll endure. We are seeing the construction of collective power in a lot of communities, but it is still a very nascent power.
The protest movement is diverse, it has been peaceful, it’s creative. It’s awakening a lot of consciousness and there is also joy and happiness. There are people who transmit their optimism, but on the other side there is heavy repression—live bullets and tear gas that is even more toxic and more deadly than the kinds used in the past—because that is what the state apparatus is trained for, and they’re trained primarily by the U.S. government.
[Beth Geglia is a researcher and documentary filmmaker currently based in Honduras. She is completing her Ph.D. in Anthropology at American University. Her dissertation on ZEDE development, governance, and land struggles in Honduras is supported by a grant from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).]