This week in Honduras, the equivalent happened: in a country with an estimated population of 7.8 million, 1.26 million signatures were gathered on petitions to begin the process of writing a new constitution. But don't hold your breath waiting for this to be covered by the mainstream media.
Even in Honduras, only El Tiempo actually reported this development fully. Other newspapers chose only to mention that the Frente de Resistencia had called for marches, always in the context of reporting that security minister Oscar Alvarez was prepared, as he said, to prevent any vandalism, with 3000 police deployed in Tegucigalpa.
The marches called for are counter-demonstrations to the annual observance of September 15, celebrated throughout Central America as the anniversary of Independence from Spain in 1821. This year, September 15 was also the deadline chosen by the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular for the completion of its drive to obtain 1.25 million signatures on a petition for a national constitutional assembly, the asamblea constituyente. In linking the two, the Frente advanced a powerful symbolic claim to following in the footsteps of Honduras' founding fathers.
According to the announcement by Eulogio Chávez, president of the Colegio de Profesores de Educación Media de Honduras (COPEMH), and attorney Rasel Tome, who have been supervising counting of the signed petitions at the office of the beverage workers' union (STIBYS), on Sunday the count reached 1,269,142 signatures. This set the Frente to proceed to mark the anniversary of Independence Day as the beginning of the next phase of their campaign for a constitutional assembly, with a call for nation-wide demonstrations and marches apart from the official celebrations of Independence Day.
In Honduras, whose flag still features a star for each of the countries that once made up the República Federal de Centroamérica, Independence Day is marked particularly by marches by school children who for weeks before have practiced, accompanied by children's marching bands, literally bandas de guerra or military bands, drum corps beating rhythms more appropriate to the armed forces than schools.
This is a festival of nationalism exhibiting a melange of symbols of identity that makes me, as an anthropologist, want to spend pages in thick description.
So to spare you that, take a look at how Wikipedia describes the annual celebration:
Honduras Independence Day festivities start early in the morning with marching bands. Each band wears different colors and features cheerleaders. Fiesta Catracha takes place this same day: typical Honduran foods such as beans, tamales, baleadas, [yuca] with chicharron and tortillas are offered.The mobilization of children of all ages, from kindergarten to secondary school, in cities across the country, makes September 15 one of those national expressions that becomes a part of the unexamined embodied knowledge that anthropologists identify as the most powerful means for the reproduction of culture. That's what September 15 is ultimately about: children learning that they are part of a national whole through persistent participation, so that as adults they don't even think to question the national myths. What the Frente is seeking to do is push a wedge into that unexamined knowledge, and gain the attention of Honduran society, to open up the possibility of deliberate, consciously considered change in the charter of government.
On this anniversary of Honduras' first foray into self-governance, it is underlining that the call for a constituyente is neither a call for anarchy nor for dictatorship.
The basic questions anyone might have about how, under existing Honduran law, such a process might be initiated are simple enough that they could be addressed in straightforward prose in a series of pamphlets, described on the website Revistazo.
This series was published by a group of religious organizations dedicated to community service, the Organismo Cristiano de Desarrollo Integral de Honduras (Christian Development Organization of Honduras, OCDIH), CARITAS, the Instituto Ecuménico Hondureño de Servicios a la Comunidad (Honduran Ecumenical Institute of Community Services, INESHCO), and Radio Santa Rosa (the radio station of the Santa Rosa diocese). It is a reminder that support for debate about Honduran governance is not, as authorities in Honduras and the US would like to insist, a project of extremists.
If there ever emerges serious discussion of the signature drive for the constitutional assembly in English media, we can expect that the news media will attempt to minimize the achievement. After all, 16% of the population is not a majority. But recall my first analogy: the equivalent in the US, given the 2010 census population estimate of 308 million people, would be more than 49 million people. As another comparison: in January of this year, Gallup reported that nationally, only 27% of US voters identified as Republican; yet no one would argue that Republicans can, or should be, ignored in national policy debates.
International commentators (if they ever pay attention) are also likely to argue that the number is of unknown (or questionable) reliability, because the count was kept by adherents of the cause. This, in fact, is one of the most apparent reasons that the coup d'etat against Manuel Zelaya had to take place on June 28, 2009, to prevent any assessment of the level of support for a constitutional assembly to take place under governmental supervision, even by a government whose credibility had been systematically undermined by media editorializing.
And if, working on a grass-roots level without government or international NGO support, the signature campaign was able to achieve this level of participation, perhaps we have a better idea of what the authors of the coup did not want the world to know: that disillusion with the present form of Honduran government has reached a significant level, one that would need to be taken into account in a truly democratic society.
Which is one thing September 15 is without a doubt about: the first steps taken in Honduras toward government by the Honduran people. Which makes it a good date to take another step along that long road.