By Fulton Armstrong
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who last month passed the half-way point in his four-year term, has scored some important political gains, with uncertain implications for his country.
- The Obama Administration has embraced him as a partner in the “Alliance for Prosperity,” to which it has committed $750 million year to “build a safer and more prosperous future for [Northern Triangle] citizens.” It represents a doubling of U.S. assistance.
- In a decision Hernández said he “would respect,” last April the Honduran Constitutional Court – key members of which the Congress elected under circumstances of questionable legality when he was Congress President – allowed him and other former presidents to run for reelection. The Chairman of the Congressional budget committee last week said there “should be no doubt” that the party is committed to Hernández serving a second term.
- He successfully parried efforts to create a copy in Honduras of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the UN-sponsored body with extensive powers in that country. The final terms of reference of the OAS-sponsored “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) aren’t as loose as he had proposed, but many of its key definitions, personnel, and funding remain highly uncertain. OAS Secretary General Almagro’s public blessing of it was a public relations coup.
- The Honduran Congress’s approval last week of a new 15-member Supreme Court took numerous rounds of voting – presidents traditionally get the slate approved in one vote – but his party did well enough. Allegations of bribery arose immediately. Praising the new court, he said last Friday that he would soon launch a national dialogue on additional Constitutional reforms and on “revising the social contract of Honduras” and building “a new Honduras.”
Hernández is not without critics in Tegucigalpa and Washington – even if their attacks have not thwarted him. Opponents claim that his desire to overturn Constitutional prohibitions on a second term was more blatant than that of former President Mel Zelaya, whose removal by the military in 2009 Hernández supported claiming that Zelaya violated the prohibition. Hernández has admitted that his party received funds embezzled from the national Social Security agency. The Indignados, a grassroots opposition, doesn’t have the lobbying resources that the government has, but they have mobilized massive peaceful demonstrations, and veteran Honduras watchers praise their idealism, discipline, and maturity beyond their youthfulness.
Hondurans and foreign governments often favor leaders whose appearance of power promises stability, rather than favor processes and values – such as transparency and inclusiveness – that promise more effective democratic institutions. Hernández was elected with barely 35 percent of the vote, but his growing power, coinciding with the weakening of legislative and judicial institutions, has concentrated power on the executive. The country arguably faces one of the most complex situations in its history, on the cusp of either difficult change, such as reducing shocking levels of impunity, or a deepening of the current crisis. The economic and political elites who control the nation have driven it into a rut from which “more of the same” does not appear a viable way out. Hernández won praise from the international financial community by pushing through fiscal adjustments, yet these measures increased inequality in a country where half the population lives on less than $4 a day. Preliminary data show that austerity has brought about an increase in unemployment and underemployment, which already affected roughly half of the labor force. A U.S. and Mexican crackdown on Central American migration has reduced one of the only options that young Hondurans fleeing poverty, violence, and impunity thought they had. While many Hondurans may wind up accepting a President’s reelection to a non-consecutive term, Hernández’s big push for a consecutive one and his talk of a “new social contract” understandably fuels skepticism if not angst.
February 16, 2016