Honduras: Hernández Stealing the Election Too?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. / Embassy of Honduras / Creative Commons

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and the military have declared a “state of emergency” – tantamount to martial law – to ensure that the President wins a second term, but irregularities in the vote-counting and the harsh suppression of the opposition probably will poison political discourse and hinder democratic progress for years to come.  The government declared the emergency, which will run for 10 days, on Friday night after days of growing tensions over mysterious actions by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) – heavily stacked in favor of Hernández – that erased opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla’s five-point lead earlier in the week and moved toward formalizing the incumbent’s victory by 1.5 percentage points.  Senior government officials themselves have characterized the action as a “suspension of constitutional guarantees.”  Hondurans are now living under a dusk-to-dawn curfew; radio and TV stations have been warned against publicizing opposition claims of fraud; and street confrontations are growing.  Media confirm several deaths, but opposition leaders say that more than a dozen demonstrators have been killed.  Opposition videos showing military and police violence, including chasing individual protestors and shooting them, have been removed from Facebook and other venues, although still photos of the victims can be found.

  •  The TSE has agreed to hand-count about a thousand ballot boxes with “irregularities” in three of 18 departments, representing about 6 percent of the votes, but the opposition claims that several thousand more boxes have been compromised and need to be reviewed.

International reaction has been mixed and generally muted.  The EU’s observers have held firm on demanding a full vote count and expressing, diplomatically, skepticism about TSE’s handling of it.  Observers for the “Grupo de Lima,” which has been active on the Venezuela issue, issued a “position” paper on election day (November 26) urging calm and patience with the vote count, but it has released no apparent updates since then.  OAS observers have taken a similar low-key position.

  • Although the Trump Administration may conceivably be working behind the scenes, neither the White House nor State Department has done publicly more than urge calm. Vice President Pence, who previously praised Hernández “for his leadership in addressing security and governance challenges,” has remained silent.  The U.S. chargé d’affaires has said Honduras is in “a new, unprecedented phase in the electoral process” but limited herself to calling for calm and a full vote count.

The audacity of this apparent election fraud and crackdown on Hernández’s opponents dwarfs the many other charges of corruption brought against the Hernández government, including some validated by the OAS Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).  Although different in form from the coup in 2009, these events also threaten to undermine the nation’s political stability, economic wellbeing, and institutions necessary to building democracy.  The U.S. reaction suggests that Washington will acquiesce in the ongoing abuses and Hernández’s second term despite the obvious irregularities and rights violations.  The United States – convinced as in the past that political leaders who are “our SOBs” can make good partners – has often countenanced dubious elections.  Moreover, both the Obama and Trump Administrations were persuaded that Hernández has been their faithful, effective ally in combating the drug trade, despite evidence of official involvement in it, and the temptation to turn a blind eye to less-than-democratic political outcomes must be strong.

  •  The OAS, the “Lima Group,” and other intraregional groupings do not appear poised to weigh in despite their good intentions. Neither do Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador appear likely to condemn a neighbor for engaging in practices that are ongoing or fresh in their own near pasts.  The Inter-American Democratic Charter, a historic document laying out hemispheric values, is of little value in the absence of the political will and ability to enforce it.  Now is a crunch time both for the OAS and for those governments that advocate some teeth to the charter.  At this point, they appear likely to cave – to the detriment of democracy in Latin America.

 December 4, 2017

MACCIH: An Early Progress Report

By Chuck Call*

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Juan Jiménez Mayor, Spokesman of the MACCIH Mission in Honduras, presented an update about MACCIH at the OAS in December 2016. / Juan Manuel Herrera, OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The OAS “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) approaches its first anniversary in April with some gains and many challenges.  Launched after months of negotiations with the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, MACCIH was created partly in response to widespread street protests by the Indignados (the “Outraged”), angered that the president’s campaign had benefitted from $300 million embezzled by officials of the Social Security Institute (IHSS).  Hernández was widely believed to accept the mission only because his tenure in office – and a possible second term – were in danger.

  • MACCIH was inspired by Guatemala’s CICIG, the UN-backed commission supporting that country’s judicial institutions, but Hernández insisted on major differences. He consented only to a mission of the OAS, generally seen as weaker than the United Nations.  MACCIH is weaker than CICIG in that it cannot initiate its own case investigations and must channel all its investigative and prosecutorial work through Honduran authorities.  (CICIG enjoys full investigative police powers and can initiate its own wiretaps and surveillance.)  MACCIH is headed in-country by a “spokesman” for the OAS Secretary-General, who nominally leads the mission from Washington, and its $2 million first-year budget has been only about one-sixth that of CICIG’s annual budget.

As a result, MACCIH opened to skepticism that its slow start hasn’t dispelled.  Its investigations have produced virtually no corruption-related arrests or prosecutions.  Setting up the office took much of 2016.  The head of criminal investigations only arrived in the summer, and the public security office only opened this month.  In contrast, a Honduran Police Reform Commission has sacked over 3,000 police officers.  Civil society organizations complain of MACCIH’s lack of impact, and a novel “observatory” comprising academic institutions and civil society groups remains ill-defined.  MACCIH’s decision not take up the investigation of the high-profile murder of environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres has seemed to sideline the mission from a case that emblemizes impunity, even if it seems not to involve far-reaching corruption.

  • However, MACCIH has scored some wins. It has embarked on a handful of complex corruption cases, including the IHSS case that sparked its creation.  The mission helped Honduran prosecutors prepare charges of arms possession against Mario Zelaya, the highest-profile suspect in the IHSS case, which kept him in jail long enough for more serious charges to be brought.  It helped secure two laws – to regulate campaign financing and to create a nationwide anti-corruption jurisdiction with its own selected judges and prosecutors.  MACCIH’s in-country leader, former Peruvian Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor, has been forward-leaning in acting on his mandate.
  • MACCIH gained support in an early test late last year. In November, its concerns about several Hernández nominees to the Tribunal Superior de Cuentas, an audit court with special powers over corruption investigations, earned the ire of Honduran senior officials who complained to Secretary General Almagro.  The appointments were not altered, laying bare the mission’s limitations.  But Almagro stood by his organization’s analysis and role, with Jiménez Mayor emerging stronger as his special representative, not just his spokesman.
  • That same month, the board chair of Transparency International, José Ugaz, visited Honduras and urged civil society organizations to help ensure MACCIH’s success. Since then, they have showed a more positive attitude toward MACCIH, and more witnesses are now cooperating with the mission.

Comparisons between MACCIH with CICIG may arguably be unfair just one year out.  Observers recall that CICIG had difficulty showing impact in its initial investigations and was criticized as ineffectual.  Delivering on its ambitious mission to help curb corruption and impunity – in a country notorious for both – will be even harder.  However, the mission has accomplished as much as CICIG did in its first year in case investigations and legal reform.  Despite its limitations and slow start, MACCIH’s performance does not preclude obtaining far-reaching corruption convictions and strengthening the Honduran judicial system in coming years.  As civil society groups seem to be getting past their disappointment that their country did not get a CICIG, their collaboration will be crucial to the mission’s success.

March 13, 2017

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University.

Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

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Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Intense Electoral Year in Latin America

By Carlos Malamud*

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Chilean President Michelle Bachelet with the leaders of her coalition, Nueva Mayoría. The Chilean presidential election of 2017 will determine the legacy of the Nueva Mayoría. / Gobierno de Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The new year will be an intense one for Latin American elections.  Although perhaps not as important as those taking place in 2018, this year’s elections will have a significant impact on the countries holding them and, in some cases, the region as a whole.

  • In Ecuador’s presidential and legislative elections on February 19, the PAIS Alliance will run a slate of nominees for the first time without Rafael Correa heading its slate. The President said he’s stepping down for family reasons, but Ecuador’s economic problems, aggravated by the decline in oil prices, apparently convinced him to seal his legacy on a high note now rather than end his time in office in defeat.  The party’s presidential candidate, former Vice President Lenin Moreno, has a 10-point lead in polls over his closest competitor and has the advantage of facing an opposition divided among seven candidates, but his leadership remains uncertain.
  • In Mexico, the state governors of México, Nayarit, and Coahuila and mayor of Veracruz are up for election on June 4. The race in México state will measure the popular backing of the four parties in contention – PRI, PAN, PRD, and López Obrador’s new Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) – in the 2018 presidential election.  The older parties will begin to weed out the weaker pre-candidates.
  • Elections for half of the Argentine Congress and a third of its Senate in October will define the second half of President Mauricio Macri’s presidency. The government is confident that economic recovery will strengthen its election prospects.  A weak showing will strengthen the Peronista opposition and complicate Macri’s agenda.  The Peronistas are currently divided into three big factions – that of Sergio Massa; the “orthodox” wing headed by some provincial governors, and corruption-plagued Kircherismo grouping headed by former President Cristina Fernández.  Open, simultaneous, and obligatory primaries (known by the Spanish acronym PASO) in August will be an important test for all.
  • Chile will elect a successor to President Michelle Bachelet on November 19. Primaries in July will reveal whether the country’s two big coalitions – the center-left (including the President’s Nueva Mayoría) and the center-right – are holding, as well as the presidential candidates’ identity.  The names of former Presidents Sebastián Piñera and Ricardo Lagos are in the air, but it’s too early to know how things will play out in the environment of growing popular disaffection with politics and politicians.
  • Honduras will hold elections on November 26. Due to a Supreme Court decision permitting reelection, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández could face a challenge from ex-President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who was removed from office by the Army in June 2009, running as head of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) Party.
  • Also in November, Bolivia will elect members of various high courts, including the Constitutional, Supreme, and Agro-Environmental Tribunals and the Magistracy Council. These elections will reveal the support President Evo Morales will have as he tries to reform the Constitution to allow himself to run for yet another term in office.

These elections in 2017 have a heavy national component but will shed light on the region’s future direction.  The success or failure of the populist projects in Ecuador and Honduras, or of President Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría in Chile, will tell us where we are and, above all, help us discern where we’re headed.

January 17, 2017

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  This article was originally published in Infolatam.

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

Tim Kaine: Boon for Latin America Policy?

By Tom Long*

Tim Kaine

Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul.  Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.

  • Kaine spent nine months in El Progreso, Honduras, as a young man working at a high school founded by Jesuit missionaries; he learned Spanish there and frequently mentions the period as formative. His approach to the region and immigration seems anchored in a focus on human dignity and belies an understanding of the difficult circumstances many there face.  El Progreso is close to San Pedro Sula, which has been a center of the country’s staggering violence and emigration.  In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine wrote that when unaccompanied minors arrived to the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers, “I felt as if I knew them.”
  • As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has developed a rare policy focus on Honduras. He has pressed the U.S. and Honduran governments on issues of human rights in the wake of the 2009 coup.  In 2013, Kaine urged Secretary of State John Kerry for stronger U.S. support for elections.  Just two weeks ago, he called on Honduran President Hernández for greater effort on justice in the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • Kaine has placed immigration policy at the confluence of foreign and domestic policy. He has pressed President Obama to halt “deportation raids targeting families and unaccompanied minors who have fled the rampant violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.”
  • Kaine’s political rhetoric often reflects his Jesuit background, and his Catholicism-inspired references to social justice – and his warm welcome for Pope Francis – are likely to earn him an empathetic ear among many throughout Latin America.

Vice-presidential leadership for the Americas offers an important opportunity – and one that Tim Kaine, if elected, is likely to use wisely.  He has complained that Washington usually pays attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis, and has argued the region should get similar priority as China, Russia, or the Middle East.  He would build on efforts initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has chaired a “High Level Economic Dialogue” with Mexico and pushed for the $750 million “Alliance for Prosperity” in Central America.  Kaine would be an asset in relationships that often fuse international and domestic policy, slicing across the domains of myriad departments and agencies.  While Kaine’s personal interest and positive relationships don’t guarantee policy successes on migration, drug policy, citizen security, and development assistance as vice president, his language skills and reputation for treating colleagues with respect all but guarantee a warm reception from leaders of countries long aggrieved by U.S. highhandedness. 

August 2, 2016

*Tom Long is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading (UK) and an Affiliated Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Honduras: President Hernández’s Mission

By Fulton Armstrong

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Photo credit: Public domain

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

The Zika Virus and a New Debate on Reproductive Rights

By Rachel Nadelman*

Zika Women

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson and PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

The call by half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean governments for women to put off pregnancies – as the World Health Organization warns the feared Zika virus is “spreading explosively” – is stimulating a new debate on reproductive rights in the region.  El Salvador’s Health Ministry has urged women to “avoid becoming pregnant this year and next,” and Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, and others are issuing similar advisories.  A mosquito-borne disease spreading rapidly in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, Zika is blamed for causing devastating neurological birth defects in newborns whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy.  The U.S. Center on Disease Control has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to the more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries now hosting the disease.

Named for the Uganda forest where it was discovered in the late 1940s, Zika is carried and transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, best known as the vector for life-threatening viruses like yellow fever and dengue.  Within the Western Hemisphere, the Aedes population has increased drastically in recent years, linked by scientists to changes in climate.  Yet Zika’s arrival in Latin America last year, first documented in Brazil, and subsequent expansion did not attract major attention until the pattern of birth defects emerged.  Zika’s symptoms are sometimes imperceptible or typically mild, including fever, joint aches, and conjunctivitis, so health officials did not consider it a major threat to the general population.  Although definitive clinical proof is still lacking, Zika is now linked to microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes children to be born with small heads because of abnormal brain development in the womb or immediately after birth.  The emergence of Zika in Latin America has coincided with a more than 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly.  (Brazil has reported 4,000 cases in the past year, a drastic increase from just 150 in 2014).  The babies suffer from poor brain function and reduced life expectancy.  Doctors are finding traces of the virus in the brains of microcephaly-inflicted babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Warnings and advisories offer no help to the millions of women who live in afflicted countries.  Governments are launching fumigation programs to reduce the Aedes mosquito population and thereby limit disease transmission.  Asking populations to refrain from having children appears a bit facile, if not cynical, in a region with low levels of access to birth control for reasons that range from religious dictates to economic obstacles.  Severely restrictive abortion laws also complicate potential parents’ options.  Five Latin American countries (including Honduras and El Salvador, hard hit by Zika) ban abortion without exception, even to save the mother’s life.  Others criminalize abortion with few allowances.  According to the Guttmacher institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Zika’s link to these devastating birth defects has generated unprecedented public discussion throughout Latin America about women’s and families’ rights and responsibilities for taking control of reproduction.  It is far too early to know if the health advisories will have practical impact on the incidence of microcephaly – or on attitudes toward reproductive rights over the longer term.   

February 1, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

Lobbying Washington: Does it Work?

By Aaron T. Bell*

LatAm Lobbying

Photo credits: Jack Says Relax & AlexR. L., respectively / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Latin American governments, political parties, and business associations have a long history of turning to U.S.-based lobbying, legal, and public relations firms to advance their interests in the United States – with mixed results.  Both national and multinational groups have been utilizing lobbyists since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. government began registering foreign agents.  Their most consistent goal over the decades has been to influence U.S. policy on foreign trade and investment, but they have also aimed to improve governments’ sagging reputation and protect them from adverse policies.  In the 1970s, a number of military regimes and right-wing political groups in Central and South America hired lobbyists to devise and implement strategies to counter criticism of their human rights record – to preserve trade and military assistance.

  • Some 30 Latin American countries and interests groups in 2010-14 registered foreign agents to influence U.S. policies. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism spent the most, paying $128.9 million to promote tourism – as well as to monitor and speak with Congressional representatives about U.S. legislation related to transnational financial activities in which they are involved, such as the regulation of offshore tax havens and online casinos.
  • In 2013, Mexico ranked fifth worldwide, at $6.1 million. Both federal and local governments pay firms to burnish the image of their respective constituencies.  From 2010-12, for example, Mexico City worked with a firm to “enhance the image of Mexico City in light of recent negative media reports.”  In 2014, the Consejo de Promoción Turístico de México hired another company to “make Mexico an attractive destination.”
  • Ecuador, which at $1.1 million ranked twenty-second in 2013, spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying in support of the ultimately failed Yasuni rain forest oil drilling initiative.
  • More recently, the government of Honduras – burdened with the image as one of the most violent, corrupt, and crime-ridden countries in the world – hired lobbyists to “provide ongoing strategic counsel, media relations (proactive and reactive outreach), and third-party relations.” The firm, winning an initial one-year contract for $420,000, had just completed a nine-year relationship representing Russia.

A review of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records indicates that foreign lobbyists represent almost exclusively governments, state agencies, and the private business sector, and that more popular civil-society actors – such as labor unions and indigenous organizations – are notably absent.  Even though foreign governments obviously judge the investment worthwhile, the impact of foreign-funded lobbyists is difficult to measure.  The Honduran government’s new push to burnish its image has paid off on Capitol Hill, according to observers, but a new initiative to reduce Honduran corruption doesn’t appear to have gone exactly as Tegucigalpa hoped.  Forced to respond to a protest wave calling for the creation of an independent investigative body similar to the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), the Honduran government agreed with the OAS to create the Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) as a collaborative effort.  MACCIH indeed lacks the independence – and the potential bite – that CICIG had, but it is significantly tougher than the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández initially proposed.  In this case at least, lobbyists have helped the government gain access and public relations points in Washington but didn’t get it off the hook entirely.

January 22, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Honduras: The Need to Differentiate among the Gangs

By Steven Dudley

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Honduras street gangs – often inaccurately lumped into a single category – are a complex, deep-rooted social and criminal phenomenon that is driving violence and migration in record numbers. InSight Crime, after investigating them for most of 2015, found that the catch-all term “maras” is at once ominous and ill-defined. The two largest gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 – have similar criminal revenue streams, but different approaches to obtaining those proceeds. Recognizing these differences is an important part of undermining their power and influence.

  • Extortion is a critical source of funding for both groups. This includes the public transportation system and taxi cooperatives in the largest urban areas, which account for a huge percentage of the gangs’ earnings. InSight Crime talked to one member of a bus cooperative that was paying four gangs extortion fees and was being pestered by a fifth.
  • The groups’ approach to local extortion targets – small businesses, shops, or local delivery services – is different. The MS13 does not extort where they operate; the Barrio 18 does, with huge implications for the gangs’ relations with the neighborhood’s residents and local police. The Barrio 18 is seen as predatory; the MS13 is often seen as a protector.
  • The MS13 is more focused on local drug sales, which allows it to forgo the easy extortion proceeds. Because it meddles less with residents, the MS13 has better relations with the local police, who, in turn, target the Barrio 18 with more resources and vigor. This also positions MS13 for better relations with community leaders and politicians, and it reportedly can, in some cases, act as the unofficial social services operator in cases of child or spousal abuse. In one area InSight Crime visited, the MS13 gives accused abusers a warning after the first report, a beating after the second, and banishment (or worse) after the third.
  • While they may operate under a single umbrella, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 also vary widely in sophistication and reach, wherewithal, and infrastructure. They are semi-autonomous and prone to violent spasms that have wide-reaching implications for the communities in which they operate. The Barrio 18 appears to be less disciplined and less focused on bigger goals than the elements of the MS13 InSight Crime studied. Barrio 18 members give the impression that their struggle is more about human survival than expansion in the underworld. They live by “codes,” such as “respect the barrio,” that are evoked as a pretext for nearly any action, violent or otherwise, against outsiders and fellow gang members alike.
  • The violent ethos that guides the Barrio 18 and the MS13 is shared by their rivals, who include offshoots of the two main gangs, vigilantes, and soccer hooligans. Almost all live from the same income sources – extortion and local drug peddling. Some days they are allies; other days they are enemies.

The repercussions of oversimplifying the situation – treating all gangs as the same – are not trivial. Honduras continues to struggle with record levels of violence, and the United States is grappling with record levels of asylum applicants from gang-riddled countries like Honduras. There are times for a hammer, with criminal groups that only seem to understand force. But there are also moments when negotiation, accommodation, and social programs are more persuasive, and long-lasting, than simply sending in more troops and arresting more youths with tattoos. The trick is to know the difference, but we can only do that if we start to see these groups as complex and dynamic organizations with different criminal economies, social relations, and political ambitions.

December 14, 2015

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS. The full report “Gangs in Honduras” is available in English here and in Spanish here.