Honduras: President Hernández’s Mission

By Fulton Armstrong

Hernandez honduras 2

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

Honduras: No Solution in Sight

Photo Credit: OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

CLALS and the Inter-American Dialogue this week hosted a conversation on the crisis in Honduras with experts Hugo Noé Pino, of the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales, and Carlos Ponce, of Freedom House, and about a dozen of some 80 participants spoke up.  The following are key analytical points that were broadly accepted during the 90-minute session.

Honduras is experiencing a multi-faceted crisis – economic, political, judicial, and security– that has grown steadily worse since the 2009 coup and shows no sign of abating.

  • Economic growth (1.5 percent per capita) is too low to alleviate the country’s severe employment problem (affecting half of the working-age population) and poverty (62 percent). Recent polls indicate that some 63 percent of all Hondurans would leave the country if they could.

Violence, corruption scandals, and the steady weakening of institutions dim prospects for a turnaround.

  • The over-concentration of power in the Executive, the remilitarization of law-enforcement and other security services, and the politicization of the judiciary have undermined what democratic foundation Honduras had built since the last military government stepped down in 1980. The economic and political elites, as well as the media they control, have further stifled political discourse.
  • The Sala Constitucional of the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Tribunal have been stacked to tightly control preparations for elections scheduled for November 2017, apparently with the intention of ensuring the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The Honduran political class lacks the will to root out corruption, and is united in resisting developing the capacity and programs to do so.

  • The embezzlement of more than $300 million from the Social Security Institute – funneling part of these funds to the ruling National Party and a variety of fronts – led to the flight of the investigating fiscal (who left the country because of death threats to himself and his family) but little else. Indeed, the most significant law-enforcement actions, such as the indictment of members of the Rosenthal family on money-laundering charges, have come from the United States. Some 80 percent of crimes in Honduras go uninvestigated and unpunished; some reports put the figure as high as 96-98 percent.
  • A Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Honduras (CICIH), adapted from the successful CICIG model in Guatemala, would be a healthy way of addressing ongoing impunity while building investigative and prosecutorial institutions. The economic and political elites solidly oppose it.  Even if Honduras accepted a CICIH, alone it probably would not be a silver bullet.
  • The OAS’s planned “Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) – announced in late September jointly with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez – shows little promise of success. Its mandate will be to diagnose problems and write reports, not take action or facilitate a serious, inclusive national dialogue.

Opposition to the current Honduran government is strong and growing, but it has not yet institutionalized.

  • Peaceful marches organized by the Indignados and other organizations have mobilized tens of thousands of citizens outraged by government corruption and its inability to provide even basic citizen security. Among the masses have been an unprecedented number of middle-class and upper-middle-class persons – not seen during previous crises.
  • Opposition groups are still struggling, however, to coalesce into a viable, institutionalized political force. Sustaining effective leadership and overcoming pressure from the government and Honduras’s two traditional parties are difficult challenges for them.

There are no magic or quick solutions to the crisis.

  • Any solution would have many moving parts, including recognition by elites that their own assets are threatened by the deepening chaos. The government will have to be held accountable for corruption.  The judiciary will have to be strengthened and made independent.  The military will have to return to the barracks.  The media will have to be professionalized.  Civil society will have to be empowered.
  • The U.S.-sponsored “Alliance for Prosperity” is unlikely to help Honduras – and could make things worse if it doesn’t challenge the status quo. Honduran observers believe that the $250-plus million dollars from the program should focus on deep change – the product of a broad national dialogue – and should be conditioned on deep reforms, rather than working with just the sitting government, which has shown no willingness to reform.
  • U.S. cooperation in counternarcotics and other security operations might in some cases expose partnered services to U.S. respect for human rights and democratic institutions, but the resources transferred in the process also serve to strengthen them and make them more independent of civilian authority.

October 15, 2015

* Correction: The first sentence of the article originally stated “CLALS and the Inter-American Dialogue this week hosted a conversation on the crisis in Honduras with experts Hugo Noé Pino, of the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales, and Carlos Ponce, of Freedom House, and a dozen speakers from among over 80 participants.” It was edited to clarify that “about a dozen of some 80 participants spoke up.”

Is a “CICIH” the answer to Honduras’ Crisis?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

The success of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in driving anti-corruption efforts there – culminating in the resignation of President Pérez Molina – has stoked debate in neighboring Honduras on the wisdom of creating a “CICIH” with the same mission to root out the rot that permeates state institutions and perpetuates the misery of the citizenry.  President Juan Orlando Hernandez has stated categorically that no such entity is needed in Honduras given advances in the country’s own institutions and his own putative commitment to good governance.  Some civil society organizations are at least implicitly concurring by taking part in accountability initiatives involving collaboration with the government.  Other voices from civil society are objecting vociferously, however.  Most notable among them are the indignados, a largely youth-based movement that insists that the President himself and virtually the entire institutional system in Honduras is so rotten that only an international body can be trusted to root out endemic corruption.  The argument rages on, with the indignados staging regular demonstrations and the government – occupied simultaneously with promoting its credibility at home and abroad and maneuvering to secure authorization for presidential re-election – holding fast to its opposition to any such international role.  The debate will continue for the foreseeable future.  We sketch below our understanding of the competing arguments.

Arguments in favor of a CICIH:

By nearly all accounts, corruption has rendered the public and private sectors chronically ineffective – from the President (who admitted that millions from Social Security made it into his campaign coffers and who engaged in nepotism), through the government ministries and even the judicial bureaucracies (where political pressure, intimidation, and bribery are rampant), and companies large and small (for whom payoffs are merely an added budget item).  The country has topped the charts in non-war homicides, including targeted killings, and other violence for several years, further discouraging investigations and prosecutions.  The flood of narcotics and cash through Honduras has thrown fuel onto the flames.  Only an independent, UN-endorsed entity like a CICIH – with its unique ability to train, protect, and motivate judicial personnel, issue indictments, and put powerful people in jail, and shame local government into taking action – can help the country climb out of this deep hole, this argument goes.

Arguments against:

Steven Dudley of InSight Crime notes that the call for a CICIH comes at a time that the Attorney General’s office is showing some signs of life.  Its anti-corruption efforts have led to the indictment and arrest of the former head of the Social Security Institute on charges of embezzlement and illegally financing political parties (although some charges were dropped).  Combating crime, cheaper homemade solutions are showing results in Honduras in terms of training and cases resolved.  Organizations like the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) are doing groundbreaking work to keep homicide levels down in some of the worst neighborhoods at a fraction of the cost of a CICIH.  Expense is another important factor.  In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, which even that country, far wealthier than Honduras, cannot afford.  CICIG has provided valuable assistance and training to Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, but its foreign investigators, who move around in armored vehicles with armed bodyguards, leech massive resources that might otherwise go to fortify local prosecutors’ offices.  Moreover, according to this argument, the investigators don’t need foreign prosecutors to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Skeptics further contend that international donors and pro-reform Hondurans arguably will not get the quick fix and public relations victory they want from a CICIH.  It took over a decade for CICIG to set up in Guatemala and nearly eight years to get the right mix of cases.  Its greatest strategic goal – fortifying Guatemala’s justice system – remains a work in progress.  The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office has not yet executed a complicated, forensic investigation leading to a high-level prosecution.  Honduras’s greater reliance on foreign assistance, according to this argument, suggests a CICIH would actually enable its dependency, rather than break it.

The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching.

September 15, 2015