Honduras: Dare Anyone Criticize?

By Fulton Armstrong

Hernandez Honduras

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decision last week by the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court to legalize presidential reelection appears to have benefited a man – current President Juan Orlando Hernández – whose political fortunes got a shot in the arm from the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya for proposing a constitutional assembly to consider just such an action.  A Liberal Party magistrate said he wanted to recant his vote the next day, but the ruling party published the decision in the Gaceta Oficial before he could.  The Supreme Court, ruling in favor of petitions by former Nationalist President Rafael Callejas and several members of Hernández’s National Party, repealed two key articles of the Honduran Constitution, including one that says “the citizen who has served as the head of the executive power cannot be president or presidential candidate.”  Callejas immediately announced that he was resurrecting his Callejista movement, called MONARCA, which won him the presidency in 1990, and his campaign literature appeared in the streets of Tegucigalpa soon after.

The Court did not explicitly overturn Article 4 of the Constitution, which states that an “alternation in the exercise of the presidency of the republic is obligatory.”  That action reportedly will fall to the National Party-led Congress, but President Hernández is almost universally seen as the big winner from the Court decision, culminating his effort to continue as President.  After the coup that removed Zelaya from power, Hernández had a hand in congressional strategies to give a constitutional and legal framework – widely debunked – to Zelaya’s military ouster and later, while serving as president of the Honduran Congress and while campaigning for president, Hernández engineered the removal of four of the five justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court and replaced them with more sympathetic judges.  He subsequently had a role in selecting a replacement for the fifth, who became Attorney General – making for a court unanimously indebted to him.  (He was sworn in as national President in January 2014.)  Reacting to the court decision last week, Hernández noted that “reelection is something that is a general rule around the world … Prohibition of it is the exception … [and] Honduras has to make progress.”  His opponents have vowed to fight the repeal.  Leaders of the Partido de Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) have accused the justices of “betrayal of the fatherland.”  One said the court “guaranteed the impunity” of the Hernández government, but the opposition’s legislative strategies have failed before.

Representing Central America’s most violent and most corrupt nation, President Hernández is seen in Washington as essential to success of U.S. policy in Central America and initiatives such as the “Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle.”  With a request for a billion dollars on its way to the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration can ill afford to point out Hernández’s hypocrisy for doing what he condemned former President Zelaya for trying to do in 2009.  Political inconveniences aside, the political cynicism and tensions that his and former President Callejas’s maneuvering will incite in violence-ravaged Honduras can hardly be seen as helpful to the goals of good governance and democratic consolidation that all profess.  When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega engineered a similar judgment by his Supreme Court in 2009, allowing him to run for an additional term, the State Department did not mince words about its “concern” for its implications.  Hernández, in contrast, was in Washington securing support for funding when his court announced its decision.  The U.S. Southern Command’s new task force of some 250 Marines is expected to arrive in Honduras and begin training of security forces involved in “fighting the drug traffickers.”

May 1, 2015

Honduras Elections: Serious Challenges Ahead

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras faces an enormous challenge in the next two months:  ensuring that elections in November – when Hondurans go to the polls to elect their next president, 128 National Assembly deputies, and municipal authorities – are clean and transparent.  The elections are especially important because they are the first conducted outside the framework of the coup of 2009.  The elections that year, held five months after the coup, were conducted under the black cloud of the break in constitutional order and gave rise to the transition government headed by President Porfirio Lobo.  This year, nine parties are participating – a clear signal that the country’s traditional two-party system is ending.  The Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), with a base among supporters of ousted President Mel Zelaya, has nominated his wife, Xiomara Castro, as its Presidential candidate, and the Anticorruption Party, led by sports journalist Salvador Nasrala, represent a true challenge to the traditional political elite.

All of the polls give the edge to Xiomara Castro, with a lead ranging anywhere from two to eight percentage points, over the candidate of the National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is President of the Congress.  The polls also show that a majority of the population, having witnessed multiple accusations of fraud during the primaries held by the two traditional parties (including Hernández’s), expect the elections to be marred by fraud.  Casting further doubt on the credibility of the outcome is the narrow representation of the parties and lack of professionalism of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is charged with organizing and supervising the elections.  Only the three traditional parties have representatives serving on the TSE and, unlike in other countries, they are distinguished as militants of their parties rather than independents or experts in electoral processes.

Should the results of the election not be seen as legitimate, the potential for conflict is worrisome, and there are ample grounds for concern that the security forces that have proliferated under the Lobo government could be deployed to suppress protest.  Only strong international pressure and strong citizen pressure can guarantee that the elections will be clean and open the possibility for Honduras to overcome the political crisis that has now been damaging the country for several years. 

A number of events – including the firing of Supreme Court justices last December and the National Congress’s intervention in matters far outside its jurisdiction – underscore the continuing tendency toward authoritarian and illegal actions to suit ambitious politicians’ pursuit of power, with potentially dire consequences for the elections. An ongoing economic crisis, including a nearly 50 percent unemployment rate, and a serious deterioration of government finances, also contributes to political fragility. Against this backdrop, the United States and the rest of the international community can play a positive role in promoting elections that are fair and impartial and taking proactive measures to ensure that security forces ill-suited to managing social unrest not be deployed to suppress political dissent.  Failing to do so would waste an opportunity to help effect a truly democratic outcome in Honduras, and invite a further deterioration of a political, economic and social climate that is the most worrisome in Central America.

Honduras: What is U.S. policy?

The sustained surge in crime and violence in Honduras – including more than 60 politically motivated murders in the past year – is raising doubts about the viability of the government and its institutions.  The term “failed state” is often abused, but there’s no doubt that Honduras falls short of the rhetoric about its stability and democracy that the Obama Administration recited when arguing for the country’s readmission to the OAS after the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya.  Indeed, the coup set the country on a downward spiral from being a weak democracy to one struggling for basic credibility.  The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate – 91.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011.

Undersecretary of State María Otero has spent time and energy trying to establish a policy toward Honduras.  During a visit to Tegucigalpa last month, she signed an agreement with Foreign Minister Corrales that “sets the stage for results-oriented action towards our shared objective of a safe Honduras that respects the rule of law and human rights,” and she announced that the United States would provide an additional $1.8 million in aid to help counter gang activity in Honduras.  Despite her efforts, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa have failed to go beyond ready-made programs and put in place a framework for a comprehensive policy.  Programs are not policy.  The Administration appears reluctant to admit that its Honduras policy, which has failed, needs an overhaul.

Multimillion-dollar programs will not succeed until they take into account that the Honduran “partners” upon which they depend are themselves at the core of the problem.  Three years after the coup, the Obama Administration still fails to see that its allies in the struggle against transnational and local gangs, as well as its efforts to build judicial institutions, are the same people who mocked the rule of law, overthrew the previous president, and re-politicized the military and police to serve their own purposes.  (The reasons for Washington’s unwillingness to help fund a “Commission for Security Reform” approved by the Honduran Congress are unclear, but this may be a factor.)  There are strong suspicions in many sectors of Honduran society that members of the country’s political-economic elite are the sponsors of the sicarios (hired gunmen) who have killed dozens of citizens whose offense was to demand an end to government impunity.  Given the challenge that the growing popularity of the country’s new political party, LIBRE, poses to traditional powerbrokers, informed observers expect violence to increase in the run-up to elections next year.  Absent public explanation of U.S. policy, it is fair to ask why Washington hasn’t seen these patterns – obvious to Hondurans – and why it hasn’t offered sustained support from the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement to investigate the assassinations and trace them back to the power bosses.  It is also fair to ask Assistant Secretary of State Brownfield and others who espouse the militarized approach to dealing with organized crime how this strategy, which has failed elsewhere, will succeed in Honduras.  Why hasn’t the Obama Administration supported the sort of U.N.-sanctioned investigative capacity that has proven effective with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala?  Why has Washington not even pushed for meaningful implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released last year?  If Washington wants to make its rhetoric about Honduras into reality, it needs to do more than just to funnel funds into programs run by questionable partners.