Honduras: Simmering Crisis

Porfirio Lobo and Hillary Clinton
US Embassy Guatemala
/ Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Little good and lots of bad has transpired in Honduras since the night in June 2009 that an Army-backed coup d’état, orchestrated by the economic elites, ousted President Mel Zelaya and installed Roberto Micheletti as the de facto ruler.  Almost four years later, Honduras remains one of the places in the Americas where democracy is at permanent risk – where drug trafficking, corruption, impunity, private armies and feudal caudillos thrive in a climate of spiraling violence.  Honduras today is the most violent country in the Americas and last year was among the top three in the numbers of assassinated journalists.  Honduras also remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo lacked credibility from the moment he donned the presidential sash in January 2010 – the candidate who, by almost all accounts, would have lost the election had not the coup reversed that fate, clamped down on opposition media, and suspended many civil rights.  While Washington worked hard to gain OAS recognition of his government, Lobo offered no guarantees – to either Hondurans or foreigners – that he would reverse the ongoing activities of the Army and rapacious economic elites to undermine democratic institutions.

  • Timid attempts to show independence, such as a projected police reform, languished due to lack of political will and financial support.
  • Honduras’s doors opened ever wider to organized crime and corruption.  According to U.S. agencies, roughly 60 percent of the cocaine passing through Central America on its way to U.S. markets in 2011 went through Honduras.  (The Obama Administration funded a militarized drug interdiction program that sputtered after Honduran civilians were killed.)
  • Politically motivated murders by sicarios – reminiscent of 1980s death squads – skyrocketed.  Investigations were few, and prosecutions were nonexistent.
  • By the end of last year, Lobo was pointing fingers at his old allies in the Army, the elites, and even his own party, accusing them of trying to destabilize his government. He failed to pass constitutional reforms that he claimed would protect democracy.  General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the military commander during the coup, announced that he was running for president.
  • Honduras is facing one of the worst fiscal crises of its history – a significant landmark for the perennially mismanaged country.

In Washington none of this seems to raise red flags.  On the contrary, the ideological bent of statements from both the executive and legislative branches suggests satisfaction with the state of affairs in Honduras – and willingness to keep the crisis there unsolved.  Hillary Clinton´s State Department was, to say the least, shy when addressing the deteriorating situation of the Central American country.  In January, at Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that what happened in Honduras in 2009 wasn’t a coup went unchallenged – despite the overwhelming consensus otherwise throughout our hemisphere.  The first sign offered by Kerry as Secretary of State, however, gives room to expect at least a modest change in the narrative: on March 4th, the State Department gave one of eight International Women of Courage Awards to Julieta Castellanos, a respected human rights advocate and critic of corruption and impunity in Honduras.  This hint of a less ideological and a more strategic and humanistic approach to the unsolved Honduran question is welcome.

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.