A crisis of legitimacy continues in Honduras

A prayer vigil in El Progreso on Jan. 25. Photo by Kevin Clarke. A prayer vigil in El Progreso on Jan. 25. Photo by Kevin Clarke.

More than a week after Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in for a controversial second term as president of Honduras, sporadic protests, violent at times, continued in major cities around the country. On Feb. 6, after protesters blocked the main road between Choloma and San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city, military police fired live rounds to break up the demonstration. One protester, Guadalupe Ismael Hernandez, 40, was killed.

According to human rights groups in Honduras, he became the 38th fatality at the hands of security forces or national police over weeks of protest since the contested election.

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San Pedro Sula, in the nation’s north, has been a hotbed of support for Salvador Nasralla, the losing presidential candidate who had represented the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship in the election. That ad hoc alliance includes the Libre party, headed by former Liberal Party leader and Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.

In late January, meeting with a delegation of religious leaders primarily from the United States, Ismael Moreno, S.J., said he believed that despite the apparent finality of the Hernández inauguration, popular resistance against the government would continue. Father Moreno, known affectionately in Honduras as Padre Melo, is the director of Radio Progreso & ERIC-SJ (Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación), a media training facility and radio station in the city of El Progreso and one of the rare independent news-gathering services in Honduras.

An illegitimate president?
“On Jan. 27, Juan Orlando Hernández formally took office for the second time,” Father Moreno told America, speaking on the same day outside the offices of Radio Progreso. “He is president of Honduras, but in reality his government enjoys very little legitimacy in Honduras and carries a heavy burden of illegality.

“For most of Honduran society, Juan Orlando Hernández represents a usurping government. That is to say, it is a government that is against the rule of law, against democracy and against the will of the vast majority of the people.”

Father Moreno described the Hernández government as an authoritarian regime tilting toward a dictatorship. “It is a government that threatens the fundamental rights of Honduran citizens.”

The illegitimacy Father Moreno mentions came into vivid focus during the recent presidential race. With almost 60 percent of the vote counted following the election on Nov. 26, a five-point Nasralla lead abruptly evaporated after the Supreme Election Tribunal reported a series of technical hiccups and computer shutdowns. Mr. Hernández was finally declared the victor three weeks later, beating the opposition candidate by a slim 1.5 percentage point margin.

The outcome was immediately rejected in the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa, as well as San Pedro Sula and other Honduran cities and communities. Protesters believe Mr. Hernández’s ruling National Party stole the election through its control of the vote count and the oversight role of the election tribunal. (The day before the election The Economist reported that a tape recording of a National Party meeting detailed acts of systemic voter fraud contemplated by party officials.) The government responded to the protests by suspending civil liberties, declaring a state of emergency and ordering a curfew.

As protests continued through December, the death toll climbed higher. The majority of the deaths tracked by the Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras occurred as the Honduran national police and military suppressed demonstrations against the president. But a number of the fatalities were the result of apparently targeted attacks on community and political organizers and eco- or social activists, acts unpleasantly reminiscent of the nation’s death squad era.

The election was denounced as a “gross manipulation” by the Central American Province of the Society of Jesus, which demanded an end to the post-election clampdown by security forces. Similar statements from Jesuit conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean and of the United States and Canada have also been issued, urging an end to violence and a thorough investigation of the 2017 election.

During the 2013 election, which many in Honduras believe Mr. Hernández and his party similarly stole from Libre candidate Xiomara Castro (Mr. Zelaya’s wife), at least 18 Libre party organizers were slain. (Officials and activists from other parties were also attacked or killed during the election, according to Rights Action, but Libre candidates and activists suffered more attacks than all other parties combined.)

“Over the course of a month I have received four anonymous accusations, which in practice are threats,” he said. He does not expect that he can rely on the state for protection.

“Our country is experiencing an especially difficult situation,” said Father Moreno, “and [Radio Progreso] is facing a situation of repression.” He described the station and its staff as “exposed” and vulnerable to accumulating threats against it.

His name and picture have appeared in flyers that have been circulated around El Progreso, which name Father Moreno, associates from the media and local civic or opposition leaders as enemies of Honduras. “If we have a government that does not respect human rights and freedom of expression, then personal threats increase,” he said.

Indeed, two eco-activists were killed by security forces days before the inauguration in a community just a short drive from El Progreso.

“Over the course of a month I have received four anonymous accusations, which in practice are threats,” he said. He does not expect that he can rely on the state for protection. “Rather than protection...what we demand it is a thorough investigation,” he said. He hopes the authors of the accusations against him are identified “because as long as we do not identify who is threatening us, the danger can be very great.”

Despite that danger, Father Moreno remains an outspoken critic of the government.

He described the Hernández government as an authoritarian regime tilting toward a dictatorship. “It is a government that represents a threat to freedom of expression,” Father Moreno said. “It is a threat to defenders of human rights, and it is a government that threatens the fundamental rights of Honduran citizens.”

Raising awareness in the U.S.
The religious delegation that visited Honduras in January, accompanied by America, did so partly in response to the threats received by Father Moreno and partly to deliver a message to U.S. leadership at the embassy in Tegucigalpa and the State Department in Washington, urging a reassessment of relations with the Hernández government.

The delegation from the United States was important as a witness and as an expression of solidarity, according to Father Moreno. Its presence expressed an “accompaniment” and “closeness between the people of the United States and the dramatic reality that we are living in Honduras,” he said. The delegation hoped to raise awareness back in the United States of the increasing militarization of Honduran society and the nation’s deteriorating human rights conditions.

A Trump administration decision on Dec. 22 to recognize the election results essentially shut down the possibility of a thorough investigation of potential election fraud, even after observers from the Organization of American States had noted a number of irregularities. On Dec. 17, Luis Almagro, the O.A.S. secretary general, called for new elections given the lack of confidence in the results and “the impossibility of determining a winner.”

The Trump administration has not directly commented on the deaths of protesters, except to urge restraint on both sides, even as the post-election violence has alarmed international human rights advocates. Just days after the election, as controversy raged over the conduct of the Hernández government, the State Department issued a certification that the Honduran government has been fighting corruption and supporting human rights, clearing the way for Honduras to receive millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Jean Denis Saint-Félix, S.J., secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, expressed surprise and discouragement at that decision. “In recent years, we have noted and shared great concern with State Department staff regarding violations of human rights, especially against women, indigenous peoples, journalists, and environmental defenders,” Father Saint-Félix wrote. “The current events we are witnessing in the aftermath of Honduran elections reaffirm that these conditions are not being met.”

And in a letter of support to Father Moreno and his team at Radio Progreso, the Jesuit Migration Network in the U.S. and Canada noted the likely impact of the ongoing crisis: “Here, especially in the United States but also in Canada, month after month, year after year, people arrive, adults and minors, forced to migrate due to violence and instability in northern Central America, including Honduras. It is a very sad situation, constantly creating separations in families. We recognize that the current situation violates the right of people to remain in their country and consequently, they have to migrate.”

The statement continues: “Together with you, we desire that a future Honduran government, legitimately elected, will work assiduously and honestly for the common good, the good of all, especially the most marginalized and impoverished.”

Mr. Hernández has clearly been seeking to remain on good terms with the Trump administration even as he struggles to end the political crisis at home. Honduras was one of nine countries that voted with Washington against a United Nations resolution condemning the Trump administration’s move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Mr. Hernández has promised to continue his campaign against political corruption, narco-trafficking and an epidemic of street crime that has made Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world. In his first term, he allowed the extradition of drug-trafficking suspects to the United States, dismissed thousands of police officers suspected of corruption and cut the nation’s staggering murder rate in half.

That commitment has been enough to draw support from many Hondurans for his government, but it is not clear that Mr. Hernández has the capacity to fully root out the nation’s legendary corruption. His party has already been implicated in the looting of as much $350 million from the Honduran Institute for Social Security, a public health insurance program—much of the money diverted to the ruling party’s 2013 campaign. An estimated 3,000 Hondurans died in the resulting collapse of health services.

And people close to the president, including his brother and the newly appointed national police chief, have been implicated in narco-trafficking. (The president himself was forced to deny the substance of a conversation recorded by a Honduran drug trafficker turned informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who discussed a $250,000 payment intended for Mr. Hernández with another narco-trafficker.)

A call for a national dialogue
Even supporters of the president have expressed reservations about the National Party’s conduct during the election, though many still prefer a Hernández presidency, even of dubious credibility, to a Nasralla victory. The opposition candidate, a popular sportscaster turned reform politician, is viewed by some Hondurans as a puppet of former President Zelaya. To them, restoring Mr. Zelaya to power via a Nasralla win would have brought the country a few steps closer to the Chavismo-style populism that has ruined regional neighbor Venezuela.

Father Moreno believes it will be up to Hondurans themselves to end the nation’s political crisis, but he implores greater solidarity as that work continues, particularly between the people of Honduras and the citizens of the United States. He urged “friends from the United States...to keep Honduras in mind.... Do not leave us alone.”

““The way out of the Honduran crisis is first of all for us Hondurans here, organizing and fighting, to defend life and present a proposal to recover the rule of law and democracy,” he said. “But we need equally that international solidarity can be strengthened in the construction of what I call ‘the international community of the poor,’ so that the closeness between peoples and solidarity among peoples makes us strong.”

Despite the continuing violence and official impunity, he remains hopeful.

“I am confident that the organization of civil society will be strengthened. I am confident that human rights violations will continue to be denounced. [But] we demand that the murders that have occurred in recent months in Honduras be investigated at an international level and insist that the current government that took office on Jan. 27 has direct responsibility [for them],” he said.

Father Moreno urges a “demilitarization of public security” and a “recovery of the rule of law.” He believes the current political crisis for the Hernández government can only be resolved by new elections that will bring about “a genuinely legal and legitimate government.”

In its late December message congratulating Mr. Hernández on his victory, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said: “The close election results, irregularities identified by the OAS and the EU election observation missions, and strong reactions from Hondurans across the political spectrum underscore the need for a robust national dialogue. A significant long-term effort to heal the political divide in the country and enact much-needed electoral reforms should be undertaken.”

A U.N. spokesperson confirmed on Feb. 7 that an exploratory mission from the office of the U.N. secretary general has been dispatched to Honduras. The U.N. team will assess the possibility of initiating just such a dialogue between government and opposition forces to decide how that healing can begin.

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