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Honduras: Hearing the Call for Democracy

February 20, 2018

CREDIT: Peg Hunter. Solidarity with Honduras rally, San Francisco, January 27, 2018 (CC)

Let the world know what we're living in Honduras! – Street protestor

Less than 800 miles from our shores, Hondurans protesting against a fraudulent presidential election have been clubbed, shot at, terrorized, and arbitrarily arrested by the hundreds. Yet this crisis has hardly produced a blip on the radar screen of mainstream U.S. news.  

Widespread protest broke out soon after the results of the November 26 election were declared. Despite a number of irregularities in the electoral process, opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla had initially taken the lead over incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández. With 58 percent of the vote in and Nasralla ahead by 5 percent, the electoral tribunal updating system abruptly crashed and did not resume until 36 hours later. After it came back on, Hernández had miraculously gained on his opponent and was eventually declared the winner by just 1 percent. While the U.S. congratulated Hernández as the winner, the Organization of American States (OAS) denounced the electoral process citing irregularities and deficiencies, and described it as being of "very low technical quality and lacking integrity."

A few days before the Honduran election, the Economist magazine published an article titled, "Is Honduras's Ruling Party Planning to Rig an Election?" In it, the author described a recording of what appeared to be a training session for National Party members who were planning to serve as polling place officials. The members were being instructed in several tactics for distorting the election results including the purchasing of credentials from small party delegates, spoiling votes for other candidates, allowing supporters to vote more than once, and damaging tally sheets favoring the opponent. While the secretary of the National Party has said he doubts the authenticity of the tape, he agreed to investigate the matter.

In all events, Hernández was inaugurated on January 27, 2018 while, outside the sparsely filled stadium, the Armed Forces and police lobbed tear gas to disperse crowds of protestors. In all since the election, at least 36 protestors have been killed, hundreds have been injured, and nearly 2,000 have been detained though many of these have since been released. According to a resident journalist, most of the injuries have been caused by police firing into crowds when they believe no foreigners are around to observe. She contends that the actual number of those killed is larger than the official figure.

This is not the first time doubts have been raised about the validity of Hernández's election. In his first "win" in 2013, the election was marked by fraud, widespread violence, and the killing of numerous candidates, most of whom were opposing the National Party. In 2015, Hernández admitted that his presidential campaign had taken money from companies linked to a $300 million corruption scandal involving the Honduran Institute of Social Security, though he denied knowing where the money had come from. The resulting dearth of health care funds led to a massive protest as patients in need of hospital beds and life-saving medicine lay dying.

For months, thousands of protestors marched through the streets of Tegucigalpa to the local United Nations office to demand that Hernández and his cronies in the National Party be investigated. The UN responded by forming a commission to work with the attorney general's office in investigating the theft of public funds. While significant progress was made, it came to a virtual halt by the recent passage of a law prohibiting the prosecution of current or former members of Congress or public servants. The law effectively blocks the investigation of up to 60 current and former legislators as well as the president of Congress and other close allies of Hernández. A judge has already dismissed five cases involving the embezzlement of government funds by five former legislators as a result.

Even prior to his first term as president, Hernández was steadily concentrating power in the hands of the presidency. As president of Congress, he made certain that the Supreme Court, elections tribunal, and other technically independent institutions were stacked with allies in the National Party. He made it possible for Congress to dismiss members of the Supreme Court. He also gave the president discretionary power over funds designated for separate Congressional districts, making it possible to bring congressional representatives to heel.

Under pressure from the National Party in 2015, the Supreme Court struck down a constitutional ban against any president seeking a second term of office. All five members of the Supreme Court panel responsible for the decision had been appointees of Hernández or his proxies. In subsequently seeking reelection, Hernández became the first beneficiary of this ruling. Ironically, it was this very constitutional prohibition which had been used to justify the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya in a military coup in 2009, although it was never apparent that this had been Zelaya's goal.

During his first term as president, Hernández was credited with having increased the rate of economic growth. This has been derived in part from larger shrimp and coffee harvests and higher prices for bananas. He also slashed government spending allowing credit-rating agencies to upgrade Honduras's debt. Hernández also takes credit for having cut the murder rate nearly in half, from 79 per 100,000 people in 2013 to 42 in 2017. This was accomplished through a doubling of the budget for security and dispatching of the Armed Forces into the most troubled neighborhoods. He also introduced the process of extraditing accused criminals to the U.S. which has reached a rate of about five per week. As a result, a certain amount of drug traffic has been shifted to routes in El Salvador, Jamaica, and Mexico. (See The Economist, "A Would-be Strongman? Juan Orlando Hernández Looks Headed for Re-election in Honduras," November 25, 2017.)

While the murder rate may have fallen, the rate of extrajudicial killings of social and environmental activists, indigenous people, lawyers, and human rights defenders has greatly increased. Further, between 80 and 96 percent of these cases continue to go unpunished. Of particular note is the assassination of Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work in opposing a hydroelectric dam in the Lenca community that would have destroyed the surrounding environment. While a recent report by an international panel of lawyers has shown that government officials and businessmen colluded with gangs in the killing, the case continues to go unresolved.

It should also be noted that Hernández recently appointed Jose David Aguilar Moran, accused of colluding with drug trafficking as the national chief of police. In 2013, Chief Aguilar was accused of helping a cartel leader traffic nearly a ton of cocaine valued at up to $20 million to the U.S. Aguilar is said to have called off local police who had just arrested traffickers escorted by another contingent of police officers.

Hernández's intensified use of the Armed Forces in matters of internal security is cited as the reason for the increasing level of human rights violations in Honduras. In an interview regarding the pro-democracy protests, former Armed Forces Captain Santos Orellana Rodríguez describes a system through which military agents have worked to suppress the mass protests that emerged after the election.

…I can assure you that every act of vandalism, everything that has taken place, buildings being burned and all that, has been provoked by counterintelligence in the Armed Forces…. Anyone would be justified in asking why we have Armed Forces—to carry out repression, to terrorize people in the streets, to teargas people, to create chaos, because all of this is planned by military intelligence and counterintelligence. In all the protests there are 30 or 40 intelligence agents marching alongside protestors, and they are the ones provoking confrontations with the police. They want to make it look like it is the Alliance that is hurting the country, not the government.

The recent arrest and imprisonment of pro-democracy activist Edwin Espinal foreshadows the coming of an even more brutal and militaristic regime. Journalist and filmmaker,Jesse Freeston, reports that Mr. Espinal is the first civilian who will be put on trial inside a military base since the authoritarian period of the 1980s. His legal representatives were given just one day to prepare his defense prior to his hearing. Afterward, he was sent to La Tolva, a high-security prison under military supervision, to await trial, which could take years. His family has not been allowed to see him nor have journalists or human rights workers been allowed to talk with him.

Espinal is no criminal. He is a longtime pro-democracy activist, making him a target in the crackdown against the movement. Since the coup in 2009, Espinal has been repeatedly subjected to the sort of harassment, violence, and threats that are well known to the regime's political opponents. He has been detained over a dozen times, beaten by security forces, and on one occasion, abducted and tortured by Honduran police who were later acquitted of the charges. In recognition of his vulnerability to abuse by government forces, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted Edwin protective measures in 2010, and again in 2013.

Edwin Espinal is just one of dozens of Hondurans now imprisoned for acting on their political convictions. As the crackdown on demonstrators continues, they languish in their cells for having publicly opposed corruption, electoral fraud, and harsh government policies. The judicial system, steeped in corruption, cannot be counted on to protect their rights.

As I write, my hope is that we can build international pressure on the Honduran government to release all political prisoners in that country and end the use of military tribunals for civilian crimes. Hondurans are calling on us to support their goal of achieving real democracy, a dream for which many are paying a terrible price. As progressives, human rights advocates, and defenders of democracy, let us hear that call.

Lynn Holland
Denver Justice and Peace Committee (DJPC), Denver, Colorado

For more information about the case of Edwin Espinal, see:

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