One opportunity was lost… but others could open up
The opposition parties have lost an opportunity to
oppose Juan Orlando Hernández’s illegal reelection.
But many other opportunities could still open up.
The international community is watching Honduras closely,
observing how its previous freedoms are being cut off
and how those defending their rivers, territories and natural assets
run such enormous risks, including the loss of their own lives.
It is observing the obstacles this government is erecting
against the UNHCR and the OAS ’ MACCIH.
And it is remembering Berta Cáceres,
who now stands for Honduras.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
According to a Chinese proverb, three things can’t be turned back: a spoken word, a launched arrow and a lost opportunity. We can already call 2017 the year of the lost political opportunity. It’s not so much that it slipped away, but rather that the opposition leaders let it go. And while we now must prepare for the worst case scenario, one that could have been avoided, there are still doors that could open to offer another opportunity.
“The world’s most dangerous place for land and environmental activists”
On January 31, President Juan Orlando Hernández’s closest circle was shaken by a report from the British organization Global Witness, which said 123 people had been murdered since 2010 in Honduras due precisely to their commitment to defend their territories’ natural assets. The report, which stated that Honduras is “the world’s most dangerous place for land and environmental activists,” triggered the fury of a team of the country’s politicians and businesspeople, including Gladys Aurora López, president of the National Party. She is one of the main people accused of threatening indigenous peoples with the building of hydroelectric dams, in line with the current government’s extractivist policy which is conceding rivers to this kind of project and territories to mining projects. One Global Witness representative declared this close alliance between politicians and businesspeople in such natural wealth exploitation to be the main cause of the “murder and terroriz [ing of] communities who dare to stand in their way.”
Both businesspeople and government spokespeople condemned the report as false, even though its writing followed two years of detailed investigation. They went as far as to ask the Attorney General’s Office to officially act against those responsible for producing it. Making no reference to its contents, they limited themselves to savagely attacking the “liars” who published it, thus putting foreign investment and thus the country’s development at risk.
The report and the reaction to its publication clearly show the responsibilities of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s government team in the violation of the human rights of communities defending their natural assets. Hopefully it will help halt the impunity with which that team is acting in this and other matters. A germ of change can be found in the instability produced by the voracious model this government is promoting.
Today, Berta Cáceres is Honduras
The emblematic figure of Berta Cáceres persists alongside this serious international denunciation. A year after being murdered as a product of the alliance between the same businesspeople and politicians who discredited the report, she still has the greatest grassroots and social mobilization capacity in the country. As far as today’s world is concerned, Berta is Honduras.
What Berta did and said give a truer idea of the criminality of the extractive companies that the government covered up and the report denounced. One of those companies, DESA, is being accused nationally and internationally as the home of those responsible for Berta’s death. The enormous banner leading the first of the protests organized this March 1-4 in memory of Berta, the leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), stated in bold letters that “DESA is the mastermind behind Berta’s death.”
During those four days, the town of La Esperanza, where Berta was born, lived and was killed, helped foster hope among many of the world’s other peoples whose natural assets are under threat. Hondurans, people from other Central American countries, Mexicans, US citizens, Latin Americans, Europeans, Africans and Asians all came together there, with their diverse languages and cultures, to commemorate the first anniversary of the martyrdom of the woman most recognized today across the planet for defending the world’s rivers.
In these confused times of erratic policies, Berta Cáceres encouraged a social struggle anchored in the poorest people, those most humiliated by the rich and powerful, who are also those who most love and protect the world’s fast-dwindling and despoiled natural assets. She denounced the capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal and racist elites. Even in death, Berta has the capacity to link processes and question mediocrity, caution, balancing acts and half-hearted commitments. She still can open doors and opportunities that the political opposition isn’t even considering.
An open secret
This is an election year in Honduras. The campaign will get underway after the primaries in which the parties elect their candidates for municipal offices, the National Congress and the presidency. And it will culminate in the general elections on the last Sunday of November.
Everyone already knows that mayors from different parties will be elected and that the new Congress will have a diversity of representatives, forcing negotiations among the parties. But what everyone knows most of all is that, whatever happens, current President Juan Orlando Hernández will be the victorious presidential candidate:.
Hernández has been mapping his route ever since he was president of the National Congress (2010-2013). The milestones along the way were marked out in accordance with the power he was concentrating, the flatterery from his first circle of politicians, technicians and other adulators, and his unbridled ambition to first take the presidency and then ensure his indefinite reelection. He will go down in Honduran history as the illustrious builder of personalist and unlimited power amidst a rule of law that lies in ruins.
Hernández’s route to power
To map his route to the pinnacle of power, Hernández organized the different stretches according to the times and needs. Hie attained absolute control over the three branches of State and also managed to control the Armed Forces and all bodies responsible for security through the National Defense and Security Council. When he realized he didn’t have control of the Police, because its chiefs had links with criminal networks, he established a Purifying Commission to get rid of all uncontrollable police chiefs, while reducing the power of the Police as much as possible by de facto replacing it with the Public Order Military Police, whose statutes subordinate it to its will.
With the advantage of being both an investor and by then President of the Republic, Juan Orlando Hernández was able to participate directly in the decisions of the country’s upper business echelons as “just another investor” through the Commission for the Promotion of the Public-Private Alliance, negotiating with the most important national and transnational private investors.
He also won over the US government by sending it all of the drug barons whose extradition it had requested, even at the risk that the information they could provide to reduce their own prison sentences might risk the lives of some of his closest political allies in the National Party, his collaborators, and even his own family and himself.
Furthermore, he enamored himself with the international community by accepting the establishment of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), even at the risk that the investigations by this Organization of American States-sponsored body could also affect people in his closest circle.
And finally he accepted the setting up in Honduras of an Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) as a sign of his openness to international observation, presenting himself as a faithful complier with the human rights defense agreements and treaties signed by Honduras.
Personality cult and populism
Control of the media is undoubtedly one of President Hernández’s greatest successes on the route he has mapped out. All media with national coverage constitute a kind of publicity chain praising the government’s policies and, above all, increasing the President’s profile to the level of an open personality cult.
Thanks to this eulogizing, the President’s exacerbated populism has succeeded in tying up the most effective loose end: the most impoverished population. Through dozens of social assistance programs under the expansive umbrella of the “Better Life” Program, Hernández has reached tens of thousands of unemployed, landless, homeless, poorly educated and sick families, turning them into the decisive factor in accumulating the votes needed to legitimize his reelection as President for 2018-2022.
An illegal and unconstitutional candidacy
With his control over the state branches, Hernández was able to ensure that the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench would declare the articles of the Constitution prohibiting presidential reelection unconstitutional, thus opening the door to debating and finally promoting his candidacy for reelection.
The civic pressure against this idea forced the Supreme Court to meet in plenary, in which it unanimously ratified the Constitutional Bench’s ruling. And that was that. Many may have been distressed but nobody was surprised when the Supreme Court plenary said the issue of reelection was a done deal, because everyone knows the President has the unconditional support of the Court’s president and 14 justices; that they are incapable of dissenting when Hernández is involved. Once his continuation in power was ensured, there was no further doubt that his project was based on an authoritarianism that subordinates all national legislation to his personal interests. His candidacy is both illegal and unconstitutional.
Everyone knew Hernández was seeking reelection from the day he assumed the presidency even though every time he was asked if he was thinking about it, he always replied, “I don’t have time to think about that because I’m working, working and working.” But both his followers and those opposing him knew the truth: all that work was only to get reelected. Although he never said as much until November 2016, nobody was surprised when he finally publicly announced it.
His three years in office so far have involved continuous political proselytism, a seamless campaign between his first candidacy and the coming one. The whole state institutionality has been turned into an immense propaganda platform to ensure the ruling party’s continuation. In addition to his control of the Supreme Court justices, the President also controls the Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates and those of the National Registry of Persons and the Higher Accounts Tribunal. Nobody who has anything to do with decisions related to the electoral process is free of his personal control. All of this has made Juan Orlando Hernández the most powerful man in Honduras’ political history.
An electoral alliance against his reelection
On January 14-15 of this year, the LIBRE party organized a massive assembly in Tegucigalpa in which several thousand delegates from across the country participated. Its objective was to oppose the reelection of Juan Orlando Hernández. The assembly concluded by making official an alliance of LIBRE, the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), the Social Democratic Innovation and Unity Party (PINU), a small and marginal wing of the ruling National Party, and a similar wing of the Liberal Party.
This is a strictly electoral alliance. These parties, which are so different from each other, have united for the sole purpose of defeating Hernández at the ballot box, a goal rooted in optimism generated by LIBRE’s runner-up position in the last elections with nearly a million of the 5 million registered voters, while the PAC came in fourth with over 300,000 votes.
It doesn’t seem like a real threat
To discourage the new alliance, President Hernández and his team previously conducted a supposed poll predicting he will attract 1.5 million votes, a clearly inflated figure. In the best of cases, his National Party has barely reached the million-vote mark. And in these elections, despite his intense media and charity handouts campaign, he also has to deal with the discontent of a society that hasn’t seen its demands addressed by this government. But according to our own latest opinion poll at the Jesuits’ Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC), both sympathizers and adversaries understand that regardless of the number of votes Juan Orlando Hernández actually pulls, he’ll end up in first place in the coming elections as the result of some kind fraudulent mechanism.
Should the opposition alliance ultimately be able to establish itself as an electoral proposal, it still doesn’t appear to offer any real threat to the ruling party. Although polls don’t always reflect people’s actual party preferences, ERIC’s December poll showed a drop in sympathy for LIBRE and the PAC to third and fourth place, respectively, well below the National Party and the Liberal Party, with only 10% of those polled expressing a preference for those two parties. Nonetheless, with 43% expressing no political preference at this point, they could be a hidden or late-blooming source of potential votes for the anti-Hernández opposition.
Why bother to vote?
This year’s electoral campaign is taking place in the context of two determining facts: the unconstitutionality and illegality of Juan Orlando Hernández’s candidacy; and the fraud everyone knows has already been prepared by his government team.
If all this is widely known by the political opposition leaders, why participate in such elections rather than putting energy and resources into building a civic, political and social alliance that pressures for new rules of the game beforehand—in other words, electoral reforms—as a condition for guaranteeing credible electoral results?
The opposition offers two arguments for running in the election: confidence in defeating Hernández’s fraudulent and unconstitutional reelection aspirations; and the belief that elections are the only way to block the dictatorship’s path. They argue that an overwhelming flood of votes in favor of the opposition alliance will make it impossible for Hernández and his team to instigate a fraudulent process, and that observation by the international community will force him to accept the victory of their candidate.
Endorsing the illegality
Could the opposition’s enthusiasm have anything to do with the quotas of power they hope to attain through the tacit acceptance of Hernández’s reelection that participating in these elections implies?
All opposition sectors are publicly denouncing the illegality of Hernández’s candidacy and warning of the fraud being forged through his control of all bodies related to the election process. In their primary campaigns, however, the different LIBRE candidates have invested energy and resources into gaining advantages over their internal rivals, downplaying any questioning of the fraud. This tends to back up the hypothesis that these candidates’ real objective is to ensure that they will become legislative representatives, mayors or municipal councilors, and then maintain an opposition discourse from those positions, which would ensure them other privileges.
The objective appears to be nothing more than to act as opposition politicians from an elected post. By accepting the idea of participating in the elections as currently designed, the opposition alliance has effectively endorsed the illegality of everything that has happened so far, without the vast majority of the candidates and party leaders actually being aware of this.
This is precisely the lost opportunity. If the entire political opposition, headed by their recognized leaders, had decided to create a broad citizens’ civic rallying point for the resistance and indignation triggered by Hernández’s reelection, this year would have become a hotbed of mobilizations by the different latent expressions of dissent that currently lack any adequate leadership.
There is already strong rejection of the current government, albeit conditioned by the propaganda of the government and opposition campaigns. And of course it is also distracted by the national soccer team’s campaign to make it to the 2018 World Cup finals, soap operas that mythicize drug barons, morbid fascination with the news of continuous bloody events, and the campaigns of Neo-Pentecostal groups, several of whose leaders have become advisers to government officials. To this avalanche of distractions should also be added the fear unleashed by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policy, which is endangering the remittances sent home to Honduran families by relatives living in the United States, the only source of support for millions of impoverished families.
When one’s vote is insignificant
It is to this politicking, football- and soap opera-fixated, remittance-dependent and rowdy religion-oriented Honduran population that Juan Orlando Hernández is insistently directing his propaganda campaign. But beneath the surface, the politicians don’t believe in the people, and the people don’t believe in them. It is a utilitarian relationship based on total mutual distrust. The politicians offer people crumbs in exchange for their vote, and the people accept the offer because they have come to consider their vote insignificant. This is what citizens’ participation and the right to vote have become. People currently explain it not as exercising a right, which they are told is “sacred,” but rather as the price of survival.
ERIC’s public opinion poll revealed that 8 out of every 10 people distrust politicians and would like them to be investigated and tried for their corruption and impunity. Taking both this and the opposition to Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection into account gives a clearer idea of the opportunity the political opposition has lost. No government rooted in illegality would be able to sustain itself against the repudiation of an organized and mobilized citizenry.
There could have been anti-reelection protests in the country. The beginnings of civil disobedience had already been expressed in a stadium in 2016, when massive chants of “JOH out” rang out. If instead of channeling their energy into a political campaign that will only legitimize Hernández’s continuation in power, the opposition leaders had chosen to head up the organization of grassroots discontent, all the country’s stadiums would be chanting the same slogan, making Juan Orlando Hernández quake in his boots.
The “Indignant ones” of 2015
Less than two years ago, broad sectors of the population, particularly youths and urban residents, rose up in indignation against the plundering of the social security system. That indignation against corruption is what led to the chanting of “JOH out!” and the demand to establish an entity in Honduras equivalent to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
Some say the continuous mobilizations of those dubbed “Los Indignados” (the indignant ones), which spread to all the country’s urban centers, were incited by political actors interested in weakening the government to force it to extradite drug barons and government officials linked to that illegal business. Whatever the truth of that, the mobilizations were not headed up by known leaders, but by inexperienced ones acting in an improvised way, most of whom ended up coopted by experts at building a controlled opposition. They lacked any strategic vision based on a bold analysis capable of breaking with the soporific traditional political practice and organizing the repudiation of the current government’s corruption harbored by hundreds of thousands of people to the point of changing the correlation of forces and obliging the government to negotiate a new electoral proposal, even a constituent assembly. It wouldn’t have been impossible, because the indignation at the corruption linked to this government was genuine. In fact, everyone who mobilized still carries that accumulated rage inside, while the corruption and impunity remain unchanged.
MACCIH shows its teeth
MACCIH is a new factor to bear in mind at this juncture heralding the consolidation of the dictatorship. Officially installed in April 2016 as the result of an agreement between the government and the OAS endorsed by the governments of the United States, Canada and the European Union, it seemed for the first few months to be an amorphous body that was legitimizing the government. The Hernández government’s official backing led the indignant ones of 2015 to view MACCIH with justified suspicion and total distrust.
For that very same reason, Honduran politicians felt safe. The new structure spent its first months seeking economic support from the international community, but to the surprise of all those who assumed it would be ineffective, it soon began making critical observations about the way Congress elected the Superior Accounts Tribunal magistrates and suggesting legal reforms to supervise the money provided for political parties’ campaigns. With that, the politicians did an about-face, discrediting it as “interventionist.”
A year later, MACCIH has found strong international backing, clearly distanced itself from the government, and gained the recognition of different civil society sectors that are beginning to believe it just might have the “teeth” to take on cases and dynamics generated by the entrenched corruption and impunity. Thanks to its actions, several of the main people implicated in plundering the Honduran Social Security Institute have already been tried and sentenced, while others related to this same case are pending trial.
MACCIH has also presented the government with a proposed “law of effective collaboration,” which consists of guaranteeing notable reductions in the sentences of those involved in corruption cases who agree to provide effective information on public officials or businesspeople also implicated in the cases. This indicates that MACCIH is determined to identify, take to trial and eventually dismantle corruption networks involving people close to the government or actually part of it. The Global Witness report is an instrument MACCIH can use as a basis for some of those efforts.
How far will MACCICH and the attorney general go?
What remains to be seen is what kind of relationship MACCIH will have with Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla. While everyone knows Hernández, a close friend of Chinchilla, directly instructed the National Congress to choose him, he also enjoys the confidence of the US Embassy.
In 2012, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench ruled that the legislative decree legalizing Honduras’ new “model cities”—euphemistically called “employment and economic development zones” (ZEDEs)—was unconstitutional. The President responded by forcing the National Congress to dismiss the four justices who had voted in favor of that ruling, leaving only the one justice who had dissented: Óscar Chinchilla. He was appointed attorney general the following year, after he and the four new Constitutional Bench justices reversed the original ruling, legalizing the ZEDES.
Chinchilla has established an official relationship with MACCIH to promote anti-corruption investigations. MACCIH head Juan Federico Jiménez Mayor, a former Peruvian prime minister and justice and human rights minister, has praised the attorney general’s support as positive, which suggests that Chinchilla may have distanced himself from his political patron.
How far will he be prepared—or allowed—to go in his collaboration with MACCIH? We’ll learn the answer to that through his support for the work of this new institution. And how far will MACCIH itself be able to go? That also remains to be seen and will depend on the autonomy it manages to build from both the government and the OAS. Backing from the civil society sectors will depend on the corruption cases it uncovers.
There are opportunities and open doors. The movement to build awareness about and opposition to the extractivist model, with Berta Cáceres as its banner; the opposition to the privatizing of highways, electricity, water, health and education; and the indignation against generalized corruption, if it translates into more sanctions led by MACCIH, could distance political and social organizations from the upcoming corrupted elections even without the leadership of the political opposition.
Against the “advocacy of hatred”
Concerned about the possibility of massive social mobilization and mass abstention in the elections, President Hernández has been arming himself with new repressive legal instruments. Acting against the will of opposition parties and different civil society sectors, and ignoring the publicly stated concerns of the OHCHR recently established in Honduras, he pressured his party’s parliamentary representatives in late February to pass penal reforms punishing terrorism, which was classified in such a way as to allow judges to act in a totally arbitrary and discretionary manner.
One of the most controversial articles approved is 335B, which stipulates that disseminating or “advocating hatred” by journalists or media is punishable as a form of terrorism. It is clearly seen as an attempt to stifle freedom of expression, putting media and journalists critical of the President at risk of being accused of “hating him.”
Members of the international community are observing Honduras closer than ever. They are watching how different freedoms are being cut off and how the lives of those defending rivers, territories, natural assets and freedom of expression are at enormous risk. They are keeping an eye on whether the work of MACCIH and the OHCHR is being obstructed by the government and big business. And they are remembering Berta Cáceres and the reasons explaining her life and death. For all of these reasons, there is still an opportunity in this difficult year ahead.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.