Election of the Ombudsperson: Whys, Wherefores and Challenges
The circumstances that preceded, accompanied and concluded with the election of Ramón Custodio as Human Rights Ombudsman were unprecedented in the country’s political history. They reveal much about Honduras’ political position and about where it should be going.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
On March 7, recognized Honduran human rights activist Ramón Custodio López was elected National Human Rights Ombudsperson, or People’s Defender, by the unanimous vote of all 128 National Congresspeople from all 5 five political benches. The post has existed for nine years now and Custodio is the second person to hold it. He was preceded by Leo Valladares, who turned the office into the state’s only self-critical institution and the only one with its own personality and independence from the country’s two-party political system.
Antagonistic dynamics converged around Custodio’s election. On the one hand, various sectors of civil society were clamoring for the justice system to be cleansed and depoliticized; and on the other, the justice system has habitually been subject to the see-sawing of the two-party system. No matter how paradoxical it may seem, both dynamics appear to have come out on top.
A corrupt judicial systemThe same day Custodio was elected, the eight Supreme Court justices affiliated to the ruling National Party voted to confer on the Court’s president—a strict party activist—the wide-ranging faculty to name, remove or dismiss judges and employees from any body under the judicial branch’s jurisdiction. Thus they imposed their supremacy over the seven affiliated to the Liberal party, who were not even invited to participate three days later when the president used his new powers to appoint lawyer Rita Núñez as magistrate of the capital’s First Court of Appeals. She had been the presiding judge in the court that issued an order of liberty on behalf of former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas, even though he was accused of abusing his authority, falsifying documents and misappropriating public funds.
Núñez was also the judge who, two days after Ricardo Maduro recently became Honduras’ new President, issued a similar order in favor of Colonel Alexander Hernández, accused of the torture, disappearance and assassination of political opponents and human rights activists during the eighties. She did the same for still other military officials implicated in different cases involving abuse of authority and other criminal acts during the recently concluded presidency of Carlos Roberto Flores. A close friend and obvious collaborator of members of top political and military circles, Núñez was named to the First Criminal Court right when various trials involving political and military figures were pending.
Her appointment to the Criminal Court was simultaneously backed by President Flores of the Liberal Party, Callejas of the Nationalist Party, businessman Miguel Facussé, politician and businessman Jaime Rosenthal and top army officers. envío has learned that they have all endorsed her promotion to the Court of Appeals so she can ratify all the orders she previously issued, thus neatly closing the legal circle with the appearance of respect for "the rule of law and strict compliance with existing legality."
Barren constitutional reformsThe National Congress elected the 15 Supreme Court magistrates on January 25 from among 45 names proposed by a Nominating Committee Congress formed as part of a constitutional reform to depoliticize the judicial system. The committee selected the names from 170 proposed by various sectors of Honduran society in a process that generated hope that steps were finally being taken to cleanse the judicial branch. Once it had carried out its mission, the committee was dissolved in accordance with the law.
As soon as the 45 names fell into the parliamentarians’ hands, the Congress initiated another of the shady deals to which the political system is so accustomed. First they sought to de-authorize the 45 nominees, an initiative aborted thanks to unanimous pressure from different civil society sectors, the Catholic Church and President Maduro himself. Congress thus moved on to another measure traditional to the system: sharing the magistrates out between the ruling and opposition parties and, more particularly, in line with the wishes of the politicians and businesspeople with the greatest quotas of power in the government and the National Congress. In the end, as expected, eight magistrates were named from the National Party and seven from the Liberal Party.
What followed appeared to prove that the hopes and confidence had expired at the very moment the Nominating Committee was dissolved, and that the judicial system has once again ended up in the hands of the same groups and individuals who have always controlled Honduras’ fundamental decisions.
On the road to a routine electionOn March 5, Leo Valladares finished his term as human rights ombudsperson after nine years of very successful efforts to institutionalize this essential new public post and it fell to the Congress to elect his successor for 2002-2008. Up until February 28, the panorama appeared clear. Valladares’ reelection was rejected, candidates emerged and no one doubted that the ruling National Party’s candidate would be elected. The only step left was the secondary and almost procedural one of negotiations between the Nationalists and Liberals and with one of the three small parties. The die seemed to have been cast: this important post would be politicized.
A break in the routineRamón Custodio was not among the candidates initially put forward by any of the five parties represented in the National Congress, but everything changed on March 4. Those promoting this great political rupture took advantage of a political program produced by a radio station with a big national audience. The radio commentators were the ones who launched the idea of Ramón Custodio standing for the post. Custodio has long been acknowledged as the greatest human rights defender and activist in the country and was therefore already well known to listeners. The program was bombarded by telephone calls from listeners demanding Custodio’s inclusion in the list of candidates for the new ombudsperson. Just before the program went off the air, Custodio himself phoned in to thank everyone for the gesture, but discarded the possibility of being considered for the post.
Nonetheless, on the evening of March 4, the Liberals called Custodio to propose that he accept the candidacy in the name of their party. Endorsement calls from the Democratic Unification (UD) and Christian Democratic (DC) parties immediately followed. Thus on March 5, the National Congress found itself divided into two equal blocs. The official bloc, consisting of the National Party (61 deputies) and the Unity and Innovation Party (PINU) (3 deputies) was backing the candidacy of Reyes Avelar, while the Liberal Party’s 55 deputies, the UD’s 5 and the DC’s 4 made up the opposition bloc, whose candidate was Custodio.
Lobbying and electionAlthough the Congress president could have cast the deciding vote in favor of the Nationalist candidate, he renounced this prerogative to provide the possibility of negotiations between the five benches.
Political agitation on March 5 and 6 sparked a general feeling of uncertainty over which way the election would go. At the end of the day on the 5th, PINU announced that it had split with the Nationalists to support Custodio, giving the governing Nationalist bloc 61 votes and the Liberal-led bloc 67. envío learned from reliable sources that the Congress president met with the heads of the four other political benches that same afternoon to advise that his National Party would accept anyone the opposition proposed as long as it was not Custodio. But this gambit backfired, actually steeling the opposition. Finally, on the morning of March 7, it was announced that the 128 deputies had unanimously elected Ramón Custodio. The circumstances preceding, accompanying and concluding with his election were unprecedented in the country’s history and are unlikely to be repeated.
A very timely moment and candidateTwo forms of action have marked Ricardo Maduro’s government in its first few weeks: the national operations involved in the "war on crime" and the mass dismissal of Liberal activists from public posts. The need to defend their sacked fellow party members has obliged the Liberals to start their opposition campaign early, but they have neither instruments nor arguments to weaken the massive support for the official proposals by diverse sectors of society.
The unexpected proposal of Custodio as Human Rights Ombudsperson was a godsend for an opposition party bent on gaining a foothold, but desire was not enough for the Liberal Party to turn even the candidacy of an authentic human rights fighter into a success without help. The Liberals managed to advance their goal only by broadening the opposition bloc and thus isolating the ruling party with the backing of the three small parties.
The corrupt raise the The main Liberal leaders who defended Custodio’s candidacy were the very ones who during the most difficult years of the Cold War used all possible resources to discredit him and get him off the political stage. Thus, among those who cynically raised the banner of the human rights struggle on behalf of his candidacy was Roberto Suazo Córdova. While now a distinguished Liberal legislator, the same Suazo Córdova, as President in the early eighties, employed the cruelest, most extensive and brazenly repressive and interventionist policies in Honduran history, and his main adversary was Ramón Custodio.
human rights banner
But nothing is permanent in politics. Political interests bar nothing, even the acceptance or rejection of ethical values. Suddenly Custodio, formerly an enemy, became a kingpin in the Liberals’ political objective of weakening the government and strengthening the opposition.
The Embassy’s wordsOne of the decisive political factors in Custodio’s election was a timely and persuasive message that, according to reliable leaks to envío, had been sent by the US Embassy to the President of the Republic and the National Congress president. The Embassy reportedly called on them to look favorably on Custodio’s candidacy in order to strengthen the credibility of the Nationalists’ claim to be more open and thus help fortify Honduran democracy. These words reached the ears of these political leaders just in time to thwart a systematic campaign by their party to weaken Custodio’s candidacy in certain of the country’s media and propose other compromise candidates that the opposition bloc could live with.
All the President’s few menBut the definitive political factor in the election of Custodio came from within the National Party itself, and was sharpened by Maduro’s group through its own miscalculations. It is no secret that Ricardo Maduro has started to govern from a very weak political position within his own party. In fact, he has the lowest level of ruling-party backing of any of the six Presidents who have governed Honduras over the past two decades.
Maduro won the presidential elections thanks more to the weakness of the opposing Liberal candidate and erosion of that party than to the support of his own party’s power groups. To strengthen his government, he has created a group of self-styled "neo-Nationalists," led by himself, Government Minister Ramón Hernández Alcerro and Minister of the Presidency Luis Cosenza. These three are the government’s strong men and are responsible for naming many public officials who are not so closely linked to the National Party’s political trajectory.
These "President’s men" are rejected not only by Liberal Party leaders, led by former President Carlos Roberto Flores, but also by the traditional hard line National Party leaders, grouped together in what has been dubbed the party’s "dark side." Heading these dark figures is former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas, former National congressional president Rodolfo Irías Navas, and former Supreme Court president and presidential candidate Oswaldo Ramos Soto. These are the real mafia of Honduran politics, for whom the division between one party and another, or even one political position and another starts and ends with economic interests and where they can guarantee themselves the main springboards of power and impunity.
In the days of the greatest debates, negotiations and lobbying over the election of ombudsperson, Maduro’s group committed the political error of proposing reforms to the Constitution to reduce and streamline ministries aimed at concentrating power in the hands of "neo-Nationalists" Hernández Alcerro and Cosenza. In close alliance with the Liberal deputies, the Nationalists’ "dark side" strongly opposed this, which hastened the decision of deputies from the same side to pressure the small group of Nationalist legislators loyal to Maduro to accept the Liberal-led proposal of Custodio.
Once the alliance was consummated, the "neo-Nationalists" announced through the Congress president, in the name of the whole party, that the decision to elect Custodio was unanimous.
Custodio’s greatest challengesThe most important challenge now facing Custodio is that of defending the people against Honduran justice, the main screen behind which the political and economic power groups hide to maintain their underground businesses with impunity and the cloak of honor.
Custodio must concentrate on becoming the main defender of the Honduran public in the face of a state deaf to the clamor for justice and respect for human rights. The public is demanding agrarian legislation and proposals that take account of poor peasants in national plans and programs for food security, production, environmental protection and the reduction of social and environmental vulnerability. The fight against poverty and in favor of the poor is undoubtedly the most important task in the fight for human rights in these times of globalization, and at the same time should provide the ombudsperson with a profile and an identity.
Then there is the question of impunity. No demand or lawsuit against prominent politicians or leaders of big business ever prospers. Just in the conflictive Aguán Valley, on the country’s northeastern coast, the files of 2,500 cases are still gathering dust in the court archives with little hope that they will ever be opened.
Did Custodio negotiate his post?Many people are asking what negotiations went on with the new ombudsperson before he was elected and with what political shackles he is assuming his new responsibility in the Honduran state. Such questions are not merely the result of cynical or rhetorical speculation. They are quite logical in a country in which no public post of any relevance is ever attained on merit or capacity, but rather due to political chicanery and deals with the power groups. They are particularly logical in a country where justice and human rights are exploited or rejected according to the prevailing political winds.
Questions and doubts over the political compromises Custodio may have had to make cannot be dismissed, because people do not stick their neck out for anybody in Honduran politics, but Ramón Custodio has a record of independence and toughness put to the test in the most repressive years of national security, which is a strong letter of recommendation. Some venture that at 72, he has reached retirement age and has found a way to cap his previous service to the country as a defender of human rights in constant opposition to the state, the military and professional politicians, and that this somehow makes him "incorruptible." But a very different logic applies when one is an opposition activist than when one is a state official. In this sense, some fear that accepting this public post could represent the one and only error in his public life.
This controversial protagonist Although human rights violations are still being denounced in the country, today’s political situation is very different from the one Custodio had to do battle with in the eighties. As founder and president of the Human Rights Defense Committee (CODEH), he knew how to exploit his tough and centralizing personality to respond to the highly polarized conditions characterizing those dark years of death and repression.
needs three new attitudes
In these first years of the new century, the political and ideological situation is more pluralist and a demand is growing for personalities skilled in dialogue, tolerance and the search for consensus. Custodio’s links with the human rights struggle have involved him in a great number of controversies and confrontations, both with the country’s hard-core rightwing sectors and within certain popular civil sectors linked to the struggle of the disappeared and to leftist initiatives. It does not appear that the centralization and leadership that characterized him in the eighties will favor him in his new mission as state-appointed ombudsperson.
In light of this complex situation, people are expecting at least three fundamental attitudes from Custodio if he is to succeed in his new mission, so necessary for the country. First, he will need clarity and firmness in the defense and protection of the rights of poor people in the face of corruption, impunity and abuses by public authorities. Second, he will have to be flexible in seeking national consensus in the struggle for the defense and validity of the rights of the different grassroots social sectors. And third, he must be open to participation, joint leadership and respectful, complementary, cooperative and non-competitive relations with the other nongovernmental sectors also fighting for effective human rights for all Hondurans.