Indignant torches against the political mafia
Ever since the Social Security scandal broke,
the Hernández’ government hasn’t had a breather.
It took no time at all for the indignation to burst out.
What has finally come unstuck in this country?
Is this the spring of deep political change
or just outraged youth seeking relief
from the corrupt political mafias?
I offer some key thoughts to understand
the background of the Honduran indignation.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Has spring finally broken out in Honduras’ devastated, violent and politically arid reality after a long, hard political winter, with its epidemic of collective depression and social withdrawal? One is seized with doubts, questions abound and the period of change is still so short that it’s risky to sketch out scenarios. Better to test some ideas.
Leaving lethargy behind At the beginning of May large and diverse sectors of the population—especially the middle class—became indignant, giving a dramatic turn to the political dynamic. Their outrage—expressed through torch-lit walks led by contingents of young people—shook many from their lethargy. It surprised the political parties and frightened the powers that be.
The indignation extended way beyond the leftwing organizations. The National Popular Resistance Front, born after the 2009 coup and now tightly allied with deposed President Manuel Zelaya’s LIBRE party, has been reduced to a handful of leaders from the Left and the traditional grassroots movement. Shaken awake, they went out behind the emerging force of the torch-carrying youths so as not to be left behind as mere observers who applaud, smile and yell slogans.
How it all began Thanks to the research of journalist David Romero Ellner, reported throughout the month of April, we learned that 7 billion lempiras (some $300 million) had been looted from the Social Security account and a percentage of the take had gone to finance current President Juan Orlando Hernández’ 2013 electoral campaign. Statistical projections established that the stolen funds probably led to about 3,000 deaths due to the lack of medicines and medical equipment and loss of health care for the sick. This news is what ignited the outrage.
May 29 marked Tegucigalpa’s first torch-lit march. The next day there was one in San Pedro Sula. And this was only a hint of what was to come. The march in the capital on June 5 and in San Pedro Sula the day after that were extraordinary—15 blocks of outraged people in San Pedro Sula, probably the most violent city not at open war in the world. There were also marches those days in El Progreso, La Ceiba, Tocoa, Choluteca and Juticalpa. And it’s been like this Friday after Friday. The mass mobilizations show that thousands of determined people have overcome the depressed seclusion that has prostrated them, frustrating many leaders, after the resistance to the now 6-year old coup petered out. It would appear that the outrage at the coup didn’t die, but has been lying in wait for just the right moment. And that moment arrived with a collective fury set off by the looting of Social Security.
The torch marchers have four fundamental demands: prison for those who stole from Social Security; the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH); the initiation of a process leading to a new institutionality; and the installation of an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH), an idea inspired by the UN-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), itself born in 2006 as the result of a scandalous case that triggered people’s outrage in that country. On June 22 some enthusiastic, politically inexperienced youth decided to demand CICIH’s creation, thus giving further impetus to the marches.
An Idol with feet of clay Within a few weeks the country discovered to its surprise that JOH’s authoritarian projection wasn’t as powerful as he made it seem. And he in turn discovered he headed the list of the most repudiated Presidents in Honduran history, including those of the military regimes and the one put in place immediately after the coup—and that’s saying a lot. He and his closest collaborators are experiencing the consequences of their excessive lust for power.
Hernández thought he had control of everything, including his own group’s corruption. He even believed he could hide the theft of the $300 million from Social Security. After David Romero exposed the case and provided proof, other cases perpetrated by JOH’s mafia began to leak out. In the words of a prosecutor from the Public Ministry, “This mafia is a rotten body. Wherever you touch it pus seeps out. This business with Social Security is only a blemish. There’s also the business with the National Electrical Energy Company, the Ministry of Public Works, the Institute of Professional Development… All those responsible are protected by Juan Orlando Hernández and in some cases his own family members are implicated.”
With the outrage against today’s circumstances, Hernández is like a lightning rod that’s attracting the repudiation against his political mafia, which has made the State a fabulous business. Until the torches appeared in the hands of thousands of primarily young people, it was full steam ahead for the President’s re-election plans and his alliances with national and international extractive capital. Those indignant youth showed that the idol had feet of clay.
JOH is shriveling and We’re seeing demonstrations underpinned by a commitment to an ethical struggle with enormous political consequences. After several of the massive touch-lit marches both in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula—as well as in about forty medium-sized and small cities—demanding punishment for the thieves of the Honduran Social Security Institute and JOH’s resignation, he and his colleagues realized they had a genuine crisis on their hands and are trying hard to conceal it.
his project is falling apart
The President called together the national media to talk about his successes in gaining international support for his administration and how much good is coming from the welfare programs. He stated that the marchers are simply those affected economically by the capture and extradition of drug traffickers. He didn’t even blink when he appeared, very devoted, at the beatification of Monsignor Romero then turned right around and sent paid people into the streets to march against those with torches. It’s been a major cover-up attempt, but nothing works. Every national and international appearance in the media just inflames even more those who are already fed up.
When the marchers demanded the creation of a CICIH, Hernández countered with a proposal for a different commission, one that would discuss how to bring the corrupt to justice but made up of precisely those in high places who are responsible for the corruption. His call in the June 23 national news for a “social dialogue without conditions” showed how polarized the country has become. While a sector of business and media leaders, leaders of so-called civil society closely related to the US Embassy, some Catholic Church leaders and political bureaucrats answered his call, on the other side the outraged population prepared their torches again, tripling the number of demonstrators in the Friday march on June 26. That same day more youth joined the hunger strike begun in Tegucigalpa four days earlier by two young people from the movement demanding the creation of the CICIH.
While only a year ago Hernández was setting himself up for a long life of political, economic and religious power in the presidential chair, he has now begun to experience a predicted defeat. When he took office in January 2014 wearing a winner’s confident smile, he predicted that he was there to stay for the next 50 years, but that permanent smile has now become more like a twisted smile of bitterness. Within a few weeks he began to believe what thousands of people were yelling at him: that they didn’t want him as head of government even for his official 4-year term in office. His challenge now is merely to last out the rest of those four years.
“Catastrophic balance” “Catastrophic balance” was a concept developed by Italian poilitical thinker Antonio Gramsci to explain the uncertain equilibrium existing between opposing political forces seeking to impose their agenda in moments of crisis. The political mafia is banking on attaining this balance right now. President Hernández is trying to prevent the riled-up opposition from taking the initiative and keeping him from succeeding in his own initiatives. This explains the mobilization of 500 military and police against the hunger strike. It also explains the disproportionate presence of military and police in the various peaceful marches that have taken place across the country.
The corrupt political mafia has tried to shake off the unexpected shock and take the counteroffensive. To balance the torch-lit marchers in the streets they’ve responded with what they call the “national uproar march,” made up of people wearing blue who are paid some $2, transportation costs and a “burrito” for lunch for their time. Those from the torch-lit marches shout at them, “They’re not paying me! I came because I wanted to!”
“Balance” is also being sought in the judicial arena. Every legal charge and accusation against a corrupt government functionary is immediately followed by a charge and accusation by the mafia against one of those from the indignant movement. In this arena JOH has the edge, given his control over the prosecutors and the judicial branch in general. Confronted by the hunger strike of several youths in front of the presidential house, the political mafia closed off the surrounding streets.
The dangerous attitude showed by a military contingent in a northern coastal city is not a good omen. When one of the demonstrators cried “Why don’t you look for the real criminals” instead of threatening the people on the march, the military leader gave the order and 12 soldiers scrambled down from the jeep with their M-16s pointed at the young man who had shouted. Everyone immediately surrounded the youth, which neutralized the decision the military seemed to have made to shoot him. The moment sharply reminded us of the tragic times of the coup and the bloody times of national security in the 80s.
Support from the In this scene the mafia led by JOH has been able to gain US government backing in exchange for giving up the idea he had when he came to power about staying in government indefinitely. Abandonment of his reelection plans must have been the object of his sudden visit to Washington in mid-June since democratic appearances is all Washington seems to want. Its real priority is to protect US borders from the drug trafficking mafia in Mexico and Central America, with which it has no interest in negotiating.
United States and Europe
Although neither the United States nor Europe knows what to do with a Honduras in such disarray, for the moment they prefer to maintain an alliance with Hernández, even though his legitimacy is slipping away. And because they see him as an important piece in their security strategy, he is able to counter his government’s problematic internal politics with their international support. For the US government, the fact that Hernández is more or less corrupt and protects its corruption with impunity is secondary to its need to have someone in power who’s an effective ally in its security strategy. And the European governments aren’t going to step back from this US policy.
Another key source of international support for President Hernández has been the multinational corporations who have found in him one of the best allies for their investments in Honduras. These corporations are in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, energy distribution, thermal energy generation, fast food, sweatshops, and the tourist and hotel businesses. Of special relevance are the mining corporations and those of the Model Cities or ZEDEs. But JOH’s political instability presents a problem and a setback for these corporations. They all fear that their Honduran associates from the business elite will get into a conflict with President Hernández and that he’ll retaliate by withdrawing his support. These corporations always opt for supporting the business elite rather than the government.
In the end, the US government and several of the European governments and multinational corporations won’t withdraw their support from a government formally elected at the polls until all other resources have been exhausted. They might be able to impose conditions and increase pressure and warnings but only based on unconditional support. This was seen on June 29 when the United Nations and the Organization of American States announced their willingness to serve as mediators in the “social dialogue” called by Hernández.
JOH’s internal supportIn addition to this “lesser of evils” style of international support, President Hernández also still has some rather iffy internal support.
US-backed “civil society” organizations: This important but secondary ally is the group of Honduran organizations that consider themselves part of “civil society,” promoting human rights and engaging in social and political advocacy with funds and advice from US government agencies. They are counterparts of US civil society bodies and lobby various US government authoritie, questioning JOH’s policies, although back home they don’t distance themselves from said policies. These organizations play a decisive role in putting a good face on the paternalistic US projects and programs in Central America—at the moment particularly the Program for the Prosperity of the Northern Triangle Countries with which Washington intends to influence the factors in those three countries that promote violence and mass migration to the North. Can this plan work when it has been conceived to be run by those in power and the business elites that today are being questioned and accused by an avalanche of grassroots and youth movements in Guatemala and Honduras?
The poor with their hands out: Another sector that still largely supports JOH is the National Party base, especially the communities that benefit from the welfare programs of the government most “generous with gifts” in the nation’s history. In a country with mass unemployment, a youth population abandoned to their fate and a serious insecurity and violence situation that affects the poor the most, these programs consolidate support, and with these people the administration can organize shock troops against the indignant movement. Part-time job programs, whose motto is “you live better with part-time work,” are all on the rise. These programs, such as hotplates for small tortilla makers, the For A Better Life Program, ten thousand bonuses and easy credit programs, could also increase as rejection of the President with “JOH, Get Out!” slogans grows. Depending on the poorest of people with the least education who are willing to organize in exchange for subsistence help is strategic for such a government as this one.
What about the political parties?... JOH is relying not only on the National Party leadership and base but also on the traditional extreme rightwing sector of the Liberal Party and “swing parties” such as the Christian Democrats and the Democratic Unification Party. Hernández has shown himself to be expert at buying off elected officials from the new LIBRE and PAC parties, but given the gelatinous situation in which he’s moving today, however, he doesn’t have all those parties—particularly LIBRE and PAC—in his pocket.
...and the armed forces? Hernández has placed his greatest confidence in the Armed Forces, the national entity that’s gaining the most in the turbulent situation the country finds itself in today. They were already the decisive factor for the authoritarian project he dreamed of and now more than ever are crucial for the stability of his government in this slippery and dangerous situation. He has placed high military officers in key positions in his government; backed each of them personally and financially; and transferred to them the responsibilities for managing security in all agencies under question, such as Social Security, the hospitals, telecommunications, schools and the neighborhoods with the highest gang presence. In particular he has filled the streets with military personnel right where the indignant movement marches. The more his administration is questioned, the more military personnel he uses, thus opening the doors for a militarized State.
Hernández now has an alliance among high Army and Police officers. This happened after his creation of the Military Police for Public Order early this year sparked suspicions, distancing and mistrust among military and police officials. Once JOH lost the battle to elevate that new authority to a constitutional level, he tried to recover his deteriorated relationship with the military and police officers with perks, jobs and guaranteed immunity for those who had committed acts against the law. He managed to salvage what is now a quite secure alliance. The main repression against the indignant movement will come from the Military Police for Public Order, although always with assistance from the Army and Police.
Refreshing our memory In April and May 2008, when Mel Zelaya was President, a strike of public prosecutors made history in Honduras. Started by four prosecutors and bringing out many more people, it lasted 38 days and mobilized thousands in the struggle against corruption. At that time the regime was splintered. Two powers in government were against the executive branch, in an intimate alliance with the oligarchic elite and other state bodies, including the Armed Forces. The strikers took advantage of that political turmoil to demonstrate against the corrupt officials of both government and private enterprise. In so doing, they were backed by the executive branch, which issued decrees including their demands. By the end of the strike an anti-corruption consciousness had entered the country but the objective successes were so meager that within days they were reduced to nothing.
Today’s young hunger strikers are demanding the resignation of a President who, unlike Zelaya back then, is supported to a greater or lesser degree by the oligarchy, the Armed Forces and the US government. If the successes were shattered then despite the support of Zelaya and his team, will it be possible for today’s hunger strike to achieve the resignation of JOH, shielded by all the powers that be?
Today’s level of outrage against corruption wasn’t as massive in 2008 because the Social Security theft wasn’t yet a factor. The torch demonstrations are far larger than what we saw in 2008 or even the resistance to the coup we saw the next year. The other factor that didn’t exist in 2008 is President Hernández’s shameless personality and hence people’s increasing repudiation of him. At the very least the hunger strike could definitely help destabilize his authoritarian project.
Cracks among the hard core Hernández’s political mafia is shrinking. He’s more and more alone after once counting on the firm support of sectors on what’s called the “dark side” of the National Party and all the business elite. His ambition for power has led him to control the party and demand blind obedience without returning such loyalty. Seeing the massive torch-lit marches has led the powerful media entrepreneurs to distance themselves from him. They aren’t prepared to play the same role in this political scene as they did in the coup.
The prestigious journalist Renato Álvarez of Tegucigalpa’s powerful Televicentro network announced his resignation from news broadcasting after JOH threatened to pull publicity from the channel for criticizing his official policies and being open to the indignant movement. Álvarez and Televicentro had both opted to support the coup sector in 2009, thus helping to exacerbate the polarization in Honduran society. This time they’re not ready to repeat a position that caused such damage to the journalist’s image. And the TV station’s owner, businessman Rafael Ferrar Ferrar, seems to think the same. It’s just one of the cracks Hernández has caused. There are more.
Other cracks Schucry Kafie Larach is one of Honduras’ ten most powerful businessmen. Many say that with a single order he could throw the entire country into darkness or suspend the supply of medicines to the country’s entire pharmacy network. So in search of the balance JOH needs and even more to exact revenge for previous controversies, he decided to bring Kafie to justice by charging him with swindling the State through fraudulent drug sales using a pharmacy business founded solely to steal from the Social Security fund. According to those in the know, Kafie apparently legally safeguarded the pharmaceutical company and ensured that imprisonment would only be for a very short time, but the animosity with JOH will last forever, dragging this feud to the country’s most powerful business levels.
Hernández has also distanced himself from his Vice President, Ricardo Álvarez, former mayor of Tegucigalpa, president of the National Party and his main opponent in last election’s presidential preliminaries. JOH may even decide to make Álvarez one of those sacrificed in the judicial process against the Social Security theft. Experts say Álvarez has the strongest party base in both the capital and other parts of the country, which means that JOH’s moves against him could backfire: that entire base might withdraw their support, reducing the mobilization of support for the President just when he needs it most.
Still more drop-outs.. There may also be a break between JOH and Oscar Álvarez, head of the governing National Party’s bloc in Congress and the legislator who got the most votes from the department of Francisco Morazan and its main city, Tegucigalpa. Given Álvarez’s military and anti-communist fanaticism, he’s also one of Hernández’s most radical defenders against the indignant movement. But that was before JOH was humiliated in a televised debate with Salvador Nasralla, former Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) presidential candidate, when Nasralla accused Álvarez of shared responsibility for stealing the Social Security funds and deposit them in the National Party.coffers. Álvarez, who headed the party’s campaign, was an important presidential hopeful until distancing himself from JOH after the latter reportedly reprimanded him for the humiliation.
2>…and more open animosity Another open front of animosity is that of Hernández’s presidential predecessor, Porfirio (Pepe) Lobo. Credible sources say JOH decided to leave him twisting in the wind, even though Lobo had backed him in his successful presidential campaign. Lobo has a long-standing important position in the National Party and his distance from JOH is evident.
The great majority of those investigated and charged in connection with the Social Security scandal are from Pepe Lobo’s group. In May, Hernández first decided to turn Lobo’s oldest son over to the US Drug Enforcement Agency on accusations of being a trafficker and member of the cartel called Los Cashiros. It’s rumored that JOH would also be willing to turn over Ricardo Álvarez and the thus-far powerful Lena Gutiérrez, who is the National Congress’ vice president, Lobo’s confidante and one of the main people charged with the Social Security scam through the drug companies. He might even turn over “my Rosa,” as Lobo calls his wife.
This same Rosa is considered one of the main allies of Mario Zelaya, director of Honduras’ Social Security Institute and now in prison in one of the Army Battalions thanks to his main responsibility for the theft. There are those who speculate that JOH might even turn over Lobo himself if he believed it would save his project.
Disloyalty is not forgiven JOH’s allies can see that he’s not being loyal to them in this crisis. The circle of those who don’t forgive this disloyalty is growing in inverse proportion to his support circle. His allies of yesterday might end up turning him over to his adversaries today. It seems the time has come in which the President’s priority is not to look for future re-election allies but rather to recover those allies who can support him in finishing out his four years of government.
The political mafia outlined JOH’s long-term leadership, but he seems to be realizing too late that its loyalty isn’t with individuals but rather with a system that protects it. Today that mafia understands tht protecting that system may mean doing without JOH. Did he perhaps have so much power that he confused the system with his own person?
This mafia is united by more than just its extreme rightwing mentality; it has to do with its members’ proven skill in committing crimes against the country. And if Hernández is turning in several of his most important allies, why would those in the mafia, who still have a tremendous amount of power, not be perfectly able to scuttle him?
Impunity is the Rafael Leonardo Callejas, the biggest wheeler-dealer of Honduran politics, “guru” of corruption of the highest order, saw the debacle coming because he knows his pupils in detail and discovered at some point that the young man he had educated politically hadn’t moved beyond the “spoiled child” stage. This explains why Callejas filed a petition with the Honduran Supreme Court to revoke two constitutional articles barring presidential reelection, which he won this April, and has already launched his own re-election campaign parallel to JOH’s.
Among all the National Party sectors, only Callejas and the other former President, Ricardo Maduro, have continued watching the bulls from the sidelines—or at least have tried to make it look that way to avoid getting singed. The torches put Callejas, the wily fox of politics and thus of corruption, on notice that the moment to capitalize on this crisis with his own leadership has come. That’s how those in the National Party see him and it’s what they’re waiting for. The real political mafia, embodied in Callejas and Maduro, doesn’t need rookies since they have the upper hand and have known for decades how to play the game of “Honduran style” democracy.
The “indignant” population Meanwhile, the torch-bearing population needs to learn both how to situate itself firmly and to be aware of where the counterattacks will come from. The political mafia will continue to invest infinite resources into the forced marches of its supporters to keep the balance in the streets, and it will try at all cost to keep the indignant movement from gaining the initiative.
In the beginning the outraged sector of the population had more ability to take that initiative, thus putting the political mafia in a reactive stance. JOH’s call for “social dialogue” boomeranged. The angry population redoubled its numbers and the cry of “JOH, get out!” became louder than the original cry of “Prison for the corrupt!” Nonetheless, after these first advances the indignant movement needs to discuss and find proposals to assure that everything isn’t lost in euphoric jargon.
Without taking away from the creativity of the outraged population and the torch-carrying youth, they need to think carefully about their demands and about widening their alliances. Their relationship with the political parties is important because the presence of these parties in the actions decided upon could be decisive.
Nasralla’s Anti-Corruption Party: Although the angry young people exhibit a significant tendency to reject the presence of political party leaders in the walks and in the new arenas of struggle, the role the attractive sports commentator Salvador Nasralla, the PAC’s 2013 presidential candidate, has played with non-politicized youth can’t be denied. He has openly made statements against JOH, has clearly denounced the plundering of Social Security and has strongly demanded the creation of CICIH in Honduras. He has also been present at the torch-lit marches, allowing one to think of him as a new presidential candidate with a real chance to win.
Zelaya’s LIBRE party: Liberation and Refoundation (LIBRE), Manuel Zelaya’s party, has been part of this process and had an impact on it, but with less attractive elements than PAC. Zelaya’s presence has been questioned on occasion and it’s clear that he has very little pull with the indignant youth. The same is true for other lesser leaders in LIBRE and with leaders of the National Popular Front, which for some are different organizations in name only.
The Liberal Party: Honduras’ traditional Liberal Party has had a minor presence, even though its president and former candidate Mauricio Villeda has been one of the clearest and most illuminating critics of all the political leaders. His call to other political party leaders not to interfere in the torch-lit phenomenon has been constant. Some believe he’s in a deep conflict with the extreme right wing of his own party, led by former Presidents Carlos Flores Facussé and Roberto Micheletti. Replacing Villeda as party president could be imminent. At times like these, when the political class is facing hardships, the strong ties between the Liberals and the National Party’s “dark side” become clear.
Analyzing this party map, it’s clear that the leadership of the outraged youth should strengthen their alliances with PAC and LIBRE and to a lesser degree with the similarly outraged sector of the Liberal Party, at the same time avoiding the struggle becoming contaminated with electoral interests.
The missing alliance There are other missing alliances that are even more critical. It is true that the streets of the capital, San Pedro Sula and other cities and towns are filling with a very diverse population of indignant people, but young people, the middle classes, university people, professionals and small business predominate. Social, workers, small farmers, ethnic and union groups have less weight.The indignant movement needs to widen its demands and take on the demands of communities and organizations involved in territories threatened by the extractive industries and those of the Model Cities. To raise the torches in these sectors and count on these populations would touch a nerve, in fact, the very backbone of the political mafia that JOH and big capital represent.
The strategic progress of the indignant movement would be even bigger if the demonstrators walked with their torches in Aguan Valley, in the Atlantida and Locomapa area in the deepest mountain regions of Yoro, in northeast Honduras, in the western area and in the Atlantic Coast where hundreds of indigenous Lenca, Tolupán, Garífuna and small farm communities are being threatened by the mining, hydroelectric, tourist and large Model Cities projects.
The threat This creative and dignified nonviolent citizens’ movement has the potential to break the corrupt authoritarian project that has hold of Honduras. The most serious threat is JOH’s inevitable recourse to repression. To do so the regime will provoke the indignant movement to go beyond the limits of active nonviolence. Nonviolence is the best capital this protest of the hopeful indignant movement has.
It is its letter of presentation and gives its demands thear greatest credibility, undermining the political mafia’s ability to react.
The path Moving beyond the moment’s spontaneity and improvisation to avoid anarchy, knowing how to combine the activism of the outraged youth with the experience of leadership in other generations, knowing how to articulate the contributions and demands of honest social and political leaders and look beyond the cry of “get out, JOH” is where the path needs to lead. The torch-carrying population has identified the struggle against corruption and impunity as the central task of the mobilizations. But corruption and impunity aren’t just about the Social Security scandal or JOH’s administration. Once the corruption case that started this rage was identified, more and more came out. The corruption and impunity seem infinite. The path must be viewed from a medium- and long-term perspective.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.