The United States takes the helm in the Honduran crisis
Never has Washington so openly intervened in Honduran politics.
Its moves last year in the corruption cases of the Los Cachiros cartel,
the Rosenthal family businesses and former President Rafael Callejas
showed the Honduran government’s subordination to US security policies.
Only a power like that of the North could touch all those “untouchables,”
converting them from respected to repudiated virtually overnight.
This year the US government will surely remain at the helm of this barely governable country.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
At ten minutes to midnight on January 25, the last day for electing the 15 new Supreme Court justices, National Congress President Mauricio Oliva called a vote on the slate of candidates proposed by the nominating commission. The list, which had to be voted as a whole, included eight candidates from the governing National Party and seven from the Liberal Party, having been divvied up in accord with those two traditional parties’ bipartite agreements. In less than a minute the voting was over. Of the 128 legislators, 82 voted in favor and 44 against, with 2 abstaining.
The 82 pro votes were 4 short of the qualified majority needed to elect the new Court, a serious defeat for President Juan Orlando Hernández (also referred to as JOH) . Forty-nine of those votes were cast by the National Party, 26 by the Liberal Party, 3 by the Christian Democrats, 3 by independent legislators who had resigned from deposed President Zelaya’s Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) party and 1 by Democratic Unification. Most of the votes against (29 of the 44) were cast by LIBRE, with another 13 coming from the Anti-Corruption Party and 1 each from a Liberal and the Innovation and Unity Party’s representative. Both abstentions were from LIBRE.
They couldn’t run the risk
This was President Hernández’s second political reversal in his two years of government. The first came on January 23, 2015, by sheer coincidence almost exactly a year after he took office on January 27, 2014, and also almost exactly a year before this new one. On that occasion defeat came in an environment of intense campaigning and threats when he tried to raise the Military Police of Public Order to constitutional rank. The opposition legislators responded by closing ranks to achieve results very similar to those that frustrated the election of the President’s preferred slate of justices this January.
The defeat of the slate meant that each candidate would have to be voted on individually and in secret until all 15 justices who would make up the new Court and administer justice for the next seven years had been elected. After four days, the legislators had elected barely 8 and were caught up in a tense, abrasive, threatening environment of confrontations and negotiations. At that point Oliva suspended the session until February. The extreme rightwing nationalist sector led by President Hernández, which presides over the National Congress, didn’t dare run the risk of losing the programmed Supreme Court presidency.
More than 20 implicated
in organized crime
Thus Honduras’ second-tier elections, normally based on lists already decided on by those who exercise the power within the two major parties, came to an unprecedented, inconclusive, challenging end. The process began in the middle of last year with the creation of the seven-member nominating board representing seven sectors following mechanisms approved in two previous electoral periods. Oliva had appointed its members after President Hernández vetted the names. The board’s task was to select the Court candidates from among 1,500 notaries and more than 18,000 lawyers.
The seven sectors represented on the nominating board were the Supreme Court, the College of Lawyers, the National Human Rights Commissioner’s Office, the workers’ confederations, the Honduran College of Private Enterprise, the universities and civil society. In September each of them sent a list of 20 candidates, from which the board made a first cut of 97 who would then have to go through a rigorous process of examinations and investigations. Diverse sectors took part in this process, in which the opinion of the US Embassy had a decisive weight. It sent the board a list of more than 20 from those 97 with proof of their implication in organized crime activities. The final short list was 45 candidates.
The Supreme Court is an
issue of life or death for JOH
Getting a Supreme Court under his control is a life or death issue for President Hernández. That importance is what has made the process of electing new justices so tense.
JOH can’t afford the luxury of another Court that doesn’t follow his guidelines and decisions. He would be unable to survive with a judicial authority he doesn’t control. Given his project of continuous reelection, which he won’t give up for anything in the world, he’s putting together a jigsaw puzzle in which all pieces must fit seamlessly, and the Supreme Court is a fundamental one.
The President’s five objectives
JOH is starting this year with five objectives that he must negotiate with both his own Liberal Party and the political opposition. First is the presidency of the Supreme Court and subsequent control of the Judiciary Council. Second is the electoral reforms that could put his reelection project at risk, especially with respect to the new ID/voter card, control of the civil registry and above all the second round of voting. Third is control of the Armed Forces Chiefs of Staff and the Police General Directorate. Fourth is the repeal or reform of the Law on the Functioning of the National Council of Defense and Security, an entity from which he can gain control of all branches of State. And fifth is repeal of the juridical concepts approved in December 2013, when JOH was already President-elect and was just finishing up his presidency of the National Congress. These include the Model Cities or ZEDES; the concession of rivers, mines and territories to extractivist transnational corporations; and the concession of all highway arteries and grids to big private Honduran companies, themselves concessionaires of transnational corporations.
He needs greater control
After two years of government, Hernández also needs to compensate for his obviously eroded image with society and to neutralize threats from his political and business adversaries and organized crime.
For that he needs greater control over the branches of State, the Public Ministry and all the other comptroller institutions, above all with the help of the Army and Police. In the last session of the National Congress’ second legislature during his term, he had already succeeded in introducing a motion aimed at eliminating the bureaucratic post of Armed Forces Commander, leaving only that of the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thus eliminating one rung of the ladder that impedes his direct command over battalion chiefs.
MACCIH comes to town
Another reason President Hernández can’t survive without controlling the Supreme Court is the Support Mission for the Fight against Corruption and Impunity (MACCIH), a new entity that came into being in January, sealing an alliance between the Organization of American States and the Honduran government. MACCIH is the OAS response to indignant Honduran citizens who, carrying flaming torches, protested week after week last year demanding an international investigative entity along the lines of the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to get a grip on corruption and impunity.
The difference between MACCIH and CICIG isn’t just the name but also the promoting entity. That highly significant difference is what’s keeping the angry Honduran sectors that specifically demanded a CICIG replica in all respects—i.e. an independent body run by the UN—on alert. What they got instead was an OAS entity that will support investigations conducted by the Public Ministry.
The expectation was a UN body that would directly investigate the most relevant cases of corruption and impunity in Honduras, completely independent of the government, and turn the results over to the prosecutor general’s office—the Public Ministry—which would send them on to the judicial branch. MACCIH, in contrast, will only accompany the Public Ministry’s own investigations and will need the government’s support even to be able to fulfill that function.
At least the Public Ministry will now have the help of international experts, which would still be very valuable if it weren’t for the fact that the most notorious corruption cases to be investigated have to do with the pillaging of public institutions by members of the current government team. If done well, these investigations would go all the way to the presidential offices and to JOH’s closest relatives and collaborators. Some cases that need to be looked into, however, are directly linked to the deputy prosecutor general, who owes his post to a highly irregular process directly handled by President Hernández. Everyone in the know agrees that he also owes many other favors to JOH, making it impossible for him to fulfill his function with any independence. Yet he is the one who must investigate all cases.
The OAS and Almagro will
seek to defend themselves
Even with what will probably be puny activity, MACCIH is still a threat to the President. He may have control over the deputy prosecutor general, but he won’t have it over the international experts working with him or all the officials following the threads of the investigations.
Luis Almagro, a Uruguayan lawyer, diplomat and politician, is the new OAS secretary general, elected eight months ago. He has a progressive history as a member of Uruguay’s Broad Front and a reputation as an honest man that he can’t risk in a country like Honduras with such a clearly dishonest political class. It was he who proposed this new entity, which for the first time in OAS history will directly intervene in a member State to seek the resolution of a conflict, investigating emblematic cases of corruption and impunity. He’s thus staking his own personal prestige with MACCIH. And he’s also staking an opportunity for the OAS to recover its credibility with the continental and international community, which it has been losing for many decades, above all for its shameless subordination to the interests of the US government. Having decided to use the Honduran crisis and its population’s indignant demands for international support to fight corruption as a way to raise the OAS’ profile, much rides on MACCIH for both Almagro and the OAS.
Upon completing his second year in government in January, President Hernández assured public opinion that he had laid the groundwork for “a different country.” He listed as his greatest accomplishment the capture and extradition to the United States of various drug-trafficking leaders. He’s also proud of the reduction of annual homicides from 86.5 to 64 per 100,000 inhabitants, the educational stability that allowed more than 200 days of class to be held during the school year, getting the economic growth indices back on track, the construction of parks and recreation centers in the country’s main cities and especially the recovery of areas that were for years under the control of maras and other less notorious varieties of youth gangs. He also claims to have strengthened the institutionality of the rule of law. And of course there are the social assistance projects, which share out aid to thousands of impoverished families through a program called “A better life.”
At the opening of the third National Congress legislature of his term, he bragged euphorically: “We’re no longer the first, the second, the third, the fourth, or even the fifth most violent country in the world.” Ironically hundreds of Army and Police had cordoned off the installations for several blocks at that very moment and were controlling media entry. Our Radio Progreso journalists were expressly prohibited from entering the event with the argument that the more people who entered, the greater the danger for the attending personalities.
Organizing and deciding
In a public opinion survey done by Radio Progreso and the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) last year, those polled gave President Hernández’s second year of administration only a 4.7 approval rating. The State’s institutionality became so discredited last year that not only did the citizenry’s lack of confidence increase, but 2015 will be remembered as the year with the highest-ever level of US government intervention in our country’s politics. Never before has national politics been so subordinated to Washington’s direct decisions.
When leaders of Los Cachiros cartel gave themselves up to US authorities in early 2015, the Honduran government held off confirming it for days. Both this and the majority of actions leading to the capture and extradition of other drug traffickers were only possible with the direct involvement of US government agents. Even the success of various other moves against the drug business was due in part to decisions coming directly out of Washington to avoid information about the operations leaking to Honduran state institutions and thus scuttling their success.
The entire operation leading to the capture of and suit against the powerful Rosenthal family, accused of crimes linked to the laundering of assets and connections with drug trafficking, came from the United States and was organized and conducted by US security agents. The Honduran government limited itself to endorsing and ratifying the decisions, while the US ambassador in Honduras, James D. Nealon, ended up reporting what had happened instead of President Hernández. That of course didn’t prevent JOH from taking credit for the operation’s success.
Between burnout and ambition
According to the latest pulse-taking of public opinion by ERIC and Radio Progreso, Hernández’s claimed successes in economic stability and in response to the needs of the poorest population are unfounded. Together with insecurity, the majority of people continue to be most worried about unemployment and economic uncertainty, which is what underlies the very low marks the population gives the President for his running of the country.
He is starting the third of his four-year term trapped between political burnout and his unbridled ambition to group his forces and get resources to turn this year into a platform for launching his reelection campaign. “Reelection is on and no one will stop it” is the slogan beginning to be heard among his closest collaborators.
This thus-far illegal objective, together with evidence of the plundering of the Social Security coffers, was what triggered the civic indignation expressed in dozens of marches by thousands of people with burning torches. And it will continue to feed the rejection of JOH in 2016, even though many in the upper political echelons are all for keeping the doors open to presidential reelection. It is even said that the idea has been endorsed by the US Embassy.
Callejas was seen
as the only obstacle
After being accused of bribery, fraud and the laundering of assets in the corruption case involving the International Federation of Associated Football (FIFA), former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas traveled to the United States on December 13 to turn himself in “voluntarily” to the justice system (actually his visa was reportedly cancelled while he was in Miami on a shopping trip and also allegedly emptying his US bank accounts of laundered funds). His arrest freed President Hernández from the main domestic political obstacle to his reelection project.
Callejas was the only opposition to JOH’s pretensions within the National Party. The accusation against him in the United States and the subsequent legal process there, which will take six to eight months, left the road open for JOH to calmly organize the proselytizing drive he needs
to support his reelection, without having to wear himself out fighting against adversaries within his own party.
LIBRE’s stance on reelection
His most acrimonious challenger now is LIBRE, led by former President Manuel Zelaya and his team. Zelaya appears very willing to move toward the constitutional reform approved in April of last year by the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench to permit presidential reelection, which would actually favor him. What he and his team reject, however, is JOH’s continuist plan.
Speaking of reelection poses no significant problem for LIBRE. What it wants to avoid at all cost is to be seen as championing it. “It isn’t one of LIBRE’s issues,” repeat LIBRE activists every time they’re asked about it. “It’s the President’s issue.” They are also clear in stating that it should be put to a national consultation.
In the opinion of Ricardo Salgado, an ideologue who is part of the LIBRE sector most loyal to Zelaya, the confrontation between those favoring reelection and those opposing it is a false issue, fed by sectors interested in weakening LIBRE as a political option. His explanation is that “the manipulation of the reelection issue is aimed at dismantling the opposition and reducing interest in the structural proposals coming out of the LIBRE party.”
Salgado sees the real confrontation as between the democratization proposed by LIBRE and Juan Orlando Hernández’s continuist project. In the debate about that project, they relativize the critique of the current administration by sectors opposed to reelection that label Hernández’s government a “dictatorship.” According to Salgado, “a myth of major proportions must be constructed to create powerlessness in the middle class, and that is done by raising Juan Orlando Hernández to the pinnacle of a dictatorial state. Without a dictator there’s no movement. Here’s where the issue gets very complicated, since Hernández, the Honduran President most accommodating to the US spheres of power, is being implanted in the collective self-identity as an objective of a hunt by the ‘intransigent American avenger,’ which distorts everything to unimaginable extremes.”
Put in other words, the problem for LIBRE wouldn’t be so much Hernández’s project of concentrating power around his own person—a feature common to a dictatorship—but rather his sly tendency to pull together the diverse middle class sectors, which are precisely those that have headed up the indignation and lit the torches. This is viewed as giving JOH powers he doesn’t have, prioritizing the struggle against his reelection to thus deliver a blow not so much to the President’s project as to the proposals being put forward by LIBRE and its leader.
What reforms will be
made in the electoral game?
With things as they are, reelection is being turned into a significant issue in the coming presidential election process and will keep the political parties entertained for the next two years, despite the fact that they are demanding the reform of more important rules of the game, including the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and National Civic Registry having representatives from the new parties, designing a new ID/voter card and establishing a system for a second round in the elections.
Should the reforms be made and should the National Party promote them, they would not go into effect in time for the upcoming elections. The rank of the laws they would reform means they would need to be reformed by one legislature and then ratified by the following one, which would happen only after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has already officially opened the next electoral race in 2017.
So far, however, the National Party—or better said President Hernández—hasn’t given the slightest sign of bowing to these reforms, which is adding to the feeling that JOH’s continuation in the presidential chair is an imminent threat.
Who could have foreseen all this?
Whatever official electoral rules end up in effect, the country’s profound institutional deterioration has been generating rules of another game in which new actors are appearing. Who could have foreseen in the first quarter of 2015 that the phenomenon of the torch protests would burst onto the stage? What so shook ample sectors of the citizenry that it forced President Hernández to call for a dialogue and accept the presence of an international authority such as MACCIH was the organized corruption in the Social Security Institute headed up by supporters of JOH’s reelection that pilfered some $200 million.
The rules of the game in a crumbling State like Honduras can be altered overnight. For the same reason, today’s powerful actors can just as suddenly pass from social recognition to social repudiation, losing all credibility. That’s what has happened to Rafael Leonardo Callejas, who as recently as the middle of last year was the political player who appeared destined to break down the legal obstacles constitutionally blocking the reelection aspirations of Honduras’ former Presidents. Callejas was a man who, from the National Party, had the capacity not only to sponsor Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection, but even to replace him in the leadership of the extreme Right. Yet in only a few months he became a man pursued by international justice and extraditable to the United States. Today, this formerly powerful politician is facing several years in a US prison.
From honorable to brigand
Inside Honduras, Callejas’ name has always been associated with corruption. He has been the paradigm of a politician capable of winning over followers due to his proven ability to contaminate any political activity with corruption. But up to now he has always been untouchable. His most illustrious quality was his ability to use political intelligence to elevate corrupt acts into honorable actions, the evasion of justice into acumen and public service into a business. In this he was unrivaled.
In Honduras’ current political turmoil, however, particularly in the context of the categorical collapse of the State’s institutionality, Callejas’ life was literally turned on its head from one day to the next. The same thing happened to the Rosenthal family and its powerful financial and business emporium and to the main drug-trafficking leaders, who were also living happily in Honduras confident that they too were untouchable.
And they had reason to think that, because no one in Honduras had ever touched them. Especially in today’s crisis, only an actor with the power of the US government could intervene to turn darkness into light and honorability into roguery overnight. Callejas is just the latest example of this determined intervention, with its sudden and drastic consequences, turning him into a brigand, the term he himself reserved for pickpockets and other petty thieves...
The US government played a decisive role in Honduras’ political, judicial and security-related life throughout last year and everything suggests it will continue doing so this year and in the coming ones.
The achievements and successes Juan Orlando Hernández has claimed for himself are really those of another government. He has just acted as the obedient follower of higher orders, meaning that his only real success has been playing the role of a mercenary or submissive servant of the powerful.
On the question of reelection and other issues related to internal security, drug trafficking and organized crime, everything that will continue happening in Honduras will depend on the decisions of the US government. There will be reelection if Washington gives it the go-ahead. And
it seems it will, although not for the consecutive and indefinite reelection to which JOH aspires, but only for one additional period following at least one term out of office.
Hernández’s reelection objective is riddled with uncertainties. Although it may seem he has convinced the international community and enjoys the backing of European diplomacy, it appears that further down the line he will likely be faced by the kind of tragic scenarios that caught up with former Presidents such as Álvaro Portillo and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, his personal friend and teacher Rafael Callejas, or Francisco Flores in El Salvador.
Knowing that his future outside of the Honduran presidential office is very uncertain, Hernández will strengthen his control over the institutions, make an effort to increase the proselytism in his favor and seek to demonstrate his obedience to the US government this year.
...and directly taking the helm
The way Washington sees it in these first months of 2016, Honduras’ domestic actors have lost their ability to manage their own crisis, and more importantly even to look for answers based on their own capacities. It has thus decided to push its security policy in Honduras not by intervening from afar, but by directly taking the helm, as demonstrated last year through actions that led to the extradition of drug barons and business and
political leaders allied to the drug cartels. Responding to the 2015 crisis as it did generated grassroots pressure from the indignant movement and has promoted the setting up of MACCIH, although not the Honduran version of the CICIG that the demonstrations were calling for. It also intervened in the election of Supreme Court justices, preventing the naming of people sullied by organized crime.
The tortuous process of electing the justices exemplifies not only the collapse of state institutionality and the traditional bipartite model, but also the inability of the current political leaders to autonomously propose new institutional and political scenarios.
With this collapsed model…
The collapse we’re witnessing is of Honduras’ bipartite model, but not of the country’s elites, because the new model being shaped will continue to represent their interests. What will change is that the political map will now be defined by a plurality of forces. The challenge the elites are now seeking to resolve is how to assure bipartite leadership within that plurality, what changes they must make to ensure nothing changes.
Justice continues to be hitched to the traditional parties, making judicial independence impossible in the decisions that will be taken in the next seven years. With the current institutionality, any election will be characterized by confrontations and polarization.
If the election of this Supreme Court has been so questioned and rife with tensions, what can we expect of the following election of the other state comptroller bodies that have to be elected by the current National Congress? And what will the next presidential elections be like?
…Band-Aids won’t be enough
Today’s crisis is systemic, not limited to this particular moment, yet the elites who dominate the two traditional parties are looking to resolve it with one-off responses. Meanwhile, the opposition political forces are stressing certain structural changes or reforms, but without involving the nonpartisan social sectors.
This systemic crises, which has been limping along for decades, accentuated by the June 2009 coup d’état, will not be resolved with Band-Aids, or with reforms defined behind the back of the social majorities. Any response that doesn’t get to the bottom of the conflicts will only generate greater uncertainty.
Today’s politicians prefer to sink the country in instability and deterioration than lose quotas of power. They are thus gambling with their own existence, because continuing to cling to their logic of power will only sink them further in the mire in which they’re stuck.
This collapse is calling out for a national debate that could lead to the design of proposals for a new institutionality and could open the way to a pact that would replace that of 1981, when the current Constitution was drafted. That Constitution has been reformed dozens of times but suffered a terminal reverse with the constitutional rupture of 2009.
Rather than Band-Aids or new reforms for a collapsed institutionality, we need to discuss proposals for a constituent process to draft a new Constitution. The present and future of our country and all of society are riding on that possibility.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the director of Radio Progreso and the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits in Honduras and envío’s correspondent in that country.