Preparing the scene and keeping an eye on those “squealing” in the North
As Honduras heads for a new general election in November
and President Hernández prepares the scene for his reelection,
drug barons from Los Cachiros cartel and others are now in New York
ratting out narco-politicians they say turned the country into a drug State.
How much will these revelations influence the onduras’ elections?
Ismael Moreno, SJ
President Juan Orlando Hernández made an untimely trip to Washingtonin mid-March. He traveled right after the Honduran parties’ primary elections, in which he pulled twice the number of votes for his National Party than the opposition candidates of the Liberal Party and the Liberty and Re-founding Party (LIBRE).
They don’t want another Daniel Ortega
The trip was not fortuitous. It had at least two purposes. One was to make clear to US authorities his commitment not to interfere in or hinder the arrests, extraditions and indictments of Hondurans accused of crimes linked to drug trafficking and sentenced in the United States, even if they are political personalities or relatives. This commitment referred specifically to former President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and his own brother, Antonio Hernández, fingered as linked to drug trafficking in the confessions being made in New York by Los Cachiros, Honduras’ main drug lords.
The other purpose was to restate his commitment to regulate the one-time reelection of a President in Honduras’ legislation during the first three months of his second term—Hernández already considers himself reelected this year. This commitment means acceptance of the US government’s condition: they will back his reelection, but only once. Washington doesn’t want another Daniel Ortega in Central America, reelected indefinitely.
With Washington’s “blessings” along with those of European countries and of course the UN and the OAS, Juan Orlando Hernández and his powerful team are dedicating these months before the November elections to the task of clearing away any internal obstacles to reelection that may tarnish the governing party.
The first objective is to undermine any opposition party alliance, a task that started the same day as the primary elections, Sunday March 12. Hernández needs an opposition with two characteristics: it doesn’t place his electoral victory at risk but makes itself look like a real competition, loudly questioning his reelection but incapable of stopping it.
What has he done so far? One thing has been to weaken the possible presidential candidates of the existing opposition alliance. For example, he’s going after Salvador Nasralla, leader of the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), who appeals to a wide sector of the population without being from the Left. Nasralla could be a magnet that attracts massive voting by the population that opposes reelection and is becoming more and more discontented with the country’s critical state.
To avoid this, the President’s team has launched a dirty campaign designing profiles in which the crimes for drug trafficking don’t seem to be affecting only Hernández’s National Party and the other traditional political sectors, but also social leaders, who would also be tainted by narco-businesses or involved in money laundering related to organized crime. The message this campaign seeks to internalize is that nobody who claims to have any level of leadership in Honduras is free from being tarnished.
Abortion: The best bait
For at least twenty years, Juan Orlando Hernández has counted on and paid for media management experts. Now his team is refining the task, avoiding nuisances. They don’t want distractions. They need to have all the pieces of the scenery and all the actors in place on the stage to make it to the final stretch, the last quarter before the elections on the last Sunday of November with no trip-ups. The stage has to be clean so no sweeping needs to be done during those final three months.
What issue could be most effective in keeping all sectors of public opinion, diverse and even opposing ideologies “entertained” in exhausting debates? Abortion, the right to terminate a pregnancy. Nothing could more effectively engage all of society in antagonistic debates between men and women, feminists and groups from the right, extreme right and left, fundamental religious sectors of different sorts and more open religious sectors... This issue has the capacity to trap the whole society for weeks in exhausting controversy.
This extremely important issue was manipulated, put out as bait to involve all the different sectors in heated discussions, in which all kinds of attacks and threats were bandied about. While this distraction is maintained, and they will do what they must to maintain it, the President’s team will be able to work freely at eliminating or reducing the weight of any obstacle that may appear on the path to the next electoral triumph.
For therapeutic abortion
The moment was ripe to bring out the abortion issue, as the National Congress was just starting to approve reforms to the Penal Code. Among the reforms was a bill prepared by experts in criminal law to guarantee the right to terminate a pregnancy for three reasons: when it’s proven that it puts the woman’s life in danger; when there are proven congenital malformations in the fetus and when the pregnancy is the product of a rape. All three causes would classify the abortion as “therapeutic.”
The issue set off alarms overnight in all opinion sectors, both pro and con. As hoped, It was enough to swamp the media coverage of the important trials of the Cachiros cartel leaders in the New York courts even though those standing trial have been turning state’s evidence about participation in their businesses by Honduran government officials and political and business leaders, most of them governing party members from the President’s closest circle. All news related to challenges to the March 12 primary election fraud also disappeared from the media as did the trials for corruption and the looting of Social Security from the debate pursued by the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Information about the purging of the Police force was also relegated to the back burner.
A perverse manipulation
Everything centered on the confrontation between sectors that defend therapeutic abortion as a right to save lives and those who rigidly reject not only any type of pregnancy termination, but also any discussion of the issue. They consider any abortion for any reason a profound sin against God’s law, an idea around which leaders and pastors of evangelical churches and the Catholic hierarchy have closed ranks.
President Hernández was among those who took a stand against the proposal to decriminalize abortion even under those three causes. “Only God gives life and only He can take it away!” he said, announcing that he would veto the proposed reform if Congress approved it. Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga asked for prayers “so politicians don’t give in to the temptation of what is called the ‘political cost’ of approving the abominable crime of killing innocents who cannot defend themselves.”
The perversity of Honduran politicians, especially those in the Hernández government, fully revealed itself through the manipulation an issue so important to all of society and so in need of a calm debate, in which the first voices to be heard should be those of women. They manipulated it not because they care about defending life, but because they want to divert attention from any issue that would affect their selfish purposes.
Los Cachiros are squealingand others will too
Despite the success of this fabricated debate at drawing attention away from other issues, the confessions in the New York trials by these recognized drug barons’ hang like Damocles’ sword over Honduran politicians, businesspeople and the President himself. They could disrupt whatever scenarios the current electoral situation appears to be heading for, and in fact a number of politicians, Nasralla included, even doubt the elections will take place.
When the trials began, the statements of Los Cachiros leader Leonel Rivera Maradiaga implicated government officials and National Party leaders. New sessions are pending, which will surely elicit new statements pointing the finger at new party figures.
Statements are expected from others extradited, such as the Valle brothers, caught in Honduras and extradited to the US after the Cachiro leaders voluntarily turned themselves in to US authorities to save their lives. Los Cachiros controlled the transfer of drugs in western Honduras and according to different and very credible sources, their statements will denounce high political leaders not only from the National Party but also from the Liberal Party.
All these statements pending in the trials are expected to reveal that most leaders of these two traditional parties turned Honduras into a narco-State. Obviously, the US has known this for years and thus decided to have a permanent presence in Honduran territory, inserting itself into national institutions or acting parallel to them to discover the criminal plot.
Washington’s dilemmas regarding the narco-politicians
Over recent years, the US government has lost trust in its traditional Honduran allies, and since the coup against Manuel Zelaya in 2009 it has been unable to put together a new generation of credible politicians with which to establish alliances.
While Washington continues to invest in the construction of this new generation, calculating how to obtain results in the next four years, it has no other path but to continue supporting its usual allies. Given the increased distrust, however, the relationship is permeated by continual US pressure to collaborate with Washington’s initiatives in programs on violence prevention and actions regarding the police, military, justice and fiscal institutions.
In this unstable terrain of unreliable alliances, the US government is directly controlling the release of the Honduran criminals’ statements in New York. If the new statements have the same weight as those of the first “Cachiro” to speak, they could put November’s elections in doubt, because Washington would be forced to arrest and eventually extradite many of the leaders of both traditional parties aspiring to public offices and more than a few of those doing the two parties’ territorial work in the departments. So, even though Washington continuously repeats that elections guarantee democracy, backing these elections despite the denunciations by the Honduran drug barons would imply acknowledging that it backs narco-politicians.
They need us as a “banana republic”
Washington has to regulate the doses of the drug criminals’ statements in line with its interests not only in Honduras, but in the whole Central American region. As a single country, Honduras isn’t of great interest. Now firmly in the 21st century, it continues to be the same typical “Banana Republic” writer William Sidney Porter described in his novel written while on the banana plantations of Port Trujillo during the time of land privileges in the early 20th century. Those times are very much like the current ones with the Model Cities, abundant concessions of rivers and territories to extractive transnational corporations and with the US presence in our country.
Hionduras is the least of the US interests. Its greatest misfortune is its important geographical position between two oceans and in the very middle of the American continent. That strategic geography gives Honduras a special relevance to US security policy, mainly for geopolitical reasons. Washington’s is only interested in taking advantage of it to use either as an aircraft carrier or a beachhead, By cleaning out the outlaws and making the State decent, Washington seeks greater territorial control of the country, both politically and militarily.
The transnational corporate executives are also very interested in the biodiversity we still preserve, so it’s of great interest to them that Honduras continues to be a “Banana Republic”: a State with willing institutions, submissive and servile politicians and businesspeople, and a population resigned and waiting to be offered crumbs for survival, convinced by those on top that solutions to all their problems come only from above and outside the country.
A “controlled authoritarian democracy”
The fact that a group of politicians such as those led by the current President use the State as a lucrative business and collude with organized crime isn’t a decisive reason for the US to take away its support. No matter how corrupt those politicians are or how much they twist the laws, what counts for the US government and transnational corporations is that they obey. And the members of the political and business team that support Juan Orlando Hernández have been faithfully obedient.
For US government officials, politicians such as those proliferating in today’s Honduras are “friends” by convenience. They’re treated well and even congratulated when they provide good services in the North’s interests. However, since those “friends” are known criminals or protectors of criminals and are doing dirty business that affects US security, they’ll be discarded at some point. The historical path of US geopolitics around the world is strewn with such discards
Despite its distrusts of these traditional allies, Washington needs them for now because it has no interest in a government in which Mel Zelaya’s LIBRE party has influence. It doesn’t know whether Zelaya is moving to sink the country or buoy it up. In Washington’s eyes, he’s a dangerous piece within the unstable Latin American context even though Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is no longer around, his successor Nicolás Maduro is becoming weaker and weaker, and South America’s progressive governments are no longer the same as eight years ago. This is one of the reasons why Washington ended up backing Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection.
According to Washington’s calculations, Hernández’s reelection dilemma could help strengthen the Liberal Party, elevating the profile of Luis Zelaya, who will be this other traditional party’s presidential candidate. He’s a new leader, a university academic who hasn’t been tarnished by corruption. He’s under great pressure to collaborate with the security policy, respond to the standard of respect for human rights demanded by the international community and be in tune with the fight against corruption through the MACCIH. He will have to embrace what the US government calls its commitment to a “controlled authoritarian democracy.”
Within this unstable context we can identify four scenarios. No matter how firm each may seem, the common denominator they all share is the instability in which they are operating.
The first scenario: Juan Orlando is reelected
A first scenario is one that ratifies Juan Orlando Hernández reelection victory. The Liberal Party candidate, Luis Zelaya, would take second place, making him the country’s second political figure. In this scenario, the opposition alliance led by LIBRE would be relegated to third place, without the strength to oppose the decisions made by the renewed traditional bipartisanship.
This is the most realistic scenario and the worst one for the future of the country’s most impoverished sectors. It would consolidate the concentration of decision-making and resources in the hands of the business elites, junior partners of the multinationals operating n the country. It is the scenario that best suits the Trump government’s new anti-immigrant policies and will grant continuity to the process begun the day of the coup in June 2009, which turned Honduras into a mega-business for the political and business mafia based on corruption and impunity.
This scenario would strengthen the public-private alliance and the subordination of the State’s coercive powers to presidential decisions through the National Defense and Security Council created by Hernández. Large parts of the budget would continue being allotted to both military expenses and vote-buying charity programs. It is the one that consolidates a government model representing the wealthiest people in the country, which sadly has taught the poorest to defend and applaud the powerful.
A variation of this first scenario is that the National Party attracts an insignificant alliance of five parties so small that together they wouldn’t even pull 10,000 votes. However, they would be useful as “hinge parties” to make a clean sweep at the electoral polls and guarantee Juan Orlando Hernández a categorical victory.
Second scenario: Luis Zelaya wins
This second scenario depends on forging a significant opposition alliance led by Luis Zelaya. That in turn would involve Zelaya making political agreements with what is currently the opposition alliance consisting of LIBRE, Salvador Nasralla’s PAC and the Social Democratic Innovation and Unity Party (PINU). That larger alliance would unite all of the electoral political opposition under the slogan of “everyone against JOH” [as President Hernández is commonly called]. To build this scenario the LIBRE-PINU-PAC alliance would have to give up its presidential candidate, Nasralla, and accept Luis Zelaya. This scenario would be ideal for the Right opposing Hernández and his National Party, with its interest in Washington’s objective of cleaning up the State, as the US distrust of an alliance controlled by Mel Zelaya would no longer be an issue. Such a mixed alliance such as this would be a real threat to the reelection project, which the US Embassy would look kindly on.
Even though everything is changeable in politics, and even more so in Honduran politics, LIBRE, PINU and PAC are so far firmly determined not to become Luis Zelaya’s ally as it would mean subordinating themselves to the Liberal Party. This decision coincides with the one by Juan Orlando Hernández’s team to allow the Liberal Party with its novel leader to run so it can be the controlled opposition JOH needs without becoming a threat to his reelection.
Assuredly, Luis Zelaya comes from circles untarnished by the corruption characterizing the Liberal Party, but he has no other option than to surround himself with prominent liberal leaders tarred by that brush. Reliable information from a high-level political leader, is that the great majority of departmental Liberal leaders have ties to drug trafficking, not to mention that they were responsible and directly involved in the 2009 coup.
An alliance with that sort of political hodgepodge would mean returning to the traditional bipartisan model. And that might not be credible enough for the US Embassy because it would mean backing corrupt, unpunished political groups and members of organized crime.
Third scenario: No elections
The third scenario is one in which evidence collected by President Hernández’s team could convince him of his possible defeat or of the need to force his victory through fraudulent elections in the face of a growing push from an opposition alliance that capitalizes on citizens’ discontent. That scenario could lead to a constituent assembly, called by Juan Orlando Hernández in negotiation with Liberal sectors and some from the political opposition alliance led by LIBRE. Such an emergency scenario would probably be backed by the US government and therefore by the UN, the OAS and the European countries.
This scenario would seek to define a way to consolidate the traditional bipartisanship through a pact regarding the make-up of the Constituent Assembly. President Hernández would surely head up this constituent process. which would open up debates and confrontations among the opposition sectors, dividing them into those favoring the process and those opposing it as an emergency way out that only serves the political interests of Hernández’s team.
Hernández, however, is not interested in activating this emergency scenario. He would only agree to it and get it rolling after becoming convinced of the danger of losing the elections to a consolidated opposition alliance. He would also have to accept it if the statements by the drug dealers on trial in New York get out of hand and begin to truly threaten his reelection.
Fourth scenario: The opposition wins
The fourth scenario would be an electoral victory of the current LIBRE, PAC and PINU opposition alliance, expressing rising opposition by the citizenry against the current dictatorship. It would be an ideal scenario for an opposition that links the political-electoral aspect with a political-civic response.
This scenario is so ideal and desirable that three decisive factors indicate its impossibility. The first is the determination of Hernández’s team to break up any alliance that puts his reelection in danger; the second is the limited capacity of the opposition party leaders; and the third is the current fragmentation of the different social sectors.
Seen all together, the only thing that’s clear in these four scenarios is the power of the reelection apparatus set up by Hernández within the context of social and institutional instability and faced with the threat represented by the trials of the Honduran drug barons in the US.
In all scenarios, the President is playing to win. And to do that, he’s directly managing the information and reading of what’s unfolding, not only through agreements that he has established with the owners of the corporative media, but now also with those responsible for broadcasting the news in the media.
The last weekend of April, the President organized a field trip and get-together with the heads of the television, radio and multimedia news programs. Based on what we saw in the picture taken of them in the Bay Islands, not a single one missed that outing.
Who’s pulling the strings?
The presidency controls everything, absolutely everything. And the US Embassy controls the presidency. The entire electoral process and any scenario within it depend on the pieces Juan Orlando Hernández is deftly moving. And the whole Honduran context today depends on the pieces Washington is moving with even more deftness and power, particularly the revealing confessions of the Honduran drug lords in New York.
Juan Orlando Hernández is pulling a lot of strings, but he doesn’t control the very ones that could thwart his aspirations. That’s why he has no option but to obey those who do.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.