Dead protesters, a “failed state” and accusations of high-level drug trafficking. This time it’s not Venezuela in the headlines, but key US ally Honduras.
Protests over the last two months have left at least three people dead and are contributing to a growing political crisis for President Juan Orlando Hernandez. The recent 10-year anniversary of the coup that deposed President Jose Manuel Zelaya in 2009 provided a focal point for protesters, who are angry about many of the same issues — such as insecurity, poverty and a crisis of governance — that are also a factor in driving growing migration to the United States.
“These challenges make many people seek a better, more peaceful, life further north,” said Annette Idler, senior research fellow in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford.
While many Hondurans continue to leave the country in search of a new life, members of a variety of groups from across society are making their feelings known in the streets.
“The one demand that now unifies all these sectors is for the President to step down,” added Idler.
Here are some key issues behind the protests:
Crisis of democracy
Members of the Honduran opposition accuse Hernandez of changing the rules of the political system in his favor.
Reelection for a second presidential term had long been against the law in Honduras, but, after winning the 2013 election, Hernandez sparked massive protests in 2017 when he ran for a second time following a contentious 2015 Supreme Court decision scrapping the single-term limit.
Hernandez hung on to power following a widely disputed election that eroded many Hondurans’ trust in the political system due to allegations of electoral fraud.
Now protest leaders allege that Honduras is facing social unrest because the country is a “failed state,” in which institutions are not providing answers to the needs of citizens.
Anger over the 2017 election is also deepened by the role of the US in recognizing Hernandez as the winner despite grave concerns expressed by international observers. The US has a large military base in Honduras, which has led to accusations that both the current and previous US administrations are turning a blind eye to political violence and corruption in the country.
The Hernandez administration has been dogged by allegations of high-level corruption and drug trafficking, which have even implicated the President himself and his immediate family.
Hernandez has been investigated in relation to “large scale drug-trafficking” by the US, although the Honduran presidency released a statement in which they said the US Department of Justice had “found no evidence to sustain the accusations against the President and his collaborators.” His brother Antonio was arrested by US investigators on drug trafficking charges in November 2018, but he has denied the charges.
These allegations contribute to a climate of mistrust and provide another reason for ordinary Hondurans to call for Hernandez’s resignation. Although government sources have highlighted Honduran cooperation with the US in combating drug trafficking, a CNN investigation found that the country is a major transit point for Colombian cocaine trafficked through Venezuela.
With powerful figures allegedly involved in drug trafficking, claims of corruption among the political elite contribute to wider popular anger over the costs to ordinary people. And it’s not just drug smuggling. Transparency International ranked Honduras 132 out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, which looks at public sector corruption, and states that a failure to control corruption contributes to a crisis of democracy.
Allegations of authoritarianism
Hondurans also consider Hernandez too authoritarian, according to Oxford’s Idler, and rights groups have criticized the use of military force against protesters.
Violence has flared during the recent protests after Hernandez put soldiers on the streets, leading to widespread condemnation. A standoff between police and students at the National Autonomous University of Honduras on June 24 left five protesters injured.
Ebal Diaz, minister of the presidency, told CNN that Hondurans have the right to protest peacefully, and linked acts of violence and vandalism committed by demonstrators to the opposition Libre party and the 10th anniversary of the coup.
Idler says, however, that the government’s handling of the situation has made things worse. “The violent response by the Honduran military police against protesters, killing several of them, only increased people’s anger further,” she said.
In 2017, at least 14 deaths and dozens of injuries were reported during protests over Hernandez’s election, and security forces acted with impunity during a 10-day curfew imposed to quell protests, according to Amnesty International.
Rights campaigners have also denounced violence against human rights defenders and indigenous groups. The 2016 murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres has become an emblematic case. In November 2017 a panel of international legal experts concluded that executives from a hydroelectric company, state agents and officials were involved in planning, executing and attempting to cover up her death.
Poverty, inequality and austerity
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, according to the CIA World Factbook. Over 50% of the population lives in poverty and per capita income is among the lowest in the region. These issues are exacerbated by the effects of an unusual drought that has hit the area known as the “dry corridor” of Central America — which includes parts of Honduras — over the past five years, causing crops to fail.
Although the economy grew by 3.7% of GDP in 2018, according to data from the World Bank, many Hondurans feel that they have not benefited. Honduras has the highest level of economic inequality in Latin America, according to the World Bank, with a small section of society capturing most of the fruits of economic development.
“There is an enormous gap between the haves’ and the ‘have-nots,'” said Idler.
Public services such as healthcare and education have also suffered funding cuts, stoking anger over the link between alleged corruption and poor services.
The latest protests were sparked by two presidential decrees which doctors and teachers say would have opened the door to the privatization of their sectors.
Diaz told CNN these allegations are “completely false” and Hernandez has since withdrawn the plans, but not before the demonstrations had grown in size and scope.
Rampant insecurity is also a major factor in public discontent. Honduras saw homicide rates more than double between 2005 and 2010, and became the world’s most murderous country in 2012.
While the country retains a reputation as one of the least safe in the world, the homicide rate has been dropping. In 2011 there were 86 homicides per 100,000 people, compared to 41 per 100,000 in 2018.
By way of comparison, the US had a murder rate of 5.4 per 100,000 in 2017.
The number of killings may be falling, but street gangs and major organized crime remain a huge security problem. Many migrants cite violence and insecurity as a factor in their decision to leave the country, and Idler told CNN that young people are recruited heavily by gangs.
“(The) current protests draw attention to the daily difficulties that people are facing: stopping migrant flows to the north and finding a way out of the current political crisis both require fighting corruption and impunity, enhancing equality, and providing livelihood opportunities and education to the poor,” said Idler. “Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go to achieve this.”