Hernández takes office with agenda already largely in place

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What’s most unusual about today’s inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernández as the next president of Honduras is that so much of his agenda is already in place.honduras flag icon

Upon taking office today, Hernández (pictured above) will face daunting security, economic and political challenges.

But on at least a few matters, he’ll take office with key elements of his agenda already in place, thanks to the efforts of the outgoing administration of Porfirio Lobo Sosa and the wide majority of the Partido Nacional (PN, National Party) in the outgoing Congreso Nacional (National Congress).  Hernández served as president of the National Congress from 2010 to 2014.  The transition from Lobo Sosa to Hernández marks the first time since the return of democracy to Honduras in 1981 that the conservative National Party will hold two consecutive presidential terms (Honduran presidents are constitutionally ineligible to run for reelection).

Hernández takes office today, but he does so after enacting several key security and fiscal policies in the final months and weeks of the Lobo Sosa administration, including a new, less controversial national police chief, a new military police force, landmark fiscal reforms (including a wide tax increase) and a plan to privatize Honduras’s public electricity company.  Last weekend, the new National Congress was sworn in, which means that the National Party will control just 48 seats in the 128-member unicameral parliament, a sharp reduction from the 75-seat bloc that Hernández commanded during the Lobo Sosa era.

From ‘whatever it takes’ to ‘the party is over’

Even before the election campaign reached full swing, Hernández last September pushed through legislation authorizing the creation of a new policia militar (‘military police’) that will deploy in full force early this year, and he campaigned on a slogan to do ‘whatever it takes’ (¡voy hacer lo que tenga que hacer!) to make Honduras safe.  The controversial legislation creates an elite militarized unit loyal to Hernández that (hopefully) won’t be corrupted by organized crime and drug traffickers, which have already infiltrated much of the Honduran police and military. Critics worry that the new military police could trample human rights in a country barely three decades removed from death squads.  Many Hondurans fear the police more than drug traffickers and criminal gangs.

Late in December 2013, Lobo Sosa fired the head of Honduras’s national police, Juan Carlos Bonilla, known as ‘El Tigre.’  Bonilla had become a controversial figure, given alleged ties to the death squads of the 1980s.  Since becoming the head of Honduras’s national police force in August 2012, Bonilla became linked to a trend of humanitarian violations at the hands of the national police, including beatings, illegal detentions and other harassment of gay and lesbian Hondurans, journalists and leftists in political opposition to the current administration.  Bonilla also seemed either unwilling or unable to crack down on rampant corruption within his ranks.  Given that police salaries are a pittance, however, reforming the national police force could prove just as difficult in the Hernández era as well.

Bonilla’s removal represents one less headache for Hernández, who would have continued to face ongoing skepticism  from both within and outside Honduras over Bonilla’s leadership.  But there’s no sign that the future will be any less corrupt or any more respectful of human rights — and no clear sign that Bonilla’s successor, Ramón Sabillón, previously the commander of the national police’s special investigations division, will do any better.

Stabilizing Honduras will be Hernández’s top challenge in the next four years, and he’s staked his presidency on doubling down with a military solution rather than a strategy of community-based policing.  Though the United Nations The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recorded a rate of 91.6 per 100,000 in 2011, but the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras estimated a rate of 85.5 in 2012 and just 80 per 100,000 in 2013.  While that’s a significant drop, it still means that Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate.

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In his inaugural address today, Hernández declared that for criminals, se le terminó la fiesta (‘the party is over), and he wasted no time in announcing a massive military operation, Operácion Morazán, named after Honduras’s founding father.  To that end, Hernández indulged a demonstration at his inauguration earlier today of Los Tigres, one unit of Honduras’s increasingly militarized network of squads and paramilitary police forces (pictured above).

Rigoberto Chang Castillo, a top Hernández ally, has become Honduras’s new interior and population minister, and rising National Party star Reinaldo Sánchez will become the minister of the presidency.

Bilateral relations with the United States and drug policy

One of the most surprising aspects to Hernández’s inaugural address, however, was a stern admonishment of US drug policy.  Declaring a double standard, Hernández spoke out against the United States for its role in Honduras’s state, noting that North American demand for drugs has fueled so much violence throughout Latin America, and that while drugs are merely a ‘health’ issue for US consumers, it’s a matter of life and death for Honduras, which fights traffickers with limited resources — and the blood of its own people:

“Ha llegado la hora que todos los países productores, consumidores y de tránsito aceptemos que la solución de este problema pasa por tener resultados efectivos, derivados del principio de responsabilidad común compartida pero diferenciada de los gobiernos que deben guiar sus decisiones políticas y sus acciones hacia efectivos resultados…. Invitamos al gobierno de Barack Obama y al Congreso de los Estados Unidos que reconozcan este principio de responsabilidad común, compartida pero diferenciada y que trabajemos en conjunto para ayudarnos a resolver este problema que también es de ellos.”

The time has come for all of us, producers, consumers and transit countries alike, to accept that the solution to this problem, in order to have effective results, is derived from the principle of shared common responsibility, but as differentiated among each of those governments, which should guide policy decisions and actions on the basis of effective results.  We invite the Obama administration and the US Congress recognize the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and work with us to help resolve this problem that is also theirs.

US drug policy in Latin America has come under increasingly harsh scrutiny, as I wrote shortly after the November election:

U.S. assistance to Honduras isn’t just financial – it also includes training, intelligence-sharing and military equipment from the U.S. military and the Drug Enforcement Administration.  Last year, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, said that because the United States is no longer at war in Iraq, it would be able to deploy even more military funding to Honduras.  Joint military cooperation suffered some setbacks last year after the Honduran air force (working with U.S. help) twice shot down flights over the Caribbean Sea, though we still don’t know who was on board or even if the flights were involved in the drug trade.  Earlier in May 2012, a helicopter with Guatemalan pilots, Honduran police and DEA advisers, killed four civilians, including two pregnant women, during an attack on drug traffickers along the Patuca River in northeastern Honduras.  The effects of US military aid aren’t just more violence, but increasing numbers of drug addicts and the toxic corrosion of trust in public institutions.  Even those who support U.S. efforts to assist Honduran police efforts wish the United States would fund additional economic, social, cultural and educational development.

As the United States continues to drive military aid into Honduras, it’s not even clear that U.S. and Honduran policymakers can sort the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys,’ at a time when the Lobo Sosa administration and Hernández, currently the president of Honduras’s national congress, has used the drug war as an excuse to militarize Honduran politics and stifle internal dissent in the name.  That leaves the Obama administration open to charges that it’s ignoring human rights violations at time when hundreds of Hondurans, especially LIBRE activists who oppose the government, have been killed or beaten in the past four years.

More deeply, it also leaves the U.S. foreign policy community open to attacks that it learned nothing from the U.S. role in the region’s destabilization in the 1980s or, more historically, blowback against longtime U.S. support for banana companies that controlled vital infrastructure and captured concessions and favorable tax treatment from successive Honduran governments in the 20th century, a legacy that even today erodes U.S. soft power in Honduras and Central America.

A polarized politics

In the presidential election last November, Hernández defeated Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of former president Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya.  Though Zelaya was originally elected president in November 2005 as the candidate of the centrist Partido Liberal (PL, Liberal Party), he moved increasingly leftward over the course of his presidency, introducing more spending for social welfare, health and education.  That, together with outreach to socialist allies in Latin America, including the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, horrified the Honduran business community, as well as members of his own Liberal Party.  But the last straw was Zelaya’s attempt to revise Honduras’s constitution — Zelaya’s enemies believed he was trying to erase the longstanding ban on term limits.

Throughout the 20th century, the PL and the PN represented dueling sets of political elites more than any real ideological struggle.  That changed with Zelaya, who returned from his post-coup exile to help establish a new leftist party in Honduras, the Partido Libertad y Refundacíon (LIBRE, Party of Liberty and Refoundation).

Doubts linger over the fairness of the election.  Though Hernández won 36.89% of the vote to just 28.78% for Castro de Zelaya and 20.30% for Mauricio Villeda, the candidate of the Liberal Party, there is some evidence of ballot fraud.   More damning is the climate of fear in which the campaign was conducted.  As Dana Frank writes in the Houston Chronicle on the eve of Hernández’s inauguration, LIBRE activists and other leftists have been routinely assassinated for the past four years, and that continued literally through the last day of the campaign, when a LIBRE activist was murdered near Tegucigalpa:

During the campaign, at least 18 LIBRE activists, candidates and officers were assassinated, more than those from all the other parties combined. Not only was the context for conducting a free and fair election thus chilling, but international observers reported widespread intimidation, fraud in the vote-counting process, and bald vote-buying by Hernández’s National Party during the election itself.

The election results were certified despite the protests of the Zelayas and their supporters.  But LIBRE succeeded in busting wide open the two-party political oligarchy that existed previously, and blocking a majority in the National Congress for the National Party.  LIBRE has 37 seats (just 11 fewer than the National Party), the Liberal Party has 27 seats, the new, conservative Partido Anticorrupción (Anti-Corruption Party) has 13 seats, and small parties hold another three seats.  For at least the next four years, LIBRE will remain the strongest opposition to the Hernández administration, which will rely on Liberal or other votes to enact legislation. 

Even on the eve of his inauguration, Hernández threatened to keep the political polarization raging with incendiary charges that LIBRE’s leaders have ties to organized crime, part of a general political strategy that finds Hernández blaming most of Honduras’s woes on the prior Zelaya administration or LIBRE without acknowledging that the 2009 military coup itself undermined Honduras’s precarious rule of law or that the National Party has been in power for the past four years, with Hernández himself running Honduras’s Congreso Nacional.

For its own part, the Liberal Party faces the prospect of fading into irrelevance.  Though Villeda counseled against making a deal with the National Party, Liberal deputies overwhelmingly supported the election last week of Mauricio Oliva, a National Party deputy, as the new president of the Congreso Nacional, despite the opposition of both LIBRE and the Anti-Corruption Party.  Oliva, the MP from the southern city of Choluteca since 2002, is a surgeon by trade, and has a reputation as a relatively conciliatory legislator.

Zelaya’s split caused much of the Liberal Party’s leftist wing to join LIBRE.  That means that the former conservative wing now dominates today’s rump Liberal Party.  So while it’s not surprising that the Liberal Party would join forces with the National Party in the Congress, it risks ceding its political independence.  There are already reports that Villeda, the son of a former social democratic Honduran president in the 1960s, is being sidelined by former president Carlos Flores Facussé, who governed Honduras between 1998 and 2002 and who has strong ties in the Honduran business community.  Flores may be angling to win the 2017 Liberal presidential nomination for his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Flores Flake, who since 2010 has served as Honduras’s representative to the United Nations.

Financial crisis looming? 

Hernández also comes to the Honduran presidency with a nearly empty treasury.  The lame-duck congress and the Lobo Sosa administration pushed through two new items to address this problem — a massive tax increase (conveniently allowing Hernández to keep a campaign pledge not to raise taxes) and a push to privatize Empresa Nacional de Energia Electrica (ENEE, National Electric Company) by 2015.

The outgoing Congress, with its 75-member majority, passed a package of tax reforms in late December 2013 designed to generate $800 million in annual revenues in a bid to close a budget deficit that reached 4.7% of GDP in 2013 and to reduce public debt of $2.9 billion (which has quadrupled since 2008).  The financial crisis has left the Honduran government unable to pay public workers in a consistent and timely manner, further exacerbating public order.  The package raised Honduras’s sales tax from 12% to 15%, and it also raises taxes on fuel, mobile telephones, cable television and airfares.  The Congress, in separate legislation, approved the breakup of ENEE in a bid to create more competition in the electricity market, thereby lowering Honduras’s high energy costs.

Hernández is likely to seek a package of loans from the International Monetary Fund within months of taking office, which could mean even more budget-tightening and privatization measures throughout the course of his administration or potentially the devaluation of the Honduran currency, the lempira, something that Hernández pledged not to do during the election campaign.  

Last November’s Honduran general election kicked off a period of political change in Central America — neighboring El Salvador and Costa Rica hold the first round of presidential elections this Sunday, February 2, with runoffs to follow on March 9 and April 16, respectively.  Panamá chooses a new president and parliament on May 4.

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