Corruption, Violence & Reform: Honduras’ Struggle for Democratic Governance

Ben Raderstorf / Inter-American Dialogue

Honduras faces severe challenges today in order to restore the public’s faith in their own government. Ramping corruption scandals, lackluster growth, and persistent violence have brought pessimism and negativity towards governmental initiatives. Furthermore, recent efforts in political reform to date have been halfhearted. The recently announced OAS “Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) has been met with skepticism. Many believe that the government’s commitment to fight corruption and improving democratic governance is non-existent. However, the prospects of change within the democratic institutions are still present in the minds of a few members of the population.

In light of these issues, the Inter-American Dialogue and the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University welcomed Honduran economist Hugo Noé Pino to discuss the country’s current crisis and propose alternative solutions. Carlos Ponce of Freedom House joined Pino to provide commentary and additional insights. Eric Hershberg from CLALS and Michael Shifter from the Inter-American Dialogue moderated the panel.

Hugo Noé Pino’s remarks focused on addressing some factors of the current crisis in Honduras:

  1. Economic and social situation: Honduras faces difficult challenges in economic stability. He explained that even with a severe adjustment program endorsed by the International Monetary Fund, low economic growth has been a current tendency in the country. According to Noé Pino, economic growth of 1.5% is not enough to reduce unemployment and poverty. From the social standpoint, almost 62% of Honduras’ population is in poverty and 42% in extreme poverty.
  2. Weak institutions and concentration of power in executive: Most recently, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández decided to remove four members of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court. For Noé Pino, this action is consistent with a coup d’état. The constitutional chamber plays an important role for justice in Honduras. Moreover, Noé Pino commented on a process of “remilitarization” in Honduras, where different procedures on citizen security are handled by the military. In addition, there is a concentration of power in the executive branch. Decisions by major judicial authorities such as the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal are handled through executive bodies. The weakness of these institutions is a result of a power shift. Political and economic elites are controlling the outcome of democratic processes such as the upcoming presidential elections, which will be highly polemic and confrontational for Honduras.
  3. Corruption scandals: Honduras is struggling to solve complex cases of corruption, such as the case of the social security institute in Honduras (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social). More than $200 million from the budget of the institute were misplaced, as explained by Noé Pino, and allocated to the party in power. President Hernández later on recognized this wrongdoing and accepted responsibility while guaranteeing the total return of the money. The investigator in charge of this case in the Attorney General’s office in Honduras fled the country due to threats against him and his family. Another important case addressed by Noé Pino is the Rosenthal case, regarding the involvement of a powerful elite family on governmental decisions in Honduras.
  4. Social movements: Aside from the current issues happening in Honduras, Noé Pino commented on the rise of social movements in Honduras. The “Indignados” movement is pushing for more than just ending corruption. The “Indignados” are actively criticizing the political structure that has been traditional in Honduras. In this regard, he foresaw a need to initiate a national dialogue, and addressed the proposal made by the OAS to create the MACCIH. For him, the MACCIH comes in an erratic moment in Honduras, since there was a proposal for dialogue in place. However, to him the OAS proposal is not viable, since it lacks compulsory effects and is not binding for the Honduran government. Honduras needs to implement a model that follows the Guatemalan experience with CICIG. Noé Pino thinks that an independent body with the liberty to investigate and present cases is a good option for Honduras. Nevertheless, this option has been available since 2004, which leads many to believe that President Hernández is buying time. With presidential elections coming in two years, this process will be forgotten by the people and the government, losing momentum and having no ulterior effects in the politics of the country.

As to the road ahead, Noé Pino focuses more on the election of a new Supreme Court, which he considers to be following a pattern existing since 2009. Traditional parties will control this election and choose individuals close to the political and economic elites. On this matter, Carlos Ponce pointed out the role of the national university and the civil society, who can present new candidates to the list of nominees. Still, Ponce considers that the Honduran congress will have a “list of the worse” and they will have to select names from a very questionable roster of individuals.

Noé Pino offered some alternatives to these problems. He argued that a national dialogue would not be possible with a government that lacks political will. In that sense, there is the need not to reinforce but to change existing democratic institutions. Given the irregularities in the appointment of government authorities such as the Attorney General and magistrates of the Electoral Tribunal, he stressed the need of an overreaching reform process that captures all political structures. In this sense, Noé Pino considered the presence of the “Indignados” movement to be important but still flawed. Besides the lack of clear leadership and organization, this movement has brought people to the streets to protest. He also argued that the issue of reelection will also bring the middle and upper class to demonstrate their disapproval and mobilize alongside other social movements.

Honduras also needs an international commission or entity such as CICIG.  In Noé Pino’s opinion, to restore general confidence, the people need to see action happening from some actor outside the state apparatus. Nonetheless, the political elite in Honduras might block this initiative. These groups find the idea to be worrisome, since they are involved in several cases of corruption. Other alternatives have being offered to prevent this idea from moving forward. On the other hand, CICIG is not a magical solution according to Ponce. In the Honduran context, their institutions demand more functionality.

Furthermore, Noé Pino noted that the Alliance for Prosperity, a US initiative to support progress in the Northern Triangle region, should not be a blank check. This alliance is an instrument for change. If there are no changes, Noé Pino thinks that the United States will have to deal with more migration and violence happening inside Honduras. In this sense, Noé Pino thinks the alliance should not focus primarily on security. Their intervention should be conditioned to important reform in Honduras.

Ponce also weighed in on the issue of impunity. He discussed the lack of independence of government institutions and the role of political elites as power holders. He explained that Honduras is a small country with lots of potential but with a lack of political will. How to fix that? Ponce agrees that a change in the structure of power on different institutions such as the judiciary is necessary. However, he disagreed with Noé Pino on the necessity of a CICIG model in Honduras. A commission or observatory will not change corruption. Ponce considers that in order to change this scenario, prosecution through a due process of law is the right answer.

Another important issue addressed in the discussion was the effects on the Honduran economy of the closure of the Banco Continental, the top financial bank in the country. Both Noé Pino and Ponce considered the outcomes unclear in the near future. However, Noé Pino argued that the enterprises owned by the Rosenthal family will be affected, causing deeper unemployment rates and difficult pressure for government action. 

Closing remarks by Eric Hershberg pointed out how Central America is back on the agenda. Solutions for Honduras in terms of governance and human rights will not come from the country alone. There is the need for creative thinking and commitment in order to procure human rights and a better standard of living for all Hondurans.

For a summary of the event from the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, read more here

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