Honduras’s Aborted Mission for Political Reform

Restive Hondurans fear a historic opportunity for groundbreaking political change is about to pass them by.

Demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez over an ongoing corruption scandal demonstrate in Tegucigalpa on August 28, 2015. The demonstrators, known as "indignados" -- the indignant ones -- march with torches demanding the creation of an anti-corruption commission and calling for Hernandez to go while rejecting any dialogue with him. AFP PHOTO/ STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez over an ongoing corruption scandal demonstrate in Tegucigalpa on August 28, 2015. The demonstrators, known as "indignados" -- the indignant ones -- march with torches demanding the creation of an anti-corruption commission and calling for Hernandez to go while rejecting any dialogue with him. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

GUATEMALA CITY — A deadly combination of drug wars and gang violence have turned Honduras — the original banana republic — into the most violent country in the world outside a war zone. The institutions responsible for providing public security are largely ineffective and remain mired in corruption. And violence has escalated since the 2009 coup that deposed left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya.

Last June, revelations emerged that Mario Zelaya (no relation to the ousted president), the former head of the Honduran Institute of Social Security, used embezzled social security funds to boost the coffers of the ruling National Party during the 2013 presidential elections. In total, some $350 million has allegedly been stolen. The news gave rise to a massive anti-corruption movement known as the Indignados (“The Outraged”), whose ranks include the grassroots organizations and political parties that fought to restore Manuel Zelaya after his ouster, along with ordinary citizens who had never taken to the streets before. Since then, the hits have kept on coming. On July 4, a Honduran judge placed Lena Gutiérrez, the vice president of congress and a member of the ruling National Party, under house arrest with several members of her family, following allegations that they embezzled from the state by selling it poor quality medicine at inflated prices. These revelations incensed protestors, and intensified their demands for President Juan Orlando Hernández to step down.

On Sept. 28, Tegucigalpa heeded their call, announcing the creation of the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), an anti-corruption commission supported by the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), which seeks to strengthen peace, democracy, free trade, and human rights in Latin America. Just a few weeks after the sudden fall of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina following a corruption investigation, it seemed a Central American Spring had arrived.

But far from quelling the protests, the announcement has fanned the flames of discontent. What the Indignados wanted was Honduras’ own version of the International Commission Against Impunity In Guatemala (CICIG), whose investigations brought down Pérez Molina and other top leaders. That body, the Indignados point out, holds investigatory and prosecutorial powers with real muscle. MACCIH’s mandate, by contrast, resembles a plan put forward by Hernández — a putative target of any corruption investigation — centered largely on offering recommendations on justice system reforms.

MACCIH, as a result, has left the Indignados feeling cheated. And its creation suggests that Honduras, unlike its neighbor to the west, is in danger of missing a historic opportunity for groundbreaking reform.

With its initial two-year mandate, MACCIH will oversee investigations conducted by the attorney general’s office, ensure compliance with OAS anti-corruption treaties, and create an observatory of academics and civil society representatives to promote judicial reforms. While it’s still unclear what specific changes MACCIH will propose, its recommendations are likely to include legal reforms to prevent congress from removing judges for political reasons, and other measures to strengthen judicial independence. This is the first time the OAS has supported an entity of this sort. “Our hope is that the justice system will become an effective tool in the fight against impunity that can earn the respect of the Honduran people and can play a key role in this democracy,” OAS secretary-general Luis Almagro said when MACCIH was announced.

But so far, MACCIH seems more like a tool to appease the masses rather than an effective tool for reform. President Hernández, for one thing, has embraced the mission — hardly a surprise, given that its basic framework mirrors a proposal he put forward in June, in response to protesters’ calls for his immediate resignation. The Indignados, as a result, say MACCIH will lack any real power.

For the Indignados, MACCIH feels like a mere Band-Aid on a gaping wound, explains economist Hugo Noé Pino of the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies. What protesters want is a complete overhaul, starting with a commission identical to Guatemala’s, which investigates organized crime, trains local prosecutors, and has fearlessly taken on drug kingpins — and former President Pérez Molina himself, who now awaits trial on charges of corruption. According to Pino, Hernandez is playing out the clock, loading MACCIH up with a series of lengthy assessments and recommendations to stall for time until the 2017 elections.

“The Honduran people don’t want any more diagnostics. We’re very clear about the fact that this country is plagued by rampant corruption and impunity,” Indignados spokesperson Ariel Varela told Honduran news site Criterio on Sept. 28. What they want, Varela explained, is for Hernandez to face justice. On the same day, he told AFP that the Indignados would continue to fight for their own CICIG. The movement has called for another paro cívico, or an unofficial strike and nation-wide demonstration, to be held on Nov. 4.

The restive Indignados also increasingly realize that no matter how much noise they make, they’re likely to remain shut out of the reform process.

On Sept. 7, an OAS mission led by Chilean negotiator John Biehl arrived in Honduras. He invited the protestors to participate in talks with government and civil society representatives to work towards solving the political crisis unleashed by the social security scandal. But when the five-day talks concluded, the protestors realized that their demand for a CICIG-style commission had been discarded when Biehl and Hernández announced MACCIH’s creation. The more moderate members of the Indignados felt short-changed, and have grown increasingly mistrustful of international institutions and foreign mediators, said Tomás Andino, a political analyst and one of the leaders of the Indignados.

Opposition parties in congress, similarly, have refused to sit idle. On Sept. 24, Congresswoman Fátima Mena, a member of the Anti-Corruption Party, argued on the floor of the congress that MACCIH was an unsatisfactory compromise, and introduced a bill that would force President Hernández to request a U.N. commission more like Guatemala’s CICIG. The chances that the two major congressional factions will allow the bill to move forward, however, are virtually nil.

Hernández, for his part, insists that MACCIH “has a broader scope” than CICIG, since it will focus on strengthening the judiciary and the attorney general’s office. “It’s time to work together to build a new Honduras where we can fight impunity and we have all the necessary tools,” he tweeted early in the process.

Although the Guatemalan commission has an impressive track record, many experts are wary of prescribing a U.N.-supported body with strong prosecutorial powers as a “one-size fits all” solution for Honduras.

Guatemala was initially reluctant to surrender so much power to a supra-national authority. In 2004, the country’s highest court ruled it was unconstitutional, on the grounds that it would usurp the attorney general’s authority. Only after taking intense pressure from civil society did the government relent. CICIG “was created under very specific conditions that came together at that moment in this country,” said Guatemala’s former Vice President Eduardo Stein, who signed the agreement with the U.N. that created the commission.

Guatemalan political analyst Edgar Gutiérrez also pointed out that CICIG is by no means perfect. Any attempts to replicate the Guatemalan experience elsewhere should try to avoid some of its pitfalls. The U.N., Gutiérrez said, ventured into unchartered territory when it created CICIG, and made a number of mistakes along the way. Among them: It is an ad hoc commission without a fixed budget, forcing it to waste time each year searching for donors (the commission costs around $20 million a year, most of which comes from the United States, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway). It also lacks accountability measures, such as mechanisms for the head of CICIG to be investigated or even removed in case of alleged misconduct.

Andino also points out that Honduras might be unfit for a U.N.-led anti-impunity commission altogether. “Guatemala has a relatively greater independence of powers than Honduras, which does not function as a democratic state,” Andino said. “Here, a U.N. commission would be embedded in a corrupt system.”

On Oct. 12, OAS named a team of experts who will select MACCIH’s director, as well as the foreign judges and prosecutors who will be hired by the commission in an advisory role. A deadline has yet to be set for the commission to begin its work. Meanwhile, the Indignados say they will continue to take to the streets until MACCIH is scrapped.

But not everyone in Honduras is pessimistic about MACCIH. Political analyst Juan Ramón Martínez believes the Indignados, who have brought the country to a standstill on a number of occasions, are a force to be reckoned with, and have the power to ensure the commission produces tangible results. The young, media-savvy protestors have used Facebook and Twitter to organize simultaneous protests in Tegucigalpa and other major cities, including San Pedro Sula and Comayagua. Hondurans living in New York, Miami, Washington, and other cities, have also joined the protests, posting photos with banners demanding a CICIH on social media. Their torch-lit marches and vigils have become known as la marcha de las antorchas (the march of the torches).

“I don’t think the Indignados have failed. I feel optimistic that activists will exert pressure on the commission and will demand immediate results even if in the long term the results achieved are not as spectacular as those achieved in Guatemala,” said Martínez.

But the Indignados’ anger is palpable. Three days after the government announced the creation of MACCIH, Tegucigalpa turned into a fierce battleground between riot police and protesters who blocked the city’s main avenues and barricaded themselves behind burning tires. “We no longer trust multilateral organizations. All we can do now is to exert greater pressure. Marches are not enough; we need to start blocking roads and occupying government buildings,” Andino said.

Although it is difficult to predict where the Indignados movement might go from here, a repressive government response, and a failure to heed their demands will only stoke their anger. With an increasingly angry and radicalized Indignados movement, emboldened by events in Guatemala and more determined than ever to make its voice heard, a Honduran Spring may still be in the cards.

Photo credit: STR/AFP

Louisa Reynolds is an independent journalist based in Guatemala City. Twitter: @ReynoldsLouisa

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