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Honduran Protesters Have Little Cause for Hope
Even if President Juan Orlando Hernández were to leave office, the country’s problems would persist.
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras—On June 1, dozens of people gathered on the highway just outside of the city. In the middle of the pavement, they poured gasoline on tires that had been blocking the road since sunrise. José, a middle-aged man, surveyed the scene with a mixture of cynicism, resignation, and anger. He had been unemployed for months, and he didn’t believe things would improve without drastic action. When asked why he was there that day, he said he wanted the president of Honduras out. If not, he said, “I’m leaving.”
Since April, Hondurans have been protesting in rising numbers, marching in the streets and putting up road blockades across the country. Less than a week before the 10-year anniversary of the June 2009 military coup, the protests appeared to reach a tipping point when President Juan Orlando Hernández sent military police to the National Autonomous University of Honduras, where they used tear gas and rubber bullets against student protesters. Increased security prevented a planned march on June 28—the anniversary date.
Protests slowed, slightly, as the country turned its focus to the worst dengue fever outbreak it had seen in 50 years. But on Aug. 2, demonstrators were invigorated by a newly released document filed in a U.S. district court, which implicated Hernández as a co-conspirator in a drug trafficking and money laundering case against his brother, Antonio “Tony” Hernández. The document also alleges that Hernández used drug trafficking proceeds to bribe officials in exchange for support in his 2013 election bid. In response, a number of groups, including students at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the leftist political party Libre, and smaller rural community organizations, called for nationwide marches.
Conditions under Hernández are increasingly dire. Nearly two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty, while a third live in extreme poverty, according to Honduras’ National Institute of Statistics. Murder rates are among the highest in the word, and each year, Hondurans pay an estimated $200 million total in extortion fees to gangs. Meanwhile, over the past decade, education spending has dropped from 32.9 percent of the government’s budget in 2010 to 19.9 percent this year, while health spending has dropped from 14.3 percent to less than 10 percent. The U.S. Embassy in Honduras’ site says, “support staff facilities and necessary equipment and supplies are not up to U.S. standards anywhere in Honduras.” In fact, protesters say the government’s cuts to medical facilities are to blame for the size of the dengue outbreak. And since Hernández’s first term in office began in 2014, he has also increased military spending and sent forces, including the U.S.-trained TIGRES unit, to target human rights defenders, while modifying the penal code to increase punishment for anti-government opponents. Rampant corruption has exacerbated dire conditions to the breaking point, sending thousands of people out of the country.
The two options left are flight—increasingly popular, as evidenced by those leaving for the United States and beyond—or fight for the president’s ouster. But Hernández seems unlikely to leave and even less likely to be replaced by someone who can fix the country’s problems.
The protests first started when Hernández’s government announced two executive decrees to declare the country’s health and education systems in states of emergency. This would have allowed the government to award contracts without tendering and to make executive decisions over hiring within these sectors. However, many Hondurans believed such moves were pretexts for mass layoffs and contract handoffs to private companies—reducing accountability and hiding how funds are spent in a system in which officials have already siphoned funds away from public coffers. Many Hondurans pointed to the example set by the head of the Honduran social security system, who was accused in 2015 of embezzling at least $120 million through a network of privately awarded contracts.
The government made small concessions in late April, removing two specific articles within the decrees that would have allowed it to terminate contracts more easily. Teachers and medical professionals who had been on strike returned to work. Others, however, warned that they wouldn’t stop protesting until the government fully nullified its decrees. By mid-May, they had called for strikes that would last up to six weeks, which were joined not only by other labor unions from the transport and textile manufacturing industries, but also by land rights activists and Libre.
All of these groups are now calling for the president to step down. Since the protests started, Amnesty International estimates that at least six people have died and over 80 have been injured. Prominent figures, such as Bayron Rodríguez Pineda, a teacher and spokesperson for the Platform for the Defense of Health and Education in the department of Cortés, have been targeted for beatings, while at the beginning of July, three unknown motorcyclists followed and shot the 11-year-old daughter of a Libre member and activist.
According to Pineda, it was a mistake on the president’s part to meddle with the health and education sectors. “These are sectors who carry a lot of influence with the people,” he said. “They’re also educated, they can communicate their ideas clearly, and they can warn against the state.”
Perhaps because of their strong response, by June, the president repealed the decrees and invited Suyapa Figueroa, the president of the Honduras Medical College and leader of the Platform for the Defense of Health and Education, an assembly of public sector health and education organizations from around the country, to engage in a national dialogue. With little proof that Hernández would honor any commitments made during the talks, the Platform turned him down. Instead, it issued nine preconditions for any meeting, including an investigation into those responsible for state repression during the protests, an international third-party mediator, and independent media coverage of the meeting. Since then, the Platform has established its own alternative dialogue, through citizen roundtables with social leaders from around the country, to clarify what can be improved in local school and health systems. They have also continued to call for protests until they are satisfied the government is working to appropriately address these concerns.
Meanwhile, groups that have traditionally been in favor of Hernández’s regime have begun to withdraw their support. In June, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Honduras—which has traditionally been in favor of Hernández and the ruling National Party since the coup—condemned the government’s actions against protesters and criticized it for the social inequality, unemployment, crime, and violence affecting the country, as well as government corruption and energy crises making life difficult for ordinary Hondurans. Jorge Faraj, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Cortés, an influential business group, also spoke out against corruption, asking Hernández to listen to Hondurans’ demands in the name of stability. Former President Porfirio Lobo, the first to be elected after the coup and a member of Hernández’s National Party, has denounced Hernández on Twitter. In June, Lobo formed a new political faction.
So far, Hernández has refused to respond to the protesters’ most obvious goal: his resignation. If Hernández is ousted, though, there is no clear sense of who would replace him. Trust in politicians is so low that any potential successor would have a significant amount of work to do to win popular support.
On July 1, Edmundo Orellana, who was Honduras’ foreign minister before the coup and is now a constitutional law professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, called for an overhaul of the current political system, saying whoever does—eventually—take power would need to draw on legitimacy from the current protest movement. However, he wrote in the July 1 editorial for La Tribuna, “the crisis in which [Juan Orlando Hernández] will leave the country will not end with his fall or with new elections. The problems are of such magnitude that no person or organization can solve them in a short time.”
Neither the Platform nor Libre has explicitly named an alternative leader to Hernández, though, like Orellana, both groups call for a restructuring of the Honduran political system. As Figueroa has said, “the government lacks legitimacy because many of [its members] have lost the ability to represent and make decisions on behalf of the people.”
“Elections are blocked, the attorney general’s office is called by the president, and the military is controlled. They’re looking for another way forward. They are looking at these strikes as a way to institute democracy,” said Karen Spring, the Honduras-based coordinator for the advocacy group Honduras Solidarity Network.
Hernández has made a number of unpopular moves since demonstrations broke out, including sending 25,000 troops into the streets to quell protests and sending police to arrest high school students protesting.
Around the country, people have spray painted “Fuera JOH,” “Out with Juan Orlando Hernández,” on the street corners. Near the historic downtown of Tegucigalpa, someone sprayed a hand with the middle finger raised and the words “¡Privatiza esto!”—“Privatize this!” A cafe, also in the capital, has printed the phrase onto T-shirts along with the president’s portrait recast as a devil. It almost feels like a national slogan. But where such slogans will lead is anyone’s guess. “Everyone knows [Hernández] will just say anything to stay in power,” said Dana Frank, a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has written on the aftermath of the coup. “What are you supposed to do? Write to your congress member?”