Honduras's New Helmsman

Carlos Roberto Reina has vowed to fight crime, lessen poverty, and end human rights abuses

PRESIDENT-ELECT Carlos Roberto Reina pledges his government will bring a ``moral revolution'' to Honduras ``beginning with a code of ethics for public officials.''

In his victory speech on the night of Nov. 28, the former lawyer, diplomat, university lecturer, and decades-long presidential aspirant said he will follow through on his campaign promises. Mr. Reina said he plans to reduce military spending as part of his efforts to reduce the $600-million budget deficit, and he said he will wage a war on crime, poverty, and human rights abuses.

Reina is a rarity in Honduras's corruption-ridden politics - a politician considered to be absolutely honest and able enough to have served six years on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Reina defeated National Party contender Oswaldo Ramos Soto. A former university rector accused of complicity in the murder of student dissidents during the 1980s, Mr. Ramos was dismissed as head of Honduras's supreme court two years ago by an act of the nation's Congress.

His reputation, reinforced by the rampant malfeasance that has marked the administration of outgoing president Rafael Leonardo Callejas (also of the National Party), was apparently enough to persuade many of the party faithful to stay home, providing Reina an unexpectedly large 53 percent of the vote.

This was Honduras's fourth national election since the end of military rule in 1981 and the first since the end of the contra war in Nica- ragua, when the United States used Honduran territory to supply the Nicaraguan rebels.

On the crucial economic issue, both candidates pledged to continue the structural adjustment of the Honduran economy begun by Mr. Callejas, giving it a ``human face'' with what everyone knows will be cosmetic social programs.

Four years of Callejas's policies have produced ambiguous results: stability in the country's finances offset by higher food prices and an increase in absolute poverty from 68 to 73 percent of Honduras's 5 million people. Important triumph

In political terms, however, the implications of Reina's triumph are important. Though Honduran analysts differ in their expectations, most agree with veteran journalist Manuel Torres, who says ``With Reina, we can at least expect political tolerance and pluralism in Honduras to continue.''

Behind this judgment lies a modest improvement over the last few years in the country's human rights situation, which has been a chronic blot on Honduras's image for more than a decade. As of a year ago, the country has an official human rights commissioner - a kind of ombudsman - who commands the respect of knowledgeable Hondurans. Commissioner Leo Valladares says, ``My basic achievement so far has been to convince people that the Commission is not here just to cover up government abuses.''

Mr. Valladares can point to concrete results: Three colonels in the formerly untouchable Honduran Army are in jail awaiting trial for abuses, while a fourth was convicted last summer of raping and murdering a 16-year-old school girl. A move is also under way to form a civilian agency to replace the Army's feared intelligence service, known as the ``DNI,'' a major rights violator.

Despite these advances, the military remains the biggest obstacle to democratic progress in Honduras. It has been the traditional power behind and sometimes on the throne, immune to prosecution for any crimes they commit.

And human rights abuses continue. Honduras's most prominent human rights activist, Ramon Custodio, says that ``Extrajudicial executions continue at the same pace as before.'' The targets are different than in the 1980s, when the right-wing Honduran Army thought it was fighting communism in Nicara- gua and ``disappeared'' (a Latin American term for political assassinations) more than 100 Honduran leftists. ``Those targeted now are not political prisoners but rather ordinary citizens,'' Dr. Custodio says.

Most Honduran analysts believe that without effective civilian control over the military, structures similar to the infamous Battalion 3-16 - the Army's death squad ron of the 1980s - still exist in some form. For some, their handiwork can be seen in the murder on Nov. 24 - in the midst of the election campaign - of Rigoberto Quezada, a former Communist Party member who had returned from exile in 1991. Assassinations continue

Other assassinations are thought to be the work of hired killers who were part of the same network a decade ago. What motivates them now is not political animosity but mainly greed. Mr. Valladares says, ``These killings are largely for profit or economic advantage, including positions in the drug traffic.''

The corruption rife in the Honduran judicial system has up to now made human rights violators largely immune from prosecution. A prominent diplomat says, ``The biggest impediment to democracy here is that the court system doesn't function, which means you have impunity in the elite.''

Analysts say Reina has a golden chance to put his ``moral revolution'' to work combatting this impunity.

If the new president wants to make a dent in human rights violations, they say, he will have to appoint the right kind of justices to Honduras's supreme court, name a new special prosecutor to oversee the creation of a civilian intelligence service, and reign in the military by abolishing compulsory service and slowly reducing its budget.

Though he did not make an issue of human rights during his campaign, Reina has indicated, or at least insinuated, that he will do all the above.

While human rights activists express a basic confidence in Reina's instincts, it is qualified by a recognition of weaknesses -

he is not a leader with the political skills of Callejas.

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