Honduras: As protests over corruption swell, many see 'positive moment'

Protesters have taken to the streets for eight straight weekends, angered by revelations of alleged government theft of social security funds and pushing for reform.

Whitney Eulich
Carlos and Alba Hernandez brought their three- and eight-year-old daughters to an anti-corruption protest in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on July 17, 2015. 'I want security and education for my girls, and medicine in the hospitals,' says Mr. Hernandez. Many of the protesters, including Hernandez, want the government to create an independent, internationally-backed anti-corruption commission.

Friday night in Tegucigalpa felt more like a neighborhood block party than part of one of the biggest protests in recent Honduran history, with Tiki torches alight, live music blasting, and families mugging for photos.

The celebratory vibe reflected the high hopes for change among the thousands of Hondurans who have taken to the streets across the country over the past two months to challenge government corruption and impunity, with some protesters calling for the removal of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

Hondurans are no strangers to scandal – from a 2009 coup to extrajudicial police killings, “we’ve come to expect it,” says retiree Anastacio Ramirez. But with the discovery of the alleged theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the social security institute – some of which was donated to President Hernández's 2013 election campaign, according to a congressional report – many citizens say they’ve hit their limit.

“We’ve spent our lives sitting down,” says Jose Santos, a blue and white Honduran flag draped around his neck. “But when the government plays with the health and well being of its people? It’s time to stand up to the bully.”

The marches have been largely peaceful, and political party symbols have been banned from them, though some political groups have piggybacked on the movement. It’s a pivotal moment for the country, observers say, as citizens from across economic classes and of all ages participate, demanding the creation of an independent anticorruption commission, similar to the nearly nine-year old International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

“This is a very positive moment for Honduras,” says Carlos Hernández Martinez, executive director for the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ). It’s the first time citizens have mobilized against corruption, he says, and regardless of the end result, he sees that alone as “a victory.”

Lessons from Guatemala?

On Friday, black plumes of smoke from flaming torches rose above the protesters marching toward the US Embassy here. Five young protesters met with Ambassador James Nealon to ask what role US funding might play in the creation of an International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH).

Carla Piñosa, a teacher who was marching with her husband and 15-year-old daughter, says she had never protested before, but was inspired by what she views as neighboring Guatemala’s recent success.

Since 2007, the Guatemalan commission has investigated high-profile corruption cases there, and served as a check on public officials. In early May, former Vice President Roxana Baldetti was forced to resign over a customs fraud network known as “la linea,” uncovered by CICIG. And the commission’s mandate was renewed for another two years following sweeping protests.

“I think, to some extent, Guatemala sparked something here,” says Gabriela Blen, a leader involved with the Indignados movement, the mostly young protesters who have helped organize the marches here. But when it comes to expectations, “people sometimes don’t realize that Guatemala is living the results of eight or nine years of work, and a very robust public ministry,” Mr. Hernández, the ASJ director, says.

Protesters complain that there is no judicial independence here, particularly following the 2012 removal of four Supreme Court justices who were seen as unsympathetic to the ruling National Party. And earlier this year, the Supreme Court changed the Constitution to allow for reelection – an issue at the heart of the 2009 coup that forced then-President Manuel Zelaya, still in his pajamas, onto a plane to Costa Rica. According to Transparency International, Honduras has almost no budget transparency, and it’s ranked 126 out of 175 nations in terms of perceived corruptness.

But it’s not just corruption that has Hondurans frustrated: Some 33 percent of the population is underemployed, the divide between the rich and the poor is vast, and the homicide rate is one of the highest in the world.

'Outside perspective'

President Hernández has opposed citizen calls for a CICIH, but in late June proposed his own version of an anticorruption commission. His plan was presented as a way to launch a conversation between the government and various sectors of society. The proposal consists of five elements, including providing more support for the public ministry.

The government would have total oversight over the implementation of the program, which excludes the kind of independent, outside involvement many protesters are demanding.

“The government is proposing what it’s already supposed to be doing,” says Jorge Henríquez, a project manager at the Tegucigalpa-based public policy think tank FOSDEH.

Adopting a CICIG-like model has been under discussion in the region for years, says Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin America program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

“Can Honduran institutions and the government solve their problems on their own? That was the question in Guatemala [in 2006] and their conclusion was no, they couldn’t,” says Mr. Olson. “I think we are close to that situation in Honduras, if not there already, where some outside assistance might be useful.”

Hospital worker Carlos Hernández stood on a grassy median Friday evening with his wife and two young daughters watching the flow of flag- and torch-bearing protesters slide. He likens international oversight to problem-solving at home.

“Look, we fight,” Mr. Hernández says, referring to him and his wife. “Most of the time we resolve it, but sometimes, it gets to the point that we need to call someone in to help, like a neighbor or a relative,” he says. “Sometimes, to solve your problems, you just need that outside perspective.”

– Whitney Eulich reported from Honduras as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.

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