How Corruption is Undermining Democracy in Honduras by Karla Muñoz-Cholico
Honduras has been in the public eye recently due to the large-scale migration coming from Central America and President Trump’s decision to cut aid to the region. Since the U.S. backed Honduran coup d’état in 2009, the country has progressively become more violent and the country’s institutions have rapidly deteriorated. As their institutions have continued to hollow out and the country has become rampantly corrupt, gang activity increased. The presidential election in 2017 exemplified Honduran’s struggle for democracy. The election was deeply contested and resulted in protests and violent citizen suppression. Honduras is plagued with corruption, violence, and organized crime that continues to undermine democracy.
In 2009, President Manuel Zelaya was ousted by the Honduran Military with support of the United States despite international outcry. Zelaya veered left with his policies and startled Honduran conservatives. Members of the National Party of Honduras (PNH) were the main architects of the coup and with the support of the United States, the military arrested the president and sent him into exile in Costa Rica.
In Sarah Chaye’s report When Corruption is the Operating System, she looks at the “kleptocratic network” that has taken over Honduras’ institutions. She argues that public and private sector elites have established close connections with criminal organizations. These networks have become closely intertwined and created overarching systematic corruption. Her analysis of the country’s corruption shows how democracy has eroded since the 2009 coup. Chaye maps out how the PNH has worked to consolidate power through several fronts since the coup. Some of the most prominent ways they have done so by passing laws favor corrupt networks, appointing justices close to president, and using the police to carry out their dirty work against civilians. It has become difficult to distinguish public officials from their private sector interests. These reforms do not serve average Hondurans and play a large role in what this report considers the the country’s “operating system”. Chaye’s report sheds a light on how Honduras’s political economy and corruption is deteriorating their institutions at all levels.
Honduras held presidential elections in 2017 and much to the dismay of the country’s electorate, Juan Orlando Hernandez was reelected in what was considered a fraudulent election. His opponent, Salvador Nasralla, had a 5-point lead before TSE went silent for more than 24 hours. There were credible indicators of fraud and international observers expressed serious concern. Despite the glaring fraud accusations and protests that erupted in Tegucigalpa, the U.S. and others in the international community recognized Hernandez as the new president of Honduras. This fraught election is rooted in the coup and it is hard not to see how this occurrence is the continuation of the undemocratic practices that have persisted since the coup.
Levitsky points out how the reelection of Hernandez damaged their already fragile democratic institutions. Hernandez played a large role in the 2009 coup that marked the beginning of heavy democratic erosion. His election demonstrates how the PNH and system in place since the coup has worked to perpetuate undemocratic practices that are in the best interest of corrupt networks. Additionally, reelection was once illegal, and considered unconstitutional. Congress passed a law when Hernandez was serving as a congressman that allowed for presidents to be reelected. This was to the contentment of Hernandez because he had aspirations to run for office.
Levitsky also argues that Hernandez’ government is among the most authoritarian in the hemisphere and that their human rights record is deplorable. He categorizes Honduras as a “hybrid regime”. These types of regimes hold elections, look democratic on the outside, and have the potential for democratic processes but do not actually involve the people. We saw this with the 2017 elections and how the ruling party co-opted the election. In the words of Austra Bertha Flores López, mother of the slain environmental activist Berta Cáceres, “Juan Orlando has all state powers. There is a face of a democracy here in Honduras, but behind it is dictatorship.”
Juan Orlando Hernandez has alleged ties to drug trafficking organizations. Despite the government’s ties to corruption scandals, which have implicated the president, the U.S. and Honduras are still allies. In November of 2018, Hernandez’ brother and former congressman, Juan Antonio Hernandez Alvarado, was arrested for drug trafficking, weapons charges, and lying to federal agents. Honduran authorities have also accused several officials of diverting millions of dollars of public money for political purposes, including Juan Orlando’s 2013 campaign. This shows how high up the corruption goes in Honduras.
The current state of democracy in Honduras is concerning. Corrupt networks have infiltrated Honduran institutions at all levels and have crippled the country’s governance capabilities. The ways in which actors in different sectors have interwoven and increased in strength. As democracy continues to decay in Honduras, the U.S. and neighboring countries should care because migrants will continue to flee north, and the drug trade will continue to flourish with the help of organized crime networks. It is unknown what the repercussions of Trump’s decision to forgo Central American aid will have on democracy and stability in Honduras, but it will certainly complicate the already dire situation Hondurans are facing.