As the corruption scandal dogging Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández continues to gather steam, the Obama administration has been notably silent about problems plaguing its ally. This is unsurprising, since the current maelstrom is President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s legacy in post-coup Honduras.
The Honduran government’s crisis of legitimacy occurs amid a White House push for a $1 billion aid package to the region. The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity for the Northern Triangle, championed by Vice President Joe Biden, aims to provide funding for security, development and strengthening institutions. But critics have long equated increasing funding for a government whose militarization and corruption have spawned a human rights crisis to using gas to try to put out a fire.
Honduran opposition parties allege that the right-wing National Party received $90 million of an estimated $300 million stolen from the IHSS, the Honduran Social Security Institute. The money, they claim, funded Hernandez’s costly 2013 presidential campaign against Xiomara Castro, wife of former President Mel Zelaya. The funds were apparently siphoned off through fake businesses, some of which wrote checks to the party, and jacked up prices to fund kickbacks. The entire 18-person board of the IHSS is under investigation – all are members of the National party. Meanwhile, several National Party officials filed a suit against Salvador Nasralla, head of the Anti-Corruption party, claiming his allegations of misappropriated funds are defamatory. Underscoring the uphill battle in ferreting out corruption, Roberto Ramirez Aldana, the prosecutor assigned to the case, fled the country in the wake of credible death threats, hampering the investigation. David Romero, the journalist who exposed the scandal, has also received death threats. Impunity and silence are enforced by threats and violence in post-coup Honduras.
“It is widely assumed that Hernández owes his electoral victory in part to these stolen funds.”
On June 3, Hernández conceded that the National Party had accepted 10 checks totaling $150,000 of the ill-gotten funds two years ago. But the president distanced himself from the misconduct, saying he bore no personal responsibility, and that neither he nor his party was aware of the funds’ tainted origins. He urged the prompt return of the money. The strategic admission that his party inadvertently received a small amount seemed aimed at minimizing and deflecting the real scope of the corruption and how Hernández benefitted from it. Indeed, as University of California historian Dana Frank notes, “It is widely assumed that Hernández owes his electoral victory in part to these stolen funds.” Aside from the corrosive effect of graft, the emptied coffers have led to untold suffering in country already afflicted by endemic poverty and a weak health care system.
The scandal follows other flagrant assaults on democracy and the rule of law, including the removal of Supreme Court justices in 2012 when Hernández was president of Congress, the militarization of policing and a dire human rights crisis. Yet, as Frank observes, the National Party has little to fear from the turmoil and little incentive to implement meaningful structural reforms, since it effectively controls the country, not to mention it can count on Washington’s complicity. While it does not hold the majority of the congressional seats, it controls the legislature’s procedures, as well as the nation’s highest court, top prosecutor and state security forces who have been implicated in human rights abuses.
Protesters galvanized through social media have been leading torch-lit marches demanding the president’s resignation. To no one’s surprise, Hernández indicated he has no intention of stepping down. And since last month the Supreme Court confirmed that the Constitutional ban on seeking a second term was invalid, in a process rife with suspicious irregularities, Hernández is free to run for re-election. Paradoxically, the justification for the 2009 coup ousting former President Mel Zelaya – that both President Obama and then Secretary of State Clinton refused to condemn – was over allegations that he intended to alter the Constitution to allow his re-election.
Protesters plan a June 5 march to the local United Nations office to demand an international commission whose mission is to root out corruption and impunity, similar to Guatemala’s CICIG.
Washington has a shameful history of supporting Central American governments that are friendly to its economic and geopolitical interests, without regard to their conduct at home or its own role in the mayhem they create. The legacy of those policies endures today in the poverty and violence that fuels the child refugee crisis that stirred the Obama administration’s heightened concern for the region. Corruption is too deeply entrenched in Honduras to entrust its ouster to the very actors that benefit from its largesse.
Until Honduras is willing to accept outside assistance to bolster the rule of law, U.S. citizens should question whether any funds from Washington directed to help the nation’s long-suffering people will reach its intended beneficiaries, or simply make matters worse. Before the Obama administration provides aid that would perpetuate the misery in Honduras, Washington should confront and denounce the militarization and corruption that underlies it – and reckon with its own history of supporting it.
Lauren Carasik is a clinical professor of law and the director of the international human rights clinic at the Western New England University School of Law.