By Yanis Iqbal
As the Covid-19 pandemic rages in Honduras, the healthcare infrastructure is increasingly coming under stress. Due to decades of privatization in the health sector, the role of the Ministry of Health and the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) has drastically diminished. Almost 9 out of 10 people in Honduras are not covered by any type of health insurance and 1.5 million Hondurans (18% of the population of 9.9 million people) don’t have access to health services.
Moreover, there are only 6,590 beds in the entire country, translating into 9.5 hospital beds per 10,000 citizens (compared to Cuba’s 59 beds per 10,000 inhabitants). The healthcare expenditure as a percentage of GDP is a measly 7.83%, lower than the average of 14% in the Americas. With an extremely weak public health edifice, Honduras is finding it difficult to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic and in April 2020, doctors and social workers announced “their withdrawal from the hospitals if the biosecurity equipment and resources necessary to avoid further contamination by the virus are not provided.”
The government has chosen to ignore these demands of health workers, leading to Honduran health workers protesting, with the support of Honduran Medical Association (CMH) and IHSS, for the provisioning of biosafety equipments.
The roots of present-day administrative malfunctioning can be located in the 28 June 2009 Honduran coup in which the left-leaning president Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales was deposed. Under the presidency of Manuel Zelaya, Honduras had joined Petrocaribe, founded by Hugo Chavez in 2005 and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004. Furthermore, Manuel Zelaya also increased the monthly rural and urban minimum wages to $213 and $290, respectively, representing a 50% rise.
In April 2009, a constitutional convention or constituyente was called to replace the 1982 constitution, drafted under the guardianship of USA. The creation of this constituyente was sought to be done through the Cuarta Urna or fourth ballot box on June 28, 2009. In this nonbinding poll, voters were to be asked whether the upcoming presidential election should include the election of delegates to a constitutional convention. The Cuarta Urna project was enthusiastically supported by Bloque Popular (Popular Bloc), a grass-roots organization which later fused with Coordinadora Nacional de Resistencia Popular (Popular Resistance National Coordinating Committee) to give birth to the anti-coup National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP).
Manuel Zelaya was progressively transgressing the politico-economic limits defined by the Honduran oligarchy and had to be overthrown. On 28 June 2009, President Manuel Zelaya was flown by the Honduran military to Costa Rica at gunpoint and in pajamas. This “pajama-clad expatriation” was tacitly supported by the US government and on the day of the coup, Barack Obama merely asked Honduran people to “respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter” and resolve disputes “through dialogue free from any outside interference.”
This meek statement was contrary to the highfalutin and pompous statements made by him during the “To Learn From History, Not Be Trapped by It,” speech: “I am here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration.” Obama’s new chapter of engagement was probably one where coup-plotters were authorized under the aegis of United States to arbitrarily subvert any government.
After the coup, a temporary government of Roberto Micheletti, the President of Congress, was cobbled up. Micheletti’s basic function was to violently discipline the rebellious Honduran population into peacefully voting in the post-coup election and shift the ideological plane from “coup” to “elections”. This objective of suppressing anti-golpista dissent was done through a violent process of militarization which involved, inter alia, the imposition of curfew, declaration of a state of siege and an unwarranted attack on social activists and organizations.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Micheletti period included “deaths, an arbitrary declaration of a state of emergency, suppression of public demonstrations through disproportionate use of force, criminalization of public protest, arbitrary detentions of thousands of persons, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and grossly inadequate conditions of detention, militarization of Honduran territory, a surge in incidents of racial discrimination, violations of women’s rights, serious and arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, and grave violations of political rights.”
When a thorough state-sponsored tactic of terrorization was completed, general elections were held in which, through a witch-hunt against anti-coup voices, a right-wing candidate named Porfirio Lobo Sosa was elected. This illegitimate election result was eagerly embraced by the US State Department which issued a statement implicitly awarding plaudits on coup-plotters for efficiently eliminating opposition and holding bogus elections: “We commend the Honduran people for peacefully exercising their democratic right to select their leaders in an electoral process that began over a year ago, well before the June 28 coup d’etat.”
Hilary Clinton also played her role by relegating the patent occurrence of coup and instead prattling about elections: “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.” It was the Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon who wrote to Hilary Clinton, advising her how to handle the delicate Honduran situation: “As we think about what to say, I would strongly recommend that we not be shy. We should congratulate the Honduran people, we should connect today’s vote to the deep democratic vocation of the Honduran people, and we should call on the community of democratic nations (and especially those of the Americas) to recognize, respect, and respond to this accomplishment of the Honduran people.”
During Porfirio Lobo’s presidency, human rights abuses worsened and militarization increased. According to Human Rights Watch, “Honduras failed in 2011 to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations under the de facto government that took power after the 2009 military coup.” As per the 2011 Annual Report produced by Amnesty International on the human rights conditions in Honduras, under the Porfirio administration “Freedom of expression came under attack. Little progress was made in repairing the damage to human rights protection and the rule of law that followed the 2009 coup. Impunity for human rights violations by military and police officers persisted. Human rights defenders were subject to intimidation.”
Judicial independence too was compromised through the politically-motivated expulsion of “four judges – Tirza del Carmen Flores Lanza, Ramón Enrique Barrios, Luis Alonso Chévez de la Rocha, Guillermo López Lone – and Public Attorney Osmán Fajardo Morel” for their involvement in anti-coup demonstrations. Militarization took place through the deployment of soldiers in the two largest cities of Honduras – Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. USA funded this militarization through its military and security aid which increased by 50% from 2010-12. The funding for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) too enlarged by 33% and an additional $45 million was also allotted for the expansion of Soto Cano Air Base and the establishment of 3 new US bases. In 2011, the US Department had spent $67.4 million on military contracts in Honduras, $89 million on the Soto Cano Air Base and exported military electronics to Honduras worth allegedly $1.3 billion.
In 2012, $26 million was funneled to Honduras through a program called “Honduras Convive”, designed by the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a unit of USAID whose “activities are overtly political, based on the idea that in the midst of political crisis and instability abroad there are local agents of change whose efforts, when supported by timely and creative U.S. assistance, can tip the balance toward peaceful and democratic outcomes that advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.”
While this militarization of Honduras was happening, Porfirio Lobo was stealthily advancing his neoliberal agenda. He proposed a “Model Cities project” in which Zones of Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs) would be created. These zones would be indemnified from the application of any law and could unrestrictedly exploit workers and sign treaties with transnational corporations. This law was initially rejected by the Supreme Court because it simply threw out the constitution from the proposed zones. Later, a “technical coup” took place wherein Juan Orlando Hernandez, at that time the president of the Congress, deposed four out of five members of the Sala constitucional (Constitutional Chamber). Oscar Chinchilla, the fifth justice, was left untouched because he was faithful to Orlando Hernandez.
After this illegal manoeuvre, four new justices were appointed. The Model Cities Law, which had been earlier rejected, was now passed by the Supreme Court. Along with the creation of economic exploitation zones, the government of Porfirio Lobo also held a business exhibition called “Honduras is Open for Business” in which Carlos Slim, at that time the richest man in the world, was also present. The aim of the business conference was to ‘relaunch Honduras as the most attractive investment destination in Latin America’.
In 2013, general elections were held in which the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), headed by Xiomara Castro (wife of Manuel Zelaya), would also be participating. These elections presented the ruling National Party with enormous challenge because it was the first time that anti-coup forces were electorally participating in Honduran politics. To avoid LIBRE from winning, the National Party used a variety of tactics such as vote buying, selling election table credentials, violence and voter intimidation. According to the Report of the National Lawyers Guild Delegation to the November 2013 Election in Honduras, the November 2013 elections included “the purchase of MER credentials by the National Party, irregularities in the recording and transmission of actas [vote tallies], the distribution of discount cards to National Party voters, and irregularities with voting registration rolls which resulted in the inclusion of ineligible voters and the exclusion of eligible voters.”
During the election campaign, 18 LIBRE candidates and their family members were murdered and 15 were subjected to armed attacks. As said by Jenny O’Connor, the “LIBRE party (Libertad y Refundacion Party) pre-candidates, candidates, their families and campaign leaders have suffered more killings and armed attacks than all other political parties combined. The disproportionate number of killings of LIBRE candidates seems a clear indication that many of the killings have been politically motivated.”
Despite the occurrence of serious irregularities and blatant violence, the US Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske said that “In general it has been a transparent process, beginning with the representation of the persons at the electoral tables, later the public scrutiny, the representation of all the parties in the computer center.” The Secretary of State John Kerry also legitimized the fraudulent electoral process through his unaccountably fulsome praise of the Honduran government: “The Honduran people turned out in record numbers to vote on November 24, and we commend the Honduran Government for ensuring that the election process was generally transparent, peaceful, and reflected the will of the Honduran people.”
Through an election process covered with blood and gore, Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) emerged as the president, supposedly receiving 36.89% of the total votes. With the election of JOH to power, the militarization of Honduras accelerated and slowly, JOH’s authoritarian election slogan “a soldier on every corner” was being materialized. In 2013, JOH established a police unit called Intelligence Troop and Special Security Response Groups (TIGRES) whose ostensible function was to “protect the security of the population and their belongings”.
This elite military-police squad is financed by the Inter-American Development Bank and uses the opaque security slush fund created through the 3% security tax on all financial operations to carry out its operations. TIGRES is trained by the “U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and members of the Comandos Jungla, an elite force of the Colombian police” and is also funded by the US Department of State through the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). Apart from TIGRES, 17 additional security force units also receive US military aid.
To carry out the crucial process of militarization, JOH inserted a provision in paragraph 5, Article 7, of Decree 168 through the Decree 286 of 2013. According to the provision, “the military police shall also have all those functions and actions that may be ordered by the President of the Republic”. Furthermore, Article 4 of Decree 168 of 2013 nebulously states that the military police will receive “the training necessary for dealing with the public.” Through constitutional changes, unabated militarization was unleashed. As a natural corollary of militarization, human rights abuses greatly increased and according to the 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Honduras was suffering from “serious human rights problems”. These included “violence against detainees; lengthy pretrial detentions and failure to provide due process of law; threats against journalists;” and “encroachment on indigenous lands and discrimination against indigenous and Afro-descendent communities;”.
Militarizing Honduras directly facilitated the proliferation of narco-operations in which JOH and his brother were involved. According to US prosecutors, JOH had collaborated with a drug-trafficker named Geovanny Daniel Fuentes Ramírez in 2013 and “took $25,000 in exchange for protecting the trafficker from law enforcement.” Apart from working with Fuentes Ramirez, JOH had also personally received a $1 million bribe from drug lord El Chapo to subvert the 2013 Honduran elections. Juan Antonio Tony Hernandez, JOH’s brother, was also convicted by the US District Court for trafficking 200,000 kilograms of cocaine, together with machine guns.
US attorney Geoffrey Berman said that “Former Honduran congressman Tony Hernandez was involved in all stages of the trafficking through Honduras of multi-ton loads of cocaine that were destined for the U.S. Hernandez bribed law enforcement officials to protect drug shipments, solicited large bribes from major drug traffickers, and arranged machine gun-toting security for cocaine shipments.” In addition, Tony Hernandez “funneled millions of dollars of drug proceeds to National Party campaigns to impact Honduran presidential elections in 2009, 2013, and 2017.”
Other than being a narco-trafficker, JOH is also a corrupt politician responsible for a “multimillion-dollar embezzlement of social security funds”. In this massive fraud, $350 million was stolen from IHSS, the governmental social security institute catering to more than 700,000 beneficiaries of the social security regime and roughly 900,000 beneficiaries of the health regime. The IHSS scam included “overpaying almost $400,000 for 10 ambulances and buying overpriced medicines which were then repeatedly stolen and resold to the IHSS.” JOH admitted that $150,000 of the IHSS money was spent on his election campaign.
In 2017 Honduran national elections, the 2013 spectacle of outright fraud was repeated. The overly illicit and absurd scene during the elections was pithily described by a report produced by NACLA: “National Party activists are buying voting table credentials from other parties to ensure access to tally sheets; the polls are closing early; votes are being bought outright.” According to the 2017 “Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights”, the election was marred by “the issuing of blank credentials to parties and the related buying of votes; the lack of independence of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal; the lack of transparency and unreliability of the system of electronic transmission and counting of votes; and, further to the adoption, in 2017, of the Law on financing, transparency and accountability of political parties and candidates, the non-functioning of the mechanisms established by that law.”
Due to all these procedural irregularities, Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro was compelled to say it was “impossible to determine the winner with the necessary certainty”. In the post-election period, JOH’s government dictatorially cracked down on protests, leaving 31 dead. Before this violent crackdown, the British government had sold spy equipments to Honduras worth $370,154. These equipments include “sophisticated spy technology which can be used to intercept, monitor and track emails, mobile phones, and online messaging services such as WhatsApp”.
Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government of JOH is persecuting human rights defenders and during the first few weeks of the pandemic 45 human rights defenders suffered attacks or harassment and 7 journalists were detained or assaulted. Between March and April, more than 6,000 people have been detained for protesting over layoffs and scarcity of food. All this has been made possible by the declaration of a state of sanitary emergency and curtailment of basic constitutional rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly. According to the International Forum for Human Rights in Honduras, “the health emergency, coupled with a precarious health system, weak institutions, the shortage and privatization of water resources, and serious problems of corruption, militarization and exploitation of natural resources will deepen the risks faced by the Honduran people.” The need of the present is to wage an effective socialist offensive against the right-wing JOH administration and reclaim Honduras from US imperialism and the domestic oligarchy.