Honduras – Protests to Remove President Amid Allegations of Corruption

On this blog, my posts on Latin America have a few recurring themes. Two of the most prominent must surely be related to corruption in the executive office and public protests calling for the president’s impeachment or resignation.

Well, once again I return to this topic. Juan Orlando Hernández, the President of Honduras, from the conservative and right-leaning Partido Nacional, is facing calls for his resignation over allegations of corruption, following a large public demonstration attended by thousands of marchers last Friday in Tegucigalpa. This was the fifth Friday in a row that saw demonstrations calling for the president’s resignation.

JOH came to power following the December 2013 elections, which saw him defeat the left-leaning wife, Xiomara Castro, of a former president, Manuel Zelaya, ousted in a coup in 2009 by pro-military conservative factions. However, the president and his party have now been accused of embezzling over US$90 million from the state social security agency, which was then used to fund Hernández’s victory in the 2013 election. This is part of a larger scandal involving the state agency, El Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social (IHSS), which provides one in every eight Hondurans with healthcare, that has seen over US$200 million embezzled from its coffers over the last few years. Hernández has claimed that he was unaware where the money came from.

These allegations of corruption in Honduras at the very highest institutional level join a long list for Latin America. Across the region, presidents have often been associated with corruption while occupying the executive office. For example, last year alone, Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. In April in El Salvador, it was announced that evidence had emerging linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, appeared in court in June 2014 to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in.

These countries are also no strangers to mass protests. Since the return to democracy, large sustained street protests, motivated by allegations of corruption, have frequently acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Consider the early resignations of Raúl Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde in Argentina in the face of popular mobilization. Or the collapse of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency in Bolivia amidst persistent unrest and clashes between the police and protesters. Or the removal of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Or Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela.

The combination of a corruption scandal and mass protests can, and indeed has, forced presidents to pre-emptively resign, or has forced the house to begin impeachment proceedings. Nonetheless, even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast institutional support have proven very difficult to remove from office.[1]

In Honduras’ conservative and oligarchic institutional system however, Hernández appears reasonably safe. He has the backing of the Supreme Court, the traditional and conservative, Partido Nacional and many within the Partido Liberal and crucially, the support of the military. Only recently, Hernández managed to introduce a new constitutional amendment, allowing for consecutive presidential election, the very same proposal that resulted in the removal of Zelaya. It is all not easy sailing for the president however. Since 2013, a third party, Partido Libertad y Refundación (Libre) the party of Castro, have held a third of the seats in the house and the legislature has proved a somewhat persistent institutional obstacle for Hernández.

For Honduras however, these protests and this scandal only add to the woes of the already beleaguered democracy.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; or Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101.