Honduras – President Juan Orlando Hernández confronts migrant caravans to the United States, surveillance of the DEA, and mass protests

This post was co-authored with Andrés Palma of the University of Costa Rica.

Juan Orlando Hernández is the first re-elected president in the history of Honduras, in highly contested elections held on November 26, 2017, which left many doubts about whether minimum standards of free and fair elections were met. The process by which the presidential re-election was made possible was already highly questioned.

It has been a year and six months since the inauguration of the second presidency of Hernandez, time during which has had to navigate through many difficulties. The political, social and economic situation in Honduras is more complicated than what Juan Orlando Hernández had to face during his first term (2014-2017). The once very popular president elected under the banner of the National Party of Honduras, is now getting one of the worst approval ratings since transition to democracy.

The country has been international news in recent months due to several massive caravans of migrants marching to the United States. The US President, Donald Trump, far from offering help to tackle the roots of the problem causing emigration to the United States from the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), has hardened its foreign policy towards Central America, withdrawing millions of dollars in aid under the premise that their governments are not making enough to prevent emigration.

For several weeks now the government of Juan Orlando has been challenged by strikes and mass demonstrations. What began as a protest against a plan that seemingly would privatize education and health services, became a demand for the resignation of Hernández. As if that were not enough, a few days ago it was known that President Hernández was being investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) due to possible drug trafficking. It is not clear if the case has been closed or he still remains under investigation.

The migrant caravans

A year ago, a caravan of migrants headed to the United States started in Honduras, and caught the attention of the US government. Immigration overall has been one of the prioritized themes in US foreign policy towards Central America. At the time, President Trump gave a loath coverage of the issue, by just threatening in social media of sending troops at the Southern border to prevent the caravan to get into American soil. Nonetheless, it is no novelty that even during his campaign for the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump held a hardline position towards Central American immigration into the United States.

But that first caravan was not the only one that formed; in fact, on October 12, 2018 a bigger one got on its way to the US. This caravan has been the largest and more mediatic in the past few years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that the caravan consisted of around 7,000 people, although some media outlets have given different numbers. The conjuncture caught the immigration offices and governments of the countries involved (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico) with little time and resources to handle the situation.

The circumstances in which these caravans formed are not new. Emigration from most Central American countries into the United States has traditionally been very high. Comparing the census rounds of 2000 and 2010, it is estimated that the population of Honduran migrants who left to the US increased during that period 191.1%, followed by Guatemala (180.3%), and El Salvador (151.7%) (Carlos Sandoval García, No Más Muros: Exclusión y Migración Forzada En Centroamérica. San José: Editorial UCR, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales).

In Central America, and in the case of the Northern coast of Honduras the problems are generally poverty and unemployment. There are historic conflicts that push people to leave, including land issues, and forced displacement that many farmers and peasants have suffered from agro-export businesses. San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, is where the first migrant caravan formed to leave to the United States.

There are no clear reasons why migrant caravans formed. A possible explanation is that opposition movements against Juan Orlando Hernández have been helping them to organize them, in order to embarrass his government and promote instability. They gained momentum with more migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala joining them.

Albeit some in the caravan have agreed on staying in Mexico as refugees, some have desisted on their attempt by their own will, returning to Honduras; others less fortunate have been deported along the way. Some others do not lose hope in reaching their desired destination. This first mediatic big caravan, did not succeed in its attempt to enter into the US as asylum seekers; nonetheless, it got very close, as its final destination got to be Tijuana, a Mexican location near the American southern border. The uncertainty, high inequality and poverty conditions do not seem to be solved any time soon, as it is becoming more of a rule than an exceptional crisis. At the time of writing, more caravans have been organized in El Salvador and Guatemala too, noticeable, at least three have departed. By April, another caravan got going, having its starting point in San Pedro Sula, as the first one did. Thus, is expected that some other caravans might be encouraged to leave from the Northern Triangle.

What is to be seen, too, is the course in the immigration policies of these countries involved as they got pressures from very different actors, specially Mexico which connects between the US and the Northern Triangle, and the Trump Administration, as it is coming towards the end of its four-year term. But, importantly too, is the fate of these people who escape from the conditions of their countries, since in most cases, people who choose to migrate this urgently do not so for their own sake; many of them have no control over the causes of their situation.

Strikes and demonstrations

The strikes and social protests began at the end of April this year, when the government was preparing to put into effect two highly controversial executive decrees, PCM-026 and PCM-027. With these norms, the Executive was declaring a national emergency in the health and education systems. The decrees proposed to create special commissions in each sector. These would be responsible for preparing national plans for transforming the systems that provide the healthcare and education public services. In addition, it created a budget for salary settlements in case of dismissal.

The confusing wording in these documents about the potential dismissal of employees, was interpreted by the unions of educators and workers of the health sector as a plan to privatize these services. Although Hernandez repealed the decrees, the protests have been transformed into a movement to demand the resignation of Hernández. Nonetheless, the roots of the problem are also to be found in the underfunding of these services, which have received significant cuts over the past decade, impoverishing the already low quality services.

The DEA investigates Hernández over possible drug trafficking

In the last week of May, it was reported that Juan Orlando Hernández and several of his collaborators were being investigated for drug trafficking by the US Drug Enforcement Administration under the suspicion that he was taking part of “large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities relating to the importation of cocaine into the United States.” The report was released by the Southern District of New York, which has not clarified if the investigations continue.

The President’s brother and former Honduran deputy to the National Congress, Antonio Hernández Alvarado, is waiting for trial in the US after being arrested in November 2018, and accused of cocaine trafficking, and weapon offences. It is suspected that Juan Orlando Hernández would have participated in the criminal activities with which he relates to his brother at least in 2013.

Juan Orlando Hernández is undoubtedly a skilled politician. As stated by The Economist, he is a politician with Machiavellian talents. A lawyer who was previously trained in the Honduran Army, a conservative and supporter of the National Party of Honduras, a right-wing party, Hernández comes from Lempira, one of the poorest departments in Honduras; although he himself has not experienced poverty. This politician has achieved what many thought unthinkable in Honduras: the presidential re-election. Only a few years ago, the issue of re-election was a taboo whose insinuation cost former President Manuel Zelaya Rosales the presidency through a military coup.

Hernández was a poster child of the International Monetary Fund because of the fiscal discipline with which he governed during his first term—a strong program of fiscal austerity was imposed throughout his government—with ambitious plans for development. He is trying to implement special economic zones that would attract—they argue—foreign direct investment in different parts of the country. He also manoeuvred to obtain in his first term some of the best popularity ratings for a president in Honduras, a country with high poverty, inequality and one of the highest homicide rates in the world. But now, as mentioned, his popularity ratings have plunged in his second term. Possibly, Hernández expected to start his second term with favorable conditions to accomplish his political, and economic goals. Perhaps he foresaw that it was not going to be an easy term due to the dubious method that lifted term-limits, letting him seek re-election but prompting in response mass protests, and a campaign to discredit him. He dodged skilfully many of those attacks. Nonetheless, this time the President is facing probably one of the most difficult periods of his career as a politician.

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