Flailing Honduras in yet another political crisis

Dec 14, 2012, 2:52 PM EST
In this Tuesday July 3, 2012 file photo, a Honduras national policeman sits on packages of cocaine that were brought to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
(AP Photo/Fernando Antonio, file)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Members of the ruling party met behind closed doors, bartering all night for votes to depose four Supreme Court justices who had rejected the president's plan to weed out corrupt police. Ominously, soldiers and police surrounded the National Congress.

As the hours ticked by, representatives inside puffed on cigarettes in violation of their own anti-smoking laws and jokingly accused each other of vote-buying. Then shortly before dawn Wednesday, President Porfirio Lobo's National Party overwhelmingly and, many say illegally, approved the judges' dismissal.

That was a risky move.

"We don't know when we leave after the vote if there will be prosecutors waiting to detain us," admitted Sergio Castellanos of the Democratic Unification party, who voted with the majority. "Here you have to be ready for anything."

On global rosters of failing states, Honduras doesn't even crack the top 50, yet by many grim measures the troubled Central American republic is barely clinging to its status as a functioning country.

Three years after former President Manuel Zelaya was run out of office at gunpoint in his pajamas, Lobo is struggling. He has twice warned that his enemies are conspiring to oust him in a coup, and he then provoked a constitutional crisis with the judges' removal, an act that legal scholars describe as everything from an abuse of power to a betrayal of the country.

Political turmoil is but the latest trouble bedeviling Honduras. Even in the best of times, Lobo's government, police and military control only about two-thirds of the country. In at least three states, drug gangs rule the highways and clandestine airstrips, with firepower greater than law enforcement's, said Cesar Caceres, a former adviser to the Security Ministry.

As a result, three-quarters of all U.S.-bound cocaine passes through the country's lawless outback in an illicit business that has led to an explosion of violence, which in some cities has reached epidemic proportions. Honduras has more homicides than any other country in the world with 91 per 100,000 people, the World Health Organization says.

The country is as poor as it is violent.

The national government is so broke it needs to borrow $100 million to pay its employees, including members of the electoral council, who say they can't issue complete results from last month's primary for 2013 presidential candidates until vote-counters are paid.

Two out of three Hondurans live in poverty, on less than $1.25 a day, and only a quarter of children complete middle school. Every day, hundreds of people give up on their homeland altogether to make the dangerous trek north to look for work in the United States.

Since Lobo's election, the U.S. government frequently has noted Honduran progress on national reconciliation and respect for human rights, while acknowledging continued problems with corruption and impunity.

This week, State Department press adviser William Ostick said that, "We are monitoring the situation closely ... and urge all actors to respect democratic norms."

Many Hondurans say their country's problems run deep.

"Honduras is a weak state in a tremendous institutional crisis," said Hugo Noe Pino, who has served at times as finance minister, central bank president and Honduran ambassador to the United States. He called the country "ungovernable."

Jore Yllescas, a presidential commissioner for the Department of Revenue, concurred.

"Honduras is almost a failed state, incapable of solving its education or health problems, let alone justice, security or control of its own territory," Yllescas said. "I wouldn't dare to stay that it's reversible. I have no evidence to show that."

Long before political scientists began to talk of failed states, Honduras was known disparagingly as a "banana republic."

In the late 19th century, U.S. companies like United Fruit and Standard Fruit owned vast tracts of land and relied on the Honduran military to quell labor rebellions. The elites then formed the country's two major political parties in support of the fruit companies, cementing ties between Honduras' business and political interests, said Marvin Barahona, a historian at a Jesuit think tank in the capital.

With wealth concentrated in the hands of a few families, Honduras remained poor. Decades later, as U.S. aid poured into government coffers, many citizens complained that their country had been converted into Washington's client state, a base for the U.S. military and U.S.-backed Contras fighting the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.

But the status quo was fine with the oligarchy. Zelaya, a rich landowner from Olancho state, was one of them when he was elected president in 2006. When he began to move away from Washington towards Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez, however, his opponents feared a populist threat. His proposal for a referrendum on changing the constitution was the last straw. He was booted out by leaders of his own party, backed by the army.

The U.S. suspended aid as a sanction for the coup, and in the ensuing political chaos, drug traffickers saw an opening.

"Direct flights from the Venezuela-Colombia border soared to runways in Honduras, and thus began a violent struggle for control of this drug corridor," according to the 2012 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report. The report estimates drug trafficking now accounts for about 13 percent of Hondura's gross domestic product.

Cocaine shipments are dropped in the Mosquito Coast region, bordering Nicaragua, then are moved through Olancho or Gracias a Dios states, converging on the border of Guatemala.

In high drug-trafficking areas, many people depend on the cartels, not the government, to provide jobs and services.

"We're like Colombia of the 1980s," said Caceres, the former Security Ministry adviser who now heads a security support program for the European Union in Honduras. "People linked to drug trafficking are seen by part of the population as benefactors, because of the inability of the state to offer solutions to their poverty."

Hondurans say corruption and crony politics have deprived state coffers of revenue thanks to politicians who enact laws to favor their own business interests.

For example, Tito Asfura, a city council member running for mayor of Tegucigalpa, holds the garbage collecting contract for the capital and sits on the corporation that renews the contract. Fast-food franchises proliferating in the city's many shopping malls and street corners get tax breaks for creating jobs that often pay less than minimum wage, or for promoting "tourism."

"The culture of tax evasion is amazing in Honduras," said Mario Lopez Steiner, the 16th director of the country's Department of Revenue in 18 years.

Since taking office in January 2010, Lobo has been under international pressure to fix the broken country. He brokered an agreement to let ousted former President Zelaya return to form his own political party, and tried to regain the trust of foreign investors.

Lobo proposed creating private cities with their own laws and authorities, arguing that the country's justice system didn't work. It was an attempt "to create a Honduras from scratch," said Octavio Sanchez, Lobo's chief of Cabinet. But the Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional.

In a nation where people have to regularly dodge extortion attempts from police and daily violence, Lobo launched a program of background checks on police officers — a priority of the U.S. government, which gives Honduras about $100 million a year in aid.

Lobo's police reform sowed the seeds of the current confrontation. A constitutional court declared the purge unconstitutional because it did not include an appeals process for dismissed officers, and the full Supreme Court was expected to uphold the ruling. Before it could, congress voted to put the reform to a popular vote, and replaced the dissenting court members. The attorney general reacted immediately, saying he would consider prosecuting the congressmen who approved the ouster.

The Honduran constitution gives the president, judiciary and congress autonomous powers. Since the coup of 2009, and despite a subsequent truth commission report recommending the constitution be changed to allow for impeaching a president or a justice, little has changed.

Lobo interrupted all television programing on Thursday to call for a national dialogue with the country's key players, many of whom he accused of trying to oust him just a week ago, "to find a way out of this crisis."

Average Hondurans call it a power-struggle among the elites, and say they don't want to get in the middle of it.

"God help us, we don't want the chaos of another coup," said bus driver Moises Cruz. "The worst is that we're going through this crisis again because of all these politicians who only look out for themselves."


Associated Press Correspondent Martha Mendoza contributed from Santa Cruz, Calif.