Ricardo González directs Freedom House’s program in Honduras.
The protests that shook Honduras in recent days were part of a broader crisis of legitimacy and governance that has been dragging on in the country for years.
After dozens of people were arrested and injured, and businesses and government buildings burned down, President Juan Orlando Hernández instructed Congress to withdraw two bills that would have privatized education and health services and potentially caused significant layoffs.
The proposals triggered mass protests by unions, students and social movement organizations. They have been scrapped, but a large question looms: How long will it be possible to sustain a government incapable of fulfilling the promises of democracy and economic growth?
Hernández began his second term last year after orchestrating a constitutional reform that allowed him to remove term limits. He faced mass protests and numerous accusations of corruption and electoral fraud. He soon promised to strengthen democratic institutions and fight corruption and drug trafficking.
None of this has happened.
Instead, Hernández has consistently disregarded the separation of powers and the rule of law. He has hardened repression of critics and criminalized the work of human rights activists.
Recently, 13 activists who were resisting a mining project near the Guapinol River were arrested on bogus charges, including criminal assault and conspiracy. After several protests and pressure from national and foreign human rights groups, the charges were dropped.
In March, Honduran police raided the Tegucigalpa office of a prominent radio journalist and government critic, David Romero Ellner. He was taken into custody to serve a 10-year prison sentence for defamation in one of the most high-profile examples of the deterioration of freedom of the press in the country.
Journalism and the defense of human rights are high-risk activities, despite new policies meant to protect them. This has been a common Hernández strategy: creating institutions and programs with PR-friendly names that appear to be aligned with the people and the international community’s demands. Yet the efforts almost always produce few actual results.
The best example is the lack of progress of a national dialogue between political parties — sponsored by Hernández with the support of international community, the Organization of American States and the United Nations — meant to resolve the post-election crisis. The process is now perceived as a simulation to distract from more urgent issues such as generalized human rights violations.
For instance, at Freedom House, we helped build the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. While it has managed to protect dozens of activists and journalists, it has not broken the cycle of impunity or built trust among beneficiary groups, since government agents are the most frequent perpetrators of attacks and threats against these groups. In December, the government took over the whole operation. Now the mechanism is facing an increasing number of challenges, producing serious delays in processing requests of protection.
Patience is running out, and there’s an increasingly active and organized civil society that won’t accept more empty promises and calls for sterile dialogue. This makes sense in light of the numerous arrests and increasing intimidation of social and human rights defenders. Adding fuel to the fire, impunity and violence are reaching alarming levels. While the rate of homicides related to organized crime and criminal gangs has been significantly reduced compared with 2011, murders based on gender have picked up. Theft and extortion crimes have spread throughout the country. Of course all of these factors contribute to mass migration. According to the United States, if the pace of migration from last year is maintained, approximately 1 percent of the population of Honduras will have migrated during 2019.
Electoral reforms have failed to restore credibility to a highly questionable system. More than 20 people were killed in clashes between demonstrators and the police after the last election. Election monitors supported opposition calls for a vote recount, and the Organization of American States eventually called for a rerun. The authorities dismissed their petitions.
But tensions remain high. We can expect the situation to continue deteriorating as the Hernández’s administration entrenches itself in power and fails to deliver concrete results.
Freedom House ranks Honduras as “partly free” in our annual index of freedom in the world. It is ranked “not free” in our report on press freedom. Institutional weakness, corruption, violence and impunity undermine the overall stability of the country. Journalists, political activists and women are often the victims of violence, and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
The lack of outcomes and minimal progress in moving Honduras toward a full democracy can only be attributed to Hernández. So far he has enjoyed the support of the international community. But this good faith can soon expire. Indefinitely postponing genuine change is untenable.
Until true democratic reforms take place in Honduras, unrest will erupt more regularly. But right now it is the only way for people to hold the government accountable.