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Opinion Biden must end U.S. policy shoring up the corrupt and authoritarian regime in Honduras

Opposition supporters demonstrate against President Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Feb. 26. (Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images)

Dana Frank is a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the author of “The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.”

President Biden has a huge challenge on his hands in Honduras. Poverty, gang violence, corrupt security forces and a gutted state led by a repressive dictator, President Juan Orlando Hernández, are going to continue to generate waves of people trying to migrate north to safety. Meanwhile, Hondurans at home are dying by the thousands from covid-19, lack of health care, and, increasingly, suicide and state-sponsored violence.

Yet Biden’s policies have veered very little from those advanced under Barack Obama and Donald Trump — two administrations that only shored up Hernández.

But on Feb. 23 eight Democratic senators, led by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, threw down the gauntlet to Biden on Honduras policy. With the “Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act of 2021,” the senators are calling for a suspension of U.S. security aid to Honduras, sanctions on Hernández, a ban on tear gas and other key munitions sales, and additional measures. Will Biden heed them?

In multiple indictments, prosecutors with the Southern District of New York have accused Hernández of accepting millions in bribes from drug traffickers to pay for his 2013 election in exchange for police and military protection, embezzling U.S. Agency for International Development funds and deceiving the Drug Enforcement Administration. The president has denied all accusations. Hernández’s brother, Tony, a former congressman in Honduras, was convicted in federal court in Manhattan in 2019 of cocaine trafficking.

Hernández is also a dangerous authoritarian with an extensive record of subverting the rule of law. While in Congress he supported the 2009 military coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. In 2017 he ran for reelection in clear violation of the constitution and then, when he was clearly losing, stopped the vote count and declared himself the winner, unleashing a wave of protests.

The president’s top military and police officials have also been linked to drug trafficking. Julián Pacheco Tinoco, a retired general and current minister of security, has been the target of investigations by the DEA. In 2018, the Associated Press reported that the top three national directors of the police had been involved in trafficking cocaine, according to a confidential Honduran government report.

Moreover, rampant and terrifying violations of human rights by the security forces continue with impunity. The police and military killed least 22 protesters and bystanders in the aftermath of the 2017 elections, according to the United Nations. The military has used covid-19 curfews to detain and brutalize citizens. According to the leading Honduran human rights groups, tens of thousands have been detained, including Keyla Martínez, who was picked up by the police on Feb. 6 and found dead in her cell soon after. The police claimed Martínez had killed herself, but an autopsy found she had died of “mechanical asphyxiation,” and prosecutors are now investigating her death as a murder.

Civil liberties are close to nonexistent: Try to peacefully march or demonstrate and you’ll get tear-gassed. Put up a banner outside your business asking “Where’s the money?” (as part of a campaign to question the allocation of more than $3 billion of covid-19 aid) and the police and military will come take it down.

Yet there are reasons to fear Biden will not hold Hernández accountable, despite such rampant authoritarian abuses.

As vice president, he repeatedly celebrated Hernández, especially after the dictatorship was teetering in 2015 in the face of mass anti-corruption protests. Some have been promoting the myth that things were getting better in Honduras while Biden was vice president — that the homicide rate had dropped, the police had been cleaned up and an anti-corruption commission was making progress in weeding out bad apples.

But those homicide rates came from the government, which doesn’t count bodies found in plastic bags or mass graves, or other “irregular” deaths. Many police officers were fired, but very few faced prosecution for corruption or human rights violations. The anti-corruption commission did make some progress, but it never touched those at the top.

Now Biden is promising a rehash of the 2015 Alliance for Prosperity, which poured millions into the corrupt Honduran government and pushed economic projects that threaten Indigenous land rights and devastate the environment, like dams, mines and large-scale corporate tourism.

Biden’s top officials are also proposing a new anti-corruption commission. They want to collaborate with local officials, but they’re choosing to ignore the Honduran attorney general’s own alleged corrupt dealings and record of quashing cases involving drug traffickers and corrupt top officials. Alarmingly, Biden officials also seem to be moving forward to implement a Trump-era agreement to increase intelligence-sharing with the Honduran military and police.

But more worrisome is what the Biden administration has not said about Honduras. We should listen to the silence: Why hasn’t the administration denounced human rights abuses by state security forces? The United States makes claims of supporting democracy but hasn’t expressed any concerns about a free and fair vote in the March 14 primary or November elections, which are bound to be deeply manipulated by the ruling party. Is the United States afraid that Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife and a possible candidate from the center-left opposition Libre party, could win?

It’s time for Biden to listen to the senators — and to the members of Congress who have supported since 2016 the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act also prohibiting U.S. assistance to the police or military of Honduras — rather than continue to shore up and whitewash a vicious regime. The United States should stop dancing with dictators and allow the Honduran people to have the democratic space to express, and build, their own vision of a good society.

Read more:

Stephanie Leutert: How climate change is affecting rural Honduras and pushing people north

Ricardo González: The democratic crisis in Honduras has reached a boiling point

Jason Rezaian: The newest way to silence journalists: Jail them during a pandemic