Monday, August 31, 2015

"Central American Spring"?

The Economist published an article  that provocatively asks in the headline if the 12 weeks of torchlight marches in Honduras is "A Central American Spring".

The paper quickly repudiates that idea in the body of the article. The Arab Spring was rapid and violent.  Rather than a violent uprising, the Economist quotes Central American Business Intelligence as expecting slow, gradual change in Central America.

Slow, gradual change is not what the people protesting want: they are asking for the current president to resign.

For 14 weeks in Honduras the indignados, those upset with corruption and impunity in Honduras, have taken to the streets in all the major cities, carrying bamboo torches (not unlike the patio torches one can buy here in the US), seeking a Honduran International Commission against Impunity (CICIH in Spanish) and the removal of Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

While there are no official crowd estimates, the marches clearly mobilize tens of thousands of people in both Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula alone. Also remarkable is the range of cities and towns where marches are taking place. They are substantial and peaceful.

In an attempt to defuse the crowds, Hernandez has called for facilitators and mediators from the Organization of American States and the UN to oversee what he calls "dialogue".  This is in lieu of asking for a CICIH, which would be appointed by the UN to independently investigate corruption and impunity in Honduras. 

Hernandez alleges his government's efforts to reform the government are sufficient if people just give the institutions a chance to operate.

But the institutions he wants the Honduran people to trust aren't operating.

A snail's pace would be fast compared to the Public Prosecutor's office, for example. 

A trail of checks document the movement of money from the Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social (IHSS) through at least three front companies in Honduras into the National Party bank accounts including those of the Hernandez Presidential Campaign. When journalists made this public in May, they used copies of the checks from the actual prosecutorial case file shared with them.  Despite this financial trail, no one has been charged, and no one even questioned, about these checks, checks that implicate the leadership of the National Party in corruption. 

There are actually indications that the Assistant Public Prosecutor, Rigoberto Cuellar, may himself be linked to an influence-pedaling scandal, but he is not as yet the target of any investigation.

This is the face of impunity in Honduras. It is why the indignados are marching. And they are marching for a specific remedy that exists in action in their neighbor to the north, Guatemala.

In Guatemala, people are also marching weekly. Here, there is already an International Commission against Corruption and Impunity (CICIG in Spanish), sponsored by the UN at Guatemala's request, and funded by voluntary contributions from a number of different countries. 

This unit, as noted in the Economist article, has been instrumental in uncovering and prosecuting corruption in the Guatemalan governments past and present. The transparency of these investigations served to mobilize the populace of Guatemala tired of corruption. 

The CICIG has in fact, sought to bring charges against the President and Vice President of Guatemala for corruption. Over 100,000 people gathered last week in central Guatemala City to call for the President to resign. Their demands have now been endorsed by the country's Roman Catholic bishops.

In Honduras, at least for now, President Hernandez is not only rejecting the idea of an independent CICIH, he's actively working to discredit the idea through the public pronouncements of his advisor Ebal Diaz, who has made up "facts" to discredit the CICIG.  Officially the National Party Congressional delegation is against the proposal as well.  Mauricio Oliva, President of Congress, called it "foreign intervention".

Almost every other political party in Honduras supports the call for the CICIH. LIBRE supports it; the AntitCorruption Party (PAC) does too. 

The Liberal Party recently held a "unification" meeting to align its congressional delegation with the thinking of its directorate. The idea of a CICIH was a key source of difference. The Liberals in Congress recently voted against legislation that would have put the call for a CICIH to a public referendum, legislation sponsored by LIBRE.  At the time they said they voted against it because they thought it would delay prosecution, particularly of former Zelaya government officials. The directorate of the Liberal Party was in favor of a referendum, making the defection of its Congressional delegation a major issue. In the unification meeting, the party members agreed to vote for a CICIH if it comes up again.  But it is unclear that the Congressional leadership will allow another vote.

Last Wednesday, the indignados held a national strike, calling for businesses to shut down and main traffic arteries in the country to be blocked. Roads were blocked for a time until the police broke up the protests, and some businesses shut down, but not most. 

Last Friday's march ended at the Consejo Hondureño de Empresa Privada (COHEP) building where marchers met with business leaders. Whether this will result in businessmen supporting the marchers' goals is an open question, but the fact that talks were entertained is significant. COHEP  supports the government; any change in support here would likely destabilize it.

Slow change indeed.