Freedom in the World
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President Manuel Zelaya’s new administration was put to the test in 2006 as disagreements over social issues such as education and the environment gave rise to protests, strikes and street barricades throughout the country. A new regional free-trade treaty known as DR-CAFTA was implemented in April, but gang-related crime and violence continued to hinder development. Honduran nongovernmental organizations also reported a disturbing trend of “social cleansing” and vigilante killings that targeted young people suspected of gang activity. In October, the Inter-American Human Rights Court denounced Honduras’s failure to curb such practices. Threats to press freedom and insufficient labor laws, especially with respect to women, were also areas of concern during the year.
The Republic of Honduras was established in 1839, some 18 years after independence from Spain. The country has endured decades of military rule and intermittent elected governments, with the last military regime giving way to civilian authorities in 1982. However, the military continued to be the most powerful institution in the country through much of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the 1982 constitution, Honduran presidents have the power to veto the military and choose its leaders; the first president to exercise that power did so in 1999.
A 1969 border war between Honduras and El Salvador, sometimes known as the “Soccer War,” ended with a peace treaty in 1980. In 1992, the International Court of Justice ruled that 69 percent of the territory in dispute should go to Honduras, and the court in 2003 rejected a Salvadoran appeal. In 2004, El Salvador challenged the judgment again, citing new evidence. However, Salvadoran and Honduran leaders formally ended the boundary conflict in April 2006 with a new bilateral agreement that has been praised by the Organization of American States (OAS) and other institutions.
In the fall of 1998, Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which killed over 5,000 people, destroyed 70 to 80 percent of Honduras’s transportation system, and ruined 70 percent of the country’s crops, causing roughly $900 million in damage. Flooding associated with Mitch was extensive, and an estimated 18 percent of the population was affected by the storm. In November 2005, Tropical Storm Gamma struck the northern coast, causing massive flooding and mudslides that destroyed homes and infrastructure. More than 25,000 people were displaced, and at least 32 people were killed.
After a fractious electoral campaign, Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the Liberal Party (PL) won the presidency in November 2005 and took office in January 2006. In the concurrent legislative elections, the PL had taken control of the unicameral National Congress, winning 62 of the 128 seats. The rival National Party (PN), which had held power before the vote, took 55 seats. Among the minor parties, the new Democratic Unification Party (PUD) won five seats, the Christian Democrats (PDC) won four, and the National Innovation and Unity Party (PINU) took two. The run-up to the November balloting had been marred by violence. PN activists clashed with campaigners for the PL in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city and business center. In several cases, PL campaigners were left injured after severe beatings, and one PL supporter was shot and killed. An election monitor for the PL was also killed by PN activists. Electoral officials were accused of prematurely declaring Zelaya’s win, causing his opponent, PN candidate Porfirio Lobo Sosa, to contest the results.
During the first year of his presidency, Zelaya faced several social crises that dominated the political landscape and, at times, paralyzed the country. During the summer of 2006, various groups—including teachers, students, environmental activists, indigenous communities, doctors, and taxi drivers—took part in strikes, roadblocks, and demonstrations supporting an array of social causes and economic demands. A 10-day strike in August by schoolteachers highlighted Zelaya’s limited capacity to govern. Several cabinet members have resigned since the beginning of his presidency, voicing doubts as to his leadership abilities and the true motives behind his programs.
According to the UN Development Program’s 2006 National Human Development Report, income disparity has increased in Honduras since 2001, and economic growth has been stagnant for the past five years. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has determined that 77.1 percent of Hondurans live in poverty, with the highest poverty rates in rural areas. Honduras has an extremely young population: 41 percent are under 15, and 20 percent are between the ages of 15 and 24. UNESCO reports that 29 percent of Honduran children drop out of school before fifth grade, and youths head about 10 percent of Honduran households.
As in other parts of Central America, crime and violence associated with street gangs have plagued Honduras, spurring the rise of vigilante groups that target young people suspected of gang activity. In October 2006, the Inter-American Human Rights Court condemned the government for human rights violations associated with the extrajudicial executions of three youths and one adult in 1995, and ordered officials to establish programs for the security forces that would address the rights of children and youths. The court also instructed the government to launch a public-awareness campaign to curb violence against children.
Migration to the United States, and to a lesser extent Canada, has become an increasingly common choice for poor Hondurans with limited opportunities for advancement at home. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the United States granted Temporary Protected Status to thousands of Honduran migrants, renewing the designation most recently in July 2006. There were approximately 408,000 Hondurans living in the United States as of 2004, many of whom were undocumented. Honduras received $1.76 billion in migrant remittances in 2005.
Honduras implemented the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which included the United States, on April 1, 2006, becoming the third of the seven signatory countries to do so. The long-term economic and social consequences of the treaty have yet to be seen.
Honduras is an electoral democracy. The 2005 elections, although marred by violence and vote-counting problems, were considered free and fair by observers from the OAS and local monitoring organizations. The constitution provides for a president and a 128-member, unicameral National Congress, both elected for four-year terms. The number of votes received by a party’s presidential candidate determines its proportional representation in the Congress. The legislature is currently controlled by the ruling Liberal Party and the opposition National Party, but three smaller parties also hold seats.
Official corruption and the lingering power of the military have dominated the political scene since the return to civilian rule in 1982. The army exerts considerable, if waning, influence over the government, and officers have been found guilty of drug trafficking, taking sides in drug-cartel turf wars and protecting drug shipments in transit through Honduras. In 2005, the government implemented an anticorruption plan, but effective enforcement is by no means assured. Honduras was ranked 121 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press. Newspapers circulate freely, numerous radio and television stations broadcast without interference, and there is unrestricted access to the internet. However, the Committee for Free Expression reports that more than 20 journalists have been charged or threatened in the last two years. Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful business interests with intersecting political and economic ties, and although the Supreme Court in May 2005 struck down restrictive defamation laws that protected public officials from insult, self-censorship by journalists remains a problem. In October and November 2006, four journalists were caught up in defamation lawsuits after reporting on business irregularities, but the cases were later dismissed.
Lack of access to government officials and information is a significant obstacle for many reporters. Corruption among journalists also remains a problem. Public and private entities sometimes give reporters cash awards, widely perceived to be payment for favorable coverage. Some journalists work multiple jobs, often moonlighting as public relations officials for government agencies that they cover. In January 2006, President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales introduced a draft Transparency Law designed to combat corruption and promote access to information. The bill has been hotly contested, as many civil society groups and journalists believe it will only encourage corruption and impunity in its current form. It was submitted for final debate before the National Congress in October 2006 and passed into law in November 2006. However, the final law contained certain changes from the original proposal that have drawn criticism from civil society groups and journalists who claim that corrupt politicians are manipulating the law to protect their own past.
Freedom of religion is respected. In June 2005, the country’s Supreme Electoral Court struck down a 184-year-old ban on clerics running for elected office, prompting 14 evangelical Christian ministers to run for seats in Congress. In July 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the Supreme Electoral Court had violated the constitution by overturning the ban, reversing their decision. Academic freedom also is generally honored. Overall, Honduran civil society feels constrained in its ability to express and demonstrate its position on public policy issues, and media self-censorship reflects the intimate relationship between the government and leading media outlets.
Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of association are generally observed, and citizens have the right to freely assemble. In January 2006, the National Congress passed a Citizen Participation Law, protecting the participation of civil society groups and individuals in the democratic process. Labor unions are well organized and can strike, but labor actions often result in clashes with security forces. Labor leaders and members of groups pressing for peasant land rights remain vulnerable to repression. However, indigenous and Afro-Honduran activists achieved a small victory in 2006 when the World Bank agreed to look into accusations of corruption in the Honduran Lands Administration Program, a controversial property-titling project that has failed to take account of indigenous and African-descendant land rights.
The criminal justice system has been buffeted by high levels of street crime and harsh police crackdowns. While the murder rate has dropped from 154 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1999 to 46 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2005, it is still among the highest in the region. Most of the slayings are attributed to youth gangs, including international groups like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street, which are especially active in the cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. According to police statistics, there were approximately 36,000 gang members in Honduras at the end of 2003. The government has adopted an “iron fist” approach to the problem, making membership in a gang punishable by up to 12 years in prison and using the military to conduct raids and help maintain order in major cities. However, there have been cases of security personnel, particularly the police, acting independently or in concert with other vigilante groups to commit extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and illegal searches. Nongovernmental organizations working in Honduras, such as Casa Alianza, have reported the killings of hundreds of young adults and children as part of supposed “social cleansing” efforts. The judicial system is also weak, and there have been reported cases of lengthy pretrial detention, denial of due process to detainees, and harsh prison conditions, including the beating and abuse of inmates by security forces.
Some 85,000 workers, most of them women, are employed in the low-wage maquiladora (assembly plant) export sector. These women are extremely vulnerable to exploitation by employers, and according to the Center for Women’s Rights, more than 100 maquilas since 1995 have shut down suddenly without fully compensating their employees, leaving a debt of almost 300 million lempiras (US$16 million) to approximately 400,000 workers with impunity. The most recent cases of such abuse occurred in July 2006, when Sang Kyung Honduras S. de R. L. and Sunrise Industries S.A. suddenly closed their doors, leaving a combined debt of 6.5 million lempiras to their 350 employees. Various groups have called on the Honduran government to protect maquila workers in free-trade zones by enacting appropriate labor laws, but so far these calls have gone unanswered.
Child labor is a problem in rural areas and in the informal economy. Prostitution has drawn in local women and children as well as sex workers from neighboring countries. Casa Alianza estimates that as many as 10,000 girls and boys are working as prostitutes.
HIV/AIDS is on the rise in Honduras. In 2005, the country reported that 66,000 people had died of AIDS, while 200,000 new cases were registered with the health system. The United Nations estimates that as much as 2 percent of the country’s population may have HIV/AIDS.