Freedom in the World
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Civil society organizations in 2008 banded together to form a new social movement against corruption and impunity. Acts of repression and violence against union leaders, public officials, and other activists were a cause for concern during the year, and the country was shaken by persistent gang-related crime as well as a rise in poverty linked to increased food prices. Political parties held primary elections in November, aiming to resolve internal rifts ahead of the 2009 general elections.
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 remained powerful in the subsequent decades; the first president to exercise his constitutional authority to veto the military and choose its leaders did so in 1999.
Under civilian rule, power has alternated between the Liberal Party (PL) and the National Party (PN). The most recent turnover occurred in 2005, when Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the PL defeated the PN’s Porfirio Lobo Sosa to win the presidency. The PL also took control of Congress, winning 62 of the 128 seats. The PN was left with 55 seats, and three minor parties split the remainder. The run-up to the balloting had been marred by political violence that left several PL supporters injured and at least two dead.
Zelaya’s competence was called into question in 2007, when the National Registry of Persons was shut down due to a lack of funds. Internal corruption was blamed for the organization’s failure. The National Electric Energy Company also teetered close to bankruptcy that year, and Zelaya passed control of the ailing firm to the Defense Ministry in June 2007.
Long-standing civil society complaints of corruption among the political and business elite led to the creation in May 2008 of the Comprehensive Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ), an umbrella group that included social and religious organizations, trade unions, and prosecutors. In April, 25 prosecutors staged a 38-day hunger strike to protest the unwillingness of the attorney general’s office to investigate alleged acts of corruption. The group also objected to a new law creating a criminal investigative unit within the office of the attorney general, arguing that it would concentrate power in the hands of corrupt officials.
Fears of increased political repression also emerged in 2008 when security officials at the National Autonomous University of Honduras seized a “black list” of 135 public figures from two plainclothes policemen who had been following the president of the student union. The list included indigenous and labor leaders, lawmakers, journalists, and clergy, many of whom were marked for surveillance. A number of officials and activists received death threats in 2008, including five human rights prosecutors, the mayor of Tegucigalpa, the attorney general, and the Supreme Court president. In September, prosecutor Luis Javier Santos was wounded in an attack linked to his anticorruption work.
Political parties suffered from infighting between rival primary candidates ahead of the 2009 general elections. In the PL, the two presidential contenders were Vice President Elvin Santos and Roberto Micheletti, the president of Congress. In the PN, the two key leaders were Mario Canahuati, a businessman and former ambassador to the United States, and Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the party’s 2005 nominee. Due to a last-minute ruling from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Santos was rendered ineligible to run for president because he had temporarily served as commander in chief in his role as vice president. Santos was replaced by Mauricio Villeda to compete in the primary, and was successful in securing the PL nomination. Santos resigned as vice president in November and vowed to pursue his candidacy for the presidency. Sosa won the PN’s nomination.
Zelaya strengthened ties with Venezuela in 2008, drawing objections from business organizations, the opposition, and elements of his own government. In March, Honduras joined Petrocaribe, a program that would allow it to receive Venezuelan oil at preferential rates, and in July the country joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a Venezuelan-led trade bloc. Vice President Santos in August accused Zelaya of offering bribes to congressmen to gain support for joining ALBA, indicating growing rifts within the PL. In September, the head of the joint chiefs of staff accused the opposition of planning a coup to remove Zelaya, and political polarization continued to increase through the end of the year.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the region, and the World Food Program reported that increases in food prices had driven the poverty rate from 69 percent in September 2007 to 73 percent in June 2008. Many families rely on remittances—worth nearly $2.8 billion in 2008—from the more than 1.5 million Hondurans living in the United States, but some 700,000 of those are undocumented immigrants, and recent waves of deportations have threatened this income.
Honduras is an electoral democracy. The 2005 elections, although marred by violence and vote-counting problems, were considered free and fair by observers. The president and the 128-member, unicameral National Congress are elected for four-year terms. The proportion of the votes received by a party’s presidential candidate determines its representation in Congress. The legislature is currently dominated by the ruling PL and the opposition PN, but three smaller parties also hold seats.
Official corruption continues to cast a shadow over the political scene. The army exerts considerable if waning influence on the government, and officers have been found guilty of involvement in drug trafficking and related cartel conflicts. The 2006 passage of a transparency law was marred by claims that it contained amendments designed to protect corrupt politicians. In 2007, three commissioners were appointed to the regulatory Access to Public Information Institute in a reportedly politicized manner. Honduras was ranked 126 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Authorities generally respect the constitution’s press freedom guarantees. Newspapers and numerous radio and television stations operate without interference, and there is unrestricted access to the internet. Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful business interests, and although the Supreme Court in 2005 struck down restrictive defamation laws, many journalists practice self-censorship. Lack of access to public officials and information is a significant obstacle for reporters. According to a 2008 report from the Open Society Institute, payments to journalists and manipulation of state advertising are commonly used to secure favorable coverage or silence criticism.
Freedom of religion is respected. Academic freedom is also usually honored, butacademics have faced pressure to support the privatization of the national university.
Constitutional guarantees on the freedoms of assembly and association are generally observed, and the 2006 Citizen Participation Law protects the role 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, gay and transgender rights, land rights, environmental, and Afro-Honduran activists are regularly victims of threats and repression. Rosa Altagracia Fuentes Gomez, head of the country’s largest labor federation, was killed by unidentified gunmen in April 2008. Investigators identified eleven suspects in the attack, which also left another union member and an associate dead, but only three suspects had been apprehended by year’s end.
The judicial system is weak and inefficient, and the International Commission of Jurists in 2008 reported high levels of politicization.However, the Supreme Court defied the government during the year by striking down a decree that banned the use of cars for one day each week to reduce fuel consumption. There have been reported cases of denial of due process and harsh prison conditions, including the beating and abuse of inmates. About 79 percent of inmates are awaiting trial, and the prison system is notoriously overcrowded. Two prison riots in April and May 2008 left 27 inmates dead.
While the murder rate dropped from 154 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1999 to 49.9 per 100,000 in 2007, it is still among the highest in the region. The country’s homicide rate increased in 2008, with 57.9 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. Most homicides are attributed to youth gangs, including transnational groups like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that there are 36,000 gang members in Honduras. The government has made membership in a gang punishable by up to 12 years in prison and uses the military to help maintain order. A new joint operation by the police and military was launched in 2008, aimed in part at seizing illegal firearms; the government estimates that there are 600,000 firearms in private hands, only 40 percent of which are registered. Police officers and other vigilantes have also committed extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and illegal searches. Hundreds of juveniles have reportedly been killed in “social cleansing” campaigns.
Indigenous and Afro-Honduran residents have faced various forms of abuse by property developers and their allies in recent years, including corrupt titling processes and acts of violence. A Garifuna man was abducted, beaten, and threatened in June 2008—allegedly by guards working for a real-estate company—after he participated in a community meeting on the sale of Garifuna land to the company.
Women remain vulnerable to exploitation by employers, particularly in the low-wage maquiladora (assembly plant) export sector. Child labor is a problem in rural areas and in the informal economy. A recent survey revealed that nearly 25 percent of youths aged 13 to 15, and 42 percent of those aged 16 to 18, are working. The nongovernmental organization Casa Alianza estimates that as many as 10,000 children are working as prostitutes. According to UNESCO, 29 percent of Honduran children drop out of school before the fifth grade, and youths head about 10 percent of Honduran households. The overall population is dominated by young people: 41 percent are under 15, and 20 percent are aged 15 to 24. The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report ranked Honduras as a Tier 2 country; while it does not fully comply with minimum international standards to combat trafficking, the government is making efforts to do so. The report also found that forced child labor for criminal gangs is a serious concern.