Hondurans don’t get riled easily. And they’re not known for takin’ it to the streets.
But this has been a year of loud and angry torchlight protest marches in Honduras — and for good reason. The impoverished Central American country is wrestling with perhaps the worst government corruption scandal in its history.
Or as Honduran protesters like Eldan Cruz put it: “Corruption on such a criminal level it’s basically sociopathic behavior.”
Cruz has been helping organize demonstrations in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. He’s not a left-wing radical; he’s a Canadian-educated corporate communications consultant. But he can’t contain his ire.
“People identify it as a crime against humanity,” he says.
Cruz may not be exaggerating. Since 2010, $350 million has been looted from Honduras’ federal health and social security institute. The plunder allegedly involved ruses such as overpaying tens of thousands of dollars for ambulances, then laundering the excess money back to corrupt institute officials through shell companies.
The agency’s former director, Mario Zelaya, is accused of leading the scheme and using the cash for mansions and sports cars. He’s under arrest on a military base in the capital, Tegucigalpa, but denies the charge.
A number of others, including Zelaya’s relatives and his model mistress, were also allegedly involved.
But what’s far worse: Honduran doctors estimate thousands have died as a result of the theft — because they say it’s led to acute shortages of medicines and equipment.
Which is why so many protesters carry skulls during their marches.
“It has condemned people to suffering without treatment,” says attorney Wilfredo Méndez, head of the Honduran Center for Research and Promotion of Human Rights, which is helping affected families.
This is a system that laughs in your face.
Wilfredo Méndez, head of the Honduran Center for Research and Promotion of Human Rights
“This is a system that laughs in your face.”
There is indeed insult to injury in this case: It turns out the shell companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the 2013 election campaign of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his conservative National Party — to which Zelaya belonged. Hernández now admits this, but he insists he wasn’t aware of it.
Not surprisingly, most protesters are calling for Hernández’s resignation. (It does not look forthcoming.)
But people who work with Honduran migrants say affronts like the health institute debauchery have another big effect.
“You’re forcing people to leave the country,” says Julio Calderon, who fled to the United States from Honduras as a teenager a decade ago to escape gang violence.
Today Calderon helps the growing number of Central American migrants in Miami for the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Increasingly, he says, they tell him that along with poverty and insecurity, the despair wrought by corruption scandals like Honduras’ is also driving them to the United States.
“It’s a big issue,” says Calderon, who has also led Honduran-American protests in Miami this year against Honduran corruption. “It says a lot about your values as a government.”
Back in Tegucigalpa, lawyer and anti-corruption activist Natalia Lozano often works with poor people on the verge of migrating to the U.S. Her voice cracks when she points out it's not just the poor who are exasperated by corruption.
"I know I'm privileged because I'm a young woman with a job," says Lozano. "But I've been thinking a lot about leaving the country."
She says that middle-class Hondurans like her know how badly government larceny drains the nation’s economy — as much as a point of GDP growth, by some estimates — and therefore their economic opportunities.
“So,” Lozano says, noting that two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty, “can you imagine how this is for the rest of the people? That’s why we have a lot of emigration. That’s why our towns are full of old people and not young people.”
So if the U.S. is serious about reducing illegal immigration from Central America — which reached crisis levels last year — is it as serious about curtailing the region’s epic corruption?
This summer James Nealon, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, took the noticeable step of meeting with the young Hondurans whose social media campaign sparked the anti-corruption street protests.
“We’re not going to dictate the mechanisms that Hondurans will use to address these problems of impunity and corruption,” Nealon said. “But we’re going to support their efforts.”
Much of that support would come from President Barack Obama’s billion-dollar aid proposal for Central America. A quarter of it is earmarked for promoting more transparent government — including training and technology for better monitoring of public funds like Honduras’ health institute budget.
But here’s the rub: Honduran officials — and a powerful oligarchy that profits from the country’s astonishing cronyism — show little if any interest in becoming more transparent. Protesters like Cruz note that many in and outside Honduras assumed by now that President Hernández would face a congressional inquiry.
"In any other country in the world this would be grounds for impeachment," says Cruz. "But not here."
In fact, just next door in Guatemala, President Otto Pérez was forced to resign last month amid a massive corruption scandal inside his own government.
The difference? Guatemala uses a special U.N. prosecutor to pursue such cases. Honduras’ Congress just rejected adopting a similar independent investigator — even though a key witness in the health institute scandal was mysteriously shot in 2013 (he survived) when evidence of the crime began to emerge.
As a result, a growing chorus in Honduras and the U.S. is warning Obama to steer less aid directly to the Honduran government and more of it to vetted civil-society watchdogs there.
The Honduran people need the U.S. government to take a stand and say, ‘Listen, we really are fed up.’
Honduran protester Eldan Cruz
“The Honduran people need the U.S. government to take a stand and say, ‘Listen, we really are fed up,’” Cruz says. “I don’t think American taxpayers want to see their money spent on corruption.”
That’s the dilemma for Washington.
Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that throwing hundreds of millions at ultra-corrupt governments is always risky. But precisely because they’re so corrupt — and because that corruption so often results in more migrants on the U.S. border — they say it’s also urgent.
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Listen to reports by Tim Padgett on 91.3 FM and WLRN.org.