Honduras is Open for Business, No Matter the Cost to Human Rights

Warwick Fry, Crikey
Via Tortilla Con Sal

On the face of it the US endorsement of the hugely unpopular Juan Orlando Hernandez (better known as JOH) as President elect of Honduras does not make much sense. Putting aside for the moment the human rights discourse, there is the recognition by the OAS observers of blatant fraud and the call by OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro for a new election, and the dubious legality of Juan Orlando Hernandez’ candidature.

The opposition alliance candidate Salvador Nasralla would seem to be closer to the US cut – a conservative media figure (a sports commentator) whose anti-corruption party (the PAC) performed surprisingly well in the 2013 elections. On the night of November 26 he had a 5 point lead with 60% of the vote counted until the computers mysteriously broke down. When they were ‘fixed’ (with the backup hard drives wiped) JOH was in the lead. On one hand Nasralla, a popular conservative media figure, against JOH a notoriously corrupt unpopular President with a brother implicated in bribes and money laundering for the drug cartels running a party that has generated unprecedented social unrest. It’s hardly rocket science.

That is, until it is understood that Honduras is viewed by neoliberals as a social laboratory where a radical experiment in the form of ‘model’ cities is being implemented. The ‘model cities’ are based on the concept of the charter city. Charter cities are nothing new. Hong Kong is often cited as a prototype. What is proposed in Honduras are ZEDEs, the Spanish acronym for Special Economic Development Zones. They go far beyond the semi-autonomous status of existing Charter Cities and free trade zones established under NAFTA. The Honduran ZEDE would be a territory actually sold to investors with a degree of autonomy that makes it a region no longer governed by Honduran laws or police. An early memorandum of understanding for a ZEDE required that the Honduran government ‘clear all legal and political obstacles to the charter cities’.

In late 2010 (after the coup of 2009) a series of privatisation laws were passed. In May 2011 the then President Porfirio Lobo declared Honduras “open for business”. (Lobo’s son is currently serving a 24 year sentence in the US for drug smuggling after admitting he used his family connections and the Honduras police to move tons of cocaine across the country). The idea of the ‘model cities’ was floated at the ‘HOB’ (Honduras Open for Business) conference where hundreds of private investors were invited to reap the benefits of the new laws.

Nevertheless the ZEDEs were strongly opposed by the judiciary as unconstitutional. This resistance was broken in December 2012 when JOH, at that time President of the Congress (a very powerful position) called a special session after midnight to (illegally) sack the four judges who opposed the ZEDEs. This became known as the ‘Technical Coup’. With the recalcitrant judges out of the way JOH was nicely placed when he became President to have the Supreme Court overrule an article in the Honduras constitution that forbids a President to run for a second term.

In terms of promoting ‘cutting edge’ neo-liberal ideology the US endorsement of JOH makes some kind of sense. In terms of US professed aims of promoting stability, peace, rule of law and controlling the drug trade it seems perverse. An easy way out would be for the US to support the OAS and opposition recommendation to run a new election, rather than opposing the suggestion, as US Charge d’Affairs Heidi Fulton did recently.

The situation in Honduras today is volatile; verging on civil war. The level of repression exceeds that of 2009 after the coup, as does the level of popular resistance in the form of strikes, protest marches and road blocks. So many Hondurans defied the dusk to dawn curfew imposed after the hiatus in the vote count that a section of the special forces went on strike, stating their unwillingness to fire on their countrymen. The outrage is palpable. (A pre-election poll showed over 70% of Hondurans opposing JOH running for a second term).

The most recent reports put the civilian death toll at 34 (and still counting) since the election (as compared to the 5 reported in the months of protest after the 2009 coup).

Most of these casualties (21) have been attributed to the military police (a US trained and funded ‘anti drug’ force), although the National Police have also been involved. Over 500 people have been confirmed detained. Special prisons and laws have been created to deal with the detainees. There are reports of people ‘disappearing’ and paramilitary invading homes with lists of the names of people they take away.

The marches, demonstrations, strikes, road blockages are planned to continue through January to peak with the inauguration ceremony of JOH on January 27. The response of a government that has resulted in the deaths 70 Honduras journalists since the coup of 2009 is predictable.

[The latest report (January 7) from observer Karen Spring who has worked in the region for the last eight years states:

points of protest on the major highways in the
region reported various types of repression over the last two months: live
bullets fired against anti-fraud protesters in the streets; raids targeted
at specific houses or whole neighborhoods; state security forces entering
neighborhoods in the middle of the night with lists of people to arrest or
find; disappearances; assassinations committed by paramilitary groups and
death squads believed to be connected to the state; trumped up charges and
criminalization” ]