Friday, November 24, 2017

Election Sunday

In Honduras, national elections are held on a Sunday in late November, every four years. Even in 2009, following the coup that removed the president, the national election process went on.

This year will mark the second presidential election after the coup. Two things emerged from that rupture that make this an unprecedented election day: viable opposition parties emerged; and the ruling party overturned the very part of the constitution that was claimed, however falsely, by supporters of the 2009 coup to be the cause of their actions, the constitutional bar against presidential re-election.

Two new national political movements, Libre (coming out of the coalition of resistance to the coup), and the Anti-corruption Party (led by a political outsider with substantial public visibility) ran candidates in the 2013 presidential election. Their officially recorded votes were more than the votes recorded for the candidate for the National Party that had regained power in the 2009 election. Because Honduras does not require any specific level of votes to win an election, the leading candidate from the National Party, with his minority of votes, was installed as president in 2014.

Of course, that doesn't take into account the widespread suppression of election workers, and the ensuing doubts about the validity of even the slim electoral victory the National Party gained. Since the installation of the current president, more and more details have come out about electoral corruption, and disclosures are rumored to involve family members of the sitting president.

Libre and the Anti-corruption party did not gain a majority of seats in the Honduran Congress in 2013, and the fourth major group, the Liberal Party, refused to join them in opposition.

So the National Party president has been able to pursue his aims for the last four years. While some reported decline in murder rates gets positive attention from international governments, on the ground, the level of violence in the cities is still high, and targeting of activists for the environment and human rights is just as much of a problem.

One of the most significant moves made by the current ruling party is the second feature that makes this year's election more significant than any since the current Honduran constitution was ratified, less than forty years ago. That was gaining the approval of the Honduran Supreme Court for presidential election. The Honduran Supreme Court justices are selected by the Congress, where the current president was previously head of Congress. The court whose composition he influenced then over-turned that part of the constitution.

So in this election, the sitting president is his party's candidate for election, with the ban on re-election removed, despite reports that almost two-thirds of the population oppose re-election.

Libre and the Anti-corruption Party have made a pact for the current presidential election, supporting a single candidate under the banner of alliance, Alianza. This candidate, the head of the Anti-corruption party, Salvador Nasralla, is also supported by one of the small parties that fill out the Honduran political landscape, PINU.

Unlike in the last election, when we were able to track multiple polls published in Honduras, we have little official polling data to draw on. The Honduran press landscape has changed: Tiempo, the one source we could count on for news that was not distorted to support the party in power, exists only as a shadow of its former self following the politically motivated prosecution of the family that owned it.

The last polling data published in Honduras in September, before a legally-mandated quiet period when no polls can be published, was sharply contested by the other parties. It reported the incumbent leading, again without a majority, drawing 37% of the vote. While there are more recent reports in newspapers in Mexico citing other polling companies, we have no information that would cause us to trust the polls they report. One was working for the National Party itself. The second came nowhere close to accuracy in the last election. None of the polls we have been able to review were published with sufficient information about methodology or margin of error, and we couldn't track any single poll over time as we did previously.

Private polling from Honduras that we have seen says that the National Party candidate is running behind the Alianza. So might common sense: Honduras has not been united by his presidency, trust in public institutions is no higher, the average Honduran is not materially better off, the country's GDP per capita has declined. The current president doesn't even have the support of all his party, many of whom continue to believe that the bar on re-election should be observed, even if it is legally not required.

And of course, the National Party candidate didn't actually gain the most votes last time. As long as the Libre voters and PINU voters from last time join the Anti-corruption voters, we would expect a plurality of votes for the Alianza. The role of spoiler will continue to be played by the remnants of the Liberal party, which could drain off enough of the voters opposed to re-election, ironically, to ensure a National Party victory. But we don't see it as a clear outcome, nor do Hondurans with whom we are in contact.

Which is why people in Honduras are convinced that there will be electoral manipulation. There are disinformation campaigns, like one this week claiming "Venezuelans" have entered the country to disrupt the election.

Venezuelans play the role of scary outsiders to raise echoes of ALBA, repudiated after the coup, to try to tar the Alianza with the ties of the Zelaya administration. The rumors that armed Venezuelans will commit violence also form a convenient pre-made cover story for any violence that might happen.

We also know of campaign workers for the Alianza who have been killed, as happened in the last election, when poll watchers for the opposition parties were not able to serve in all electoral venues.

But the main route to stealing this election that all Honduran observers expect is the same thing that occurred last time: manipulating the count of the votes at the level of the local ballot box. Stuffing of the ballot boxes was suspected last election from over-votes, when more people are reported to vote than are supposed to be registered. Intimidation of ballot watchers aided this, and there were notable correlations between over-voting and control of districts by drug families who supported the National Party.

The Alianza also suspects the possibility that the vote counts will be manipulated in some way at the level of the National Electoral Tribunal. The fear exists that software will somehow be open to corruption. One software vendor, owned by a National Party activist, was eliminated, but the lack of trust in the highest electoral authorities is palpable.

Sunday will mark a major turn in Honduran history. Either we will see the first re-election of a sitting president since the long dictatorship of Tiburcio Carías Andino ended in 1949; or we will see the election of the first president from a new party, formed in opposition to the political hegemony enjoyed by the Liberal and National Parties for most of the twentieth century, in between military dictatorships.

There will be international observers. How much they will see, how much they can watch, is questionable. The Alianza intends to have poll watchers at every electoral mesa, the local voting venues where votes are counted, the most likely place for false tallies to be introduced.

And we will be watching as well.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Erosion of Free Speech in Honduras

Los Guaraguao, a Venezuelan music group which frequently has visited and performed in Honduras, found itself denied entry to Honduras on Thursday when they arrived at the airport in San Pedro Sula to perform in a political rally for Salvador Nasralla.  They were held 14 hours in the San Pedro airport, then expelled.  The Honduran government claimed "immigration irregularities" and declared the group "banned from the country."  The Honduran press considers it possible that this is a reaction to a statement by the Otto Reich, a right wing lobbyist, that Venezuela was trying to destabilize the Honduran elections in favor of "friends former President Manuel Zelaya Rosales".

Los Guaraguao are a group known as part of the Nueva Cancion (New Song) tradition in Latin America, performing typically leftist songs.  They blend traditional music with socially conscious lyrics.  The group formed in 1972 and shortly thereafter released their most famous song, "Casas de Cartón" (Cardboard Houses).  We first heard their music in Honduras in the 1980s when Radio Progreso had a 3 hour long Nueva Cancion radio program on Sundays.  That musical program was eventually banned by the Honduran government.  That was also the first time we saw them come to Honduras, to play a concert to over 10,000 people in El Progreso.  They have come to Honduras and played both concerts and political rallies many times since the 1980s, often sponsored by Radio Progreso.  They played at the "Voces Contra la Golpe" (Voices Against the Coup) concert in 2009 at the National University in Honduras.  Their last visit to Honduras was to play at a rally for Xiomara Castro during the last election in 2013.

Otto Reich, a right wing lobbyist and former government official, issued a statement on Wednesday saying that Venezuela was trying to infiltrate 145 delegates passing the borders as tourists, engineers, or businessmen to help in the campaign of the "friends of Manuel Zelaya Rosales."  He said that this was part of an attempt by the leftist government of Venezuela to "conquer" Honduras.  The effect of this campaign, Reich continued, "destabilization of the nation, violence, strikes, and attacks".  Reich connects this plan to destabilize Honduras to the Venezuelan government's financial support for Calalonian independence.  Reich favored the 2009 coup.

Los Guaraguao were placed on a flight to Panama yesterday, where they were informed they had been banned from Honduras, and had to return home to Venezuela instead of continuing on the El Salvador for a planned concert.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Sending Hondurans Home?

The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has sent a letter to Elaine Duke, the acting head of the Division of Homeland Security (DHS) stating that the situations in Central America that prompted the issuing of Temporary Protected Status (TPS)to citizens of those countries allowing them to register and remain in the United States no longer apply.  While Tillerson's letter is not determinative, it does make it easier for DHS to end the TPS program for the 57,000 Honduran citizens living in the United States with this status.

Temporary Protected Status is grantable to a country's citizens if one of three conditions are met:
- There is an on-going armed conflict such as a civil war
- There is an environmental disaster.
- Other extraordinary and temporary conditions

A person granted TPS cannot be removed from the US and can obtain permission to work and travel. 

Honduras was granted TPS because of the devastation caused by hurricane Mitch, which destroyed approximately 70% of the infrastructure of Honduras in 1998. The ability of Hondurans to request TPS status was granted in January, 1999.  Permission to remain under that status can be extended by 6, 12, or 18 months by the DHS Secretary.  Renewals since have continued to cite the continuing series of environmental and medical disasters in Honduras, and the lack of recovery in things like the housing market.  Current permissions for Honduras run out on January 5, 2018.  60 days prior to the expiration, the DHS Secretary must either renew or announce the expiration of the status for that country.  That means that today, the DHS Secretary must announce either the renewal or expiration of TPS for Honduran citizens.

Honduras sent a delegation to Washington, DC last week to work for extension of the TPS.  They met with members of Congress, and members of the Executive branch, although the only named meetings were with James Nealon, former US Ambassador to Honduras and now Acting Under Secretary of the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans of the DHS.  They also met with Thomas Shannon, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the State Department.  They returned claiming optimism that the TPS would be extended.

Tillerson's recommendation that conditions supporting the granting of TPS for Central Americans and Haitians no longer exists is contradicting the Honduran authorities who felt they had more than made their case last week in Washington, DC. 

The DHS statement on renewal of the TPS is due today.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lawyers Group: DESA executives instigated Berta Cáceres' murder

A group of five international lawyers investigating the murder of Berta Cáceres has concluded that three senior executives of Desarrollos Energeticos (DESA) instigated and ordered the murder of Berta Cáceres in Honduras.  In the report, to be published on Tuesday, the lawyers wrote:
"The existing proof is conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of Desa in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination."

The evidence that allowed them to reach this conclusion are 40,000 pages of text linked to telephones belonging to two of the accused murderers, plus another phone confiscated from the DESA offices.  One of the phones belonged to Sergio Rodriguez, the Environment director for DESA.  The other phone belonged to Douglas Geovany Bustillo, a retired military officer who reported to the Director of Security for DESA. These text messages were provided by court order by the Public Prosecutor's office in Honduras.  The Public Prosecutor's Office has had the text messages since April and May, 2016, but have taken no apparent action in the case to pursue those who ordered the murder of Cáceres. Those messages show that two of the group accused of her murder, Rodgriguez and Bustillo, remained in frequent contact with three senior DESA executives via text and WhatsApp as they tracked Cáceres and harrassed COPINH members.

The New York Times wrote:
The conversations reveal, the lawyers said, that the orders to threaten Copinh and sabotage its protests came from Desa executives who were exercising control over security forces in the area, issuing instructions and paying for police units’ food, lodging and radio equipment

Miguel Bustillo,  a member of the lawyer's group said:
"What the public ministry has yet to do is indict the people who hired Bustillo to plan the operation."

Honduras has arrested eight men charged with carrying out the murder of Berta Cáceres in 2016. DESA has repeatedly denied any involvement in the harassment or murder of Cáceres. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Maccih investigating Porfirio Lobo Sosa

The spokesperson for the Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (MACCIH), Juan Jimenez Mayor, told the listening audience yesterday on the TV program Frente a Frente in Honduras that MACCIH is investigating the accusations made during the trial of Fabio Lobo in the United States that his father, then President, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, took bribes from the Los Cachiros drug cartel to avoid extradition or investigation by the National Police.

The accusations against Lobo Sosa were made by Devis Rivera Maradiaga, one of the former heads of the Los Cachiros narcotics cartel in Honduras during Fabio Lobo's trial.

Jimenez Mayor backed off his initial statement a bit, saying that he wasn't indicating Lobo Sosa was guilty of anything, just that the accusation was being investigated.

Jimenez Mayor told Frente a Frente that MACCIH was also investigating accusations against ex-First Lady, Rosa Elena de Lobo and other connected people in the country.  He also mentioned the IHSS corruption case where he said MACCIH was particularly interested in the DIMESA case, which had the most important contract with Mario Zelaya and he hoped it would be brought to trial soon.
"Our focus is on networks of corruption, both public and private", Jimenez Mayor said.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Yankel Rosenthal pleads guilty to money laundering

On August 29 of this year, Yankel Rosenthal plead guilty to money laundering through corrupt real estate deals in the United States, specifically that he took money from the Los Cachiros Cartel, and used it to buy real estate in the United States for them.  Rosenthal told the court he atttempted to help a friend buy the real estate, even though he knew the friend provided services to the drug traffickers, but that the purchase never happened.

Rosenthal is the former Investment Minister in the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras.  He is the nephew of former Vice President Jaime Rosenthal Oliva

Prosecutors say they could have proved additional charges if the case had gone to trial; instead they reached a plea deal with Yankel Rosenthal.  They allege that Rosenthal used over $500,000 of drug money to invest in the popular soccer team, Marathon, in San Pedro Sula.  They allege Rosenthal solicited a bribe in 2013 from a US Oil exploration company in return for permission to explore for oil in Honduras.

Yankel Rosenthal Coello will be sentenced in January, 2018.

Fabio Lobo Sentenced to 24 years, fined $50,000

Fabio Lobo was sentenced yesterday to 24 years in a federal prison, fined $50,000, and agreed to forfeit a further $267,000 for conspiring to bring cocaine into the United States.  Fabio Lobo is the son of ex-Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

Acting US Attorney Joon H. Kim stated that Fabio Lobo had sought out drug traffickers with offers of assistance with the intention of enriching himself.  He continued:
"Lobo used his father's position and his own connections to bring drug traffickers together with corrupt police and government officials."

During the trail testimony was offered that among those corrupt officials was the current Minister of Security, Julian Pacheco Tinoco, and his own father, then President Porfirio Lobo Sosa.  The DEA alleges that Los Chachiros paid over $500,000 in bribes to then President Porfirio Lobo Sosa to avoid extradition to the United States and to avoid investigation by Honduran police.

Lobo, whose lawyer says he will file an appeal of the sentence as "overly harsh", will serve his sentence in a Federal prison near Orlando,  Florida, to facilitate access by his family.