Everyone in Honduras is talking about Guatemala. It’s been two weeks since Otto Perez Molina resigned as Guatemalan president after a crackdown on corruption by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity.
Just southeast of Guatemala, many citizens in neighboring Honduras are requesting that similar investigations take place in their country, after Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez admitted that his campaign ended up with money from the national health system, resulting in patients’ deaths.
Hours after arriving in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, I found myself in a plaza downtown. It was filled with people walking in all directions and several street preachers proselytizing from makeshift PA systems. Across the square from the Metropolitan Cathedral of Tegucigalpa was an encampment of tents roped off with a sign indicating that the residents were participating in a hunger strike.
Not only were there activists, five strikers and a political street artist, but supporters were guarding the camp and providing water to the strikers.
The activists said the supporters were needed to protect them from disruption from police.
“Last night they wanted to try it here. They were going to come here and fuck with us last night, people sent by Mr. President. He’s been sending people here that attack us,” said 54-year-old Oscar Maldonado, one of three men on 14th day of the hunger strike. “But we realized what their plan was and we denounced them on Radio Globo and on other radio stations too.”
Two of the five men had been on strike for 36 days only drinking water with a little honey and some juice to survive. They spent 28 days on the corner in front of the Presidential Palace before deciding to relocate to the more populated square.
“Well we’re more or less healthy,” said Hernan Ayala, 42. “It’s logical that we’re weak and tired, but our purpose is to pressure the government until they install the Commission here.” They plan to stay there indefinitely.
“The last straw was our actual president who is governing our country,” explained Marco Tulio Medense, 69, a member of a group he referred to as La Gente Indignado — the Indignant People. “Why? Because this man, when he began to govern this country, took money from the State Department and in the first place from the Social Security fund. He took money for his political campaign.”
In a press conference at the end of May, President Juan Orlando Hernandez admitted that his campaign fund mysteriously ended up with about $3 million lempira (about $140,000 USD) from an account that funds the national health plan in Honduras. However, he argued that he didn’t know about it and therefore should not be held accountable, according to international news network teleSUR.
The network reported that allegedly more than $350 million USD in total was embezzled by the managers of the Social Security Institute, some of which was funneled into the current president’s campaign fund.
The result has been catastrophic, particularly to impoverished communities. Activists say that more than 3,000 people have died because the hospitals could not afford to stock medicine or in some cases substituted actual medicine for placebo pills made from flour or common diuretics.
Thousands took to the streets carrying torches symbolic of shedding the light of truth on the dark corruption of the government. Demonstrations were held simultaneously in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choluteca, and Comayagua. The protests were bipartisan. Even members of the president’s own National Party joined in. Though the president committed to returning the misappropriated funds, the protests have continued every Friday.
“For that reason we are walking the streets indignant,” Medense said. “Because he can return the money, but he can’t bring back the dead. And we are demanding that he leave office, and that the Commission against Impunity come and not only investigate him, but also the gang of delinquents that are running this country.”
Maldonado said Hernandez’ presidency has been corrupt, with allegations of nepotism as well as embezzlement.
“They are thieves completely. That’s what they are. They want to lie to the people. They don’t want anyone to realize that they’re stealing so they make these secret laws. Why? So that no one questions them. Because if you ask questions they kill you. They send you to be killed,” Maldonado said.
While his words may seem dramatic, dissent appears to be dangerous in Honduras. Four students were found fatally shot after participating in protests of education cuts, according to the BBC. UNICEF has demanded an investigation into these murders.
As the subject of investigation it might seem inappropriate for Hernandez to be leading the effort to expose corruption, but no one else has proposed a solution.
Moreover, solutions are not forthcoming from the countries that capitalize on Honduras’ many natural resources — a point Medense made by wearing little more than a loin cloth, a wig and shackles chained to his wrists.
“The shackles represent our in independence that was born in 1821 when the Spanish left us in 1821,” he said. “In 2015 we have 195 years of supposed independence, but the truth is that we have never been independent because in 1862 foreign mining companies began entered Honduras to exploit our minerals.”
“We liberated ourselves from the Spanish to become occupied by the American and other countries’ companies here,” said Midense.
For example, after 1998’s devastating Hurricane Mitch, the Honduran government lowered regulatory standards in the mining industry, and now Canadian companies control the majority of mining rights in Honduras.
While happy to participate in the development of Honduras and to reap the benefits of the various natural resources, the government of Canada has also been notably silent on the issue of corruption.
What about the U.S.? When I asked, U.S. Embassy officials in Honduras and D.C. wouldn’t tell me what role the U.S. has in supporting Honduran citizens during this latest political clash.
I was incredulous. So, money from the U.S. can build a soccer field or fund all the community centers we want, but when people literally are dying because of government corruption suddenly the U.S. is adopting a hands-off approach?
“This land and those who have governed have entered into corruption to rob of us our resources which are the minerals, the waters … foreign companies have come to exploit us. In few words they have always kept us enslaved. And we want to free ourselves already,” Medense told me.
But will freedom come? Even if the International Commission against Impunity decides to try President Hernandez, who will take over? And with all the foreign involvement in Honduras, whose hands are clean enough to take the lead on an international intervention? Clearly not ours.