Invoking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reiterating the state’s responsibility to provide assistance to the poor, Honduras Solidaria, an emergency response plan ordered by President Juan Orlando Hernández’s executive decree on March 28, is intended to help Hondurans at risk of starvation during the COVID-19 shutdown.
On paper, the sweeping emergency relief program, whose stated objective is “supplying food rations in a basic basket to at least 800,000 Honduran families” affected by the pandemic, marshals the Honduran Armed Forces and the National Police to deliver relief to the country’s most vulnerable. The bolsa solidaria, or “solidarity basket” as it is known, brings rice, coffee, sardines, flour, and hygiene products, among other essentials, to those trapped at home while the virus sweeps the country. It mobilizes 355 million lempiras ($14.2 million USD) to provide supplies to those unable to work to earn money for food and supplies. “I thank God, and the President, for remembering us, the poor people,” one woman said of the aid program in a government press release.
But according to many, the ruling conservative party, Partido Nacional, is both targeting delivery to supporters to expand their political base and neglecting communities with majority support for opposing parties. “The bolsas solidarias are arriving only and exclusively to the communities that are already aligned with the Partido Nacional,” Mario Argeñal, a teacher and TV show host in Danlí, told me over WhatsApp, speaking from his rural home in the El Paraíso Department near the Nicaraguan border.
“The bolsa solidarias are not arriving to everyone who needs them,” says Ramón ‘Moncho’ Soto, a congressperson for the opposition LIBRE party in Colón. “It’s not getting to the whole poor population of Honduras. In fact, it’s not just being used as a political instrument by the ruling party, but also as an instrument of corruption.”
“The delivery has been selective,” says Juán López, an activist and former political prisoner living in the Colón Department. “They’ve prioritized delivering supplies to people from the party, leaving other families with nothing.”
“In some municipalities, the deliveries didn’t even come,” says Lenín Laínez, a LIBRE member of congress from the Intibucá department, along the Salvadoran border. “In others, like the important municipalities in the department, the deliveries only arrived because of political activism (on the part of the National Party).”
Disparities in food distributions under the COVID-19 quarantine, many say, reflect deepening divisions in a society already in crisis. In response, the government—besieged by mounting accusations of complicity in drug trafficking and corruption scandals—s politicizing a global pandemic to bolster its political base.
This late February and early March the pandemic threatened to take hold in the country—where sixty percent of the population lives in dense slums with poor, if not nonexistent, healthcare and sanitation systems—Honduras began bracing itself for an outbreak that seemed all but inevitable. The first case, a Honduran national returning from Switzerland, came on March 4. By March 16 the government declared a state of exception, upping the ante soon thereafter by issuing a stay-at-home order on March 28. Within the parameters of the ongoing quarantine, people can leave their homes no more than once a week, and only according to the number on their government mandated ID. As of June 2, the country has experienced 5,263 confirmed cases and 217 deaths,the majority of them concentrated in the Cortés Department around San Pedro Sula.
Over a million Hondurans are now out of work, with millions more economically incapacitated after the shuttering of the informal sector by the nationwide stay-at-home order. Protests against the lack of food have been widespread, as have been violent state repression of those protests, with over 11,000 people detained in the past two months of quarantine, vendors killed on the streets by military police, as well as accusations of torture by security forces.
Honduras Solidaria was an expansion on a series of preceding decrees designed, alongside the imposition of loathed austerity measures, to fight dengue—a disease the country’s underfunded public healthcare system, gutted by cutbacks and privatization, is in large part ill-equipped to fight.
In February of this year, focusing on the persistent threat of dengue, President Hernández had already ordered a “State of Sanitary Emergency”. On March 21, shifting tack towards fighting the already expanding coronavirus pandemic, that state of emergency was extended until the end of 2020. Honduras Solidaria, giving the government the power to “restrict or suspend some constitutional rights with the end of safeguarding human life, supreme end of society and the State.”
Among the rights repudiated by the March 21 executive decree were Article 69 of the Honduran Constitution, which states that “personal liberty is inviolable”; Article 99, which says the “household is inviolable”—in essence, preventing unwarranted home invasions by the police; and Article 103, which reasserts the sanctity of private property “in the widest concept of its social function.”
Despite the ominous retractions of basic rights, the primary criticism remains focused on food distribution. “The big problem we have is that the regime prioritizes the communities where the majority of the population supports them,” says Laínez.
“There have been a series of complaints throughout the whole country about how the food isn’t going to the families most in need,” says Willy Muñoz a doctoral student in sociology at the National University of Honduras, part of a network of activists in Tegucigalpa. “That it’s only going to the activists of the National Party—who the guías de familia have registered in their own lists, and to whom they’re delivering the food in a personalized way.”
According to Muñoz and Laínez, guías de familias are paid activists for the National Party, and there are least one to two of them in nearly every community around the country. They work to identify National Party supporters, organize events, galvanize people to support their cause and identify potential recruits to join them.
Not everyone says that Honduras Solidaria has been exclusively clientelistic program—the presence and success of food delivery has in several limited cases arrived at opposition-ruled neighborhood.
Muñoz attests that there are in fact some communities where—spurred by opposition party mayors, who have made loud enough complaints to the national government—the military eventually arrived to deliver supplies.
For Juan Lopez, his own firsthand understanding of Honduras Solidaria has been idiosyncratic: supplies are still arriving in Tocoa, where the mayor, Adán Funes, is a member of the opposition LIBRE party. But despite his nominal posture of political opposition, Fúnes has been implicated in drug trafficking in a US Court trial of Fabio Lobo, the former conservative President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo’s son. Even as the aid has arrived to the community, López says, it has only gone towards families who support the National Party.
In other cases, even communities loyal to the National Party haven’t received sufficient supplies.“In the town of Danlí, there has been only one delivery of the bolsa solidaria. In two months, only one delivery,” says Argeñal, the TV host. According to Argeñal, only three of El Paraíso department’s 19 municipalities are governed by the conservative party. Yet that hasn’t prevented a lack of supplies arriving there, a fact he attributes to what he believes to be widespread corruption. Argeñal says that on his own TV show, as well as several others, there have been dozens of on-air calls in which people have complained about the unfair distribution of aid packages.
Some callers have contended, Argeñal told me, that authorities delivering supplies have registered recipients into National Party databases in exchange for receiving food aid.
“They’ve given it to people in exchange for their ID numbers, so they can then register them in this party, which is already considered a criminal organization,” says Ana Melgar, of La Esperanza, Intibucá. An activist and member of Frente de Juventudes en Resistencia (Front of Youth in Resistance), Melgar has often clashed with the National Police in the protests which have become ever more frequent since the 2017 electoral fraud. “They’ve played with the hunger of the people. They’re delivering food in exchange for people becoming part of the National Party.”
Ramon Soto confirmed that the authorities associated with Honduras Solidaria are in fact taking down recipients’ cell phone and identification numbers as they give out supplies. The government insists the practice constitutes part of an effort to maintain transparency and provide information for oversight watchdogs. Neither Soto in the Aguán nor Muñoz in Tegucigalpa claim that authorities are registering people into the National Party in an explicit manner in exchange for relief packages, as Laínez and Melgar assert.
“Using aid to consolidate power has been an old practice waged by political parties in Honduras—impoverishing the people and then offering them ephemeral solutions in order to win their loyalty,” said Diego Aguilar, a resident of San Pedro Sula. “Honduras Solidaria has, in effect, come to consolidate that practice.”
Buried within Honduras Solidaria is a plan for austerity measures, the proposed implementation of which has provoked frequent, widespread, and sometimes violent protest throughout the country in the decade since the coup. As the quarantine continues, as protests spread, the ruling party continues to implement Honduras Solidaria in an effort to save its most vulnerable populations—or what its detractors say is an attempt to reinforce its crumbling legitimacy.
“This effort is for all Hondurans—absolutely all of them—for Hondurans most in need,” an unseen narrator says in a promotional government video.
For Laínez, however, the reality is darker: “All the state apparatuses are working in the service of one person, and one political party: the Partido Nacional.”