Centroamérica / Politics

The Tribulations of Honduras: Pandemic, Hurricanes, Coming Elections

Monday, December 28, 2020
Jennifer Ávila y Otto Argueta

The pandemic has rocked the entire world. When added to structural instability, two hurricanes, corruption, and authoritarianism, it becomes the perfect storm. As if that weren’t enough, an electoral process is underway in a country that, since 2009, has experienced the rapid debilitation of an already shaky democracy.

The pandemic is a collective experience, and its swift spread results from our interaction as social beings, from the fact that we live in community. But not everything in the community is good, especially in countries like Honduras with its social fabric in tatters. The pandemic has exposed the predatory nature of our society, the cruelty that emerges from the dark recesses of home confinement. The stay-at-home orders forced women to live in dangerous proximity to their abusers. As of November 27, the Center for Women’s Rights in Honduras (Centro de Derechos de la Mujer en Honduras) has reported 287 femicides. Many women were more afraid of staying at home with their spouses than of getting the virus at work. Health care workers were seen by their neighbors as dangerous carriers of disease. They were stigmatized, discriminated against, and sometimes evicted from neighborhoods and homes while they fought an unfamiliar illness with precious few resources and tools. Meanwhile, the politicians plundered the public funds earmarked for the pandemic, colluding with private businesses that learned long ago how to adapt and get even richer.

It didn’t take long for the pandemic to expose the rampant inequality in Central America, the eagerness of our governments to impose authoritarian and discriminatory measures, and the public’s distrust of those in power. The pandemic is thriving in countries like Honduras where democracy and dictatorship blend together into a toxic autocracy.

“I'm more afraid of dying of hunger than of dying of COVID-19” is a refrain often heard on Honduran streets. Even though the state of emergency and curfew have not been lifted, people ventured out of their confinement to try and get their lives back, even if that meant entire families begging on the streets, committing crimes, or being arrested by security forces. Between March and September, more than 60,000 people were arrested for violating the mandatory stay-at-home order.

People have survived in spite of the government, not because of it.

Covid-19 was a shock to Honduras just like it was all over the world. But dengue and malaria are not new. The pandemic produced a worldwide economic crisis, but Honduras was already in a perpetual economic crisis marked by severe inequality. The pandemic brought more death to Honduras, a country that has experienced some of the highest homicide rates in the world. It brought about the collapse of the public health system in a country where the social security system has been repeatedly plundered by unscrupulous politicians. The increase in pandemic-related unemployment sounded alarm bells in a country with massive outward migration, which regularly sees caravans of up to three thousand citizens setting off on foot towards the United States. The pandemic brought even more insecurity to a country where rampant poverty and violence lead most people to count their meager blessings at the end of the day, knowing that life will start all over again tomorrow. Every day they search for a way to keep on living, persistently and creatively ignoring the fact that all could be lost just when it seems within their grasp. 

This summer and fall the country began to haphazardly and carelessly open up the economy again. Traffic chaos resumed, and people working in the informal economy, the country’s largest source of employment, once again flooded the sidewalks. Extortion, a mainstay for criminals, also reemerged. The country’s security forces once again showed how they tolerated such shady dealings, and how they brutally repressed any attempt at protest. The 2021 electoral campaigns also kicked off, revealing hands full of marked cards that will offer little hope for change when the time comes to play them.

Then came Eta… followed by Iota. Two tropical storms hit the country less than five days apart. Even though strong storms predictably strike the Central American isthmus every year, they seem to always catch the country by surprise. These two storms left behind a humanitarian crisis on the same scale as Hurricane Mitch, 22 years ago. But Mitch came at a time when democracy was cautiously blossoming in Honduras, and it wasn’t preceded by a pandemic.

There are no images or narratives that can describe the devastation. Thousands of families are still camped in the median between the two lanes of the highway connecting the capital city of Tegucigalpa with the country’s industrial and violent northern cities. They huddle under sheets of plastic, still covered with sticky mud that stubbornly resists any attempt at cleaning. Streets in many communities are still flooded, and it’s not unusual to see a few youths with shovels trying to clear a path. But a path to what?

The most desperate of all caravans left Honduras the first weekend in December. It quickly broke up on the Guatemalan border. At least superficially, it seemed as if the immigration requirements were effective: migrants needed passports, proof of a recent Covid-19 test, money, and permits from both parents for the minors. The caravan migrants were tired and carried nothing but devastation on their shoulders. To get Eurydice back from the dead, the condition was that Orpheus must walk in front of her and not look back until both had reached the upper world. To look back meant losing her forever. The migrants in that caravan could not look back at the devastation they were trying to escape, because to do so was to lose hope, the last gasp of breath. And that’s what happened: they were turned back to face the devastation at home once again.

The United States recently renewed the TPS (Temporary Protection Status) designation for Hondurans. But it’s a goal line that seems to be moving further and further away for thousands of Hondurans, because to get there you first have to escape the prison that this country has become.

Just a little ways away from the devastation left behind by two tropical storms in the Sula Valley, the pitiful beginnings of infrastructure projects materialize out of white dust clouds. They represent the promises of past campaigns in cities like San Pedro Sula, where the mayor, seeking a third term, has plastered the city with signs that say “Everything’s going to be alright.”

At first glance, the practice of clientelism in the midst of widespread misery is the most plausible explanation for why candidates in a country like Honduras, dominated by an openly corrupt political elite linked to drug trafficking, are elected and re-elected time and time again. Several mayors in the Sula Valley have been re-elected up to four times, lingering 20 years in office. They are the caudillos of our times. Hurricanes slam into Honduras every year, but those politicians only visit neighborhoods and communities every four years with their gifts of corrugated tin roofing, chickens, any handout they can muster to get a vote. It’s impossible to expect a rational, civic electoral process from a hungry citizenry that just wants to escape this country, and grabs whatever is within reach until that opportunity comes.

The new year heralds the perfect storm. Even before the pandemic and the hurricanes, the illegitimacy of Juan Orlando Hernández’s presidency presaged a conflictive electoral process in 2021. For Hernández, the pandemic was a saving grace that temporarily distracted public attention from his latest scandal — the conviction of his brother in the United States for drug trafficking. After a storm comes the calm, as the saying goes. But in Honduras, the elections are part of the storm, not a means for overcoming the storm’s destruction. One has to travel far from this estranged country to find the calm that has deserted Honduras.

Jennifer Ávila. Photo: Martín Cálix
Jennifer Ávila. Photo: Martín Cálix

Otto Argueta. Photo: Martín Cálix
Otto Argueta. Photo: Martín Cálix

*Jennifer Avila Reyes is an investigative journalist, co-founder and director of Contracorriente.

*Otto Argueta is a historian who focuses on violence, political systems, and social conflict in Central America.

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