Honduran Hilarity: Why Obama's $1 Billion For Central America Is Risky. And Urgent.

Jun 10, 2015

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (left) talks with U.S. Marine Gen. John Kelly last year at U.S. Southern Command in Miami.
Credit U.S. Southern Command

Honduras gives us so many reasons to cry. The world’s worst murder rate. Grinding poverty. All those desperate, unaccompanied child migrants who poured into the U.S. last summer – and who just might come knocking on our border again this summer.

These days Honduras is giving us some good laughs, too. As in: I’m laughing so hard I’m crying, because the Honduran hilarity makes me nervous about the fate of the $1 billion the Obama Administration wants to send Honduras and Central America this year.

Consider Honduras' Supreme Court, which recently annulled the rule – Article 239 – that limited the country's presidents to one, four-year term.

Fine. A lot of Latin American countries are relaxing presidential re-election bans these days. But Article 239 was considered, at least until now, the sacrosanct core of Honduras’ 1982 Constitution – a shield against the kind of dictators who litter the country’s banana-republic past.

RELATED: As Central Americans Flee Their Countries, Their Leaders Take Refuge In Hypocrisy

It was so revered that if you wanted to witch-hunt people in Honduras you’d call them re-electionists instead of communists. In fact, Article 239 said that if presidents so much as mentioned to their spouses over breakfast that the constitution should be changed to allow a second term, they automatically forfeited the office.

And that’s why Honduras’ National Congress evoked the rule six years ago this month, during the shameless coup that ousted then President Manuel Zelaya.

Under pressure from Honduras’ conservative oligarchy, the legislature decided Zelaya was too liberal and had to go. So it slapped him with a 239.

Just one problem: The charge was bogus. Zelaya could certainly be accused of dopey demagoguery, but he hadn’t proposed presidential re-election.

No matter. Congress summarily threw him out of office and the military flew him out of the country in his pajamas.

There's still a very weak attachment to constitutionalism in Honduras. This just further erodes and undermines the democratic order there. -David Landau

Exactly the kind of thing Honduras used to do back in its banana-republic days.

But the coup-mongers insisted, with straight faces, that they’d preserved Honduran democracy because they’d protected the Constitution.

Which makes the Supreme Court’s decision now to trash 239 such a farce.

Who are the folks who petitioned the high court to kibosh the presidential term limit? The same political leaders who led the 2009 putsch – especially the bosses of the conservative National Party, to which current President Juan Orlando Hernández belongs.

Suddenly they want re-election; so they’re calling what was supposedly their constitution’s most hallowed principle an affront to freedom. What once protected Honduras, you see, is now its peril. Former President and National Party honcho Rafael Callejas even says the re-election ban violated Hondurans’ human rights.

And who are the judges who acquiesced in this hypocrisy? Surprise: the same justices who were put in place after the National Party-led Congress purged the Supreme Court in 2012.

Florida State University law professor David Landau, who was a consultant to the Honduran commission that tried to sort out the constitutional mess after the 2009 coup, told me the court’s politically partisan and legally cavalier ruling on Article 239 is “deeply disturbing.”

“There’s still a very weak attachment to constitutionalism in Honduras,” Landau said. “This just further erodes and undermines the democratic order there.”

CORRUPTION ORGY

And so does the orgy of corruption that’s come to light inside Hernández’s government.

Hernández admitted last week his party took hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies tied to an epic $300 million embezzlement and bribery scheme involving Honduras’ Social Security Institute. Other scandals involve the transportation and customs agencies.

All that pathological graft and constitutional comedy make President Obama’s plan to spend a billion bucks in Central America – one of the largest foreign aid requests for fiscal 2016 – feel riskier. Or more urgent.

Or both.

The goal of the aid is to make Central America’s northern triangle – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – a less hellish region to live in and thereby less of a bottomless source of illegal immigration to the U.S.

It looks nuts to drop that kind of American taxpayer wad into a region ruled by scoundrels. If the Honduran elite can slurp up $300 million of the country’s social security cache, it can’t wait to start gorging on $1 billion of yanqui largesse.

But this time, most of the aid that’s being dropped into the northern triangle may be harder for that sleazy elite to shovel in.

It’s steered not at traditional anti-crime and anti-poverty items – military helicopters, for example, or patronage projects – but at more effective aims like building professional judiciaries and improving education opportunities.

That's the kind of investment the burgeoning ranks of Honduran street protesters are demanding – along with Hernández’s resignation. If the U.S. spends the billion right, it could help alter not just Central America’s crisis but its character. Somebody there besides the scoundrels might finally have the last laugh.

And we can stop crying.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverge here.