Friday, October 7, 2011

Assessing Honduras' 'Progress' in Establishing Democratic Rule of Law

As noted in yesterday’s brief, President Obama met with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo on Wednesday, the first meeting between the two heads of state.  Although Obama noted that “much work remains to be done,” he praised Lobo for his commitment to the "restoration of democratic practices.” Indeed, just by reading the headlines describing the incident (see Reuters’ “Obama hails return of Honduras to democratic fold” and Bloomberg’s “Obama Lauds Progress of Honduras on Democratic Governance”) it would seem that Honduras has witnessed a complete revolution in democratic values.

However, the large numbers of uninvestigated journalist and opposition activist deaths in the country suggest otherwise, a fact which was recently pointed out by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, William LaRue. As the AP reports, on Wednesday LaRue condemned the “government silence” over the deaths of over 23 Honduran journalists in the past 4 years.  Only three cases of murdered journalists have been cleared by Honduran officials, a fact that La Rue attributed to “a silence enforced by intimidation.”

In another troubling sign for the state of Honduran democracy, El Heraldo reports that the government has recently announced it is considering placing the military and national police under the same ministry. The two were separated in 1997 as a means of ensuring the political insulation of the military, but the surge in violence has led the government to reconsider. This is the latest indicator that the military is exerting a growing influence on civilian institutions in the country. As noted at Honduras Culture and Politics, the number of retired military officials in the current administration is higher than at any time since the country’s military dictatorships:
“Currently, retired military offices direct the Merchant Marine, Immigration, Hondutel, several branches of Foreign Relations, Health, Education, and the Honduran equivalent of FEMA.
The military also receive 70% of the congressionally budgeted money to protect forests from illegal logging, rather than the civilian branch of Forestry which has that as its responsibility.”
With the country’s murder rate rising, the reliance on the military in the country is only likely to deepen. But as the armed forces become more and more entrenched in the Honduran political process, it remains to be seen whether their influence will be an impediment to democratic progress.

News Briefs
  • The United Nations has released the 2011 Global Study on Homicide, which lists Honduras and El Salvador as having the highest homicide rates in the world. According to the study, the influence of organized crime has led to an explosion of violence in the region, causing Honduras to witness a homicide rate of 82.1 per 100,000 people and El Salvador to see 66 per 100,000 people. By contrast, the next two most violent countries are Cote D'Ivoire in West Africa at 56.9, followed by Jamaica with 52.1. Despite its prominence in the headlines, Mexico had one of the lowest homicide rates in the region, with a homicide rate of 18.1 per 100,000.
  • New acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) B. Todd Jones, made waves on Wednesday when he acknowledged the existence of a Bush-era operation that, like the infamous “Operation Fast and Furious,” allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico. While there has not been a major outcry in the U.S., some outlets in the Mexican media are outraged. La Jornada, for instance, published an editorial questioning whether or not the U.S. was an “ally or enemy,” and the head of the Senate’s Public Security Commission called for acondemnation from the state.
  • According to the AP, four local police officers in a municipality outside Monterrey are being held on suspicion of having allowed the Zetas to use their jail facilities to hold kidnapping victims while they were waiting on the ransom.
  • The latest issue of the Economist takes a look at a recent ranking of universities in Latin America compiled by Quacquarelli Symonds, an education consultancy. At the top of the list is the University of Sao Paulo, and the magazine questions the factors that contributed to its success, comparing it to major universities in other countries.
  • The Washington Post reports on Brazil’s push to develop Rio de Janeiro’s favelas ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Although the paper reports that economic opportunity is increasing in the most poverty-stricken areas of the city, the fact that “several intrepid companies, a score of city agencies and even a few foreigners are wandering into the city’s once-forbidden favelas in search of opportunities” seems to hint at a potential for gentrification and economic displacement.
  • Puerto Rico may soon vote on its political status. On Wednesday, Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño sent a bill to the legislature that would result in a referendum allowing Puerto Ricans to choose whether they wished to see the island push for statehood, independence, or a sovereign free association. The referendum would take place next year, and would be the fourth such vote after similar referendums were held in 1967, 1993 and 1998. The Americas Society’s Mark Keller has an insightful analysis of the development, and on the likelihood of it resulting in a major change.
  • The proposed Free Trade Agreements with Colombia and Panama cleared a legislative hurdle this week, with the House Ways and Means Committeevoting to pass them both. They will likely be voted on by the House sometime next week. In a last-ditch effort to bring attention to the reality of labor rights abuses in Colombia, WOLA’s Anthony Dest has written a comprehensive rundown of Colombia’s labor troubles.
  • The AP has published an extremely interesting look at the family of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala. While polls show the majority of Peruvians support the leader’s center-left policies, the more revolutionary elements in his family disapprove. Humala’s imprisoned brother Antauro, whose Etnocacerista Party supports putting people convicted of corruption before firing squads, is especially critical.