Since democracy was re-established in 1982, Honduran politics have been dominated by two major political parties, PNH and PLH. Presidents from both parties, save Manuel Zelaya (2006-09), have followed an ideologically center-right, pro-business model. As of 2020, President Hernandez also follows a neoliberal economic model with special emphasis on economic liberalization, privatization, free trade, and reductions in government spending.
Located in Central America, Honduras, officially the Republic of Honduras, is a country with a long history of military rule, corruption, poverty, and high crime rates. Since democracy was re-established in 1982, Honduran politics have been dominated by two parties: the Liberal Party of Honduras (PLH) and the National Party of Honduras (PNH). PHL candidates have won six presidential elections, while PNH candidates emerged victorious four times. Both PNH and PLH presidents, save for Manuel Zelaya, have followed an ideologically center-right model. There are a few major differences between the parties (Meyer, 2010).
When the PLH’s Roberto Suazo Córdova took office in 1982, Honduras’ began its enduring relationship with neoliberal economics. Suazo’s presidency mostly focused on securing consistent economic support from the United States and on a social and economic development project sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
In January 1990, PNH candidate Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero was elected to the presidency. His economic policies, however, were not very different from those of the preceding liberal presidents. Callejas embraced all-out economic liberalization, lowering import duties on basic grains and thus opening the way for cheaper imported beans, rice, and corn. In return, he secured loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Cáceres, 2014).
However, due to a boom in the country’s fiscal deficit, growing public dissatisfaction with the high cost of living, and widespread corruption at high levels, Hondurans voted out Callejas, returning a PLH candidate to office in 1993. Campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, Roberto Reina implemented a popular program to investigate and prosecute alleged state and local corruption as well as reported human rights abuses in the 1980s. As part of an initiative that he called a “moral revolution,” his administration established an independent Ministry of the Attorney General and a law enforcement agency controlled by civilian authorities – not the military (Envio, 1997).
Reina, however, maintained the overall neoliberal economic model initiated by the previous governments, enforcing privatizations and restricting credit resources, as well as making cuts to agrarian reform and social spending. Many therefore heavily criticized the Reina administration for insisting on an economic model that, they believed, triggered further poverty. Among the critics were Manuel Zelaya, then-director of the Honduran Social Investment Fund, and a later “leftist” president from 2006 to 2009. Zelaya believed that intense neoliberal policies were the main causes of poverty among large swaths of Central America: “Today we can confirm, with proven statistical data, that every minute of every day there are two more poor people in Latin America” (Envio, 1997).
Despite the criticisms, the Reina administration’s demilitarization and anti-corruption policies won Honduras’s Liberals another term in the 1997 general elections. Carlos Roberto Flores secured some 52 percent of all votes. His presidency, however, was overshadowed by one of the deadliest hurricanes on record. Hurricane Mitch caused over 7,000 fatalities in Honduras and left 1.5 million people homeless. Following the disaster, Honduras received significant aid from several financial institutions and countries, the US in particular. The Flores administration also ended up implementing strict financial policies that included fiscal austerity, large-scale privatizations, and deflationary monetary fund policies.
The 2001 elections handed power to the PNH candidate, Ricardo Maduro. Because his son was a victim of high levels of violence and criminality in Honduras, Maduro’s presidency was defined by fights against drug trafficking groups, gangs, corrupt security forces, and criminal organizations in the country. He increased the presence of the joint police-military forces in crime-ridden parts of the country and formed an inter-institutional commission and a special investigation unit within the police force (Amnesty International, 2003).
The Maduro administration also continued good relations with the US. Honduras joined the US-led coalition in Iraq, sending hundreds of troops. Maduro also signed an agreement with The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a bilateral US foreign aid agency established by the US Congress in 2004, while also ratifying the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).
In November 2005, Manuel Zelaya was elected president on the Liberal Party’s ticket. Coming from a wealthy landowning family, he spent his life as a businessman in the logging industry and then as a congressman. Neither throughout his political career nor during his presidential campaign, had he openly come expressed a left-leaning agenda that was critical of free trade with the US. In accordance with expectations, after taking the office, Zelaya formed a government composed of traditional names from Honduran politics and the country’s economic elite, a clear indication of his lack of intent to challenge the status quo (Filho, Coelho, Flores, 2013, 4).
During his first year, indeed, his government followed a policy that was most akin to the neo-liberal economic policies of the preceding Maduro administration (Filho, Coelho, Flores, 2013, 5). He maintained positive relations with the US government while supporting the CAFTA-DR (Fresno, 2007). Akin to the previous presidents, he also campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.
Almost two years into his presidency, Zelaya made a surprising appearance at the 28th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, in July 2007. This was followed by his agreement to join the Petrocaribe agreement, a Venezuela-led oil alliance that was formed as part of the so-called Pink Tide, a surge of leftist governments in Latin America. A year later, in July 2008, Zelaya announced Honduras’ accession to the ALBA, formally the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, a Venezuela-led intergovernmental organization that had come together in 2004 as a challenge to the US-enforced neoliberal and free-market order in Latin America (Reuters, 2008).
Although the accession to the ALBA was ratified by the Honduran Congress in October of the same year, the move drew a strong reaction from the country’s elites, mainstream media, the business community, the opposition PNH, and the US government. Polarization in the political environment hit peak levels by late 2008. In the meantime, Zelaya implemented a set of populist policies to secure support from the masses, such as a sixty percent increase in the minimum wage, free education, and a significant increase in teachers’ pay. While his populist move to the left secured him temporary support among the masses, Zelaya’s administration ended up alienating the traditional economic and political elite.
In March 2009, President Zelaya issued an executive decree for a public referendum on a constituent assembly to change the 1982 constitution. The opposition accused the president of attempting to remove term limitations and thus remain in power. The Honduras constitution, save for the articles that designates term limits and system of government, can already be amended by a two-thirds majority of the National Congress without a need for any constituent assembly. Many therefore believed that Zelaya’s push for a referendum was to change the unchangeable articles to extend his term of rule.
Initially, Congress declared that the planned referendum was illegal. Honduras’ Supreme Court and electoral tribunal concurred a week later, ruling that the referendum was illegal. Finally, the armed forces refused to distribute the ballots. In response, the president removed the chief of staff from his position, which was followed by the resignation of the Defense Minister and the army’s commanders. Early on June 28, 2009, some 100 soldiers stormed the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa and kidnapped Zelaya to put him on a plane bound for Costa Rica. Hours after his removal in a bloodless coup, Congress appointed the Liberal Party’s Roberto Micheletti as the acting head of state. Upon his arrival in Costa Rica, the deposed Zelaya delivered a populist address in which he said this was “a plot by a very voracious elite, which wants only to keep this country isolated, at an extreme level of poverty” (BBC News, 2009).
On November 29, 2009, an election was held under a state of emergency. Zelaya called for a boycott. But, the PNH’s Porfirio Lobo Sosa was elected president with over 56 percent of the vote. While Lobo’s legitimacy remained in doubt, as several major Latin American countries refused to recognize his victory (CNN World, 2009), he managed to complete a full term in office.
In January 2010, Congress approved a decree issued by the interim President Micheletti to withdraw Honduras from the ALBA. Throughout his presidency, President Lobo Sosa continued to undo Zelaya’s leftist reforms. The country, however, remained in a deep economic and political crisis, which caused foreign investment to plummet. The Sosa administration introduced the HOB (Honduras is Open for Business) initiative, consisting of a series of laws and a portfolio of projects to attract foreign and domestic investment (COHA, 2011).
In the 2013 election, PNH’s Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado won the presidency, albeit with only 37 percent of all votes cast. The election saw the rise of several populist candidates. Running under the populist Anti-Corruption Party, journalist/television presenter Salvador Nasralla secured almost 14 percent of all votes, while Xiomara Castro, the wife of the deposed president Zelaya, secured 28 percent of the vote under her leftist, populist Liberty and Refoundation Party.
After completing one full term in office, during which he governed on a neoliberal platform, President Hernandez won the 2017 elections, securing a second term in the office. Although the Honduran constitution limits presidents to a single term in office, the country’s Supreme Court removed this ban in 2015, allowing Hernandez to be the first president elected for the second time. The ruling drew a strong reaction from the opposition, especially the supporters of Zelaya, who was removed from power for attempting to amend the ban on presidents running a second time.
Just as during his first term, President Hernandez continues to implement neoliberal economic policies, with a special emphasis on economic liberalization, privatization, free trade, and reductions in government spending. In 2019, he issued a series of decrees that facilitate the further privatization of health and education in the country. The move, however, triggered mass demonstrations across the country (Palencia, 2019). Although Hernandez later canceled the decrees, violent demonstrations against his government continued. As of 2020, his presidency is in tatters. Hernandez’s net approval rating has seen a sharp decrease, and 86 percent of Hondurans say that the country is not on the right track (The Economist, 2019).
November 3, 2020.
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