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Latin America & Caribbean

The rural rise of an astute autocrat: Juan Orlando Hernández

A conservative U.S. ally, Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in early Saturday as president of Honduras after winning a second term in a controversial election marred by violence and accusations of fraud. He is promising dialogue and reform, but his critics say he has no legitimacy.
27 Ene 2018 – 10:48 AM EST
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Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras during an interview with Univision News at his home in the capital, Tegucigalpa, Jan 19, 2018. Crédito: Univision News

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in early Saturday as president in a ceremony shrouded in unusual secrecy and heavy security.

No foreign heads of state are invited, and the details of the early morning ceremony at the national stadium in the capital were kept hidden until the last moment.

Re-elected in November to another four years, Hernández, 49, brushes off the lack of pomp, noting that after already serving one term in office – and 16 years in Congress before that – he hardly needs an introduction.

“They already know me,” he told Univision News in a lengthy interview last week in his house in the capital, Tegucigalpa. “So, we want it to be austere,” he added.

Many Hondurans have another explanation: the president’s unpopularity after weeks of bloody protests over a re-election which some say violated the constitution and was unprecedented in the country's short history of democratic rule.

To make matters worse, the Nov. 26 vote was marred by allegations of fraud.

The low-key swearing-in begs the question, how well do Hondurans know their president? And for that matter, how well is he known outside the country? To some U.S. officials, he's a key U.S. ally in stemming the flow of drugs and migrants.

After a week of interviews in Honduras with a wide range of politicians, civil society groups, human rights activists and people on the street, the portrait of Hernández that emerges is a sharply divided, Jekyll and Hyde character, loved by some and hated by others.

His political opponents call him a cold and calculating “dictator” who has run roughshod over the constitution to get his way, undermining the country’s political and legal institutions, while systematically bribing members of Congress through a corrupt system of public contracts.

On the other hand, his supporters hail him as an astute administrator and workaholic with a clear vision to modernize the country, one of the poorest and most violent in the hemisphere.

The answer, perhaps, lies somewhere in between.

"Product of fraud"

"We have a president today, the product of fraud, who is not recognized by a large part of the Honduran people,” said Fatima Mena, a founder of the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) and a city councilor in San Pedro Sula, a commercial hub in the north of the country.

A CID Gallup Latin America poll last week found that 75% of Hondurans felt the country was headed in the wrong direction.

As a result, many question Hernández’ ability to govern the next four years due to widespread outrage over his re-election, despite a constitutional ban on second terms. Weeks of protests have cost the lives of as many as 30 people, mostly shot with live rounds by a notorious Military Police unit.

Hernández shrugs off criticism. “Opponents say all kind of things, but that’s part of the day to day,” he said, displaying no hard feelings.

A bespectacled technocrat and policy wonk, he has a master's degree in public administration from the State University of New York (SUNY), Albany. His staff say he is a results-oriented micro-manager who keeps score on his ministers using a weekly online – green, yellow and red – grading system. He often drops in by surprise to check on progress on projects around the country.

Everyone agrees that Hernández is a rare breed of Honduran politician in a country traditionally associated with “caudillo” strongmen, that only transitioned from military rule to democracy in 1982.

“It’s a way of working that perhaps the country hasn’t seen before, but now it’s getting good results,” he said. “If you take on a responsibility as great as governing a country, you have to take it seriously and I like to have a clear vision of where we’re headed, and evaluating if we are meeting our plans, or if it’s necessary to modify the path … I don’t look at it like some kind of adventure, to just see what happens.”

Moises Starkman, a university economics professor and a former Minister of Foreign Cooperation, widely admired for his role in the relief effort after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998, said it seems Hernández thinks he’s the leader of Singapore. "That’s his model,” he said.

Singapore’s former authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew is credited with transforming the tiny 300 square-mile nation with five million population into one of the so-called ‘Asian Tigers.'

Stuck in the past, and dragged down by poverty and endemic corruption, Honduras is one of the most dysfunctional countries in the world. One recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that corruption in Honduras was so deep-rooted it had become "the operating system."

On the other hand, Singapore has an efficient bureaucracy, a corruption-free government, safe streets, world class schools, and the third highest per capita income in the world – $53,000 – almost 20 times that of Honduras.

“He (Hernández) uses authoritarian means, for good and for bad,” said Starkman. “He’s on a mission. He likes to control everything down the chain.”

One weathly businessman likened Hernández' intensity to "driving a beaten up old car at 120mph when his team is going at 60mph."

Hernández arrived punctually for the 90-minute interview, dressed smart but casual in jacket and slacks, but no tie. Despite the protests and political tension in the run-up to his swearing in, he appeared relaxed and friendly, smiling on occasion and giving thoughtful answers with no hint of hostility, even when asked about accusations of corruption and his autocratic style.

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Rural upbringing, 17 siblings

His conservative, business-like manner could not be in sharper contrast to his upbringing. Born and raised in the poor but scenic, mountainous department of Lempira in western Honduras, near the border with El Salvador, he is the son of a local coffee farmer who was also an unofficial political boss, or rural ‘cacique,’ in the small town of Gracias.

One of 17 siblings – the official number recognized by his father – Hernández joked that family gatherings were a logistical problem. “When we celebrated my father’s birthday there was no house that could fit us all, between siblings, grandchildren, nephews and all,” he said.

His family is still a strong local presence, with coffee interests, a law-firm run by one of Hernández' brothers, who is also a member of Congress, and the Posada Don Juan, a hotel named after his father. His sister, Hilda, was his closest political adviser until her death in a helicopter accident in December.

The young Juan Orlando was sent to high school at a military academy in the northern city of San Pedro Sula before moving to the National University in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

His studies in New York helped shape his politics. “There I learned that democracy is not only going to vote, but it is the day-to-day, the interaction between the different interest groups,” he said.

As an example, he said negotiations over the metallurgical industry in Buffalo between business interests supported by Republicans and unions backed by Democrats showed him how a “compromise could be reached to the welfare of both parties.”

His hopes to stay on for a PhD were dashed when his father died and he had to go home to help take care of the family’s business.

He joined the conservative National Party and spent 16 years as a legislator before becoming president of Congress from 2009-2013.

Hernández’ first term as president was dominated by raising taxes to fight crime and rampant insecurity, combating four major drug cartels, as well as the scourge of Mara street gangs. He is widely credited with purging a corrupt police force and cutting the murder rate in half since taking office in 2013 when Honduras was ranked the world’s most violent country.

"Going down from 90 deaths per hundred thousand inhabitants to 42 is something no country in the world has achieved in four years,” he said. “If we had not broken that trend, statistically another 31,000 lives would have been lost," he added.

Now he says his focus is on job creation and reducing the country’s chronic poverty, which, at 64%, is the highest in Latin America, according to the World Bank.

Fears of repression

But, the latest wave of political turmoil is likely to put a big dent in his plans.

“He is going to have to rely on the use of arms to maintain order. But that is unsustainable,” said Luis Zelaya, a former university rector and presidential candidate for the Liberal Party.

“When you have the great majority against you what comes is repression, and with repression comes more repression. Violence generates more violence.” - Luis Zelaya, presidential candidate for the Liberal Party.

The human rights community fears already shocking levels of impunity will only get worse.

David Ramos, 51, wants answers about the death of his 22-year-old son, Jose, shot in the back of the head during an anti-government protest on Dec. 1, a few days after the election. Video of the incident shows Jose Ramos retreating from a road block where protesters were throwing stones at Military Police in Choloma, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula.

Suddenly, a sustained barrage of gunfire erupts and moments later Jose Ramos’ body is seen lying face down on the ground. In total five people died in the shooting.

“My son decided to protest against the electoral fraud. He wore the flag of the opposition Libre Party. That was his crime,” said David Ramos. “I want to see justice,” he added, complaining that authorities have yet to contact the family.

His son, the father of an eight-year-old boy, had been employed for four years at a Canadian-owned maquila textile factory, and had no criminal record, the family said.

Asked about the Ramos case, President Hernández said he recognized the need to investigate all acts of violence and has appointed a human rights commissioner.

"Nobody can justify using violence, as representatives of the state or another political group ... The loss someone's life has to be investigated and is being investigated." - President Juan Orlando Hernández

But he appeared more concerned about issues of national security such as drug trafficking and organized crime. He also accused the political opposition of links to the gangs.

"Initially the protests were peaceful … and then they turned violent. There were groups of gang members, armed with AK47 (rifles),” he said.

Assassination plots

Hernández said the fight against drug cartels carried a high personal risk. "They don’t want to see me in the presidency and they don’t want to see me alive either ... it's about that fight between good and evil."

He thanked the United States for its help thwarting five assassination plots, including one to shoot down his helicopter with a .50 caliber machine gun.

But some of Hernández’ problems may be of his own making, particularly when it comes to political corruption. The Congress, which he once presided over, has long been a nest of corruption with votes traded in return for public contracts.

An investigation into the 2013 embezzlement of $330 million from the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) found that most of the money ended up in the pockets of members of congress in return for political favors.

Hernández publicly admitted that companies tied to the corruption at IHSS had contributed nearly $150,000 to his 2013 presidential campaign, although he denied he was aware of the source of the funds.

This week, another scandal erupted after an OAS anti-corruption mission (MACCIH) announced an investigation into the diversion of $13 million of public funds into the accounts of more than 60 members of Congress, chaneled through phony social projects.

The OAS denounced an “Impunity Pact” involving the government and Congress to block its investigation.

National dialogue

Coming on top of the electoral controversy, observers say a national dialogue is urgently needed to discuss long overdue political reforms, such as de-politicizing the country’s electoral system and ending legal impunity by guaranteeing judicial independence.

"We have to take advantage of the crisis to try to face these problems that exist ... and were never seriously dealt with before,” said Carlos Hernández, president of the Association for a More Just Society, the local chapter of the global governance group Transparency International.

Above all, there is broad agreement that the electoral system had to be taken out of the hands of politicians. Under the current system political parties control everything from the Electoral Tribunal to polling stations.

Hernández (no relation to the president) said talks were underway involving Honduran civil society, the president and opposition leaders. An international mediator was also being considered, with feelers out to three former presidents; Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Laura Chinchilla from Costa Rica. Support was also being sought from Washington and the European Union, he added.

President Hernández said he is open to dialogue. “I have told the different political leaders that they can come with any proposal, no matter how broad or aggressive,” he said.

For the dialogue to lead anywhere all sides will have to overcome a massive trust gap.

“For those who don’t know him well and haven’t dug deeply into his decisions he can be very likeable,” said Salvador Nasralla, a popular sportscaster who ran as presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, who lost the Nov. 26 election by 1.5%, according to the disputed official results.

“He can be charismatic, friendly, attentive. But when you look deeper … appearances deceive.” - opposition leader Salvador Nasralla, on President Hernández

“He is not transparent, he hides from people how the state funds are used.”

Nasralla and others warn that if the crisis is not resolved things will get worse. “With the level of poverty here people are desperate,” he said.

“The only other alternative is to leave for the United States.”

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