As the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), TI’s national chapter, looks back on 2020, it is clear that the forces of nature and corrupt institutions both dealt serious blows to Honduras. The consequences for transparency were reflected in Honduras’ 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index score of 24, an all-time low since 2012.
The arrival of COVID-19 was the first external force to marginalize Hondurans’ public and economic health. Despite a strict lockdown that closed schools, public transportation, and non-essential businesses, the government failed to coordinate with health officials and create a comprehensive pandemic plan. As a result, the weak health system was strained to breaking point with over 127,000 cases and 3,200 deaths (to date). The intersecting health and economic crises also intensified poverty by disrupting employment, healthcare, and education.
In addition to this elevated vulnerability, Honduras experienced its worst natural disasters of the century: Hurricanes Eta and Iota. These category four hurricanes struck within two weeks of each other in November 2020, with devastating impact on 4 million Hondurans. Eta and Iota took at least 94 lives, and wreaked havoc on communities, farms, bridges and highways. When the rains ended, over a hundred thousand Hondurans were living in shelters, in need of not only immediate relief, but also strong institutions equipped for long-term recovery.
Instead of strengthening Honduras’ ability to bounce back from these disasters, political and economic elites pushed back on rule of law, further threatening Hondurans’ ability to flourish. Despite international pressure, the Honduran president declined to renew the MACCIH’s mandate to carry out corruption investigations. In its four years of operation, this OAS-backed independent body presented 11 emblematic corruption cases that implicated those in the halls of power. Since its premature demise, Honduran courts have further undercut the Attorney General’s office’s authority to investigate corruption and have dismissed charges in several MACCIH cases. Honduran congressmembers, some under investigation for corruption, also adopted a new penal code that decreased sentences for corruption and drug trafficking. As drug trafficking allegations against public leaders, including the current president, persist, this codification of impunity is highly concerning.
Corrupt officials also sought to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. An investigation by ASJ revealed that the state agency responsible for $80 million in pandemic emergency procurement failed to uphold transparency or implement strategic planning. In one egregious example, seven overpriced mobile hospitals paid for in spring 2020 have still not all been delivered. “These failings created the country’s biggest COVID-19’s tragedy,” remarks ASJ Executive Director Carlos Hernández. Hondurans bore the disastrous consequences with insufficient gear for doctors and long waits for life-saving treatment.
Meeting 2021’s Challenges
2021 will prove to be a crucial time in Honduras’ recovery. Honduras still lacks a coordinated COVID-19 strategy as it prepares for mass vaccinations. This lack of clarity over health measures jeopardizes citizens and the recovery of an estimated $1 billion in economic losses from the pandemic.
The Honduran government will also need to invest in post-hurricane rebuilding. A reported 80,000 homes and over a thousand schools and health centers require repairs or reconstruction. Meanwhile, many Hondurans remain in shelters, exposed to higher rates of COVID-19. Another 2 million Hondurans also await the restoration of access to health services cut off by the storms. Overall, the work of recovery will likely consume between 2 and 5 billion dollars.
Corruption will inevitably undermine recovery by siphoning much needed resources away from those who need them and into the pockets of the corrupt. In the face of weakened anti-corruption safeguards, it is essential that transparency-minded leaders ensure these funds go to communities most in need. ASJ will monitor hurricane recovery purchases, with the hope of providing real-time transparency analysis that benefits the public.
In addition to these pressing matters, a new challenge is on the horizon: Honduras’ 2021 general elections. The highly contested 2017 election resulted in reports of fraud, mass protests, and violence from security forces. ASJ will be on high alert for reports of organized crime in campaign financing and other violations to Hondurans’ right to a free, fair and transparent election.
In the midst of these complex challenges, there is also room for new opportunities. ASJ is partnering with other civil society organizations, academia, and the private sector, to present a unified call for justice to political candidates. And a combination of local and international pressure could mandate that democratic reforms accompany much-needed economic assistance.
There is much at stake in Honduras in 2021, and that means ASJ’s efforts to ensure government power and resources are used on behalf of the most vulnerable Hondurans will be more important than ever. “Corruption kills,” Hernández says. “But as we continue investigating, denouncing, and accompanying efforts to strengthen Honduras, we can save lives.”