Hondurans have been in a dark mood lately. Last week, demonstrators set fires at the door of the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa and denounced the International Monetary Fund. Vandals torched trucks ferrying bananas belonging to Dole Food Company, the enduring emblem of erstwhile gringo imperialism.
It was a snapshot of yet another Latin American country fed up with public officials on the take and the clubby politics that keep them in charge. Like their restive neighbors, Hondurans have thinning patience for governing elites who leverage the rules of democracy to sabotage it.
President Juan Orlando Hernandez set off the turmoil by issuing decrees to restructure education and health care -- moves that demonstrators interpreted as vassalage to the IMF, a prelude to mass layoffs and privatization of public services. Hernandez has since rescinded those decrees and called for dialogue. But as with the unrest sweeping the rest of the hemisphere, the trouble in Honduras runs deeper.
Again and again in the Americas, apparently isolated grievances escalate into mass demonstrations, as citizens gathered under diffuse ideological banners lash out. In 2013, a 10-cent rise in bus fares sent seemingly contented Brazilians to the streets in waves of anti-government protest that led to the president's impeachment and the election of a right-wing populist. Ostensibly sensible pension reforms ignited revolts in Argentina in 2017 and in Nicaragua last year. Civic backlash has chased tainted or imperious leaders from office in Guatemala and into exile in Peru, Panama and El Salvador.
Hernandez should know the stakes. Driving the fury in Honduras are the lengths to which he and his ruling party have gone to stay on top.
His reelection in 2017 was clouded by claims of vote fraud and payola, but then declared legitimate by a supreme court stacked with Hernandez's friends. When some of the president's party cronies fell under the scrutiny of the country's special commission on corruption, the regime-friendly legislature took away the commission's prerogative to vet cases against sitting officials.
Then late last month came news that Hernandez himself has been a longtime target of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration probe tied to the arrest last year of Hernandez's brother for cocaine trafficking. Yet absent formal charges, this investigation is unlikely to bring down the regime. "Hernandez has been hurt, but by making some symbolic concessions and relying on party operators, coalition cronies and corruption, he'll probably survive," said Tom Long, a professor of politics and international studies at Warwick University in the U.K.
Hernandez has been helped by the U.S. administration under President Donald Trump. Over objections from the European Union, the Organization of American States and dozens of American lawmakers, the White House congratulated Hernandez on his disputed reelection in 2017. At the same time, it ensured continued foreign aid appropriations by vouching for Honduras' sketchy human rights record and hailing its anti-corruption efforts. The Trump administration is presumably grateful for Honduras's efforts to curb drug trafficking and for Hernandez's decision to follow Trump's lead in transferring the country's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Hernandez may thus outlast the protesters, as long as he can keep the country's economy going. Honduras has recently posted strong growth, and it has avoided the fiscal trouble afflicting many of its profligate neighbors -- earning praise as well as a loan agreement from the IMF. But the country's vast informal economy, stubborn poverty and alarming levels of gang-driven violence have stymied development. Honduras has one of Latin America's widest gaps between rich and poor, and one of its lowest rates of social spending, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Even the country's heralded GDP expansion has been driven by money that emigrants to the U.S. and elsewhere send home. Last year, cash remittances grew three times faster than the national economy, according to the economist Manuel Orozco at the Inter-American Dialogue, and they account for 20% of Honduran GDP.
That's a fragile safety net for a little-loved leader, especially given that continued aid and comfort from the country's biggest trade partner and top donor hinges on killing the golden goose -- the unchecked flow of migrants to the U.S. The rage in Tegucigalpa is just part of Hernandez's problem.