Amid Protests, Honduran President Is Sworn In for 2nd Term
Posted January 27, 2018 3:44 p.m. EST
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Facing a polarized nation in the aftermath of a disputed election, Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in Saturday for a second term as president of Honduras.
The pomp-filled ceremony at the national stadium in the capital, Tegucigalpa, was marred by large clashes outside between security forces and protesters.
Hernández, 49, begins his new term confronted by questions over his government’s violent crackdown on Hondurans who have protested the results of the November vote, and its commitment to fighting corruption.
As the early-morning ceremony unfolded at the stadium, security forces fired tear gas on protesters marching toward the event. Among the demonstrators, who numbered in the thousands, was the opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, who has refused to accept the election results.
Observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States documented many irregularities in the election. The ballot count was suspended several times, and Nasralla, who had been substantially ahead, was eventually declared to have lost by about 50,000 votes.
Although the huge demonstrations in the weeks after the election have dwindled, Nasralla’s supporters have continued to protest, meeting with a sharp police response. As many as 22 people have been killed by security forces, according to a tally by the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras, a human rights group.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras have called on security forces to stop what they called the “illegal and excessive use of force” to break up protests. This past week, both organizations reported that human rights activists, journalists and others continue to face threats and harassment.
In addition to the disputed results, the opposition also argues that Hernández never should have been on the ballot in the first place.
What put him there was a ruling by the Supreme Court, which lifted the constitution’s ironclad ban on presidential re-elections in a circuitous ruling two years ago. The five judges who made the decision all owed their positions to Hernández.
The president has steadily taken control over much of the government, filling independent institutions, including the Supreme Court, with his allies. Critics said a law passed by Congress this month showed that the postelection turmoil has not dissuaded him from continuing to amass power.
The law targets the attorney general’s office, which has been pursuing high-level corruption cases, working with an international panel that Hernández was forced to accept after months of anti-graft protests in 2015. On Jan. 18, Congress all but shut down those cases, effectively pulling the attorney general’s authority to investigate the theft of public funds destined for social projects.
Juan Jiménez Mayor, a former prime minister of Peru, who leads the anti-corruption panel, denounced the law and said it would block investigations into as many as 60 current and former Honduran legislators, as well as high-ranking officials in the government. Among them, Jiménez said, is the powerful president of Congress, Mauricio Oliva, a close ally of Hernández.
“Politically, they picked the worst moment to approve this law,” said Raúl Pineda Alvarado, a political analyst, calling it “an illegal monstrosity.” “For all the effort the government may make, citizens understand that this law is made to favor the corrupt.”
Already a judge has dismissed cases against five former legislators who were charged with embezzling government funds, citing the new law. Jiménez said the law could lead to the release of Mario Zelaya, the former head of Honduras’ main public health agency, who is accused of stealing as much as $300 million. Some of that money found its way to Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign, though he has denied that he knew the source of the funds.
Heide Fulton, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, called the law a “monumental step backward in the fight against corruption.”
Hernández has not commented on the law, but few in Honduras believe that he played no role in its approval. “This is a decision taken at the highest political levels of the country and it is irreversible,” said Edmundo Orellana, a former attorney general and professor of constitutional law at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.