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How U.S. Aid Is Contributing to Anti-Corruption Efforts in Honduras

In April, a caravan of mostly Honduran migrants neared the U.S. border, and President Trump deployed the National Guard, threatened to cut off aid, and separated minor children migrants from their parents.

How U.S. Aid Is Contributing to Anti-Corruption Efforts in Honduras

By Ambassador James Nealon (r) and Kurt Alan Ver Beek, Ph.D.

In April, as a caravan of mostly Honduran migrants neared the U.S. border, and as President Trump deployed the National Guard, threatened to cut off aid, and separated minor children migrants from their parents, we argued in favor of maintaining U.S. assistance to Honduras. Not because we’re a great and magnanimous country, though we are; but rather because helping Hondurans mitigate the push factors of migration is manifestly in the U.S. interest.

In our April article we made the case that, with the help of international and especially U.S. assistance and a vibrant civil society, things are slowly getting better in Honduras. The murder rate has been more than halved; progress has been made on addressing impunity and corruption; and drug traffickers continue to be arrested and extradited to the United States. But, we warned, an unholy alliance of corrupt politicians and criminal elements were fighting back against reform, seeking to take Honduras backwards into lawlessness and dysfunction. In short, the empire was striking back.

Since then, through sustained effort by Honduran leaders and their civil society and international partners, some of these threats to progress have been beaten back.

The MACCIH, an Organization of American States-sponsored body that fights corruption, was on the verge of being declared unconstitutional by the Honduran Supreme Court, for obvious reasons. In the end, under strong pressure from Hondurans backed by the weight of the international community, particularly the United States, the Court backed down and declared the MACCIH constitutional. And the appointment of a new head for MACCIH, stalled for months, was approved earlier this month.

Four years ago the Honduran Congress approved an asset seizure law and it has been successfully used against dozens of drug traffickers and gang kingpins. But when it was used against the former First Lady and congressmen, the Honduran Congress tried to eliminate the law. Again, under heavy pressure from civil society and the international community, President Hernández vetoed the change.

Meanwhile, the same former First Lady, from the ruling National Party, has been jailed for corruption. Five members of the National Congress have been indicted and another 140 former and sitting members are under investigation, an extraordinary number given that the Honduran Congress has 128 representatives. In the last month, 38 government officials have been indicted for the theft of 11 million dollars from the Ministry of Agriculture. Last week, two more Members of Congress and a national party mayor were indicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, and the number of those already extradited or self-surrendered in the last four years is over 40. The Government of Honduras continues to cooperate closely with the United States on narcotrafficking and corruption investigations.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, a cynical attempt by politicians to elect a corruption-friendly Attorney General to replace incumbent Oscar Chinchilla was defeated, again in part due to pressure from civil society and the international community. Some argue that the process by which Chinchilla was re-elected was irregular, but it is very hard to argue that he hasn’t been the most effective Attorney General in Honduras’ history and the authority behind the investigations and indictments of corrupt politicians, and that his re-election sends a strong message regarding impunity and corruption.

Why does this matter to the United States? Why do we care about conditions in Honduras? Because it’s these very conditions—violence, weak institutionality and corruption, lack of economic opportunity—that are the push factors of migration. If we can help Hondurans achieve sustained progress over time, then eventually Hondurans will see their futures at home and not in the United States. 

Here at home, we’ll be able to focus less on playing defense on the one-yard line, and maybe the Administration won’t be drawn to desperate policies that separate children from their parents at the border; that deny domestic abuse as a qualification for asylum; that take Hondurans who have lived, worked, and paid taxes legally in the U.S. for 20 years under Temporary Protected Status, and throw them and their U.S.-citizen children into the shadows. 

Supporting the efforts of Honduran civil society to reduce violence, strengthen weak institutions, fight corruption, and promote economic opportunity, is as much in the U.S. interest as it is that of Honduras.

James Nealon was U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017.  He is currently a Wilson Center Global Fellow.

Kurt Alan Ver Beek, a sociology professor at Calvin College, has lived in Honduras since 1988 and is co-founder of the Association for a More Just Society.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Wilson Center.

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