Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HONDURAS: Governed by Vested Interests

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Dec 15 2006 (IPS) - Traditionally powerful families and drug traffickers have enormous political influence in Honduras today, according to analysts.

The elite families, which have gradually taken over party structures and decision-making posts in government, “are the groups that have what we could call ‘legal’ power,” political scientist Ernesto Paz at the public National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) told IPS.

“But then there are the others, who work behind the scenes and have links to organised crime, especially drug trafficking, which has a strong presence in this country,” he added.

“These groups, which not only paralyse, but influence political reforms needed in this country, are generating a crisis of governability and weakening the party system,” he said.

Paz and other analysts who talked to IPS said the families that exercise the greatest power in Honduras are Jewish or of Arab descent, and are involved in economic sectors like the “maquiladoras” (export assembly plants), energy, telecoms, tourism, banking and finance, the media, the cement industry and trade and commerce.

The study “Real Integration and Groups of Power in Central America” by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany says these vested interests have taken over the spectrum occupied by political parties in the region.

The study differentiates between “business governments,” like that of El Salvador, and “pro-business governments” like the ones that have ruled Honduras and the rest of the countries in Central America, in which the link between government structures and the private sector have been less direct than in El Salvador.

Investor Miguel Facussé Barjum, his son-in-law Fredy Nasser, energy magnate Schucry Kafie, and banker and industrialist Jaime Rosenthal are the most powerful men in Honduras. Another influential businessman is the Cuban-born José Lamas.

Nasser and Kafie control the country’s thermal energy industry, and Nasser’s business interests include concessions to operate the country’s main airports, as well as shares in telephone companies in Guatemala.

Influential businessmen in the media, whose influence has grown since the 1990s, are Rafael Ferrari; Carlos Flores Facussé, a former president (1998-2002) and the nephew of Miguel Facussé; and Jorge Canahuati Larach.

Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno said these groups “are so interrelated and closely linked to the Honduran political system, where their meddling is very strong, that it can be stated that they handpick presidents and other authorities, dictate the news agenda in the media, and are the main contributors to political campaigns.”

“The repetitive presence of certain last names in Congress and the executive branch is not fortuitous,” Moreno, director of the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC), told IPS. “They know how to intervene, request and demand. The state would seem to be at their service, and governments are seen as an instrument for obtaining power and profits.”

“If they used to do a better job disguising their ambition, in the last decade they have gone over the top, and it would seem that this plundered and ruined country still has meat to chew on,” he added.

Of Honduras’ seven million people, 65 percent lived below the poverty line and 53 percent in extreme poverty in 2005, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

A presidential adviser who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons told IPS that “these groups are insatiable, they make one request after another. Two months ago, in a meeting with President Manuel Zelaya, they told him that in the 1980s, the most important political decisions were put to consultation in the military barracks, but that now they were here, the businesspeople and the media.”

“You are only temporary, while we are permanent, they said. We want to be consulted about decisions, we want contracts and to participate in the public tenders, we want to express our opinions on some appointments of public officials, and we want official advertising contracts, they added,” according to the source.

Since then, the Zelaya administration, which took office in January 2006, has had friction with some of the country’s most powerful business groups, because the cabinet includes members of the Jewish business community headed by Rosenthal, which is at loggerheads with the country’s most influential families of Arab origin.

Rosenthal, who has run unsuccessfully for the presidency four times, belongs to the governing Liberal Party and has interests in areas like the media, the cement industry, beef exports, banks, insurance and telecoms. He played a key role in Zelaya’s campaign.

His son, Yani Rosenthal, is now minister of the Presidency, in charge of coordinating all the ministries and the most important portfolios of public administration projects and credits.

Given Zelaya’s marked differences with some power groups, who is he governing with?

With the Rosenthal family and another business sector not linked to the traditional structures, who intend, together with the president, “to set a distance between themselves and those who have exploited this country for years,” said the presidential adviser who spoke to IPS.

This group is apparently led by the president’s chief of staff Roberto Babún, who has interests in the timber industry. His camp includes business leaders involved in the tourist industry, biodiesel manufacturing – which has strong backing from the present administration – and the thermal energy industry.

Unconfirmed reports have also pointed to links between the government and members of the Guatemalan business community, who allegedly contributed substantially to the president’s election campaign.

According to the governing party deputy to the Central American Parliament, Gloria Oquelí, this scenario “endangers the stability of the political parties, because penetration by these groups is so overwhelming that we are being left without any true political leaders.”

“It’s not that their participation is a negative thing, they should participate. But they should let the politicians govern and not the other way around, that is to say, govern the politicians themselves, as we are seeing in practice. We should re-think how to modernise the political system and make political parties less elitist and more open to civil society and social participation,” she said.

What most concerns Oquelí is what she calls the coopting of the party system by drug traffickers, about whom she says there are “strong indications that they have financed political campaigns. Political parties must open their books and give the public information about who finances their campaigns, and in return for what,” she said.

Alfredo Landaverde, an expert on drug trafficking issues and adviser to the state on security, said that “narco” penetration in Honduras can be seen in money laundering, car theft, forgery of documents, trafficking of arms and persons, and the activities of “maras” or youth gangs.

Drug trafficking has been seen in Honduras since 1977, although the country was mainly used in the past as a transit point. However, in the last decade, this has changed, as indicated by the seizures of enormous quantities of cocaine by the police – more than 3,000 kg so far this year.

According to the governmental Honduran Institute for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction and Dependency, drug use is on the rise, and a majority of youngsters between the ages of 15 and 19 have tried some kind of illegal drug, especially cocaine.

The Institute reports that in the 1970s, local drug consumption was largely limited to marijuana. But cocaine, as well as crack, now both circulate widely. “And since 2002, small amounts of ecstasy and heroin have been seized, although their distribution is still limited,” says the Institute.

Landaverde said drug trafficking activity is concentrated on the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts in the north and northeast, and in the extreme western part of the country. According to the UNAH Observatory on Violence, these are the regions with the highest levels of violent crime.

Drug traffickers launder their profits by “investing in luxury homes, ranches, companies and fishing boats, as well as small and medium-size businesses. But they also do so by investing in politics,” said Landaverde, who clarified that there are no official statistics on money laundering in the country.

Two months ago, Marvin Ponce, a lawmaker with the leftist Democratic Unification party, stated that there were legislators who had gained their seats with drug trafficking money, although he did not dare name names.

A former mayor from a town in Honduras told IPS that at least five mayors in the western provinces of Copán, Lempira and Ocotepeque had financed their campaigns with drug money. But “if I reveal their names, they’ll kill me the next day,” he said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that around 100 tons of cocaine move through Honduras annually, while domestic consumption levels have soared in the last few years.

Most of the cocaine comes from Colombia and is on its way to the United States, according to the Honduran police and the DEA.

The DEA plans to establish an anti-drug military base in 2008 in the Atlantic coastal region of Mosquitia, one of the main drug trafficking points in Honduras due to its remote jungles, which are unconnected to the rest of the country by road.

The druglords evade justice by means of bribery, threats and murder, said Landaverde.

Both the economic elites and the drug traffickers are consolidating their hold on power thanks to the fragility of democracy in the region, which “is in crisis,” in the view of Paz.

“In the case of Honduras, one of the solutions to keep the state from remaining trapped in these networks is the construction and creation of citizen networks that strengthen society,” the political scientist argued.

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