Honduras: Repression in the Time of COVID-19

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Date: Apr 22, 2020

Author: Lisa Haugaard

The Honduran government began addressing the pandemic by implementing curfews and confinements of poor neighborhoods outside Tegucigalpa and other cities where COVID-19 cases first appeared. On March 18, 2020, the government then instituted a nationwide lockdown with specific days where people could leave their homes to get food. The government’s response to the pandemic was centralized, militarized, and devoid of oversight. 

Civil society organizations and medical professionals called for public health medical experts led by the Honduran College of Medicine to oversee the government’s handling of the health crisis. Doctors and nurses protested the lack of protective gear.

The economic impact landed quickly as industries, including the large maquiladora sector, laid off tens of thousands of workers and as the country’s significant tourism industry was shuttered. On March 13, the Congress passed a $420 million package to respond to the crisis. The law offers yet another opportunity for corruption—it authorized constructing 91 hospitals, bypassing contracting rules and unlikely to solve any short-term gaps; it excluded the National Anticorruption Council from conducting oversight. This was followed by a loan program to agricultural and industrial business. The government launched a program to provide sacks of food and sanitary supplies. The program was criticized for focusing distribution on members of the governing Nationalist Party—as well as for being insufficient to meet the increasing demands for food as layoffs escalated. The economic situation will be worsened by the likely plunge in remittances from Hondurans abroad, as nearly 20 percent of Honduras’s GDP relies on remittance flows.

The government measures’ unequal impact on the informal sector—which provides employment for some 70 percent of Hondurans in the labor force—is especially problematic. The government allowed supermarkets to remain open on certain days, but informal vendors, many of whom live day to day from their business, were officially shut. The government loan program for businesses was largely unavailable to the informal sector. 

As part of the mandatory lockdown, the Honduran government suspended constitutional guarantees, including freedom of expression and assembly. Journalists, human rights defenders, and anti-corruption activists could not circulate freely to report on the crisis, protect citizens’ rights, and conduct oversight. Government forces could enter homes without a warrant and for a short time until it was challenged, could hold detainees for more than 24 hours without charges. Human rights organization COFADEH documented that 45 human rights defenders suffered attacks, harassment, or reprisals for their work during the crisis and 7 journalists were assaulted, detained, and/or had their equipment taken and camera footage deleted. For example, police threw the equipment of a Channel 6 film crew on the ground as they sought to cover the arbitrary detention of two young people. The restraints on the activities of human rights defenders and journalists made it difficult or impossible to monitor and defend the rights of the thousands of people being detained. After a public admonition from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Honduras, journalists were allowed to circulate using their press passes, but no such provision was made for human rights defenders.

Government detention policy was repressive, unequal, and violated public health norms. Over 6,000 people were detained by April 9 due to violating curfews and lockdown restrictions or for protesting over lack of food and layoffs. While many were released within 24 hours, being held in close confinement was hardly a measure designed to protect public health. 

Members of the Military Police (PMOP) and police used teargas against people protesting lack of food, water, and medicine in Tegucigalpa, Comayaguela, San Pedro Sula and other places. In Choloma, members of the PMOP beat protesters and shot in the air. Human rights group COFADEH reported that punishment for violating curfews was applied unequally, focusing on street vendors, the unemployed, small rural producers, and others with few resources. 

Pressure began building to release nonviolent prisoners in Honduras’s infamous prison system. The Honduran government began releasing prisoners. While in general this step is positive, human rights advocates are concerned about the way it may be implemented. Two of the material authors of the murder of renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres appeared to be slated to be released from jail, prompting an outcry from indigenous organization COPINH and national and international human rights groups. The Guapinol social leaders unfairly jailed for their activities defending their communities’ right to water as of this date remain in jail.

Honduras’s Human Rights Roundtable summarized the concerns about the government’s handling of the pandemic, denouncing “the reduction of civic space and the repression of the work of human rights defenders; the unnecessary and disproportionate use of force; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; setbacks to workers’ rights, such as dismissals and unjustified suspension of labor contracts; and the politicized distribution of humanitarian aid.”