Recent allegations that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was complicit in receiving drug money as campaign cash may spell the end of his controversial presidency. Whether he is able to complete his term, which ends in 2022, will depend in part on how he manages his relationship with Washington — especially if he can sway the Trump administration where it matters most: by giving Trump an immigration win.
Hernández, a close friend of the U.S. government, has long dodged accusations of narco ties. But these latest claims are a formidable test of his grip on power. The revelation emerged in a U.S. court case against Hernández’s brother, who was arrested last November in Miami on drug-trafficking charges, and holds that the Honduran president accepted $1.5 million in cocaine profits for his 2013 campaign.
But a fractured opposition has proven an ineffectual restraint on the kleptocratic and authoritarian impulses of President Hernández. Nationwide demonstrations against Hernández’s corrupt practices and attempts to privatize education and health care have trailed the president since April, to which the army has responded with tear gas and live fire to disperse dissenters. According to his detractors, the president remains in power is mostly because of his support from both the country’s security forces and the U.S. Embassy.
Hernández’s legitimacy has already been in question for some time. In 2017, Honduras erupted in violent protests following the president’s reelection; that process was widely perceived as fraudulent. Although the Organization of American States backed a redo of the election, the Trump administration recognized the result, hamstringing the democratic opposition. It would appear that President Trump was eager to embrace the steady – not to mention autocratic – hand of a partner in Central America who vowed cooperation on migration and drugs.
In response, the Hernández administration has repeatedly telegraphed its gratitude to the U.S. government on the global stage. Honduras just this month unveiled a diplomatic facility in Jerusalem, recognizing the city as the capital of Israel — a controversial move that put Honduras in step with the Trump administration but at odds with most of the world on the issue. Hernández has also been a reliable partner for the U.S. military, which stages its regional humanitarian and counter-narcotics operations from a Honduran air base.
Much to Trump’s chagrin, however, Honduras remains a leading source of undocumented migration to the United States. The number of Honduran migrants apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol jumped to 77,128 in 2018, roughly 19 percent of all migrants detained by U.S. authorities last year. And Trump’s frustration over repeated migrant caravans, all of which have departed Honduras en route for the U.S.-Mexico border, even prompted him to repeal Temporary Protected Status (TPS) benefits for 57,000 Honduran nationals residing in the United States, who had been shielded from repatriation since 1999.
In July, President Trump strong-armed President Jimmy Morales of neighboring Guatemala into designating Guatemala as a “safe third country” for thousands of refugees, who under the terms of the agreement must petition for asylum there instead of continuing their journey northward. In return, Trump’s State Department has been quiet on Morales’ assaults on the rule of law, including interference into a UN-supported investigation into Morales’ corruption. The Trump administration has already signaled its hope to secure a similar asylum agreement with Honduras by October 1. Hernández, who has visited Washington twice in the past month, could conceivably agree to sealing off Honduras’ porous borders in exchange for Trump’s turning a blind eye to Hernández’s purported misdeeds.
Notwithstanding this outlook, Democrats in Congress can still send a strong message that the U.S. government does not stand for drug corruption and authoritarianism in Central America. First, congressional leaders should publicly criticize Hernández and Trump’s laxity on going after corrupt officials suspected of committing drug crimes. Speaker of the House Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNews media's sausage-making obsession helps no one Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE set a precedent on a visit to Honduras in August when she declined an invitation to meet with Hernández. Yet Democrats should be more forceful in calling out the Trump administration’s coziness with venality.
Second, Congress should hold oversight hearings that shine light on Hernández’s bad behavior. In 2018, Senate leaders wrote a bipartisan letter, triggering an investigation, in response to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi government. Putting the Trump administration and its allies in Congress on the record in a similar fashion could pressure them to hold Hernández accountable or, otherwise, expose an electoral vulnerability for Republicans who pride themselves on being tough on drugs.
Indeed, Hernández’s latest scandal – which complicates one of the U.S. president’s top regional priorities, curbing the illegal narcotics trade – may just provide the ammunition necessary for the U.S. government to isolate him and demand his cooperation, or his ouster.
Paul J. Angelo is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He previously worked as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.