After 18 months in maximum-security jail enduring inhumane conditions, Honduran activist and political prisoner Edwin Espinal was released on bail last week. Upon his exit, Espinal opted to eschew the type of comforts many others might have sought after securing their freedom: Still wearing his jail garb, he went straight to a demonstration to greet his supporters, thank them for their tireless efforts, and pledged to continue the struggle against the regime of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández — the very same work that led to his imprisonment by the regime.
“When I left the penal center, I felt a need to show our people — all the international organizations who have shown strong support to help secure my release — that neither their jails, their bullets, nor their repression can defeat us,” Espinal told Truthout in his first international media interview since his release.
Espinal was charged and jailed as a result of his participation in protests opposing the re-election of President Hernández in the 2017 vote that was widely perceived by international election monitors and many Hondurans as fraudulent.
A close ally of the United States, Hernández has ruled Honduras since 2014, presiding over an administration that has militarized public security and has allowed public health and education to languish.
“This is typical of right-wing governments: they invest in prisons, in repression against the people instead of education, health, work and public safety,” said Espinal. “Since this man came to power, we’ve witnessed the total collapse of institutions.”
The Hernández government has also faced credible allegations of association with drug traffickers, with the president’s brother, Antonio Hernández, having been indicted on drug-trafficking charges in late 2018.
In documents unsealed from New York’s Southern District Court, prosecutors signaled Juan Orlando Hernández as a co-conspirator in the case. Although the documents do not name the president directly, the court filings leave little doubt that “co-conspirator 4” is the sitting president, who is said to have funneled drug money into his presidential campaign in 2013.
According to Karen Spring, a Canadian human rights activist based in Honduras and Espinal’s wife, the court documents merely confirmed what many already suspected.
“Hondurans are very clear about the fact that this government has no legitimacy, that the government is a fraudulent government and the revelations from the New York court documents just affirm what Hondurans have been saying for many years,” Spring told Truthout.
She suspects that the allegations against Hernández played a role in Espinal’s release.
“The political context of the country has shifted, and it seems the dictator has much greater worries than a couple of political prisoners that represent a lot to the social movements,” said Spring.
With the possibility that Hernández could be charged and extradited, the U.S. court allegations have sent the regime into crisis and the Honduran president traveled to the United States this week, to try to shore up support from his most important ally.
According to Spring, the Honduran opposition movement against Hernández, composed of both grassroots and political adversaries, suspects that the U.S. may withdraw its support for Hernández and she speculates that the Honduran president will be forced to relinquish power before the end of the year.
Without the backing of the United States, Hernández would struggle to remain in office.
“We know the government is maintained in power by the government of the United States,” said Espinal.
The allegations against Hernández have also served to further motivate the opposition movement that sees his government as illegitimate, and the Hernández regime appears to be in a vulnerable position.
However, Espinal warns that the movement cannot let its guard down.
“When dictatorships feel cornered, when they feel like their backs are against the wall, that is when the claws come out and they begin to repress with much greater force,” said Espinal.
An Edifice of Repression
Repression of dissent is a fundamental component of Hernández’s grip on power. Honduras has been ruled by a representative of the National Party since the 2009 military coup that ousted leftist President José Manuel Zelaya. The policies implemented by the National Party governments have adversely affected Hondurans from all walks of life.
Spring says that the consequences of the 2009 coup have dramatically changed the lives of Hondurans, with the costs of essential goods, transit and services all increasing while wages have stayed stagnant, making survival virtually impossible.
The opposition movement that sprang up in the aftermath of the coup has waged a consistent and determined struggle to restore democracy to Honduras, but has been met with the repressive apparatus of the state.
The opposition put forward Salvador Nasralla as its candidate for the 2017 presidential election. As results came in the night of the election, it became apparent that Nasralla was on the path to victory, and the vote count was suspended by authorities. When the count resumed, Hernández had secured a lead and was eventually declared the winner.
In the face of mass protests against the perceived fraud, the Hernández regime deployed security forces into the streets.
“Over 35 people were shot by state security forces and hundreds of people were thrown in jail,” said Spring.
The charges Espinal faces are related to those protests, with authorities accusing him of engaging in violent acts. A well-known figure in the opposition, Espinal says he was targeted for his activism.
“Repression is the primary tool the dictatorship uses to stay in power,” said Espinal.
With his credibility and legitimacy undermined as a result of the fraud allegations, President Hernández has struggled to implement unpopular reforms. Earlier this year, the Platform for the Defense of Education and Health, a nonpartisan coalition comprised of trade unions and civil society organizations, staged a 48-hour national strike over efforts to privatize public services. These actions were also met with repression, with local media reporting the use of live ammunition against demonstrators.
“Every year the level of repression increases against our people, against our resistance, against our people who fight every day to preserve our fundamental and inherent rights,” said Espinal.
“The Fall of This Regime Will Only Be the Beginning”
However, with little popular support, the limits of repression as a means of staying in power are becoming evident, and Spring believes Hernández may be cast aside in order to appease the opposition and stabilize the political climate in the country.
She argues that the U.S. wants to maintain its domination in Honduras to ensure its hegemony in Central America and does not feel any particular loyalty to Hernández.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently led a congressional delegation to Honduras, but opted not to meet with Hernández, who tried to save face by claiming he was unavailable to meet with them.
However, Spring warns that ousting the current president will not be enough.
“This is an entire system, from the top to the bottom, that has been run by drug trafficking and corruption networks for a very long time,” said Spring. “Picking off even the president himself is not going to destroy the structure that has slowly caused a deterioration of Honduras and Honduran public institutions.”
Other experiences in Central America — such as that of Guatemala, where mass protests ousted former President Otto Pérez Molina — have shown that the removal of a figurehead is often not enough to dismantle the regime they installed. Conservative Alejandro Giammattei, who has shown a reluctance to address rampant corruption, won Sunday’s election in Guatemala and is expected to be a close ally of the United States.
“The fall of this regime will only be the beginning,” said Espinal. “There is a lot of struggle ahead, a lot of work to be done.”
For now, there are still battles to be fought. Espinal himself still has to face trial on charges of arson, property damage and use of explosive material, with proceedings beginning today, and there are other political prisoners in the country who are still being held by the regime.
However, the resolve of opposition supporters and human rights defenders remains strong.
“There is no way they can eliminate that feeling we have, the love we have for our homeland, the love we have for the people, the compulsion we have for us to recover our dignity, our need to raise our voice and let this regime know that they cannot defeat us,” said Espinal.