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SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (Reuters) – Bags of rice and beans arrived in a tough neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city, government aid for poor residents struggling during a coronavirus lockdown in April 2020.
Cesar Lopez and his hungry family got nothing. The food, he said, went only to supporters of the ruling National Party, which he opposes. He said it is much the same for government jobs and other benefits.
Mr. Lopez set out for the United States earlier this year—motivated in part by what he claims was unfair distribution of assistance during a hunger crisis caused by the pandemic and two hurricanes last year.
“The government only gives to its supporters,” Lopez told Reuters in March, taking a break in a Guatemalan village on his way to Texas.
The ruling party denies playing favorites and said such allegations are typical of opponents aiming to make President Juan Orlando Hernandez look bad. What is undisputed is that the conservative National Party, since seizing power in the wake of a 2009 military coup, has built a formidable political machine that wields great influence over the lives of Honduras’ 10 million people.
The patronage system, known as “clientelism,” helps fuel migration to the U.S. by breeding cynicism among those deprived of public benefits, said migrants and policy specialists.
“Sometimes the balance between staying and leaving is hope things could get better, and clientelism destroys that hope,” said Andrew Seele, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, which supports liberal immigration policies.
The National Party routinely uses its control of government institutions and funds to reward supporters, punish opponents and influence elections, according to Reuters interviews with two dozen current and former government officials, opposition politicians, former National Party insiders, diplomats, anti-corruption investigators and academics.
Another three dozen Hondurans—some en route to the U.S.—told Reuters that the system influenced them or their relatives to migrate.
Corruption is ingrained in Central America. For years, politicians have been embroiled in graft scandals and drug-trafficking prosecutions.
Economist Julio Cesar Raudales served as minister for planning and external cooperation in the National Party-led government from 2010 to 2014. He said anti-poverty spending was directed mostly to areas where the party had the best chance of winning elections, though top party officials did not openly discuss the practice at cabinet meetings.
“All the public investments passed through my office, so it wasn’t difficult to see,” said Mr. Raudales, now a vice-rector of international relations at The National Autonomous University of Honduras.
While the practice is not new, it has become “shameless” under National Party rule, he said.
The party dismissed allegations that it doles out aid based on political support.
“This is totally false,” said Fernando Anduray, a spokesman and executive secretary of the party’s political commission.
Honduran law requires the federal government to involve municipalities in implementing social programs. The National Party captured 58 percent of the nation’s mayor’s offices in the most recent elections in 2017. Mr. Anduray said any instances of local officials favoring National Party supporters were isolated cases.