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Weekly Report - 18 June 2020 (WR-20-24)

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HONDURAS: A testing time for Hernández

President Juan Orlando Hernández revealed this week that he has tested positive for coronavirus (Covid-19), along with his wife Ana García. The two become the first presidential couple in Latin America to have tested positive for the virus. Having said initially that he had just mild symptoms, Hernández has since been hospitalised for pneumonia, a health setback which comes at a challenging juncture for the Honduran head of state on various levels.

In a televised appearance broadcast on 16 June, President Hernández, whose government has implemented a strict lockdown as part of efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19, explained that “due to my work, I haven’t been able to stay at home 100%,” referring to how he may have contracted the virus. He added that he would continue to do his work through “virtual media, through teleworking”. The following day, however, government officials confirmed that he had been hospitalised for pneumonia and was receiving medicines via intravenous drip, but generally was in good health.

Hernández’s admission comes at a critical point for Honduras as the economy began reopening on 8 June in a “gradual, orderly, and intelligent” manner, whereby businesses would only welcome back 20% of their workforces, with a further 20% permitted to return every two weeks thereafter provided there is no surge in cases [WR-20-22]. With the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac) forecasting that Honduras’s GDP will contract 2.8% this year, slightly above the -2.3% average for Central America, the executive director of the Tegucigalpa chamber of commerce and industry (CCIT), Rafael Medina, underlined the need to kickstart the economy, warning on 5 June that the failure to do so could risk some 400,000 jobs. He added that, over the past 13 weeks, over 175,000 people have been suspended from their jobs already.

However, as in neighbouring countries, efforts to reopen the economy slowly come as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases continues to rise, casting doubt on the future of the process. On 10 June, two days after the start of efforts to reopen the economy, Honduras (which as of 16 June had registered 9,656 confirmed cases and 330 fatalities) registered its highest number of daily fatalities (19).

Arrests

Two Guatemalan cousins, Otto Salguero and Ronald Salguero, are in US federal custody for drug trafficking charges and weapons offences and have an arraignment scheduled in a New York court later this week, according to US-based broadcaster Univisión. Charged in December 2019, the two cousins were accused of drug trafficking on behalf of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, former head of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug trafficking organisation (DTO), in relation to the case involving President Hernández’s brother, Juan Antonio, who was convicted in October 2019 by a US jury on drug trafficking charges. The case has stoked controversy amid claims that El Chapo gave US$1m in cash to Juan Antonio for his brother’s presidential campaign - which President Hernández has firmly denied.

Comandante Cero dies

While President Hernández is the highest-level politician to have contracted the virus in Central America (and Latin America), the number of high-profile deaths linked to the health emergency continues to rise in the sub-region. Neighbouring Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega has not implemented a national quarantine or more stringent measures to contain the virus, has registered a particularly high number of deaths of public figures, although not all are explicitly linked to Covid-19 [WR-20-23].

Most recently on 16 June the Ortega government reported the death of former Sandinista guerrilla Edén Pastora, known as ‘Comandante Cero’, at the age of 83. While the Ortega government did not provide details as to the cause of his death, one of his sons Alvaro Pastora, told Reuters that he died of respiratory arrest, while declining to comment on whether he had contracted Covid-19.

A legendary figure, Pastora broke with the first Ortega government (of 1979-1990) in 1982, following differences with the leadership, to become a Contra. Having run as presidential candidate for the Christian Democrat Alternativa por el Cambio (AC) in the 2006 election he subsequently made up with Ortega and was in charge of the controversial project to dredge the River San Juan, which, in October 2010, triggered the revival of a territorial dispute with Costa Rica.

Most recently, Pastora came out in support of Ortega in relation to the crackdown by the government beginning in April 2018 on its opponents who Ortega accuses of attempting to carry out a coup.