“Where is the money,” Hondurans ask government as health care system collapses

Recent revelations regarding massive corruption are the latest indicator of the rotten state of the health system on Honduras. Meanwhile, the forced disappearance of 4 Garifuna leaders has caused outrage with social movements launching protests

July 22, 2020 by Zoe Alexandra
A nurse cleans her protective plastic shield in the triage tent outside Hospital María in Tegucigalpa on July 14, 2020. Photo: Martín Cálix / ContraCorriente

Honduras is reeling under multiple crises. The country that already suffered from abhorrent levels of extreme poverty, violence and state corruption has faced tremendous challenges with the onset of the pandemic. The last straw was corruption scandals involving millions of dollars of state funds that were destined for the construction of mobile hospitals by a private company. The Honduran people have long been denouncing the impact of systemic corruption on people’s right to healthcare.

To date, Honduras has 35,345 confirmed cases and 988 deaths. However, according to reports on the ground, the number of dead could be much higher. This is because there are numerous reports of those in critical condition dying before they could make it to the hospital. There is a huge shortage of healthcare centers.

The state of Honduras’ fragile public healthcare infrastructure, hollowed out by a decade of post-coup dictatorship, has led to a series of mobilizations over the past several years. Healthcare workers and social movements have pointed out that hospitals and healthcare centers have suffered from systemic budget cuts since the 2008 coup d’état, which took progressive Manuel Zelaya out of office. Simultaneously,  the public health care sector has been the repeated target of embezzlement of public funds by officials. This fraud and corruption has persisted even during the pandemic, when the priority should have been bolstering the health sector.

In order to address the lack of capacity of Honduras’s healthcare system (there are only 30 public hospitals in the entire country), the Health Ministry and Invest-h (Strategic Investment Honduras) decided to purchase mobile hospitals, using 27% of the budget allocated to combat the pandemic. Announcing the purchase in March, the government promised that the mobile hospitals would be ready in June.

While the entire amount has been spent, only two of the seven hospitals have been deployed. Furthermore, Invest-h spent 48 million USD on the  mobile hospitals which experts pointed out was an extremely inflated price. Even the contract made with the alleged provider Elmed Medical was denounced by the company SDI Global LLC for fraud and plagiarism of their own proposal. After these revelations and many others regarding the COVID-19 budget, the Attorney General of Honduras has opened up 11 different lines of investigation to investigate possible corruption and fraud.

Meanwhile, Invest-h continues to claim that the hospitals are weeks away from being rolled out. This is some 4 months after the purchase and despite any evidence to back this claim. All of this is occurring in a context of healthcare centers reporting over capacity and long queues.

Someone transporting an oxygen canister in their trunk outside the Tórax Hospital in Tegucigalpa on July 14, 2020. Photo: Martín Cálix

To add insult to injury, according to a report by Contra Corriente, while 26% of the 183 million USD budget to combat the pandemic was spent on the mysterious mobile hospitals, a mere 2% has been invested in medicine, 1.6% in human resources and less than 1% on improving existing hospital infrastructure. Since the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare workers have denounced a significant lack in PPE and workers in several hospitals have been forced to raise funds on their own to buy the necessary equipment and supplies. The University Hospital in Tegucigalpa purchased an oxygen tank to improve their capacity, but it was done with the hospital’s own funds and not through the national pandemic budget.

While the numbers continue to rise in Honduras at a rapid rate, social movements have raised the slogan “Where is the money?” These movements are condemning the rampant corruption of the government of Juan Orlando Hernández and the complete state negligence.

State violence increases

On Saturday, July 18, heavily armed men, who were identified as members of the Police Investigations Bureau, kidnapped four leaders from the Garifuna community, an Afro-Indigenous descendant community on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Snider Centeno, Milthon Joel Martínez Suany, Aparicio Mejía and a fourth individual who has not been identified were taken away by force and have not been seen since.

The Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) denounced the kidnappings and demanded that their location be revealed immediately, “They were taken alive, we want them alive!”

Miriam Miranda a leader from OFRANEH, tweeted, “In this mafia-like, corrupt and murderous dictatorship, machines of death are untouched and strengthened. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an armed group arrived to Triunfo de la Cruz and took among others the leader Sneider Centeno. We demand his immediate appearance, alive.”

Centeno is the president of the Triunfo de la Cruz Garifuna community and part of OFRANEH. His community, Triunfo de la Cruz, has been engaged in a struggle to defend their land. Centeno himself was at the forefront of the case brought to the Inter-American Human Rights Court denouncing the Honduran state for human rights violations and failing to protect the territories and to stop displacement of communities by those with economic and political power. The IAHRC ruled in favor of the community but the state has yet to fulfill its commitments.

Garifuna communities in Triunfo de la Cruz and Sambo Creek have been mobilizing to demand that the authorities respond immediately and find the four who were forcibly disappeared. The police attacked protesters with tear gas, and community members have reported that heavily armed vehicles have entered the Triunfo de la Cruz community since their disappearance in order to engender terror and fear.

Honduran organizations like the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) have also joined the calls to demand the return of the leaders and for the state to take action.


*UPDATE: Several days after the publication of this article, OFRANEH confirmed that there were 5 people kidnapped, 4 members of the organization and 1 community member.