November 27, 2010

Honduras attacks freedom of speech

Federico Álvarez Fernández
Photos: La Tribuna, Honduras

In the style of dictators and Hugo Chávez, dictator/president of Venezuela, the Honduran government of Porfirio Lobo is talking about expelling from the country a 34-year resident and retired businessman who is married to a Honduran and has raised his Honduran children and grandchildren here in Honduras.

Born in Costa Rica, Federico Álvarez Fernández has spent the majority of his adult life in Honduras. He arrived in 1977, when Honduras was still under a military regime, as the Costa Rican Ambassador to Honduras. He is a former president of the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE) in Honduras. He is active in the civic group Unión Cívica Democrática (UCD). His weekly opinion pieces on social, economic, and political developments are published in La Tribuna.

Álvarez has been a productive, contributing member of Honduran society for almost 34 years, serving for five years as Representative of the Interamerican Development Bank (BID in Spanish) in Honduras. He left BID rather than being transferred to Mexico because he had decided that Honduras was his home. He later became CEO of various Honduran banks until he retired and now serves on the Board of Directors of Banco Lafise.

Álvarez has been decorated by two Honduran presidents. He received the prestigious Francisco Morazán en el Grado de Gran Cruz Placa de Plata (the country's highest award) for his contribution to the democratization of Honduras from Roberto Suazo Córdova (1982-86), the country's first democratically elected president. He received the José Cecilio del Valle award from President Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-94) for his "outstanding" contribution to the economic development of Honduras. He was granted an honorary citizenship by the National Congress in December, 2009, for extraordinary service to Honduras. To understand what that meant to him, please read his article Hondureño (in Spanish).

Álvarez is a prolific writer and has written and distributed many thoughtful essays regarding the political crisis and the pressures that have been placed on Honduras to violate its constitution and laws by outside forces, including the Organization of American States.

However, Federico Álvarez also has been critical of President Lobo's handling of many matters. His focus is on adhering to the rule of law and the constitution, believing that is the way for Honduras to advance, not by bowing to political pressures.

This isn't the first time that Sr. Álvarez has been threatened by the Lobo administration. In June 2010, he was warned that Lobo had assigned a high level government official with the task of discrediting his reputation and that of Fernando Anduray, another critic of the Lobo administration. Anduray has a high level job in the government, but his wife was fired as Director of PANI, which she claimed was political retaliation for her husband's outspoken opinions.

After receiving honorary citizenship in December 2009, Álvarez decided that he wanted to become a naturalized citizen and submitted his application. On January 25, 2010, the Ministry of the Interior approved his request and extended to him the "Carta de Ciudadanía". He only learned of the supposed paperwork problems after being informed that the current Minister of the Interior Áfrico Madrid had declared on the Esdras Amado López television show on Channel 36 that he was going to cancel Álvarez's citizenship because of "missing" documents in his file.

Áfrico Madrid (remember him, the witch-hunter?) stated that Álvarez' paperwork was not in order and for that reason, "he could be invited to leave the country in the next days" — echos of Venezuela, where paperwork problems are the frequently named cause of hundreds of expropriated businesses and closed media outlets.

Madrid said that Álvarez failed to submit a "authenticated" birth certificate or a police record from Costa Rica. Since Álvarez has lived in Honduras for 34 years, perhaps a Honduran police record (or lack thereof) would suffice? It seems clear that the government was on a witch hunt, looking for something with which to intimidate Álvarez into not writing. Madrid stated clearly, "From now on, he is prohibited from participation in political activities that contravene the stability of the Honduran state".

Álvarez told me that he had been warned by friends for months that he should tone down his opinions because they were "causing discomfort to President Lobo". He has talked to several lawyers and all agree that this recent action is a gross violation of the law. However, he has not been able to defend himself because the Government has not given him written notice of their decision. He believes that it is clear that he may be able to recoup his nationality, but fears that the Government will keep trying to silence his voice by other methods.

Article 32 of the constitution of Honduras states that foreigners are not allowed to carry out (desarrollar) political activities. What is the legal definition of 'political activities' or will that change with each president? For that matter, what is the definition of 'desarrollar'? Is expressing a dissenting opinion a political activity? Is being a member of a civic group a political activity?

Unlike other foreigners who have been tolerated to enter and stay in Honduras during the past two years for purely political reasons to encourage protests, violence, and anarchy and to train, fund, and even arm radical groups in an effort to disrupt the country, Federico Álvarez is a man with deep ties to Honduras who exercises his freedom of speech to share his opinions. While the government ignores the former groups to appease the political "human rights" groups, a decent man with 34 years residency in Honduras is being intimidated and threatened with expulsion merely because he disagrees with the president.

But perhaps the message is not only for Sr. Álvarez. Perhaps the message is to the media in general. Is Honduras going to become a place where freedom of speech is discouraged, where open debate is prohibited, where politicians' actions cannot be questioned, where citizens and residents cannot express their displeasure with direction of the government without fear of retaliation?

That may be the intent, but it will backfire on the Lobo administration. They have the power to turn a writer into a martyr. Anyone anywhere in the world can and does write about Honduras whether they know anything about it or not. La Tribuna publishes opinion pieces from any writer of interest. There is no requirement to be a Honduran resident or citizen. Obviously, Álvarez can submit his articles from anywhere in the world. He will become a celebrity if he is expelled from Honduras which will likely widen his audience even more.

This is serious. Most of the foreign residents that I know are already intimidated from speaking their opinions publicly (many have told me so) for fear of government interference in or retaliation to their businesses, NGO's, or charity groups. Most Honduran bloggers outside of the resistance do not write about political matters. How many more citizens will think twice before expressing an opinion now? Honduras needs more citizen participation, not less.

For those in the resistance media and blogs who are celebrating this blow to Federico Álvarez, you shouldn't be. If the Lobo administration can witch hunt for 'paperwork errors' for one person, they can do it for you, too. And, if not this administration, maybe the next administration will. Any attack on freedom of expression is an attack on all freedom of expression. Those of you claiming political persecution to the world should know that better than anyone.

Who is next? Housewives who blog about the news and give their opinions about the political situation in Honduras? It wouldn't surprise me, because once you take that slippery slope, it is easy to push further and further like Hugo Chávez.

Just don't do it, President Lobo. It will tarnish your reputation all over the world where freedom of speech is valued and give credence to the many false claims of political persecution that have been made.

Related articles in Spanish:

Honduras Libre y en Democracía blog: Persecución Política
La Tribuna: Secretaría del Interior suspende naturalización a Federico Álvarez
La Tribuna: He cumplido con todos los requisitos exigidos por la ley
La Prensa: Áfrico Madrid: Federico Álvarez no es hondureño
La Tribuna: Áfrico Madrid: “No se le ha quitado nacionalidad porque nunca él fue juramentado” (In this latest article, Madrid seems to be backtracking, saying that Álvarez would revert to his former resident status rather than being expelled from the country.)

You can also read Federico Álvarez's opinion columns and judge for yourself whether he is a radical or in any way tries to destabilize Honduras.
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