Honduran President Inaugurated for Second Term

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras—The inauguration was held at 9 a.m. local time at a soccer stadium. Until the day before, no one was sure where the ceremony would take place. No heads of state were invited. Most reporters weren’t allowed in.

Outside, protesters battled with riot police, who were on hand to assure that Juan Orlando Hernández was able to take office for a second term as president of Honduras—a historic first for the country where re-election had been banned for decades.

In November, 49-year-old Mr. Hernández won an election which the Organization of American States said couldn’t be validated as it urged for a new vote. Since then, at least 30 people have died in protests related to the election.

Supporters of Mr. Hernández say he is a man on a mission to modernize the country, who has had notable success in slashing the country’s homicide rate. Critics have said his consolidation of power could turn him into another Latin American strongman.

“I think he sees himself as the leader of a Singapore, imposing discipline,” says

Moises Starkman,

who was a minister in a previous administration and is now an economics professor. “The question is whether you can do it without becoming an authoritarian.”

The unrest is a reminder that the former lawyer and congressman will have a difficult time governing this nation of 9 million, where poverty and gang violence has led hundreds of thousands to emigrate to the U.S. Honduras has also become a transportation hub for shipments of cocaine and other drugs headed to U.S. markets.

“The country will be ungovernable,” said

Salvador Nasralla,

who lost the November election to Mr. Hernández. Mr. Nasralla identifies himself on his Twitter account as the true president of Honduras.

During his inaugural speech, Mr. Hernández tried to quell fears of his staying in power indefinitely. Having worked for years to overturn a ban on re-election, he said the presidency should be limited to two terms.

“It’s a good thing to have limits on re-election,” he said. “Most countries in the world allow some kind of re-election, yes, but only once.”

Mr. Hernández also pledged to work with opposition parties to overhaul the country’s electoral system. In November’s election, the vote count was suspended for a day and a half with Mr. Nasralla in the lead. After the tally resumed, Mr. Hernández pulled out in front. He has said he was helped by votes in rural areas, where the count is done by hand.

The U.S., which is the top donor to Honduras, has recognized Mr. Hernández’s victory but also has acknowledged that there were irregularities in the election process.

Aides to Mr. Hernández, one of 17 children of a rural political boss, say he is a results-driven manager. His chief of staff,

Jorge Hernández,

who isn’t related to the president, said he is obsessed with performance, requiring government ministers to grade themselves weekly.

Critics, however, have said Mr. Hernández is an authoritarian leader who has stacked key institutions with supporters and consolidated power.

The president’s critics point to his drive to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on re-election, which was initially enacted to prevent the rise of strongmen.

In 2012, as head of the country’s congress, Mr. Hernández orchestrated the firing of four supreme court justices and replaced them with magistrates loyal to him, analysts and critics have said. Three years later, the judges ruled that the ban on re-election couldn’t prevent someone from running for office again, clearing the way for Mr. Hernández’s bid for a second term.

Mr. Hernández has denied any such aims, but has said re-election is necessary to modernize the country. “In the end, you can’t build something sustainable in four years for the medium and long range to make a change in a country like ours,” he said.

During his first term, Mr. Hernández oversaw an improvement in the country’s homicide rate, which fell to 42 for every 100,000 residents from 86 for every 100,000 residents in 2012, a rate which was then among the world’s highest. His administration boosted the security budget and retrained the national police.

Mr. Hernández cut off gangs’ criminal operations by moving their leaders to newly built maximum security prisons. Honduras, in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other international police agencies, targeted cartels, capturing some traffickers while others surrendered.

“No one has been able to do that in any country in four years,” Mr. Hernández said in an interview last week.

His efforts to curb organized crime has led to many threats against his life, Mr. Hernández has said. The U.S. had warned the president on some of these threats, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Hernández also has been dogged by allegations of corruption. In 2015, two years after Mr. Hernández’s first election, protesters demanded his resignation when it emerged millions of dollars had been diverted from the country’s social security fund. In the wake of the protests, Mr. Hernández said he would accept an OAS mission to investigate corruption.

Last week, the OAS anticorruption body said recent legislative changes would obstruct investigations into lawmakers who allegedly had embezzled government funds.

The U.S. has decided it can work with Mr. Hernández despite his faults, said

Michael Shifter,

president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Latin American policy.

“Clearly the U.S. has major concerns about Hernández, his appetite for power and serious allegations of corruption,” Mr. Shifter said. “But he is seen as a factor of stability in a very turbulent and unsettled region.”

For his second term, Mr. Hernández has said he would concentrate on improving the economy. He called in consulting company McKinsey to help draft a plan to create some 600,000 jobs. He also hopes to spur bank loans to small businesses, and plans to create new free-trade zones.

Write to José de Córdoba at

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