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U.S. Senators Seek Sanctions Against Honduran President

NOEL KING, HOST:

Every year, thousands of people from Honduras come north to the U.S.-Mexico border and then into this country because of poverty and violence at home. The Biden administration says it wants to get to the root of the problem so Hondurans can build better lives there. But it turns out the root of the problem may lie inside the Honduran government. Now Democratic senators want to put sanctions on Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez for alleged human rights abuses and corruption.

Reporter James Fredrick is in Mexico City, and he's been following this story. Hey, James.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Hey. How are you doing?

KING: Good. What would these proposed sanctions do?

FREDRICK: So this bill was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and other, you know, kind of progressive-leaning Democrats. And it basically starts by saying President Juan Orlando Hernandez is under investigation by the U.S. for allegedly accepting bribes from and aiding drug traffickers. So that's where it starts. And then it lays out this whole list of crimes that Hernandez and his party have been responsible for since a 2009 coup in Honduras - corruption, embezzlement and then violence against its own population - protesters, journalists, activists. Freedom of speech has been really clamped down there.

Most importantly, the bill says the U.S. has been complicit in this because we have been an ally of this government for a long time. And it says that if we want to address these root causes of migration from Honduras, we have to do this. So these sanctions would freeze Hernandez's U.S. visa, freeze his assets. And it would ban the U.S. from exporting things like firearms, tear gas and other things to the Honduran government.

KING: What's going on inside of the country that is making so many people feel like they have no choice but to leave?

FREDRICK: There's just a general sense of fear and desperation. Fear comes from street gangs that extort and murder people at will. But it also is fear of the police and the Honduran military. Hondurans don't feel like they have anywhere to turn for protection. And in desperation is poverty. Hernandez is accused of embezzling lots of aid money towards Honduras. And so that's money that didn't go to poor Hondurans. On top of that, they were devastated by two hurricanes last year. So things are so bad in Honduras right now.

I spoke to Elmer Gomez, who is a Honduran seeking asylum in the U.S. right now about the news. And I asked him to explain a bit what Hernandez's decisions mean for Hondurans every day.

ELMER GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: So Gomez says that Hernandez only makes decisions that will personally benefit him or the people around him. He never asks for the good of the people. And Gomez reiterated they just have nowhere to turn for help. They constantly feel like they're either being chased by criminals or the government. The other thing that Gomez mentioned is that he didn't want to migrate. And that's what I've heard from lots of people. They don't want to leave home. They just feel like they don't have any other option.

KING: And so if the U.S. was to put sanctions on Hernandez, would that happen any time soon?

FREDRICK: It's unlikely it's going to happen soon. I'm - I think the interesting thing to watch for is that the State Department could actually just decide a lot of these things without passing this bill. I spoke to some experts. They think that's unlikely. As much as anything, because the U.S. and Honduran governments are so intertwined right now that just slapping these sanctions on very quickly is going to be hard to do. So there's a lot of unwinding of this U.S.-Honduran relationship and really a need for the U.S. government to confront the relationship it has had with President Hernandez for all these years.

KING: Reporter James Fredrick in Mexico City. Thanks, James. We appreciate it.

FREDRICK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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