By David Agren
Catholic News Service
MEXICO CITY (CNS) — Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez often prayed publicly while campaigning for office, which he assumed Jan. 27. Shortly after the inauguration, first lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez appeared in media photos providing food for pilgrims, celebrating the Feb. 3 feast day of Our Lady of Suyapa, the national patroness.
The next day, Hernandez handed over a radio frequency to the Catholic Church for a station to be known as Suyapa FM.
Hernandez seldom shies away from public piety and leaves no doubt of his devotion and Catholic convictions. But some observers say the displays are shrewd politics — especially as the president attempts to leverage people’s religious preferences for political gain and associate his agenda with that of religious institutions. Analysts say he’s linking politics and religion in an attempt to gain legitimacy — after prevailing in the November elections with roughly 35 percent of the vote — and trying to increase his ability to govern a country considered one of the most corrupt, poor and violent in the hemisphere.
"The majority of the population is Catholic or evangelical in Honduras, so he’s very openly getting along well with the two churches in order to get the backing of both," said Father German Calix, Honduras director of Caritas, the Vatican’s charitable arm.
Father Calix said he expected the favor would be replicated for the evangelical community, whose leaders held a day of prayer at the presidential palace Feb. 4.
"There many people who see this as positive," Father Calix said of the donation.
"But for the majority of the population, this is a way to be able to reach agreements between the government and the Catholic Church. For many it’s a sign of compadrazgo," he added, using a term for choosing a child’s God parent and signaling a close, reciprocal relation.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa backed a fiscal reform approved in late December as "sadly necessary." The reform raised taxes and indirectly raised prices paid by the poor for food; Honduras is deeply in debt, tax evasion is rife and the rich cut deals, such as the one exempting foreign fast-food franchises from taxation for 10 years. Although the tax increases were approved prior to Hernandez taking office, they were passed by a Congress of which he was president and signed by then President Porfirio Lobo Sosa of his National Party.
How much church influence counts is uncertain. Evangelical groups have gained ground in Honduras in recent decades, but even with people leaving the Catholic Church, religious conviction remains strong in Honduras, especially in rural areas, said John Donaghy, a lay missionary in the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copan.
"Politicians see religion as a force and will at times seek to use people’s religiosity for their own ends," he said.
Candidates do the same in other parts of Mexico and Central America, but to lesser degrees of late. Mexico prohibits church officials making political statements, although new President Enrique Pena Nieto has pursued close ties with Mexican prelates and attended the installation of Pope Francis — even though his Institutional Revolutionary Party was founded by anti-clerical politicians.
El Salvador held elections Feb. 2, but the church did not support any one party and tended to criticize "social injustices and government policy," instead, said Mike Allison, expert on Central American politics at the Jesuit-run University of Scranton, Pa.
In Costa Rica, which also held elections Feb. 2, candidates "made sure to remind voters that the policies that they supported were consistent with church teachings," Allison said, "but … that’s just what candidates do."
The Catholic Church’s role in Honduran politics has been troubled. Comments made by Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga about the 2009 coup, which ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya, caused controversy. The cardinal kept somewhat silent in the months leading up to the 2012 election, which was contested by Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, who finished second for a new party known as Libre.
Father Calix said Hernandez grew up Catholic in Gracias, 160 miles northwest of the national capital, Tegucigalpa.
Despite Hernandez’s open Catholicism, Donaghy said he suspected "many voters and some candidates for Libre were Catholic."
"There was no Catholic Church candidate for last year’s elections," Donaghy said.
Hernandez has promised to combat corruption, curb poverty and crack down on violence with military police. But he lacks a majority in Congress, faces strong opposition, and he came to office with a weak mandate, making it necessary to win allies in business, social and religious circles, Father Calix said.
"He urgently needs alliances with other groups and the support of groups that can give him the strength and legitimacy to be able to govern … and push his political and economic project," he said.
Copyright (c)2014 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
CNS – 3211 Fourth St NE – Washington DC 20017 – 202.541.3250