Honduran Election Crisis Marks New Phase in Country’s Agony

By CLALS Staff

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Yesterday’s election in Honduras was peaceful and orderly – the 61 percent voter turnout forced polls to remain open an extra hour – but anomalies in the vote count have cast a dark shadow over the legitimacy of the results. Although most polls for months indicated that Libre candidate Xiomara Castro had a several-point lead over National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández (and a few polls showed they were in a dead heat), the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) said the Nationalist beat Castro by more than a five percentage point  margin – 34.2 percent to 28.6 percent. Castro and other candidates had repeatedly claimed the National Party activist who heads the TSE (which has no representative from the nontraditional parties or Libre) would skew the results and, citing exit polls, she has alleged that fraud tainted up to 20 percent of yesterday’s votes. The TSE’s claim that, of more than 1.6 million ballots cast, there were no null or blank votes – when party poll watchers reported many – has also drawn attacks on its credibility. Nonetheless, the U.S. Ambassador and the European Union observer team hastily declared the process transparent and clean.

Hernández and Castro have both declared victory – promising high tensions in at least the short term. Castro is the wife of former President Mel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup in 2009, and has assembled a broad and deep popular base in Libre outside of Honduras’s two traditional parties. The government, military, economy and, importantly, news media are all dominated by elites that have long resisted the sort of popular movement she has built.  Few observers believe that, particularly with U.S. endorsement of the election results, Castro’s demands for a recount or other review of the results will be heeded.

If the results had been seen as accurate and fair, the election could have helped Honduras close the dark chapter of tensions and violence that started when the military forced President Zelaya into exile three and a half years ago. If Hernández is allowed to take office, his low vote – barely a third of all votes cast – alone promises a prolonged crisis like that which has plagued current President Lobo since his inauguration, a period during which both criminal and political violence has skyrocketed, public finances have deteriorated alarmingly, and political polarization has reached unprecedented heights. Under a Hernández presidency, the crisis may become even worse. Castro ran a campaign explicitly committed to peace and reconciliation and consistently urged her supporters to give democratic process a chance. She has never shown even the slightest inclination to call her supporters to violence, but popular anger has festered since the 2009 coup and there’s no guarantee that some frustration will not spill into the streets.  The surge in right-wing violence in Honduras since the coup – reminiscent of death squad activities in other Central American countries in the 1980s – has persuaded many protesters to keep their heads down, but this election may lead to desperate acts which the death squads will be eager to respond to, threatening a spiral of violence the hemisphere’s second-poorest country can ill-afford.

Honduras Elections: Serious Challenges Ahead

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras faces an enormous challenge in the next two months:  ensuring that elections in November – when Hondurans go to the polls to elect their next president, 128 National Assembly deputies, and municipal authorities – are clean and transparent.  The elections are especially important because they are the first conducted outside the framework of the coup of 2009.  The elections that year, held five months after the coup, were conducted under the black cloud of the break in constitutional order and gave rise to the transition government headed by President Porfirio Lobo.  This year, nine parties are participating – a clear signal that the country’s traditional two-party system is ending.  The Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), with a base among supporters of ousted President Mel Zelaya, has nominated his wife, Xiomara Castro, as its Presidential candidate, and the Anticorruption Party, led by sports journalist Salvador Nasrala, represent a true challenge to the traditional political elite.

All of the polls give the edge to Xiomara Castro, with a lead ranging anywhere from two to eight percentage points, over the candidate of the National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is President of the Congress.  The polls also show that a majority of the population, having witnessed multiple accusations of fraud during the primaries held by the two traditional parties (including Hernández’s), expect the elections to be marred by fraud.  Casting further doubt on the credibility of the outcome is the narrow representation of the parties and lack of professionalism of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is charged with organizing and supervising the elections.  Only the three traditional parties have representatives serving on the TSE and, unlike in other countries, they are distinguished as militants of their parties rather than independents or experts in electoral processes.

Should the results of the election not be seen as legitimate, the potential for conflict is worrisome, and there are ample grounds for concern that the security forces that have proliferated under the Lobo government could be deployed to suppress protest.  Only strong international pressure and strong citizen pressure can guarantee that the elections will be clean and open the possibility for Honduras to overcome the political crisis that has now been damaging the country for several years. 

A number of events – including the firing of Supreme Court justices last December and the National Congress’s intervention in matters far outside its jurisdiction – underscore the continuing tendency toward authoritarian and illegal actions to suit ambitious politicians’ pursuit of power, with potentially dire consequences for the elections. An ongoing economic crisis, including a nearly 50 percent unemployment rate, and a serious deterioration of government finances, also contributes to political fragility. Against this backdrop, the United States and the rest of the international community can play a positive role in promoting elections that are fair and impartial and taking proactive measures to ensure that security forces ill-suited to managing social unrest not be deployed to suppress political dissent.  Failing to do so would waste an opportunity to help effect a truly democratic outcome in Honduras, and invite a further deterioration of a political, economic and social climate that is the most worrisome in Central America.

Honduras: Simmering Crisis

Porfirio Lobo and Hillary Clinton
US Embassy Guatemala
/ Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Little good and lots of bad has transpired in Honduras since the night in June 2009 that an Army-backed coup d’état, orchestrated by the economic elites, ousted President Mel Zelaya and installed Roberto Micheletti as the de facto ruler.  Almost four years later, Honduras remains one of the places in the Americas where democracy is at permanent risk – where drug trafficking, corruption, impunity, private armies and feudal caudillos thrive in a climate of spiraling violence.  Honduras today is the most violent country in the Americas and last year was among the top three in the numbers of assassinated journalists.  Honduras also remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo lacked credibility from the moment he donned the presidential sash in January 2010 – the candidate who, by almost all accounts, would have lost the election had not the coup reversed that fate, clamped down on opposition media, and suspended many civil rights.  While Washington worked hard to gain OAS recognition of his government, Lobo offered no guarantees – to either Hondurans or foreigners – that he would reverse the ongoing activities of the Army and rapacious economic elites to undermine democratic institutions.

  • Timid attempts to show independence, such as a projected police reform, languished due to lack of political will and financial support.
  • Honduras’s doors opened ever wider to organized crime and corruption.  According to U.S. agencies, roughly 60 percent of the cocaine passing through Central America on its way to U.S. markets in 2011 went through Honduras.  (The Obama Administration funded a militarized drug interdiction program that sputtered after Honduran civilians were killed.)
  • Politically motivated murders by sicarios – reminiscent of 1980s death squads – skyrocketed.  Investigations were few, and prosecutions were nonexistent.
  • By the end of last year, Lobo was pointing fingers at his old allies in the Army, the elites, and even his own party, accusing them of trying to destabilize his government. He failed to pass constitutional reforms that he claimed would protect democracy.  General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the military commander during the coup, announced that he was running for president.
  • Honduras is facing one of the worst fiscal crises of its history – a significant landmark for the perennially mismanaged country.

In Washington none of this seems to raise red flags.  On the contrary, the ideological bent of statements from both the executive and legislative branches suggests satisfaction with the state of affairs in Honduras – and willingness to keep the crisis there unsolved.  Hillary Clinton´s State Department was, to say the least, shy when addressing the deteriorating situation of the Central American country.  In January, at Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that what happened in Honduras in 2009 wasn’t a coup went unchallenged – despite the overwhelming consensus otherwise throughout our hemisphere.  The first sign offered by Kerry as Secretary of State, however, gives room to expect at least a modest change in the narrative: on March 4th, the State Department gave one of eight International Women of Courage Awards to Julieta Castellanos, a respected human rights advocate and critic of corruption and impunity in Honduras.  This hint of a less ideological and a more strategic and humanistic approach to the unsolved Honduran question is welcome.

Top Five Events of 2012

A poll of contributors to AULABLOG identified the following five events (listed below in no particular order) as the most important in Latin America in 2012.  We welcome you to post your own list using the Leave a Comment link below.

By: Matt Westgate "Mettamatt" | Flickr | Creative Commons

By: Matt Westgate “Mettamatt” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s third major cancer surgery signaled that change – probably profound – will come to Venezuela much faster than his presidential campaign let on.  We expect growing tensions among his aides, none of whom has his charisma or base, as they jockey in a succession scenario.  We’ll be watching whether the PSUV can become an institutionalized mechanism for channeling Chavismo’s support into a governing project in the post-Chavez era.

The election and inauguration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signals a natural swing back to PRI leadership after 12 years of PAN governments.  Differences over the approach to counternarcotics might flare up in an overall smooth relationship with the United States, but the new president’s biggest challenge is going to be overcoming the persistent economic backwardness that has kept Mexico from achieving the economic growth of others since the turn of the century.

The ouster of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo last June – as well as the United States and Latin America’s ambivalent reaction to it – was a dramatic illustration that democracy in the region rests on a tenuous foundation of sometimes contradictory constitutions and weak institutions.  The continuing struggle of Honduran President Pepe Lobo, three-plus years after the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya, shows that failure to bring those whose power grabs violate laws and the spirit of law to account sows the seeds of long-term instability and even greater threats to democracy.

The Colombian peace talks, the first serious attempt in 10 years at resolving the decades-old conflict, could lead to a watershed in that country’s development.  President Juan Manuel Santos has shown strong leadership, despite incessant carping from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and has smartly acknowledged that success in the talks is far from certain.  If the talks are successful, 2013 could be a defining moment for a country already experiencing strong economic growth and an important degree of social progress.

Washington continued to sit on the sidelines on most regional issues.  President Obama got a spanking at the Summit of Americas from even perennially friendly governments for Washington’s approach to counternarcotics (overly militarized) and Cuba (stuck in the Cold War).  He was silent on Latin America during the campaign, and his rhetoric of “partnership” and “neighborhood” remained unfulfilled.  Although the President won kudos for implementing elements of the Dream Act by Presidential Directive, the Administration boasted of deporting more than 400,000 illegal immigrants in 2012, the most of any year in the nation’s history.  The region is likely to remain eager for U.S. leadership on issues of mutual interest in 2013, but most countries’ blossoming dealings with Europe, Asia and even Africa suggest they’re not going to sit around waiting for the U.S. to take up the challenge.

Central America on U.S. Elections: A Shy Shadow

Photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s | Flickr | Creative Commons

The U.S. election doesn’t seem to matter much for Central America.  Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes – speaking at an event with U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte – publicly wished the “best of luck” to President Barack Obama, reflecting his close relationship with the American President.  At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring, Funes – along with Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo – appeared to be Washington’s closest ally in the “war on drugs.”  This came after newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez had raised the idea of legalizing marijuana, which Obama´s State Department has opposed fiercely.  Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla slammed “the international community” – code for the United States – for pushing a policy in which only Central Americans died.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, while perhaps Washington’s most effective partner in counternarcotics, has resorted to old-school anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Panama is missing in action as a Central American voice.

The U.S. has two main interests in the subregion.  One is combating the drug trade, and the other, according to informed observers, is blocking the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  The U.S. Southern Command estimates that roughly 500 tons of cocaine enters the U.S. market through Central America, accounting for some 60 percent of U.S. consumption.  But there are very few clues in the American electoral narrative about either Obama´s or Republican contender Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America, not to mention Central America.  Romney´s Latin America advisors are perceived as the same hawks, with the same close ties to the Miami lobby, who dominated during the Bush administration.  Robert Zoellick, the fixer for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Washington some eight years ago, is also close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member, perhaps suggesting a push for some sort of second chapter of neoliberal reform.  To date there are no signs of fresh faces in the Obama camp, casting doubt as to whether a second-term State Department will be more open to out-of-the-box thinking.

This apparent estrangement comes at a time that the northern triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is on a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states. Neighboring countries are hardly in a position to help.  President Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica is fading rapidly toward lame-duck status, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is surrounded by corruption allegations.  For a second-term or incoming U.S. President, Nicaragua´s slippage on good-governance, despite the country’s economic tranquility, provides little political space for cooperation.  The next U.S. President will have no easy options in the most violent region of the world, which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, a clear and present danger.  The absence of visible alternatives is probably a consequence of the fact that, since the Salvadoran Peace Accord ended the Cold War in Central America, Washington has not perceived much urgency to grapple with the fundamental political and economic challenges confronting the region.  Only by doing so will a new administration identify opportunities to move forward with a jointly articulated agenda.

U.S.-Honduras Counternarcotics Cooperation Stumbles

DEA Helicopter | by Andrew W. Sieber (Drewski2112) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Four months after the launch of Operación Anvil, a joint U.S.-Honduran counternarcotics effort, cooperation has stumbled.  Early in September, the United States suspended the sharing of intelligence – publicly characterized as mostly based on radar tracks – after the Honduran Air Force in July shot down two civilian aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs.  Citing the incident as a breach of a bilateral agreement that prohibits firing on civilian aircraft, State Department officials said they are reviewing procedures regarding cooperation.

The shootdowns were not the first controversial incident to raise doubts about the cooperation.  In May, a U.S.-Honduras counternarcotics operation in northeastern Honduras, during which at least one small boat was strafed, left four people dead and at least five injured.  While the raid targeted suspected drug traffickers in the vicinity, various reports have suggested that the victims were innocent locals or, at most, were spotters for traffickers.  Rather than undertake its own investigation, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras reportedly has deferred to a preliminary investigation by the Honduran authorities that showed no wrongdoing in the incident.  American and Honduran officials insist no American fired a weapon during the raid, but details of how the Honduran forces they were advising carried out the operation remain elusive.

The U.S. approach to counternarcotics in Honduras – like that in Colombia and Mexico – emphasizes military-style operations driven by U.S. intelligence tips.  In addition to sharing intelligence, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. entities provide training, equipment and on-site operational guidance to Honduran security units.  While the jury is out on whether this strategy has been worth the cost in human lives (60,000 in Mexico) and dollars (more than $7 billion in U.S. aid alone in Colombia), the case has not been made that it will work in a country plagued by weak institutions and corruption like Honduras.  Holding Honduran officials accountable and creating the vetted units upon which these military-style operations depend will be difficult in a small, desperately poor country in which the narco-dollar buys much more than U.S. aid channeled through officials in whom few have any confidence.  Efforts to create vetted units capable of operating securely (and without abuses of authority) have failed in the past because of unseen and unsolved links between the state officials and the narcos.  The Honduran people – still suffering from political violence born of the coup of June 2009 – have legitimate fear of a massive surge in drug violence.   The U.S. government, ever optimistic about the renewal of cooperation, has asked that Honduras put in place remedial measures to prevent future incidents.  President Lobo of Honduras has since replaced his Air Force commander, but the question remains whether Tegucigalpa can – and should – become a cornerstone of U.S. antidrug strategies.

Mercosur, Unasur Holding Firm on Democracy in Paraguay

Photo by Christian Van Der Henst S. via Flickr , http://www.flickr.com/photos/cvander/5215442086/

As Paraguay marked the one-month anniversary of the summary removal of President Lugo from office, the distance between South America and the rest of the hemisphere on how to deal with the “constitutional coup” remains great and is perhaps growing.  OAS Secretary General Insulza announced last week that the regional organization’s Permanent Council decided to take no further action, except to send a “support mission” to Asunción.  The Obama Administration’s inaction further indicates that the United States is prepared to allow things to stand unchallenged and even unexamined.

Mercosur, Unasur, Spain and, more predictably, ALBA have all been tougher.  Mercosur last week announced that the new Paraguayan government, led by President Federico Franco, is still barred from participating in the organization’s activities, although the government to be elected in April 2013 will be welcome.  Unasur made clear that Paraguay’s participation will be suspended “until democratic order is reestablished.”  ALBA countries have minced no words in condemning Lugo’s ouster.  Spanish Foreign Minister García-Margallo suggested publicly last week that Paraguay’s participation in the Ibero-American Summit in November may not be appropriate.

This division among hemispheric players is reminiscent of the tensions following the coup that removed democratically elected President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago.  Whereas the United States quickly softened its stance on the value of isolating the golpista government of Roberto Micheletti in 2009 and later became Tegucigalpa’s most ardent advocate for speedy readmission to the OAS – while Brazil and most South Americans remained committed to seeking a more democratic outcome – Washington is now showing patience with the right-wing factions that ousted Lugo.  Mercosur’s formula for welcoming the government to be elected next year helps avoid the sort of crisis for the incoming leadership that hindered Honduran President Lobo’s efforts to push back against his country’s golpistas, who to this day are undermining his administration.