Amid the crisis enveloping Honduras over November’s apparently-rigged presidential election, the international groundwork is being laid to install a new rightwing government that will exacerbate ongoing social and political tensions.
The electoral crisis that has left Honduras reeling shows few signs of consensual resolution. Even in a country whose recent history is marked by social violence, political instability and external meddling, the current situation threatens to eradicate any dwindling vestige of democratic process that the country purportedly upholds. With ruling party and opposition at loggerheads and tension building over the alleged election fix, a dangerous impasse has occurred. Something must give, yet nothing suggests either side will blink first.
It is the latest blow inflicted on Honduran ‘democracy’ following the 2009 coup against elected president Manuel Zelaya, whose policies included expansive social programmes, land reform and closer relations with Venezuela and Cuba. Zelaya’s removal – with the assistance and approval of the Obama administration – opened the way for his successor, Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the conservative National Party, to implement a series of neoliberal and securitisation programmes. This exacerbated already-high levels of inequality and social violence that cemented one of the world’s highest murder rates.
With the fallout from the disputed election on 26 November, the country has again been plunged into turmoil. Supporters of opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, of centre-left coalition the Alliance against Dictatorship, believe he won the election. To recap, with over half the votes counted Nasralla had a five per cent lead over his rival, sitting president Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party. However, long and unexplained delays at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is responsible for the election, raised suspicions of vote-rigging. These suspicions intensified once counting restarted and Hernández appeared in the lead.
With the TSE under government control, and after a TSE official had called Nasralla’s lead ‘irreversible’, the opposition demanded a recount. Nasralla supporters staged mass protests in which security forces so far have killed at least 20 people. Nonetheless, on 17 December the TSE declared Hernández the winner, a verdict immediately rejected by the opposition. The have cited an ‘electoral coup’ in progress, while Nasralla himself has even warned that the crisis could descend into civil war.
The Organisation of American States (OAS) backed calls for a recount, citing the ‘poor quality’ election. This appeared to further legitimise opposition demands and cast doubt on the ‘victory’ of the National Party. When even the OAS, a continental institution discredited in much of Latin America for its historic role in upholding US interests in the region, expresses concern over possible bias towards the pro-Washington candidate, there is surely a solid case to restage the election. As OAS secretary general Luis Almagro – no ally of the Latin American left – said, ‘facing the impossibility of determining a winner, the only way possible that the people of Honduras are the victors is a new call for general elections’.
Ongoing developments, however, suggest this is unlikely to happen and that the groundwork is being prepared to internationally formalise a new National Party administration. Although foreign governments initially remained quiet on Honduras, even as they congratulated Chile’s president-elect Sebastián Piñera on the same day as the TSE announced Hernández’s ‘victory’, a shift towards installing Hernández as the winner appears to be building.
On 18 December, as violent clashes continued throughout Honduran cities and the opposition continued to cry foul, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos via Twitter congratulated Hernández for his ‘electoral triumph ratified by the TSE’. Shortly after, Israel’s ambassador to Honduras, Mattanya Cohen, also tweeted congratulations to Hernández. Mexico’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, released a statement that recognised Hernández as the winner. ‘Mexico respectfully calls for the democratic institutions, the political forces and the people of Honduras, in a mark of respect and agreement, to definitively conclude this electoral process’, it said. According to Reuters, the Mexican statement was ‘brokered in coordination with the United States’.
The steps taken by Colombia, Israel, Mexico and a fourth country, Guatemala, to legitimise the Honduran electoral process lays the groundwork for a broader formalisation of a National Party victory. Indeed, it is unlikely these countries would have backed Hernández without assurances that this position would be adopted elsewhere, specifically by the United States. Washington would greatly prefer a Hernández administration committed to free trade and mano dura (iron fist) security programmes than a Nasralla one whose policies advocated higher corporation tax and were backed by the left-leaning Zelaya.
The fact that the first two countries to recognise Hernández as president, Colombia and Israel, are two of the US’ closest allies anywhere in the world, and along with Egypt the highest recipients of its military aid, implies a coordinated strategy to ensure Honduras remains aligned to US interests. Mexico, while publicly resistant to Trump’s wall proposals and general unpleasantness towards Mexicans, is dependent on its northern neighbour for trade and security and carries serious diplomatic clout in Central America.
Sure enough, on Wednesday 20 December in a carefully-worded statement that opened the door to formal recognition, the US State Department said, ‘the United States notes that Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal has declared incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández the winner’. The timing was important. Were the US perceived to be the initiator of Hernández’s international recognition as Honduran president, it would face heated criticism for renewed interference in Honduran sovereignty – and with justified reason. The actions of its client state allies thereby support Washington’s regional objectives while allowing it to avoid accusations of supporting antidemocratic practice. Formal recognition will now be granted amid a broader context of international acceptance of the new Hernández regime. Honduras fulfilled its side of the bargain by supporting the Trump administration’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the United Nations vote on 21 December.
Whether the US has played a direct role in the Honduran crisis or not, it is probable that Hernández will soon be confirmed as Honduran president for another four years and will be sufficiently bolstered domestically and internationally to re-enter office. The effect this will have on Honduran society is likely to be overwhelmingly negative unless the National Party can ably demonstrate its legitimacy through democratic channels. As the only way for it to do this would be through a second election, Honduras appears set for a lengthy period of enhanced social conflict and political instability. The implications for ordinary Hondurans – already battered by violent crime, corruption and poverty – are bleak. But for the regional hegemony, it’ll be business as usual.