With the attention of U.S. policymakers on the Greater Middle East for most of the first decade of this century, it felt for a time as if the political left in South and Central America was ascendant after many years of persecution. Leaders drawn from the people, starting with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, created an opening for progressive leaders from more elite backgrounds like Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, who took a much slower approach to long festering issues like land reform and tackling networks of graft, but one that was obviously still too fast for powerful local and international interests.
This was made clear when he was forcibly removed from office in a 2009 coup.
Honduras, a country of just over 9 million that borders the Caribbean sea and neighbors Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, has been a linchpin of U.S. policy in Central America for many years. The political situation there at the beginning of the last century led the American short story writer O’Henry to create a work of fiction in which he referred to a country with more than a passing resemblance to Honduras as a “banana republic,” the name stuck and was soon applied to most of its neighbors.
True to this moniker, for the first half of the 20th century, Honduras was in many ways a colony of three agricultural giants: Standard Fruit, the United Fruit Company and the Cuyamel Fruit Company. The competition between these rivals created competing networks of corruption that are to some extent mirrored by the much more complicated ones that exist in the country today.
Networks of corruption in Honduras
Unlike most of its neighbors, Honduras is ruled not just by large landowners and a traditional political class but also by a ‘transnational elite’ that is “often descended from Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants” and has, “emerged from the service, banking, media, and telecommunications sectors”.
This situation of competition and cooperation between emerging and more established elites has allowed the creation of newer networks of graft, some directed at ‘legitimate’ business interests, including international ones, others mostly designed to benefit criminal groups.
As Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained about the growing influence of criminal elements on Honduran elites in her important study, “When Corruption is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras”, “In the past decade or so, both the elite public- and private-sector circles have been establishing increasingly close connections with the out-and-out criminal networks that run the narcotics trade as well as other types of smuggling, such as trafficking in people. Individuals and families that have tied their fortunes to government service provide legal and other help to criminal organizations, or ensure protection and impunity for their activities.”
One account of how these networks may work at the highest level, admittedly the product of a plea agreement between a known drug trafficker implicated in over 70 murders and the DEA, alleges the current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez’s first campaign for the presidency may have benefited financially from relationships his predecessor Porfirio Lobo is said to have had with organized crime figures, connections the former president has denied. Lending credence to the story, Lobo’s son was convicted of conspiracy to traffic in cocaine in Manhattan federal court and is currently serving a 24 year prison sentence in the United States.
President Hernandez, who is said to have a close working relationship with Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, the former head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, is a second generation leader of the right-wing National Party and firmly a part of the traditional political class in the country.
For its part, with elections set to take place at the end of November, the government pointed to the declining murder rate to show its ‘Mano Duro’ (strong hand) policies are working in reducing epidemic levels of crime. While it’s true that the homicide rate has gone from a high of 90.4 per 100,000 in 2012 to 59.1 last year (to put this into perspective, in 2015, a year that saw a slight rise in the U.S. murder rate, the number was 4.89 per 100,000), the plight of poor women and indigenous people in the country remains one of existential proportions.
As reported by Al Jazeera, a woman is now murdered every 14 hours in Honduras.
The never ending election
It was with this as a backdrop that Hondurans went to the polls on Sunday, November 26th to vote in local, departmental and federal elections. In the days since, delays in the vote count, especially concerning the presidency, have led to accusations of fraud and the country has lurched toward chaos.
In an interesting twist, Hernandez is running for a second term after the Supreme Court struck down the one term limit in force in the country for decades. This was something of a surprise since publicly considering a possible second term was one of the reasons given for Zelaya’s removal from office in 2009.
The two main contenders for the country’s highest office were the incumbent President Hernandez and his main challenger, Salvador Nasralla, whose Opposition Alliance against Dictatorship is a coalition of centrist and left wing parties. Nasralla’s coalition is coordinated by former President Zelaya, whose wife, Xiomara Castro, the candidate has said he will make his Vice President if elected.
Even before the vote, Nasralla had his work cut out for him in taking on Hernandez and the National Party, which has almost complete control of the legislature, the security forces and the judiciary up to the Supreme Court and appeared to be coasting to victory.
More importantly, at least in terms of the ongoing election saga, allies of the incumbent president also run the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is responsible for counting the vote. The TSE’s president, David Matamoros, was formerly the general secretary of the National Party, putting his impartiality in question from the very beginning.
At first it appeared that Nasralla, a sportscaster and TV game show host of Palestinian heritage, was poised to score an upset victory, as initial results had him up by 5% with almost 60% of the votes counted.
Suspiciously, the TSE, which was already moving unusually slowly, claimed there were technical issues and ordered that all remaining ballots be driven to the capital Tegucigalpa on Tuesday, bringing the count to a standstill for a day and a half. By Thursday morning, Nasralla’s lead had diminished to just 1% and by that night it was announced that Hernandez had overtaken him and still holds a slight lead. This is the result, we are being told, of unusually high turnout in some areas that traditionally support the National Party.
While the Organization of American States (OAS) tried to negotiate the impasse by having both candidates resolve to respect the TSE’s results, Nassralla has since backed away from this after initially agreeing, telling his supporters, “We will not recognize the results of the dishonest system of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.”
An election observer from Spain, Ramon Jauregui, released a statement during the ongoing count that seemed to point toward either incompetence or outright criminality on the part of the TSE, “The tribunal’s delays in providing definitive result of the Presidential race is a huge source of concern. There is no technical reason that explains the delay, because the tallies from all eighteen thousand polling places were transmitted electronically to the Electoral Tribunal on the day of the election.”
While both of the main candidates have declared victory on different occasions, AP reported that as of Sunday, December 3rd, Nasralla demanded a new presidential vote in an interview, “I have asked them to repeat the elections, but only those for the presidency, with the aim of resolving the crisis that Honduras is suffering.”
Beginning on Wednesday, protesters who believe the election is being stolen blocked highways, burned tires and manned barricades in many cities, with large numbers on the streets of the capital.
While the English language press has relegated the electoral crisis to their back pages, the local press in Honduras seems to be concentrating more on the destruction of property than the violence of National Police and other authorities, who have killed as many as eight people as of Sunday night, including one 19 year old woman in the capital, Tegucigalpa, shot in the head by police in a drive-by, according to witnesses.
It’s make or break time for the TSE, which has claimed that there are just a thousand disputed ballots left to count, but this may not matter in the end as Nasralla and his party have refused to participate and say they won’t accept the result. The international community has an obligation to intercede to ensure that the votes are fairly counted and that the Honduran people get the president they actually elected.
As Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit human rights leader in the country told the U.K. Guardian as the crisis was unfolding, “The international community especially the EU, U.S., and OAS need to drop the false impartiality and instead take an active role in demanding and observing a physical recount as the TSE is clearly not credible.”