The Trump administration just helped steal a national presidential election right under our noses. That does not bode well for democracy—not for Honduras’, not for ours, and not for anyone else’s.
Here’s what happened: Following the Nov. 26 presidential elections in Honduras, the first official results showed a clear victory for the Alliance Against the Dictatorship candidate, Salvador Nasralla, over the incumbent president, Juan Orlando Hernandez. As the name of the opposition coalition indicates, the Honduran people voted not so much for the Alliance candidate as against the illegal reelection attempt of the region’s most despotic and repressive leader.
Under Hernandez, often referred to by his initials as JOH, Honduras became the most dangerous country on the planet for land and environmental rights defenders. Journalists, students, LGBT and feminist activists have all felt the brunt of anti-human rights policies supported and encouraged by the US. government. Since the right took power in the 2009 military coup d’état, the impoverished Central American country has unraveled. Its cities have the highest homicide rates in the world, out-migration surged, organized crime has invaded national territory and gains in the development of democratic institutions were wiped out. The assassination of world-renown environmental and feminist activist Berta Caceres in 2016 sparked international protests, especially when it was discovered that members of the Honduran Army were directly involved and that the Hernandez government had obstructed the investigation.
When the election results came out, a member of the nation’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared Nasralla’s five-point lead “irreversible”—a conclusion logically arrived at by simply extrapolating from the 57% of the vote already registered. Then silence fell. The Tribunal shut down reporting for 36 hours, saying the system crashed. When it came back, the rightwing candidate had suddenly taken a highly suspect lead. Amid chaos in the country, the Tribunal declared Hernandez president-elect on Dec. 17–three whole weeks after the elections.
Almost no one believes the Tribunal’s pronouncement. The Organization of American States observation mission declared: “The narrow margin of the results, as well as the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election, do not allow the Mission to have certainty about the results”. An analysis of the data by The Economist showed that the Tribunal’s account of the voting pattern that gave JOH the victory had a probability rate of “close to zero”. The claim that the interruption in the vote count was due to a technical problem was generally treated as a bad joke. The opposition demanded first a total recount with international supervision and then that JOH step down and new elections be held. Luis Almagro, head of the OAS, also called for new elections.
Since the election, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans have protested almost daily to respect the vote. The government has responded with firepower. More than 30 opposition protesters have been killed so far, according to witness accounts compiled by the national human rights organization, COFRADEH.
The U.S. Hand in Honduras: First a Coup, Then a Stolen Election
It seems the U.S. government just can’t leave Honduras alone when it comes to choosing its own leaders. During the Cold War, it partially supported a 1963 military coup and then upheld nearly two decades of military dictatorships. Honduras became the base for operations to brutally undermine progressive forces in the region. In 2009, the Obama administration proved it had no intention of changing that history when Sec of State Hillary Clinton maneuvered to allow the coup regime to remain in power despite international outcry against the 21st century’s first major military takeover.
The Trump administration was among the first governments to endorse Honduras’ stolen election, congratulating Juan Orlando Hernandez on Dec. 21–just days after the Electoral Tribunal’s dubious claim. The State Department communiqué briefly referred to “irregularities” while sanctimoniously calling for Honduras to “heal the political divide in the country and enact much-needed electoral reforms”. With the population in the streets behind banners that read “JOH Get OUT!”, healing the political divide is a way of saying the opposition should shut up and go home. Likewise, calling to enact electoral reforms while actively supporting and orchestrating the worst form of electoral violation there is—subverting a presidential election—is hypocrisy at its most brazen.
U.S. recognition after the fact is only the visible part of its support for anti-democracy in Honduras. The U.S. has considerable clout to suppress democracy there. The strategy consisted first, in assuring a win for JOH. That–surprisingly for the Honduran and U.S. strategists–failed at the polls when Hondurans rose up to dump the deeply unpopular president. Faced with the unexpected triumph of the opposition, the second phase focused on manipulating the vote count and declaring JOH the winner anyway. U.S. back-up was a key factor in convincing the Electoral Tribunal to go forward with the bald-faced fraud despite overwhelming public evidence that it was indeed a fraud.
After the Tribunal officially anointed Hernandez, the Trump administration began work to manipulate the Organization of American States (OAS) to avoid an international challenge to the Honduran president’s power grab. This was a necessary task because the report of the OAS Electoral Observation Mission made up of experts from 25 countries was a damning condemnation of the election that concluded that the result had zero credibility in technical terms. The OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro was pushing hard to hold a special session to approve the OAS report and establish a regional position against the stolen election. It’s usually an almost automatic procedure for the organization to approve its own reports.
But not this time. According to EFE news service, the U.S. forced Almagro to give up on raising the issue before the inauguration by confronting him with the phalanx of U.S., Mexico and Colombia, which blocked the measure from coming up until JOH was safely—and illegitimately—installed in power. That means that the amply documented report of the 82-member delegation pretty much goes straight into the wastebasket.
The Trump administration has also ignored and even sought to deflect the reports of major human rights violations and government assassinations in the post-electoral conflict. Prominent human rights activist and Jesuit priest Ismael Morales told me in an interview, “Juan Orlando Hernandez has the support of the US government, and this is reflected in the fact that the U.S. Embassy has not only remained silent in the face of repressive acts and bloodshed during these days, but it also has called for ‘calm’ and even suggested that those responsible for the violence and instability are those who don’t accept the results of the Electoral Tribunal.”
The U.S. State Department issued a report congratulating the Honduran government for its human rights record just as Hernandez’s police and soldiers were attacking protesters with tear gas and live bullets. When called to task by reporters, it alleged that the timing of the annual report was merely coincidental.
The U.S. also carries a big stick in Honduras. Hondurans staged a demonstration at the U.S. military airbase at Palmerola, operated by the U.S. Southern Command (formerly led by Trump’s Chief of Staff General John Kelly) to denounce the U.S. role in the election. The Pentagon and State Department have developed extensive involvement in the Honduran police and armed forces since the coup. With the pretext of the drug war and through Kelly’s pet project, the regional Alliance for Prosperity, the U.S. has trained and equipped segments of the same Honduran security forces that killed the thirty-plus protestors. The Honduran National Police and an interagency security force known by its Spanish initials as FUSINA have received direct US support and are now central to putting down the protests. The militarization of Honduras since the coup through these U.S. programs is doing precisely what it was designed to do—provide a ready repressive force against the opposition.
Finally, U.S. diplomatic control over its client states has paved the way for the international community to look the other way despite the blatant violation of democratic rights. The list of the first countries to recognize the Tribunal’s version of election results reads like a Who’s Who of sycophants to U.S. power. Mexico jumped in even before the United States, as the Peña Nieto administration continues to pathetically curry favor with the racist and Mexico-bashing president in order to preserve NAFTA. Colombia, the other Latin American country built on U.S. military aid and intervention, was an early endorser, along with Taiwan, Israel, South Korea, Panama and Guatemala.
It would seem to be a done deal if not for the one factor the U.S. and Honduran elites cannot control—the Honduran people. Tens of thousands of people have been in the streets despite a dawn-to-dusk curfew and shoot-to-kill orders. The protests waned somewhat during the holidays, then flared into a general work stoppage and continuous mobilization with the approach of the inauguration. Although the opposition was divided over participation in the elections, it has unified over defense of democracy.
It’s easy to dismiss Honduras as a banana republic, or in Trump parlance, a “shithole country”. (In fact, the likely reason that Honduras wasn’t on that list and that Honduran migrants were given a stay of execution on cutting Temporary Protective Status was to bolster Kelly’s friend and chief operator, Juan Orlando Hernandez.) It’s characterized by instability, weak institutions, lawlessness and corruption, a failing economy and record violence.
The United States has a huge responsibility for that and is now coordinating a gigantic step backwards. If the U.S. left’s response is to say ‘of course they stole the election–that’s just imperialism being imperialism’ then we’re only talking to ourselves. Honduras is indeed a key geopolitical handhold for U.S. imperialism and has been for years, and given that, there’s nothing unexpected about the Trump adminstration’s role in beating back democratic forces there.
But we owe more to the people of Honduras and to our own commitment to democracy than to dismiss the historic travesty taking place today as inevitable. The defense of democratic principles can never rest. When the U.S. government openly acts as a leading purveyor of authoritarianism in the world, we have to speak up. Young people cannot see us giving up on democratic ideals—not in the United States, and not in Honduras.