By Patricio Zamorano
Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, visited Honduras the week before the presidential elections. His stated purpose was to “encourage the peaceful, transparent conduct of free and fair national elections.” He did not meet with the de facto President, Juan Orlando Hernández.
The gesture was clear and illuminating on two levels.
First, it showed that the U.S. government had already accepted the irrefutable truth that the center-left coalition led by Xiomara Castro would earn the votes of the Honduran people (as we go to publication, she was in the lead with 53.6%). Honduras’ 5.1 million voters would also elect three vice-presidents, 298 mayors, 128 deputies to the national legislature, and 20 to the Central American Parliament.
Second, Nichols’ gesture of not meeting with the de facto president once again made clear that Honduras’ future continues to be overwhelmingly determined by the United States. The U.S. maintains its largest military base in Latin America at Palmerola and supported the narco-government of Juan Orlando Hernández for eight long years, with a clear electoral fraud in the middle of it.
The sanctions on Honduras that never happened
Supporting a third electoral fraud in Honduras would have been a political indecency that even the Northern superpower couldn’t stomach this time, as it did in 2017. In 2014 there were serious accusations of fraud to which the international community turned a deaf ear. And in 2017, even the Organization of American States (OAS) certified there was fraud when it publicly stated that it could not declare Hernández to be the winner and called for new elections. But the pressure for “hemispheric democracy” stopped there; the OAS never suspended Honduras from its Permanent Council in Washington, kept its country office in Tegucigalpa open, and basically gave the de facto Hernández government completely normal treatment. There were never any U.S. sanctions against Hernandez’ narco state. If that is not a scandalous double standard, what is?
In the meantime, the U.S. courts did not follow the Trump and Biden script. An investigation by New York prosecutors into drug trafficking by the de facto president’s brother, Tony Hernández, has placed Juan Orlando Hernández himself on the record as protecting drug traffickers, paying bribes, and engaging in organized crime.
Military presence of the United States in a narco-state
The levels of violence, crime, and corruption in Honduras have reached historic levels, causing the massive migration of thousands of desperate families to the United States’ southern border (Honduras has the third highest homicide rate in the Americas per 100,000 population). All of this is occurring under the watchful gaze of the U.S. military in Honduras, including troops and intelligence personnel who, for some reason, are almost comically ineffective against the organized crime that uses Honduras as a trans-shipment point for illegal drugs coming out of Colombia—another U.S. ally.
How is it that Juan Orlando Hernández’ family and dozens of drug cartels can operate so comfortably in the country while under the sophisticated technological surveillance of the U.S. government on Honduran soil? The United States, the biggest consumer of illegal drugs on the planet, is feeding the criminal network that has been rocking Honduras and all of Central America. This crisis also directly impacts Mexico, which has had to deal with major migration pressures at its own borders. Policies from the new Xiomara Castro administration will have influence in this area.
Political and economic feudalism kills thousands
Honduras’ history is one of political feudalism that continues to keep the country trapped among old political forces that have not been able to complete the urgent task of re-founding the country with a new social contract. Each day that the country remains in chaos, dozens of Hondurans lose their lives, are kidnapped, wounded, or forced to flee their country.
The United States and the OAS are directly responsible for the debacle of the past 12 years. The 2009 coup d’etat that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya exposed the fragility of Honduras’ political institutions. One of the justifications of the coup was that the Zelaya administration was discussing the possibility of reforming the Constitution to democratize it, including opening the possibility of re-electing the president. Just a few years later, the constitutional branch of the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hernández to allow that exact thing to happen; it issued a de facto authorization, without amending the Constitution, so that Juan Orlando Hernández could be re-elected even though Article 239 of the Constitution forbids it. This time there was no coup or complaint from the U.S.
In 2021 the U.S. and OAS seem to be washing their hands of this scandalous past, eliminating from the equation an undesirable de facto president who is no longer capable of serving the northern country’s geopolitical strategy when his party’s candidate, Nasry Asfura, from Partido Nacional (National Party) only garnered 34% of the vote.
A new stage of uncertainty
The isolation to which the U.S. subjected Juan Orlando Hernández these past few months simply reflected how unpopular the de facto president had become.
The big question is how the U.S. will behave toward the new president, Xiomara Castro. She is the wife of deposed president Manuel Zelaya, a large landholder who underwent a major ideological shift while in office, establishing close relations with the Bolivarian countries and becoming an ally of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela during the deceased president’s halcyon years.
The alliance that got Xiomara Castro elected includes center-left forces that will face the arduous task of building a government and counteracting the penetration of drug traffickers and organized crime. The alliance includes the Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE, whose coordinator is former President Zelaya), and the “Savior of Honduras” party, chaired by the presidential candidate from whom the election was stolen in 2017, Salvador (Savior) Nasralla. The coalition also includes the Partido Innovación y Unidad-Social Demócrata (PINU-SD), the Alianza Liberal Opositora, and others.
First urgent task: re-found the country politically and socially
But the most important task is to resume the process that was truncated by the 2009 military coup d’etat. The Honduran constitution is profoundly anti-democratic. It still contains articles that Hondurans say are “set in stone”—institutional areas that cannot be reformed (except through dubious acts such as when the Supreme Court allowed Hernández to stand for re-election).
The biggest challenge for Honduras is the new social contract between the State and the citizens, to “democratize access to democracy.” The retrograde, feudal elite that continues to run the country must give real space to allow the 50% of the population languishing in poverty to have representation. Groups in social movements over issues of gender, peasant and indigenous rights, trade unions, and cultural associations must be able to win seats in Congress, in the political parties, and be part of the presidential cabinet.
The international community could play a vital role in encouraging the democratization that Honduran voters are clearly demanding by giving the new Xiomara Castro administration room, support, and financial aid to make the necessary changes without suffering the economic and political attacks from the U.S. that some leftist governments in Latin America face. It can also put pressure on the entrenched local elites. The Honduran people have suffered enough, as witnessed by the humanitarian tragedy on the U.S. southern border. It is ethically incumbent on all parties that purport to believe in democracy to respect the wishes of the majority of Hondurans to take their country back from the drug lords and organized crime, and build their own form of democracy free from outside interference.
Patricio Zamorano is an international analyst and Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA)
Jill Clark-Gollub contributed as co-editor.
Translation by Jill Clark-Gollub
[Main photo: President-elect of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, shows her ink-stained finger during the presidential election on November 28. Photo credit: Alina Duarte, COHA Senior Research Fellow, from Honduras]
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